The Invisible Things

Articles in Apologetics

Science and Faith, Part 1 (Is Science the Only Way to Truth?)

with 6 comments

If you have been at all aware of the recent surge of controversy surrounding the concept of intelligent design in science, you've probably encountered the argument that such a concept should not be considered science at all, on the basis that it is itself unprovable by science. What that really means is that using the operative standard of the scientific method, the claim that the universe is far too complex to have formed from chance and random processes cannot be verified emprically.

The scientific method outlines what Isaac Newton believed to be the proper way to go about scientific research and investigation, and can be simplified in this way:

  1. Observation
  2. Hypothesis, or developing a possible explanation of observations
  3. Prediction, or reasoning the effect of the hypothesis
  4. Experimentation, or testing the observation, hypothesis, and predictions.

While many would affirm that this is the only valid method of scientific inquiry, the truth is that some of the core scientific ideas that serve as the foundation of much current science cannot be verified by the scientific method! For example, the Big Bang theory attempts to answer questions of the origin of the universe and suggests that the universe itself expanded from an initial singularity and infinitely dense state, before which was nothing. Yet, such a theory cannot be demonstrated by recreating the process in a laboratory; it is inferred on the basis of compelling observed evidence. I am not trying to imply here that the scientific method is not valid. Clearly it is a fair and logical process by which to operate, and should be used. What I would suggest is that it is not a primary means of establishing truth. In other words, truth is a concept too large and diverse to be limited by the scientific method. In fact, there are many truths that are not scientific in nature but are accepted and even serve as the basis of scientific investigation, yet cannot be proven empirically. Such truths range from the laws of logic to metaphysics.

Ethics are a particulary good example of this idea. Scientific empiricism is quite useful in determining the how things are, but is irrelevant to determining how things aught to be. Yet, at the core of scientific inquiry is the understanding that it aught to be carried out honestly. Recently, Dr. Woo Suk Hwang of Korea has been publicly lambasted for fabricating research in the area of stem cell research and cloning. He publicly admitted to this, stating in his apology that his actions were a 'blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country,' and a 'criminal act in academia.' Clearly, honesty is a crucial element to scientific research, and without it the entire field would descend into meaninglessness. However, science cannot provide any data to lend credence to what is ethically appropriate in experimentation. This is a question of what is morally proper conduct for those involved in scientific inquiry and practice. If one were to deny that ethical truth even exists, then there cannot really be any problem with what Dr. Hwang has done.

The area of aesthetics provides another source of non-scientific truth. Our civilization has been overwhelmingly occupied with expressions of aesthetic value, with painting, sculpting, music, poetry, film, architecture, etc. Yet, without the notion of aesthetic truth, the entire field of art criticism would collapse. A skeptic might respond by saying, 'There is no aesthetic truth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!' But disagreement does not invalidate the idea that there is aesthetic truth. In fact, that critics might disagree on the value of a particular painting requires that they have a standard of aesthetic value in mind. Even scientists invoke aesthetics when the describe equations as 'elegant' or 'beautiful,' some even suggesting that beauty is implicit in a good equation (see It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, by Graham Farmelo)!

Even our understanding of reality itself cannot be empirically proven. For example, how can I be certain that my entire perspective on what is real is true? How do I know that I am not just a brain being stimulated to make me think that I am writing this blog entry? I can't prove this empirically, yet I am not advocating that anyone take up this philosophy. What I am trying to point out is that there are truths that are properly basic, beliefs that cannot be proven on the basis of another belief but are rationally accepted.

Science itself cannot be verified or justified by the scientific method. Science operates on many assumptions, including the Copernican principle, which states that our place in the universe is not special or unique, or the uniformity of nature, which presumes that present conditions echo past conditions. These ideas cannot be empirically verified, but are assumed to be true and are the root of astronomical and geological study.

I am certainly not trying to reject any of these scientific ideas. Rather, I am trying to show that empiricism as the only method of deducing truth is unnecessarily restrictive, and philosophically incorrect. I often laugh when I hear of efforts to produce a 'theory of everthing,' yet even if we do someday have a comprehensive scientific understanding of things, that would be only one portion of how we understand reality. We would still need our moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical knowledge (among others) to complete the picture.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 21, 2006 at 5:26 am

6 Responses

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  1. […] But there is clearly more to the issue than this. I would argue that skeptics who hold the opinion that science makes faith irrational are not necessarily speaking on behalf of what is, but what should be. They are likely to argue that a proper understanding of science should lead to skepticism towards faith, though it does not for many, or that one should not believe anything that is not empirically proven (note that in my last post I discussed how science is founded upon ideas that themselves cannot be empirically proven). I suppose a logical deduction from this might be the implication that the faithful must not really understand science. Try telling that to the many distinguished PhD’s in church on Sunday! In fact, surveys generally show that a person holding the degree of PhD is just as likely to believe in a personal God as the general population. […]

  2. Interesting entry.

    Actually, the whole Intelligent Design thing was thrown out not because it was “unprovable” by science. It was thrown out because:

    1. It is not a scientific theory and does not belong in Science.

    2. The school board was discovered to have falsified certain facts. Science has Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, Theology has the school board.

    Just want to make a few points:

    1. “There are many truths… serve as a basis for scientific investigation.” Actually, that’s where most science starts, someone believes something to be true, science investigates to see if it is actually, true.

    2. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of things from a different perspective, for example, the “Problem of Free Will” and things like that. Trying to apply scientific method to that will be futile, almost akin to trying to prove empirically that Winnie the Pooh exists.

    3. On how things that “aught to be”, science is excellent at proving or disproving how “things aught to be” via empirical means. Of course, when it comes to “How scientific inquiry aught to be”, I can only say that it is a very noble and Human wish. Many a times, when faced with pressure of delivery deadlines, many scientists succumb to the easy way out.

    4. Asthetic Truth is based on personal perception. A picture of the Alps may invoke different feelings to different people. This is well and good. However, using it to show that the scientific method is unable to prove personal perception is really unreasonable as it is beyond its scope and purpose.

    I can go on and on, but the fact of the matter is that, the Scientific Method is a process not meant to prove or disprove ontological ideas.

    By the way, the theory of Copernicus (sp?) has been verified through the use of space probes, telescopes and observation.


    April 8, 2006 at 11:10 pm

  3. Ivan, thanks for your commments! I think you may have misunderstood my comments and/or conclusion. My conclusion was not “…therefore Science is invalid,” but more along the lines of “…therefore Science is not the be-all and end-all of ontology.” In response to your comments:

    1. I still think that the comment that ID is scientific still stands, so long as we’re willing to maintain that evolutionary theory still stands. Both examine the same data set and make conclusions or inferences accordingly. The difference is in what presuppositions are brought to that process. But if you mean that an empirical verification method must verify it, then I think we both know that the ‘grand scheme’ of evolutionary theory will not qualify on that basis.

    2.I am not sure what you mean by “Science has Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, Theology has the school board.” My purpose in referencing this issue was to show that morality is implicit in scientific practice.

    3. I agree that Metaphysics is outside of the empirical realm of physical science, however this says nothing as to whether it is ontologically valid. Therefore my point still stands.

    4.Regarding how things “aught to be,” I would be interested in reading how specifically science is “excellent” in proving this. If you mean predictions as to what data “aught” to be produced given certain parameters, then you are playing a semantic game. If you mean that science is likely to adequately predict moral precepts, I would be very interested in hearing this defended.

    5. As far as aesthetic truth is concerned, I agree! That is why I mentioned it- because it is non-scientific but still part of ontology.

    6. The Copernican Principle is inferred on the basis of both data and presuppositions. I would argue that without complete knowledge of the universe, proving the Copernican Principle would be unlikely.

    Lastly, you write that “the Scientific Method is a process not meant to prove or disprove ontological ideas.” This is entirely the point I endeavored to make- that Science cannot be the entire means by which we claim to understand reality or obtain knowledge.


    April 9, 2006 at 9:50 am

  4. […] So, again to the question: are the realms of science and faith compatible? Can one be a faithful adherent of religion, acknowledging the supernatural, and still understand or even practice science? The short answer should be an absolute “yes!” However, many do not agree. Some claim that the very basis of faith, that there is what cannot be proven empirically, flies in the face of science. Or, in other words, that what cannot be proven empirically cannot be said to exist! Such a notion is obviously false. One need only question the reality of abstract ideas, numbers, metaphysics, or aesthetics to recognize that many things that our culture (and even science itself) depends upon to be true are not empirically verifiable. (See my series, Science and Faith, for more elaboration on this point.) What is really the problem here is that science, by nature of what it is and how it operates, illegitimately excludes that which cannot be proven empirically from truth as a whole. […]

  5. […] Looking for empirical evidence I think I’m getting closer to understanding now. This site helped me understand a little better. […]

  6. hi,really elegant shirt,do you know where i can find that great.thanks,bill


    June 3, 2010 at 11:07 am

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