Can Science Tell Us What is True?

Some religious apologists will say that the fact that science "works" does not necessarily mean that it tells us anything true about the world.  It seems to me that it is impossible to ever determine with absolute certainty what is true because what we see is a model of the world created by our brains.  Moreover, the accuracy and precision of our senses even with the aid of instruments is limited.  Absolute certainty is impossible.  But this is not the standard we use to assess our world outside of mathematics.  It is sufficient to speak of what we can assign a very high probability of being true.  But let's consider what might happen were one to proceed only when absolutely certain of the veracity of a proposition, for example, "There is a wall here." 

The evidence of my senses tells me there is a wall in front of me.  I can believe that there is no wall because I know that empirical evidence does not necessarily tell us what is true.  I can then attempt to walk through the space where my senses indicate there is a wall, but I will be unable to do so.  My progress will be impeded by what I, having decided not to accept the evidence of my senses, can only describe as "something."  But though I doubt my senses, I must now account for the problem of the "something" that is impeding my progress to the other room.  I could assume a mysterious force prevents me passing, but I have no particular reason to believe this is true either.  My senses tell me there is a wall, so I could go with the simplest assumption and decide that a wall accounts sufficiently for both my lack of progress and the phenomenon that is currently stimulating my visual cortex.  I could venture that the two forms of sense data are correlated.  I could then say that to the extent that different sense data are correlated they tell me something true about the external world. 

But perhaps I decide that both sense data do not necessarily tell me what is true.  How can I justify believing in evidence?  So I go on stubbornly denying that the wall is truly there.  I have no valid reason to believe that it is truly there.  But now I have a problem.  I am not succeeding in achieving my goal of reaching the next room by attempting to pass through the thing currently impeding my progress, and I decide to go around what my senses tell me is a wall.  Going around the wall "worked."  Or did it?  Perhaps I never moved at all.  I have only my senses to tell me that I did, and they do not necessarily tell me what is true.  And the game goes on.

What will satisfy the theologians?  What do they expect?  How do we know science tells us anything true?  Indeed, I could posit an omniscient god that knows what is true, but I don't see how this assumption helps.  I would then need to explain how I could verify the assumption.  How can the theist know with certainty that an omniscient deity exists and is not merely delusion without himself being omniscient?

Since none of us can know a mind-independent reality unfiltered by human brains, the logic of science is necessarily probabilistic.  The theist can fairly say that science can not give us absolute truth, but then we have established that the process of filtering reality, whatever that may be, through human brains can by definition never give us direct knowledge of a mind-independent world.  The theist faces the same difficulty.  In this way, the theist and the naturalist are equal.  But the crucial difference is that the method of science significantly increases the probability of achieving a given outcome.  One could argue that this is because science maps onto reality.  Of course as Hume pointed out, we have no reason to expect that because the sun has always risen in our experience that it will necessarily rise tomorrow.  So science is relegated to the consistency of its results, to its predictive power.  Science "works."  Does the fact that it works increase the probability that the method of science tells us what is true?  Does the astonishing accuracy of our mathematical models which undergird our theories increase the probability that they are true?  We could after all be brains in vats, and what we perceive as reality could be a simulation.  But if so, we could never know it.  Our world, whether virtual or actual, is for our purposes, sufficiently real.

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Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on December 7, 2014 at 5:21am

Maybe the wall is like Erwin Schrödinger's cat, both existing and not existing at the same time?

Comment by tom sarbeck on November 7, 2014 at 5:03am

Wyatt, thought experiments can mislead.

If instead of walking toward the wall, you run toward it, you might not be mislead.

Years ago in a philosophy class, the professor said he wasn't sure he existed.

I figured I could remove his doubt by sticking his arm with a needle.

Comment by Michael Penn on November 2, 2014 at 4:57pm

Our world, whether virtual or actual, is for our purposes, sufficiently real.

Yes it is, and it will remain so as long as we model our visual reality after the human eye, and our actual or virtual reality after what the brain can comprehend and understand. To imagine otherwise gets too much into science fiction. When our models of things do not work we will explain why and simply get a new model which science will then explain to us. This is reality and this does work. This is all done in demonstrable fact.
One might say that the theist does the same thing. This is not true. The theist had no facts to demonstrate in the first place. All of his facts come from warping around his magical book, interjecting new "facts" apologetically because there is no real progress in the make believe world. God never did anything to stat with and he is doing nothing now. You cannot scientifically prove anything in the bible. The mentality and message of the bible is the same as when it was written. When the bible said "there is nothing new under the sun" it was exactly correct. Nothing new in all those years and they just keep on making it up.
Science is the only one that tries to learn from the real world. The imaginary remains stagnant. I'll have to stick with science.

Comment by Loren Miller on November 2, 2014 at 3:32pm

It's not just that science works, but that it is able to make coherent predictions regarding both objects and processes which are accurate and repeatable.  It does so by making observations, suggesting hypotheses, running experiments to either verify or refute those hypotheses, and analyzing results to make determinations.  This process is done not just once but multiple times, preferably by multiple experimenters, to remove any chance of bias.  Even after a hypothesis is confirmed as a theory, it's not off the hook, as newly discovered information or events may alter the original proposal.

Science tries to learn from the real world.  Religion tries to force its unfounded fairy tales on the real world with not one shred of evidence.  As an engineer, a troubleshooter, and a sentient human being, I'm gonna stick with science.

Religion is non-functional.

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