Tag Archives: science

Knowledge vs Truth

Knowledge vs Truth seems counterintuitive, but there is a distinction to be made and it is an important one.   Instead of continuing our series on the various methods of obtaining knowledge, I decided it was a good time to pause and regain our focus on why we should do so in the first place.  These processes are relevant and important in our everyday lives because they make the pursuit of truth possible.

Knowledge vs Truth Rational Worldview Blog

The pursuit of truth is often the driving force behind our actions.  Even criminals find it necessary to increase their chances of success.  The more reliable the knowledge they receive, the more likely they are to succeed when they plan and execute their crimes.

Knowledge and truth are frequently used interchangeably, and understandably so; in many contexts it is not wholly inaccurate.  But the difference between these two abstract terms is very significant in other cases.

Battle of Gettysburg AftermathFor the purposes of this discussion, I will borrow from Merriam Webster.  Truth is the “body of real things, events, and facts.”  Examples being, respectively, buildings, a pivotal battle in a war (such as the Battle at Gettysburg during the American Civil War), and a fact — a historical one being “Germany was defeated in World War II.”

It follows logically that this body consists of both the material and the abstract — such as a mathematical law.  (An example — Euler’s identity — is pictured below).*

Eulers-identity

Truth is like reason in that it exists independently and separately from human beings.  If it were not so, future discoveries both on the planet and even in the galaxy would be impossible.  As it is, there is still so much we have yet to learn and discover about the universe and its inhabitants.

Further, the validity of truth is not reliant on the opinion of human beings.  A simple example will suffice since I do not believe this concept takes a lot of intellect to grasp.  That is: I can be the only person remaining on earth and believe with all my heart that 2 + 2 = 3, but that will never change the fact 2 + 2 = 4.

Picture of Mars by Nasa

Knowledge, defined by the same source above is: the condition of apprehending truth.  In other words, knowledge is the tool — using various methods — to acquire truth.

The more knowledge we gain about the universe, the closer we become to grasping this body of truth mentioned above.  The ideal situation is for human knowledge to mirror truth.  Given the situation, sometimes that is the case, many other times it is not.  We can have partial knowledge of something now, with the hope of obtaining complete knowledge of it later.

The various methods of acquiring knowledge bring us closer to the truth (as defined above).  We pursue knowledge, because it brings us closer to truth, and most of us do so because we’ve learned it only stands to benefit us in some way.  That does not mean truth is never painful, but most would agree in the long run, it is far more merciful than ignorance, or at least prolonged ignorance.

This post is the basis for the next one Certainty and Probability.

*Euler’s Identity is widely acknowledged as a non obvious fact that relates irrational and imaginary numbers with the very simple integer values of 0 and 1, using the basic operations of multiplication, addition, exponentiation.  

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How do we obtain knowledge?

How do we obtain knowledge? Some of the methods we use are more reliable others.  Still others may be used more often due to necessity.  However, that does not mean that a certain method of obtaining knowledge that we do not use very much or may be less reliable should not, at the appropriate time, be employed to better understand how best to act or proceed in a given situation.  After all, there is no method of acquiring knowledge that is both 100% reliable and 100% applicable in all situations.

For example, the scientific method has opened the door to technological discoveries that provide us useful information about the development of a fetus during each trimester of the typical nine months a particular woman carries her child. fetus She cannot, without such scientific knowledge, come to know which aspects of her child are developing and when simply by carrying it.  She only knows that it is developing because her belly gets larger and larger.  She gets most of her knowledge about the stages of fetal development from what scientific discovery has so far provided at this point in history.

On the other hand, the scientific method cannot tell us exactly when that woman will give birth (given that her labor is not induced).  Only the knowledge provided by that woman’s body — namely, that she will feel great pain and contractions — will indicate it is time to give birth.  pregnant womanShe could go into labor days, weeks, or even months before she has been pregnant for a full nine months.  She may be up to speed on every aspect of fetal development, but that knowledge will not help her in knowing when it is time to go to the hospital (or birthing center, if you like) to deliver her child; the knowledge provided by her body will.

My ultimate point is that the knowledge desired or needed dictates or determines which method of obtaining knowledge is most appropriate and most useful for the given situation.

Even though the scientific method of observation and experimentation may be the most reliable form of acquiring knowledge, we cannot make the mistake of assuming it is more legitimate in every given situation.  Further, we should not draw the even more erroneous conclusion that it is the only legitimate way or method of obtaining knowledge.

Other scenarios will make the same point.  There are (obviously) times when we come to know something only by life experience just as there are times when the only method of obtaining necessary and/or desired knowledge is by witness account or classroom instruction.  Sometimes a situation requires the use of more than just one method of obtaining knowledge, and sometimes these methods are similar.

The various methods of acquiring knowledge are listed below with their corresponding links.  The list is not comprehensive and ongoing.

  1. The scientific method
  2. Intuition
  3. Experience
  4. Are eyewitness accounts reliable?
  5. Reason as a source of knowledge
  6. Authority as a source of knowledge
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Steps of the scientific method

We scratched the surface of what knowledge is in the last post, but how do we obtain it in the first place? definition of knowledgeIt is a pretty simple question, but we should not take it for granted that we acquire knowledge — in many different ways — every day.  We should acknowledge each of those methods individually to better determine whether our beliefs are rational.  I will begin the list with the most popular — a step-by-step description of the scientific method.

1.  The scientific method of observation and experimentation

As elementary school students, most of us were assigned the task of conducting a scientific experiment using this 6-to-7 step method.  It can vary depending on who you ask, but it typically involves the following steps in chronological order:

  • Einstein at blackboardMaking an observation about the universe.
  • Forming a question about that observation.  It can either be a “yes-no” question or one more open-ended.
  • Forming a hypothesis — an educated guess about your question that will, hopefully and in theory, ultimately be confirmed or disproved.
  • Performing an experiment.  The experiment should be a controlled one, meaning you are able to control all variables.  Ideally, only one variable, called the independent variable, is tested each trial, while all other variable remain constant.
  • Recording your results.  This goes for each trial of the experiment conducted, including all data observed.
  • Make a conclusion. Involves acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis.  If the hypothesis is rejected after experimentation, determine whether your hypothesis really is invalid or whether you need to design a better experiment to test it.

The scientific method is the first in a long list of methods of obtaining knowledge — the topic of my next few posts.  Of course, some ways of acquiring knowledge may be more reliable or more valid than others, but we should still recognize the potential importance of all rational forms, due to the fact that we cannot rely solely on any one method of obtaining knowledge to govern our lives or understand the universe. What other ways of gaining knowledge should be included in this list and why?

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Sheldon Cooper

Why Science Can Never Tell Us Why

Like millions of other Americans, I too am a fan of The Big Bang Theory.  On last week’s episode, in a conversation between Sheldon (a socially inept but highly intelligent physicist played by Jim Parsons) and his neighbor Penny, Sheldon says:

Sheldon Cooper” if (Stephen) Hawking’s theories are correct, …they prove where the universe came from, why everything exists, and what its ultimate end will be.”

I realize Jim Parsons is only playing a genius, but this line really expresses the sentiment of our culture and the spirit of its current age, particularly in academia.  Often times, without realizing it, we make the jump from: Because a person is an expert in explaining certain ways of how the universe works, to: that person is capable of telling us why those laws and the universe exist.

For all its merit, its necessity, and its study, science — which contributes to our way of life in so many wonderful and innovative ways — cannot answer such questions as “why everything exists,” as the loveable Sheldon Cooper claimed.  Science cannot and never will be able to explain the metaphysical questions that nag us as human beings.  For a list of some of those questions, refer to the previous post What is a worldview? Part 2.

Picture of Mars by Nasa
Science — and all the many fields of academic study that fall under its umbrella (mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry etc.) — often over-extends its reach into territory where it has no business doing so.  I am not disparaging the importance of science with that claim.  The breakthroughs in science made, particularly in the past century, have been amazing and those discoveries will only increase to make our lives better.

However, I think it is important to realize that when determining the components of a worldview, one must keep the role of science in its proper place.  The role of science is to provide laws and substantiated reliable theories about the natural world based on observations and experimentation.  Those laws often come with the caveat “given nothing interferes.”

For the sake of simplicity, I will give an almost too simple example.  If I ask my friend the following questions:

  1. “Am I correct in asserting that if I mix a blue highlighter and a yellow highlighter on paper, the colored portion of the paper will turn green?”
  2. yellow and blue make green“If so, would it also be true that yellow and blue will always make green given the same set of circumstances in my experiment the future?”
  3. “Finally, am I correct in claiming the colored portion of the paper will definitely still be green tomorrow?”

Her answer, based on what we all learned in kindergarten, would most likely be respectively:

Mixed Primary Colors

  1. “Yes.”
  2. “Yes.”
  3. “Yes, but only if no one or nothing else tampers with the colored portion of the paper. If someone comes along and marks over the colored portion with a pink highlighter, the colored portion will no longer be green, thus making your third assertion untrue.”

This illustration is meant to convey that the purpose of science is to explain a result, conclusion, or phenomena of the natural world based on repeated observation and experimentation in controlled conditions.  In short, the role of science is essentially to make and record observations about the natural world and for humanity to progress by using those observations for innovation, which improve our quality of life.

However, science falls short in that it cannot explain the phenomena that exist outside or beyond the natural material world — what I defined as the supernatural in my previous post titled Do you believe in the supernatural? Here, I am not using the term ‘supernatural’ in any religious sense, but only as those elements found in our universe that are not natural or material but yet we believe to exist e.g. the non-corporeal parts of our being such as our consciousness and mind.

Throughout my life I have heard over and over again statements such as “the supernatural and God do not exist because the laws of science cannot explain such things or because there is no scientific evidence to prove it.”  However, I believe this to be a fallacy.  Just because science falls short of explaining anything outside or beyond the natural world does not logically necessitate the nonexistence of anything outside or beyond the natural world.

the limitations of scienceNor does it mean we should allow science’s limitations to become a stumbling block leading us to fall short ourselves in our pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the universe, which most would agree likely includes something outside of or beyond material nature.  

I would say no matter how “complete” science becomes, it will never provide an explanation for everything associated with our existence.  In cruder terms, the explanatory power of science will almost always fall short.  For one, the laws of the natural world are unable to explain the “why (not causal use but purpose) of existence” — that is the existence of the universe, its inhabitants, and all of the events that take place within it.  To observe something is one thing.  To claim to know why it came into being is entirely another.  The latter is not a matter of science (Lewis, 1980). Surprisingly, though, both the intelligent and unintelligent alike conflate these two issues just like Sheldon Cooper did in the season finale of The Big Bang Theory.

Science is wonderful, but it only makes sense to turn to other forms and methods of obtaining knowledge to better understand our universe as a whole and to throw off, or at least attempt to throw off, the heavy yoke placed on us by the perpetual myth we were taught in school our whole lives that science has some sort of monopoly on knowledge or that knowledge obtained by science is somehow truer than knowledge obtained by other methods.  If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that most of the knowledge we accept as valid was not obtained in a scientific lab, but through other “less certain” and “less precise” methods that have nothing to do with the hard sciences.

Please feel free to leave a comment, agree, or disagree.

Works Cited

1.  Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity.  New York: MacMillan, 1980.

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