Neillology Debates: Is Science the Only Way to Know Truth?

“Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” – Harry Kroto, Nobel Prize Winner (Chemistry)

This post is the beginning of a new segment at Neillology where I will share highlights of my debates on various topics of interest to my readers. Enjoy!

Is science the only way to know truth?

Many Atheists appeal to the methods of science as the only reliable way for human beings to discover truth…

This is an old and, I think, well defeated philosophy. In short, the position is self-defeating. I.E. The claim “all truths are scientific truths” is not itself a scientific truth! And, therefore, it must be false by the arguer’s own standard.

However, the notion that science is the only objective source of truth is still very common on the popular level (as we will see).

The following is my interaction with a recent entry on the blog “Escaping Christian Fundamentalism”. Read the full entry here.

Gary (atheist)when it comes to personal experiences, it is certainly possible that supernatural events occur in the lives of individuals, events which, by definition, defy the laws of science, thereby making it impossible to validate the veracity of these claims with the standard methods used by science.

However, atheists such as myself do not claim that it is impossible that events which cannot be measured and quantified by science do not occur.  They very well may.  What we state is that if one is going to make a universal truth claim; a claim that is true for every person, at all times, and in every location, then there must be verifiable evidence to support such a claim using universally accepted standards of evidence.  Subjective preferences and personal experiences are not sufficient for universal truth claims.

So, if you as a Christian wish to believe that a first century Jewish baby was born of a virgin mother, fathered by a (holy) ghost, and given supernatural powers that give him the ability to grant you life after death, that is your certainly your choice.  But don’t expect most modern, educated non-believers to accept these fantastical claims as fact without quality evidence!

The problem for Christians is:  quality evidence does not exist for your 2,000 year old supernatural tale.


Neillology responds…

Taylor (Neillologist): Gary, I think these two quotes (both by you) are incompatible with one another.

  1. “it is certainly possible that supernatural events occur in the lives of individuals, events which, by definition, defy the laws of science, thereby making it impossible to validate the veracity of these claims with the standard methods used by science.”
  2. “if one is going to make a universal truth claim; a claim that is true for every person, at all times, and in every location, then there must be verifiable evidence to support such a claim using universally accepted standards of evidence.”

In the first quote you state that supernatural events are possible, but not scientifically testable because, by order of logic, science only explores the natural world, and the supernatural is, by definition, beyond the scope of nature.

In the second quote, you say that only scientifically verifiable truths can be universal.

BUT, if a supernatural event did occur, the reality of that event would be universally true by your own definition! Thus, in contradiction to your argument, this would be an example of a universal truth that is not scientifically verifiable.

Perhaps you mean that we should not CLAIM a universal truth unless it can be accessed by the methods of science?  But that compounds the issue further!

To explain, the following statement

“if one is going to make a universal truth claim… then there must be verifiable evidence to support such a claim using universally accepted standards of evidence (science)” 

is itself a universal truth claim that is NOT accessible by the methods of science!

So this whole interaction turns out to be an example of the self-refuting nature of the belief that all truth is scientific truth… Itself not a scientific truth.


What do YOU think? Did I get it right or does Gary have a point? What do you think about the debate format for Neillology? Let me know in the comments and click subscribe if you want to see new posts as soon as they’re published!

Have a topic that you would like to see addressed? Email me at neillology@gmail.com

If you want to see Gary’s response, the debate continues on page 2!

5 Comments

  1. Taylor,
    Though there is an extent to which Gary is not clearly responding to your specific point, there is also a sense in which you appear to have missed his attempt to clarify. When he said “I can only demonstrate the reliability of the Scientific Method compared to all other methods” he was offering a way to use “science” (loosely understood as empirical observation with scrutiny) to validate his claim. To clarify, consider an experiment where we collect thousands of truth claims that originate from a variety of methods of obtaining knowledge, and we then then assess the reliability of those claims. The contention is that claims based on science will prove more reliable.

    But your point ultimately shows that even this doesn’t solve the matter because the method of assessing reliability needs to itself be reliable, which puts us into a position of either simply asserting the reliability of our assessment method, or an infinite regress of experiments as described above. This is why I tend to align myself with pragmatism and coherentism, where we assume the reliability of our faculties for learning about reality and then put them to the test to see how that assumption holds up (the coherentism part means we’re looking for the assumption and subsequent review to hang together, rather than just resting on the assumption entirely, as a foundationalist would). That brings us to the place where Gary is starting from, and after putting this pragmatic starting point in place I think it is a valid observation to note that science turns out to be the most reliable methodology for establishing truth claims.

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    1. Travis, thanks for your input.

      I do understand what Gary (and now you) are trying to establish. And, indeed, I agree that science is very useful in helping us discover the nature of reality. But of course science is not diminished by understanding the role of logic and philosophy which are presupposed by science!

      Re: Coherentism – this is what I would describe as ‘philosophical consistency’ and you’ll notice that it is one of the “first principles” of this blog.

      I think where we may part ways is on pragmatism. Obviously, the approach has significant practical application (as the name implies), but I think many with this view have ultimately said “if it works, then it must be true”. I don’t think this is a fail-safe way to determine what is true.

      For instance, we’re pragmatic to assume that we’re not in the Matrix, but it does not follow that “therefore, we are not in the Matrix”. Or if you like, we’re pragmatic to assume that we have free will, but it does not follow that we do have free will. In fact, many biologists conclude that we are actually not free but are determined by our biology and surroundings. I think this too is a self-defeating ideology (how could you know you’re not free if your belief that you’re not free was predetermined?), but this can not be logically deduced from pragmatism.

      So it is an effective, but flawed epistemology in my view.

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  2. Pragmatism allows that truth is provisional. The alternatives are radical skepticism (we can never absolutely prove anything), which may be accurate but isn’t useful, or the unwavering adherence to some unjustified paradigm. If you allow that the paradigm can be updated based on new knowledge and experience, then that’s actually pragmatism. In my opinion, the fact that we can look back and see that our previous truth claim was actually in error is a virtue, not a vice.

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      1. Yep. Judging the truth of pragmatism itself from within the pragmatic framework is circular (How do you know it’s true? Because it works) but I don’t see why that is inferior to any other epistemological bedrock. At least it works 😉

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