Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Science: it works, therefore it's true?

The god of atheism
While atheists count themselves as rational because, as they claim, they don’t believe anything that might be labeled superstitious or the product of wishful thinking, nevertheless they still offer their sacrifices upon the alter of their own omniscient and omnipotent god: science. Though I obviously mean the preceding comment to be taken hyperbolically, it is not all that far from reality. While science is not literally omniscient or omnipresent, many atheists hail it as if it were. For them science is the north star that leads us to a complete comprehension of reality. In fact, most atheists, who are naturalists, will go so far as to say that science is our only epistemological window into the nature of reality. That is to say, only things scientifically detectable and falsifiable can count as knowledge—though most who make this statement seem to be oblivious to the fact that it’s self-refuting, but let’s not bog them down with logic.

Yet, when asked to defend such a statement—which again, in principle, cannot be defended by science, on pain of contradiction—atheists tend to resort to a blatant non-sequitur: the scientific method is valid because it works.
In a well-known discussion between Stephen Law and Richard Dawkins at Oxford in 2013, Dawkins was asked a specific question. The questioner basically asked Dawkins how the scientific method can be our only epistemological method for gaining knowledge. Dawkins responded with the following (emphasis mine):

It [the scientific method] works. Planes fly, cars drive, computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. If you base the design of rockets on science, they reach the moon. It works, bitches.

And laughter ensued from the audience, who was none the wiser regarding the fact that Dawkins had simply parroted a non-sequitur.

This answer given to validate the scientific method is the same answer that is given by a majority of the skeptic community. I have read such a statement numerous times at Debunking Christianity (which is hardly surprising coming from the source) and other such blogs. In a post in 2012 over at the A-Unicornist , author Mike D, while attempting to demonstrate the superiority of science as opposed to metaphysics, stated that, “Science wins because it works”—and it seems he merely copied this platitude from Stephen Hawking who, also, claimed that, “Science will win because it works.”

Pragmatism revived
Unfortunately, most who parrot this claim seem to be completely oblivious to fact that they’re taking a position regarding the metaphysical nature of truth[1]; and this position, which has been well-known and refuted for decades, is known as pragmatism. Pragmatism is, essentially, the view that a proposition, method, ideology etc. is valid if has practical benefits, or if it works satisfactorily. The mantra of pragmatism is almost identical to the skeptic’s mantra regarding science: it’s true because it works.

But is this correct? Is it true that something is valid simply because it results in practical and satisfactory benefits? Surely this is absurd.
In order to demonstrate the backwards thinking of pragmatists we must delve into the nature of truth. What is truth, or, rather, what does it mean for something (e.g., a statement or ideology) to be true?  Well, truth is simply a relation between a thing and reality. Something is true if it conforms to the nature of reality. For example, the statement “the cat is on the mat” is a true statement if and only if there is in fact, in reality, a cat on the mat. The statement would be rendered false if there was no such cat on the mat.

Now notice that the above definition of truth is not contingent on whether or not the specific something works.

Pragmatism is not pragmatic
More than that, I maintain that pragmatism can be shown to be definitively invalid.

Take a simple case of lying. Say that my calculus students—yes, I’m a math teacher—ask me whether or not the AP Calculus test that they take in April will be difficult. Let us say that the test is indeed very difficult, yet in order to endow my students with optimism I lie, and I say that the test is a piece of cake. Now let’s imagine that due to the optimism I have sparked in my students, they all gain motivation and pass the test with flying colors. Are we to now say that my lie to them—namely, that the test would be easy—is now true, simply because the lie worked? Of course not. The test was difficult, and their success has not changed that one bit.
Yet we can go further than this.

Take Christian religion. Christian religion has (and continues to) brought about so much good: It brings peace, joy, comfort, love, hope, charity etc. In fact some would claim that it satisfies our deepest innate longings [2]. Yet, Christianity has also brought about horrendous evils: division, persecution, fear, hate etc. But this provides an insurmountable dilemma for pragmatism. For it seems that, on pragmatism, Christianity has (and does) brought about both practical and impractical consequences. And this means that Christianity is both true and false, or true to some and false to others, or true at some moments and false at others. Hopefully I need not point out how ridiculous this is.

The point is that the ones who profess that X is true because X works simply have their reasoning backwards. What they should be saying is that X works because X is true. That is, science works—planes fly, rockets reach their destination, computers compute etc.—because science is true (i.e. accurately reflects reality). If something accurately reflects reality then it makes perfect sense that it would yield practical benefits.

Now, this might seem like a preferred alternative for the skeptic; they might say, “Fine! Science works because it is true.” The problem is that this doesn’t answer the question that was originally posed in the first place: how is the scientific method justified? To say it works because it’s true doesn’t answer why it’s true in the first place! To answer this question one needs to yield to philosophy and metaphysics, which is the territory many atheists refuse to go.



[1] I find it quite amusing that many “skeptics” who take this position seem to be completely ignorant regarding the nature of their conquest. They’re taking a stance regarding ontology, which is philosophy, while, usually, trying to argue for the supremacy of science. So, to uphold their messiah of science, they must yield the floor to philosophy, the very thing they hate to do and claim is useless.

[2] This point demonstrates that if one does intend to adhere to pragmatism, then they better be prepared to embrace the “truth” of Christianity (and all religions simultaneously), since, on pragmatism, truth is whatever brings about practical benefits, and surely Christianity has done so in the past and continues to.

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