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Science speaks well, but not the final word

Published 11:34am Monday, January 16, 2012

We live in a scientific world and flourish because of science. From physics to biology to psychiatry to medical technology, we live better because of scientific understanding and procedures. We are, then, tempted to think there is nothing science cannot know eventually. However science does not have the final word, and the reason is science does not have the first word.

Science is committed to — but also limited by — empirical observation of particulars from which scientists induct toward the final word of existence. That final word, not reached, is the grand universal of reality, both material and spiritual.

There are two methods of reasoning, i.e., inductive and deductive.

The former begins with particulars and inducts (builds upon) to universals (what are always facts, everywhere). The latter begins with universals and deducts (reduces to) particulars. However, inductive reasoning cannot reach a universal, because all particulars cannot be known, either because we cannot find them or we cannot know if we have found them. Moreover, past particulars can no longer be observed and future particulars cannot yet be observed.

Because inductive reasoning — the methodology of science — cannot reach certainty, all it can approximate is probability, and this in varying degrees of probability. Sometimes the probability is so strong, it can be treated as if certain but, nonetheless, it is not certain.

Science in the modern sense was conceived to learn by empirical (using the physical senses) observation of material particulars. It proceeds from one particular to another and keeps adding particulars and learning more about them and getting a more adequate sense of what might be the universal. Science is limited to particulars and probability of universals.

Science wisely does not claim certainty but probability, and scientific investigation is predicated upon the theory of probability. When an individual scientist claims more, he leaves science and ventures into speculative philosophy.

We now understand, for instance, that the earth rotates around the sun so that the sun appears, to our line of sight, in the east and disappears in the west. The first time someone made and recorded this observation, humans observed one particular. So far as we know and can now conceive, the same phenomenon has recurred every day in history and we have reasonable expectancy it will recur every day for the rest of time. This is inductive reasoning, which yields probability but not certainty (however satisfied we all are with this degree of probability).

It did not require a scientist to formulate this hypothesis; what science contributed to our understanding is that the sun appears to appear in the east and set in the west, because the earth rotates around the sun (which neither appears nor disappears). But, adhering to the logic of inductive reasoning, we cannot be certain of this. Science has not, nor will it ever, reach the universal principle that this occurs necessarily. The particular of tomorrow is not yet observed, and we have no empirical evidence that it will.

Now, you and I feel certain because we accept confidently this extremely high probability as if it were certain. Even when an astronomer states this, he does so as an ordinary person using common sense. Again, astronomy is incapable of asserting this as a universal principle, because the hypothesis was formulated inductively.

The inductive scientific methodology does not have the final word, because it has not yet observed the final particular so as to formulate the universal with all particulars in. Yet more significant is the fact science does not have the first word. No scientist observed the very first particular of existence. Whatever science has demonstrated about development or even evolution, it does not account for the first particular of existence, because no one was here to observe it and induct upon it.

Listen with respect to what scientists tell us they observe, and take seriously what they say about its meaning. But understand science does not yield certainty because it cannot. It does not speak the final word, because it does not hear the first word.


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  • Grant C

    I can’t help but read this article, which is entirely correct in it’s particulars… and hear the unspoken conclusion that is embedded in that “final word… first work” phrase.

    That conclusion being “…therefore we still need religion.”

    Tell me I’m wrong and that wasn’t where this was going.

    If that was the point of this article then I feel compelled to point out that while science doesn’t answer all questions or arrive at absolute certainty in it’s answers I have yet to find one single solitary gap or shortcoming in the knowledge science produces that can be in even the smallest way filled in by any actual knowledge somehow imparted by any religion. I see religions constantly making baseless assertions about those things… but I have yet to see any of them produce actual knowledge of them. Ever.

    Until that changes, sorry, but I *will* be giving science the “final word” on anything it cares to speak to.

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  • rosebandit

    Not sure where your going with this Mr. Alcorn . . . Is your goal to lay suspect the role of scientific advancement in our lives? If so, to what end?

    I wish you’d just speak your piece so that you’d give the reader something to sink his/her teeth into. I have to side with Grant C on this one given your history of arguing the virtues of religion trumping all things, including the evil of same-sex marriage. If you want to posit that religion is the first and the last word, go for it. You don’t need to take aim at the foundations of science in order to establish the supremacy of religion. Just lay it out there.

    At least I’ll know that you’re being true to your convictions (that’s something), even though your argument would have neither an inductive nor deductive foundation on which to rest.

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