The discussion up to now has been based on a couple of closely-tied assumptions. We assume that there are fundamental rules that nature follows and that there is only one real way that nature is and that nature operates. There are rules and nature (the physical world) always follows them. If we did not assume that, then it would be a waste of time to try to understand nature. These assumptions are discussed more fully in the scientific method chapter.
Explanations and theories that correctly predict new results from new observations or experiments bring us closer to a true understanding of nature and the rules by which it operates. This true understanding of nature is what I call ``scientific truth'' in this text to distinguish it from other definitions of truth as in religious truth, for example. Scientific truths are based on clear observations of physical reality and can be tested through observation. Certain religious truths are held to be true no matter what. That is okay as long as it is not considered to be a scientific truth. Some things like love, honor, honesty, and compassion are known to be right or true without the test of experiments. Confusion between the religious and scientific types of explanation has been, and still continues to be, a major source of a huge amount of conflict between some people.
Another source of friction between science and religion is when science proponents confuse "absence of evidence" with "evidence of absence". The process or methodology of science restricts itself to natural causes. Scientists limit themselves to just matter, energy, and their interactions. This does not necessarily mean that scientists deny the existence of God or of things beyond the physical realm because they understand the self-imposed limitation of the scientific method. Science can never prove the existence of God nor can science ever disprove the existence of God. Yes, it is possible to be a scientist and a devout member of a spiritual faith---I know of many scientists who are serious practitioners of their religion. In fact, several significant advancements in science were made by clergy. In the astronomy history chapter you will find several examples of scientists who were guided by their spiritual faith. A couple of other examples not mentioned in that chapter are Gregor Mendel (the Austrian monk whose research with pea plants became the foundation of genetics) and Georges Lemaitre (the Belgian Roman Catholic priest who developed the Big Bang theory from Einstein's General Relativity). Not all scientists are believers in a spiritual faith just as not all non-scientists are believers in a spiritual faith. For more of my views on the compatibility between religion and science, see my Science-Religion Interface Resources site (this is not part of the Astronomy Notes textbook).
Since this is a science textbook, I will focus on the scientific type of explanations. Whether or not you, the reader, chooses to believe what is discussed here is up to you. However, I want you to understand the physical principles discussed here and be able to apply them to various situations. The scientific method for finding scientific truth is discussed in more depth in the scientific method chapter. See also the American Association for the Advancement of Science's brief overview of the process of science in the first chapter of the Project 2061 called "The Nature of Science" (link appears in a new window).
Go back to previous section -- Go to next section
last updated: January 22, 2014