by Jim Pemberton
In the previous article I stated the scientific method in probably its simplest terms. I also stated it in probably its best light. In this article I will turn the tide and discuss some of its limitations. I’m sure I won’t be able to state them all here. However, I do want to establish two categories for understanding the epistemological limitations to the scientific method.
The first category is spelled out by the name I gave to this section: Unprovable Presuppositions. Different philosophical systems have different criteria for epistemological demonstration. That’s a fancy way of saying “proof”. Not all philosophical systems require the scientific method to demonstrate how someone knows something to be true. The “proof” I talk about here is precisely the scientific method. That is to say that the scientific method requires presuppositions that are not provable by virtue of the scientific method.
Presuppositions are more than simply assumptions, although presuppositions entail assumptions. These are anything intentionally held to be true prior to conducting science using the scientific method. These may entail something as obviously necessary as conclusions from prior scientific endeavors, self-evident (yet scientifically unprovable) laws, philosophical underpinnings of scientific discovery, or the philosophical commitments of the scientists that are not necessary for drawing conclusions but may influence conclusions. Let me give you some examples of each.
Conclusions from prior scientific endeavors is the one subcategory that I will break my own rule and admit that it entails proof such as it is according to the scientific method. I will discuss in the second category the concept of probabilism that undermines conclusions from scientific endeavors. However, I won’t get into that here. I only offer it here as a subcategory with the other things assumed prior to employment of the scientific method. An example of this is when tree rings from different ancient trees are compared to compile a timeline of annual weather patterns that exceeds the lifespan of any of the trees. It naturally relies on prior research linking tree ring properties to specific annual weather patterns.
I suspect that many people are not familiar with scientific laws. They often aren’t discussed in such a way as to inform the average non-scientist or non-science-student how they affect scientific discovery. I suggest most people have heard of them but haven’t thought about them. One example is the law of gravity. Almost everyone has heard of the story of Newton and his apple. I guess most have simply assumed that the apple falling was obvious. However obvious gravity seems in general, gravity as observed is described, not proven. That’s what makes it a law. It can’t be proven by the scientific method. It can only be employed to make predictions about other things.
I would suggest that laws are good things and generally true. In fact, I would say that they are evidence of absolute truth if not being absolutely true themselves. But they may not be absolutely true. Perhaps it could be said that the passage of time at one time might have been considered a universal constant, which is on par with a law if not technically a law in itself, but we have discovered that the passage of time is not constant. Nevertheless, laws are assumed, but not proven.
The philosophical underpinnings of scientific discovery are not provable. That is to say that scientific discovery relies on certain beliefs that are themselves not provable. An example of one such philosophical tenet is uniformitarianism. This is the belief that all things remain consistent. It applies to laws as well as natural processes that we observe today. Uniformitarianism provides the assumption that the way things are today is the same that they were in the distant past and every time in between. Uniformitarianism must be held, at least in part, to repeat experiments under identical conditions and expect the same results. But it is applied in ways that are unreasonable in the course of claiming valid scientific observation. Uniformitarianism isn’t provable at all beyond recent history.
Another philosophical underpinning is the logic that I set up a couple of articles ago. The scientific method is built on what is called bivalent logic. Bivalent simply means “two-valued”. It refers to the one value, “A” and the other value “~A” that I discussed. There are some who speculate that logic isn’t truly bivalent. If that’s the case, then there is no basis for science. Science requires bivalent logic.
But there are philosophies that influence scientific discovery but are not necessary for scientific discovery. These are many and sundry. Some of these might be political philosophies where a political ideology influences the scientific outcome to achieve political ends. Others might be secular philosophies like the existentialism of Hitler’s scientists or the naturalism of today’s scientists. Yet others might be religious beliefs. To use Christianity as an example over and against naturalism, naturalism holds to science as the only true form of epistemological certainty while Christianity recognizes the usefulness of science, but also its limitations, and holds to other forms of epistemological certainty like revelation. None of these philosophies or religious beliefs can be proven by the scientific method…
Going through the scientific method in the last article, I stated that a conclusion is “a percentage representing a likelihood that the hypothesis is true.” I explained how this works. The criteria for quantifying the conclusion is established from the beginning and measured using devices limited in precision in an environment that despite all efforts will generate some inaccuracies. The scientist can only control for some inaccuracies, but never control for all inaccuracies. (I was invited to join a graduate lab as an undergraduate physics student precisely because I was gifted at carefully identifying these kinds of factors.) As a result, even the cleanest experiments will have imprecise and inaccurate results. The best a conclusion can ever hope to be is “likely”. It can never be demonstrated to be 100% true. Scientific proof comes in terms of a probability.
Therefore, those things we call “evidence” or “scientific proof” fall under the philosophical category of “probabilism”. In a recent Unbelievable program Justin Brierley hosted a discussion between atheist Elliot George and Christian Jonathan McLatchie over the topic of scientific evidence and religious belief. Elliot George admitted early on that the only thing he could be 100% sure of is that he existed. He was honest enough to admit that scientific proof could never provide certainty.
I wonder what makes him certain that he exists.
Among naturalists, for example, scientific discovery is the best that anyone can have for knowing anything. Except we see here that something aside from scientific discovery can be employed to know something more certainly than scientific discovery can provide. Elliot George can’t say what that thing is, although he employs it.
Christianity recognizes this something that lies beyond scientific discovery that gives us certainty. There is good reason for it. Christianity also recognizes the usefulness of science. So powerful is scientific discovery that Christians have used scientific discovery to confirm what we already know to be true. Much information in the Bible can be confirmed scientifically. What cannot be tested scientifically can be analyzed statistically, confessed honestly because it reveals our true nature, or worshipped because the Creator himself has spoken directly to us. To one who has not experienced it, it can be written off as mere experientialism. To one who has personally experienced the work of the Creator, it is as undeniable as Elliot George’s revelation to himself that he exists.
In the next article, I will discuss is some small measure the evidence that proves Christianity scientifically and the reasonableness of Christianity beyond science.