The empirical method, generally
It is said that Francis Bacon is the father of modern empiricism. In 1605, he recorded the following story.
In the year of our Lord 1432, there arose a grievous quarrel among the brethren over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. For 13 days the disputation raged without ceasing. All the ancient books and chronicles were fetched out, and wonderful and ponderous erudition, such as was never before heard of in this region, was made manifest. At the beginning of the 14th day, a youthful friar of goodly bearing asked his learned superiors for permission to add a word, and straightway, to the wonderment of the disputants, whose deep wisdom he sore vexed, he beseeched them to unbend in a manner coarse and unheard-of, and to look in the open mouth of a horse and find answer to their questionings. At this, their dignity being grievously hurt, they waxed exceedingly wroth; and joining in a mighty uproar, they flew upon him and smote him hip and thigh, and cast him out forthwith. for, said they, Surely Satan hath tempted this bold neophyte to declare unholy and unheard-of ways of finding truth contrary to all the teaching of the fathers. After many days more of grievous strife the dove of peace sat on the assembly and they as one man, declaring the problem to be an everlasting mystery because of a grievous dearth of historical and theological evidence thereof, so ordered the same writ down.
From that time forward, a growing number of people have relied on this straightforward manner of expanding their knowledge: gathering data by first hand experience. Described broadly, the empirical method has come to include:
It should be understood that data from one experiment cannot prove the "truth" of a hypothesis. Evidence gathered from several experiments should be accumulated and structured as part of an ongoing argument in favor of the hypothesis (ala Lee Cronbach). While hypothesis can never be established as "true," they can be shown false (ala Karl Popper).
- Building a hypothesis with either descriptive or prescriptive power,
- Contriving an experiment believed to be capable of testing the hypothesis,
- Conducting the experiment to gather data regarding the hypothesis,
- Adjusting the hypothesis in accordance with the empirical data, and
- Repeating this cycle.
Although the term "scientific method" has come to be equated with the term "empirical method," employment of the method does not necessarily lend credence to the data and argument that follow its application, as a popular movie shows.
What Contact taught me about the empirical method
The book/film Contact taught us all that information gathered in the standard empirical method is not necessarily reputable. In the movie, the main character (Ellie) has and reports a first-hand experience. This experience is written off carte blanche by the government and media. Ellie is belittled publicly, and taxpayers fund the show. The difference between reputable and disreputable knowledge is obviously not that one is empirical, or based in actual experience, while the other isn't.
Ellie's experience involves travel through space and time via a machine whose blueprints are transmitted to earth from an extra-terrestrial source. There is every reason to believe that if the government were willing to sponsor a second excursion of this sort, an objective third party could gain additional first-hand evidence, corroborating Ellie's claims. This makes it clear that the difference between respectable and other knowledge is not whether the process by which it was obtained is replicable or not.
What I learned from Contact was this: Ellie's claims were treated as a sham, even though they bore what we consider to be the hallmarks of respectable science: first-hand data collection through a replicable process. So while these characteristics may be necessary they are not sufficient to make for reputable claims of abilities to describe or predict.
A special kind of knowledge
The difference between Ellie's claims and the claims made by other scientists (Ellie is a first-class purely empirical researcher) is that the results on which Ellie's claims are founded are personal. An army of passive third parties could not fruitfully view Ellie's experiment: this type of knowledge is only available to those willing and able to engage in a first-hand experience. Michael Polanyi refers to this type of understanding as "personal knowledge." Knowing how to ride a bike is an example: you can watch me experiment countless replicable times, gathering a variety of first-hand data on what works and what doesn't, but you will be no closer to knowing how to ride a bike yourself than you were before you viewed my experiment. You must have the experience yourself to truly understand.
Spiritual or religious knowledge is personal in Polanyi's sense. Claims to spiritual knowledge are frequently belittled and deprived of respect, even though this knowledge is grounded in replicable, first-hand empirical evidence.
Religion as scientific hypothesis
Popper's notion of falsifiability includes a preference for hypotheses with wide-ranging claims, because these theories are more easily falsified. These theories must also be clear and concise, avoiding ambiguity that the theory's author might hide behind when confronted with contrary evidence. Some religions make broad claims but lack the clarity that would facilitate falsifiability. This ambiguity only provides attackers of organized religion with ammunition. Other religions provide extremely clear directions for the types of experiments to be carried out, the results one can expect to experience, and interpretive frameworks for understanding the data in a spiritual context.
Hoping that readers with broader knowledge of religious systems will provide additional examples in their comments below, I provide one example from Mormonism. The following excerpt from Book of Mormon prophet Moroni portrays the faith's recognition of the importance of the empirical method:
...dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. (Ether 12:6)
Simply restated: you can collect no evidence until you conduct an experiment! Don't belittle what you don't understand without trying to understand, and don't expect someone else to be able to provide you with data - you must conduct the experiment yourself. You can't watch someone else learn to ride a bike and expect to get on one yourself and just go.
To use another example from the movies, in The Last Crusade Indiana Jones must leap across a 30-meter canyon on foot. Recalling the earlier words of his father, he realizes that he is being required to make a literal "leap of faith." To borrow Moroni's language he "disputes because he sees not" any physical evidence that he can jump the gorge, regardless of what his father may have said. Nevertheless, having faith in his father's words he makes the attempt. Upon doing so, Indy finds that an otherwise invisible bridge connects the two sides of the canyon. Like the bicycle riding skill discussed above, this understanding was inaccessible to Indy until he conducted an experiment himself.
Speaking to Jews outside the temple in John 17, Christ counsels listeners not to believe his teachings simply because he teaches them. In verse 7 he explicitly counsels them to employ the scientific method.
If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.
How can a person know whether Jesus is making this stuff up, or whether he is delivering a message from God? By trying the teachings, by actually doing it, by gathering some first-hand data. And what data should they collect? The results of following the teachings should be mutual feelings of "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance" (Galatians 5:22-23).
Moroni is even more explicit, and the ease with which his hypothesis regarding the truthfulness of Christianity can be falsified, if wrong, would make even Popper himself smile. He counsels those who read the Book of Mormon and its message of the reality of Christ thus:
I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
That, my friends, is a specific, replicable experiment from which anyone willing to put in the effort could gather data. Of course, that data would be extremely personal, and useful for arguing with no one but yourself.
These few examples from Mormonism (and Christianity more broadly) show prophets and Christ himself commanding would-be followers to employ the empirical method in their investigation of religion. If you are not a religious person, this revelation may run contrary to your preconceptions regarding the ways in which religious people seek deeper understandings.
Both people of science and people of faith employ a method relying on replicable first-hand experience as they pursue deeper understandings of the world around them and their place in it. This leads me to conclude that the real difference between persons of science and persons of faith has nothing to do with the methods they employ. I believe the difference lies in the credibility they give to deeply personal, subjective (read: not naively objective) data. To one group, the data is admissible. To the other it isn't.
And it's as simple as that.