I want to talk briefly about the increasingly popular claim that science is the only valid way of having knowledge about the world. I hear this proposition from some incredibly smart, deeply educated, and thoroughly thoughtful people and yet I am utterly baffled at how they could think it to be true. For the record, I do think science is an incredibly successful way of knowing. I am not trying deflate science. Quite to the contrary, I think science operates well precisely because it is aware of it’s own provisional approach to understanding. What I am trying to do is leave the door open for the countless other types of reasoning that abound in daily life, in academia, and yes in theology.
First, let’s take a look at what knowledge means. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the intricacies of a formal definition (here and here). None of that is necessary for my current argument, however. For now it is sufficient to divide our beliefs into three categories:
Certainty: things which are definitely true. This is not a measure of our subjective confidence but a statement that our belief corresponds to the real world – end of story.
Confidence: things which are probably true. We have sufficient evidence to support the claim and overwhelm any contrary evidence should it exist. Confidence occurs on a spectrum from 99.99% down to 0.01% or however arbitrarily close you want to come to 100 and 0 without actually going there. The point is that its more than nothing and less than everything.
Cluelessness: things about which we cannot make claims. We don’t have any evidence that would allow us to distinguish between various possibilities. Note that false confidence and false certainty fall into this category; remember we’re talking about whether our beliefs correspond to the real world.
This seems like an uncontroversial way of looking at the possibilities. In order for our claim “Only science produces knowledge” to be correct, it must mean one of three things.
1) Science produces certainty, while every other quest for knowledge can only produce confidence or cluelessness.
2) Science produces high confidence, while every other quest for knowledge can only produce low confidence or cluelessness.
3) Science produces confidence, wile every other quest for knowledge can only produce cluelessness.
Claim one appears patently false. Even a cursory examination of cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psyschology, and behavioral economics (not to mention philosophy of science) will show you that science does not produce certainty. Our senses and our brain prove to have limitations which can be accounted for but not overcome. We know, based both on scientific and philosophical arguments that science does not provide certainty. It does provide confidence based on observations in a way that leads to higher and higher confidence the more observations are made. Science works so well because we are always open to improving our theories in light of new data.
Claim three also appears patently false. Science relies on observation and analysis, but most of us would be skeptical of a scientific claim which relied on a single unverified datum (observation point). This is so universally known that the word anecdotal – meaning unconfirmed – is commonly known and the singular of data – datum – is not. Science builds knowledge using data. If a single datum is not enough for “science,” it nonetheless provides an (admittedly small) amount of confidence. If one datum did not, multiple data never could. Thus science relies on a methodology that affirms anecdotal evidence as better than cluelessness. Even setting aside very strong arguments for mathematical and a priori knowledge, strict empiricism demands that claim three be false.
This leaves us with claim two. Science produces higher confidence than any other method. This might be true, at least from my perspective, but it is a distinction of degree and not of kind. Science is a better form of reasoning but not an exclusive one. That begs the question: how do you judge various ways of knowing against one another? Is there some sort of magic bar – 50% confidence? 95%? 99%? – that allows us to claim scientific knowledge is valid and other knowledge claims are not? Who sets the bar? What about scientific research that provides only 40% confidence for one claim, but cannot produce another over .00004%? It happens all the time. Must we demote that research from “science” to “invalid”?
I believe there are multiple rational approaches, multiple ways of reasoning well and coming to a conclusion, but in none of them does this claim make sense: “science is the only valid way to knowledge.” Leaving aside all fancy philosophy and rhetoric, scientific reasoning shoots it down immediately. We cannot be certain of it and I can’t think of a way to even start measuring it’s confidence. The only option that remains is cluelessness.