Science and its Antithesis

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 123, 2008 November)


Introduction

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:
"Content of 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, page 433)

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:
1. When there 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 their judgement.

The Alternatives

By contrast, the paranormal, pseudo science and religion contain elements that are the antithesis of science:

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.


Conclusion

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.



Bibliography

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Casti, J. L. Paradigms Lost, Sphere Books Ltd., London, 1989.

McCain, G. & Segal, E. M. The Game of Science, Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., California 1969.

O'Hear, A. What Philosophy Is, Penguin Books, London, 1988.

Ward, P.A. Dictionary of Common Fallacies, The Oleander Press, Cambridge, 1978.

Collins Concise Encyclopedia, Peerage Books, London, 1985.

Dictionary of Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1984.


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