Is Science the ‘Best Way of Knowing’? (again)

I decided to respond here to a blog post on A-Unicornist in part because of the rather limited and confusing set-up of the comment section there, and because I thought it was turning into a worthy post all on its own. I’m only really going to deal with part of it, because Mike tends to conflate a lot of things together, but I think these are the two main points I will address:

“Jerry Coyne writes a lot about “accommodationism”, which is a popular new buzzword for the old “NOMA” argument put forward by the late Stephen Jay Gould. This is the idea that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” – that both are valid, but different, means of understanding the world. In both cases, I’m treating these terms very broadly: I’m taking science to mean “empirical observation and rational inquiry” (basically, methodological naturalism), and I’m taking “religion” to mean “spiritual experiences and theology”. I don’t want my use of the word “science” to be confused with a bunch of guys in lab coats shooting lasers and mixing vials of smokey green liquid, and I don’t want my use of the word “religion” to be confused with guys in goofy robes or people waving their arms while they sing cornball hymns. Humanities, such as historical inquiry, are still subject to the rules of empirical investigation; and spiritual experiences are by no means confined to religious dogmas.”

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“Scientific inquiry is the only means we humans have of attaining reliable, valid knowledge about our experiences. We do not possess some sort of spiritual “sixth sense” that allows us to objective discern the truth or falsity of supernatural claims, and this is evident in the growing discordance, rather than consensus, that emerges as human spirituality “evolves”. Methodological naturalism gives us the greatest possible congruence between our experiences and our beliefs, since it is the only means by which we can objectively validate or falsify our assumptions. It might not give an answer to something like, “Why do we exist” that alludes to some grand purpose that transcends human interest; it can, however, demonstrate that even if such a grand purpose does exist, it eludes our capacity for reliable, valid knowledge – in other words, that it’s a pointless question.”

I have to admit I don’t wholly buy into Gould’s NOMA concept, but I think Mike (and other new atheists) has gone to the other extreme – the idea that any particular means of attaining reliable, valid knowledge is somehow mutually exclusive from the others and can be utilized as some sort of stand-alone methodology like science.

The reason this is problematic is because science itself is the product of certain philosophical ideas, which are in turn the product of certain metaphysical ideas. It has been proven reliable in certain respects by its historical success. It is practiced in part as the result of personal observation and through some confidence we have in institutional and collective knowledge transfer, review, and retention. To a certain degree one undermines any confidence that can be had in science itself to say it is the ‘best way knowing’ as much as it relies on other ways of knowing. It is not only provisional, but inherently transitory; there is no final point in science where one can say they have arrived at the truth. In this respect (among others) science is a matter of faith as well – the faith that the scientific consensus arrived at today is sufficiently reliable due to the knowledge gained up to this point.

Also, contrary to the claims above Christians (whom Mike lumps together with other religions) does not merely rely on ‘subjective experiences’. They never have – they have always claimed that their beliefs are rooted in historical realities, philosophical warrant, the pragmatic effects of Christianity on individuals and societies as well as the congruence between Christian beliefs and other realities, <i>in addition to their personal experiences</i> which they share in common with other Christians throughout history and in a wide variety of cultures and societies.

Mike also plays fast and loose with his definition of science which he loosely defines as “empirical observation and rational inquiry” – despite the fact that science as a methodology is much more narrow than that, requiring repeatable experimentation and review by peers with knowledge of those same disciplines. Nonetheless, with that definition, Mike claims that “”Humanities, such as historical inquiry, are still subject to the rules of empirical investigation” – but in fact, much historical investigation often lies well outside of mere empirical considerations, to the motives of leaders and societies, to the belief systems on which societies are based, to changing concepts of truth and beauty held by various cultures. Those aspects of course aren’t reducible to mere data, not to mention other humanities which plainly lay outside empirical thought, like the arts and literature. When can of course have rational discourse about such things, but they aren’t particularly amenable to rigorous scientific investigation – nor should they be, because that would diminish them.

Indeed, when we think about the many facets of human experience whether we speak of relationships, politics, the arts, or the best way we should as a society live our lives, we see that most of what is important isn’t reducible to “empirical and rational inquiry”. Indeed when pressed on the objective existence of human rights elsewhere, Mike demurred, presumably because he doesn’t like the idea of abandoning the concept even to for the sake of ‘science’.

And to consign what is perhaps the most important question we ask, namely “Why do we exist?” to irrationality is laughable. Even the modicum of knowledge of history would indicate that it is not only an important question, but perhaps the question that that motivated humans to pursue knowledge in the first place – even science itself. The answer to that question informs us why knowledge is important, how we should treat one another, what we should devote our time and energy and resources too. This may be this one statement that most undermines Mike’s case – if knowing why we are here is worthless knowledge, than what worth does any knowledge that does not directly impact our immediate survival have? Of course, we can’t answer this question with science, so I don’t expect an answer.

As I have made plain elsewhere on this blog, there is rational and reasonable warrant to believe that our universe and life are designed, that humans are more than merely physical beings, that we have a personhood and natures which include moral and spiritual aspects which can be objectively understood. Furthermore, our best lives are lived out when we live them according to the truths made plain in the teachings of Christ – this is historically observable truth. Ultimately, it is a claim is best understood by a consilience of knowledge, not be separating out one methodology and proclaiming it the ‘best’.

But we have been through all this before – scientism and naturalism ran their course in the early 20th century, only to prove impotent in the light of real human problems. It revives itself now in the relative ease of the Western world in the early 21st century (ironically itself the result of Christendom), and is primarily the abode of young men with no historical knowledge and little to lose by bandying about failed philosophies. It will fail again just as it failed before, but probably not before a lot of people suffer, mostly the young men who adhere to its tenants. It would be a sad mistake at this juncture of history to follow such well worn trails.

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30 Responses to Is Science the ‘Best Way of Knowing’? (again)

  1. Justin says:

    Science, at its base, relies on unobservable, untestable, unprovable logical and mathematical axioms, and there is a “sixth sense” necessary to “do” science. He admits as much when he says “and rational thinking”. Rational thinking isn’t the same as observation.

    Oh, and I would argue that unicorns do (or did) exist. Scientists have found a unicorn descendent still alive and well:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/12/051223120904.htm

    Evolutionists have determined that whales evolved from land creatures (they crawled back into the ocean). So, it makes perfectly rational sense that these whales had a unicorn-like predecessor for which we simply haven’t found the corresponding transitional fossil – yet. Just like all the other transitional species that evolutionists haven’t found, if they can imagine those out of thin air, I think we can reasonably say, unicorns did exist using their same logic.

    As for the “science is the only way of knowing” argument, it seems that this claim is very tired and still VERY self-refuting, as the statement “the only way of knowing things is through empirical observation” is not itself empirically observable.

  2. kenetiks says:

    @Justin

    Science, at its base, relies on unobservable, untestable, unprovable logical and mathematical axioms, and there is a “sixth sense” necessary to “do” science. He admits as much when he says “and rational thinking”. Rational thinking isn’t the same as observation.

    o.0

    Oh, and I would argue that unicorns do (or did) exist. Scientists have found a unicorn descendent still alive and well:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/12/051223120904.htm

    Evolutionists have determined that whales evolved from land creatures (they crawled back into the ocean). So, it makes perfectly rational sense that these whales had a unicorn-like predecessor for which we simply haven’t found the corresponding transitional fossil – yet. Just like all the other transitional species that evolutionists haven’t found, if they can imagine those out of thin air, I think we can reasonably say, unicorns did exist using their same logic.

    I tend to get the impression that you don’t like evolution and no amount of evidence would change your mind. Anyway…

    I hear this a lot and it’s rather silly. “NO TRANSITIONAL FOSSILS!”(whenever a prediction is made) you and others yell and you’ll often hear this rebuttal “God of the gaps argument.”. Never mind that I hear what you say completely differently than you could ever have intended.

    As for the “science is the only way of knowing” argument, it seems that this claim is very tired and still VERY self-refuting, as the statement “the only way of knowing things is through empirical observation” is not itself empirically observable.

    I’m not even sure what to make of this at all. There is something horribly wrong in this paragraph but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

  3. Justin says:

    The paragraph about evolution and unicorns was tongue in cheek. The last paragraph was not. I don’t have a huge issue with evolution. I don’t think it is complete and it barely qualifies as a scientific theory, but aside from those minor objections it makes for a nice hypothesis for connecting what are really historical events.

    To borrow from Berlinski, yes, the fossil record is very poor. When you talk about the transition from a land dwelling creature to a whale, you’re implying tens of thousands of morphological changes. Most evolution proponents do not consider this. Changes that were all the supposed result of sheer dumb luck over millions of years. Generations after generations of animals, perhaps thousands of millions of animals just within this one transitional sequence. And how many fossils do we have along this sequence? Maybe a couple of dozen. To say the fossil record is lacking is an understatement. Now, don’t misread what I am saying. The few anectdotal transitional specimens we have found certainly are in favor of evolution, but the fossil record is abysmally lacking. Finch beaks seem to be cyclical, not evolutionary, it turns out…

    As to my last paragraph… to say that science is the only way of knowing is a statement of fact. Yet, this statement cannot be empirically proven, and therefore according to itself, cannot be known!

  4. Mike D says:

    Jack, some of the objections you raise here are worth discussing; others are simple misunderstanding of my position. I’m going to try to be as concise as possible here (no promises).

    Like most theists (actually all of them that I’ve ever encountered), you don’t actually rise to the occasion – you never bother trying to explain how any “other ways of knowing” can produce reliable, objectively verifiable knowledge about reality. Instead, you attempt to undermine the foundations of methodological naturalism so that it would appear we are on equal footing, both making faith-based statements about what reality is.

    The reason this is problematic is because science itself is the product of certain philosophical ideas, which are in turn the product of certain metaphysical ideas.

    The philosophical foundations of science are only as good as their ability to produce reliable, valid theories that describe reality. If the underlying principles were invalid, science wouldn’t work, and we would discard those principles and try to figure out new ones. We don’t have to take those founding principles as a matter of faith – their validity has been, and continues to be, robustly proved.

    It is not only provisional, but inherently transitory; there is no final point in science where one can say they have arrived at the truth. In this respect (among others) science is a matter of faith as well – the faith that the scientific consensus arrived at today is sufficiently reliable due to the knowledge gained up to this point.

    Your first sentence is correct; the second is a non-sequitur because the knowledge gained through science is independently verifiable and produces knowledge of reliable predictive utility. The problem with faith-based statements, such as those about the existence of God, is that they are posited as absolute metaphysical truths upon which all other knowledge is founded, but they can neither be independently verified, nor can they produce knowledge of reliable predictive utility. They are unsubstantiated “just-so” statements.

    Also, contrary to the claims above Christians (whom Mike lumps together with other religions) does not merely rely on ‘subjective experiences’.

    I never said any faith relies solely on subjective experiences. I said that subjective experiences, such as your claim to have encountered the Holy Spirit, are insufficient to establish claims as objectively true.

    Mike claims that “”Humanities, such as historical inquiry, are still subject to the rules of empirical investigation” – but in fact, much historical investigation often lies well outside of mere empirical considerations, to the motives of leaders and societies, to the belief systems on which societies are based, to changing concepts of truth and beauty held by various cultures.

    Historical investigation never lies outside of empirical considerations. We don’t get to just make up whatever we want about past cultures. We have to root our understanding of them in empiricism, and that includes our understanding about their beliefs, their concepts of beauty, etc. etc. If such understanding is not rooted in evidence, it is worthless. Further, and most importantly, all historical knowledge is provisional, contingent on the best available information. No historical claim should be taken as an ontic. Of course, that’s precisely the special pleading you invoke as a Christian – that the claims in the Bible are ontic realities and infallible truths not subject to revision upon the discovery of new evidence.

    Indeed when pressed on the objective existence of human rights elsewhere, Mike demurred, presumably because he doesn’t like the idea of abandoning the concept even to for the sake of ‘science’.

    Now you’re resorting to flagrant dishonesty. I said that the existence of human rights is not an objectively valid truth, and you had no rebuttal but to scoff in incredulity, just as you’re doing here. When you’re ready to make an actual argument, I’m all ears. Human rights is a concept – an abstraction that we define. This does not mean that the concept of human rights is not immensely valuable to us, and that in order to be useful and meaningful, it must relate to objective facts about the human condition.

    And to consign what is perhaps the most important question we ask, namely “Why do we exist?” to irrationality is laughable.

    Again, you are passing off your personal incredulity as an argument. You do not address how a transcendent purpose, if it exists, can be an objectively knowable ontic fact.

    Riddle me this: What is the objective purpose of God’s existence?

    if knowing why we are here is worthless knowledge, than what worth does any knowledge that does not directly impact our immediate survival have?

    Your question first makes the presumption, without evidence, that an objective purpose to our existence exists. Then you assert, as a tautology, that if such a purpose does not exist, we cannot have any purpose of our own. Nonsense. “Purpose” is not an objective thing – for the umpteenth time, you’ve confused an abstraction for a real thing. We define “purpose”, and in order for it to have an meaning to us it must relate to objective – yes, scientific – facts about the human condition.

    Methodological naturalism remains the only philosophical principle able to produce reliable, valid knowledge. You can yap all day about other ways of knowing, but until you can demonstrate how intuition, revelation, authority, dogma, or subjective experiences of any kind produce reliable knowledge of a metaphysical reality, you’ll just be yapping into the wind.

  5. I would like to reply, but alas, I just do not know where to begin. So I’ll just watch from the sidelines instead.

  6. jackhudson says:

    Jack, some of the objections you raise here are worth discussing; others are simple misunderstanding of my position. I’m going to try to be as concise as possible here (no promises).

    I appreciate the response Mike, I know full well the amount of time it takes to write these responses, and appreciate the thought and effort.

    Like most theists (actually all of them that I’ve ever encountered), you don’t actually rise to the occasion – you never bother trying to explain how any “other ways of knowing” can produce reliable, objectively verifiable knowledge about reality. Instead, you attempt to undermine the foundations of methodological naturalism so that it would appear we are on equal footing, both making faith-based statements about what reality is.

    Actually Mike I just pointed out that science itself is the product of ‘other ways of knowing’ – science didn’t just pop into existence, it is the result of historical, institutional, metaphysical and even personal knowledge. If science is reliable, and it is the product of those other ways of knowing, then we can say other ways of knowing can produce reliable, objectively verifiable knowledge. The only other choice is that science isn’t all that reliable itself, in which case we cast human thought processes into doubt all together.

    The philosophical foundations of science are only as good as their ability to produce reliable, valid theories that describe reality. If the underlying principles were invalid, science wouldn’t work, and we would discard those principles and try to figure out new ones. We don’t have to take those founding principles as a matter of faith – their validity has been, and continues to be, robustly proved.

    Well again, you are tacitly agreeing that philosophical principles can produce reliable methodologies for understanding reality – thus acknowledging that as a means of knowing, philosophy has value. And I would point out first that those philosophies are the product of certain metaphysical worldviews, and that the development of science was the product of certain cultural, historical, institutional, and personal realities. That being the case, it suggests that other ways of knowing have validity if science is understood to have validity.

    Your first sentence is correct; the second is a non-sequitur because the knowledge gained through science is independently verifiable and produces knowledge of reliable predictive utility. The problem with faith-based statements, such as those about the existence of God, is that they are posited as absolute metaphysical truths upon which all other knowledge is founded, but they can neither be independently verified, nor can they produce knowledge of reliable predictive utility. They are unsubstantiated “just-so” statements.

    The problem is that the science of yesterday was understood to be ‘independently verified’ as well – and we now understand it to either be wrong, or incomplete. That means the scientific knowledge we have today is properly understood to be transitory knowledge, not ‘truth’. So as much as we say any particular scientific claim accurately reflects reality, we are saying we are confident that sufficient knowledge has been gained at this point in history to be reliable – and that is at least in part a statement of faith.

    . I never said any faith relies solely on subjective experiences. I said that subjective experiences, such as your claim to have encountered the Holy Spirit, are insufficient to establish claims as objectively true.

    So then you are agreeing that Christianity also relies on historical and philosophical claims, as well as claims about the nature of the universe and humanity?

    Historical investigation never lies outside of empirical considerations. We don’t get to just make up whatever we want about past cultures. We have to root our understanding of them in empiricism, and that includes our understanding about their beliefs, their concepts of beauty, etc. etc. If such understanding is not rooted in evidence, it is worthless. Further, and most importantly, all historical knowledge is provisional, contingent on the best available information. No historical claim should be taken as an ontic. Of course, that’s precisely the special pleading you invoke as a Christian – that the claims in the Bible are ontic realities and infallible truths not subject to revision upon the discovery of new evidence.

    Nothing I said suggests we get to make up anything about history – but history is more than a set of objectively verifiable catalogue of ‘facts’.

    In order for history to make sense, it requires a metanarrative. We can for instance objectively verify the existence of the Declaration of Independence, we can have some idea of who wrote it and when it was written, but if we want to understand what is important about it and why it had the impact it did, we have to move beyond mere empiricism into the reality of ideas, beliefs, motivations and meaning – in short the narrative of history. This knowledge is important (I would argue much more important than how galaxies formed) and cannot be reduced to mere empirical considerations. In short, science falls short of this arena, and we must employ other means of knowing. In fact, it goes beyond merely knowing, as I said elsewhere – it is understanding that is the product of a consilience of knowledge and experiences. It must be reasonably and logically consistent of course, but it may not be empirical per se.
    .

    Now you’re resorting to flagrant dishonesty. I said that the existence of human rights is not an objectively valid truth, and you had no rebuttal but to scoff in incredulity, just as you’re doing here. When you’re ready to make an actual argument, I’m all ears. Human rights is a concept – an abstraction that we define. This does not mean that the concept of human rights is not immensely valuable to us, and that in order to be useful and meaningful, it must relate to objective facts about the human condition. .

    I find a contradiction in your thinking here. On one hand you claim the power of science as a way of knowing is that it yields useful (and valuable) results. And here you acknowledge our understanding of human rights does the same. If it is the case that the accuracy of our knowledge is measured by the usefulness of the results of that knowledge, then we can make an argument that our understanding of human rights, arrived at by other ways of knowing (in this case moral, historical, and philosophical knowledge) has produced a reliably truthful claim, and can thus these other ways of knowing can be understood to be reliable in terms of their ability to produce such knowledge.

    Again, you are passing off your personal incredulity as an argument. You do not address how a transcendent purpose, if it exists, can be an objectively knowable ontic fact. .

    Obviously, if we have a purpose to our existence, it can be objectively known. If we have no purpose, then it really doesn’t matter if this or any other methodology yields particular truths, since there is no particular reason to have such knowledge anyway, except perhaps insomuch as it enhances our ability to reproduce and survive – and historically, there is much evidence to suggest we can survive and reproduce just fine without having in-depth scientific knowledge.

    Riddle me this: What is the objective purpose of God’s existence?

    Depends on what you mean by ‘purpose’. When we think of our purpose, we are considering the reasons for our existence – i.e. what are we designed to do, as in the purpose of a hammer is to drive nails, the purpose of drill is to bore holes in an object, etc. Unlike any other organism, humans instinctively search for such purpose. Even as you contend for science as the ‘best way of knowing’ you belie a desire to do something in the best manner possible – even if that isn’t necessary to our existence. You have an innate desire to live life according to ideals you deny exist.

    In this sense, we can’t assign a purpose to God because He isn’t created or designed to do a particular thing. But that doesn’t mean His existence is ‘purposeless’ because He has a inherent eternal nature, and He has a will. He acts in accordance with that nature (which includes love, justice and the power to create) and thus His acts are purposeful. He also has intent, which means He can have reasons for acting within His nature. In this sense, He has ‘purpose’.

    if knowing why we are here is worthless knowledge, than what worth does any knowledge that does not directly impact our immediate survival have?

    Your question first makes the presumption, without evidence, that an objective purpose to our existence exists. Then you assert, as a tautology, that if such a purpose does not exist, we cannot have any purpose of our own. Nonsense. “Purpose” is not an objective thing – for the umpteenth time, you’ve confused an abstraction for a real thing. We define “purpose”, and in order for it to have an meaning to us it must relate to objective – yes, scientific – facts about the human condition.

    Actually, my question makes no such presumption, simply posits that absent an objective knowable purpose, the methodology you insist upon is somewhat irrelevant. Absent some underlying purpose, what difference does having a greater knowledge of the universe actually have except in such cases as it might actually benefit the health of an individual or society? You might think it a useful tool for your own pursuits, but there is no particular reason to insist it be a standard adopted by a society in every consideration.

    This would only be the case if pursuing such knowledge was objectively understood to be a good – and not reliably knowing such things an evil. And we could only make that claim if there were some underlying design to our existence which renders that to be the case, and that of course leads us back to considerations that are beyond science. In short, your insistence that we adopt science as a reliable way of knowing is only true if we can say it is best for us to reliably know the truth – and you can’t know that through science.

    Methodological naturalism remains the only philosophical principle able to produce reliable, valid knowledge. You can yap all day about other ways of knowing, but until you can demonstrate how intuition, revelation, authority, dogma, or subjective experiences of any kind produce reliable knowledge of a metaphysical reality, you’ll just be yapping into the wind.

    Well, as I said methodological naturalism relies itself on other forms of knowledge, so you can yap all day about it being the only means of producing reliable, valid knowledge but the claim is self-contradictory insomuch as methodological naturalism is the product of other considerations not produced by methodological naturalism. In short, you have no foundation for your claims other than to appeal to truths arrived at by historical, institutional, personal, philosophical and metaphysical means.

    It also suggests that previous to the development of methodological naturalism, humans were incapable of knowing anything to be reliably true. Considering that a number of successful societies existed previous to this development, it would seem the objective empirical historical evidence proves you wrong.

  7. nate says:

    As I’ve said before, science may be considered reliable but scientists are not. They can be corrupted by money and funding, prestige, personal bias, lazyness, etc.

    Science will never be perfect while there are people involved.

  8. jackhudson says:

    Great point. Which leads to another truth which underpins all we do, including our system of government – people are corruptible and imperfect, and power (like being seen as the only source of knowledge) increases the potential for corruption.

  9. Justin says:

    I agree with Jack. The basis of the body of mathematics and logic are based on truths that are not observable. There are no married bachelors (a favorite of WLC) can be knowledge without empirical observation because we defined “bachelor” to be exclusive to unmarried males. No scientific test or empirical observation is necessary to know this, it is objective, and that it is absolutely true should be noncontroversial. In a sense, this is how all of the mathematical and logical axioms are believed.

    The law of non-contradiction in logic is simply not falsifiable (and therefore, is a way of knowing something without science). Attempts to falsify the law of non-contradiction fail because such proofs have to assume that the laws of logic are valid to even form the argument.

    The mathematics of very large numbers is knowable without a scientific test, based on these axioms. We can know that 5,000,000,000,000 elephants + 5,000,000,000,000 elephants = 10,000,000,000,000 elephants, even though there are not that many elephants in existence to count. How can we know this with any certainty, then? Because of the basic mathematical axioms, which are never observed empirically, and cannot in the scientific sense be falsified.

    Stating that theists never rise to the occassion just indicates you haven’t read or listened to (or won’t acknowledge the validity of) the many theists who have addressed this question for the past 2,000 years or better.

    Since every single scientific experiment relies on these mathematical and logical axioms, these “ways of knowing” are essential to the “doing” of science altogether. That we don’t observe them, and take them for granted, makes them easy to overlook.

    And, as Jack points out, much of the sciences are only approximations, or are later disproven, meaning that science isn’t really as rock solid as one many assert.

  10. kenetiks says:

    @nate

    As I’ve said before, science may be considered reliable but scientists are not. They can be corrupted by money and funding, prestige, personal bias, lazyness, etc.

    Science will never be perfect while there are people involved.

    Of course. But you are leaving out a relevant portion of the spectrum here and this gives it a rather dubious slant.

    Science is self correcting. There may be scientists who will try to massage this or that but they usually fail and are thoroughly slammed as a result. So, while these people may exist, their fame will be short lived since there are an equal number of scientists who really are honest and care about the science and will out the dishonest in a heartbeat.

    You should really take a complete view of the entire subject and all it encompasses instead of peering through one single looking glass.

  11. kenetiks says:

    @Justin

    I agree with Jack. The basis of the body of mathematics and logic are based on truths that are not observable. There are no married bachelors (a favorite of WLC) can be knowledge without empirical observation because we defined “bachelor” to be exclusive to unmarried males. No scientific test or empirical observation is necessary to know this, it is objective, and that it is absolutely true should be noncontroversial. In a sense, this is how all of the mathematical and logical axioms are believed.

    The law of non-contradiction in logic is simply not falsifiable (and therefore, is a way of knowing something without science). Attempts to falsify the law of non-contradiction fail because such proofs have to assume that the laws of logic are valid to even form the argument.

    The mathematics of very large numbers is knowable without a scientific test, based on these axioms. We can know that 5,000,000,000,000 elephants + 5,000,000,000,000 elephants = 10,000,000,000,000 elephants, even though there are not that many elephants in existence to count. How can we know this with any certainty, then? Because of the basic mathematical axioms, which are never observed empirically, and cannot in the scientific sense be falsified.

    Stating that theists never rise to the occassion just indicates you haven’t read or listened to (or won’t acknowledge the validity of) the many theists who have addressed this question for the past 2,000 years or better.

    Since every single scientific experiment relies on these mathematical and logical axioms, these “ways of knowing” are essential to the “doing” of science altogether. That we don’t observe them, and take them for granted, makes them easy to overlook.

    And, as Jack points out, much of the sciences are only approximations, or are later disproven, meaning that science isn’t really as rock solid as one many assert.

    Just what are you trying to say here?

  12. kenetiks says:

    @Tristan

    I would like to reply, but alas, I just do not know where to begin. So I’ll just watch from the sidelines instead.

    Probably a good idea. I probably should as well.

    On a side note, awesome name. Tristan is my son’s name. 😛

  13. nate says:

    You assume every problem will be found and corrected, and sometimes they will. It isn’t a given and so I find science to be somewhat dangerous if you take it for more than what it is.

  14. Justin says:

    Kenetiks-
    Just saying that there are things that we know to be objectively true that aren’t derived from the scientific method. Mike seems to be implying that everything that can be known objectively is known via the scientific method, which is false.

    As far as science being self correcting, that is a myth perpetuated by scientists who want to avoid criticism. Sure maybe eventually a bad scientific theory will be challenged, but there is nothing guaranteeing this, and when it does ‘self correct’ it is often long after the initial theory or finding was published. How long was Piltdown Man in the textbooks? 50 years or better? Furthermore the quickest way for a scientist to lose funding is to conclude that ‘I don’t know’ after spending a few million dollars on a study. The pressure is immense to come to one conclusion or another. Publish or perish, they say.

    Science isn’t unbiased, either. If someone wants to challenge a mainstay theory, they are ridiculed, ignored, or even fired. So, it might self correct, but it doesn’t do so automatically and it certainly doesn’t do so without a lot of wailing and moaning, and it doesn’t do so in a timely manner.

  15. The Judge says:

    Very well said Jack. You’re obviously a very lucid critic of positivist/atheistic mentalities. What I don’t get is that you don’t seem to apply the same critical skills (or hold the same critical standards) to theistic positions. For instance you discuss the importance of the question “Why do we exist,” and I’m inclined to agree with the general gist, but you fail to (or won’t) cast even the slightest critical eye on the question itself. Personally, it strikes me as a very poor formulation – at the very least, the grammar behind it is problematic. In this sense, Mike’s critique of it is legitimate. I can see how it *points* to something important, but I’m cautious about saying that the question itself is just important because it is (at least in that form). Similarly, to state that science is also a matter of faith is false rhetoric – you cannot throw the term ‘faith’ out there like it meant the same thing for science as for religion (else you’re seriously diminishing your own religion). I know they’re little details (so I won’t press for an answer), but they grate on me when I read them.

    More generally, you seem to take for granted that the Christian experience is homogeneous. Your claim that the Christian life is the best life is by far the most interesting you make (practically the main reason I’ve already toe-tagged your blog, and I’ve been reading around for some elaborations), but you fail to account for those who have approached the gospels and felt unsatisfied with the experience (Mike, among others). My experience is also not congruous with yours. I’ve met lots of Christians, but I don’t find on the whole that they’re much happier or better people than any others. In fact, I find more in common between a happy Christian and a happy atheist than I do between two unhappy Christians or two unhappy atheists (Tolstoy shall have to forgive the inspiration here, about ‘all happy families…’), suggesting to me that there’s more than simply your dogmas that determines your spiritual condition. Or, for instance – I find greater similarities between a Christian philosopher and an atheistic philosopher than between a Christian sailor and an atheistic dancer (or viceversa – these are all examples of people I’ve met). Also I have approached Christian doctrine (without having been raised in it) and I found it unsatisfying for a number of reasons.

    I find your tendency to take certain things for granted, or to discount for the potentially different experience of others, to be quite at odds with the brightness with which you treat atheistic world-views. Anyway these may be preliminary impressions, and I look forward to reading some more of your future posts and getting a better idea of what it is that you consider to be the Christian life-style.

  16. Justin says:

    The view that science is the only way of knowing things seems really bizarre. I wished that one of the proponents of this view could put together a coherent argument for it.

    Science always bends to fit logic. It’s the only way science can work, in fact. We don’t do an experiment and observe something that seems to defy logic and then say “Wow, we need to toss out the law of non-contradiction.” Even when the apparent particle/wave duality of photons was discovered, we didn’t toss out the law of noncontradiction. We adjusted our understanding of what particles and waves really were.

    We have a DEEP sense of faith that our rules of logic, as we’ve discovered and described them, are accurate. We have to and there’s no getting around it. But to say that they’re verifiable or observable is begging the question and circular, because one would have to use the rules of logic to argue against them or to claim that you have tested them. It self-destructs.

    To me, the simple fact that science always bends to the rules of logic is the clearest refutation of an empiricist or purely naturalistic worldview.

  17. The Judge says:

    “The view that science is the only way of knowing things seems really bizarre. I wished that one of the proponents of this view could put together a coherent argument for it.”

    The point is that science yields (epistemological) results which no other discipline yields. The common qualities/features of these ‘results’ retrospectively define the method used to attain them as ‘science.’ So the method and the result define each other. Proponents of scientific wisdom identify these results as ‘knowledge,’ but they don’t acknowledge that their definition is circular – the common qualities of science lead to knowledge, and the common qualities of knowledge define science. Since there is no external referent to determine what knowledge is, the question whittles away to semantics. Not only is there no such thing as a stable idea of ‘knowledge,’ there is no such thing as a stable idea of ‘science’.

    Why is science defined by this and this method rather than by intuition, randomness, and sociological aspects (which have all been important factors in the history of science)? Simply because the others don’t lead to ‘knowledge.’ So how do you determine what ‘knowledge’ is? By using the methods I arbitrarily selected above.

    Semantic definitions are direct reflections of our worldview (what religious people would call our ‘faith’). Personally, I find these arguments to be a bit self-serving – any word can mean anything at all, if you impose your interpretation on it.

  18. The Judge says:

    By the way, that was a really great point, Justin. 🙂

  19. Justin says:

    Thanks for the further explanation, Judge. I just want to address one more point that I noted in your response, which seems to be the implication that science is able to be “done” in a vacuum isolated from the rules of logic or mathematics – that science is a self-contained, independent discipline, which it is not.

    I agree that the scientific method can yield knowledge that pure mathematics or logic or intuition will not. But the implication is always that this body of knowledge is the only valid knowledge in existence, and that implication is easily shown to be false. The argument is always that any other way of knowing is inferior or inadequate, and that, too, seems to be false.

  20. The Judge says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to do science in a vacuum at all. Anyone claiming that physics could be done without mathematics (or, for a broader example, that zoology can be done without hiking) is smoking something better than I know. Where did I imply that?

    I agree with everything in your last paragraph, btw.

  21. Justin stated:

    Stating that theists never rise to the occassion just indicates you haven’t read or listened to (or won’t acknowledge the validity of) the many theists who have addressed this question for the past 2,000 years or better.

    Since every single scientific experiment relies on these mathematical and logical axioms, these “ways of knowing” are essential to the “doing” of science altogether. That we don’t observe them, and take them for granted, makes them easy to overlook.

    And, as Jack points out, much of the sciences are only approximations, or are later disproven, meaning that science isn’t really as rock solid as one many assert.

    Stating that theists don’t rise to the occasion may, on occasion, mean that theists don’t rise to the occasion.

    I agree, math does play a large role in the measurement and testing, but I think you forget to ask, what is it exactly that’s being tested? The evidence, whether it is from observation or tangible sources, the measurements reflect the application of science to catalog data for making predictions or for future comparisons.

    The fact that these approximations get disproved is how science corrects itself and how our understanding improves. If you have the wrong measurement, and other peers review this and say you have relied upon the wrong information, the great thing about science is that you can repeat the experiment, or reproduce the findings by double checking the data for errors, and this self correcting means suggest science, as a method, will bring you ever closer to the truth.

    Things which cannot be tested, such as faith, or things which can be tested but usually fail to stand up to scrutiny, such as the God concept, usually don’t fair well when the the analytical methods of science and logic are at play.

    This is why most people would say faith and science are at odds. That is not to suggest a person of faith can’t practice science, but if you apply the scientific method to religion you get answers, approximations as you call it, let’s call it probabilities, which seem to say the opposite of what most theists espouse.

    While the defense of theists, is frequently either to fall back on the god-of-the-gaps argument, the argument from ignorance, or state that science continues to fail to supply all the answers absolutely. Meanwhile, they offer no better methodology as an alternative means for identifying, with reliable consistency, real answers to real questions.

    I think that shows that science works. Period. And the only thing I can say to somebody who wants all the answers, get used to disappointment, and get used to uncertainty.

  22. Justin said:

    The view that science is the only way of knowing things seems really bizarre. I wished that one of the proponents of this view could put together a coherent argument for it.

    Science always bends to fit logic. It’s the only way science can work, in fact. We don’t do an experiment and observe something that seems to defy logic and then say “Wow, we need to toss out the law of non-contradiction.” Even when the apparent particle/wave duality of photons was discovered, we didn’t toss out the law of noncontradiction. We adjusted our understanding of what particles and waves really were.

    We have a DEEP sense of faith that our rules of logic, as we’ve discovered and described them, are accurate. We have to and there’s no getting around it. But to say that they’re verifiable or observable is begging the question and circular, because one would have to use the rules of logic to argue against them or to claim that you have tested them. It self-destructs.

    To me, the simple fact that science always bends to the rules of logic is the clearest refutation of an empiricist or purely naturalistic worldview.

    I think you misunderstand the utility of science. Science isn’t the means to knowing things, it is the means to checking things to see if what we assume to know actually matches reality. It’s a way of verifying what we know is true.

    Science doesn’t bend to fit logic either. Again, this is predicated on your initial misconception of science. Rather, logic dictates that science continually correct the information we have. Your example of light waves and light particles, or photons as they’re called, is a good example. As Thomas Young showed via the double slit experiment, light has the properties of BOTH particles and waves.

    Thus the scientific knowledge was improved by updating the information.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-slit_experiment

    Logic follows suit. Once the data is corrected, we can reason more accurately, and this means our logic improves.

    Your last quote makes little sense. I cannot reason how you can assert “the simple fact that science always bends to the rules of logic is the clearest refutation of an empiricist or purely naturalistic worldview.”

    As I have shown, you have simply misunderstood the utility and practical application of science. Logic is the tool of empiricists who then employ the scientific method to empirically very the data and get tangible answers. Are you saying that’s not how empiricism works? Because, if so, I would have to strongly disagree.

    Finally, it makes no sense to dismiss the naturalistic worldview outright, because then what world view are you left with? An un-natural worldview? A supernatural worldview? Untenable metaphysical realities abound, but can you verify such “realities” or are you simply taking a leap of faith, and hoping, for such realities even though they remain unconfirmed? At least naturalism is grounded in the success of methodological naturalism. If you wish to test something, such as gravity, then you can toss a baseball into the air and watch it come back down to the ground. If you want to see whether or not objects of different densities fall at the same rate in a vacuum, then you simply do the experiment.

    Science, therefore, supplies the method to fleshing out a naturalistic worldview, hence the term methodological naturalism. It seems to me you have simply have the wrong ideas about naturalism and science.

  23. jackhudson says:

    I think you misunderstand the utility of science. Science isn’t the means to knowing things, it is the means to checking things to see if what we assume to know actually matches reality. It’s a way of verifying what we know is true.

    So then how do we know science is the best way to verify reality, if science isn’t a way of knowing things?

  24. Jack said: “So then how do we know science is the best way to verify reality, if science isn’t a way of knowing things?”

    Because we get results which match with our experiences.

    Next question?

  25. Justin says:

    Tristan, if science isn’t a way of knowing things, then you seem to be at odds with the initial claim that ‘science is the best way or only way of knowing’.

    And how exactly does the ‘God Concept’ not fair well in science? If by that you only mean there is no experiment that we can perform to test for God, then I agree. However, there is no experiment we can perform to test logical or mathematical axioms, either, yet we hold them as truth. We can’t then say that only science leads to truth, because that is clearly false. And if that is the case, then there are other ways of arriving at truth.

    As to the particle wave duality, I performed the double slit experiment in my college physics lab. But as I mentioned, the consensus is that it does not violate the law of nonconfradiction since photons don’t behave as waves and particles at the same time, which is consistent with the law of non-contradiction. The statement that photons or electrons are both waves and particles is not quite a complete statement.

  26. jackhudson says:

    Because we get results which match with our experiences

    Next question?

    Which would indicate our experiences are reliable as a way of knowing.

    Next point?

  27. kenetiks says:

    @Justin

    Kenetiks-
    Just saying that there are things that we know to be objectively true that aren’t derived from the scientific method. Mike seems to be implying that everything that can be known objectively is known via the scientific method, which is false.

    The scientific method you describe is the opposite of what it was designed to do.

    As far as science being self correcting, that is a myth perpetuated by scientists who want to avoid criticism. Sure maybe eventually a bad scientific theory will be challenged, but there is nothing guaranteeing this, and when it does ‘self correct’ it is often long after the initial theory or finding was published. How long was Piltdown Man in the textbooks? 50 years or better? Furthermore the quickest way for a scientist to lose funding is to conclude that ‘I don’t know’ after spending a few million dollars on a study. The pressure is immense to come to one conclusion or another. Publish or perish, they say.

    I find nothing in this paragraph grounded in reality concerning anything I’ve ever encountered.

    Science isn’t unbiased, either. If someone wants to challenge a mainstay theory, they are ridiculed, ignored, or even fired. So, it might self correct, but it doesn’t do so automatically and it certainly doesn’t do so without a lot of wailing and moaning, and it doesn’t do so in a timely manner.

    Like Kevin Trudeau or Andrew Wakefield?

  28. kenetiks says:

    @Jack

    Which would indicate our experiences are reliable as a way of knowing.

    Next point?

    I disagree. Science isn’t used to confirm our experiences. Personal or collective experience is biased and is not always accurate. A method of disposing of such assumptions is the viable means here.

  29. Justin says:

    “I found nothing in this paragraph grounded in reality concerning anything I’ve ever encountered.”

    I even gave you one factual example and you still deny it? And how is the scientific method different from what I described?

    All this talk of ‘science’ and it seems the science-only crowd thinks of it as some some holy, magical endeavor done wholly without the use of logic. It is as if one looks at something hard enough, call it an experiment, and the laws of physics suddenly write themselves on the blackboard.

    Science requires reasoning that is based on knowledge outside of empirical observation. Science simply cannot be done without it.

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