Science and Philosophy
On the strengths and limitations of the scientific method.
Truth is eternal
Some things are true regardless of what we think, say or do, or what our perspective may be. For example, in the pure counting numbers (disregarding symbolic representation); one plus one must always equal two. Such truths were not created, but simply exist: they are eternal.
The influence of such truths on our minds might be called the light of truth; as it illuminates our understanding with insight from beyond the limitations of our own personal efforts or virtues; it enlightens us with contributions to our understanding that we cannot attribute to any other source than truth itself.
Truth's transcending power
A shaft of light shines past the giants
brightening one flower
A symbol of the Truth's defiance
and transcending power...
The investigation of truth: a noble human instinct
The pursuit of truth is an innate, noble, pure and childlike characteristic of the human mind and heart; often motivated by dissatisfaction from lacking answers to important questions of life. Truth has an intrinsic value independent of cultural, religious or political persuasion.
Brave people honour and obey eternal principles, valuing their permanence above the temporary character of our lives. Many have died for truth, a cause they considered more important than their own lives. Terrible crimes have been perpetrated by people who justified their opinions through a mistakenly perceived possession of incontrovertible truth. However, a common understanding of actual truth unites people and helps preserve peace by securing common consent and collaborative effort for actions that are necessary for our wellbeing.
The desire to unite our race in a common understanding of pure and transcending truth motivates many faithful scientists, philosophers, scholars, leaders and teachers to ascertain the truth in all important matters and convince their fellows of the mutually beneficial truths in their possession.
The scientific method of approaching truth
The scientific method has brought many material benefits through the application of those theories most apt to withstand rigorous evidence-based cross-examination (those theories which therefore, we conclude, approach the truth most faithfully.)
In the scientific method:
- The physical properties of the universe are observed.
- Hypotheses (or “theories”) are formulated as perceived by their protagonists to be consistent with observed facts. An “alternative hypothesis” is appended to the collection of competing world-views to cover the possibility that none of the proposed hypotheses are correct.
- Experiments are designed to help determine which of the hypotheses is closest to being correct, e.g. by discrediting some hypotheses. Scientists reformulate theories as predictions of experimentally observable data.
- The experiments are performed to eliminate the least likely hypotheses from consideration, and/or to strengthen evidence for the best hypotheses. If all proposed hypotheses are disproven or found to be a poor explanation of experimental data, or if the results are inconclusive; the scientists return to a previous stage of this process.
- The surviving hypotheses are codified in a communicable format and more widely applied in making economically relevant predictions. The most successful and accurate theories are used with confidence as part of a general scientific framework for generating new ideas and product designs.
Advantages of the scientific method
As a method of obtaining reliable data (in fields such as astronomy, physics, geology, metallurgy, engineering, chemistry, biology and medicine); the scientific method has significant and demonstrable advantages over known or traditional alternatives such as inexact observations propagated as folklore. The advantages of the scientific method have been well documented and widely promoted in late 20th–century and early 21st–century western culture.
Limitations of the scientific method include:
- Conceivability: Only principles accessible to human imagination are liable to be scientifically tested, and only explanations that are admissible to human imagination are likely to be proposed or supported.
- Observability: Only phenomena that are directly and commonly observable may be discerned by scientific means.
- Repeatability: It is difficult to scientifically analyse phenomena that are infrequent, unpredictable and unreproducible, and unsusceptible to being triggered or influenced by anything we might do experimentally.
- Perpetual imperfection of trial-and-improvement: Truth is infinite. Science is finite. While science might continually approach nearer to absolute truth, it cannot reach a state of absolute knowledge.
There will always be truths outside the scope or observable range of any experimental data we may gather. Scientists are, like the rest of us, inherently reliant on the ideas or inspiration that come to them in response to the stimuli they observe and decide to pursue. Because science is forever bound to the study of the countably finite, the frequent, the commonly observable and repeatable, the imaginable; scientific philosophy may be unaware of many questions relating to the infinite and eternal, and may be impotent in answering many such questions.
Prevalent myths about the scientific method
The inherent imperfection of human scientists
The current popular “scientific” perception of the human being is as a biological/ electronic machine living entirely within an inherently random physical universe. This type of system is by its very nature imprecise... Such a creature may perceive truths with relative certitude, however he may not directly discern absolute truth at all. If the biological picture of the human being is complete then we may confidently state that human beings are incapable of reaching any absolute truth via the “scientific method” at all; since a purely biological creature may only approach absolute truth incrementally through experience and experimentation, and at the conclusion of his studies, may never be totally certain that his senses are not fooling him, and that inconsistencies in ones perspective have been overlooked. Therefore paradoxically, if science was the only valid method of approaching truth and our current scientific understanding was complete, we could never know anything for certain and would be most ill-placed to assert something so sweeping and grand in scope as that the scientific method was the only method of approaching truth. Therefore, the popular western view of the scientific method as the only valid way to approach absolute truth is at best unsubstantiated; and at worst, anyone positing this proposition is actually claiming special and private knowledge of truths outside the realms of science and is therefore contradicting themselves.
Due to the very nature of the biological human mind, with its imperfections and inexact mechanisms of calculation; we might well conclude that we cannot truly “know” anything at all; unless other methods of “knowing” are available that are unknown to empirical science. Even when judiciously consulting respected forebears, we may never be completely certain to what degree we are influenced by the Zeitgeist, or the peer-pressure of our local cultural prejudices.
Discontinuities in the progress of science
Living in the modern world with the improvements in material quality-of-life that we enjoy; we have become acclimatised to the idea of the constancy of progression. From our limited viewpoint, as we observe the present progress and forgetfully overlook the present retrogression; we comfortably presume that mankind has likewise been progressing in terms of culture, science and civilization at every locus in geography and history; and optimistically predict that this observed progression will continue indefinitely into the future. A brief examination of history will expose this self-deception, which is at once contradicted by observing that archaeology is considered “romantic” precisely because it comprises the rediscovery of ancient knowledge that has long-since been lost. Examples of lost ancient knowledge/expertise include:
- Extraordinarily sophisticated astronomical, navigational and calendrical knowledge demonstrated by the Greeks and certain Latin American cultures.
- Concrete technology as used by the Romans (a skill lost to mankind for 13 centuries).
- Pin tumbler locks, believed to have been used anciently in Egypt; reinvented by Linus Yale in 1860.
- Languages extinct from antiquity have been partially decoded through discoveries like the Rosetta Stone and through reconstructive forensic techniques.
- The Library of Alexandria was burnt and destroyed. The intellectual wealth from this library, which we know from ancient sources to have been very great, has mostly never been recovered.
“The scientists know everything”Another false assumption often made by the population at large is that if they don't know something, at least the scientists know the answer, and you can always go on Google or Wikipedia to find it out... Because scientists rarely promote fields of science in which they are not personally expert, and because unexplained data are rarely published in popular mass-media. The list of basic facts unknown to science includes some surprising entries. At the time of writing, we do not know:
- How heavy a kilogram is (if you want to know the answer to within eight significant decimal digits.) This is particularly surprising when considering that the standard kilogram is at the foundation of almost all modern scientific measurements.
- Why the Earth has a magnetic field (note conflicting evidences about the old Dynamo theory...)
- Unknown factors relating to the “Big Bang” theory:
- Whether the expansion of the Universe is accelerating or decelerating (or whether matter attracts or repels at the largest scale.) 2010 Addendum: There is an increasing consensus in the scientific world around the belief that the expansion of the Universe, between galaxies and clusters of galaxies, is actually accelerating. However, nobody really knows what might be causing this acceleration, which does not fit our current understanding of physics without some massive fudge-factors called “dark matter” and “dark energy”.
- How many “big bangs“ there have been, or how many “universes” still exist from such explosions.
- Whether or not the universe has a physical boundary; and if so, what shape it is. (This may be related to the number of physical dimensions.)
- How many dimensions there are at the smallest and largest scales of space and matter.
- How the Sun's power-output varies over time, and how this might affect weather on Earth. Certain things are known on this subject, but considering the amount of money spent & work done on nuclear physics, and the amount of supercomputer calculation power available to this discipline; it is surprising that so little is known about the workings of the Sun, a very near star that some of the greatest scientific minds and instruments observe continually.
Experience has shown, and theory suggests, that even once scientists have defined or discovered the answers to all of these questions, we will become aware of other questions, greater in number and scale, to which we still do not know the answers.
- As Stephen Hawking said recently,
- “We understand enormous amounts, but when asked how did it all come to be, we don't have one single answer. Yet.”
Certain questions may be firmly outside the scope of science
As C.S.Lewis explained in his book, “Miracles”; a miracle is precisely so called because it falls outside the scope of prior human experience; above the powers of human reasoning, beyond the powers of the human mind to explain it, or beyond the powers of human influence to repeat it... Yet many miracles are facts attested by numerous witnesses. What can Science say about such events as the resurrection of Christ? (The cynic may point the finger and call the numerous ancient witnesses a smokescreen for the lack of extant “scientific” evidence; yet this pointed finger does not in any way mitigate the inadequacy of Science in dealing with such questions; it only points three fingers back at the cynic, and makes the statement an admission of unwillingness to exercise faith in a belief that is perfectly harmless and quite beneficial so long as it is not mixed up with any religious fanaticism or bigotry.) As Science may be an inherently incomplete means of understanding the Universe, such questions about miraculous events (particularly where evidence is devoid of historical precedent or as-yet observable repetition) may be firmly outside the scope of science. Therefore, certain religious propositions may rightly be described as being “unscientific”; not because they cannot be true, but because science is inadequate to discuss them, or in other words, because believing such propositions requires additional faith.
The objectiveness of science - a compromised Gold Standard?
Many promote the myth that the scientific method is completely dispassionate, methodical, objective and impartial. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. Since the scientific method requires effort, and since scientists (like all human beings) need money to buy food and live; we may often observe that he who pays the piper gets to pick the tune; or in other words, scientists like everyone else are naturally biased in favour of their paymasters. Usually, those scientific studies are commenced first for which there is most fear-of-the-unknown, and those studies are completed first for which there is most urgent commercial interest.
Unfortunately, not all that masquerades as “science” is actually written by qualified scientists, and even that portion written by qualified scientists is not all the result of rigorously applied scientific method (which is the very reason why true scientists are so strongly in favour of peer-review.) The author knows personally of certain cases where scientifically unqualified businessmen motivated purely by profit-potential have boasted of writing “scientific white-papers” to surreptitiously give their products a competitive advantage in the marketplace, without ever doing any vaguely scientific research whatsoever into the efficacy of their claims; any more than is necessary to make their work look convincing. In an age of spin-doctors and “public relations” staff who perceive it as their job to get advertising space without paying for it; we should hardly find it surprising that this happens.
It is human nature (consistent with the author's personal experience) that wherever a gold-standard exists, someone will seek to debase and exploit that standard - and the “scientific” standard is no exception to this rule.
Reconciling scientific knowledge with common sense
Always check your sources. Far from being exempt from cross-examination; one of the greatest strengths of the scientific method is its openness to peer-review and cross-examination. We should apply to our rights and examine for ourselves the “scientific knowledge” presented to us, just as we would scrutinise any other kind of knowledge.
The scientific method converts hard work into a closer approach to the truth. A scientific experiment is a method of discerning the relative likelihood-of-truth of two or more physically testable hypotheses (judging that likelihood within the context of a closed physical subsystem.) A scientific debate is a method of attempting to reach consensus on the relative truth or falsehood of mutually exclusive propositions or theories; where the opposing parties agree to draw only upon supporting arguments within the scope of physically or logically discernible truth.
The scientific method IS a method of converting hard work into a closer approach to the truth. It is capable, in at least some cases, of convincingly demonstrating the superiority of one hypothesis over another, with respect to a system of physical or otherwise observable phenomena. It is one tool in a toolbox of methods. At best, it may help us to asymptotically “approach” absolute truth.
The scientific method is NOT the answer to all of humankind's problems, or the only valid method of making decisions. It is not a method of understanding all truth because certain truths may be completely outside the scope of science. Science is not a system of thought drawing religion, philosophy, personal counselling and everything else under its broad and expanding cloak; since although all truth must indeed be mutually consistent, “science” is not a synonym for “truth”. Scientific knowledge may merely be a subset of the knowledge available through a range of methods. While the scientific method may provide evidence for or against certain aspects of these fields, it can never provide absolute knowledge about all absolute truth, and cannot be rightly said to be “approaching” such absolute knowledge (as the word “approaching” is popularly understood), since science alone can never reach that point of absolute knowledge. The scientific method in general is fundamentally limited and its reach may never even be extended to encompass the outer limits of space, time or pure mathematics; let alone the “truth” in its grand entirety. The gaps between the outer reaches of Science and the ultimate limits of existence may only be accessible to general philosophy, religion or divine revelation; if they are accessible at all.
We may (or may not) want a crutch to sustain us, as human beings overawed by the universe (that vast environment amidst which we appear so obviously inadequate). We might want answers to existential questions, as we contemplate our impotence in averting death. The scientific method alone cannot sustain us in these obvious inadequacies; nor can we convincingly sustain ourselves through the naive predictions of “science-fiction”. We cannot afford to console ourselves in vain hopes of the complete mastery of science at any future date, through the application of scientific method alone.
The role of inspiration
What can plug the fundamental holes that must always exist in scientific knowledge? What can save us from excessive reliance on our inherently limited and biased observations? How do scientists get their ideas in the first place?
Thomas Alva Edison said,
- “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration... I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident. They came by work.”
In his moments of inspiration, Edison might well have identified with Archimides in his famous exclamation of “Eureka!” – After Archimedes had made significant effort to prepare his mind, the idea was impressed upon his mind suddenly, without compulsion; as inspiration from above. If Edison was right, that hard work constitutes 99% of the driving-force behind our creativity, we may not be surprised that certain scientists not fully attuned to recognizing inspiration may erroneously claim full credit for their invention; yet few scientists would presume to do this. Acclaimed scientists have often credited the inspiration of predecessors, inspiration from God, or both. Pragmatic effort is only part of the recipe that leads to scientific success. Perhaps therefore it was not merely as a nod to the most popular opinions of the day, and not merely for clever marketing; that Samuel Morse chose these words for his first telegraph message from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington D.C. on 24th May 1844 –
“What hath God wrought?” – So where exactly does this other part of “Genius” come from - this inspiration, to which Edison, Archimedes and Morse refer? Should we fully credit a succession of eminent men with the cumulative genius of the human race, or could God have a guiding hand in our progression?
Copyright Dušan Petricic. Used by kind permission of the artist.
Art originally published in the Scientific American magazine.
It is perhaps noteworthy that Edison did not completely discredit the value of inspiration, but credited someone or something higher than himself for a portion of the “Genius” of his inventions. It is the author's personal conviction that the gentle guiding hand of divine influence cumulatively steers mankind away from self-destruction and towards salvation, without interfering in the individual free-will of man; and that for the most part, God allows us the privilege and pleasure to discover knowledge for ourselves through our own hard work.
- A list of superseded scientific theories (Wikipedia)
- Elder Richard G. Scott (former nuclear scientist, now an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints); remarks on the scientific method of approaching absolute truth. Listen to mp3 audio or read text.
- ISBN: 978-0006280941: C.S.Lewis' “Miracles” (particularly Chapter 3; “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”).
Back to main menu
Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.
- Richard Feynman
© 2004-2016 Matthew Slyman