On science and truth

by Neil Rickert

Over at his blog, Allen MacNeill asks “Is Science True?”  MacNeill is not suggesting that science is false.  Rather, he is questioning whether we should even be asking whether it is true.

For example, I have an immediate, knee-jerk negative reaction to the title of Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True, and indeed to much of what he writes for the general public. Consider a similar title, Why Quantum Mechanics is True, or if you prefer Why the Gas Laws are True. How would a physicist react to titles such as these? I hope (and my general experience has been) that they would object to the word “true”, and also perhaps to the question “why”. Physics isn’t about “truth” and doesn’t usually ask about “why” things happen. Physics is about “useful” and “consistent” and “empirically testable” models of reality, and it’s about “how” things happen, not “why” they happen.

I admit to having the same reaction to Coyne’s book title.  Likewise, I have some discomfort when I hear people proclaim that evolution is a fact.  It isn’t that I doubt evolution.  But I don’t go around saying “gravity is a fact.”  Gravity is a phenomenon, not a fact.  If I see something fall, then that event is a fact, and indeed it is a gravitation fact.  But it seems wrong to say that gravity is a fact.

My own view is that a scientific theory is neither true nor false.  A theory is not a description of the world.  Rather, it is a framework for a particular kind of study.  That study might reveal many truths about the world, but the theory itself is the framework.  Putting this in the perspective on my series of posts on the camera analogy, a scientific theory is like the camera (or apparatus), while the facts revealed by that theory are like the photographs.  We should apply “true” to the data that comes from using that framework, but not to the framework (i.e. scientific theory) itself.

I don’t agree with all of MacNeill’s post.  For example, he says that everyone makes metaphysical assumptions.  Though that might be true, I do attempt to avoid such assumptions as far as possible.  But I agree with MacNeill when he says “My first criterion is skepticism.”

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