In a comment to my last post timothya asked “Can anyone provide a brief synopsis of a reliable way of knowing that is founded on a method other than science?”
That timothya would even ask such a question suggests that he is sore tempted by the siren’s song of scientism. To which I say, “lash yourself to the mast timothya, and let me help you sail past this dangerous island.”
Before we can deal with the manifold errors of scientism we must first define what we are talking about. “Scientism” is the idea that science provides the only valid way to know any truth. Some scientists have stretched the idea even further and asserted that since we can know truth only through science, science is therefore the only competent authority on any subject. For example, the article cited in my last post refers to Peter Atkins, who wrote, “There appear to be no bounds to [science’s] competence. . . . This claim of universal competence may seem arrogant, but it appears to be justified.”
It is, of course, true that in the last 400 years science has been wildly successful within its realm of competency. In that relatively brief period through the methods of science we have expanded our knowledge about the world and increased our material comfort in ways unimaginable in the rest of recorded history combined. There is no denying that.
The problem is that the very brilliance of science’s success has blinded people like Atkins to the limitations of the scientific method. Properly understood, science is simply a method of investigating empirical claims that has not changed much since the time of Francis Bacon (ca 1600):
Ask a question about the world: How can I cure this disease?
Formulate a hypothesis: Vaccine X will cure this disease.
Test the prediction of the hypothesis: Perform a double-blind experiment on 5,000 subjects.
Analysis: Compare the prediction of the null hypothesis to the alternative hypothesis.
The first limitation I would point out is that this method does not cover even the whole realm of the “empirical.” Consider history for example. We know with a high degree of reliability that Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States in 1863. I did not arrive at this knowledge through scientific means. I know it because someone told me, and they in turn learned it from someone else, who in turn learned it from someone else back to the actual people who witnessed first-hand a man who called himself “Abraham Lincoln” sitting in the White House in 1863 and acting for all the world like he was the president of the United States.
Consider geography. I have never been to Russia, but I am quite certain that Moscow is the capital of that country. I did not arrive at this knowledge through scientific means either.
If timothya will stop and think a moment, he will realize that practically everything he knows he knows because someone told him, not because the truth of the proposition has been confirmed by science.
Even some knowledge that is almost universally considered “scientific” was not, strictly speaking, obtained through application of the scientific method. Consider Neo-Darwinian Evolution (“NDE”), the standard model of how life diversified and spread throughout the earth. NDE is an integration of Darwin’s original theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics. And I am here to tell you that many of the predictions of NDE – including especially its most spectacular claims – have never been (indeed cannot be) subjected to experimental verification.
For example, NDE holds that new body plans result from the accretion of random changes to the genome (whether through mutations or drift or what have you) sorted through a fitness function called “natural selection.” It might come as a surprise to many of my readers, but this prediction of NDE has NEVER been verified experimentally despite countless thousands of attempts (primarily on hapless fruit flies). Let me say that again: No scientist has EVER observed in real time a new body plan coming into existence through a process of random changes to the genome sorted by natural selection.
“What about Darwin’s finches and those white and gray moths and the rise of antibacterial resistance I’ve heard about?” you might ask. Fair question. We absolutely must give Darwin his due. These and other examples of “microevolution” have been observed countless times. But it is one thing to say, for example, that the average size of finch beaks increases in times of famine due to the processes of NDE. It is something altogether different to say that finches themselves came into being in the first place through the processes of NDE. The former statement has been confirmed experimentally. The latter has not. Rather, the latter statement is the product of an inference – i.e., NDE causes small changes to organisms; therefore NDE causes big changes to organisms too.
Note that it is not my purpose here to argue that NDE’s claims about how new body plans came into existence are necessarily wrong (though I think they are) simply because those claims have not been confirmed by direct observation through scientific experiments. My point is that evolutionary biology, as an historical science, is based not on strict application of the scientific method. Instead, it is based on inferences from the data (an extrapolation if you will) that are themselves not subject to scientific verification in the form of direct observation.
Here are some other indisputably true things (or in timothya’s parlance “things we know reliably”) that were not derived through application of the scientific method:
The principles of logic
For any given proposition X, X cannot be both true and false at the same time and under the same formal circumstances.
The law of non-contradiction cannot be proven or disproven experimentally. It is known a priori.
The principles of mathematics
7 + 2 = 9.
Like the axioms of logic, mathematics is known a priori.
The principles undergirding the scientific enterprise itself
This one might surprise someone like timothya who is tempted by scientism, but the assumptions upon which the scientific enterprise itself is built are not subject, even in principle, to scientific verification or falsification.
For example, scientists assume (they do not know) that scientific laws (e.g., gravity) operate the same way in the furthest reaches of the universe as they do here on earth. Obviously, there is no way to confirm this assumption experimentally and it will forever remain an assumption, not an experimentally verified fact.
Scientists assume the universe is always and in all places rational and therefore it can be successfully modeled. Water runs downhill today and it will run downhill tomorrow. It will not suddenly start running uphill. In other words, scientists assume that the regularities they observe (which they call “laws of science”) will hold. No scientist can say “why” water runs downhill other than to say that gravity makes water run downhill. But the law of gravity is not a causal agent. Rather, it is an observed regularity. In other words, in 100% of the experiments on earth, water has run downhill, and from that we infer a general principle that things on earth always fall down and we call that general principle “gravity.” Thus, saying that water runs downhill because of the law of gravity is at bottom saying nothing more than water runs downhill because water runs downhill. Chesterton was right. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.
I love my wife. My knowledge of my love for my wife is completely reliable; yet I did not arrive at that knowledge through the methods of science.
It is wrong to torture infants for pleasure. The truth of this statement is utterly reliable and timothya knows this even if he refuses to admit it. Neither he nor I arrived at our utterly certain knowledge of the truth of this statement through scientific means.
I could go on, but I think the point is clear enough by now. Science is amazingly successful within its sphere. But the truth uncovered by science reveals only a portion of the truth that is out there, and the claims of the “universal competence” of science are wild exagerations pushed by scientists who want to be high priests of a secular church.