ScienceSkepticism

In Which I Get All Philosophical On You

I’m betting most of us here consider ourselves skeptics, and proudly so.  We don’t believe in astrology, homeopathy, psychics, and other supernatural phenomena.  We avoid superstition and belief in things for which there are no “proof.”  We are also probably pretty big fans of science.  Even if some of us don’t actually enjoy the subject in school, most of us probably have respect for the “scientific method” and believe that the claims science makes about the world are true.  But should we?  Is there a good reason to believe that science describes “objective reality,” and if so what is it?

I have been taking a Philosophy of Science course this semester, and these are some of the key questions we have been discussing.  I am forming my own opinions on the matter, and will blog about them later, but first I want to hear your opinions.  Should we not only be skeptical of supernatural and paranormal claims, but also about those made by science?

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jackiestone

jackiestone

10 Comments

  1. November 21, 2008 at 3:49 pm —

    Even if science doesn’t describe our objective reality, it seems to work for our perceived reality, which for me is all that really matters. The problem with epistemology, for me, was always that if the world really doesn’t exist, or is radically different from our perceptions (not our beliefs, but our actually sensory experiences of the world) what can we possibly do to change that or how can we derive any benefit from knowing that. So, even if science doesn’t describe objective reality it does describe the reality we all perceive, which I can’t help but think is all that really matters.

  2. November 21, 2008 at 4:58 pm —

    I think that, even though we can’t know for sure that we’re actually observing objective reality since we have no way to step outside our senses and check them, we have to assume that we are observing reality. We have no better method, after all.

  3. kayla_unkempt
    November 21, 2008 at 5:13 pm —

    As for knowing if what we’re seeing and feeling is real, I don’t know. I often think of this as I stand alone at my bus stop in the morning, staring at the palm trees across the street.

    But as to if we should be skeptical to not just the supernatural, but also the scientific claims, I think the aswer is yes. We should be skeptical to science also…and don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean science in general or the scientific method, I mean findings and research and things like that. Because the beauty of science is that it’s always changing and getting better. Whatever we find today, we might find something tomorrow that contradicts it or even proves it wrong – but no matter what, we keep looking because we WANT to be proved wrong, if it means finding out the right answer. And THAT, folks, is why I love science.

    Excuse me for my moment of spaz. I get emotional about these kinds of things.

  4. November 21, 2008 at 7:39 pm —

    Short answer: Absolutely.

    Long answer: Skepticism is only useful when it’s generally applied. If you’re only skeptical about certain things, then you’re not really skeptical, you’re just inclined to scrutinize some claims while blindly accepting others. Skepticism is about not accepting claims at face value, whether they come from a man in a pointy hat and robe, or a woman in a white coat with a bunch of letter after her name. Demanding at least a modicum of evidence before believing is the name of the game.

    That said, I think it’s entirely appropriate to demand different levels of evidence from different claimants. A supernatural or paranormal claim should generally require more and better evidence, since it goes against all of the previously collected evidence. But a scientific claim isn’t immune from being that outrageous.

    Even discounting the pseudosciences – like it or not, homeopaths think they’re doctors – sometimes more mainstream science can cough up a hairball of unreality. Cold fusion is an easy example, but there are lots of others, and vigilant winnowing of the bunk from our understanding of the universe if always necessary.

    Wise-ass answer: Does Kent Hovind look good in a prison jumpsuit?

  5. Shalini
    November 21, 2008 at 10:58 pm —

    Hovind in a prison jumpsuit?

    Well, he looks even more of an epic failure than he normally does, so I guess that means he looks ‘good’.

  6. November 21, 2008 at 11:43 pm —

    Well, even if we lived in some sort of dream universe, it seems this “dream universe” follows rules that we can predict and test it out, and this is the universe where all of our experience has taken place, so I guess it is real for us.

  7. November 22, 2008 at 10:01 am —

    @Shalini: Maybe I should’ve said “natural” instead. =)

  8. FFFearlesss
    November 24, 2008 at 11:56 am —

    This sounds very Aristotle’s “Allegory of the Cave”… and here I’ve gone crosseyed.

  9. Pseudonym
    November 26, 2008 at 7:28 pm —

    There is a sense in which there’s nothing “objective” about any human endeavour, science included. But I’m going to give a tentative “yes”, for one crucial reason: The scientific method limits itself to the investigation of only that which can be scientifically tested. In that domain, it’s proven itself to be reliable.

    This is, IMO, one of the most underappreciated aspects of the scientific method: It knows its own limitations. It knows when it can’t be applied.

    My favourite example is morality. How could you scientifically test whether or not murder is wrong?

    You can’t. Science can’t even formulate the question of what is “right” and what is “wrong”. For that, you need philosophy, and philosophy (like every other field of human endeavour) has its own methodology to suit what it needs to do.

    Your question again:

    Is there a good reason to believe that science describes “objective reality,” and if so what is it?

    Yes, there is. The reason is that science limits itself to studying that which is objectively testable.

    So while there’s no good reason to think that science describes everything that constitutes “objective reality”, there is very good reason to think that everything that science describes is objectively real.

  10. November 30, 2008 at 4:12 pm —

    Pseudonym, that’s exactly what I would have said. Major kudos.

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