Is the scientific method the best means to achieve absolute certainty about the world we live in? How do we know for sure whether specific scientific claims about reality are, in fact, true? This month, we contemplate the metaphysical notion of “truth” as it relates to scientific fact and call into question whether the principles of logic, rationality, and reason that accompany the scientific method are a reliable means to attain truth. In short, we examine the science behind why some disagree with science...
Objective or "divine" truth has been construed by many philosophers as existing only "in the depths." For scientists, in contrast, truth is slightly more tangible. Scientists demand a more self-indulgent explanation of truth. One that is palpable. Truth, for instance, ought to take the form of a proposition of some kind. A statement that endlessly and independently remains accurate in accordance with fact or reality. Indeed, truth must maintain the state or quality of being true even outside of individual biases, interpretations, feelings, or imaginings.
The Scientific Method - A Quest For Certainty
The road to truth often begins with society's best known tool for the acquisition and verification of knowledge: the scientific method. The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. It employs the use of experimentation towards verifying a testable hypothesis, or in other words, a proposed truth.
But how do we know whether the larger conclusions drawn from such observations are, in fact, true? Will we ever reach a consensus on the issue of climate change, for instance?
A Reasoned Approach
For a proposed truth to be accurately termed scientific, two key elements must be satisfied:
(1) the method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence grounded in fact, and
(2) the ensuing prediction derived from that evidence must follow specific principles of reasoning, including logic and rationality.
Facts deduced from scientific experiment are often straightforward. It is the conclusion inferred from those facts, nonetheless, that spotlights the demand for accurate reasoning, as both a precursor to and proponent of the scientific method.
Just The Facts
The first aspect of truth-seeking in science is to uncover and evaluate the facts on the ground. Facts, as we understand them to be, are those things which simply are or which actually happened: those things which cannot be reasonably questioned or disputed. They are objective and verifiable observations or measurements used by scientists to reach a conclusion, hypothesis or theory. The test for a statement of fact is verifiability, that is whether it can be proven to correspond to experience. Scientific facts remain subject to perpetual scrutiny, and are verified by repeatable experiments.
But What if the Data Suggests Something More?
While facts themselves may be inherently unbiased and verifiable, truth, on the other hand, is not as simple. Truth is the value we assign to these facts. It is what we know these facts mean, what they tell us, or what we understand they should teach us.
In the realm of science, a hypothesis is a proposed truth. And what may begin as a mere question, a hypothesis will, upon further corroboration, translate into either: 1) a factual assertion considered relevant in scientific analysis; or 2) a proposed "truth" that describes states of affairs in the external world. Both of these are data-driven conclusions, but the latter relies more comprehensively upon inductive or deductive reasoning, subjecting the conclusion to further, and often intensified, rational scrutiny.
Rationalizing Our Way to Conviction
Similar to an argument that, on paper, follows a logical sequence yet remains subject to the most primitive theories of rationality and debate, an experiment deemed "scientific" for having followed a methodical formula or pattern (i.e. the scientific method) also remains bound by principles of rational thought and understanding. This is not to suggest that scientific experiment is completely devoid of reason. But by isolating principles of reason apart from science we can better understand why scientific conclusions must also yield to laws that govern rationality and logic.
Three key principles governing scientific analysis are:
Reasoning is a comprehensive term for the capacity to consciously make sense of things. It is an attempt to attain objective truth by properly applying immovable logic and rationality to indisputable and everlasting facts. Reasoning is a strenuous process that demands exhaustive study and a strong sense of self-awareness. By perfecting its principles we will become more cognizant of whether the positions we take, even if grounded in fact, are also true.
According to Immanuel Kant, logic is the “science of judgment.” While the notion of logical form is central to the idea of logic, the four basic properties contained within all logical structures merit greater focus, they are:
To the extent logic does not cover good judgment as a whole, (e.g. when the correctness of an argument is determined only by its logical form, not by its content) it is best to understand the ability to reason as also being governed by another principle: rationality. Rationality implies the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe. In other words, rationality allows an individual to elect not believe something in the face of sound reason to do otherwise, and vice versa.
Because of this ability to discount logical analysis, being rational can lead to problems.
For example, often times when we think we are being logical, we may instead be rationalizing (i.e. we may think we're being scientists, when we're actually being lawyers). Whether we like to admit it or not, our train of thought may sometimes be a means to a predetermined end – winning our "case" – and is shot through with biases and misinterpretation of data. This line of thinking is highly subject to being both illogical and, as we may surmise, unreasonable.
“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”
Intolerance and partisanship often obfuscate what might otherwise be well-grounded scientific analysis and perspective on a myriad of questions. It is our responsibility to reason through these conclusions on our own, to understand the logic behind the assumptions made, and to rationally apply what we discover to the world as we know it to exist. Only through reason, rationality, and logic, are we empowered to correctly discern fact from fiction, and truth from expectancy.
Neither the scientific method nor it's factual underpinnings, alone, assure objective truth. While some scientists may develop hypotheses to which even the larger scientific community agrees, the conclusions surmised may still, over time, be far from the "truth." Taking a position of any kind, theoretically, may be viewed as merely engaging in the battle of plausibility. But by understanding the laws of logic and rationality we will be best positioned to ascribe truth to such claims and, with any luck, become more reasonable in the process.
While ruffling through some old files over the weekend I found a paper I had written back in college, seemingly touching on this very subject. If further interested in the topic of science and justice, give it a read:
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