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and Scientific Method

"Seek Truth from Facts" - Old Chinese saying.


'Good enough to test the principle,' said Jeremy.
'Tetht the printhiple, tetht the printhiple". muttered Igor. 'Thorry, thur, but Igorth do not "tetht the principle". Thtrap it to the bench and put a good thick bolt of lightning through it, that'th our motto. That'th how you *tetht* thomething!'

Terry Pratchett: Thief of Time - A Discworld Novel. [Doubleday, 2001 p 86 ]




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Who Needs Truth?

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The Description of the World


Provisional Truth


Universal versus Absolute




Ethical Issues



Who Needs Truth? Navigate page

The short answer is "All of us!" In order to know who, where, and what we are and why we are doing what we are doing, we have to be able to distinguish that which is from that which is not. In order to exercise our democratic rights [those of us currently living in democratic countries anyway], in order to get the best deal in the market place, in order to avoid being duped, and in order to recognise when we really are amongst friends, we need skill in detecting false arguments [logical fallacies] and in sifting out facts from fantasies.

There seems however to be a modern trend [or should that be "Post Modern"?] for saying things like: 
"Truth is only relative"; or 
"Honesty? What is honesty? Nobody can be honest, because people change their opinions about things to suit the crowd they are with."; or again 
"Reality? What is reality? Everybody's reality is their own because everybody sees things from a different perspective.". 
In company with these assertions go words of suspicion about science and the scientific method. Indeed there are some who say that the idea of "truth" itself is an illusion which, on the face of it, seems so obviously contrary to reason that maybe we should not bother with them at all but just tap our heads and say "They're crazy!". 
It is, after all, as self-contradictory as saying "This statement I am making right now is not true."

We can recognise the logical problem in a self-contradictory statement because it is built into the grammar. We do not need to appeal to anything much outside the sentence itself. This is similar to the truth, falsehood or paradox of mathematical statements. "2 times 2 equals 4" is true because the terms "two" and "four" are pre-defined mathematical objects and "equals" and "times" are pre-defined relationships. There is no need to appeal to observations of nature to confirm the truth of logical and mathematical statements, we need only to understand the terms being used and to think clearly. [It often helps to check with others concerning our own reasoning though.] 

If we assume for the time being that we all really do exist in a universe that exists even if I am not looking at it [a big ask for some people] then questions of fact become important. Facts are descriptions of things and processes in the universe. It is not trivial to assert that we can and must appeal to observations of nature to confirm the truth of our beliefs. 

Then again we have religious fundamentalists telling us that there is only one source of truth called Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Brahma or whoever, and only one true Revelation of the truth: Torah, Bible, Koran, Vedas, or whatever. Apart from certain purist sects, such people generally give token assent to science as a means of producing useful tools but deny science its rightful place as a source of real insight concerning the ultimate nature of things, and deny also that science can contribute to questions of value and meaning. 

I have deep problems with these assertions because we human beings are now absolutely dependent on the continued application of scientific method for the solution of the myriad problems confronting us. I do not mean that science is all we need, far from it, just that scientific method is one of several higher level prerequisites we humans need for survival.

The Description Of The World Navigate page

One useful way of understanding how and why scientific method has brought about such an amazing change in our species is to recognise that people live through a description of the world. The mind is essentially the sum total of all the representations of things and their inter-relationships that the brain has created. A normal human baby brain starts from day one creating within itself representations of every significant feature in its environment including its own body of course. This is necessary so that the child can navigate, finding food, comfort and safety whilst avoiding pain and bodily damage. Other animals do this of course but humans come to rely on vast amounts of social and cultural information made available through listening, talking, and imitating. 

In essence the human brain creates within itself a description of the world that is embodied in the skills, stories and theories of the culture. Each item of culture, e.g. story, dance, idiom, recipe, law, game, etc., implies or explicitly states a part of a shared description of the natural and social worlds. Before the advent of scientific method such descriptions of the world were based almost completely on tradition, the habitual practices of those who had gone long before. Moral authority and the inherent rightness of the way things were done rested on the belief that this is how things had been said and done since ancient times. It was not considered virtuous to question ancient practices and ways of thought. In fact such challenges could get a person into real trouble.

For a variety of reasons - beyond the scope of this essay - a few hundred years ago certain people began to place a lot more emphasis on detailed observation of the natural world as a means of finding out what was really happening. They recorded their discoveries and communicated them to others. This eventually lead to an ever increasing reassessment of how "ancient wisdom" explained things. This process of finding new explanations or descriptions of the world has been feeding on itself for at least four hundred years so that now "science" presents, to anybody who is interested, an enormous body of knowledge that is utilised in just about every aspect of life in a modern society.

Two things need to be said at this point which deserve to be repeated over and again. 
Firstly, from a strict philosophical stand-point, scientific "knowledge" is only ever theory that has withstood a certain amount of testing. Scientific truth is thus always provisional because it must , in principle at least, be capable of being proven false by some kind of practical experiment. Any theory is thus only true until someone demonstrates it to be false ["falsified"]. This is so of course with any purported knowledge and always has been , which leads us to the second point: 
the immense array of scientifically derived descriptions of the world now strongly challenges all traditional beliefs about the world, no matter where they come from.

This is not the same as saying that all traditional beliefs whether religious or otherwise are unreasonable or wrong. What it does mean is that scientific method has demonstrated its power and given us effective and efficient descriptions in just about all important areas of human investigation. A reasonable person in this day and age will refer to these before presuming to say he or she "knows" something to be true or not.

"Provisional Truth" Navigate page

Describing scientific theories as essentially provisional is not a weakness of scientific method but the source of its strength. This provisional character of scientific descriptions allows the improvements, the updating, the periodic revolutions in thinking, which have continued apace for the last four hundred years such that now there are descriptions which have stood persistent challenge for one or more centuries. The long standing reliability of these descriptions allows them to be called "laws" but no-one should be under any illusion that they are set in stone by the finger of God as the commandments given to Moses are supposed to have been. Logically at least, any or all of them could be refuted some time or other but in the meanwhile they are proving fantastically useful and contributing to the prosperity and happiness of vast numbers of people.

Some of the underlying general theories about the universe constitute "wonders" of the modern world which far surpass anything the ancients made. Examples of this include atomic and molecular theory, Newtonian gravity, Einstein's relativity, the germ theory of disease and the cellular theory of life in general, the theory of evolution through natural selection, and the Standard Model of particle physics.

Universal versus Absolute Navigate page

Scientific method assumes, rightly or wrongly, that the underlying principles it uncovers will apply everywhere so long as appropriate allowances are made for local conditions. This means for example that chemistry in the clouds of Jupiter should be the same as chemistry on Earth provided the Earthbound experiment is conducted within a vessel that can maintain the same high pressures and low temperatures that occur in Jupiter's atmosphere. Similarly astronomers assume that features of the world such as the speed of light, the way gravity works, and the colours of light given off by things when they are very hot will be the same in distant stars and galaxies as they are in our solar system. They cannot prove that it must be so but it is just a very reasonable assumption that has shown itself to be very fruitful so far. This can be seen as a claim for universal applicability of scientifically derived descriptions of things. This is different from claiming to be absolute truth which is what some traditional religious world-views seem to assert about themselves. This is the nub of what this essay is about.

Science is the process of seeking truth from facts. Its obvious success arises from harnessing the creative powers of curiosity and imagination with the discipline of systematic observation and measurement. This combination of potentially destructive questioning with diligent observation threatens all traditions, even scientific traditions: nothing is sacred except the truth over which nobody has a monopoly. 

Our human condition however is to live in a world we believe in. Rather than believing what we see, we actually see what we believe. The act of perceiving is precisely the new construction -or the reactivation - of representations within the brain. It is then the linkage of representations of things with the representation of self within the brain which we experience subjectively as "me" hearing, seeing, smelling, touching "him", "her" or "it".

This is a thoroughly paradoxical situation at the heart of our human condition. Until it is discovered and remembered, we naturally confuse what is actually an immensely sophisticated and fine grained model of the world [some philosophers call this phenomenal reality] with "the real world out there" [which those same philosophers call noumenal reality].

Our normal day to day life takes place in this state of confusion although we do not ordinarily see it as confusion; we thoroughly believe and act as if what we are seeing is "the real world" rather than a construction.

This normal state of affairs can be called naive realism. It is the natural state for a human being, it is what has evolved biologically, and it is what endows religious and traditional world-views with their apparently-absolute genuineness. Most of what we do can be conducted in this state of naive realism, and usually is, so many people never discover the paradox.

There are situations where this does become a problem however, for example when populations of humans - different ethnic groups - believe things different from neighbouring populations and fall into violent disagreements. There is much that can be said about the psychological mechanisms, such as unconscious projection and transference, which entrench the apparent differences and magnify the strength of emotions in these situations but this is beyond my present scope. The point here is that on the one hand it is wrong to say that one ethnic world view is better than another - this is blunt headed chauvinism - but it is also wrong to say of these differing ethnic world views that they are all just as good as one another [yet this seems to be "post-modernist" view]. Just because a large number of people happen to believe something or other does not make it inherently good for people. Just because a world view is "ethnic" [which all are], or indigenous or exotic does not necessarily mean that it is best for those who live within it. [Images of female genital mutilation, female infanticide, slavery and genocide come to mind] It is very often the case that people become attached to particular beliefs and practices because they have never had the chance to consider alternatives freely .

Context Navigate page

From within a particular culture it may well seem that the way things are done is simply the way things must be. The history of the evolution of Western culture however provides many examples of ideas and beliefs which are now seen by all informed and reasonable people to be mistaken and thoroughly outmoded. Examples include the idea that certain people can ride around on broomsticks and cast spells using occult forces, or that dead souls can hang around and influence the living or be contacted by mediums, or that if a ship is sailed far enough away from land it will fall off the edge of the Earth, or that touching a toad will induce warts, or that the Earth is only ten or so thousand years old, or that meteors are stars which have fallen from their rightful location [because an angel goofed perhaps], or that diseases are the result of magic, or..or..or.. the list could go on for ages.

It is interesting to realise that all traditional cultures around the world seem to have used the idea of supernatural beings and unseen, occult forces to explain the workings of the natural world and particularly the wild, unpredictable and uncontrollable things such as storms, diseases, location of prey [herds or shoals], rain for the crops and so forth. Seemingly all traditional cultures assert also the continued existence of a person's "spirit" or "soul" after the death of the body. These cultures have ceremonies for dealing with such things. Some people argue that the universal occurrence of such ideas must mean there is a real basis for them in the sense that, although there may be some disagreement about the details, there really is a supernatural realm inhabited by G/god/s, angels/devils and departed souls. Proponents of this view generally claim that their own tradition has the correct view on things and all others are benighted to greater or lesser degrees but none are so "lost" as the atheists.

Unfortunately for such advocates of traditional religions and pre-scientific world views, the continuing development of scientific knowledge about brain and mind is providing us with very reasonable explanations of how the activity of the brain results in the phenomena we call behaviour, consciousness, dreaming, emotion, illusion, memory, thinking and so forth. These studies allow us to assume, ever more confidently, that the apparent consistencies amongst beliefs concerning supernatural, magic and occult "phenomena" arise because human brains are basically the same the world over. Thus there are various experiences such as apparent, out-of-the-body travelling, so called "near-death" experiences, or just plain old dreaming of a recently departed, loved [or hated] one which all get interpreted in the cultural context. Given that human beings first started experiencing these phenomena scores [or hundreds] of thousands of years ago, it is hardly surprising that attempts to explain such things resulted in universal belief in a "spirit" world.

Whilst there have probably been sceptics in every culture, prior to the advent of modern science there was no systematic and reasonable basis for refuting "spiritual" and supernatural explanations for things. It is more than likely that at least some of the people in each culture were not entirely satisfied with the explanations they heard and probably puzzled over apparent inconsistencies or gaps in the received knowledge. For the majority however the stories of gods, ancestors and heroes and the ceremonial songs, dance and drama were enough to lull the fears of death and the unknown, to soothe the grief of bereavements - where half the children born died by the age of five! - and to fit the individual and her group into the cosmos.

In the context of the individual's relationships, life goals and experience, the stories and traditions through which her culture constructs its cosmos may be entirely sufficient to endow her life with meaning, order and security. If she [or he] is content not to know that modern science has discovered that the stories are at best metaphors or ancient interpretations of why the sea level rose after the last ice age, who are we to force her to think differently? The proviso for tolerance is that such beliefs are not now being used as rationalisations for antisocial behaviour or xenophobic attacks on members of other ethnic groups.

Ethical Issues Navigate page

Modern sceptics [or Skeptics for those prepared to make an issue of it] have a duty to themselves to try and find out what is the best description and explanation of events in the natural and human worlds. We also have a certain duty of care towards others however to tread lightly as we show up the inadequacies of ancient doctrines. Our righteous disgust, frustration and indignation at bigotry, cant and humbug coming from those who claim divine insight, the moral high ground or unique access to truth must be tempered with compassion for those who listen and believe. Taking courage in the awareness of one's own inevitable death is a prerequisite for rational adulthood but coping with the death of one's children is something else - particularly for mothers. 

I believe it has been the ever present need to cope with grief at the deaths of children through sickness, accident and warfare which has underlain the need for religion down the millennia and our propensities to identify with our tribe and its totem [transference and projection] which have provided the psychological mechanisms. It behoves us who think of ourselves as a bit knowledgeable to recognise that the world is still a very uncertain place particularly for the poor, and the dispossessed. 


The devastation caused by the tsunamis in south and south east Asia 26 December 2004 is a horrifying example of how the lack of scientific sophistication has left vast numbers of people totally vulnerable to the blind forces of nature.

Knowledge of what tsunamis are and an awareness of falling sea level would have enabled some hundreds, if not thousands, of people to gather their children and run like hell for high ground or into and up the nearest strong tall building.

A previous commitment by governments in the region to a tsunami warning system could have saved the lives of many thousands of people. Protestations now by the Indonesian government, for example, that 'warning buoys are just too expensive and we could never afford them' are now shown to be utterly stupid. The cost in lives and the destruction of property and infrastructure now being measured in terms of billions of dollars, and the on-going cost of medical care for survivors, all makes the cost of a tsunami warning system look like very small change.

This lack of vision was exemplified in a similar way by the government of John Howard [Liberal party of Australia] in cutting off funding for asteroid and comet detection. Such short term, self centred, party political thinking is something that only a sceptical and scientifically literate population can counteract.




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