Saving the Phenomena

from May 01, 2021 Category: Ligonier Resources

While science and philosophy are not infallible, they are useful tools to help us understand the world around us. In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul examines Plato’s understanding of the role these disciplines play in our daily lives.

Now, for Plato, one of his concerns with this knowledge pursuit was to do what he called the job of “saving the phenomena”—”saving the phenomena.” He saw the saving of the phenomena as the chief task of science. What does he mean my “saving the phenomena?” What are the phenomena? The phenomena are the data bits that we experience, the shadows in the cave, the things that we see in this world: trees, and plants, and birds, and bees, and water, and streams and so on. The scientist, just like the ancient philosopher, is looking at all of this and saying, “How can we make sense out of it?” “Phenomena” refer to that which is the realm of appearances. We see things as they appear. Well, what laws or theories will make sense of all of that stuff that appears to us in our lifetime? Plato is saying we need an adequate system of thought that will save the phenomena—that is, make sense out of it, redeem it from chaos. His philosophical system is not just abstract philosophy, but it’s really trying to give the metaphysical or philosophical foundation for science, the ultimate theory that will make sense out of everything. That’s what he sees as the task of philosophy and the task of science, and that is where they marry. Of course, the history of science follows very closely the history of philosophy. You are all aware of what happens with the radical changes and upheavals that take place in the world of science. We talk about paradigm shifts. A paradigm is a model, and it’s a model that we hope is a model of reality—like Copernicus had, like Ptolemy had, like Newton had, like Einstein had. The purpose of this paradigm or this model is to explain everything that we observe. The problem is that in every scientific system that has ever been devised, there have always been what we call “anomalies.” And what are anomalies? Anomalies are those little quirks of our experience that aren’t explained by the system. They don’t really fit. And you get enough of these, and these things become bothersome and irksome enough—what happens? Somebody comes along and changes the paradigm and gives us a new model that will then explain these strange things that didn’t fit in the old model. That’s the way science moves and progresses forward. That whole business, that whole task is doing what Plato said: saving the phenomena. If you have phenomena that don’t fit in to the current system, if you want to save those phenomena, you’ve got to expand your paradigm and change it.