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Science doesn’t know everything

Some weeks ago, in a discussion with a friend, who holds some supernatural beliefs , after I had made a comment challenging one of those beliefs, replied to me; “Science doesn’t know everything”.

Now my friend is a brilliant, experienced, educated professional person, whose opinion and point of view I value highly. This is why I am often surprised to hear her views about things that, to me, are unsupported by evidence.

I didn’t respond like I should have; I let it go and just talked about something else. The reason is that I always have a snappy response, except it sometimes takes me several hours, days, or weeks to come up with it. Now that I have had time to think about it, I realize that my response should have been this: “Science doesn’t claim to know everything. Science is a method used to test the truthfulness of a proposition. Only religions claim to know everything.”

My friend’s assumption, apparently, was that I was a “believer” in science. This seems to imply that her idea of science is that it is a belief system, not unlike belief in reincarnation, or in supernatural intelligent design. I know she knows that science is a method, not a set of beliefs, but when it comes to challenging some ideas, then it seems, in her mind, that I subscribe to a contradicting belief system.

Now, I have tried to rid myself of any belief system. Instead, I have consciously decided to only believe, for the most part, in concepts or things for which I have evidence, or for which trusted people can present evidence. Now, I can’t help being human, so naturally I hold some contradictory and probably erroneous beliefs about the world. I don’t always recognize my erroneous beliefs, but one thing I decided on, long ago, was to never believe something so strongly that I wouldn’t listen to evidence against it. If a coherent explanation of the known facts better explains something, I am willing to abandon previous beliefs. That, I think, is the difference between a reasonable person and an unreasonable one. In other words, I want to be a reasonable person. I want to be intelligent and logical. Although I am emotional, and often make decisions solely on my emotional response, I like to think. Sometimes, I realize that my emotions impede my ability to be rational.

My main criticism of modern religion, Christianity in particular, is its inability to admit when it is wrong. They make a definitive statement about things which cannot be known definitively, then spend inordinate amounts of time and energy defending these declarations. Why not just say “We may have been wrong”? Why not say “We don’t know, but sincerely believe that this is the case.”? Why not throw out the bad, and keep the good? It is possible to be good without believing unsupportable ideas. I guess the problem is the organization, the hierarchy, the priesthood. They are afraid of losing their income. The worst thing in the world, it seems, would be having to get a job like the rest of us.

Contrast that, with how science works. Science, as an institution, has its flaws. Its flaws are human flaws, because practitioners of science are humans. Personal ambitions, prestige, jealousy, envy, politics, etc., all play their part in science, as they do in religion. The big difference is that science doesn’t hold weekly meetings where everyone gets together to hear the head scientist tell about the theory of universal gravitation; they don’t need to sing hymns to the greatness of science; they don’t have to reinforce their beliefs by testifying of their faith in the theory, by telling inspirational stories about how the theory of gravity helped them out of a difficult situation; they don’t pass around a collection plate, or ask for donations to the building fund (well, maybe they do that, but it is usually in an email.) If someone comes with a conflicting theory, they are not branded a heretic; their life is not threatened; they are not told they will burn in hell. They may be laughed at, however. But, in the end, if the conflicting theory explains the facts better than the earlier theory, scientists always abandon or modify the existing theory. They do not waste time defending a theory which can be disproved. They rejoice in knowing that they have a better understanding of how nature works. Truth is the aim of science, not rigid dogma or sentimental attachment to the old ideas.

It’s true that science doesn’t know everything. It seems that the more we are able to explain, the more new mysteries arise. Mysteries are anything for which we have no explanation. Science works on the fundamental assumption that there is a natural explanation for every observable phenomenon, even if we don’t know what it is.

Religion, however, explains every mystery by saying it is caused by something outside of nature, that is to say; it has a supernatural cause. Religion says believe, but do not think. Science says think, and never believe without evidence.

Yes, science doesn’t know everything. Science begins by saying we don’t know. But, what it does know, it can prove.

May 29, 2007

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