The Light of the World
Posted by evanescent on 16 June, 2007
I’ve talked about science a lot lately on here and with friends, discussing the pros and cons. I don’t want to overkill the points here but there are things that need to be said. So I’ll just share with you my musings and we’ll see where we go:
I’d like to explain briefly what science is and isn’t and what it does and doesn’t do, but this list will not be exhaustive.
First, despite what New Agers, pseudoscientists, or Joe Philosophy with his own metaphysical worldview might think, science doesn’t dismiss anything a priori. Science does not have a list of rights and wrongs and check off new ideas against them. Science doesn’t assume it knows everything and that its theories can’t be changed.
Science tries to understand everything in the world around us. It doesn’t pretend that it can know everything. It doesn’t say that the supernatural doesn’t exist. It doesn’t say that god doesn’t exist. It doesn’t say that chi doesn’t exist. It doesn’t say that metaphysics or spirituality is rubbish.
Science uses natural explanations of the natural world. It tests claims. It tries to disprove claims. This is important, because if one tries to confirm something, one can look for things that confirm an idea and ignore things that don’t. In other words, if it’s true or false, it might always appear true. But, if you start out with an explanation and try to disprove it, if it’s true you will still prove it and if it’s false you will disprove it, but what you can never do is prove it if it’s false! That’s the difference.
Despite science’s great track record, some people don’t like science because they don’t like playing by the rules. It’s as simple as that. If you make a claim and want others to believe it, you should test it. If it fails a fair controlled test then maybe it’s just wrong!
Now, it’s been said that there are some things that science can’t explain. Ok fair point, there might be. Anyone care to give an example? You will find that the things science ‘can’t explain’ are things designed to be so mysterious, intangible, and ethereal that they are by definition unknowable! (e.g.: the supernatural). Science isn’t some special rigid limited way of getting knowledge that we can use in some situations and not others. We all use science in some way every day. Does something work? Test it, re-test it. Try and disprove it. Explain how it works. Make predictions with it. Surely that’s just common sense? That’s what we should do to test any claim.
When someone asks to remove their beliefs from the study of science, they’re basically asking for the easy way out; for special treatment. What they want is to believe comfortably, or make others believe by making science out to be the bad guy! “Oh well there are some things that science can’t explain!” Really? It’s funny that, because people have been saying that for thousands of years, and every time there has been a mystery it’s been solved by empirical evidence, natural explanation, tests, re-tests, and logical natural theories. Nothing in human history has ever been solved by supernatural explanations. Ever. EVER. That doesn’t mean that the supernatural doesn’t exist. But come on, how many times does this have to happen before we admit that ok, science just might be pretty good at discovering stuff; more so than anything else we’ve got.
What I’m saying is that people of a more metaphysical disposition, that is, more likely to believe in gods, spirits, chi, karma, spirituality, ghosts, vitalism, TM, synchronicity, Freud etc, recoil at the label ‘science’ as if it were an enemy, but embrace it if it seems to support them. But science is just another way of saying “testing claims in controlled conditions, objectively, using evidence and rationality, and explaining what happens naturally.” I can’t see what the problem is! What other way is there of finding out if something works or not than this?! If someone says they can cure your brain tumour with a crystal, wouldn’t your very first question be “how do you know it works?” Well that’s all science does. But it is ruthless and has no preference, sentiment, or favourites. And if you can’t demonstrate your claim repeatedly under controlled conditions, that’s not science’s fault! No one in their right mind would accept anything less than this, but when you put the label ‘science’ on it, all of a sudden these types of people think they’re being badly done to.
I know many would like to believe that there is another world beyond the scope of science, and as long as they believe this their beliefs can last a little longer, (before science shines a light in these regions and maybe blows their beliefs out the water too). This way of hiding beliefs in the recesses of the unknown is called the God of the Gaps fallacy. It basically works by saying “we can’t explain X, so [insert your belief here] did it”. That could be God, aliens, chi, etc.
However, history has shown that science eventually figures most things out. That’s not to say that it always will. But, if science can’t do it, why the hell should anything else be able to?!
Science can be wrong. Science has been wrong in the past. E.g.: the theory of plate tectonics. But when science was proved wrong; when the existing scientific theory was disproved, it was disproved by other scientists! It was disproved by a better scientific theory! Science has never been proven wrong by religion or faith. No scientific theory has ever been defeated by a supernatural one. Ever. It has never happened.
In fact, what tends to happen is that we start out not knowing something. Religion, faith, superstition, and the supernatural have a go at explaining it. We gain knowledge, we study it, we test it, and we come up with a testable natural explanation that clears everything up. Why does it rain? Why is the sky blue? What causes thunder? What is the sun? What happens after death? Where do we come from?
One by one, what appear to be questions beyond the scope of science and firmly in the realm of pseudoscience, metaphysics, religion, and faith, actually get answered by science. So perhaps they were answerable all along! Maybe, just maybe, these questions aren’t beyond science. Maybe, just maybe, certain parties with a vested interest in having it their way don’t like what science has to say so just reject it! E.g.: evolution. I know if evolution is fact it blows apart most monotheistic beliefs. Well guess what, evolution is a fact. So what? I don’t feel sorry for you. Get over it. It’s called accepting the facts. If creationism was true you’d want everyone else to accept it! So now it’s your turn.
Unfortunately, for those who side against science, they’ve picked a rather one-sided war. A war with no victories for them and only defeats. Note: not accepting a defeat doesn’t stop it from being one. You’d think these people would have learned by now! But because they don’t like to play by the rules it’s easy to paint science as the evil atheistic sledgehammer with an agenda. (Science is equally viable for theists and atheists.) But the rules are fair and objective, so when someone says their belief is beyond science, what they’re saying is that it can’t be proved fairly or objectively. Now, if you’re happy with that kind of basis for belief that’s your choice, but I’m not!
And this is why, and it’s so simple!: if you have the truth on your side, what have you got to hide?! The ones who shy away from tests, analysis, scrutiny, facts, and evidence, have probably got something that isn’t worth testing, analysing, scrutinising, and has no facts or evidence to support it. In other words, if you don’t want to live in the dark you’ve got nothing to fear from the light.
Science is a spotlight. Nothing more, nothing less.
To say there is something beyond science is really to say there is something beyond the world we can detect. I cannot strictly say this isn’t true, but I will say that it is so capricious and whimsical as to be meaningless. Yes, I suppose there could be something beyond this world, and a fish with a trunk could be an elephant. But if there is something we can’t detect in any measurable way, then how can it have any measurable effect on us? In other words, what is the point talking about it, as it would be meaningless in the world we live in anyway? One might as well talk about alternative universes or parallel dimensions.
So if this world is all there is, and science is the best way to study this world, how can anyone have a problem with it? To paraphrase Richard Dawkins: if science can’t figure it out, then sure as hell nothing else can!