How Do I know If I’m Wrong?

Connor Wood at Science on Religion has a non-controversial piece on the need for humility in science and religion, focusing mainly on science:

The thing is, people often talk about Science (with a capital “S”) as if it’s a clear and perfect window into Truth (with a capital “T”). I don’t think this is true. I think science gives us remarkable tools to reflect on the world and come up with ways to test our ideas about it. But our ideas are always just that – our ideas. The world is, by definition, always bigger, badder, wilder, and more complex than our ideas could ever be. Map, in other words, is not territory. You have to simplify the world to create models of it. This doesn’t mean our models or ideas aren’t accurate, or useful – not at all! We used Newtonian mechanics to send rocket ships to the moon, for Pete’s sake. Something about science sure works.

I agree completely. I’ll go further and say that I think that science will never provide us with final answers – or at least we can never be sure that any answer is final. Wood’s reference to Newton is apt, since Newton’s refusal to hypothesize about what causes gravity led to a turn away from grand certainties in enlightenment science. Hume noted the transition:

“While Newton seemed to draw off the veil from some of the mysteries of nature, he showed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy, so agreeable to the natural vanity and curiosity of men; and thereby restored her ultimate secrets to that obscurity, in which they ever did and ever will remain.”

IIRC, Voltaire’s version was even more provocative, “The book of nature is ultimately blank.”

But while I’m willing to give up on science discovering nature’s “ultimate secrets,” I’m not yet willing to give up on science’s methodology. Science attempts to test every conclusion by holding up to the natural world. So science checks every answer against reality to see if it works.

That’s important to me. Science at least offers a way that you can weed through competing theories. It offers a way to find out if you’re wrong, hence all of Feynman’s quotes about how science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.

One of my problems with most forms of religion is that I don’t see this check. I’m not sure how to evaluate the thousands of competing claims about the divine.

What’s offered to me by conservatives is usually authoritarian – a text, a tradition or a religious leader. But how do I know that they’ve got it right? What’s offered to me by liberals is usually subjective – an inner witness or personal revelation. But how do I know if I’ve got it right?

I’m prepared to be humble in the beliefs that I hold, but if I’m wrong I want to to have some way of knowing.

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