How do we know the things that we, as a society, claim to know? We rely on science to tell us how the world works, and it is a very useful method for doing so—but ultimately all science does is provide a body of evidence that something is true. Science does not (at least in my understanding) strive to prove definitive and inviolable truths about reality. Rather it strives to provide logical, reasonable, evidence-based models (hypothesis and theories) for how the world most likely works based on the evidence we currently have.
So with that in mind; at what point do we, as a society, decide that the body of evidence supporting a particular scientific model is sufficient that we treat is as truth? Do we do so after the very first study putting an idea forward? The seventh? The seventy-seventh? Or do we require more than studies to decide a thing is true rather than merely likely? Do we need empirical evidence that can be observed outside the laboratory? What about theories that postulate about things we cannot actually observe—like the origins of the universe or the various hypothetical particles, systems, and phenomena we have never actually observed?
Up until recently we had never seen a black hole, and yet the majority of society took their existence as abject truth anyway—based purely on mathematical models saying that they could and should exist. Is mathematics, then, the ruler by which we measure what is true or false? If you can prove it on paper than it must be true?
I’m not asking these questions to call science into question, to throw doubt upon it’s usefulness or the discoveries it has made, but rather asking because it seems to me that it’s a legitimately unanswered question. Some theories with mountains of evidence are highly doubted by the general public, while other theories with far less evidence are taken as gospel truth. It seems to me that the epistemology of science is all over the place, erratic and inconsistent and often boiling down to whatever an individual wants to believe is true.
To me personally, some of the more widely accepted scientific ideas seem fairly shakily proven.The second law of thermodynamics, for example. It’s certainly a useful model for how reality might work, but it is just a model. I have never seen anything coming even close to conclusive proof that it’s an indelible truth of the universe. Yet, that’s how it’s treated, to the point that any proposed model that questions is is immediately struck down for violating a ‘law’ of physics.
At what point does a model become law? Evolution isn’t a ‘law’ yet, despite having (in my opinion) quite a lot more evidence than some of the things that are considered laws (second thermodynamics seeming the most egregious example to me). Why is that?
At what point did we as a society give science (a system designed to create models, hypothesis, and theories—any of which can be debunked if new evidence is found) the authority to create ‘laws?’ That seems quite contrary to the whole idea of science to me.
So I guess those are my questions here. How do we know that scientific discoveries are objective truths and not just good models? How do we decide which scientific ideas to treat as true rather than just likely, and at what point did science cross the line from being a observational tool to an epistemological one?
Message Board: Join in our discussion.