Science and its Antithesis
(Investigator 123, 2008
Many people are fascinated by paranormal, pseudoscientific and
religious beliefs and proponents of these worldviews usually claim that
they are true, and therefore give us a more complete understanding of
reality. The purpose of this article is to examine the reasoning
inherent to these beliefs, and compare them to rational methods of
inquiry in order to see which system can provide us with useful
insights into the nature of the Cosmos.
Science & Truth
First of all, what is truth and how can we discover the nature of
reality? According to some philosophers, truth can be defined as the:
human knowledge which does not depend on the will and
desire of the subject. Truth is not constructed by the will or desire
of people, but is determined by the content of the object reflected and
this is what determines its objectivity." (Dictionary of Philosophy,
As for discovering the nature of reality, the most successful methods
so far devised are to be found in the techniques of science, where
theories about the world are based on observation and experiment,
encompass all previous knowledge on the phenomena, and can be used to
make testable predictions.
It is important to remember that scientific theories are not statements
of absolute truth about the nature of the universe because new evidence
may require their modification. This fact is not a weakness. On the
contrary, it is a strength, for it enables science to change in the
face of new findings, and thereby arrive at a more accurate
understanding of the Cosmos. However, because we are not omniscient
beings, the goal of ultimate truth shall be forever beyond our grasp.
Because it is impossible to know everything about all things, it is not
uncommon for a range of views to exist on a particular subject. And
when confronted with this situation it is often difficult for people to
decide which, if any, of the competing ideas is most likely to be true.
The following guidelines (based on those of the philosopher, Bertrand
Russell), although not infallible, are a useful analytical tool:
is a consensus of opinion among competent scholars (with
qualifications from accredited universities) on a particular subject
relevant to their field of expertise, then there is no certainty that a
contrary opinion is true.
When there is no
agreement among these individuals on a particular
subject relevant to their field of expertise, then no opinion can be
regarded as certain.
When there is a
consensus of opinion among these individuals on a
particular subject relevant to their field of expertise that the
evidence is inconclusive, then it would be wise for people to suspend
By contrast, the paranormal, pseudo science and religion contain
elements that are the antithesis of science:
- Ideas are
that have been discarded by historians, philosophers and scientists
because of their inadequacy as explanatory systems.
- There is an
on anomalous phenomena that can be considered a quest for mysteries,
rather than a search for prosaic explanations.
- Appeals are
made to myths: Because the ancients thought it so, then it must be so.
This is often coupled with the idea that antiquity lends veracity to a
- There is a
failure to understand that the onus of proof rests with those who
propose an idea.
made to prove an idea, the alleged evidence is frequently spurious,
distorted or fabricated. This is often combined with ignoring evidence
that is unfavourable to the belief.
can't be tested. For example, the belief that the world was created in
six days, but in such a way that it appears billions of years old.
there is a similarity between a spurious idea and one that is supported
by sound evidence, that the spurious idea is legitimate by association.
often constructed without reference to the laws of nature and other
- A refusal
ideas when proven wrong. This is often combined with viewing criticism
as part of a conspiracy: The government, the Powers of Darkness etc.
are attempting to suppress the truth.
- Appeals are
made to authority and prejudice rather than sound evidence.
- Groups who
these ideas sometimes attempt to isolate members from society. This is
often coupled with attempts to control all areas of the believer's life.
- Ideas often
poor reasoning: contradictions, faulty analogies, non-sequiturs, etc.
- Failure to
Occam’s Razor – the least speculative theory that best fits the known
facts, is the one most likely to be true.
As can be seen, there is a profound difference between the rules of
inquiry that govern science and the attitudes of believers in the
paranormal, pseudo science and religion. With science, scepticism is
considered an invaluable aid in the quest for truth. All claims must be
supported by sound evidence in order to be accepted, and unhindered
investigation is encouraged because only this can expose falsehood.
Indeed, any belief system that does not incorporate self correcting
mechanisms is unlikely to advance human understanding, and runs the
risk of being trapped in an intellectual dead end.
The Harm of the Irrational
The logical methods of scientific inquiry have been the primary factors
responsible for the advancement of knowledge and the betterment of the
human condition, and without them we would probably still believe that
the earth is flat, that evil spirits cause disease, and that magic is a
viable method of influencing the course of Nature.
Some people may think that paranormal, pseudoscientific and religious
beliefs are harmless. Sadly, this is not always the case.
Unfortunately, the illogical nature of these beliefs often necessitates
them being maintained by blind faith, which neither seeks nor desires
to know the truth, and therefore compels its adherents to believe
contrary to their reason and to known facts. Not surprisingly, this
state of mind can engender ignorance and intolerance, which are often
the parents of credulity, hatred and violence.
As an example of the harm that these beliefs can cause, consider the
following: A belief in the paranormal can lead people to place their
faith in all manner of magic cures – from faith healing to the alleged
curative power of crystals, sometimes with fatal results. The so called
"psychic surgeons" of the Philippines are a prime example of this fact.
Racism is an example of a harmful pseudo science that has caused
immense suffering, and one has only to think of the racially motivated
atrocities of Nazi Germany to see that this is SO.
And then there is religion, which contains many harmful practices that
derive from its illogical beliefs. For example, in contemporary India
there have been several cases of children being sacrificed to the
goddess Kali, and the persecution of those who are considered
unbelievers and heretics still occurs today.
Finally, although everyone has the right to believe in what they think
is true, people owe it to themselves (and to others who may be effected
by the actions that arise from their beliefs) to critically scrutinise
their convictions, for unless an idea is thoroughly examined, we can
never be reasonably sure that our beliefs are not harmful falsehoods.
The paranormal, pseudo science and religion have existed in one form or
another for thousands of years, and have had ample time to prove their
usefulness to Mankind. That they have failed to do so is probably a
consequence of their irrational nature.
By contrast, the principles that underlie scientific inquiry remain the
surest method by which we can arrive at an understanding of the
Universe that contains the minimum of error as is humanly possible.
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