Ways of Finding the Truth

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Some science critics claim that science is absolute and dogmatic in terms of how it approaches the best way of knowing something. Much of our personal knowledge is based upon testimony. Someone may tell me that Bogus Basin, just 30 minutes from Boise, ID, has great skiing. If I believe this even though I have only skied at Snoqualmie or Stevens Pass, my belief is based on testimony. Sometimes the testimony is based on authority, as would be the case if an Olympic gold medalist told me about Bogus Basin. Many religions claim that revelation is a valid method of knowing, whereby important truths about life, impossible to find out any other way, are disclosed to human beings by a divine being or God. Mystics, in general, claim that after years of special training it is possible to know some very important things about life and the universe ``intuitively'' or in a mystical vision while in a deep state of meditation. Mystical visions are not necessarily revelation, because the visions not only involve personal effort and training but also do not necessarily involve divine aid or God.

Science's Way of Finding the Truth

Science assumes the position of empiricism, because observational experience is necessary, either indirectly via robot sensors and cameras or directly through human senses to understand the physical universe. The experience must be objective and communicable or describable in public language. Another way of knowing often opposed to empiricism, but historically greatly influenced by the discovery and development of mathematics, is called rationalism. The rationalist has a great faith in the logical power of the human mind and is skeptical about the universal validity of our observational perceptions. Some things are so clear logically or mathematically that we just know that they are true, like the absence of round squares on the dark side of the Moon. We know that round squares are impossible. The rationalist believes that we can know some things about life ahead of time, so to speak; we can know some things that no conceivable experience will contradict.

It is difficult for many people today to imagine that the Earth is moving and not the Sun. We do not experience ourselves moving at 1,000 miles per hour; instead we ``observe'' the Sun to move. That a belief is inconsistent with our common observational experience is not by itself a conclusive argument that it is false. Empirical scientists do believe in the ability of the human mind to figure things out. Any fundamental inconsistency between common sense and reason is seen as nature's way of taunting us, of revealing one of her important secrets. The confidence in the logical and mathematical powers of human thinking has been a key ingredient in the development of modern science.

Theory Must Agree With Reality

The modern scientific method synthesizes rationalism and empiricism. The logic of the rationalist is combined with the observational experience of the empiricist. There is an overwhelming consensus, though, that empiricism is the main emphasis. No matter how much logical deduction and mathematical analysis is used, at some point the world must be checked for the confirmation of a belief. Historically, however, spurred on by the power of mathematics and the tendency to conclude that we know something even though complete empirical observations are not available, rationalism has played both a constructive and creative role in development of science. The criticism of those who are too rationalistic and who create ivory-tower fantasies from speculative logic, overlooks the fact that many great discoveries have been made by scientists sitting at desks, following the elegant trails of mathematical equations. Creative ideas are the result of a complex web of influences. The key is to have ideas with which to make connections.

Of course, not all ideas are fruitful in making connections. Nor have great scientists been immune from detrimental rationalistic tendencies. Tycho Brahe was the best observational astronomer of the sixteenth century. Mathematically, he knew that one of the implications of his extremely accurate observations of planetary motions was that the Sun was the center of motion of all the planets, which further implied that the universe was very large and that the stars were an immense distance away. He could not bring himself to accept this radical conclusion, however, and accepted instead a more traditional view for his time because God would not be foolish to ``waste'' all that space!

Johannes Kepler, who used Tycho's data to finally solve the problem of planetary motion, was motivated by his belief that the Sun was the most appropriate object to be placed in the center of the universe because it was the material home or manifestation of God. Galileo, in spite of his brilliant astronomical observations and terrestrial experiments, failed to see the importance of Kepler's solution of planetary motion because it did not involve using perfect circles for the motion of the planets.


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last updated: June 1, 2007

Is this page a copy of Strobel's Astronomy Notes?

Author of original content: Nick Strobel