Our most reliable pathway to truth
A few weeks ago I took part in a survey conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I was asked the question: If you had just six words to advocate for science, what would you say? My six-word answer was: Our most reliable pathway to truth.
The organisers now tell me that my answer has been selected for publication and they want me to answer some supplementary questions. Of that, more later.
But some of my friends might contest the idea that science is our most reliable pathway to truth.
Fundamentalist friends might say divine revelation is our most reliable pathway to truth.
Rationalist friends might say logic and reason are our most reliable pathway to truth.
Lawyers, judges and politicians might say free and open debate is our most reliable pathway to truth.
So why do I think differently?
Divine revelation would indeed be a wonderful source of truth if only we could be sure that what we call divine revelation really IS divine revelation. But it is all too easy to be mistaken about this. For instance, Jim Taylor declared that he only said what the Lord gave him to say, and yet he spouted loads of appalling rubbish. He thought it was divine revelation when clearly it was not.
John Hales depended on the Bible to settle facts about the physical universe, but every time he did this he got it completely wrong (climate change, the age of meteorites, how diamonds are formed, problems of overpopulation and what happened to the bones of animals killed in the flood). He thought his interpretation of the Bible amounted to divine revelation, but the Bible is rich in poetry and metaphor and he went hopelessly wrong by taking the most literal meaning out of it, as well as making assumptions about the scope of its statements.
What about logic and reason? Why do I think science is better than they are? First, because science uses logic and reason, but has the advantage of using more than logic and reason. It uses observations of the events around us, including observation of the results of experiments. Secondly, logic and reason by themselves have never been able to tell us much about the material universe. They can tell us everything about mathematics, and they can tell us what kind of universes are possible, but by themselves, without observation, they can’t tell us what kind of universe actually exists.
If you stick to the recognised rules of propositional logic or predicate logic then you can construct valid arguments that are extremely reliable, more reliable even than science; indeed, I know of not a single instance where they have failed, but their scope is limited. On their own, without the rest of science, they can’t make us healthy, wealthy, wise, safe, peaceful or civilised.
What about free and open debate as a pathway to truth? It’s a good idea, but if many of the people engaging in the debate are ill-informed, or if they are driven by feelings, emotions and partisan loyalties, then it is just as likely to be a pathway to prejudice. Recent events in the UK, the USA and some European countries provide troubling examples of this. Some internet debates are even worse. But compared with debate, the methods of science are relatively immune to feelings, emotions and partisan loyalties.
So how reliable IS science, and what can it do for us?
Scientific knowledge is never quite 100 per cent reliable, and its scope is limited too. It can tell us a lot about what is true or false, but it can’t tell us much about what is good or bad, or what is beautiful or ugly. For these questions we often have to turn to religion, philosophy and the arts.
But despite its limitations, science has contributed massively to our wellbeing. It has controlled or eradicated many of our diseases; it has given us many methods of generating wealth; it has massively expanded our ability to feed our populations; it has helped us to understand what drives human behaviour, and thereby how to promote peace and safety. It has solved many of the pressing problems that have afflicted humanity, and it has the potential to solve many of the problems that remain. And by its predictive power it has revealed to us emerging problems that we would not otherwise have known about, giving us the opportunity to prevent future disasters.
It also has cultural value. By revealing to us the vast scale and age of the universe, and the staggering complexity of living things, and by recognising our huge areas of ignorance, it engenders humility and awe. By following evidence wherever it may lead, it engenders honesty. By providing honest and respected criteria of truth, it protects us against deceivers and controllers, and thereby protects our liberty.
For all these reasons, it has the potential to demolish Exclusive Brethrenism. No wonder BDH said, “I hope we don't have any would-be scientists.” See BDH Vol 80 page 89-90 (Newtown, 10 October 2008).