Defending the Faith: Science isn't the only road to knowledge

Published: Thursday, Aug. 29 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Some critics of religion say that "the scientific method" is the only valid source of real knowledge. But this is surely false, and, in fact, the claim undercuts itself.

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“Holy books,” declared a recent critic of this column, “cannot be witnesses to the truth. Truth can only be demonstrated with the scientific method."

But how can the truth of this confident claim be scientifically demonstrated? Can it be measured? Quantified? Spectroscopically analyzed? Can it be proven with a telescope, perhaps, or via a chemical test? Maybe an electron microscope would help, or examining lava deposits in Iceland.

Furthermore, holy books can obviously be witnesses to the truth. The Bible, for example, is a principal source for the ancient history of the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. And the Qur’an provides indispensable information regarding the life of the founder of Islam. (Having written a biography of Muhammad, I’m quite sure about this.)

Moreover, while we’re on the subject, are biographies unreliable unless they’ve been proven accurate in a particle accelerator? Are we at liberty to deny the proposition “It's wrong to torture small children for personal enjoyment” unless and until it's demonstrated factual by means of astronomical observation or counting tree rings? Is every literary interpretation equally valid unless it's been established in controlled clinical trials?

What is meant, anyway, by "the scientific method"? Is it a single thing? Is it the same for chemists and geologists? Chemists perform replicable experiments. Have geologists deciphered the history of the Grand Canyon by repeating it in their laboratories? Do cosmologists recreate the Big Bang in glass beakers? Clearly, there are very many different ways of discovering scientific truth.

And some truths, quite simply, are outside the domain of science — unless the meaning of the term “science” is expanded and distorted beyond all practical use. Historians don’t study the Renaissance by heating it in a test tube, or World War I by breeding pea plants.

Here’s one amusing definition of science that I’ve come to like as I’ve considered it: “A science,” said the late South African social anthropologist Herman Max Gluckman, “is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation.”

He was on to something. A minimally attentive freshman physics student can learn things from his textbook that Einstein — to say nothing of Newton — didn’t know. Basic modern books about the biology of the cell contain information far beyond Darwin’s understanding. Any halfway decent high school science class has a more accurate view of the solar system, in important ways, than Copernicus had. Even the greatest scientists eventually recede into history; contemporary astronomers needn’t pore over Ptolemy’s “Almagest” in order to be experts in their discipline.

The same cannot be said, though, of most non-scientific subjects. Michelangelo, Bach, Beethoven, Praxiteles and Rembrandt haven’t been replaced. More to the point, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dante, Milton, Tolstoy, Austen and Goethe remain as relevant as ever. Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” and “Poetics” are still fundamental to their respective subject areas, as are the writings of Plato, Descartes and Kant. Discarding these authors in order to recognize only what’s been certified by the scientific method, however that’s defined, would silence many truths and leave us in a very impoverished world.

Most of what we know doesn’t come from science. We learn it from parents, siblings and friends. We learn it from experience. Our personal memories aren’t science, but they’re knowledge. Plainly, although scientific inquiry is very important, there are other sources of truth than the scientific method. No amount of reading about the Swiss Alps can substitute — even in terms of knowledge — for walking among them.

(On the other hand, of course, reading about them, as well as scientifically surveying them and chemically analyzing geological samples from them, provides a kind of knowledge that merely hiking in them can’t supply. Both are important. Neither can replace the other.)

There is no litmus test to tell you whom to marry or what career to pursue. No stratigraphic analysis can answer the question of how to improve a relationship. No radio telescopic data can substitute for the knowledge gained through long and intimate acquaintance with another person—or another Person.

Finally, some questions are simply beyond definitive answer by any secular means, scientific or not. Does God exist? Does life have a purpose? Is there an objective moral law? These things, it’s true, can’t be proven. But neither can they be disproven. In that regard, those who demand that we disbelieve anything not demonstrable by science go, themselves, beyond what science can demonstrate.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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