Why can we never be certain of our scientific theories?

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  • #26
Simon Bridge
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It is true as far as we can tell, so why does science not deal with truths?
(my emphasis) That's not the same thing as saying it is "true" true.

In philosophy, "truth" has a more careful definition than it has in real life. Science does not deal with truth but in reality. You don't need absolute knowledge to function in the real world - good old approximate knowledge is fine for sitting down and hitting keys.

Religion has nothing to do with truth, science is the best notion of truth we have,
And the best notion is to sort out what is not true. In a way, the only certain truth we can have is of falsehood.

and mathematics is the basis for this.
... you may notice that not all mathematical constructs have their analog in reality. Even some of the ones that looked promising, like Euclidean geometry, turned out to be flawed. Don't get too cocky about math - it is a human construction.

Learn Humility monkey-sage ;)

Bear in mind that these are philosophical disputes that have been around for millenia right? We are not going to do justice to them in a few forum posts.

I'm gonna give you a bunch of primers:

Realism vs Phenominalism (Problem of perception)
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/
phenominalism: nothing is real - it's all just sense data
realism: there exists a reality behind our sense-data, and our sences give us useful information about it

Empiricism vs Rationalism
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/
Rationalism: some synthetic truths can be known a-priori
Empiricism: the rationalist is full of it.

Problem of induction
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/induction-problem/
... a synthetic truth cannot be known with certainty from repeated observation.
See 4.2 (Popper) for a description of scientific knowledge (deduction) in this context, and section 5 for the application of probability.

There are probably less dry sources but these are pretty short.
 
  • #27
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I don't know. I see mathematics as a subject at a university. Some elements of it are discovered, some elements of it are invented. Some elements might not fit so nicely into such a simple, two-boxed system as "discovered" or "invented".

We invent the definitions to generate a clear consise understanding of the subject matter. This is no different to our laws of physics, did we invent the laws of physics?

It is quite odd that a pythagorean would claim that mathematics was even slightly invented :wink:
 
  • #28
Pythagorean
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And the best notion is to sort out what is not true. In a way, the only certain truth we can have is of falsehood.

The goal of science is not to open the door to everlasting wisdom, but to set a limit on everlasting error.
-Galileo
 
  • #29
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(my emphasis) That's not the same thing as saying it is "true" true.

In philosophy, "truth" has a more careful definition than it has in real life. Science does not deal with truth but in reality. You don't need absolute knowledge to function in the real world - good old approximate knowledge is fine for sitting down and hitting keys.

And the best notion is to sort out what is not true. In a way, the only certain truth we can have is of falsehood.

... you may notice that not all mathematical constructs have their analog in reality. Even some of the ones that looked promising, like Euclidean geometry, turned out to be flawed. Don't get too cocky about math - it is a human construction.

Learn Humility monkey-sage ;)

Bear in mind that these are philosophical disputes that have been around for millenia right? We are not going to do justice to them in a few forum posts.

I'm gonna give you a bunch of primers:

Realism vs Phenominalism (Problem of perception)
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/
phenominalism: nothing is real - it's all just sense data
realism: there exists a reality behind our sense-data, and our sences give us useful information about it

Empiricism vs Rationalism
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/
Rationalism: some synthetic truths can be known a-priori
Empiricism: the rationalist is full of it.

Problem of induction
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/induction-problem/
... a synthetic truth cannot be known with certainty from repeated observation.
See 4.2 (Popper) for a description of scientific knowledge (deduction) in this context, and section 5 for the application of probability.

There are probably less dry sources but these are pretty short.

Thank you for posting those links, i have read the stanford philosophy wiki before, it is a good resource.

I however think you are overstepping the line, claiming that not all mathematical construction correspond to reality. Does this not fit you criterion of falsehood? i.e. It seems that way, but we cannot prove it.
What if string theory or the multiverse is somehow supported by experiment? It is not beyond the realms of possibility. If so, and each "universe" is a homogenous set of physical laws, then it is quite possible that all mathematical "constructions" are embedded in a deeper reality.
I also disagree with your claim that mathematics is man made. This is a ridiculous claim. We can't find an even prime besides two, no matter how much we may want to, nor may we construct one without changing the meaning of a prime.
 
  • #30
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The goal of science is not to open the door to everlasting wisdom, but to set a limit on everlasting error.
-Galileo

I have never read that quote before, thank you for posting it!
 
  • #31
DaveC426913
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I however think you are overstepping the line, claiming that not all mathematical construction correspond to reality. Does this not fit you criterion of falsehood? i.e. It seems that way, but we cannot prove it.
Much of mathematics makes absolutely no bones about being utterly divorced from any reality.

For example, mathematics can and does deal with an arbitrarily large number of dimensions that are not even intended to model any real-world counterpart.
 
  • #32
Evo
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The OP does not meet the minimum posting guidelines for philosophy. Please REPORT all threads posted in philosophy that don't follow the rules.
 
  • #33
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Science does not attempt to "prove" anything, or find "truth". It only attempts to examine what we see and model it.

Truth is something left for religion. If any scientist ever thought he had "the truth", he would be (rightly) branded a crackpot and ostracized. That is not the scientific way.

Hi Dave.:smile: I think we have to be very careful with the usage of the word "TRUTH". I support the following:

The National Science Teachers Association (1) has an e-book entitled "The Truth About Science: A Curriculum for Developing Young Scientists" (2). Here’s the description:

"The truth is: Valid research demands more than beakers and Bunsen burners-- much more. So give kids the lowdown on how real scientists work. This engaging book shows you how to develop students’ creative and critical thinking skills to make qualitative and quantitative observations, compare testable research questions and hypotheses, design an experiment, collect and analyze data, and present results and conclusions orally and in writing. In addition to handy reproducible pages, the book is packed with special features: an unusually large section on quantitative analysis and data interpretation, plenty of background for teachers inexperienced with statistics and data analysis, and a mix of both formative and summative assessment strategies."

1. http://www.nsta.org/
2. http://learningcenter.nsta.org/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9781935155577

You may like to also review PubMed article Truth in basic biomedical science will set future mankind free:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21970156. And, there was an article, Tiny fossil fragment reveals giant-but ugly-truth - Fossil in London’s Natural History Museum is part of biggest-ever toothed pterosaur from dinosaur era , dated October 13, 2011 that was issued by University of Leicester Press Office: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/...-reveals-giant-but-ugly-truth?searchterm=Tiny

I do think that the National Biology Teachers Association statement on teaching evolution is a valuable resourse for 'teaching evolution'. Here's an excerpt I think we both agree on:

"The principle of biological evolution states that all living things have arisen from common ancestors. Some lineages diverge while others go extinct as a result of natural selection, mutation, genetic drift and other well-studied mechanisms. The patterns of similarity and diversity in extant and fossil organisms, combined with evidence and explanations provided by molecular biology, developmental biology, systematics, and geology provide extensive examples of and powerful support for evolution. Even as biologists continue to study and consider evolution, they agree that all living things share common ancestors and that the process of evolutionary change through time is driven by natural mechanisms.

"Evolutionary biology rests on the same scientific methodologies the rest of science uses, appealing only to natural events and processes to describe and explain phenomena in the natural world. Science teachers must reject calls to account for the diversity of life or describe the mechanisms of evolution by invoking non-naturalistic or supernatural notions, whether called “creation science,” “scientific creationism,” “intelligent design theory,” or similar designations. Ideas such as these are outside the scope of science and should not be presented as part of the science curriculum. These notions do not adhere to the shared scientific standards of evidence gathering and interpretation." http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/index.php?p=92 [Broken]


Best wishes to you. Have a wonderful weekend.
 
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  • #34
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"Science" needs to invent its own vocabulary. Words like truth and certainty just bog down the discussion. Or more to the point, science doesn't "work" in terms infallibilities.
 
  • #35
D H
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I however think you are overstepping the line, claiming that not all mathematical construction correspond to reality. Does this not fit you criterion of falsehood? i.e. It seems that way, but we cannot prove it.
Mathematics is not science. While science must be connected with reality, mathematics has no such constraints.

An example: Most physicists assume space and time are continuous. Suppose tomorrow an experiment is announced that shows this assumption to be false. Would this falsify the mathematics of the real numbers? Of course not. Mathematics is not constrained by reality. Mathematical theorems regarding the reals will still be valid the day after tomorrow.

Another example: Mathematical theorems regarding Euclidean geometry are still as valid today as they were in Euclid's time. General relativity did not prove that Euclidean geometry is wrong. It merely showed that the geometry of the universe is not Euclidean.
 
  • #36
D H
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Hi Dave.:smile: I think we have to be very careful with the usage of the word "TRUTH".
Exactly. Scientific theories are not "truth". Thinking they are the truth confuses the map for the territory. Scientific theories are a human-made construct, a model (an ever improving model) of [strike]the truth[/strike] reality.

And that's a good thing. If some science did finally discover the "truth," the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, that moment would make that science a dead endeavor. It is precisely because scientists do not yet know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that makes science continue to be a viable endeavor.

The fact that the truth is to some extent elusive to science does not open the door to crackpots ideas such as over unity devices, quack medical cures, or young Earth creationism. Some scientific ideas are so solid (2nd theory of thermodynamics, basic medicine, evolution) that those doors are shut. Moreover, those particular nonsense ideas are falsified by evidence. The only way to teach them is by subverting science -- which is exactly what the advocates of these ideas have been attempting to do.
 
  • #37
Pythagorean
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We invent the definitions to generate a clear consise understanding of the subject matter. This is no different to our laws of physics, did we invent the laws of physics?
(sorry, missed this post yesterday)
I don't disagree; My point was that academic subjects aren't inherent universal objects in the sense that all of math or all of physics is either this or that. Academic subjects are subject to their human construction and their pedagogical approaches. Invention and discovery, it seems to me, always go hand in hand.

When we must formulate a question to ask, the invention is first seeded by the confines of our question. Answering the question (or finding it to be a wrong question) is an act of discovery.
 
  • #38
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Much of mathematics makes absolutely no bones about being utterly divorced from any reality.

For example, mathematics can and does deal with an arbitrarily large number of dimensions that are not even intended to model any real-world counterpart.

Mathematics does so much more than describe our "reality", it describes and explains every possible reality. Every conceivable universe is governed by mathematics, hence my point that mathematics transcends our menial view of reality.
 
  • #39
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Exactly. Scientific theories are not "truth". Thinking they are the truth confuses the map for the territory. Scientific theories are a human-made construct, a model (an ever improving model) of [strike]the truth[/strike] reality.

And that's a good thing. If some science did finally discover the "truth," the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, that moment would make that science a dead endeavor. It is precisely because scientists do not yet know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that makes science continue to be a viable endeavor.

The fact that the truth is to some extent elusive to science does not open the door to crackpots ideas such as over unity devices, quack medical cures, or young Earth creationism. Some scientific ideas are so solid (2nd theory of thermodynamics, basic medicine, evolution) that those doors are shut. Moreover, those particular nonsense ideas are falsified by evidence. The only way to teach them is by subverting science -- which is exactly what the advocates of these ideas have been attempting to do.

Scientific theories are not human-made constructs. They are human processes to understand. I do not claim that we will ever have absolute truth, but we by no means create quantum mechanics, we discover it. As far as humans can be concerned science is indicative of truth. We cannot step outside of humanity and observe the universe, we do not even know if the universe "exists" without observation. My op is Why can we never reach a level of truth within the scientific process, why should there be a limiting process to observation and empirical experimentation? It is a philosophical question, hence why i posted it in that forum.

Humans should not be concerned with a truth exclusive from our observation. If the universe works at a level utterly distinct from our theories, then it might as well not exist at all. The whole conception of existence is reneged by this point. As far as we should care, as far as is possible, science reflects truth, and mathematics is the heart of science.

Pythagorean posted a quote from Galileo earlier. I have one too. "The book of nature lies open for all to read, and it is written in the language of mathematics."
 
  • #40
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Thanks DH for your feedback. :biggrin: Let's continue to discuss 'scientific theories'. Here are some excerpts from pages 4 and 5 of Evolution on the Front Line: An Abbreviated Guide for Teaching Evolution, from Project 2061 at AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) though I recommend reading the document in its entirety:


Science Explains and Predicts

Scientists strive to make sense of observations of phenomena by constructing explanations for them that use, or are consistent with, currently accepted scientific principles. Such explanations—theories—may be either sweeping or restricted, but they must be logically sound and incorporate a significant body of scientifically valid observations. The credibility of scientific theories often comes from their ability to show relationships among phenomena that previously seemed unrelated. The theory of moving continents, for example, has grown in credibility as it has shown relationships among such diverse phenomena as earthquakes, volcanoes, the match between types of fossils on different continents, the shapes of continents, and the contours of the ocean floors.

The essence of science is validation by observation. But it is not enough for scientific theories to fit only the observations that are already known. Theories should also fit additional observations that were not used in formulating the theories in the first place; that is, theories should have predictive power. Demonstrating the predictive power of a theory does not necessarily require the prediction of events in the future. The predictions may be about evidence from the past that has not yet been found or studied. A theory about the origins of human beings, for example, can be tested by new discoveries of human-like fossil remains. This approach is clearly necessary for reconstructing the events in the history of the earth or of the life forms on it. It is also necessary for the study of processes that usually occur very slowly, such as the building of mountains or the aging of stars. Stars, for example, evolve more slowly than we can usually observe. Theories of the evolution of stars, however, may predict unsuspected relationships between features of starlight that can then be sought in existing collections of data about stars.

Scientists Try to Identify and Avoid Bias
When faced with a claim that something is true, scientists respond by asking what evidence supports it. But scientific evidence can be biased in how the data are interpreted, in the recording or reporting of the data, or even in the choice of what data to consider in the first place. Scientists’ nationality, sex, ethnic origin, age, political convictions, and so on may incline them to look for or emphasize one or another kind of evidence or interpretation. For example, for many years the study of primates—by male scientists—focused on the competitive social behavior of males. Not until female scientists entered the field was the importance of female primates’ community-building behavior recognized. Bias attributable to the investigator, the sample, the method, or the instrument may not be completely avoidable in every instance, but scientists want to know the possible sources of bias and how bias is likely to influence evidence. Scientists want, and are expected, to be as alert to possible bias in their own work as in that of other scientists, although such objectivity is not always achieved. One safeguard against undetected bias in an area of study is to have many different investigators or groups of investigators working in it.
http://www.project2061.org/publications/guides/evolution.pdf
 
  • #41
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The difference between the skeptic and the believer is that the believer believes in things that are false while the skeptic believes in things that are true.
 
  • #42
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The difference between the skeptic and the believer is that the believer believes in things that are false while the skeptic believes in things that are true.

I think what some here have been arguing is that truth and falsehood are human constructs or at least something beyond out cognition. Something i quite disagree with.
 
  • #43
D H
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Exactly. Scientific theories are not "truth". Thinking they are the truth confuses the map for the territory. Scientific theories are a human-made construct, a model (an ever improving model) of [strike]the truth[/strike] reality.
Scientific theories are not human-made constructs.
They most certainly are. You are doing exactly what I warned against, confusing the map for the territory. I strongly encourage you to read the links that Simon Bridge provided in post #26. While you are at it, read up on philosophy of science. Read about Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. And you might want to google the term "map-territory relation."
 
  • #44
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They most certainly are. You are doing exactly what I warned against, confusing the map for the territory. I strongly encourage you to read the links that Simon Bridge provided in post #26. While you are at it, read up on philosophy of science. Read about Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. And you might want to google the term "map-territory relation."

Look i understand what you are saying, but i still disagree. We construct the scaffolding, but the subject matter is quite far from a "human construct". I read once that feminists were explaining our problems with fluid dynamics, by juxtaposing it with classical dynamics or "rigid" body problems. They reasoned that because science was a human construct ruled over by a patriarchal societ it was no wonder that "rigid" (Thinking in terms of phallic symbols) bodies were more easily understood than fluid dynamics which they compared with the womans menstural cycle.

Needless to say, this discussion is invoked in my mind everytime a philosopher or postmodernist claims "science is all a human construct"... I feel the utmost contempt for this idea, and believe it to be the results of a social fear to reason and think, its so much easier to disparage science than engage with it...

I realise that our postulates and "book-keeping" of science are human creations, but these processess are always indicative of a deeoer undeniable process. No matter how you argue, the earth is not carried on the shoulders of turtles, why? Because we have evidence upon evidence which rejects this view. If science is a human construct, it is only because we engage with it.
 
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  • #45
Evo
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Look i understand what you are saying, but i still disagree. We construct the scaffolding, but the subject matter is quite far from a "human construct". I read once that feminists were explaining our problems with fluid dynamics, by juxtaposing it with classical dynamics or "rigid" body problems. They reasoned that because science was a human construct ruled over by a patriarchal societ it was no wonder that "rigid" (Thinking in terms of phallic symbols) bodies were more easily understood than fluid dynamics which they compared with the womans menstural cycle.

Needless to say, this discussion is invoked in my mind everytime a philosopher or postmodernist claims "science is all a human construct"... I feel the utmost contempt for this idea, and believe it to be the results of a social fear to reason and think, its so much easier to disparage science than engage with it...

I realise that our postulates and "book-keeping" of science are human creations, but these processess are always indicative of an undeniable process. No matter how argue, the earth is not carried on the shoulders of turtles, why? Because we have evidence upon evidence which rejects this view. If science is a human construct, it is only because we engage with it.
I need citations for all of your claims, except the turtles. We don't allow claims to be made without mainstream sources. Scientific claims need peer reviewed papers in a mainstream accepted journal.
 
  • #46
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I need citations for all of your claims, except the turtles. We don't allow claims to be made without mainstream sources. Scientific claims need peer reviewed papers in a mainstream accepted journal.

sorry, just to confirm, would you like the sources of the feminist critique of classical mechanics or my belief that postulates of science are human mechanisms to explain fundemental truths?

I can provide the first, but i am afraid the latter is only a philosophical belief.
 
  • #47
Evo
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sorry, just to confirm, would you like the sources of the feminist critique of classical mechanics or my belief that postulates of science are human mechanisms to explain fundemental truths?

I can provide the first, but i am afraid the latter is only a philosophical belief.
If you have nothing to back up your beliefs and they don't follow mainstream science, then there is nothing to discuss. *Philosophical* musings must agree with mainstrem science on this forum as this is a forum for mainstream science only. Perhaps you should post your thoughts in a forum that has different rules. Nothing wrong with your questioning, it's just not what we do here.
 
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  • #48
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If you have nothing to back up your beliefs and they don't follow mainstream science, then there is nothing to discuss. *Philosophical* musings must agree with mainstrem science on this forum as this is a forum for mainstream science only. Perhaps you should post your thoughts in a forum that has different rules.

Yes, i can back up my beliefs. We define existance as everything we interact with. It is pointless to claim that there is something more, it is an inherently untestable claim. Truth is contained within our science, for our science is the measurement with all we interact with. The fact that we humans survive, and do not perish is quite an argument that our comprehension of reality must at some level correspond to reality distinct from ourselves. I realise that this is an almost anthropic idea, but i think it supports the fact that our science is objective.
 
  • #49
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I would like to see an argument that convincingly supports the fact that the laws of science are human constructs. Which i might add is less in tune with mainstream science than any opinion i have expressed.
 
  • #50
Evo
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I would like to see an argument that convincingly supports the fact that the laws of science are human constructs. Which i might add is less in tune with mainstream science than any opinion i have expressed.
Your OP said theories, and now you've moved the goalpost to laws of nature?

This is no longer on topic.
 

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