Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nobody Says Science Knows Everything

Disclosure: what follows was only partly written be me. Most of it was kludged together from other writers I cut and pasted from the internet over the past year. Unfortunately I have lost track of the original authors.

Nobody says science knows everything, but it is the only reliable way to know anything.

Mathematicians long ago proved that science can never know everything (Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem). Yet today, some theologians, new agers, and under informed pundits attempt to discredit science by pretending that science claims that it can know everything, proving only that they don’t know much at all about science or knowledge.

Few will admit that they prefer their religious account over its rivals because it's a better story than all the others - they always argue that their story is true. Yet the silly christian apologist who spouts something facile along the lines of "I believe in the genesis account because it is such a magnificent and awe-inspiring story" is really saying "I think that magnificence and awesomeness of narrative are what determines the truth value of a hypothesis".

We still follow the age-old quest. We still seek after the truth. But over the centuries we've developed and discovered ever more effective methods to determine what is true. Those methods are now called science. We have sharpened, refined and regularized how we approach the quest, and it has paid massive dividends. Not only are we closer to knowing what the world is really all about, we know a lot more about what it means to know, and how certain we can be in any of our knowledge.

Science is the only “way of knowing” that is self-reflective, that applies its methods to itself, that measures its own performance and uses the result to improve itself. If a religious story’s revealed truth conflicts with reality it is the apologists job to explain away the conflict, not to measure it and use it to improve the utility of the story. Acupuncturists never measure pain response vs. needle depth or position and publish updated pressure point maps. Applied kinesiologists explicitly deny the muscle changes they feel subjectively can be measured objectively. And so it goes with every system of knowledge that rejects natural laws.

Yes, scientific narratives should replace supernatural narratives in the minds of mankind - though they should replace them not because they are better stories but because they are actually true. We can still retain the religious narratives, ghost stories, and magical tales as evidence of the workings of the human mind and the history of cultural diversity, but in a very real sense they have failed utterly to do the job they were created for - explaining how the universe came to be the way it is and guiding us in getting the most from it as we build our lives.

The religious, new agers, psychics, and ghost whisperers will claim that gods, spirits, and ghosts exist outside the natural world (Steven Gould's non-overlapping magisteria). I'll concede the point. Science can only deal with the natural world, and it is the only reliable tool we have for examining the natural world. The supernatural, by definition, is not part of the natural world. Science is silent on anything and everything that is separate from the natural world. You can say anything you want about supernatural agents and realms, and science will not, cannot, contradict you. The problem is that sooner or later supernaturalists make statements about the natural world: prayers and/or spells work, ghosts can communicate with the living, the mind can move material objects, Tarot cards can predict the future, etc. Anything that affects the real world is subject to scientific investigation. And science, despite many efforts, has failed to verify a single effect that is not explained by natural means.

It is not true, as many supernatural apologists claim, that science is blind (close minded) to evidence that contradicts its laws and theories. The questioning of itself is a hallmark that distinguishes science from all other endeavors. Finding contrary evidence and proving existing models wrong is an acheivement that makes careers and advances knowledge. The same people who claim science is closed minded also claim that science is unreliable because it is always changing. It can't be both, and the fact that it is constantly improving by adapting to new evidence is one source of its great success in explaining the natural world.

Nobody says science knows everything, but it is the only reliable way to know anything.

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