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July 11, 2011

The logic of science-3: The demise of infallibility

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The idea of scientific infallibility, that the knowledge generated by science should be true and unchanging, suffered a series of blows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that saw the repeated overthrow of seemingly well-established scientific theories with new ones. Even the venerable Newtonian mechanics, long thought to be unchallengeable, was a casualty of this progress. Aristotle's idea that scientific truths were infallible, universal, and timeless, fell by the wayside, to be replaced with the idea that they were provisional truths, the best we had at the current time, and assumed to be true only until something better came along.

But despite that reduction in status, it is important to realize that for the practicing scientist, the question of 'truth' remains paramount. But what the word 'true' means depends on the context.

One form that this commitment to truth takes is that it requires scientists to be truthful when reporting the results of their work, because others depend upon it. The whole structure of scientific knowledge is created cumulatively, each person building on the work of others, and this requires trust in the work of other people because it is not always feasible to independently verify every claim of other scientists. Because scientific knowledge is so interdependent, falsehoods in one area can do serious damage to that structure.

This does not mean that scientists are more truthful as persons. But it does mean that being dishonest is not a good career strategy because you will likely be found out, especially if your work has important consequences. Scientists are not usually suspicious of the work of other scientists and do not reflexively check their work. But the interdependence of knowledge means that a falsehood or error in one area will eventually be detected because people will try to use that knowledge in new areas and will encounter inexplicable results. When the sources of the error are investigated, it will eventually be traced back to the original perpetrator. This is almost always how scientific errors and frauds are discovered.

As a minor example, in my own research experience I once uncovered an error published by others years before because I could not agreement with data when I used their results. Similarly a published error of my own was discovered by others after a lapse of time, for the same reason. It is because of this kind interdependence that science is largely, but not invariably, self-correcting. This is also why in academia, where the search for true knowledge is the prime mission, people who knowingly publish or otherwise propagate falsehoods or commit many errors, suffer serious harm to their reputations and are either marginalized or drummed out of the profession. Some recent spectacular cases of deliberate fraud are those of Jan Hendrik Schon and Woo Suk Hwang . So in the search for knowledge, accurately reporting honestly obtained data and making true statements about one's work is a prime requirement.

But there is another, more philosophically elusive, search for truth that is also important, and that is determining the truth of scientific theories. It matters greatly whether the theory of special relativity is true or not or whether some chemical is a carcinogen or not. To get those things wrong can have serious consequences extending far beyond any individual scientist. But it is important to realize that in such cases, truth is always a provisional inference made on the basis of evidence, similar to the verdict arrived at in a legal case. And just as a legal judgment can be overturned on the basis of new evidence, so can such scientific truths be overturned, thus eliminating the idea of infallibility.

So how does one arrive at provisional truths in science? In establishing the truth of a scientific proposition, scientists use reasoning and logical arguments that are closely similar to, but not identical with, mathematical and legal reasoning. Being aware of the similarities and distinctions is important to avoid claiming scientific justification for claims that are not valid, as often happens when religious people try to co-opt science in support of their beliefs in god and the afterlife.

The first issue that I would like to discuss is the relationship between truth and proof, because in everyday language truth and proof are considered to be almost synonymous. The idea of 'proof' plays an important role in establishing truth because most of us associate the word proof as being conclusive, and it is always more authoritative if we are able to say that we have proven something to be true or false.

The gold standard of proof comes from mathematics and much of our intuitive notions of proof come from that field so it is worthwhile to see how proof works there, what its limitations are when applied even within mathematics, and what further limitations arise when we attempt to transfer those ideas into science.

Next: Truth and proof in mathematics

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Comments

There must be a God! Praise the FSM! I was thinking about truth and math this morning, before reading this post from a slightly different direction.

First, I have chosen to self-identify as agnostic rather than atheist. I've concluded this is the most TRUTHFUL stance. I love science and math, but I can't say whether the Universe is evidence of god or not. I "don't know" is the most honest answer ("a" - without, "gnostic" - knowledge).

Many scientists conclude atheism (arbitrary belief - very unscientific!) and this has given rise to scientism. I've come to realize that scientism (atheist "religion") is pretty close to theist religion. The parallels are amazing, once you recognize the signs (like scientists blogging (or is it preaching) about atheism...HA! HA!).

Then I started thinking about the parallels between physics and business accounting. Money is just an abstract nothing...and yet we have something called a balance sheet, where we agree the net is zero. If you borrow $50,000 to start a business, that amount is put in the asset column (cash) and the liability column (loan). They cancel. And we can make predictions, work out formulations, etc. all about an abstract thing (value of money). We call it economics.

Physics does the same thing. It starts out assuming that the net is zero. Expend x energy to lift something, and gain x energy in potential energy. A particle has an associated anti-particle.

And math does the same thing. Division and multiplication are symmetrical.

And it is using symmetrical relationships that lead to mathematical proofs.

Why do humans take a symmetrical approach to reasoning? Yes, it's is productive. But we might also be fooling ourselves. We really don't have anything to compare against (ironically itself an urge for symmetry on my part!).

Posted by healthphysics on July 11, 2011 10:09 AM

Theism and atheism are similar in that each group is passionately convinced that their universe-view is the correct one.

However, that's where the similarity ends. Theists have no objective evidence to support their claims. They will happily tell you that theism requires faith in something that can't be physically sensed, and whose revelation is limited to pre-scientific peoples.

Atheists look at that same lack of evidence and come to the same conclusion the theists do about mythical creatures and gods other than their own.

Scientists wouldn't be blogging about atheism if science wasn't under such a determined attack in this country, largely by theists, using theology as their primary argument.

Posted by Greg on July 11, 2011 11:36 AM

Greg...no, no, no! That was my previous view.

Consider this reframing:

Atheism and theism (broadly an ultimate creator) are similiar in that there is no evidence to support either position.

Theistic religionists make falsifiable claims, they should be falsified.

Scientismists make the claim that science provides more evidence for atheism. It does not! That is false. It only shows that certain theistic religionsist claims are false.

Scientists would better serve the cause of science (and get more theists on their side) if they could discern this nuance.

Posted by healthphysicist on July 11, 2011 11:48 AM

Science doesn't prove there is no god. It explains the things that previously were attributed to god.

Atheism is the belief there is no god.

Science cannot provide proof for the non-existence of something.

Science simply explains the things that previously were attributed to god.

When its all said and done, what is left for god? Some being that exists outside the universe and has no interaction with this world at all?

If that is true, then why worship such a being?

Posted by henry on July 11, 2011 06:58 PM

henry:

What if, in centuries past, rather than claiming "Goddidit" for unexplained phenomena, humans had claimed over and over..."that's just the way it is". Completely plausible, though not historic.

Today, it would be a tired explanation, which would have found itself overturned time and time again. You might ask, "When it's all said and done, what is left for this empty explanation?"

There might be an underlying agent(s) which explains why things are the way they are. But we have no way of knowing. So one has to choose, with complete blindness, or just say more honestly, "I don't know."

Now god(s) might have direct interactions with the Universe, but since we label them as dark energy or the fundamental forces, we don't attribute the obvious to god(s). I can't prove it, one way or the other. I can only believe one way or the other (and it's not even a choice...you believe or you don't).

But even if we assume god has no direct interaction, I think there would still be some rational reasons for engaging in worship:

1. An emotional outlet to express general wonderment and thanks.

2. Community with others who share that emotional desire. This might lead to shared community on politics, business contacts, or charities to support.

3. Tradition. Maintaining a cultural identity carried out by their families for generations.

4. Succumbing to Pascal's wager (google if unfamiliar to you).

5. Surviving a bad situation. This is not recognition of miraculous intervention...just recognition that the Universe is deterministic, and the person is thankful that he/she ultimately found themselves able to overcome a bad situation.

6. Enjoying a windfall. Same as 5. essentially but for symmetrical reasons (HA!).

7. It just feels good. (Vices feel good!)

8. A sense of hope. Hopefully god has precluded the possibility of humanity destroying humanity or the planet within his determinism.

Posted by healthphysicist on July 11, 2011 09:04 PM

@ healthyphysicist:
I think you are fundamentally misunderstanding the way that many people who identify as atheist think. And your claim that dark energy is 'the action of god(s)' is no different than the claim that a thunder-clap is the sound made by Thor's hammer. Every time we search for an explanation, we find a natural one. The room for gods to operate in has shrunk from the scale of the planet to the Planck length. And there's still no reason to think that a god hypothesis has any validity.

Be aware that I rarely engage people on this topic, because the people expounding these views are never open to the contrary position. But my wife is helping a client give birth tonight, so there's nobody here to check my rants :)

As regards your allegedly *rational* reasons for engaging in worship (whatever you mean by that):

1. Gods are irrelevant for my expression of awe and wonder at the utter amazingness of the world around me. I'm likely not alone in this. As for thanks?? I thank my parents for investing in me such that my education enables me to appreciate it all.

2. Most, if not all, of my friends don't believe in gods. Thankfully. But I'm also close with people who do believe. My non-belief has no bearing on my social or business life. And many of us (non-believers) donate to charity, but not religious ones. There's no place for gods when it comes to helping the poor. The poor need every penny.

3. No. Tradition is not a good reason for holding an opinion which has no basis in observable reality. Circumcision is a prominent example in the US. It's a religious tradition among Jewish people, but not among Non-Jews. But for some reason it has taken hold in the US among Non-Jews. There is no medical reason to circumcise a male baby. But there are others: for much of human history (continuing today), slavery holds that same place. As does inferiority of people who carry two X chromosomes, and so on. Just because people did something yesterday and the day before does not at all mean it's a good thing to do today. I'm not claiming that all traditions are bad, but there's no reason to think that believing in gods is beneficial.

4. Pandering to fear. human fear, but pandering nonetheless. I'd put more stock in this if Chimps and Bonobos were also sharing in this wager.

5. Yet again, there is no reason to invoke a belief in unseen gods that can't interact within the Universe. There is such a thing called 'random luck'. It happens all the time. Has no bearing on the argument for gods.

6. Utterly irrelevant. Belief in gods doesn't inflate the joy I felt when I found out that we were going to have a baby.

7. your issue, not mine, not at all.

8. irrational. when combined with your #5, seems to indicate a belief that there's actually *no reason* for hope: If the universe is indeed deterministic, and if indeed gods have precluded the possibility of destruction of humanity, then why DO ANYTHING? I mean, do you think it's a bad thing that the US is robotically sending missiles into family farmhouses in Central Asia? Do you think that's part of some non-interacting-deterministic-universe-controlling-god-pantheon's plan to elevate your personal wonderment at how it's all so amazingly wonderful?

THERE ISN'T ANY EVIDENCE FOR ANY GODS. LIVE YOUR LIFE ACCORDINGLY.

Posted by peter on July 12, 2011 09:19 PM

You are missing my point completely and yet you have reached the same larger conclusion (I think).

My point is what you find irrational about God is fine. And what a theist finds irrational about no-God is fine.

THERE IS EITHER NO EVIDENCE OR EVERYTHING IS EVIDENCE FOR GOD DEPENDING ON YOUR STARTING POINT. LIVE YOUR LIFE ACCORDINGLY. (And stop thinking science supports either position, it doesn't).

(Note all we have is the Universe...you either accept it as evidence or not. If you believe in god, how much more evidence can one ask for? If you don't believe in god, you deny the Universe as evidence. You will be seeking evidence that doesn't exist, based on what you have ARBITRARLY decided is acceptable evidence. If a Universe isn't evidence of God, what do you expect to find within it that will convince you of God?)

My list is in response to the question of what I consider to be rational reasons for worshipping God, a theist counts the Universe as evidence of. I'm not a theist, nor an atheist. I don't waste my time with aribritrary claims. As a scientist, I just want to point out that science can support or deny both beliefs equally, because science works within the Universe.

Posted by healthphysics on July 12, 2011 10:47 PM

You are missing my point completely and yet you have reached the same larger conclusion (I think).

My point is what you find irrational about God is fine. And what a theist finds irrational about no-God is fine.

THERE IS EITHER NO EVIDENCE OR EVERYTHING IS EVIDENCE FOR GOD DEPENDING ON YOUR STARTING POINT. LIVE YOUR LIFE ACCORDINGLY. (And stop thinking science supports either position, it doesn't).

(Note all we have is the Universe...you either accept it as evidence or not. If you believe in god, how much more evidence can one ask for? If you don't believe in god, you deny the Universe as evidence. You will be seeking evidence that doesn't exist, based on what you have ARBITRARLY decided is acceptable evidence. If a Universe isn't evidence of God, what do you expect to find within it that will convince you of God?)

My list is in response to the question of what I consider to be rational reasons for worshipping God, a theist counts the Universe as evidence of. I'm not a theist, nor an atheist. I don't waste my time with aribritrary claims. As a scientist, I just want to point out that science can support or deny both beliefs equally, because science works within the Universe.

Posted by healthphysics on July 12, 2011 10:48 PM