Well, we have Andrew Brown, over at his Guardian blog, joining the chorus of those who claim that a) science is only one of several routes to truth and b) science is itself based on unscientific and unjustifiable assumptions. Brown’s piece, “Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd,” takes off from a speech by atheist Harry Kroto at a meeting of Nobel Laureates in Austria. (There’s a video of Harry’s talk, but I’m not able to view it.) Apparently Harry made an offensive and insupportable claim:
. . . around eight minutes in he goes off the rails. First there is a slide saying (his emphases): “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Think about this for a moment. Is it a scientific statement? No. Can it therefore be relied on as true? No.
But formal paradoxes have one advantage well known to logicians, which is that you can use them to prove anything, as Kroto proceeds to demonstrate. Or, as he puts it: “Without evidence, anything goes.” Remember, he has just defined truth (or TRUTH) as something that can only be established scientifically. So nothing he says about ethics or intellectual integrity after that need be taken in the least bit seriously. It may be true, but there is no scientific way of knowing this and he doesn’t believe there is any other way of knowing anything reliably.
I’d say that Kroto’s assertion is a scientific one, in the sense that we can do a test: define “truth” (I define it as “things about the universe that are in accordance with fact”), and see if there are other ways to reliably achieve it. If there are, his statement is false. If not, it’s supported.
And if you use my broad definition of science as “using reason, observation, and experiment to determine things about the universe that can be verified as true by other independent observers”, then I agree with Kroto. Perhaps this is what Kroto did mean by “science”. (Someone please watch the video.) And of course what Kroto says about ethics and intellectual integrity are opinions, not truths. Who cares? Different people have different ideas of what constitutes “intellectual integrity” and different standards of morality. But Brown (I am trying hard not to use a slur here) wants to dismiss Kroto’s opinions simply because they’re not scientific!
As I’ve said before, we don’t need a scientifically based or a strong philosophical underpinning to validate science. All we need to know is that the method works: that it produces results that all scientists could in principle replicate (if they can’t the results are discarded), and it produces—apologies to Jane Austen—truths universally acknowledged. It also produces progress. It cures diseases, flies us to the moon, improves our crops. No other “way of knowing” does that—certainly not religion, Brown’s favorite hobbyhorse. And yes, the practice of science rests implicitly on the value that it’s good to find out what is true and real, but does Brown disagree with that? In the end, the method is validated by its results, and needs no a priori justification. After all, the methods of science weren’t devised before science was practiced—we simply learned from experience that if we wanted to find truth, we had to go about it in a certain way.
What Brown is trying to do, of course, is claim that there are other ways to find truth beyond science (he doesn’t define “truth”). I believe that Brown’s ultimate aim—though he doesn’t state it here—is to validate religion as a viable way of finding truth. I base this conclusion on having read—at great cost to my digestion—a number of his columns over the years. If you look up “faitheist” in the dictionary, you’ll find Brown’s picture next to it. He goes on:
The rest of us, of course, are perfectly free to believe that education should involve the promotion of critical thought, or at least to consider the question seriously. We are under no obligation to believe anything half so silly as that science is the only road to truth. We can reasonably argue that there are lots of ways to establish truth that are not scientific. Obviously they rely to some extent on the sifting and weighing of evidence, but that doesn’t make them part of science, or else every member of a jury would be a scientist.
Well, jurors are behaving like scientists to the extent that they weigh evidence in favor of and against a hypothesis. But of course their verdict is not the same thing as a scientific truth—it’s an imperfect consensus judgment about whether a jury sees “reasonable doubt” of guilt. The reason juries aren’t as good as scientists as finding truth (i.e., did the person really do the crime?) is because their decisions are often based on rhetorical persuasion and the veracity of police and eyewitnesses (unsupported personal testimony isn’t really part of science), jurors aren’t allowed to ask questions and demand more evidence, or other tests, from the prosecution, and, as we saw in the O.J. Simpson case, laypeople often aren’t qualified or trained to evaluate forensic evidence.
So what are the other areas that produce “truth”? Brown says that there are lots of them, but mentions only one: ethics.
In a similar way, we can believe that ethical truths exist, even though these clearly aren’t scientific, or the products of science; but Kroto can’t. Not that this stops him. Like anyone else who is sane he talks as if ethical truths do matter, and exist.
I don’t believe there are such things as “ethical truths”—certainly not in the same sense that there are scientific truths. What Brown means is ethical precepts, which are value judgments about what is good and right. How can you possibly determine whether a statement like “forgive your enemies” is true? It is not a reality about our universe, but a guide for behavior. (A truth claim involving ethics would be something like “everyone forgives their enemies”.) And, of course, many ethical “truths” aren’t universal at all; in fact, I doubt you’d find more than a handful that don’t have exceptions.
So Brown is wrong on ethics, and fails to mention any other methods for ascertaining truth. He bangs on about Galileo a bit (he’s done this twice before, so I’ll spare you this), arguing that Galileo was wrong about things like the distance from Earth to the stars, and so his conclusion about a heliocentric solar system, while ultimately proved correct, wasn’t supported by his own “scientific” evidence. I’m not sure what this is about unless Brown is trying to argue, as mushbrained accommodationists are wont to do, that because science is fallible, this vindicates those “other roads to truth” (e.g. Jesus).
Andrew Brown is a fool with a megaphone. I’d urge you to go over and set him straight, but he has a history of purging criticisms that appear in his comments—and not just intemperate and nasty criticism.