How Do We Know Things Through Science? (Part 1)

In my introductory post to this series, I wrote that the the secret to the astonishing success of science is the invention of a new epistemology ( a new way of knowing).  This brilliant intellectual invention was responsible for an explosion in our understanding of the universe over the last 400 years when compared to the previous hundred thousand years of the human struggle for understanding.

In this post I would like to explain the first two revolutionary philosophical innovations that broke the whole deal wide open.

Methodological Naturalism
The most important innovation was the assumption that one should seek only naturalistic explanations for the properties and processes that we observed in nature.   We don’t assume this because we are atheists, but rather because this new way of knowing things through science simply stops giving us useful results when we entertain supernatural explanations.   There are plenty of religious scientists who operate just fine under this assumption.

In fact all of us, religious or not do this routinely throughout the day.  Consider that both the religious and the non-religious auto mechanic assumes that what ails your broken car can be solved through finding a naturalistic explanation and a naturalistic solution..  He does this for the same reason as scientists do and it has nothing to do with their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs.

Nature As Authority
The next important innovation is that we will determine the relative truth of our naturalistic explanations  by refering to nature alone.    In other words, naturalistic explanations about natural phenemenon will be referenced against nature at the exclusion of all other authorities.

This might sound obvious to us in the 21st century, but as recently as Galileo’s time (late 1500s) this was not the case.    At that point in history, the entire intellectual world was still in the thrall of ancient Greek classical thinking.    Although Aristotle wrote prolifically about his investigations of nature, he did so under the prevailing notion that no real truth about the universe would be found by observing nature.   His writings on nature were more descriptive than they were conceptual.

For the ancient Greek philosophers, truth was to be found  in the contemplation of ideal Platonic forms and not by studying their corrupt and imperfect realizations in nature.    For example, in geometry you will discover that all points on the circumference of a circle lie equidistant from its center only by contemplating an ideal circle.  Draw a real circle in the sand on the ground and you will not be able to demonstrate that property because of the real circle’s imperfections.

So that anything in the form of truth about nature could be found only in nature was quite revolutionary at the time.  In fact, this is what Galileo got in trouble for with the Catholic Church.    It had more to do with declaring that nature is the authority on nature than whether the earth was at the center of the universe or not.   Rather than this being a problem of dogma in regard to scripture, it was more of a problem of the prevailing school of thought throughout the entire intellectual community.    But since all educated people were either clerics or were taught by clerics, one could easily say that the Catholic Church at the time considered itself the authority on truth of all kinds.

This notion that nature is the ultimate authority on nature is so important to the rest of the discussion that I think it is useful to understand how explanations for natural phenomena were regarded before Galileo.    At the time of Galileo there was plenty of consideration for both the sun centered solar system model and the earth centered one.    The church was interested in these different models because they had a need to fix the exact date of Easter and other holy days for decades into the future.   (Easter is a “moveable feast” that falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox).

Both of the solar system models could be considered well formulated scientific theories by today’s standards.  But before Galileo’s time models like this were considered convenient mathematical tricks that just happened to help you get the right answer.  Rather than theories that attempt to describe the real truth of the universe, they were judged by how much they coincidentally “preserved appearances”, meaning how much their predictions gave answers that compared well with observations.

So when Copernicus’s sun centered model was published years before Galileo, it contained an introduction that disclaimed the idea that this model was actually true.   Copernicus had to present it as simply an intellectual excercise that might lead to better preservation of appearances.

The distinction here is subtle but extremely important.   Galileo’s challenge was to break that distinction and say that models like this actually do describe the real truth of the universe, and their truth can be measured by how accurately they do that.    In other words, Galileo was claiming that appearances were being preserved not just due to a coincidence or a convenient mathematical trick but it was a reflection of the relative truth of the model.   And furthermore, he claimed that the universe could be characterized mathematically without reference to God.

Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe. – Galileo Galilei.

So now the question is if nature is the authority on the truth of nature, how do we ask nature for the truth, and how do we develop certainty that we understood the answer.   This will be the subject of part 2 of this series.


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