Can Reliable Knowledge Be Produced Outside Science?

In a blog entry of January 16, 2010, Austin Cline, author of the Atheism and Agnosticism Blog on, poses the rather interesting question, “Can Reliable Knowledge Be Produced Outside Science?” As a person who operates in the real world, I am obviously inclined to believe that a great deal of reliable knowledge can be had outside of science because there is a lot of things that I know to be true which are not known to me as the result of scientific testing. However, having read Mr. Cline’s column on occasion – admittedly, rare occasion – I strongly suspected that he would follow Betteridge’s Law of Headlines and answer the question with an adamant “no.”

Interestingly, Cline does not even answer the question he asks at the outset which is the subtitle of his post. Instead, the question he answers at the end of his three page post is whether any discipline other than science gives useful answers. I am fairly certain that the vast majority of readers would acknowledge that the terms “reliable” and “useful” are not synonymous. (In fact, they are not listed as synonyms on Reliable generally means “trustworthy”, while useful merely means that it can serve a purpose. These are two very different ideas. Yet, Mr. Cline meanders from one to the other as if they are the same thing.

Still, what caught my attention, however, is the argument he adopted to arrive at the conclusion that only science gives useful answers. Reducing his three pages of text to something more organized (while doing my best to fairly represent his argument), Cline’s argument goes something like this:

Background 1: For any knowledge claim or truth claim outside of science, there are multiple, competing and often contradictory claims as to what is true. (“It might be suggested that alternative answers are to be found in the Bible or another sacred book; or in the writings of ancient Eastern mystics; or in the insights of the world’s great poets, playwrights, or novelists; or in the wisdom of some philosopher, famous or obscure; or in a horoscope; or in the reflections of one or more theologians; or in something else; or in all the above or some subset thereof. To be sure, all those sources will provide answers. To be just as sure, though, they cannot all be true answers. We are inescapably obliged to discern, among the countless sources of nonscientific answers, which ones we should believe and which ones we should ignore.”)

Background 2: Due a combination of presuppositions and the lack of time to fully investigate each and every possible truth claim, individuals are incapable of evaluating all of the competing claims. (“There is no perfect epistemology or foolproof philosophy. No matter how we acquire or analyze our beliefs, some are going to be wrong. We are going to believe some falsehoods and we are going to disbelieve some truths, and the less we do of one, the more we will unavoidably do of the other.”)

Background 3: There needs to be a way to evaluate these claims that gives some semblance of which claims are good.

Premise 1: It is largely the case that truth claims outside of science cannot be falsified. (“So it is in general with answers offered outside of science. They tend to be incorrigible: Their advocates will acknowledge no way they could be proved wrong. They might not claim infallibility. They might say, ‘Of course we could be wrong.’ But ask them how they would know they were wrong — what evidence, if anyone produced it, would falsify their answers — and they usually retreat into evasion or obfuscation.“)

Premise 2: If claims cannot be falsified, it makes no difference if the claims are true or false, i.e., knowing if the claim is true or not is not useful. (“Outside the confines of scientific thinking, the difference between true and false seems to evaporate. * * * If we don’t know how something could be wrong, then it just does not mean anything for it to be true.”)

Premise 3: Science is the only discipline where its claims are subject to falsification. (“Science is less about producing answers than about evaluating them. In no other system does the evaluation process insistently ask: If this answer were wrong, how would anyone know?”)

Conclusion: Therefore, only scientific claims are useful.

Let's take a look at this argument more closely.

Where’s the Science Supporting Cline's Argument?

With all due respect to Mr. Cline who has written a fine piece of rhetoric that some might find convincing, this argument is troubled by problems deeper than the mere fact that he doesn’t answer the same question he asked at the outset of the post. To begin with, Mr. Cline apparently fails to note that nowhere in the course of his argument does he refer to any knowledge that has been generated through science. He neither quotes nor alludes to any scientific studies that demonstrate any of the three premises set out above (or any of the background information, for that matter). Rather, Mr. Cline’s argument is buttressed only with observations and unsupported musings of a philosophic nature. For example, Mr. Cline opines:

There is no perfect epistemology or foolproof philosophy. No matter how we acquire or analyze our beliefs, some are going to be wrong. We are going to believe some falsehoods and we are going to disbelieve some truths, and the less we do of one, the more we will unavoidably do of the other.

A strong aversion to believing falsehoods makes some people cultivate the kind of thinking characteristic of skeptics. Most of what they do believe is likely to be true, but many things they don’t believe are true as well. Other people have a strong aversion to not believing true things, and their thinking tends to be credulous. They rarely disbelieve what is true, but they also believe many falsehoods.

I strongly doubt that anyone would believe this bit of philosophical waxing is supported by science. I mean, what scientific test has ever established that there exists “no perfect epistemology or foolproof philosophy”? None, of course. Yet, Mr. Cline apparently expects us to believe that he is saying something meaningful. But if we take his conclusion seriously, we cannot accept anything he says as true because it is not scientific knowledge. His argument is a philosophic/logical argument that has no support from science in any sense. Hence, it is not falsifiable and therefore either not reliable or not useful. The argument commits suicide because its conclusion invalidates the argument.

Not All Scientific Truths are Undoubtedly True

Ignoring this debilitating flaw for the sake of looking deeper at Cline’s argument, there are several other problems that make the premises dubious, at best. First, while there are some claims of science that are well-settled in the sense that they are universally recognized as being true (the Law of Conservation of Energy or the Law of Entropy are two examples that come to mind), there are literally thousands upon thousands of scientific “truths” that are far from settled. For example, when a person goes to the doctor with an illness, they are encouraged to get a second opinion. Why? Because doctors, exercising his/her best judgment in evaluating what medical science reveals, can come to differing opinions about the nature of the ailment. In other words, using science (the best available) scientists come to differing conclusions.

This is true about a lot of issues in science. What makes up a healthy diet? The answer changes because science changes its mind. Consider this from Is Beef Really Bad For You?

In the last few decades, you have heard a boatload of bad press about red meat,in particular, beef, and how it is bad for your health. But watch out, haven't the experts said the same about eggs and then they changed their minds? Likewise, they said that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and a high carbohydrate diet were good, and then subsequently found that they were actually
Only Four Out of Five Scientists Agree, After All

Sure, one could argue that scientific knowledge has advanced and thus the answer has changed in response. However, that shows that much scientific knowledge is not reliable because it is always in flux and subject to change with additional testing. But one can also find competing truths because scientists can disagree. In his post, Mr. Cline points to examples of people praying for sick people as evidence for his claim that non-scientific answers do not provide reliable and/or useful knowledge. He writes,

Suppose it be asserted that prayer can promote a sick person’s recovery. Suppose then that many sick people are prayed for and they do not recover. Will that have any bearing on the truth of the assertion, according to its advocates? No, it will not. Advocates of faith will affirm the efficacy of prayer no matter what happens subsequent to any prayer or any number of prayers, under any circumstances, at any time, over any period of time.

In effect, what this means is that there is actually no difference between truth and falsehood in matters of faith. The faith advocate says: Prayer changes things. Very well, but what if it did not? No believer can answer that question. In the epistemology of faith, it is not even relevant.

I certainly acknowledge that some people who are prayed for do not recover from their illness or injury. But this is to be expected if God exists as a personal being. After all, if I know a rich man who gives money to people as charity, but who declines to give me money when I ask, does that mean that the rich man doesn’t exist? Of course it doesn’t. Rather, it merely means that the rich man is a free moral agent who does not feel obligated to respond to each and every request for money. Likewise, if the Christian concept of God is true, then that God is a free agent who can choose to grant prayer requests at His own discretion and we should not expect that He would feel obligated to respond to every prayer.

Still, Mr. Cline’s problem with the failure of every prayer to be answered is that that it means that the claim that God answers prayer cannot be falsified. In that case, what do we do about the fact that inconsistent scientific studies of prayer exist – some showing that people prayed for are more likely to recover than those not prayed for (see, e.g., The Latest Prayer Study Shows the Effectiveness of Prayer) while other studies show no difference between the two groups (Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer). Is the fact that we get two different answers to the question depending on which scientist we consult (or which scientific study we consult) mean that we cannot get reliable answers out of science?

How Does Science Falsify the Non-Falsifiable?

Perhaps some are thinking that this may be true about smaller issues, but the ability to falsify will ultimately show whether prayer helps or doesn’t help. Still, there all big scientific theories have been proven through falsification, right?

I think it clear that there are big scientific theories that cannot be falsified. For example, consider the theory of global climate change, i.e., global warming. Unless you have been living in a coffee house in Greenwich Village, it should be obvious that there is a great debate about the idea that the global climate is getting warmer through greenhouse gases, etc. After all, even if it can be established that most scientists agree that the earth’s temperature is getting warmer, the scientific community is less certain that the warming can be attributed to man. Moreover, the claims about global warming are all-encompassing. If it gets warmer, it is due to Global Warming. If it gets colder, it is due to Global Warming. If it rains more, it is due to Global Warming. If it drought conditions develop, it is due to Global Warming. Back in 2005, a Time Magazine article reported the devastating hurricane Katrina was the result of global warming and that more and more massive hurricanes were to be expected (Is Global Warming Fueling Katrina?). When hurricane activity actually decreased over the following years (hitting a 30 year low according to Global Tropical Cyclone Activity) scientists also predicted the decrease due to Global Warming (Global Warming May Mean Fewer Hurricanes).

As a physicist friend of mine commented, Global Warming is quite a theory. No matter what happens it is explained by Global Warming.

So, exactly how is Global Warming, a supposedly scientific theory, falsifiable? And since it is not falsifiable, it is not reliable or useful, correct?

More than One Way to Falsify

Additionally, Mr. Cline seems disinclined to acknowledge that truth claims can be falsified by other than the scientific method. Isn’t it possible that truth claims can be falsified by other means? Suppose that we have the truth claim that there is no truth similar to the claims of Postmodernism. Obviously, I don’t have to have a scientific test to know that the claim that it is true that there is no truth is logically contradictory. Likewise, I don’t need a scientific test to see that Mr. Cline’s argument has too many flaws to be reliable (or even useful).


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