Is science the only valid road to knowledge?

Editor’s note: Scientism as an epistemological approach is debunked in this article. Materialists and naturalists are also welcome to comment on this.

‘MYSTICALLY’ SPEAKING, RICHARD DAWKINS, the famed author of popular science books such as the controversial The God Delusion (2006), has an unquestioning allegiance to his own ‘god’ – science. Like many other naturalists, Dawkins sees science as having the power to untangle most, if not all, the mysteries of the universe without the need of the supernatural and thus believes that ultimately science can triumphantly address almost every problem. [3]

Hard-boiled materialists concede that science has not discovered all that has to be discovered and that it has not answered all the questions that have been asked. Their ready answer nevertheless, when pressed to give an explanation for currently unexplainable phenomenon, is the faith-laden “science is working on it.” In a radio debate with David Quinn on October 9, 2006 in The Ryan Tubridy Show, Dawkins, for instance, responded five times with a variant of “science is working on it” when challenged to explain the existence of matter [4].

Some problems in Dawkins’ “science is the only road to knowledge” theory

Is science really the only route to knowledge? Indian medical doctor and writer Deepak Chopra answers thus:

“Obviously not. I know that my mother loved me all her life, as I love my own children. I feel genius in great works of art. None of this knowledge is validated by science. I have seen medical cures that science can't explain, some seemingly triggered by faith. The same is true of millions of other people. I know that I am conscious and have a self, even though Dawkins--along with many arch materialists--doesn't believe that consciousness is real or that the self is anything but a chemical illusion created in the brain. By Dawkins’ reasoning a mother’s love is no more real than God as neither can be empirically quantified.” [8] (emphasis added)

But before enumerating more of what we believe as true knowledge which science does not and cannot validate, let’s first look into what experts in science themselves say about science as a tool in getting knowledge.

Methodology of science is ‘circular’

Without dishonoring science, philosopher of science and professor at CambridgeUniversity Mary Hesse reveals the truth in the nature of its methodology. She admits that the methodology of science is “irreducibly circular” – “the parts cannot be understood without the whole, which itself depends on the relation of the parts”. “Data and concepts”, she discloses, “cannot be understood without theory and context which themselves depend on relations of data and concepts”. [9]

Hessesummarizes the post-empiricist view of science in five points. The first two of which state:

1. In natural science data [are] not detachable from theory, for what count as theory are determined in the light of some theoretical interpretation, and the facts themselves have to be reconstructed in the light of interpretation.

2. In natural science theories are not models externally compared to nature in a hypothetico-deductive schema, they are the way the facts themselves are seen. [10] (emphasis added)

Gold Medalist of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1959 R.A. Lyttleton (F.R.S) boldly taught that in science, it is of the utmost importance to recognise that no secure meaning or interpretation can be given to any observations until they are understood theoretically, or at best in terms of some hypothesis and theory based on it whether right or wrong.” [11] He proclaims that science has strangely ‘paradoxical nature’,

“… for the observations of phenomena are first needed to inspire someone to imagine an appropriate theory, yet they (the observations) cannot be claimed to be properly understood until a formal theory of them is available, and especially is this so where new phenomena are concerned when there are no (theoretical) means whereby the relevance of observations or experiments can be safely assessed. There can be no “facts”, no reliable “evidence”, until there are hypotheses and theories to test out. [12]

One bad consequence of this is that there are theories in science the main evidence of which “often consists of no more than a sedulously conducted campaign of repetitious empty verbal propaganda assertively leading the shallow conclusion that the theory is now ‘generally accepted’” [14].

‘Absence of objectivity and fixed set of rules’ in scientific investigation

Because “no scientist can collect data without some theory biasing what he or she thinks is a relevant observation” [15], it follows thus that “complete objectivity in a scientific investigation is an illusion” and that “the alleged scientific method is a myth.” [16]

So how do scientists work? Professor Emeritus of Biology in Universityof Detroit Paulinus F. Forsthoefel admits that scientists work with subjective or mixed motives: “establishing the truth of the matter, establishing priority and recognition for themselves, securing possible financial profits” [17]. The professor adds: “Scientists, whether working alone or as part of a group, form a community. They accept the ‘paradigm’ of the community and offer their contributions on the basis of the paradigm adopted by the community at the time….” [18].

The Microsoft Encarta 2006 under the topic “Scientific Method” backs this up by revealing that, “Scientists, like other human beings, may individually be swayed by some prevailing worldview to look for certain experimental results rather than others, or to “intuit” some broad theory that they then seek to prove.” [19]

Connectedly, Royal Medalist of the Royal Society R.A. Lyttleton discloses:

“When it comes to the question of how new ideas are to be arrived at, we meet up with the little-recognized fact that there is no such thing as “the scientific method”: there is no formal procedure, no fixed set of rules, whereby new problems can be tackled or the correct interpretation of data in a new rigidly attained or whereby the necessary ideas to establish new principles can be reached by logical induction.” [20] (emphasis added)

Meaning in science does not necessarily correspond with facts

Professor Hesse summarizes the post-empiricist view of science in five points. The last three of the points are outcomes of the first two mentioned already:

3. In natural science the lawlike relations asserted of experience are internal, because what count as facts are constituted by what the theory says about their inner-relations with one another.

4. The language of natural science is irreducibly metaphorical and inexact, and formalizable only at the cost of distortion of the historical dynamics of scientific developments and of the imaginative construction in terms of which nature is interpreted by science.

5. Meanings in natural science are determined by theory; they are understood by theoretical coherence rather than by correspondence with facts. [21] (emphasis added)

Notice that these clearly bare, among others, that meaning in science does not necessarily correspond with facts.

Scientific knowledge is subject to change & cannot claim complete certainty

The desire for complete certainty of belief or disbelief in anything, according to R.A. Lyttleton, “not only is undesirable scientifically, but it must be recognized that no such state is attainable in science.

However successful and reliable a theory my be up to any point of time, further data may come along and show a need for adjustment of the theory, while at the other extreme, however little confidence one has in a new hypothesis, new data may change the situation.” [22] (emphasis added)

No less an authority than the National Academy of Sciences likewise directly declared that “all scientific knowledge is, in principle, subject to change as new evidence becomes available.” [23]

Science cannot answer with finality great questions in life

In his book Inference to the Best Explanation (2004), Peter Lipton explains further why it is not in the nature of science to provide sure knowledge. He clarifies that it is due to the fact that the natural sciences depend on inductive inference, which is a matter of “weighing evidence and judging probability, not proof.” [24]

One of its implications, as Oxford University professor Alister McGrath understands, is that the great questions in life, some of which are admittedly also scientific questions “cannot be answered [by science] with any degree of certainty.”

Some Defects in Dawkins’ ‘science-explains-everything’ theory

Does science have the monopoly in explaining all man needs to understand? Does it necessarily leave no room for faith and God?

It’s not in the nature of science to explain ‘everything’

In their book Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Max Bennett and Peter Hacker render it naïve the “science explains everything” outlook [28]. Accordingly, scientific theories cannot be said to “explain the world”—they only explain the ‘phenomena’ that are observed within the world. They declare moreover that scientific theories donot and are not intended to describe and explain “everything about the world”—such as its purpose.

OxfordUniversity professor Alister McGrath and clinical neuropsychologist Joanna Collicutt McGrath corroborate by saying: “Law, economics and sociology can be cited as examples of disciplines which engage with domain-specific phenomena without in any way having to regard themselves as somehow being inferior to or depended on the natural sciences.” [29]

Some questions and significant topics beyond the scope of science

The president of the Royal Society Martin Rees in his highly regardedCosmic Habitat pointed out that some ultimate questions “lie beyond science”.[30]

An example of questions that by their very nature lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method is: “Is there purpose within nature?” Bennett and Hacker point out that Natural sciences are not in a position to comment on this if their methods are applied legitimately, and add: “It is wrong-headed to suppose that the only forms of explanation are scientific”. [32]

Peter Medawar, an Oxford immunologist who won the Noble Prize for medicine for the discovery of acquired immunological tolerance, is also unequivocal in stating this point. In his The Limits of Science he declares:

“That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer….I have I mind such questions as: How did everything begin? What are we all here for? What is the point of living?” [34]

As to the question on God or of whether there is purpose within the universe, self-confessed rationalist Medawar recommends that scientists need to be cautious about their pronouncements on these matters lest they lose the trust of the public by confident and dogmatic overstatements [Ibid.]

‘Dawkins’ science’, so to speak, falls short of accounting for many of human beliefs. Indian philosopher Deepak Chopra cites our knowledge pertaining music as another case:

“A materialist could conceivably analyze the brain functions of a Mozart or Beethoven down to the last synaptic firing, but that would tell us nothing about why music exists, why it is beautiful, where great symphonies come from, why inspiration uplifts the listener, or in fact any relevant thing about the meaning of music… If a scientist could map every molecule in a radio as it was playing the Beethoven Fifth, there would be a complete diagram of the symphony at the level of matter. But the radio isn't Beethoven. It isn't his mind, and a diagram of Beethoven's brain, which would also be at the level of matter, is equally futile to explain what his mind was like except in the crudest terms.” [36] (emphasis added)

Finally, the famous Francis Collins, the genome pioneer who headed a multinational team of 2,400 scientists that mapped the 3 billion biochemical letters of our genetic blueprinthas this to say:

“I just would like to say that over more than a quarter-century as a scientist and a believer, I find absolutely nothing in conflict between agreeing with Richard in practically all of his conclusions about the natural world, and also saying that I am still able to accept and embrace the possibility that there are answers that science isn’t able to provide about the natural worldthe questions about why instead of the questions about how. I’m interested in the whys. I find many of those answers in the spiritual realm. That in no way compromises my ability to think rigorously as a scientist.” [37] (emphasis added)

Related: science technology and society


Related article/s:

Faith is essential to science

Guide Questions:

1. Meaning in science does not necessarily correspond with facts. Why?

2.Give some questions and topics that are beyond the scope of science.

3. Explain: Methodology of science is circular.


How to cite this article:

“Is science the only valid road to knowledge?”


(Notes and references can be found in the author's paper from which this article was excerpted.)



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