September 1, 2019

Invisible Spiders From Mars

Some philosophers of science argue that science has nothing to do with seeking truth.

Clifford Goldstein

Nothing differentiates our era from others more than does science, specifically the technology it spawns. If, for example, someone had told me 25 years ago about a phone, the size of a half slice of toast, that enabled you to deposit checks, edit photos, watch movies—indeed, make moviesand so much more, I wouldn’t have believed it. Today we give these smartphone processes no more thought than we do a flush toilet.

Thus awed by technology, many people now regard science as the hegemon of truth. Science says that if something is true, then it’s true; and to challenge that claim, especially in the name of “faith” or “Scripture,” is deemed, even by some Christians, intellectual infantilism.

Some philosophers of science argue that science has nothing to do with seeking truth.

This thinking is flawed, however.

Suppose a scientist proposes theory X. According to theory X, every time you do Y, Z happens, and it always does. Other scientists do Y, and Z happens exactly as predicted by theory X. An entrepreneur creates, then sells, millions of devices based on Y causing Z according to theory X.

What’s the logical conclusion, other than that theory X is true?

No. The odds are greater (perhaps infinitely greater) that theory X is probably not true.

What do I mean?

I have my own theory X, which is that invisible spiders from Mars push everything to the ground. To test my theory X, I do Y (let go of a pencil), and Z happens (it falls to the ground). Other scientists conduct thousands of experiments in which they do Y (let go of a pencil), and Z happens (it falls to the ground)—all according to theory X. Thus we have confirming evidence for theory X, that spiders from Mars push things to the ground.

However silly, this example reveals what is known as “the underdetermination of theory by evidence.” That is, no matter how much experimental evidence exists, including accurate predictions, for a scientific theory, the theory might later be rejected. The history of science is littered with discarded theories once deemed sacrosanct. And who knows what sacrosanct theories of today will be discarded tomorrow?

One of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers of science, Karl Popper (1902-1994), argued that we “can never give positive reasons which justify the belief that a theory is true.” There’s a zero probability, Popper asserted, of ever proving a theory true. Not that there’s a zero probability that the theory is true, but only a zero probability of proving it true.

This is why some philosophers of science argue that science has nothing to do with seeking truth. Rather, science is about describing the natural world well enough to make predictions about what it will do, and then manipulating those predictions to our advantage (technology). Thus, however much we are awed by technology, it no more guarantees that the theory behind the technology is true than the theory that invisible spiders from Mars push things to the ground is true, even though the theory works and makes accurate predictions.

Try it yourself and see.


Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.

Clifford Goldstein
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