Is Science the Sole Means of Knowing Truth? No Chance.

Modern culture esteems science as the preeminent means of understanding the world. If something cannot be established by science, then, according to many, it is either unknowable or simply a matter of personal faith.

While science is an undeniably important means of discovering truths about our world, and it has contributed greatly to human flourishing, it is unwarranted to claim that it’s the sole—or even the best—means of knowing truth.

In his excellent book, The Experience of God, philosopher David Bentley Hart provides a penetrating response to the claim that science is the sole means of knowing truth:

Quite a few otherwise intelligent men and women take it as established principle that we can know as true only what can be verified by empirical method of experimentation and observation. This is, for one thing, a notoriously self-refuting claim, inasmuch as it cannot itself be demonstrated to be true by any application of empirical method.

More to the point, though, it is transparent nonsense: most of the things we know to be true, often quite indubitably, do not fall within the realm of what can be tested by empirical methods; they are by their nature episodic, experiential, local, personal, intuitive, or purely logical. The sciences concern certain facts as organized by certain theories, and certain theories as constrained by certain facts; they accumulate evidence and enucleate hypotheses within very strictly limited paradigms; but they do not provide proofs of where reality begins or ends, or of what the dimensions of truth are. They cannot even establish their own working premises—the real existence of the phenomenal world, the power of the human intellect accurately to reflect that reality, the perfect lawfulness of nature, its mathematical regularity, and so forth—and should not seek to do so, but should confine themselves to the truths to which their methods give them access.

They should also recognize what the boundaries of the scientific rescript are. There are, in fact, truths of reason that are far surer than even the most amply supported findings of empirical science because such truths are not, as those findings must always be, susceptible of later theoretical revision; and then there are truths of mathematics that are subject to proof in the most proper sense and so are more irrefutable still. And there is no single discourse of truth as such, no single path to the knowledge of reality, no single method that can exhaustively define what knowledge is, no useful answer whose range has not been limited in advance by the kinds of questions that prompted them.

The failure to realize this can lead only to the delusions of the kind expressed in, for example, G.G. Simpson’s self-parodying assertion that all attempts to define the meaning of life or the nature of humanity made before 1859 are not entirely worthless, or in Peter Atkin’s ebulliently absurd claims that modern science can “deal with every aspect of existence” and that it has never in fact “encountered a barrier.” Not only do sentiments of this sort verge upon the deranged, they are nothing less than violent assaults upon the truth dignity of science.

Science is an unbelievably value means of knowing the world. We should never downplay its significance. But, as Hart points out, we should avoid the temptation to overplay its significance as well.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

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5 replies
  1. KR says:

    “Is Science the Sole Means of Knowing Truth?”

    My problem with this question is it assumes science is a means of knowing truth. I would argue that it’s not. Science doesn’t give us The Truth but brings us closer to the truth by eliminating that which can be shown to be false. It doesn’t demonstrate that our beliefs are true but gives us a rational method of forming (and reforming) those beliefs by continuously whittling away our misconceptions and bad ideas.

    Rather than getting stuck on the concept of science (which inevitably leads to demarcation problems of what counts as science in the first place), I’d like to broaden the question to be about general epistemology – how we form our beliefs. It seems to me that to be rational is to try to align your beliefs with reality. I know of no better way to do this than to put our beliefs to the test through empirical verification. How else should we go about it?

    • Kalmaro says:

      Well I think by science he means just that, the practice of using empirical verification. Science is certainly important and a great way to establish things but it in itself cannot claim to be the only method to base beliefs on because the claim itself cannot be empirically verified. Therefore, logic and theory have their place too.

  2. Daniel H Triplett says:

    Can we “know” truth or do we merely have a strong conviction toward that which we believe in, is true? IOW, can we actually know truth or simply do we simply strongly believe something is true? (but it’s possible to be wrong)

  3. Jonathan says:

    I took my first physics class yesterday (just started physics at university). The professor said that the goal of science – and more specifically physics – is not to define truth in its absolute sense but to understand the world we live in. Absolute truth is something science is not concerned about, unlike philosophy or, in our case, theology, which discuss matters like this.
    When science starts posing questions about existential matters, absolute truth or any other moral issue, it is getting mixed up with philosophy, like in ancient times when philosophy drove every scientific approach. A physicist should never let that happen.
    A scientist builds a theory from the known and well-established principles he already has and compares it with the data collected from observation, knowing that his theory will never be absolutely true. That data may contradict the theory (requiring a new one) or the theory itself may only be valid for some phenomena and not for others. Hard to tell in advance.
    So, to say something isn’t true just because I can’t prove otherwise is in contradiction with the open-mindedness science requires to get in touch with the world around us. Science requires no prejudice whatsoever.

    • Pierre says:

      And yet scientists seem unable to avoid philosophical or theological implications of some of their theories, suxh as Stephen Hawking claiming we dont need God to explain the origin of the universe because we have a law of Gravity, etc . Or Dawkins on the blind evolution of life and it’s amoral implications.


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