This week’s quick challenge question is:
You can only know things by science. How can you believe in something that can’t be proved scientifically?
Post your answers in the comment section, and I will give my response to the question on the podcast next Tuesday, and will publish my written response on Thursday of next week.
19 thoughts on “Quick Challenge Question: We Can Only Know Things Through Science”
I would ask them if they believed in values and emotions like love, happiness and justice, and if so, how they would prove the existence of such scientifically.
Also, let’s make note of the scientific impossibility that makes the Big Bang theory- that everything came from absolutely nothing.
A very good response Emma!
Depends on what you mean by “science” here, I think. If you mean narrowly, like chemistry, then probably not. If you mean a bit more generally – like the methods of science which includes all of rational inference – then you’d also be including the historical methods, etc…, and I’d probably lean toward “yes”. I can’t see how one can know anything that isn’t on some level rationally justified with evidence and proper steps taken to avoid wishful thinking and self deception. In all of this, we want to be careful with ones words because it is too easy to strawman by just redefining terms.
@Emma Yes, I believe in emotions like love, but there is evidence for that, no? As for something from nothing, there are uncaused effects in physics – primarily in quantum mechanics. As long as energy conservation isn’t violated then one is allowed to “create something out of nothing” (although physicists use more precise language here – see Sean Carroll for some very good descriptions of this). It does appear that our universe has a total energy equal to zero, and could be a candidate for that within the laws of physics.
Thanks for the comments Brian. I probably could have phrased the question differently, but wanted to try and captured it the way I often her it presented. I would agree with you that we shouldn’t believe things that are not rational. For instance, do you think it is rational to believe that the universe is ancient, and not created with the appearance of age 5 minutes ago in a lab somewhere? I’m also curious if you’ve read Lawrence Krauss’ book “A Universe From Nothing”, and what your thoughts were on it?
Although technically there is no way to demonstrate that the universe is not 5 minutes old, or that we’re in a simulation or a brain in a vat, I don’t expend a lot of brain energy on such things, mostly because it violates Occam’s razor to suggest that the universe is only 5 minutes old but gives all the appearance of billions. Most likely we both agree that the universe is more than 5 minutes old and we needn’t spend a lot of time arguing about it.
As for Laurence Krauss’ book, I haven’t read it but have listened to a number of his talks and debates on the subject. I have never been a big fan of Krauss – I prefer Sean Carroll in that arena. I find Carroll to be clearer and far less arrogant. However, Krauss is essentially correct in what he says, so in that sense, I don’t have a lot of disagreement with him. There are many physical models of the long-time history of the universe. Some of them have a beginning and need to conserve energy (thus the zero-energy discussion by Krauss). Others are eternal. The field is still new, and in some ways getting harder to obtain data to distinguish alternate models. Does that help?
I would agree of course that the universe is not 5 minutes old. I think it’s rational to believe that even though, as you pointed out, there is no way to confirm that using the scientific method. And this is really my only point. There are things that are rational to believe even though they cannot be confirmed using the scientific method. Science can’t tell us whether torturing a small child just for the fun of it is wrong. It can show a cause and effect relationship to the action and the outcome, but it can’t tell us if that action is right or wrong. And yet I would hope most rational people would believe that torturing children for no other reason than to have fun would be wrong.
Can you recommend one of Carroll’s books? I am interested in hearing what he has to say after hearing your take on his work. Thanks!
There is no “scientific method” – there are many (see https://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm for a good exploration). One can argue against the 5-minute universe with probability theory which I would include is the rational approach. If you think of “the” scientific method, then you’re thinking to narrowly, I believe.
> Science can’t tell us whether torturing a small child just for the fun of it is wrong.
Actually, it can. Read Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”.
As for Sean Carroll, he has a good book called the Big Picture. He also has a nice podcast called Mindscape. I liked his debate with William Lane Craig, in particular – he was very clear on the physics and theology there. You can youtube him pretty easily.
I am familiar with Harris’ argument. I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) that his is a utilitarian based ethic, with human flourishing being the “good” that can be measured. Is that a fair description?
An I will check out the book. Thanks for the recommendation.
Do we know that statement through science?
@Elisa which statement are you referring to?
If someone believes in something that can’t be proved scientifically, they don’t generally care about the absence of proof. They simply “have faith”. Often, they maintain that faith even if faced with scientific findings to the contrary. That being said, science and the human intellect are finite. It would be arrogant to claim we know everything about everything, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and that scientific proof/findings are 100% accurate and infallible. However, if there is a body of evidence for something, confirmed by various scientific methods and multiple entities (scientists, experts in whatever field, etcetera), that should trump feelings and faith. Anyhow, my short answer for, “How can you believe in something that can’t be proved scientifically?”, is faith–belief in things unseen and possibly unknowable.
Thanks for the comments Marion. I am trying to understand your definition of faith. For instance, I believe that the moon is made of rock and not green cheese. I was not born when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I have seen the news footage, but some claim that was staged (I don’t believe this for a second either). I have no first hand knowledge of what the surface of the moon is actually made of. I have never conducted a scientific experiment to prove to myself that the surface of the moon is in fact made of rock and not green cheese. I am placing my trust in the written and recorded accounts of the people who were actually there at the time. So my question is, is it rational for me to hold the belief that the moon is made of rock, or is this simply faith?
You may trust not just the authority, but the process by which that information has been vetted. The scientific process is the best, self-correcting process for obtaining information you can trust. Scientists don’t typically use the word “faith” for this – trust is perfectly fine. Is there a difference for you between the words “trust” and “faith”? Are there cases where you’d use one but not the other?
I was just trying to get a clear understanding of what Marion meant when he used the word “faith”. I realize there are many people that have “blind faith”. Thats why I generally try to avoid the term, because that definition is not what I would advance.
It is rational to hold the belief that the moon is made of rock. That’s not really a belief, though. It’s a fact–revealed by science. There is a decades-spanning body of work proving it. People don’t really use the phrase “believe in” regarding science-y things because it’s knowledge–verifiable things. Like Brian said, we trust the information. We trust that fact. We know vs. we believe. At least in laymen’s terms!
I would agree that there has been research on the composition of moon rocks. If I’m honest though, I’ve never sat down and read a research paper on the matter. When I’ve seen a moon rock at a planetarium, I’ve never asked to see the chain of custody to prove it is in fact a moon rock and not a simple earth rock. I’m trusting that the scientists involved have in fact been honest in reporting their finding on the matter. I think if we’re honest, most of the things we say we know by science, we actually know because someone told us so, not because we have actually researched the facts for ourselves. And I would include Christians as chief offenders in this group by the way. Probably more so than other groups.
Drew–By the way, I hope your upcoming post will include your thoughts on the term faith. If I understood your comment correctly, you avoid that term due to its misuse/perceptions, which is intriguing to me since most Christians shove that word in your face as much as possible! I look forward to hearing your take on that (and what you use instead) if it is to be included.
Thank you Marion. I think you are correct in that faith is often used to beat up (verbally of course!) non-Christians. I hope I don’t come across that way. I will definitely post my thoughts on the distinction soon!
@marion. Knowledge is a subset of belief – when the probability of the belief gets sufficiently large to label it “knowledge” (no hard and fast line here). Scientists do use the word belief, but in areas where the probabilities are lower and even in those contexts they tend to be specific i.e. giving the actual probabilities.
> I think if we’re honest, most of the things we say we know by science, we actually know because someone told us so
That is absolutely true – we don’t have time to fact-check everything. However, any good scientist should be able to show you how to tell whether something is true for yourself. After investigating a few of these, you can build a confidence in the process. For example, moon rocks – you can tell it is from the moon by a number of ways. The fraction of silicon is very different on moon rocks, and the magnetism is also different. You can often even see craters on them – all the way down to the microscopic. On Earth, tiny craters are wiped out by erosion but on the moon they last down to the level of micrometers and lower. These are all pretty straightforward observations which (unless you suspect a crazy level of conspiracy) would be hard to get wrong.
What I and other atheists have a problem with is with Christian claims of certainty (or at least high likelihood) for events or objects that don’t meet this level of straightforwardness. Their beliefs don’t scale with the evidence as it does in science.
Comments are closed.