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Must science assume some ideas dogmatically? Must we assume
that the scientific method, a synthesis of reason and experience,
is the only avenue to truth? The mystics claim that some simple
acts of knowing cannot be described by an objective language.
Consider the experience of seeing a death on the highway. Does a
cold scientific description, ``the cause of the cessation of
bodily function was due to a rapid deceleration,'' accurately
convey the truth? What about our own deaths? There seems to be
much more to the truth that we will die someday than can be
described in the statement ``I am mortal.'' Are there subjective
truths that cannot be described in an objective language?
Most scientists today accept an assumption that can be traced
to the ancient Greeks: Whatever they are, the basic truths of the
universe are ``laws'' that do not changeonly our ideas about them
do. Scientific objectivity presupposes that there is one truth, a
collective truth, and our personal beliefs or the beliefs of
scientists of a particular time either match these truths or they
do not. Most scientists assume that beliefs about what is real do
not affect what is real. Truth results only when our beliefs
about what is real correspond to what is real.
This traditional assumption may not, however, be essential to
science. Some quantum physicists have proposed that the points of
view implied by our experiments can affect the nature of reality:
instead of assuming that there is only reality, there can be
``complementary'' realities. And reputable physicists and medical
researchers are not only reexamining this traditional scientific
assumption, but also are wondering candidly if a person's state
of mind may have a bearing on whether he or she is prone to
diseases such as cancer and whether cures and remissions are
possible using a mental therapy. The belief that there is only
one reality can itself be subjected to scientific scrutiny. There
could be multiple realities or none at all! Even if
controversial, these ideas are at least discussed.
Although we may be caught at any given time within a web of
many assumptions, science at its best does not rely on many
assumptions. Science also assumes that the more we think
critically about our beliefs, the more likely we are to know the
truth. There are cynics, however, who believe that critical
thinking is not a marvelous human characteristic at all. They
argue that critical thinking makes life more complicated and
distracts us from discovering the simple solutions to life's
problems. There are also nihilists who argue that our so-called
intelligence and our ability to be aware of the details of the
universe are an evolutionary dead end, that far from producing
the good life, our awareness and rationality are the cause of our
Defenders of science often argue that even if some assumptions
are necessary in the application of scientific method, these
assumptions are validated by the record of success. However,
there is a major logical problem with this justification. It
simply raises the problem of induction again. It is circular
reasoning to attempt to vindicate inductive reasoning by
asserting that so far inductive reasoning has worked, because
this vindication itself is an inductive argument. It is
logically possible for the scientific method to completely fail
tomorrow even though it has been successful for centuries. Is it
reasonable to continue to believe in the scientific method as
helpful for our future? Can science be self-corrective?
Philosophers believe these abstract questions are important
because they are intimately related to our more personal concerns
about who we are, where we have come from, and what may be in
store for us in terms of the survival of our species on this
fragile fragment of the universe.
It is possible to arrive at various interpretations of the same data or facts
and to develop various explanations of the underlying causes at work. Our culture,
egos, and personal beliefs provide a filter through which we interpret the
data and develop explanations. Because scientists have a "realism" perspective
and because culture and egos can affect the interpretations of the data, scientists
are willing to have their ideas and explanations closely examined and tested
by others, particularly by their peers, in a process called "peer review". "[Science]
values testability and critical evaluation, because thus far it appears that
the more we think critically about our beliefs, the more likely we are to know
the truth" (Pine, ch 2). Peer review works best if the ones who critically
analyze an explanation have an alternate explanation and try to poke holes
in the other person’s explanation. (Sometimes that "poking" is
pretty brutal!) This peer review happens at science conferences and in the
pages of science journals. A scientist will not try to have his/her opinion
advanced by political means or legislated by politicians.
- A basic assumption of science: fundamental physical laws do exist in the
universe and do not change. Our understanding of those laws may be incorrect or
- Recent developments in our knowledge of the universe seem to challenge this
basic assumption. Our perception may affect the physical laws or events.
- Scientists must be aware of the assumptions they make and how those
assumptions affect our understanding of the universe.
- Scientists must be willing to have their ideas and explanations closely examined
and tested by others, particularly by their peers, in a process called "peer
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June 1, 2007
Is this page a copy of Strobel's
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