How Do We Know?

For the most part inquiring minds embrace the scientific method. They may not know exactly what that method is, but they would swear that this is the only way we really know anything for sure; it is the heart and soul of what we loosely call “common sense.”  That science has advanced civilization in numerous ways is incontrovertible — especially  scientific medicine which has prolonged life and made suffering comparatively rare.

The scientific method relies on empirical testing: seeing is believing. An investigator asks questions, suggests a possible explanation and then devises a test to determine whether the hypothesis they have come up with seems to bear out. If it does, it is regarded as true — at least until at some future date another test disproves the theory. The most reliable theories are those that can not be disproved: if no matter how hard we try we cannot dislodge the theory, it is regarded as the truth. An example of this is the theory of evolution which, while a theory, is still regarded as undeniably true by the scientific community — if not by some zealots on the far right. The same might be said about global warming, or what we euphemistically call “climate change.”

However, a blind commitment to the scientific method that rules out any other way of knowing is called “scientism,” and, strange to say, it suggests a closed mind. It does not simply accept the scientific method, it insists that all knowing must be reached by way of this method, and this method alone. It ignores the possibility that there may well be other ways we can know things that may not be empirically testable or falsifiable, but which may still be true — such as paranormal claims, poetic insights, intuition, and the like. Such truths are rejected by the strict scientist because they are neither testable nor capable of predicting future behavior. Paranormal phenomena, for example, while striking in many known cases, are measured against probabilities, and are not open to strict scientific methods. The ability that a few seem to have  to predict the turn of a card 93% of the time is extraordinary and highly improbable. But it is not predictable. Such phenomena are thus rejected by the scientific community.

None the less, a book entitled Crack In The Cosmic Egg written some years ago recounts innumerable striking examples of strange phenomena that cannot be tested by the scientific method but which still appear to be true — such as the ability of entire groups of people to walk on red-hot coals while in a hypnotic trance and not even feel the pain. Indeed upon further inspection, by disinterested Western observers, their feet showed no signs whatever of any burns! Various other examples are cited by the authors, yet there remain a great many skeptics. Consider the reluctance of Western medical science to accept as legitimate “holistic” medicine, such things as acupuncture or controlled diets which have shown remarkable capacity to cure pain and eliminate its cause. Additionally, it has taken years for many in the medical community to admit that allergies can be a serious health problem. Some medical people in the West, including the Mayo Clinic, are beginning to open their minds to new cures, including dietary changes, since it is impossible to deny that they have been successful for many years in Eastern cultures and among so-called “primitive” people. The same thing can be said for herbal cures, which defy scientific explanation but which work nonetheless. But it is still a major challenge to convince those who have committed themselves to the scientific method as the only possible way to know anything. As Hamlet said to his friend Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy — which in Hamlet’s day meant science.

In any event, there is something to be said for keeping an open mind. The exclusive commitment to scientific ways of knowing is just as stupid as the wholesale rejection of science by such groups as the fundamentalist Christians who see it as the work of the devil. Just as scientific minds were quick to condemn the Catholic Church for forcing Galileo to recant his claims about the heliocentric hypothesis (which we now know to be undeniably true), we should warn those same minds not to be closed to the possibility that science may not be the only way to find our way to truths that may assist us in coming to a deeper understanding of our fellow humans and the mysteries that surround us. In the end, we should always remain open to the possibility that there are questions we simply cannot answer.

One of the fascinating things to question is the limits of human knowing: Just how far can the scientific method take us? How many puzzles are open to rational explanation? How many things must remain a mystery regardless of how precise our methods of research happen to be? and How many things we know for sure cannot be proved in a strict sense?  Where does one draw the line between different ways of knowing? How do we separate truth from mere opinion? and How far we can extend our knowledge before we must simply admit we may never know? Whatever the answers to these questions might happen to be, we should never stop asking them.


11 thoughts on “How Do We Know?

  1. All of us have beliefs and biases which are unassailable.The hardest thing in the world is to maintain a totally open mind. This is my unassailable belief. Paul

  2. Hugh, you may begin a new Age of Enlightenment. Holistic medicine is a good example that should not be discounted, just as its practitioners should not discount more scientific medicine. To me, the key is what is the most elegant and sustainable cure. Back injuries are a prime example – spinal surgery can screw things up and we each know people where this has occurred. Depending on the pain, maybe the best path is some form of Yoga or Pilates mixed in with some massages.

    As you note, we keep an open mind and look to data to tell us if something is working. There was a doctor who had good results with very little prescription drugs. What they found out is she would tell her patients this will likely clear up in a week, but if it does not , here is a prescription. The folks were happy to have the Rx, but never needed it. Great post, professor. BTG

    • Yes. Medicine is the clearest example, But anyone who claims to “have the truth” and insist that theirs is the only way to look at things is suspect.

  3. Thank you, Hugh for presenting the other side of the science argument. Nothing is absolute, including science, and in my mind, scientism is no different than the closed minded, climate deniers we consider fools today. My particular bone is with the medical profession, and the AMA who can be just as strident and stupid as the NRA. Drugs are NOT the only solution to many conditions, and alternative medicines and practices do work in many cases.

    I’ve come to believe that almost every dogma or absolute deserves looking into before final acceptance.

  4. Excellent, Hugh. I would add a word about the value of poets, novelists, painters in helping us get closer to truths, to understanding both our inner and external worlds more. As well as mental-health therapies that are part of, as you and BTG and Barney have said, a holistic approach.

  5. Reblogged this on THE PIERIAN ELEMENT. and commented:
    We have here an interesting and well written perspective on on what some believe are the inherent flaws in the scientific method. While the writer’s perspective is well received and understood, personally , I do not feel the text represents a true understanding of how and why the scientific method is applied and why it’s so important. The author mentions that a blind commitment to the scientific method (called “scientism”) suggests a “closed mind”. I do disagree.

    The scientific method is a process of testing hypothetical concepts. The application of this process in research in no way a suggests that ONLY the results derived through this method are valid. Instead it focuses on one very specific question at a time. Answering MANY of these specific questions will allow a scientist to now form a theory (basically an educated guess) and additional information that is gathered through peer review and third party testing either supports or rejects the original theory.

    The application of a scientific method and a proper approach to scientific analysis leaves the doors wide open to corrections should new information be presented. To me, this is the opitomy of “open mindedness” not a closed mind. The scietific method does not wholey answer the big questions in our world. It instead examines many smaller questions to separate false perspectives from facts. It does this through replication and experimentation. Those pieces are then put together and a theory formed. The new theory then spawns further tests using different approaches and as a result we end up with a very likley (but not always proven) answer.

    To be considered viable, the scientific community has one main requirement. A phenomena MUST be demonstrable (i.e. repeatable) – not much to ask. Again this does not suggest that non-demonstrable things do NOT exist in our world (that would require supposition), but simply that in a world of research we can only test the things that WILL or can be replicated.

    Since proving a negative is not possible. the burdon of proof lies with the person making a claim. No matter how real the experience may seem to the claimant, no matter how compelling subjective evidence may be, if it can not be observed or repeated by a third party, it is not capable of being researched. That concept may be frustrating to some, but in a world with flawed human perceptions, confirmation biases and outright lies it’s the only way to work with things we “know” rather than the things we “believe”.

    If we were to open the door and accept the possible existence of all “untestable” things, where then would we draw the line? By that standard, every single claim, no matter how bizarre or unlikely would need to be accepted and clearly that is not a logical approach.

    Again, I appreciate the authors article and I want to present it because it represents a well written alternate view. What are YOUR thoughts?

    • Well said. I do think that all truth claims must be tested somehow. But I do not think the empirical test is the only one available to us. I refer, of course, to the Socratic method of “proposal and disposal.” It mimics the scientific method in that it rests on disproof, but it allows a wider range of what passes through the grid of criticism. I do believe that Hamlet was right and we must beware of the conviction that the scientific method is the only method to lead us to truths that will help us make our way through a perplexing world. Many thanks for the moment, and for the reblog.

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