Guest post by Amanda Fischer
It’s the beginning of another semester at my university, and this past week I sat in my required “history of life” science class listening to a description of what science is and isn’t. Or, said another way, what is and isn’t science.
“If you can’t falsify a hypothesis, that’s not science. And that’s okay—not everything is or should be science. But we can’t pretend that something that’s speculation is real science,” my professor said. She gave an example of someone claiming that an invisible alien stole their car keys. Could you point to any observable evidence that would disprove that statement? Go ahead, try it: “Someone would’ve seen the keys moving on their own through the air!” “No, they became invisible when touched by the invisible alien.” See? It can’t be falsified, so it can’t be tested by science.
Now, all this seems rather obvious, right? It’s a ridiculous example—no one in their right mind would insist on a story like this. The fact that my professor chose this example shows that she’s trying to avoid condemning real-life instances of this, instead leaving it open for people to think through and realize the implications. I think that’s clever of her, because not only was it subtle enough to avoid stepping on toes, she also left room for each student’s mind to automatically fill in the bank with an example personal to them. Here’s where my mind went:
Invisible aliens created the world.
Sounds just as ridiculous as the car keys, right? How would you test this? But what if you change the subject of the sentence?
An invisible God created the world.
Aha. Now we’re in a pickle. According to this definition of the scientific method (hypothesis testing and observations, with a hypothesis that can be falsified), this statement is outside the realm of what can be examined by science. This is a great example of how just one line can undermine whole foundations of thought.
So how do we deal with this? Is our whole case overturned? Should it be thrown away? Science would like to say so. However, this is only a problem if science is the only thing that gives us answers, or, that science is the only reliable way to truth. But science doesn’t have all the answers. Science can’t have all the answers, and that’s very easy to demonstrate.
Suppose someone says to you, “Science and reasoning are the only means we have of finding the truth.” Well, then you can respond with, “How do you know that is true? How do you know reason is correct, and not some delusion in your mind?” If you had this exchange, you would probably get an answer scoffing, “that’s ridiculous.” Of course it’s ridiculous. Everyone operates based on the assumption that our systems of logic are, in fact, trustworthy, and that reality isn’t an illusion. (Actually, some people do argue that reality is an illusion, but no one else takes them seriously.) So right here we have found something the scientific method can’t test, but is accepted as a foundation of functional life. This falls under the field of philosophy, as does, I believe, God’s existence.
Similarly, within the theory of evolution is an insistence that evolution doesn’t make any claims about how the first life began. The problem of how exactly life came into existence and started the evolution chain is still very much an area of—guess what—speculation! Scientists say it doesn’t matter, that we know how life developed since then, so who cares how it began? It’s fine if they want to leave that area of abiogenesis alone. But it’s important to note that these folks have chosen to ignore the gaps science hasn’t been able to explain. Everyone must make that choice at some point, to acknowledge the existence of a hole and decide how they’re going to respond to it. Are they going to shove it under a rug and ignore it, keep using the same methods to reach a conclusion, or seek another explanation?
My point is that “speculation”—or, things that cannot be directly tested by the scientific method—is a fact of life, because science is unable to explain everything on its own. That’s why we have other fields. You can’t communicate scientific ideas without language. Science is very limited without any math. You can’t be sure about the reliability of the scientific method without accepting certain philosophical assumptions.
Yes, we certainly need to be aware of when we’re making a claim that is outside the realm of directly observable, testable science. But that claim might still be critically important, and there are holes in our understanding of the world that cannot be filled by scientific hypotheses and theories alone. We need language, we need philosophy, we need art. We need every field and discipline in our arsenal to help us make sense of our world. Although this important field has allowed us to discover many answers, the fact remains that science alone isn’t enough.