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.

  • evodevo

    Science and faith will never overlap, no matter what Gould and the Templeton Foundation would have preferred. Faith says “Don’t ask so many uncomfortable questions”, and science says “Why?”. Science always checks its answers against reality, continuously, while Faith is comfortable with the same answers for a thousand years, no matter what the facts say. Indeed Faith is very likely to try to exile you or end your life if you persist in asking those questions. Faith is dogmatic and intolerant; Science just wants to know. Accommodationists want to have it both ways, but the foundations of each paradigm make that impossible.

  • Ton_Chrysoprase

    “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.”
    So what is he trying to say? That religion isn’t an idea? It’s really simple: if an idea is to be relevant, it has to be testable. Else it’s just stuff people make up – not even false as they say.
    Also, humility is inconsistent with claiming there is some ultimate truth out there or that there are things we may never understand. How would we know that?

  • coljos

    As a Christian science teacher I live in this tension. I think the way you put it in this post really captures a lot of the feeling I have on the subject. I constantly have students try to debate me on topics like evolution and the big bang. They base all their evidence on the Bible, which I point out to them isn’t our science textbook. I tell them that religion and science have different goals, and in science we ask questions and trying to answer them using methods. This should not hurt their faith, and if it causes them to questions some of their beliefs that’s not all bad either.

  • JoeyBagadonuts

    Meh – this isn’t really interesting, but just a recapitulation of Descartes and Philosophy 101. Yes, Knowledge (Big K) is a slippery thing. Everything can be called into doubt, and there will always a gulf between what we apprehend in our minds and any “outside world” that we believe we are apprehending. We may all be brains in vats, etc.
    No good scientist would rule out any of the points Connor Wood is bringing up. We don’t know why or how the universe exists. We may never know. But that point is irrelevant to scientific inquiry.

    • kessy_athena

      No it’s not irrelevant. The scientific method largely relies on logic and the reproducibility of results. Both of those assume that reality is self consistent. Why should reality be self consistent? It’s under no obligation to be so. All forms of understanding are based on assumptions. This is a necessary and not a bad thing. The problem is that if you don’t put some effort into staying aware of what your assumptions are, you create huge blind spots for yourself. As Konrad Lorenz said, “It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a
      pet hypothesis every day before breakfast: it keeps him young.”


      I think it’s important to keep in mind that like the rest of science, and human endeavor in general, trying to find out if you’re wrong is an ongoing and imperfect process. I agree completely that it’s an essential task, but it’s one that is never completed.

  • kessy_athena

    Oh really? And when was that I’ve been proven wrong and not admitted it? Examples, please. As I recall, you simply declared yourself Right and anyone who dared to question your world view as a complete idiot. And when I summarized my arguments and evidence and asked you to do the same, all I got was a deafening silence. Sorry, but, “Well, it’s *obviously* woo,” is not an argument. In point of fact, it seems that you’re completely unable to make a rational argument or understand the difference between your personal opinion and incontrovertible fact. If there’s a belligerent ignoramus here, it would be you, the person who cannot deal with the mere concept that something might exist in the universe that you don’t understand, or that someone you don’t like might be right about something.
    Sorry, Vorjack, I know you were hoping I’d let this one go. I’m afraid it’s just not in my nature to ignore someone taking a swing at me. Knocking them on their ass is how I dealt with bullies as a kid, and it’s how I deal with them now. Maybe it’s not the most mature way, but I’m afraid that’s just how I am.

  • Joseph O Polanco

    The crunch is the philosophy of Scientism or Radical Positivism is too parochial and small-minded a theory of knowledge. After all, on this view there is nothing good or evil, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. But is it tenable to think that scientific truth is the only truth there is? That no aesthetic, moral, metaphysical or otherwise putative truths exist?

    On this view, for instance, there’s nothing wrong with raping a little girl to death. Why should we accept such a conclusion simply because of an epistemological constraint? Isn’t this a signal that one must necessarily open up the ambit of one’s theory so as to assimilate other categories of truth?

    Withal, science is suffused with suppositions that cannot be scientifically substantiated, so that an epistemology of radical positivism abrogates science itself. For instance, the principle of induction cannot be scientifically justified. Trying to provide a good inductive argument for radical positivism is hopeless, since it must presuppose the validity of inductive reasoning.

    Even more fatal is that radical positivism is self-refuting. At its heart, this pernicious philosophy tells us that we should not accept any proposition that cannot be scientifically proven. But what about that very premise? It cannot itself be scientifically tested much less corroborated. Therefore we should not believe it. Radical Positivism thus asphyxiates itself.