Because Science!

The Flaws of Viewing Science as a Source of Truth

            The very existence of science is founded on the presupposition of rationality in nature. Before modern science, such a rational worldview was not easily attainable due to the insertion of spiritual or philosophical views that often countered such rational pursuits. Astrology and the actions of a pantheon of deities were often the regular explanations for phenomena, but that eventually changed. With the rise of Christianity in Europe came a changing of the tide. Mankind no longer used such outlandish explanations to explain things in the natural world; instead, we see a shift towards rational thought. The foundations of Christian faith laid the groundwork for the assumption that the cosmos was indeed functioning logically and that our ability to rationally think was further evidence towards the conclusion that nature could be known and understood through rational means, not appeals to the unseen whims of the gods or spiritual feelings of the objects in question. The rise of rational thought has laid the foundations for the philosophical view of realism, upon which most of modern science now stands. The following essay intends to show why realism is so closely tied to scientific thought and how it should be properly used.

I. The Rise of Rational Science

            Contrary to the common misconception found permeating our modern culture, modern science and religion are not at war with each other; rather, what we call science today is necessarily the child of a particular religious foundation in Christianity. Instead of opposites, science and religion have marched hand and hand from the start until modern times, when naturalists have done their best to force a rift between the two.

            While many assume that modern science is the offspring of the classical Greek and Roman philosophies, we find that it actually was a seed planted and watered by the Christian worldview. Historian of science Rodney Stark investigated these origins in his book For the Glory of God.

…The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: Nature exists because it was created by God. To love and honor God, one must fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork. Moreover, because God is perfect, his handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, we ought to be able to discover these principles.[1]

The nature of God is as revealed in Christianity laid the foundations for scientific thought. Unlike some of the previously followed deities, the great I Am was not one to change based upon emotional mood or whimsical want; no, the God revealed in the Bible was unchanging. His actions therefore could not be attributed to random acts of passion, anger, lust, or any typical human emotional response. This leads us directly to the assumption that anything done by such a creator would have a reason behind it. The believers in Christianity logically took this to mean that our powers of rational thought were placed in us by our maker so that we would be able to investigate creation with the ability to understand it and be amazed at the works of God. It was on this foundation that modern science bloomed into the rationally comprehensive tool we use today.

II. Realism Defined

            What is realism and how does it relate to our view of scientific progress? Scientific Realism, roughly defined in terms of science, “holds that science progressively secures true, or approximately true, theories about the real, theory-independent world “out there” and does so in a rationally justifiable way.”[2] The basic assumption of realism in science is that science can indeed be an accurate way to understand truths in the world. Science, in this view, is typically the literal pursuit of truth or approximate truths.

            Rational realism is by far the majority view among scientists. Even those that point to a relationship between science and Christianity typically hold to such views. The problem with the second stance is when faith and science disagree. Which is the truth in such a situation? Should we be claiming that science is wrong when clashing with religion, or should religious concepts be the ones that need to change? It all gets down to the proper understanding of the relationships of science, religion and truth.

III. What is Truth?

            Our postmodern culture has tarnished Truth’s sparkling reputation. It has become the “cuttlefish” of concepts, constantly changing its colors and textures to adapt to the environment around it. It is all too frequently heard referred to as “my truth” or “your truth.” Such statements assume that our personal experiences and personal feelings can decide the truthfulness of something. For example, one moral truth could supposedly be right for me, but I cannot assume it is right for others in the same way. Such naiveté is palpable.

            The truth simply cannot be relative like the postmodernists claim. Logically, such an interpretation is a blatant contradiction. The Oxford Dictionary defines truth as “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.”[3] The claim that truth is relative is in itself a contradiction, owing to the fact that such a statement is an assertion of absolute truth.

            This becomes a problem for realism in science. Can science be considered truth? Science, by nature, is limited in scope. It is constantly discovering new things and building our knowledge of the universe, but we cannot call its discoveries truths since truth is absolute. Scientific discoveries do indeed point us towards the best possible explanations, but claiming that those explanations are truth means that it is absolute and unchallengeable. If any aspect of scientific discovery is not open to challenge or refutation, then it is, by definition, no longer science. Science by design must be open to critique and the addition of new knowledge. Until we have gleaned all knowledge from the universe, we cannot make absolute truth statements about things discovered empirically.

            Realism often employs another form of truth (be it actually different or simply semantic gymnastics) known as the approximate truth, or verisimilitude. Instead of making absolute truth claims, those suggesting approximate truth would be comparing theories for relative truthfulness. Moreland was helpful in clarifying this.

Theory A has greater verisimilitude than theory B if and only if A is more approximately true than B. Theories can increase in verisimilitude; that is, they can increase in the degree that they are approximately true. If the notion of verisimilitude can be adequately spelled out, then rational realists are claiming not that our current theories are the final truth of the matter but only that scientific progress is measured in growth in verisimilitude.[4]

Based upon the concept of verisimilitude, we can supposedly avoid the snare of calling scientific discoveries absolute truth by simply measuring competing hypotheses against each other to find which is approximately closer to the truth.

            The real problem here is that anything with the title of “truth,” including approximate truth, must be absolute. Truth does not travel in degrees, but either is or is not true. This seems a bit problematic to say the least for this concept of verisimilitude.

IV. Will the Real Truth Please Stand Up?

             Even when we trip up on our abilities to accurately discern the truths of reality, we cannot logically deny the existence of truth. Just like the contradicting paradoxical statement “truth is relative,” the similar claim that “there is no truth” is equally self-defeating due to the fundamental truth assertions in the statement. With this alone, we must conclude that truth does actually exist. The million-dollar question would then be “where can we find truth?” If only that was indeed a million dollar question, since I could seriously use the cash.

            The postmodernist would again say that truth comes from inside us. Our experiences and our feelings decide what is true to us. Shallow as this seems, it is a far too commonly held view; however, it simply cannot be so. For example, take two different individuals form different walks of life with dissimilar experiences. If one claims that his experience tells him that A is true, not B, what can we say when the second person says that B is true, not A? What happens when the personal truths contradict each other? If one person claims that they are a woman trapped in a man’s body, while the other asserts that such a thing is not biologically possible and instead a mental disorder, which do we assume has the truth? If they are exact opposites, it is impossible for them to both be true. Truth cannot be both true and false simultaneously. Clearly, we cannot rely on our own personal perspectives to be the measuring rod for truth. Truth must come from something external to our temperamental feelings.

            As mentioned before, modern science stems from the rise of Christian thought in Europe. What did such a worldview have to say on the topic of truth? From the Christian perspective, God must be the source of all truths. He created the cosmos, so reality is literally molded by his will and wisdom. Moral laws and physical laws alike share their origins in God. He is unchanging; therefore his creation is not the haphazard makings of an emotional being out of anger, spite or some other human emotion. Is creation is the outpouring of his of order, logic, and wisdom. Since mankind has been given an almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge and rational thought, we can assume, based upon this understanding of a rational creator making both us and creation, that the cosmos is designed to be known by rational means.

            If creation is full of order and design and we are endowed with the capacity to rational thought, it takes no genius to conclude that the quest after knowledge about the cosmos and how it works—aka science—must also be a rational pursuit. If reality is designed to be knowable, then realism is a logical means with which to explore it.

V. Return to an Approximation of Approximate Truth

            Thus far, a few things have been established:

  1. Truth exists.
  2. Truth is absolute.
  3. As fallible humans, our sciences cannot be considered truth.
  4. The unchanging creator is the most logical source of truth.
  5. Creation is rational, so the pursuit of comprehension of its inner workings must also be rational.
  6. Therefore, science is rational, but cannot be considered truth.

This might seem to be a stalemate to some. Antirealists definitely think so. After all, science cannot be truth, so how can it really be a useful pursuit of the nature of reality?

            Instead of pushing the view of science as source of truth, what if we simply considered it a tool that helps us discover the most likely nature of the universe? In many ways, this is similar to verisimilitude, but without automatically assuming any truth claims. With the separation from truth, we can get as far as claiming, “this is the best we can do with the data we have right now.”

Geocentrism was once the dominant view in the civilized world. All the data did indeed seem to show the Sun moving around the Earth. Even when Copernicus presented his radical concept of heliocentrism, the data was not there to prove it above and beyond that of geocentrism. For a span of time, there was data that could back both models, yet not negate either. Both could not be true, so more data was required. With the improvement of the telescope by Galileo, new phenomena were finally confirmed, such as the phases of Venus and moons orbiting other planets, and the geocentric view gave way to the heliocentric model. Is the heliocentric model 100% accurate? We have no idea. If we were to find new data from new phenomena, we could at least alter the current models. That is the nature of science: it must remain open to debate and open to change.

This view of science is similar to the nature of a graphed asymptote. As seen in the figure below, asymptotes are always getting closer to the x and y axis without ever touching it.

Graphed on Cartesian coordinates. The x and y-axes are the asymptotes.[5]

What if science was acting like an asymptote as it approaches the x or y? What if we treat truth as the axis? We constantly desire to get closer, yet know that we cannot actually touch it with our current trajectory. Should not this model of science still give us a model of reality that gives a “more likely than not” scenario? With this mentality, we can still maintain science as a useful tool, yet still be able to avoid the philosophical pitfalls of making truth claims about the conclusions we draw.

VI. Inference to the Best Explanation

            A real life example of this “asymptotic” rational science can be found as a fundamental methodology for the historical sciences. Geology, paleontology, archaeology, and even forensic investigation all use a method of extrapolation that philosopher of science Dr. Stephen C. Meyer calls the “inference to the best explanation.”

Recent work on the method of “inference to the best explanation” suggests that determining which among a set of competing possible explanations constitutes the best depends upon assessments of the causal powers of competing explanatory entities.[6]

Unlike in laboratory sciences like chemistry and physics, the historical sciences cannot be easily replicated, if it is even possible at all. The Big Bang event is an obvious example. It is doubtful a scientist would even want to trigger such an event even if they could! Yet, how then can we draw conclusions about the legitimacy of such models without being able to duplicate them? Clearly, this inference to the best explanation is used to compare hypotheses that attempt to answer the same phenomenon and decide which has the best explanatory power. Some used to theorize that the universe was eternal, and others suggested that it fluctuated in a rubber banding type back and forth movement. Our best explanations through physics, using the data we have before us pushes towards the conclusion that the universe indeed had a beginning and it started from a central point. Is this conclusion of how the universe began truth? We are simply unable to know except that it is a logical and rational conclusion on the nature of phenomena in reality. This form of realism is likely the best means of understanding the universe science will ever be able to achieve.

VII. Realism Concluded

            For science to remain as the perceptibly useful methodology for comprehending the nature of phenomena, realism is the best possible philosophy. Science must be founded upon the ability to rationally understand nature, and we as intricately rational beings have been instilled with a hunger for knowledge. Our studies in science, however, must be tempered with the humility of seeing such pursuits the way they should: likely explanations, but not absolute truths. Our conclusions must remain like the asymptote line: always getting closer to the true goal, but never assuming we have reached that goal already. This way, science can still maintain its usefulness while avoiding falling into a dogmatic nature.

Work Cited

  • Stark, Rodney. For the glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery. Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Moreland, J.P. Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation. Baker Books, 1989.
  • Meyer, Stephen C.  DNA by Design: An Inference to the Best Explanation for the Origin of Biological Information. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 4, Special Issue on the Intelligent Design Argument (Winter 1998), pp. 519-556 Published by: Michigan State University Press.

[1] Stark, Rodney. For the glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery. Princeton University Press, 2015, 157.

[2] Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science, 139.

[3] Oxford Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/truth

[4] Moreland, 149

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asymptote

[6] Meyer, Stephen C.  DNA by Design: An Inference to the Best Explanation for the Origin of Biological Information. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 4, Special Issue on the Intelligent Design Argument (Winter 1998), pp. 519-556 Published by: Michigan State University Press. 546

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