Is the Scientific Method the Only Way to Truth?

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Must science assume some ideas dogmatically? Must we assume that the scientific method, a synthesis of reason and experience, is the only avenue to truth? The mystics claim that some simple acts of knowing cannot be described by an objective language. Consider the experience of seeing a death on the highway. Does a cold scientific description, ``the cause of the cessation of bodily function was due to a rapid deceleration,'' accurately convey the truth? What about our own deaths? There seems to be much more to the truth that we will die someday than can be described in the statement ``I am mortal.'' Are there subjective truths that cannot be described in an objective language?

Ideas Change, Physical Laws Do Not

Most scientists today accept an assumption that can be traced to the ancient Greeks: Whatever they are, the basic truths of the universe are ``laws'' that do not change—only our ideas about them do. Scientific objectivity presupposes that there is one truth, a collective truth, and our personal beliefs or the beliefs of scientists of a particular time either match these truths or they do not. Most scientists assume that beliefs about what is real do not affect what is real. Truth results only when our beliefs about what is real correspond to what is real.

Perception Changes Reality?

This traditional assumption may not, however, be essential to science. Some quantum physicists have proposed that the points of view implied by our experiments can affect the nature of reality: instead of assuming that there is only reality, there can be ``complementary'' realities. And reputable physicists and medical researchers are not only reexamining this traditional scientific assumption, but also are wondering candidly if a person's state of mind may have a bearing on whether he or she is prone to diseases such as cancer and whether cures and remissions are possible using a mental therapy. The belief that there is only one reality can itself be subjected to scientific scrutiny. There could be multiple realities or none at all! Even if controversial, these ideas are at least discussed.

Value of Examining Assumptions

Although we may be caught at any given time within a web of many assumptions, science at its best does not rely on many assumptions. Science also assumes that the more we think critically about our beliefs, the more likely we are to know the truth. There are cynics, however, who believe that critical thinking is not a marvelous human characteristic at all. They argue that critical thinking makes life more complicated and distracts us from discovering the simple solutions to life's problems. There are also nihilists who argue that our so-called intelligence and our ability to be aware of the details of the universe are an evolutionary dead end, that far from producing the good life, our awareness and rationality are the cause of our craziness.

Defenders of science often argue that even if some assumptions are necessary in the application of scientific method, these assumptions are validated by the record of success. However, there is a major logical problem with this justification. It simply raises the problem of induction again. It is circular reasoning to attempt to vindicate inductive reasoning by asserting that so far inductive reasoning has worked, because this vindication itself is an inductive argument. It is logically possible for the scientific method to completely fail tomorrow even though it has been successful for centuries. Is it reasonable to continue to believe in the scientific method as helpful for our future? Can science be self-corrective? Philosophers believe these abstract questions are important because they are intimately related to our more personal concerns about who we are, where we have come from, and what may be in store for us in terms of the survival of our species on this fragile fragment of the universe.

Peer Review

It is possible to arrive at various interpretations of the same data or facts and to develop various explanations of the underlying causes at work. Our culture, egos, and personal beliefs provide a filter through which we interpret the data and develop explanations. Because scientists have a "realism" perspective and because culture and egos can affect the interpretations of the data, scientists are willing to have their ideas and explanations closely examined and tested by others, particularly by their peers, in a process called "peer review". "[Science] values testability and critical evaluation, because thus far it appears that the more we think critically about our beliefs, the more likely we are to know the truth" (Pine, ch 2). Peer review works best if the ones who critically analyze an explanation have an alternate explanation and try to poke holes in the other person’s explanation. (Sometimes that "poking" is pretty brutal!) This peer review happens at science conferences and in the pages of science journals. A scientist will not try to have his/her opinion advanced by political means or legislated by politicians.


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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