Stacey and I are scientists. No, we don’t wear lab coats, or work in a sterile environment. We are linguists. Some people consider linguistics a “soft science,” as opposed to the “hard sciences” like biology and chemistry. However, linguists do follow the scientific method: 1) make observations, 2) make a hypothesis, 3) test the hypothesis, 4) repeat until data is accounted for. Rather than chemicals or microorganisms, linguists study languages. Our main area of study so far has been the Kwakum language. Kwakum is structured so different from Indo-European languages and we often encounter grammatical constructions that are untranslatable in English (and I am still finding them).
For the nerdier readers, I will give one example. In our first term I kept encountering a small particle “yi” in Kwakum. Over time I came to see that it was occurring in subordinate clauses. Studying subordinate clauses, I found that there are three main types: complementary, relative, and adjunct clauses. So, my first hypothesis was that the “yi” was some sort of “end of a subordinate clause” marker. To test that, I began trying to use the “yi” at the end of subordinate clauses. I also started looking for the “yi” in texts. At that point, I discovered that the “yi” only occurred at the end of relative clauses. So, I wrote a paper describing its use in coordination with a relative pronoun (why, yes, you can read that paper online). You see that I followed the scientific method and in the end published my results.
However, since I published this article, I have come to find that there are some holes in my analysis. For instance, I found out that some of the “relative pronouns” I listed in this article are actually just nouns. Also, the “yi” is used in at least one environment other than at the end of a relative clause. So, in my article I covered the data that I had as best I could at the time. However, now I have more data and my current hypothesis is able to account for most of that data as well. If you are familiar with the scientific process, this does not mean that I did a bad job. Rather, it just means that my job was not complete at the time of writing. This is true of all science, and one of the reasons for peer-review, and even publishing. When we publish an article about what we have found, it gives others the chance to review our findings and offer more data to refine, or even contradict us. This process is good, and helps us to be better scientists.
My journey through linguistics has open my eyes to some of the limitations of science, and to three specific conclusions:
1. Science is not a reliable source of objective truth.
If you were able to follow the methodology I mentioned above, you will see that science is an iterative process. That means that science does not occur in a straight line, from observation to truth. It is rather like a cycle (like in the Wikipedia article for the scientific method):
At best, any given conclusion can only account for the available data. Because we can never have all of the data, science can never offer us objective truth. Further, part of the scientific method is the application of rigorous skepticism and our conclusions must always cycle back to observation/question. If science then can only account for available data, science can never be a reliable source of objective truth.
This limitation to science is why, although man has been flying for nearly 200 years, we still do not have an agreed upon explanation of the lift that is necessary for flight. Aeronautics is way outside of my field of expertise, but I am sure that aeronautic engineers participate in the same scientific method I mentioned above, and have been for many years. Yet, according to an article in Scientific American, there is still not agreement on how lift works. Interestingly, in the same article, the author claims, “people give different answers to the question, some with ‘religious fervor.'” Rather than saying, “this theory accounts for more data than another theory,” people tend to argue, get heated, and demand that a certain theory is correct. This seems incongruous with what we have just said about science, and you would think that scientists would know this more than anyone.
While studying Kwakum has helped me to see that science is unable to give us absolute truth, my studies recently have shown me that much of science is even more limited.
2. Science is even less reliable when we cannot test hypotheses.
Until recently, my linguistic analyses have been focused mainly on a living language, Kwakum. Recently I have been exploring biblical Hebrew linguistics more and more. I am applying the same processes to Hebrew, that I have been applying to Kwakum. However, one area of the process is much more limited: testing. I can expand my datasets to include at maximum all of the Hebrew Bible, however, I cannot go out and ask native speakers. This is because there there are no living native speakers of biblical Hebrew. And modern Hebrew is different enough that asking a native modern Hebrew speaker would not suffice.
So, as I work through Hebrew I make observations. Then I make hypotheses. I test these hypotheses by looking throughout the canon. I also can seek to compare biblical Hebrew to other languages. However, I cannot find negative data (for instance, I can talk to a Kwakum person and have them say, “No, this sentence is not grammatical”). I cannot ask which constructions sound more natural. I cannot try putting a word into a new sentence and see if it works. And thus, whereas my conclusions about Kwakum are not objective reality, just a limited accounting for available data, my conclusions about Hebrew are even less reliable. This doesn’t mean linguistic analysis of dead languages is not rigorous, it doesn’t even mean the conclusions are wrong. It just means that conclusions drawn from hypotheses that cannot be tested fully are even less reliable.
Linguistic study of dead languages is only one example of such untestable endeavors in science. Any hypothesis of something that occurred in the past is an account of presently available data. Theories of the origins of the universe, for example. We are able to observe certain effects of the creation of the universe, but we cannot go back and observe it. Studies of black holes are another example. Certain men who know much more than I do were able to mathematically prove that black holes exist far before we were able to take a picture of one. However, for the moment at least, we are unable directly observe black holes and test different hypotheses. If at some point in the future we are able to directly observe black holes we might find that some of our hypotheses are completely wrong. And we would not be surprised. We wouldn’t be mad at the astrophysicists. We would consider it reasonable that a hypothesis would be wrong, and after testing we would just adjust our hypotheses based on the new data. This is how science works!
The limitations to science mentioned above lead me to the final conclusion:
3. Scientists should be humble.
A few years ago, I was trying to figure out the Kwakum tense system. I reached out to a professor at an American university and he told me that he had developed a theory about the tense systems in Bantu languages. In fact, he actually had used data from Kwakum and incorporated it in to a forthcoming article. Being very interested, I looked over his perspective and found what seemed to me a pretty glaring error.
This professor had used a particular set of data, from a French ethnomusicologist who had spent several months with the Kwakum. This French man had done a very good job, however, it seemed to me that he had misinterpreted one particular construction. So, I took his data and tested it (I was actually able to find the language consultant the original author had used). One specific test that was needed was to observe the particular tense marker with a full subject, not just a pronoun. When tested with a full subject, it seemed evident that the ethnomusicologist wrote the data incorrectly. I wrote the American professor back and let him know my findings. His response however was, “I am going to stick with the data as it supports my conclusions.”
To be charitable, this professor doesn’t know me personally. At the time of this conversation I did not have any published articles, and I had not completed my Master’s in linguistics. Ultimately, though, his reaction is contrary to the spirit of science. Clinging to a conclusion in the face of contrary evidence reeks of the “religious fervor” mentioned in the American Scientific article. Scientists should be the most humble people. Scientists should always be willing to question their conclusions. To the contrary, I have found that scientists seems to be the most self-confident. More and more, I see that American culture is treating science like a source for objective truth that one should be ready to fight for. Why is that?
I believe that the answer is that human beings are created to know objective truth. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” We were created to believe in something greater than ourselves. We were created to seek value beyond the present world, something that can endure into eternity. For those who have rejected the Bible, they have two choices: 1) seek absolute truth elsewhere, or 2) abandon the search for absolute truth. Many humanists would claim that they have followed the second path, abandoning the search for absolute truth. However, like cultural Christians, they seem to hold their principles lightly. Those who would be philosophically humanist, religiously defend scientific conclusions. This is an abandonment of scientific principles. But if it is true that humans search for objective truth by nature, humanists must search for it as well. They have abandoned God, so they seek to find objective truth in science.
So, here is a call to my fellow scientists: let’s be humble. Let us acknowledge that our conclusions are always based on limited data, and our limited understanding. Let us be skeptical about our own conclusions and be open to new data. Above all, let us not expect science to give us something that only God can. And for those humanist scientists, recognize that science cannot give you absolute truth. If you are willing to follow that idea to its conclusion, to truly believe that absolute truth does not exist, you have to be willing to let science hold its limited place. You have to be willing to stop holding your conclusions with religious fervor.
But, if you have not hardened your heart to the idea of absolute truth, turn to the Lord. He is able to do what we are not. He is able to give us the Truth. Our source of absolute truth is not science, but the Bible, the Word of God. And Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” For some Christianity seems like bondage, but I can assure you, it is actually freedom.