The Emperor’s Clothes

Earlier this year I can across an excellent article by the late philosopher, Karl Popper, The Problem of Induction. Induction is a topic that continues to plague science, even if few seem to care. After all, what difference does philosophy make? Science works and you know what they say if it ain’t broke. Well, Popper wasn’t so naive and his insights into the epistemological limits of science are invaluable for reasons I’m sure he never anticipated and few Christians seem to grasp.

According to Wikipedia (so you know it has to be true) Popper

… held that scientific theory, and human knowledge generally, is irreducibly conjectural or hypothetical, and is generated by the creative imagination in order to solve problems that have arisen in specific historico-cultural settings. Logically, no number of positive outcomes at the level of experimental testing can confirm a scientific theory, but a single counterexample is logically decisive: it shows the theory, from which the implication is derived, to be false

. . . Popper sought to explain the apparent progress of scientific knowledge—how it is that our understanding of the universe seems to improve over time. This problem arises from his position that the truth content of our theories, even the best of them, cannot be verified by scientific testing, but can only be falsified.

Long and short:  the conclusions of science are never final, always tentative. Science is useful for solving problems and making things that work, but as far as a means for discovering truth, science is a complete failure. What’s frustrating is how many Christians, even those interested in apologetics, have failed grasp the import of Popper’s observations. Doesn’t science tell us that ax heads don’t float (2 Kings 6:5-7), seas can’t part (Exodus 14:20,21), and the dead don’t come back to life (see John 11:14ff, not to mention the accounts of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead). Doesn’t science tell us that “miracles” are a fiction; quaint and foolish fairytale for unenlightened minds? Plus, if any miracle recorded in Scripture actually occurred it must have a natural explanation, right? Hasn’t science proven once and for all that what “appears” to be a miraculous violation of a mundane natural “law” simply cannot happen? Shouldn’t we feel sorry for those ignorant flat earth bible believing fools? You can almost hear the choir singing “amen” as the army of postmodern sophisticates bow their heads in reverence to the New Age priests in white lab coats.

Ironically, most bible believing Christians share their critics belief that science is a cognitive enterprise and is a means by which we discover truth about the world.  Most Christians contend that “all truth is God’s truth” and whatever truths science uncovers must comport with the truths of Scripture regardless of what the men in the white lab coats say. What is completely missed by folks on both sides of the faith divide is that the conclusions of science can never establish the truth of any proposition.  Consider this from Popper:

. . . First, although in science we do our best to find the truth, we are conscious of the fact that we can never be sure whether we have got it. We have learnt in the past, from many disappointments, that we must not expect finality. And we have learnt not to be disappointed any longer if our scientific theories are overthrown; for we can, in most cases, determine with great confidence which of any two theories is the better one. We can therefore know that we are making progress; and it is this knowledge that to most of us atones for the loss of the illusion of finality and certainty. In other words, we know that our scientific theories must always remain hypotheses, but that, in many important cases, we can find out whether or not a new hypothesis is superior to an old one. For if they are different, then they will lead to different predictions, which can often be tested experimentally; and on the basis of such a crucial experiment, we can sometimes find out that the new theory leads to satisfactory results where the old one breaks down. Thus we can say that in our search for truth, we have replaced scientific certainty by scientific progress. And this view of scientific method is corroborated by the development of science. For science does not develop by a gradual encyclopaedic accumulation of essential information, as Aristotle thought) but by a much more revolutionary method; it progresses by bold ideas, by the advancement of new and very strange theories (such as the theory that the earth is not flat, or that ‘metrical space’ is not flat), and by the overthrow of the old ones.

But this view of scientific method . . . means that in science there is no ‘knowledge’, in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense which implies finality; in science, we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth. What we usually call ‘scientific knowledge’ is, as a rule, not knowledge in this sense, but rather information regarding the various competing hypotheses and the way in which they have stood up to various tests; it is, using the language of Plato and Aristotle, information concerning the latest, and the best tested, scientific ‘opinion’. This view means, furthermore, that we have no proofs in science (excepting, of course, pure mathematics and logic). In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and for ever the truth of a theory. (What may occur, however, are refutations of scientific theories.)

Let that sink in for a moment. In science there is no “knowledge” in the sense which Plato and Aristotle understood the word; “we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth.” Yet, in spite of this, “we do our best to find the truth.” Assuming a rational person was really interested in “doing their best to find the truth” and could even see that their chosen method could “never provide sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth,” one might think they would look for a better method. The fact that most do not suggests that they’re not really interested in finding truth after all.  Or, as John put it:

And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.  But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.

The innate and undeniable recognition that truth exists (for to deny truth is to affirm it) can be gnawing, convicting, and condemning. It’s that powerful proverbial itch that non-Christians can never scratch. And, like an itch you can’t scratch, sometimes the only thing you can do is whatever it takes to take your mind off of it. Yet, tragically, few Christians are eager to maximize the force of this dilemma even in apologetics.  That’s because they too have been duped into believing science is a cognitive enterprise.  Contrary to popular Christian belief John Robbins said; “It’s not the case that all truth is God’s truth, but rather God’s truth is all truth.”   Science never arrives or establishes any truth at all.  The Emperor has no clothes.  Those who view science as a source of knowledge are, as the Apostle said in a slightly different context, a prime example of those who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

The next thing to notice in Popper is that those who use the idea of “scientific knowledge” in an attempt to refute Biblical truth claims equivocate on the word “knowledge.” Traditionally philosophers have defined knowledge as a justified true belief. The problem with induction, upon which all science is based, is that it lacks “sufficient reason.”   Or, to put it another way, the conclusions of science can never be justified simply because the conclusions of all fallacious arguments, which includes inductive arguments, are always false.  Even if a particular conclusion of science happened to be true, one could never know it.  The method available to the scientist fail to provide the necessary (logical) justification to show that any of its conclusions are true.

Steven Hawkins explained the problem this way; “No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.” As Dr. John Robbin explains:

Induction is the attempt to derive a general law from particular instances. Science is necessarily inductive. For example, if a scientist is studying crows, he might observe 999 crows and find that they all are black. But is he ever able to assert that all crows are black? No; the next crow he observes might be an albino. One can never observe all crows: past, present, and future. Universal propositions can never be validly obtained by observation. Hence, science can never give us true statements

In addition, while Popper asserts that “we are making progress,” he doesn’t really know that since he admits science cannot provide any means to determine what progress is since it has no way of knowing what direction it’s going or even if it has ever arrived.  Or, to put it another way, if science can never arrive at truth it can never know if it is even approximating the truth.

If I’m driving to my brother’s house in Connecticut from my home in Virginia, I can assume I’m making progress, say, when I reach the New Jersey Turnpike. Of course, should I miss an exit or accidentally end up on the wrong route, it may be a long time before I realize I’m heading in the wrong direction (which happened once and I ended up on the Bay Bridge headed for Annapolis). While I could have pulled out a map in order to retrace my steps to see where I went wrong, there has to be some indicators or road markers to show me where and how I  messed up, otherwise I might never realize that I’m headed in the wrong direction. Hitting the Bay Bridge is when you realize you’re going in the wrong direction.  Regardless, I have to at least know where I’m going first before I can assume that I’m even headed in the right direction.  Science doesn’t have this luxury.

For the non-Christian there are no “road maps” for science, so there is nothing the scientist can point to in order to know he is advancing in the right direction (i.e., toward truth) or even if he made a wrong turn. It doesn’t follow from the idea that some theory works better that our new theory is therefore a closer approximation of the truth.  Science is forever begging the question.  For the Scientist truth is ever elusive. What progress means in science is that one theory (Popper called them conjectures or guesses) works better than another or has simply disproved a previous conjecture.  Truth never enters the equation.  Consequently, if science cannot provide a means by which we might know what is true, it cannot tell us whether we are moving forward toward knowledge or driving head long into ever deepening  darkness.

In contrast to the ordinary knee jerk assumptions concerning scientific advancements and discoveries, few seem to recognize, much less admit,  that scientific knowledge is a misnomer since science provides us with no knowledge at all. That doesn’t mean that science doesn’t have a use, just not the use most people, including Christians, seem to think.

After God created Adam and Eve we are told in Genesis that “God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Admittedly, science it an excellent tool for subduing the earth, but it is a lousy tool for discovering the truth.  Frankly, to view science as anything more is idolatry.  There is only one source of truth and light and that is who the Psalmist called; “The Lord God of Truth.”  Simple solution, but for those who hold the truth of God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), not so simple after all.  Not all problems have a scientific solution.  Some require a little theology.

Ever the optimistic atheist Popper sums up the problem and provides his own less than satisfying solution:

. . . What we should do, I suggest, is to give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all human knowledge is human: that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes: that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it be beyond our reach.

Since science does not provide a method for discovering truth, Popper and those like him have erred in attaching their hope for knowledge to science. Their solution to the problem is to redefine knowledge as something less than absolute, fixed, or final, and pretend progress means something even though they have know idea where they’re going or when they’ll arrive.  What they want is the illusion of knowledge.  Detached from truth, knowledge is simply whatever the men in the white coats say it is.  In the case of Popper, and the countless like him, he is left groping, even though he is correct to recognize truth is forever beyond his grasp and that his hope is in vain.

In the case of unbelievers who have attached virtually all of their hopes on the advancement of science, perpetuating the illusion that science approximates truth, or, is by definition, “truth seeking,” is at least understandable. I mean, what else do unbelievers have? But, what excuse do Christians have when they harbor these same illusions concerning science?  The mistakes the non-believer make is obvious.  If he really desires truth he must repent and gratefully receive it from a source that is not his own. He must be willing to receive a word from God.  The mistake the believer makes, who at least claims to know the truth, is that he believes that truths can be found apart from, or in addition to, God’s propositional revelation in Scripture.

As the adopted children of God, Christians are the ones who don’t have to grope.  James said “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” That should be our message to an unbelieving, dark, and dying world.

Explore posts in the same categories: Gordon Clark, Uncategorized

9 Comments on “The Emperor’s Clothes”

  1. rondig Says:

    Sean, you might find this amusing:

    Ron DiGiacomo
    rondig1 AT comcast DOT net

  2. magma2 Says:

    As I mentioned on your blog site, it was a good piece, and, I think, a fair reading of Cheung and Manata. However you did get the full brunt of Manata, which is not always pleasant. I’m no expert on Cheung, but he does make distinctions which Manata just ignores.

    I did appreciate this comment by you in response to Paul:

    There seems to be this tendency to lower the definition of knowledge to things we cannot know for sure; that enables one to have psychological certainty, which is simply self-deception dressed up in more palatable terms. It’s foolish to try to crucify logic in an attempt to know more.

    IMO this is pretty much the entire so-called Reformed Epistemology which Manata is so enamored with in a nutshell. They want to lower the epistemic bar just when we have the opposition on the run 😉 Good stuff.

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  5. Forrest Schultz Says:

    Popper is inconsistent in claiming that some conjectures can be falsified. If you do not have any truth, you have no basis upon which to erect a falsification method.

  6. das013 Says:

    Science can’t even approximate truth? By all means, go now and defy the law of gravity from a high place, Popper fans. It is superstition (and philosophies like Pooper’s)that can’t even approximate truth

    It never ceases to amaze me how people unable to understand science find people like Popper, Rand, and Dilling to be their heros. Go ahead and find yourself a quack doctor too while you’re at it. Get treatment.

  7. Sean Gerety Says:

    @das013 Don’t you need to know the truth in order to know if you’ve approximated it?

    It seems to me it is superstition to take the conclusion of a fallacious arguments (on which all science rests) and assert that you’ve somehow “approximated” the truth, much less call it a law. Popper who was an atheist and believer in science along with Russell recognized the insurmountable problem of induction, whereas you seem oblivious to their logical arguments. Further, if you read the above piece you would have noticed that no one questions the usefulness of science as a tool. It just is not a means by which truth can be obtained. As Popper said all science amounts to nothing more than conjectures (guesses) and their refutations. Your snarky comments notwithstanding.

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