Five Things Science Cannot Prove (but are necessary for science to work)

iMonk contributor and Liturgical Gangsta Daniel Jepsen stopped by the iMonastery today to share some thoughts on science. I told him his ideas were quite timely as I am hoping to explore this topic more fully this month. Daniel agree to share his thoughts with us all. Read and comment as always, but remember, he is not speaking against science, only to its limitations.  JD

Perhaps the most common misunderstanding of science today is the idea that it alone operates only on what can be proven.  The scientist, we are told, unlike the historian, sociologist, or (shudder) the theologian, believes nothing except what is proven to be true by the scientific method; therefore he or she alone is the oracle of true knowledge of the physical world.

It is remarkable how prevalent this thought is, even when not articulated, since it is so easily shown to be not the case.  Science is a wonderful and noble way of exploring and understanding this world we find ourselves in, but it in no way operates solely on the basis of proof. Some things it must assume. I will list a few of them.

[Note: nothing I can say will stop some people from viewing this as an attack on science; it is anything but, as I think as any reasonable reading will show.]

1.  Reality is rational. 

That is, its makeup is such that it exhibits order and consistency, so that we can make predictions and postulate laws and theories.  Now this may seem like common sense, but that would be common only to sensibilities formed in and shaped by what could loosely be defined as “western” thought (though of course we mean history more than geography here).  To the ancients, and to many of the east today, the idea that the universe is rational and subject completely in its physical workings to consistency and order is not something assumed at all.

Nor can reality be “proven” to be rational.  Indeed, ask yourself how this would be proven from the viewpoint of someone within this reality.  You cannot prove it by experiment, for you cannot experiment on reality as a whole. You cannot prove it by induction, arguing that since everything we have studied has proven rational that reality itself must be. An inductive argument like this fails for four reasons.  First, an inductive argument of this sort will only grant a probable truth, not a certain one, so the best we could say is that, “reality is probably rational” which is a world different from saying “reality is rational.” Second, we have no way of measuring how much of reality we have “figured out” versus how much we have not, so there is no way of knowing if we have high probability or very low probability for our inductive claim.  Thirdly, it is simply not the case that we have figured out everything we have been able to study.  When Richard Fenyman wrote, ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,’ he was including himself, which is disconcerting given how many books he wrote on that very subject.  No one today can give a satisfactory answer to the most basic question of physics (how quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity can both be true since they contradict each other) nor can astronomers and astrophysicists give an agreed upon answer to the quandary that most of the matter of the universe (dark matter and dark energy) cannot even be observed (but must be assumed to make sense of everything else).  Fourth, even if everything we can study shows rationality, that is no proof that we do not inhabit a slice or bubble of the universe that has qualities different than the universe as a whole (an idea which some astrophysicists argue as possible).

Now, I do believe reality is rational, for I believe it is the creation of a rational being.  And I suspect the legacy of this belief gives a clue to why science developed more successfully in theistic societies than pagan, pantheistic or animistic ones.  So I am not arguing that reality is not rational, but that science is logically dependent on a belief that it cannot prove.  Unless reality is rational, science is not possible.

2.   Reality is knowable. 

This is not the same argument as above.  The success of the scientific method assumes not only that reality has the quality of rationality, but that it is also knowable. That is, it is conceivable that realist is rational, but I could be irrational, and not able to form valid conclusions about reality.  My mind must be “on the same wavelength” to capture its rationality.

Steven Pinker, the famous evolutionary biologist, unwittingly encounters this very issue when he writes on page 561 of “How the Mind Works”:

We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.

Somehow, one gets the impression that Pinker feels his own mind is an exception to this rule, else why would he write the book (or even ask us to believe the above quote).

But indeed, how could we prove that the human mind is a capable tool for understanding reality and finding truth, especially on the assumptions Pinker makes (that the mind evolved to solve practical problems that affect reproductive success, not to find truth)?  But without the belief that the human mind can understand reality, there is no reason to study reality.  One is better off not wasting the time.

Again, I am not arguing that reality is not knowable.  I believe it is because I believe the same rational being who created reality (thus ensuring its rationality) also created mankind in His own image, thus ensuring the possibility of valid knowledge of, and reasoning about, that reality. No, I cannot prove that scientifically.  But neither can the scientist prove that his or her mind is capable of anything more than an utilitarian problem solving that may or may not speak actual truth.

3.   The uniformity of nature across time and space

Quick, what is the speed of light?  299,792,458 meters per second, of course.   But what was speed of light a second after the big bang? Or 4 billion years ago?  Or what will it be 4 billion years from now (or even next week?)  Of course we don’t know, in one sense. No one measured the speed of light 4 billion years ago, and any knowledge of the measuring of the speed of light in the future is inaccessible to us.  Nor can we measure the speed of light right now except in that small sliver of the universe we can actually observe.  And the same is true of other laws of nature: gravity, the interplay of the parts of the atom, etc.

It should be noted here that the speed of light, for example, is derived from observation.  Every time we observe it, it is always that speed (or its speed makes possible other equations that correspond to present reality). But nothing in the nature of reality mandates that it must be at that speed; other speeds for light are at least conceivable.

So how do we know that the speed of light or other laws of physics apply across the universe (when we’ve only studied a sliver) and across time (when we only have access to the present?).  Technically, we do not know.  We assume.  Since all the places and times we have been able to observe follow these laws, it seems logical to assume that is also the case for the places and times we cannot observe.  But notice, this is an inductive argument, and as such can only give a probable conclusion, not an air-tight certainty.  Yet every science, if you dig deep enough, operates on the assumption of continuity and uniformity.  This is no mark against science; it can hardly do otherwise.  But it is still worth noting that the foundation is an assumed deduction, not a proven fact.

4.   Causation

Surely, if there is one thing science can prove, it is that one thing causes another, right?  Actually, nothing could be farther from the case.  The very idea of causation must be assumed.

David Hume, of course, is the one who most famously has shown this.  Imagine, he said, I have one hundred windows in a row, and I take a hammer and hit the first 99.  All of them shatter.  I approach the last one.  Will it shatter also when I hit it?  Hume argues that you cannot know that, for there is no way of proving that the impact of the hammer caused the other windows to break. It is conceivable (even if unlikely) that some other forces or forces broke the windows at the exact time the hammer hit them.  Causation, he argued, is an attribute of the mind, by which it tries to make sense what happens in the world.  But there is no way to prove beyond doubt that causality applies beyond the mind’s interpretation.

Hume’s argument is epistemological, that is, a question of how we know things.  But 20th century science (in the form of quantum mechanics) itself has undermined the concept of causation (please read up on simultaneous causation and the uncertainty principle to see this).

Also, as I am writing this, the world of science has been shocked by the apparent find of a team at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) that some particles travel faster than the speed of light.  One article notes,

The existence of faster-than-light particles would wreak havoc on scientific theories of cause and effect.

“If things travel faster than the speed of light, A can cause B, [but] B can also cause A,” Parke [head of the theoretical physics department at the U.S. government-run Fermilab near Chicago, Illinois] said.  “If that happens, the concept of causality becomes ambiguous, and that would cause a great deal of trouble.”

At this point, both philosophically and scientifically, the simple idea of causation (A causes B) is very much a working assumption that makes science possible, not the result of science itself.  [Please note I am talking about the concept of causation, not examples of one thing causing another.]

5.   The very existence of an external universe consisting of matter

I will spend the least time here, for this is unable to be proven by any worldview or any method of knowledge.  Suffice it to say that both solipsism and idealism would deny the existence of an externally existing material universe.   Solipsism argues this world does not exist outside my mental projections, or, as my epistemology professor put it, “I’m the only pebble on the beach. And there is no beach”. Idealism argues that only the spiritual is real, and the material world is an illusion (or, as for Berkeley, real only as the thoughts of God).  Technically, neither idea is refutable (any arguments against them must come from inside the projection or illusion).

Again, this does not count in any way against science.  Of all the five things on this list, this is to me the least substantial (since no-one can consistently live out this idea).  I include it here to remind us of the need for intellectual humility, whether we are a scientist or theologian.

Other presuppositions of science include the following:

  • The laws of logic (especially the law of non-contradiction)
  • The adequacy of language to communicate reality and truth
  • The existence of numbers

All these have been argued by philosophers and others, and none of them can be proven by the scientific method.  In short, they are metaphysical assumptions, not proven facts.

Also, related to this but somewhat a distinct issue is that science assumes certain values in order to proceed, without being able to scientifically prove the validity of these values.  Chief among these values is that of honesty.

All this to say that science is a wonderful tool for granting knowledge about this universe we find ourselves in.  It in no way is to be despised or denigrated.  But enough of the foolish talk that it alone traffics in certainty and what is beyond doubt.  It is an invaluable servant, but makes a terrible idol.



98 thoughts on “Five Things Science Cannot Prove (but are necessary for science to work)

  1. Interesting stuff.
    Still, I still think it all has to come down to a personal decision of whether or not to believe in God. Keeping your mind open to new ideas, discoveries, and information is good and healthy — but if you’re forever leaving your faith and belief in a state of impartial neutrality on the balance scales of reason and science, then your faith will never grow beyond the level of an unanswered proposition, and your spiritual life will remain in a perpetual state of pause.
    As a natural skeptic myself and as someone who is perfectly capable of arguing with myself until well after the cows come home, there came a point where I had to declare the matter settled and accept the extent to which God has revealed and disclosed Himself to me as sufficient evidence to proceed with a life of faith.
    That doesn’t mean I no longer experience or even entertain doubts about God’s existence, but I’m not about to let myself slide backwards into a position of uncertain neutrality.
    Just like freedom, faith is something you have to fight for and defend — or, sooner or later, you will lose it.


  2. So, I’m a scientist and I agree with what was stated, although I’d dispute that this is anything controversial in the world of science. Science is a philosophy and it has its limitations like anything else. We can’t prove that we aren’t all some simulation in some great computer program, for example (in fact some have argued that the quantized nature of the universe and quantum superposition actually support this).

    I’d also question whether science depends on uniformity of the laws of physics across all of space and time. Certainly our current understanding of these laws requires this, but we can only experiment in one region of space and at one particular time, so that is to be expected to some extent. In fact, when you ponder some things like the Pioneer anomoly, dark matter, the great attractor, and a bunch of other things, you start to wonder if maybe the fundamental constants of nature actually vary gradually across spacetime.

    Of course, all of this is just supposition. However, science really is nothing more than a systematic way of trying to predict the outcome of future observations, so as we observe more we learn more. There is no way to prove that ever time we let go of an apple God doesn’t just grab it and pull it towards the ground, but we do know that if this is what is happening God seems to do it VERY consistently. A God constrained to always follow rigid laws is really indistinguishable from the laws themselves.


  3. “Except, science **does not** accept any metaphysical presuppositions.”

    Years ago, when a “recreational thinking” conversation wandered into Quantum Physics, my D&D Dungeonmaster said that “Physics drifted into Metaphysics years ago, just nobody wants to admit to it.”


  4. Faith has not triumphed over science because of the items Daniel has mentioned. What these items point out to me is that science necessarily involves faith. And an appreciation for mystery. Which is why experiments are as much an act of worship as anything else human beings can do.

    “Appreciation for Mystery.”

    Yet as a lot of us in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness can affirm, a lot of American Evangelical Christianity seems to be about removing ALL Mystery from their faith. I remember some IMonk essays from years ago on the subject. Comments that Darbyite Dispensationalism (and its Later Great Planet Earth mutation) approached the imagery of the Bible as an engineering text in its attempt to explain and resolve all apparent inconsistencies. Possibly a process continuing from the second wave of the Protestant Reformation (after Luther, maybe starting wtih Calvin and continuing to today’s Truly Reformed) where Mystery is replaced by Perfectly Parsed Theology, “Proving the existence of God as if God had nothing to do except exist.”


  5. …And that is undermining one of the bases upon which the philosophy of the scientific method is built, viz. that there are repeatable events which we can observe and forecast because we understand their behaviour because there are fundamental, unchangeable principles underpinning that behaviour.”

    “Fundamental, unchangeable principles.”

    Not the momentary whim of a god or spirit or an arbitrary Will of God.

    If everything is a moment-by-moment miracle and consistency is only a coincidence of the god/spirit/God just doing it the same THIS time, then the word “miracle” loses all meaning. Like Star Trek V’ger’s “Unknown Space Anomaly of the Week”, if everything’s an anomaly, then they’re not anomalies. They’re what’s normal, and reality is Chaos. (Blood and souls for Arioch?)


  6. At the root of it: The muslims never had an Aquinas to reconcile their belief in God’s infinite power and freedom of will with the basics of Aristotelian metaphysics and physics.”

    The closest thing to an Aquinas they had (at least in subsequent influence) was al-Ghazali, and he came to the completely-opposite conclusion than Aquinas.


  7. Isn’t the concept you are talking about here called “entanglement” and “entanglement” is not a matter of causation is instead a matter of connection and relationship. Scientific American recently had some articles that touched on this and the fact that classical physics is more and more giving way to quantum physics in the realm of the large events of physics. I believe one example that was given was that of magnetism of rare earth elements where the magnetism occurs faster than classical physics (causal) calls for because of entanglement.

    On another point there are some good books in the Philosophy section of the universe that deal with the “Philosophy of Science” and these agree with the author of this article even though they are not of Christian origin. (They do not agree with his personal beliefs concerning the faith, however.)


  8. As time marches on, science works to make the universe bigger and, paradoxically, less certain. The more we know, the more we find we don’t know. The exact same holds true in the spirit. The more we learn of the Father, the more we realize how very little we know. The world would be a little happier if we could see that we are similarly engaged, on different fronts, in discovering how little we are. When faced with the vastness of God or the universe, take your pick, we shrink to very small proportions. Humility about our endeavor is the point.


  9. You don’t need to delete the third point altogether, but rather utilize Hume’s point in the way he meant it (at least as I understand it). All Hume’s discussion of assumptions are variations on a theme, and so this one, like all the others has lots of similarity to all the others. Rationality is very similar to causality is similar to uniformity is similar to …….

    By uniformity of nature he wasn’t talking about anything so crude as physics working the same here and in Andromeda or on the edge of the observable universe.

    He was talking about the fundamental uniformity of the universe as a place which follows rules. The universe doesn’t arbitrarily “decide” to no longer work as it has in the past – it is uniformly obeying its own laws of nature (whatever they may be and however they may vary in whatever spacetime exists throughout the universe).

    The universe doesn’t work one way yesterday and work another way tomorrow, it is uniform. The details of the laws may not be uniform, but the uniformity of the universe’s operation according to those laws (whatever they may be) is something we must assume. We can view the past 15 billion years worth of evidence and be certain that physics/nature hasn’t changed in that time, but in order to operate, we must assume that those laws will continue to function as they have in the past.

    We don’t drop the assumption that the universe will continue on as it has in the past just because we can’t prove that it will, we continue operating with that assumption. We plan on carrying out an experiment tomorrow trust that the results will be worthwhile because we assume the universe is uniform – it will continue to operate the way it does according to those laws and so the experiment we carry out tomorrow will not be wildly different just because the universe “decided” to operate differently.

    Scientists assume the uniformity of the universe.


  10. I’m a little late to the party here, but as both a scientist and a Christian, I echo many of the points above along the line that science never sets out to prove anything. Indeed, we scientists almost *never* talk about proof in any sense of the term. As others have stated, it’s all about the weight of the evidence, and every theory is always provisional, capable of being overturned (or more likely subsumed into a more general theory) at any moment by new data. A great example of this possibility is the recent announcement of superluminal neutrinos. The most likely result at this time is that the measurement is simply wrong, but showing that it is wrong may be very difficult and will require the efforts of other scientists to attempt to replicate the results and to try to find out ways they could be mistaken. Even the physicists who made the announcement are dubious that it’s correct, but they did all they could think of to try to debunk their measurements, and couldn’t, so they are opening it up to the broader physics community to let them take a crack at it. All in all, it’s a beautiful example of the scientific method at work, one of the best I can think of in recent memory that is being done in nearly full view of the public. I’m excited about it, no matter what conclusion they end up drawing. If the measurement is correct, and that is a big if, it will require a great reorganization of our thinking, but it won’t throw out relativity or entail that “Einstein was wrong” or other absurd headlines I’m seeing floating around the web. It will likely mean that relativity is not complete, and doesn’t describe our reality in all possible circumstances. The same thing happened when relativity came to supplant Newtonian physics. It’s not that Newtonian physics is *wrong* (my own science of Meteorology is based virtually entirely on it); it in fact is an *excellent* approximation to relativity and quantum mechanics in everyday circumstances. It simply is incomplete.

    I completely agree with the OP that science rests on certain metaphysical assumptions, though I may state them somewhat differently than he did (I’ll have to think about it). There are certain things we have to assume about the nature of reality (such as the very existence of an external world) if not to strictly *do science* per se, but at least for it to have any sort of larger meaning. After all, a solipsist can be a scientist, but how meaningful are his findings if he’s the only being that exists?

    Finally, I also agree with some other comments above regarding the fact that even though science has been shown to be a remarkably successful tool for discovering patterns in nature (a fact that always stuns me when I actually take the time to reflect on it, by the way), it doesn’t mean that certain singular events in nature (such as the resurrection of Jesus) are thereby ruled out or made less probable; it just means that at the very least they are not approachable in a rigorous scientific sense because of being unrepeatable or not following a certain pattern, by their very nature.

    Apologies if I’m just repeating what others have said, but hopefully this will give non-scientists in our community a better idea of how scientists actually approach their discipline. I for one think it is wonderful that a place like internetmonk exists that allows scientists, philosophers, and theologians, both Christian and non-Christian to come together to discuss these things. The resulting discussion strikes me as rather similar to the process of scientific peer-review; we all end up learning something and coming out with a better understanding of these very important issues.


  11. Webmonk,

    Okay, you’ve convinced me. I will concede that my third point, at least as written, is mistaken, and I will no longer defend it. When I post this article on my own blog, I will delete it.

    Thanks for your input and for helping me clarify which are really presuppositions and which are not.



  12. One of the things that might de-mystify FTL happenings is to look at an extremely mundane example – shadows moving along a surface.

    An example I frequently use is to take a lit candle in a room and move your hand around it so that a shadow moves along the wall. The room could have a circumference of 50 feet, and you can move your hand around the candle in a second, easily. The shadow moved 100 ft/sec, whereas your hand may have only traveled 1 ft/sec. The further away the wall is, the faster the shadow moves.

    Move that wall all the way back to Pluto, and that shadow could very easily move more than 10000 times the speed of light, passing the entire way around the solar system in a second.

    “Things happening” faster than light is not a fundamentally bizarre thing. There are quite a few celestial objects which appear to be moving faster than light because of the angles and directions of our relative motions, however it’s simple geometry to see why.

    The “spooky action at a distance” in entangled photons certainly seems bizarre, and there are numerous stories which claim or hint at it violating “causality”, but it doesn’t.

    Neither would FTL neutrinos. They show that causality is more complicated than we would like to think, but none of them violate causality or anything like that. (no matter how much news story headlines say so)


  13. I agree that “outsider” views can be valuable. However, your particular submission in point three has already been proposed many times and has been proven to be wrong just as many times.

    (really, I think you’re drastically misunderstanding Hume’s point about what he means by “nature is uniform” and mis-applying it, but that’s more of a philosophical question, I’m trying to stick with the scientific claims you’re making)

    First, and probably foremost is your false title premise of #3. In reality, scientists do not assume nature is uniform across spacetime – we only “assume” it uniform everywhere that we can measure it, which isn’t really an assumption. (again, I think you’re dramatically misusing Hume’s “nature is uniform” argument, with which I agree)

    As to the use of “ridiculous” or “nonsense”, would you use those terms to describe someone’s views who claims that religion is the cause of all wars? Your “science” in point 3 is roughly as valid as that statement. Just as you described the view that religion causes all wars as “stupid”, your portrayal of the science in point 3 is “ridiculous”. (as is your use of science in pt 4 – the “ambiguity” of causality is not a repudiation of causality, but merely a more complicated view of causality – there would still be causality but it wouldn’t be as straightforward as people normally view it – this is a VERY, TOTALLY different thing than Hume’s argument about causality)

    On to your “First…” paragraph.
    What percentage of our sphere have we observed? Regarding the sort of thing we’re discussing here – the vast, vast majority. If there were areas of the universe that had light changing speeds, we would see some really bizarre effects in those areas where light and matter are passing through. They would be really, really blatantly obvious, glowing with extremely unique radiation signatures. So yes, I can say with large certainty that everywhere in our 30 bn ly diameter sphere has been observed to not have areas where light has changed speed.

    One could posit that there really are those areas, but they just happen to be in very, very bizarre shapes and precisely position to be hidden. (such as long, narrow slivers stretching away from us hidden by being precisely lined up behind individual stars or galactic cores through which we can’t observe) At which case I would call that person on using horrible sophistry and drop the argument because they’ve got their head so far up their ass that it’ll never come out. (Just to be clear, you aren’t doing this.)

    Your “Second…” paragraph:
    I would most definitely not be among anyone who says the observer’s status with what is being observed has no bearing. I can’t imagine there’s a scientist in the world who would hold to that position. (well, maybe there are some on some extremely lunatic fringes somewhere) If you think there are lots of scientists who do hold that position, you’ve got your facts completely reversed.

    Your “third…” paragraph:
    You’re right, our “sliver” is an indeterminate amount. However, the parts beyond our sliver can’t affect us, and scientists don’t claim that physics are necessarily the same in those parts of the universe outside our area. So, if scientists don’t claim that physics is uniform outside our percentage, then it doesn’t matter how much is outside compared to inside since we aren’t talking about that outside part in the first place.

    This seems to be a misconception on your part. Somewhere you seem to have the impression that scientists claim physics is the same here in our part of the universe as it is everywhere in the universe. Scientists only claim it is uniform in the parts which we observe. For the purposes of what we’re discussing here, call it roughly 15 bn ly around us.

    Your “Fourth…” paragraph:
    You’re right. I was imprecise. Something outside our spacetime could affect us. However, it would have to be separate and distinct from our spacetime, not merely a spacetime with different physics. It would be a distinct supernatural, not merely a different sort of natural. Any “natural” thing which is beyond 15 bn ly can’t affect us, even if its physics are radically different.

    I’ll repeat yet again, scientists don’t assume nature is uniform everywhere. We only hold that nature is uniform for the places we have observed. (and our actual sphere of observation for some sort of area which has different physics than here on earth is very large compared to the area within our theoretical sphere of observation)

    I think you’re misapplying Hume’s uniformity of nature argument, but that’s a different question than what we’re talking about, and I’m not a philosopher so I claim no real expertise on Hume’s statements while I agree with them. However, I am an astronomer and I do know you are horribly misrepresenting the science you’re using to “demonstrate” Hume’s points.


  14. Webmonk, I will agree that I am out my depths in this example. I put it in the comments not because it supports my post, but because I find the discussion of non-local action fascinating, and am trying to make sense of its implications. I was hoping others would shed more light on this. Thanks for your corrections.


  15. Light speed being set as the utmost limit of travel in our universe is not accurate. That’s a common misunderstanding.

    I HIGHLY doubt that neutrinos are moving faster than light, but if they are, it doesn’t violate any laws of physics. It would be a very, very unexpected discovery and we would need to re-think how a lot of particles relate to each other, but we wouldn’t need to rewrite the laws of relativity.


  16. Daniel, you’re getting the whole “twin photons” concept pretty badly screwed up; enough so that your example completely falls apart.

    Buks mentions the two main problems with your example. There are lots and lots of phenomenon that move faster than light, they’re pretty common actually, but quite useless so we generally pay them no mind. The “split photon” (which Buks properly mentions as not being a split, but rather an entanglement) to which you refer violates in no way, shape, or form causation or speed of light laws.

    Your sentence “In other words, one thing “causes” another even though there is not time for anything (light, information, etc…) to travel from one to the other,” is completely false. One thing does not cause the other.

    Like I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this thread – people who haven’t had training and learning about a topic are almost sure to mess it up. This is true of astronomers talking about biology, biologists talking about theology, and theologians talking about quantum physics. (it also happens some times when quantum physicists talk about astronomy and vice verse, though since the fields use similar tools, it’s less frequent.)

    You’re getting your science wrong. You may have your philosophy right, but your science is wrong in this case.


  17. Repeating the experiment establishes at most a strong correlation. It can never establish causation. That is the point.


  18. A few points, attempting not to duplicate too much what other commenters have already posted:

    “Perhaps the most common misunderstanding of science today is the idea that it alone operates only on what can be proven.”

    I don’t deny that some people think this about science, but scientists are by and large not among them. (At least not any scientist with any sort of philosophical bent. Many work within their specialized fields and neither consider nor need to consider the philosophical underpinnings.) A more common formulation is that science operates not on what can be proved, but on what can be disproved. In this it differs from religion. A statement like “The speed of light in a vacuum is constant” could in principle be disproved, if it is in fact untrue. A statement like “Jesus died for our sins” is not subject to this possibility.

    Regarding the CERN results, for a sober discussion of it, see The short form is that this result could be revolutionary. But probably it isn’t.

    On a trivial note, Steven Pinker is not an evolutionary biologist. He is a cognitive scientist. Cognitive science is more or less the intersection of experimental psychology, brain anatomy, and linguistics, with a dollop of computer science. Cognitive science is informed by evolutionary biology, but really that is true of any specialty that touches on biology. I am immensely pleased to note that even with advancing age he still has splendid hair.


  19. @Justin

    Perhaps it would help if I stated that I do not have any agenda to exalt theology or apologetics over science, for I don’t believe apologetics gives us proof either. Any apologetics will contain presuppositions. Nor can the existence of God, for example, be proven, at least not in an airtight way. I believe in God because it seems more probable to me that He exists than not, and also because I choose to.

    I apologize if my post reads as anti-science. Blame my writing ability, not my motive.


  20. Danielle, first, good name!

    Perhaps I should clarify my goal, since latter in the posts some people seem to think calling me an “apologist” is sufficient reason to not actually interact with the points.

    I did not write this with any other purpose than clarity. It seems to me that there is a great deal of confusion about the notions of faith and knowledge. The common misperception is that science deals only with objectively proven facts, based on empirical observation alone, and that therefore it alone is able to make truth-claims about the world we live in. I agree that precious few scientists would make this statement. I am taking aim instead at the simplistic thinking on the more popular level. It is worth noting, though, that simplistic thinking on science and faith is enmeshed in most media reporting and analysis of these issues.


  21. @rick and @Glenn:
    The limitations of science are well understood. The fact that some people exploit those limitations for the purpose of furthering an agenda is also well understood.

    The limitations of science are the same limitations on apologetics. It’s disingenuous to argue that Science cannot provide certainty while ignoring the fact that neither can any thing else.


  22. Webmonk, thanks for your comments. While I agree that it can be problematic for people to speak outside of their area of expertise, I would offer the following points to consider. First, it often happens that the outside observer will be able to offer insights hidden from those in the circle, just as an anthropologist, though never able to have an “insider” knowledge of the tribe he or she is studying, may still have important things to say about it. Second, it seems to me that when dealing with the questions I raise in the post, and not just the technical examples, the expertise in question is at least as much metaphysical as scientific. I’m not an expert here either, of course, but perhaps it puts us closer to level ground. In any case, my goal was to foster discussion, not make grand pronouncements, and if this is your goal also perhaps you could check words like “ridiculous” and “nonsense” since they tend to be shut down discussion rather than advance it.

    I have already conceded that the example of the speed of light was ill-chosen, for the reasons you had already mentioned. I will also concede that point three of my post is perhaps the weakest. I wish there was more discussion on the first two points, actually. But here are a few points to ponder about your response.

    First, I agree that in every time of the past we have examined, and every point of space we have observed, light travels at a constant rate. But what percentage of the possible times and places have we observed in this way? In other words, to make the inductive argument “for everything in that sphere that has happened for the last 15 billion years, we are very certain that physics has been constant because we have observed it to be constant in that time and space” we must also be able to say, “we have observed everything that has happened in that sphere for the last 15 billion years, or at least the great majority of them.”

    Second, to my statement, “No one measured the speed of light 4 billion years ago”, you answer, “false, we do it regularly by seeing the light that left stars 4 billion years ago.” Actually, I was aware that we are able to measure light from the past, thank you. My point was that we the observer is in our present. This may seem trivial to those who believe that the observer’s status in relationship to what is being studied has no bearing on his findings. I am not so sanguine on this point, but to argue it fully would take us far afield.

    Third, you seem to take exception to my phrase “a small sliver” to describe how much of the possible universe we have studied. I will substitute the phrase, “an indeterminate percentage”, but I don’t think this helps you much unless you are able to supply that percentage more specifically.

    Fourthly, you note, “Scientist don’t assume uniformity of nature across spacetime, but we do observe that it is uniform across all the spacetime we can observe, and since anything beyond that spacetime can’t affect us, we don’t worry about whether or not the assumption that nature is uniform beyond our observation is valid.” This seems to contain an ambiguity (does nothing outside of spacetime affect us or does nothing outside of what we have studied in spacetime affect us?). Otherwise I agree that seems to be a good point. However, does not the future affect us? And of course of this we have no observations of at all.

    This is not a trivial point. It is the main idea behind the most famous and influential analysis of the uniformity of nature, that of David Hume. The assumption he shows to be not-proven is this: “the uniformities observed in the past will hold for the present and future as well”.

    Allow me to quote from a journal article describing his analysis, since it will save me time:

    “We would not base our beliefs in causal connections on constant conjunctions discovered in past experience if we did not already believe that how things have been in the past is a reliable basis on which to draw inferences about how things will be now or in the future. That is, the confidence we place in our past experience of constant conjunctions as a guide to present and future matters of fact and real existence presupposes that we believe that the course of nature does not arbitrarily change, i.e. that it continues uniformly the same. For suppose we did not belief this, or believed the contrary: we would then not regard past constancy as being in any way related to any present or future matter of fact or real existence. Thus, the assumption that our belief in the uniformity of nature has a basis in empirical (probable) reason leads us straight into a vicious circle:

    belief in the uniformity of nature
    constant conjunctions revealed by past experience
    belief in causal relations connecting distinct existents
    conclusions regarding matters of fact and real existence
    belief in the uniformity of nature”

    Hume concludes that belief in the uniformity of nature must have a nonrational basis, or, as I would put it, it is a metaphysical presupposition of science, not something proved by science. Obviously, I agree that this presupposition is to be accepted, but it is still a presupposition.

    Again, thanks for your pushback on the issue of the speed of light. I probably should have foregone with the example and just stuck with the philosophy, but I thought an example or two might help clarify. As it turns out, it only served to muddy the waters.


  23. Scientists study what they measure. And then go home and enjoy the beauty of the garden without putting a ruler on it.
    If you want a lighter take on what scientists do, there’s this classic:


  24. Yes. But the point I understand the article to be making is that much of what we all believe, we have arrived at by means of inductive reasoning. Therefore no one can make the claim to absolutely knowing something is true.


  25. @Daniel:
    How convenient that you are able to make up your own definitions of words to build your apologetic. Metaphysics allows us to make up the rules as we go along?

    This is perfectly exemplary of why I think your OP is of concern. You have set up the ground rules to suit your purposes, purposes which were never explicitly stated, and you continue to confound the explicit subject of your post [science] with philosophical conditions as if the implicit subject of your post [apologetics] is not modified, qualified or affected in the same way by your five presuppositions.

    Science does not claim to provide certainty. That some people (whether or not they call themselves ”scientists”) claim certainty from scientific findings is not the fault of science. Apologists generally claim certainty over and above the metaphysical presuppositions qualifying any type of truth-seeking. Herein lies the rub when apologists go on barking about how uncertain science really is.

    People in glass houses…


  26. Ah, but light-speed was set as the utmost limit of travel in our universe and thus as a constant. Now, if we’re getting particles going beyond what was set, then either light-speed as we measure it is not a universal constant, it just applies in our part of the multi-verse, or these particles may be coming from ‘elsewhere’ where the speed-of-light is higher.

    Or the speed of light may be higher than we have measured it, which is another headache, because if our measurements are off there, what else are we measuring wrongly? And if we can’t guarantee reproducible results, because we can’t guarantee the accuracy of our measurements, then one leg of the scientific method is in trouble.

    (I don’t think FTL particles will lead to a time machine, but it’s fun speculating). Also, any physicists or mathematicans out there willing to pulverise us all for ignorance and explain what’s going on?


  27. Yes, the scientific method does work, and we’re all very glad it does. But the trouble comes wihen you get “scientism”, the mirror image of “fideism”, where some persons try to resolve everything to strict materialsim: if you can’t cut it up and measure it, it doesn’t exist.

    The point being that there are things that exist that can’t be plopped down on the counter, and some of those things belong to the fields more of metaphysics rather than empirical science, such as principles in mathematics.

    No-one can “prove” that numbers exist (you can’t slice a cut of ‘fourness’ off and measure its dimensions, identify the wavelength of light reflected by it, or run it through a liquid chromatograph) yet they do exist.


  28. Justin,

    First, I don’t think dictionary definitions are going to be decisive when dealing with a metaphysical concept like rationality, but, in any case, I appear to be the only one who quoted a dictionary.

    Second, we were discussing whether the term “rational” can be applied to a non-person, not the source of rationality in that item.


  29. Yeah, I can dig a knee-jerk reaction. It’s been a while here, but sometimes one of my personal areas of over-sensitivity get tripped and I do the same.

    In fact the values behind science (or scholarship in general) and religion are completely different, regardless of what we may make of various disputed beliefs.

    When you say “values” what do you mean?

    As I mentioned below, one of the things I learned studying theology was that I’m not a scientist. It has been very freeing for me to accept that the Bible does not speak to every jot and tittle in life; it has been very freeing to realize that it’s OK to not have some answers. You mentioned talking donkeys (cf. Balaam’s ass in Genesis 22… btw, wouldn’t “Balaam’s Ass” be a great band name?). From both science and experience we all know that donkeys don’t talk. In fact, they are biologically incapable of the complex muscle movements necessary for speech as humans know it. If a friend of mine came to me and said that his donkey told him something, I would likely not believe him. Yet, I do believe that story and that one of the things that made the story worth telling was the miraculous nature of the donkey’s speech. I.e., Balaam’s ass talking has nothing to do with science. Anyone who tried to use science to prove that donkeys can talk would get immediate dismissal from any reasonable person.

    Nonetheless, for someone to say “because donkeys don’t talk, we know that the story of Balaam and his ass is a myth” would be to make a metaphysical, philosophical, theological, and scientific assumption that the miraculous simply does not happen, an assumption that seems a bit close-minded. But, hey, that’s just a theological conclusion 😉


  30. A different example wouldn’t help because the assumption which he ascribes to scientists is not one which scientists make.


  31. I said something like this up above to Martha, and it was deemed as unkind, but it wasn’t intended to be. No offense, but people REALLY ought to stick to their areas of expertise. With both your light speed and your radioactive decay examples you just said the equivalent of “Big things fall faster than light things because they’re heavier,” or some other equally ridiculous claim.

    You don’t realize the statements are nonsense, and that’s one of the reasons that people should stick to their realms of expertise. A cellular biologist shouldn’t try to speak authoritatively on quantum tunneling, and neither should theologians — they’re both virtually guaranteed to get it seriously wrong. (and astronomers shouldn’t try to speak on matters of biology or theology, which is why I don’t)

    You got #3 almost 100% wrong on every count, at least as far as the science goes.

    “No one measured the speed of light 4 billion years ago”
    False, we do it regularly by seeing the light that left stars 4 billion years ago. We can even see the things that happened to that light along the way and verify that it was traveling at the speed of light all the way along to us.

    “Nor can we measure the speed of light right now except in that small sliver of the universe we can actually observe.”
    False, in the assumption that what we can observe is only a small sliver of the universe. We can see things for 15 billion light years around us (give or take a billion) and verify that in all that area light speed is constant.

    “So how do we know that the speed of light or other laws of physics apply across the universe (when we’ve only studied a sliver) and across time (when we only have access to the present?).”
    Twice false (or at least extremely misleading), see above. We’ve seen a “sliver” about 30 billion light years across and light has always been constant across that space, and we can see how fast light has traveled for the last 15 billion years, and it has always been constant.

    “Since all the places and times we have been able to observe follow these laws, [scientists] assume that is also the case for the places and times we cannot observe.”
    False again. Scientists do not assume physics works exactly the same in places we can’t observe. There are many theories that suggest physics works in unknowable ways in places outside our (fairly large) area of observation of spacetime.

    What scientists do “assume” is that physics is uniform across everything we can see and observe. In a sphere around us about 30 billion light years across, and for everything in that sphere that has happened for the last 15 billion years, we are very certain that physics has been constant because we have observed it to be constant in that time and space. (so it’s not really an assumption since we’ve observed it)

    If physics is different outside that time and space (something to which scientists are quite open), it can’t affect us so we don’t have to bother accounting for it in our work.

    “3. The uniformity of nature across time and space” [that scientists assume this to be true]
    Scientists can prove that physics is uniform across the quite large area of time and space which we can observer – that’s not an assumption. Scientist don’t assume uniformity of nature across spacetime, but we do observe that it is uniform across all the spacetime we can observe, and since anything beyond that spacetime can’t affect us, we don’t worry about whether or not the assumption that nature is uniform beyond our observation is valid.

    (And I’ll put out a minor correction to Theo’s comment – Oklo isn’t directly dealing with C14 decay, but it does deal with the same sort of decay as C14, but in different elements. While I’m not a geophysicist, I have had a couple conversations with geophysicists about the Oklo reactor in particular and I have a fairly certain understanding of what it is)


  32. I don’t dispute that causation is difficult, perhaps impossible, to prove in the sense that it is beyond all doubt. And I basically agree with you that one should not jump from the idea that science is a reasonable way of positing reliable theories about phenomenon to the idea that the scientific method can give us direct access to ‘reality’ (whatever one means by this) or describe the whole of reality. In other words, I agree with your individual points.

    What I cannot quite figure out is what you are trying to say with the whole article. Right now, it sounds like you are simply pointing out the scientific method cannot yield indisputable facts that explain the universe totally. So are you saying, as a lot of religious articles that advance this sort of argument do, that the emperor–err, scientist–has no clothes, and is just making assumptions? That her judgments are open to question just as much as anyone else’s beliefs? Or are you just chasing the most careless arguments that people in the new atheist camp make about science’s explanatory power? Or the public perceptions of what scientific knowledge is? Something else?

    I think you might need to make this clear that you are debunking a belief about science that few scientists make, but that some armchair philosophers might make.

    Perhaps this clarification should not be necessary, but you don’t state outright who you are writing against, and in the current faith vs. science environment, that makes your intent unclear.


  33. I don’t think I said otherwise. I merely said that the scientist doesn’t aim to answer those questions.

    I would argue that it is the mathematician (or theoretician, if we are talking more on the science side) that would appreciate the assumptions made by the underlying axioms and postulates that a proof is built on top of. It is precisely those axioms that make math work. A good scientist would also understand this and, at least, appreciate their research all the more.


  34. Prejudiced much?

    The history of the West seems to indicate that scholarship found its most fertile soil in the minds of churchmen. You will also find that the fundamental values (or assumptions as described in the article above) are common to both Fundamentalists and scientists. Much of Fundamentalist scholarship, whether related to textual criticism or Young Earth Creationism, is founded on the assumptions listed above. Basically, the assumptions above form the rules by which the game between science and religion is played.


  35. Justin, I would recommend an examination of Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Doug Hofstadter does an admirable job in his books showing the metaphysical assumptions foundational to all science. This post simply points out some of the assumptions which, in congruence with the Incompleteness Theorem, must be assumed to be true in order for science to work. They cannot be proven to be true. We can pile up evidence to suggest that they are in all probability true, but the nature of proof is such that the inductive tools of science cannot be used to demonstrate a future state to be true until after that state is in the past.

    Another book that may be helpful is Nicholas Teleb’s “The Black Swan” which shows the limits of inductive reasoning in the field of economics.


  36. I think that’s his point, Paul, that science is a model of reality, subject to experimentation and revision. Yet those who argue against religion from the standpoint of science often proceed as if these assumptions are “proven facts.” And yes, I have had plenty of conversations with people who were unaware of the tentative nature of their “proven facts.”

    I once read (and I wish I knew where to find it again) that Einstein didn’t really overturn Newton, but rather extended it. There was an elegant proof that showed how E = mc^2 was derived mathematically from Newton’s F = ma, i.e. that the force of an object is equal to mass times acceleration, with acceleration being distance divided by time squared. It was an elegant proof and one that Newton would have understood had Einstein been there to explain it to him. I wish I could remember where I had read that.


  37. It helps to have been a practicing scientist to know the difficulty of determining causation, Michael and Danielle. The hammer and window example seems oversimplified, but that is only because we are unaware of all the initial conditions. In other words, there may be something else going on that we are unaware of because we’re not watching for it. For instance there may be a tiny electrical discharge that propagates from the hammer to the glass and that is what does the actual breaking, not the force of the blow. Sound far-fetched? How would you prove me wrong? You’d do more experiments. Why? To show that nothing else is going on but the force of the hammer.

    If you want to see science at its most perplexed, ask it fundamental questions. I worked in research and development for both paint and adhesives companies. Both of these industries deal with surface chemistry. In neither industry does science have the definitive answer to the question, “Why does one thing stick to another?” There are theories, none of which account for all the phenomena. Fundamentally, no one really knows why one thing sticks to another. Why? Because we cannot see the interface between the two surfaces. You cannot observe the underside of paint where it sticks to a wall or where the glue and whatever you are sticking it to meet. We cannot devise an experiment that views this directly without altering the bond in some way.

    And that’s the bedrock of modern science – the controlled experiment. Good science identifies all the variables that can affect an experiment’s outcome and controls them all with the exception of the variable under investigation. Often, when scientific findings are refuted or overturned, it is in the discovery of an uncontrolled variable that was causing anomalous results in some experiments. Like particles traveling faster than the speed of light.


  38. Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk response on my part. The thing is, whenever religious people critique science, the subtext usually turns out to be something along the lines that since science is not as straightforward as it may appear, we can believe in talking donkeys or whatnot. In fact the values behind science (or scholarship in general) and religion are completely different, regardless of what we may make of various disputed beliefs.


  39. We should also be aware that many of these assumptions are also made by religion (well, by our religion and many others). The existence of an external universe particularly springs to mind here, but also the rationality required for theology: if the universe were irrational, for instance, we might very well conclude that God forgiving us means we’re all damned to Hell.


  40. I like what Daniel had to say in this post, and I also appreciate some of the push back it generated. Looking forward to the upcoming posts in this series.

    Some further thoughts I have on point 1: reality is rational (ordered, consistent, etc.). The scientific endeavor is all about looking for and describing patterns, and a pattern can only exist where there is order and repeatability, in fact I’m pretty sure that is the definition of a pattern. I really don’t think science in its purest sense has many underlying presuppositions, it is merely a game of pattern hunting and all of its formalisms are geared to make that game as accurate as possible. Luckily for all of us employed as scientists, our reality appears to be chock full of patterns to uncover and keep us busy. We have undoubtedly proven that reality contains much rationality (patterns). The error many scientists, or those who place their faith in science, make is to fallaciously draw the conclusion that reality contains only rationality. Data that do not adhere to a pattern are rightfully deemed unscientific, but that should not necessarily lead to the conclusion that they are unreal (though much skepticism is prudent). As Christians we believe things such as the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection, which are events completely without pattern yet perfectly historical and real.


  41. The scientist may not work with the philosophy that underpins his method, but that does not make it go away. In fact the scientist that understands it, will be a better scientist for it. It may make him more aware of the process and assumptions that occur e.g. between observation and evaluation.


  42. No. It does not get us to faith at all. It gets us to pragmatism. The scientific method works. We have tried it out and as a result, you and I are communicating by way of computers.


  43. “Except, science **does not** accept any metaphysical presuppositions.”

    Um….yes, it does. Can you prove the principle of non-contradiction scientifically?

    “If a hypothesis (idea in our mind) is shown through observation (external reality) to be false, it is thrown out.”

    Observation is not external reality, it is also in your mind. You believe, as I do, that our observations of phenomena reflect accurately the phenomena themselves as they actually exist. We agree that that is a true assumption, but it is not one that can be proven scientifically (you can’t step outside of your mind to check the correspondence) nor is it logically necessary (ask anyone with Charles Bonnet Syndrome).


  44. Just a few corrections – A photon cannot be “split” in two, photons are “entangled” which means they have this mysterious “spooky action at a distance” connection. Secondly, to the best of my knowlege it does ot “defy” Einsteinian Relativity since this process cannot transfer information between the two points. It does, however, provide a very secure way to encrypt normal (light speed) communication.


  45. First, I notice you offer no support for this statement, that is, no proof of it. You build upon it, but do nothing to prove it [Premise 1: “Rational” is an attribute that can only be applied to persons].

    You’re going to have to discuss that with Merriam-Webster or the English majors. I’m just using the standard dictionary definition(s), all of which imply a “mind” that is using reason as the basis for rationality, not an inanimate object. If we both can’t read and comprehend English, scientific rationality is the least of our problems.

    A person wrote the sonnet, with intent. A person drew the blueprint, with intent. The only reason a sonnet is rational and a mash of letters is not is the mind (or lack thereof) behind it.

    In science, observation is knowing.


  46. Justin, thanks for the chance to interact a little about this.

    Regarding my first point, you seem to be making the following argument:

    Premise 1: “Rational” is an attribute that can only be applied to persons
    Premise 2: Reality is not a person
    Conclusion: therefore it is nonsense to say that reality is rational.

    I will concede the form of the argument and the second premise. The first premise I will deny with the following points:

    First, I notice you offer no support for this statement, that is, no proof of it. You build upon it, but do nothing to prove it.

    Second, there is no good reason to restrict the semantic domain of the word “rational” to persons. For example, consider two sets of letters:
    Here is the first set of letters:

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
    Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
    And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
    And every fair from fair sometime declines,
    By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
    But thy eternal summer shall not fade
    Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
    Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
    When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

    And here is the second set of letters:
    Adfkjldaflklasjfkdasjfdasiouirjfmvjopifn jlojoi slkjkljall jlksjieowu sljfioujwo lajioueo woujlkjdl auoieu aljfoiaeuo owuie ua oljt

    Does not the first convey rationality in a way the second does not? In other words, the sonnet is not only the product of rationality, but itself displays rationality in its meaning, order, structure, and even beauty. With the second set of letters (chosen randomly from my keyboard) it would make no difference at all to mix up the order of the letters. With the first, it would corrode its being. Or, to change the analogy, a blueprint conveys order and internal consistency and so exhibits rationality. An explanation can be rational or irrational, as can an argument. That is why the very first definition of reason at is “agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible: a rational plan for economic development.”
    Thus I find your argument faulty, and not a valid objection to my first point.

    Although you call both my arguments gibberish and meaningless, I don’t notice any analysis of my second argument at all. Did I miss something?


  47. I enjoyed the article as well, I was forced to think about the scientific method from a different point of view.

    I’m not sure I see the hostility you see (other than some early comments). I think the consensus is that science doesn’t claim to prove the points above (other than the point about the uniformity of space-time, which Einstein proved with relativity and was later verified by experiment).

    I do like the approach though, very science-like. Throw some ideas out there and watch them get torn to shreds and potentially get turned into new and better ideas. The end result is scientists and philosophers (or theologians) talking. This discourse is occurring around the globe as we start seeing each discipline getting closer to the other as science starts answering some very tough questions. Questions that were (and..well..debatably are) answered by religion (or philosophy, at a deeper level). We’re seeing the next generation of conflicts occurring and it is exciting to watch 🙂


  48. It’s highlighting the metaphysical presuppositions upon which science rests and reminding us that they are metaphysical presuppositions, not scientific ones.

    Except, science **does not** accept any metaphysical presuppositions. If a hypothesis (idea in our mind) is shown through observation (external reality) to be false, it is thrown out. If it isn’t repeatable or consistent everywhere, it’s not accepted as scientific fact.

    Observation has shown order and consistency in many areas. Newton and Galileo hypothesized gravity. Einstein theorized it. Neil Armstrong put his life on the line proving it. To deny causation, observation, or uniformity is to deny so many things we take for granted in every day life. None of those three are accepted except by evidence supporting their fact.


  49. Hazardous? Who said anything about hazardous? He just said that science assumes certain philosophical premises in order to operate. In what way do you think that calls scientific knowledge into question?


  50. True that, Glenn! In fact, the author actually argues to the contrary! Several times he states that he accepts the philosophical/metaphysical assumptions he is pointing out.


  51. Oh, there have been plenty of articles questioning various religious assumptions over the years on this site. I find myself wondering, however, why you seem to imply a hostility (or at least dichotomy) between religion and science when the author of the blog post has not.


  52. The first two seem straightforward enough to me. Granted, ‘reality is rational’ doesn’t make much sense on its own, but he explains it- ” its makeup is such that it exhibits order and consistency, so that we can make predictions and postulate laws and theories”. Nothing nonsensical about that. And the second is simply saying that we take it for granted that the ideas in our minds and external reality can actually correspond.

    I don’t really understand why so many here are getting defensive or acting like this article is attacking science or calling it into question. It’s highlighting the metaphysical presuppositions upon which science rests and reminding us that they are metaphysical presuppositions, not scientific ones. As far as I can see, if the author actually wanted to attack science, the best way would be to argue on a philosophical level that the metaphysics assumed by the scientific method is invalid, illogical or faulty in some way, or argue in favour of a contrary metaphysics, but I don’t see him doing that anywhere here.


  53. Well, I, for one, really enjoyed this article and find myself a bit puzzled by some of the hostility apparent in the some of the comments. Surely we can still civilly discuss disagreements on this site. Unfortunately, as my graduate studies were in practical theology, I don’t have much to add to discussion of Daniel’s specific points. That said, it has me thinking about the relationship between philosophy and science and epistemology and theology, etc.

    Something I’ve often wondered is whether our rather specialized model for higher education is the best idea or whether we ought to have a more interdisciplinary approach to (at least) undergraduate studies. Even though my undergraduate degree was a BA in “Interdisciplinary Studies,” it was really all about the liberal arts. The science and math requirements were completely negligible. But how would it effect scientists to have more philosophy in their diet or vice versa? What if English Majors had to understand a mathematical proof? Could I be a better minister and theologian with some physics under my belt?

    I recently went out with a young woman who is less than a semester away from completing a biology degree. She asked me if in my theological training we were required to wrestle with issues of Darwinian evolution. I responded that we hadn’t and remarked that I’m enough of a theologian to recognize that I’m not a scientist. That was, of course, a way of dodging an issue I’m not qualified to address. But it’s also a little sad. Science certainly fascinates me. But I haven’t had to study it since high school. Maybe that ought not be the case.


  54. I see a majority of these arguments as philosophical ones. Am I wrong? The following operates on that assumption, so correct me if I’m wrong.

    The first thing I’d like to say is that the latest research out of CERN about the faster-than-light neutrinos might have the same fate as all of the other faster-than-light research that has come out in the past 20 years or so. That fate has mostly been, “oops, we measured wrong.” It is undergoing peer-review and reproduction so we’ll see some new results soon-ish.

    As far as the other arguments, I don’t think Science has ever made the claim to try to prove any of those things. Some people may have made those claims, but Science isn’t for those questions. As I mentioned above, those are mostly philosophical questions.

    Let’s first look at the scientific method.

    The scientific method all starts with noticing some pattern or phenomenon. Then a hypothesis is made, it could be a series of mathematical formulas or a simple statement. Next, the hypothesis is tested. Hopefully, the experiment controls for the appropriate variables. After the experiment is complete, the results are analyzed and the hypothesis is validated. This next part is the most important part. The previous steps are documented and published. This allows another team to validate the results and the process begins again.

    I am not a philosopher, so I’m not going to touch the above arguments (other than recognizing them as philosophical arguments). I am a scientist by training so I feel I am qualified to say that science doesn’t even attempt to answer the questions asked above. Science is about evidence. Science is about measuring and evaluating the world. We have to make the above assumptions because we are within the same universe in which we are measuring. In order to go outside those bounds, we must first validate that we can do such a thing.

    The next thing to say is that the language of Science, Mathematics, can address some of the above issues after point #5. The laws of logic are defined in the language of mathematics. While it is invented and we could argue over what a circle truly is, all mathematicians agree that a circle is a figure that exists on a single plane and is defined by all the points that are equidistant around a center point. Rotate that figure around the line segment that is the diameter for 2*pi radians and you have a sphere.

    It is the rules of mathematics that drive scientific discovery, if those rules were proven wrong then there would be a lot of explaining to do. Plenty of really smart people have spent their entire careers, and invented entire branches of mathematics (that have undergone the same scrutiny of peer-review as the scientific method) and are generally accepted as true.

    tl;dr – Science doesn’t aim to answer, or prove those questions true (or false). Science measures the world in which we live and makes no assumptions as to the veracity of the statements made. It merely measures what we can perceive.


  55. Fair enough. The first two are gibberish.

    “Reality” cannot be “rational”, if we take the definition of rational at face value. It’s a nonsense statement. Being rational implies a “mind” and cognition–i.e. a person–behind it. You seem to be anthropomorphizing “reality”, whatever that is. Are you ascribing some sort of consciousness to the material world? I doubt it…

    Science is generally based on two things: hypothesis and observation. To know something is simply to be able to observe it. Assuming you mean “reality” to be the material world, generally, anything we can observe is knowable. If scientists cannot observe it, their knowledge remains hypothetical and theories abound. We know what we observe. Are you saying that the material world is some sort of mirage? Again, I doubt it…

    Perhaps you can elaborate on what you mean by “reality”? The scientific definition or the philosophical one?

    Your first two arguments are meaningless in a scientific context, IMO.


  56. Don’t take it hard Daniel….I had to withdraw from chemistry in high school and transfered into an Anatomoy class…


  57. Even if one concedes all these points, that still doesn’t get you Christianity (or any known religion).

    Science–for all its faults and uncertainties–has accumulated a certain track-record of reliability and practicality, which no religious authorities can hope to match.

    Why not write a similar article calling religious knowledge into question? Surely its assumptions are even more hazardous than those of science…


  58. Glad I studied history… Anyone care to discuss Weimar Germany or the Cold War? How about the leadership of the Christian Democrats under Helmut Kohl? What about Nixon opening up China? I’m game 😀

    Want to stay closer to home….how about Watergate and how historians look at it? Or the role FDR played in the Depression with his New Deal politics. 😉


  59. I can’t help but notice that the comments lately have been focusing on whether the author is attacking science, is over his head (he is), or whether his arguments are new (as if he claimed originality). Surely it would be more profitable to discuss which of the arguments are actually true. I realize it is easier to make blanket statements about the author’s motive, qualifications or originality, but why no interaction with the gist of the arguments, especially the first two? This is what I had hoped for on imonk.


  60. Scrapiron, thanks for your comments. My goal was certainly not to attack science, nor to create new or novel arguments. My hope was to generate discussion.

    I agree completely with your last two paragraphs.


  61. The irony shows its face with industry relying on science such as geology or genetics to discover new oil or to develop new organisms. Then it debunks the science of others who try to warn of any dangers such as global warming or threats to agriculture, health, and the rights of poor farmers.

    And the extreme-leaning Christian conservatives that you mention rely on satellite TV to get their message out—that we shouldn’t trust science—at least not from “those” scientists.

    Laugh or cry?


  62. I agree that this article should not be attributed to imonk.

    I disagree with some of what Daniel has to say here, and yeah–it’s not real fresh, new and original. But I don’t think he is trying to launch an attack on science. Let’s take him at his word and accept that.

    What I get out of this article is a reminder that scientists themselves do not look upon anything they do as “proof.” That is just not a part of the scientific way of knowing. But the public has a real problem with ambiguity and uncertainty and would much prefer that the scientific community did know things for certain. (Witness the water-cooler grumbling about the science in your everyday life. Everything from the weather forecast to the medical reports in women’s magazines seem fuzzy, even contradictory.) So the public imposes this mythology of scientist as discoverer of immutable truths and of science as a collection of rock-solid facts. The dorky, know-it-all science geeks we all grew up with in high school didn’t help to dispel that myth either. But, in fact, it is the normal pattern of science (and its great hope) that our models and explanations will be overturned in an ever sharpening understanding of the nature of reality. Sometimes (very often, recently) that understanding includes being quite certain that there are some things that will never be certain!

    There is ultimately no conflict here between science and faith. Faith has not triumphed over science because of the items Daniel has mentioned. What these items point out to me is that science necessarily involves faith. And an appreciation for mystery. Which is why experiments are as much an act of worship as anything else human beings can do.


  63. This post is puzzling. First, it’s my impression that the author hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about. Second, I’m wondering what his scientific training or education is, if any. Finally, what’s the point (if it isn’t to denigrate science)?

    Science is not the same thing as philosophy. If we are arguing that science does not beget certainty, welcome to the club, because no scientist [really] claims that. That isn’t the objective. Paging Werner Heisenberg.

    At the same time, close enough is many times good enough.

    Jepsen seems over his skis on this one… but what do I know?


  64. Lynn, it was stated a couple of times at least that Daniel is not trying to undermine science. I agree that he isn’t, and is merely trying to show us a few problems with our understanding of it, hoping for us to understand it better.

    As for religious beliefs, he might also say that these can’t be proven rationally either. Protecting them should remain in the faith department.


  65. Actually it isn’t on the quantum level that causality would get muddy, but in ordinary special relativity. Everything else seems to obey the speed limit though, or at least behaves in ways consistent with it.


  66. Ditto. I get where Daniel is going with this, but #3 should have been presented another way, with a different example.

    Also, I don’t think physicists have really given up on the ideas of causation and knowability. It’s more that we have given up on the idea of exactness. Knowability and causation are still there–only a fool (or philosopher) would argue that my hammer really isn’t going to break that 100th window. What’s happening on the atomic scale when the hammer interacts with the glass is where the uncertainty lies.

    It would be really cool if Polkinghorne were reading this. I’d like to hear his comment.


  67. For those interested, one of the most interesting results of quantum theory is called the EPR paradox. Consider the following:

    Emit from the same light source twin photons, photon A and photon B and these particles are phase correlated (means twin like) and let them travel away from each other and separate by a great distance. If you in some way observe and change some attribute of particle A and then measure particle B you will find that particle B has been affected by the change in Photon A. Particle B has changed instantaneously even though it is separated by a great distance. Some how, the particles are interconnected even though they are physically separated by a great distance. This definitely violates Einsteinian Relativity, information cannot be transferred faster than the speed of light.

    This has been confirmed by experiment. Nicolas Gisin in 1997 split a single photon into two smaller photons and sent them down fiber optic cable in opposite directions. When the photons where about 10 kilometers apart they ran into a detector. Gisin found that even though a large distance separated the photons, something done to one photon at one end very much affected the photon at the other end, and that this happened instantaneously, faster than the speed of light.

    In other words, one thing “causes” another even though there is not time for anything (light, information, etc…) to travel from one to the other. Causation is not as simple as we think.


  68. Please fix the author name. It says this was written by imonk. It was not and imonk wouldn’t have written something like this in the first place, just more trying to undermine science in order to protect religious beliefs. These ideas are old and have been around for quite some time and get trotted out as if they actually are truthful an dmean something.


  69. The ‘war against science’ is aided and abetted by industries that don’t want scientific information to be accepted that might alert the public about product development problems . . . ie. effects of manufacturing on the environment, etc.

    The industries are owned by powerful and wealthy corporations who control media think-tanks. Many of these think-tanks field lobbyists and also feed into right-wing media, where extreme-leaning Christian conservatives eat up all of the propaganda that science is flawed in its discoveries.
    Thus, the polluting and destructive industries maintain their production levels, seek to end inspections and government controls set up for protection of the public, and many Christian conservative people follow right on behind the agendas of these big corporations.

    So much for solidarity with the ‘common good’.


  70. “This gets messy on the quantum level, because if it’s getting here before it started out, then A causes B is no longer universally binding, since B can precede A. And since everything is made out of atoms, this has a ripple effect on up: from the quantum level, to the atomic level, to the level of all the stuff atoms made up – us and the world around us.

    Of course, for ordinary purposes, A causes B will still hold true in the macrocosm – your hammer will break the glass when it hits it; the glass will not break before it is hit. But on the PHILOSOPHICAL level, causality will go from a universal constant to a relative thing.

    And that is undermining one of the bases upon which the philosophy of the scientific method is built, viz. that there are repeatable events which we can observe and forecast because we understand their behaviour because there are fundamental, unchangeable principles underpinning that behaviour.”

    Thank you, Martha, for not only getting the point I was trying to make, but expressing it better than I did myself.

    Also, your notes about Islamic science are very interesting, and answered some questions that I had.


  71. Police officer: SIr, do you realize you just ran through a red light at that last intersection?
    Motorist: Officer, To be honest, I was driving so fast, that light was BLUE!


  72. Interesting. I had not heard of the Oklo reactor.

    I agree that science, by the nature of things, must assume uniformity and constancy, unless we have complete knowledge of the all time and all places. I don’t think this is an invalid assumption; my point is simply that it is a metaphysical assumption, not a proven fact.


  73. “Because I applied a measurable force that had a measurable effect.”

    Yes. Also, because you can repeat this particular experiment over and over, and keep getting the same result. Scientists do not claim to know anything with absolute certainty. All propositions are open to revision when new evidence presents itself. What they do claim is that ‘facts’ about the observable and testable universe can be ascertained with relatively high degree of certainty compared to other kinds of claims. If you repeat the glass experiment 99 times, and the same pressure applied to the same materials under the same conditions gets the same result every time, you can be reasonably sure about your judgement. If you repeat 1000 or 1 million times, all the better.

    To pick everyone’s tried and true example, gravity could stop working tomorrow, but in all recorded human history it hasn’t. Thus, it is reasonable to assume a constant law of gravity is in operation, and no reason to think it will change tomorrow or has not worked in the past, unless novel evidence presents itself. When that happens, everyone will be fascinated and very glad to publish grand theoretical papers revising current models.


  74. Simply put: Science provides a working model of how the universe works, and that model is subject to change as new knowledge comes to light. A scientific model is useful where it helps us to explain observations and develop technology.


  75. The Oklo reactor (a naturally occurring nuclear fission reactor that “operated” about 2 billion yrs. ago in Gabon) has been used to confirm that alpha (the fine structure constant important in many nuclear processes) has remained constant over time.

    In many instances, yes, science is left to assume uniformity and constancy of physics. But it is not inherently untestable.


  76. The speed of light is probably not the best example; it is simply the first to come to my mind. Perhaps carbon 14 dating would be a better example.

    In any case, I think the larger point stands. If I have reason to believe that the laws of nature only apply to the right now and right here, than anything beyond limited statements about present phenomena would be unsupportable.


  77. Yes, Jeff, that was my main point. Obviously in everyday terms we speak of one thing causing another. But at least since Hume and Kant we have seen how problematic it is to say we “know” causation. Many philosophers and scientists are skeptical that we can know the cause of a phenomenon, and some would deny the idea of causation.


  78. How do we know the pane of glass in your example did not just deteriorate on its own and crumble at the same time your hammer made contact with it? Or that the breaking of the glass did not in some way initiate the throwing of the hammer.

    Because I applied a measureable force that had a measureable effect.

    According to Newton’s first law of motion – “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”

    But I think that I would have failed Philosophy 101 if I had had the opportunity to take it. 🙂


  79. Yeah, I found issue with #3 as well. Astronomy allows us to look well into the past. The further away you look into the universe with a telescope, the further back in time you are looking. You can observe things like gravitational lensing of distant galaxies and confirm the speed of light was the same billions of years ago as it is now. Recent studies of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) provide a look at the physics of the universe shortly after the big bang.

    The possible changing of physical constants is a very well known challenge and one that can indeed be addressed. The discovery of dark energy, for instance, which was just awarded the Nobel prize, could easily be explained away if you let the speed of light change of over time. The fact that other observations confirm the speed of light is constant brings dark energy into being, and a few physicists $1M richer.


  80. I think (and speaking as only a poor, wretched biologist here) that IF and it’s a big “if”, but if the particles in CERN really do travel faster-than-light, that means either (a) the speed of light as we measure it is not a constant but only applies in our local universe, which means it could be faster or slower in other parts of the multiverse and (b) we would have a particle arriving at its destination before we saw it coming (because the particle would be traveling faster than the light by which we see it).

    This gets messy on the quantum level, because if it’s getting here before it started out, then A causes B is no longer universally binding, since B can precede A. And since everything is made out of atoms, this has a ripple effect on up: from the quantum level, to the atomic level, to the level of all the stuff atoms made up – us and the world around us.

    Speaking as a poor, wretched economics major, whose physics knowledge does not extend much beyond high school, so read my response accordingly.

    I think you have made a number of false assumptions here:

    1. If the particles in CERN travel faster than the speed of light, it means that the particles in CERN traveled faster than the speed of light. It does not necessarily mean that a) the speed is not a constant of only applies in our local universe.

    2. While b is true, (something could arrive before we saw it), that does not mean that something could arrive “before it started”, only that it could arrive faster than light. Perhaps the speed of neutrinos relative to light is analogous to the speed of light relative to sound. The only issue here is that we thought light was the fastest standard while it apparently is not.

    If it was true that something could arrive before it started, then my facebook status from last week would make infinitely more sense!

    We don’t allow faster than light neutrinos in here,” said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

    As it was only my quasi-geeky friends got the joke.


  81. Valid points. As I read the writings of Albert Camus, a rational universe is not an automatic assumption. But theists need to be careful. Because science cannot prove the existence of a rational universe does not justify irrationalism, i.e. because science cannot answer my question does not give me license to believe in the existence of pink unicorns. Einstein warned religion against taking “refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.” Because a scientist answers “I don’t know” or “I don’t know yet” does not invalidate science nor does it validate religion. Theists need to be careful about using the argument that the universe is rational because it is rational to God, even when it is not rational to us. Too often Christians accept tragedy as rational, because someday we’ll all understand in the sweet by-and-by when we meet Jesus. One must look before making irrational leaps.


  82. I wish I had time, but he has #3 pretty much completely wrong factually – we do know the speed of light in the past. There have been lots and lots and lots of measurements of light way into the past that show it traveled at the same speed.


  83. I think (and speaking as only a poor, wretched biologist here) that IF and it’s a big “if”, but if the particles in CERN really do travel faster-than-light, that means either (a) the speed of light as we measure it is not a constant but only applies in our local universe, which means it could be faster or slower in other parts of the multiverse and (b) we would have a particle arriving at its destination before we saw it coming (because the particle would be travelling faster than the light by which we see it).

    This gets messy on the quantum level, because if it’s getting here before it started out, then A causes B is no longer universally binding, since B can precede A. And since everything is made out of atoms, this has a ripple effect on up: from the quantum level, to the atomic level, to the level of all the stuff atoms made up – us and the world around us.

    Of course, for ordinary purposes, A causes B will still hold true in the macrocosm – your hammer will break the glass when it hits it; the glass will not break before it is hit. But on the PHILOSOPHICAL level, causality will go from a universal constant to a relative thing.

    And that is undermining one of the bases upon which the philosophy of the scientific method is built, viz. that there are repeatable events which we can observe and forecast because we understand their behaviour because there are fundamental, unchangeable principles underpinning that behaviour.

    To take the effect this would have, what Mike Flynn points out about “How come Muslim science, which was doing better in comparison to European science in the early period, stagnated and never gave rise to the same revolution as in Europe?” – part of the answer is the denial of objective laws of nature:

    “Islam began with a region that had a layer of Hellenism a thousand years thick, so it is no surprise that the grandchildren of those Byzantine Greeks and Syriacs kept up their study of Aristotle. They ran into a wall, though with the Qur’anic scholars. Not having the concept of synderesis [conscience] from Plato’s Timeaus and/or Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chap 2., the dominant school of ijtahid, the Ash’ari, did not acknowledge that human reason was capable of reaching correct conclusions in morality. If you wanted to know right from wrong, you looked in the book, not in your heart. This was extended to reaching correct conclusions about nature. (And it is interesting to note that except for al Kindi, all the great faylasuf were non-Arabs: ibn Sina was Persian, ibn Rushd was Spanish, and so on.) The final pillow on the face was Al-Ghazali, who wrote in The Incoherence of Philosophy that fire did not burn cloth. All we can really see is that the one event is followed by the other. God causes the fire and God causes the cloth to blacken and distintegrate, and it was only the “habit of God” that one followed the other. The Spanish Jew Maimonides and the Spanish Muslim ibn Rushd ridiculed and tried to rebut him, but both had to “leave town in a hurry.” The rival mu’tazilite school did take a rationalist approach, and it is an interesting counterfactual speculation how things might have turned out had they come out on top.

    In terms of our pyramid, the muslims had many brilliant minds – we can almost lay them out in parallel columns with the Latins — but simply not enough of them and they always had an uphill fight. (Even kalam – theology – was viewed with suspicion by the traditional scholars. Apply logic and reason to sharia? Oy!) They did, however, find appreciative audiences – and full credit – in Latin Europe.

    At the root of it: The muslims never had an Aquinas to reconcile their belief in God’s infinite power and freedom of will with the basics of Aristotelian metaphysics and physics.”


  84. I think Daniel’s point here is that we cannot prove cause and effect. How do we know the pane of glass in your example did not just deteriorate on its own and crumble at the same time your hammer made contact with it? Or that the breaking of the glass did not in some way initiate the throwing of the hammer.

    Anyway, you did get Daniel’s overall thesis: Science needs these five agenda items to exist, but it cannot prove any of them. Gets us right back to faith, doesn’t it?


  85. (With eyes slightly glazed over…) Huh? I think I understood your main point, but I really got lost on your subpoints.

    For example causation. Surely from the laws of physics we can see cause and effect… action and reaction… incidence and reflection? Using the hammer and window pane example, can I not calculate the force applied by the hammer, and see if that force exceeds the breaking point of the glass?


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