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You Want the Truth?

In recent discussions I have often encountered the question of what is the best way to establish the truth. Generally this question is used as a cover for religious people to reject the findings of science because they claim science can’t discover certain types of truth and that alternative methods must be employed instead.

Before even examining that issue we must face the problem of is there really a thing called “truth” anyway? Maybe there is no truth at all (a type of epistemological or ontological nihilism), or maybe there are multiple truths depending on your philosophical approach (relativism), or maybe there is a truth but we can never know it for sure (classical skepticism).

Philosophers can debate these problems of epistemology for as long as they like. I fully understand that we can never be totally sure about anything regarding the nature of reality but I prefer to take a more pragmatic approach. We all act as if there is a reality and that we can know it to some extent so let’s keep the whole debate reasonable and start with the assumption that there is an underlying reality and that we can know something about it even if we can never fully understand it.

The scientific method has emerged over the last couple of hundred years as the way to do this, at least in my opinion, but not according to everyone as we will see later. This method is basically a cycle of formulating an hypothesis to test, creating an experiment (using appropriate blinding, baseline testing, controls, etc) or making an observation to test the hypothesis, carefully examining the results, writing up the method and conclusions in a formal way, having other people repeat the experiment, and looking for consistent outcomes and establishing theories based on those.

I would assert that the method works for two reasons: first, it just simply makes sense that it should because careful formulation, testing, and repetition is just naturally a logical way to proceed; and second, it gets results.

Yes, science does get results. We can look at the outcome of science-based interventions such as antibiotics and see the effectiveness, but look at the outcome of other processes based on alternative worldviews (such as religion, spirituality, etc) and you will see a mixture of good, bad, and inconclusive results (the efficacy of prayer would be a good example) which is generally a sign that there is no real effect.

There is a criticism of what I have just said however. That is that I am proposing using a scientific testing regime to test both science and other systems. Is that fair? Maybe not.

But now I get to the core question in this blog entry. That is: what is the alternative? If anyone disagrees with the scientific method then I would like to hear them propose something better. When I challenge someone this way I usually don’t get an answer at all and if I do get an answer it usually makes very little sense.

For example someone might suggest that faith is a good alternative. OK, let’s look at that idea. Faith is a belief in something without good supporting evidence. How do I decide which thing to believe? For example, if it is a religion then how do I decide which religion to have faith in? Many people will say it obviously has to be Christianity but that is just a consequence of being born in a country with where Christianity is the dominant religion. If I asked the same question in Saudi Arabia I would be told Islam is the obvious answer, or in India I might be encouraged to follow Hinduism.

This does not sound like a good way to establish a real, objective truth, because it depends so much on totally arbitrary starting parameters. Is the truth different depending on which religion is popular in the country you were born in?

Another possible solution is to look at the contents of the belief system in question and see if they fit the facts. But this isn’t faith any more, is it? In fact taking the ideas of a belief system and testing them sounds more like science! Unfortunately when you do this in every case the belief system is found to be severely lacking in which case it is necessary to revert to faith. So around and around the old circular logic roundabout we go!

If anyone believes in something based on faith we can almost immediately assume it is untrue because if faith is necessary to support something you can be fairly sure that it has failed all the real reality tests and faith is the only option left.

But what about revealed knowledge? The sort of thing found in holy books, like the BIble. Exactly the same criticism applies. Which holy book should we choose? And if we use real scientific investigation to test these books why do they always fail?

So let’s move beyond religious answers and look at other alternatives. What about philosophy? Well I have a lot of regard for philosophy but so much of it (not all) is somewhat pointless because it is untestable. If a number of philosophical theories are devised and there is no way to distinguish which is true then what is the point? I would suggest that the value of these theories is somewhat limited.

So now it all gets back to my second reason for supporting science: it gets results. Look back at the history of civilisation. Where has almost all of our real progress come from? Is it from religion, or philosophy or science (and its natural end result, technology)? I think if anyone was truly honest they would agree that science is the system which has produced the real results.

So there’s an open challenge to everyone. If you really think science has problems and is imperfect (it is) and you want to reject it based on that then tell me what is better. Whatever flaws science has I would claim it is much better than anything else we have. If you disagree let’s hear your better idea!

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  1. March 5, 2013 at 12:44 am

    While I much prefer scientific explanations over religion, science is itself a form of religion – the belief that the mind can observe the unknowable by looking at the knowable. Besides, science by definition is unsettled so what they say today will inevitably be changed tomorrow.

  2. ojb42
    March 5, 2013 at 12:51 am

    No, sorry, but you’re wrong about everything! :) Science is not a form of religion in the real sense: “religion (noun) the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods”. Does that sound like science? And I agree that *some* science will change in the future but it’s still by far the best explanation we have of the real world. The challenge still stands: name something better!

  3. March 5, 2013 at 2:05 am

    Let me play Devil’s advocate (so to speak). Metaphysical naturalism, despite it’s variety, maintains at heart that our concepts and other mental experiences are derivative and descriptive. Number theory, for example, is derived from observation of identity among perceptual objects. The perceptual objects are basic. But why do we perceive them so? That is a more difficult issue.
    To many religious people, that issue is too troubling. They feel that our concepts and mental experiences must be primary in order for us to make sense of our perceptions. This is a feeling they have, admittedly. However it is not a totally irrational feeling as it does have a basis in the question above. Given this perspective on what is primary, it is easy to see how people might reach the conclusion that there is a mind of minds wherein all these basic mental elements reside.
    The problems with the latter view are too great for me. I think it leads inevitably to some flavor of substance dualism, which seems an indefensible position. Physicalism has its issues, but they come in the form of loose ends instead of dead ends. The loose ends remain, however, and we shouldn’t be surprised that some folks prefer the other set of problems. I say all this to the exclusion of those who are fearful, stupid or plain, bat-shit crazy and subsequently just ignore such matters. Lot of that going around, too.

  4. ojb42
    March 5, 2013 at 2:26 am

    Yes, well as I said in the blog entry, philosophers can play the game about what we can really know and what is the true nature of reality forever. I said I prefer to take pragmatic approach even though I know that ultimately it cannot be strictly justified. So yes, I agree with your comments in some ways. But I don’t think that’s the reason any religious person I have ever debated with rejects science. They have far less sophisticated reasons: it disagrees with their superstitious beliefs!

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