Question 3: The Question of Science


Question 3: Can science give us certain knowledge about ultimate reality?

In most aspects, my view of Science conforms to that given by Karl Popper. Popper denied the idea that any scientific theory can ever be verified as true. To the contrary, Popper believed that the only sure test of a theory being as scientific was its quality of being potentially falsified. A theory is to be considered scientific only and only if it is capable of being falsified.

Why a scientific theory cannot be verified is because of its universality (Hume's problem of Induction). Let us consider a statement like ‘All crows are black’. Now this is a statement which can never be verified by no matter how many observations we make, because the hypothesis of crows being black extends to all existing crows, which may be beyond the reach of our observation. And therefore, this statement can never be conclusively verified. Discovering a black crow every time we make an observation does not confirm the theory, but only makes it more probable; the confirmation is only provisional. On the other hand, this statement can be conclusively rejected or falsified. It would take a single observation of a white crow [or red, or any other colour] to finally prove that this theory is wrong. This asymmetry between verification and falsification is central to Popper’s account of science i.e. a theory can be falsified but not verified.

A genuine scientific theory is therefore one which is prohibitive, i.e. it prohibits certain observations or events, which if happen would falsify the theory. Any theory which doesn’t contain any criteria of its falsification, and therefore explains everything, cannot be called as scientific.

Stephen Hawking writes:

“Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of the experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory.”

Popper believes that science advances in an evolutionary manner, on the principle of selection and the survival of the fittest. It is a game of conjectures and refutations. Popper describes this with a formula:

PS1 -> TT -> EE -> PS1
In a response to any problem situation [PS1] the scientists present a number of tentative theories [TT]. These theories are now subject to critical examination and vigorous attempts of falsification. This is called error elimination [EE], and is a selective process which selects those theories which survive the critical tests posed by the investigators. The theories which are falsified are therefore rejected, and only the fittest of theories are allowed to go on. The theories which survive falsification are not true but only more fit. This leads to a gradual evolution towards more and more interesting problems [PS2] and the process of selection and falsification is carried on at each step.

Popper is perhaps unusual among contemporary philosophers in the sense that he accepts the validity of Hume’s denial of Induction. However, he does not share the resulting skepticism. Hume said that just because we have observed that A follows B does not mean that A will always follow B. Popper accepts that it is not necessary that A follow B, but we can theorize that A will follow B. If A follows B in all our observations, then although this theory is not verified, it has also not been falsified.
So, although it cannot be shown that sun will necessary rise tomorrow, we can make a theory that it will. If the sun doesn’t rise, the theory will be conclusively falsified. And if it does, the theory will be provisionally verified.
Similarly, although it can’t be shown that all crows are black, we can theorize that they are. If we observe a white crow, the theory will be falsified, otherwise it will survive.

The picture of science this leads to is very disturbing. The common sense view that the growth of science is a gradual accumulation of truth about the world is overthrown by this philosophy. Science is not an accumulation of truths, but rather an accumulation of unfalsified theories about the world, which may or may not conform to the Reality. Worse, this means that we can never prove that we have found a theory which really does explains things as they are. Even if our theory was correct, there is no way we could ever find out!

So, the answer to the question is in negative. Science cannot give us certain knowledge about ultimate reality. [Please note, i am talking about 'ultimate reality'. When science deals with superficial phenomena, such as in anatomy, it does give us certain knowledge.]


Awais said…
This is in no way an endorsement of non-scientific means such as religion and mysticism. Religion is even worse than science and philosophy at grasping Ultimate Reality.