There is only one dogma of science: truth is better than fantasy

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...
English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scientific Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dave Pruett has a post up at the Huffington Post looking at a declaration of eight “eminent” scientists and scholars calling for science to move past its materialistic focus.  The list of authors in this declaration includes Rupert Sheldrake, whose TED talk was removed from the TED site last year after an outcry from the scientific community pointing out that his presentation was filled with pseudoscientific assertions.

The authors of the declaration are asking that science not judge consciousness and other phenomena on a materialistic basis and be open to paranormal, near death experiences, and similar types of claimed phenomena.  They accuse modern science of being beset with the dogma of “scientific materialism”.

I think the authors’ assertion that science has a dogma of materialism is just plain wrong.

Science has only one real axiom, one dogma.  That axiom, that dogma, is that more reliable information about reality is better than less reliable information, that truth is better than fantasy.  That’s it.  Despite what many enemies and advocates of science often say, there are no other axioms.

But what about things like physicalism, naturalism, and empiricism?  These philosophies are really operational methodological assumptions, assumptions that exist because they have been shown to be fruitful for obtaining more reliable information.  They are products of science, not axioms of it.  These assumptions are retained while they continue to be useful, and would eventually be dismissed if they stopped being so.

What about the “scientific method”?  This phrase, which many people often assume to be the central axiom of science, usually refers to that simple description we all read about in grade school involving gathering data, forming hypotheses, experimenting, revising hypotheses, repeating, etc.  While broadly correct, this is actually a simplified summary that omits mountains of operational details and methods that are involved in real scientific work, and which vary widely by scientific discipline.

There is no one scientific method.  The detailed methods that are used have been themselves developed scientifically, and are constantly being refined and updated as new techniques are discovered.  The important thing to understand is that any new or proposed methods are judged by the reliability of the information they produce.  And old methods that produce less reliable results are discarded.

Reliability, incidentally, only means a low probability of later being overturned.  It means results that stand the test of time.  Methods don’t last if they produce results that are often quickly overturned.

What often isn’t appreciated is that science, by and large, is a relentlessly pragmatic enterprise.  If holding a seance was discovered to produce reliable information, scientists would incorporate it into their procedures (eventually).  If taking mind altering drugs produced reliable information, taking those drugs would become a part of science.  Of course, seances and mind altering drugs aren’t part of the standard scientific toolkit because any information they produce has generally been shown to be garbage.

What the authors are calling materialism, is historically a working assumption, not because of some deep philosophical commitment to it (although some individual scientists certainly do have that commitment) but because searching for material explanations has been fruitful, while searching for non-material ones hasn’t.  This has been true across centuries of scientific endeavor.

Which brings us back to the declaration.  The authors are essentially claiming that modern science is blinded by its adherence to materialism, and that this blindness is closing it off to knowledge about the mind, consciousness, and related concepts.  What is called for, they claim, is a new scientific revolution, a paradigm shift.

In Pruett’s piece supporting this declaration, he discusses historical scientific revolutions such as the Copernican revolution, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics.  By implication, the revolution that the declaration writers are asking for is in the same class.

But the historical revolutions Pruett discusses didn’t happen by people calling for a revolution.  Those revolutions happened by people doing it, by making discoveries that withstood scrutiny and debate, and that eventually proved to be reliable knowledge about reality.

The problem is that the declaration authors and their ilk haven’t done that, at least not yet.  What they need to do is meet the one actual axiom of science, to produce reliable information from their proposed methods of research, information that proves to be accurate, withstands scrutiny and the test of time, and that could not have been obtained under the current paradigm.  In other words, they need to do the hard work that drove the historical scientific revolutions Pruett mentions, assuming that there is anything to be gained in their approach.

Of course, some of them will claim that they have already done this, but that modern science is so blinded by adherence to materialism that their results are suppressed.  Perhaps, but claiming that the scientific establishment is in collusion against them is a common tactic of scammers, crackpots, and pseudoscientists of all flavors.  Perhaps instead, mainstream scientists just don’t want to waste their time with notions that have repeatedly been shown to have no basis in fact across decades and centuries of prior work.

40 thoughts on “There is only one dogma of science: truth is better than fantasy

  1. “What the authors are calling materialism, is historically a working assumption, not because of some deep philosophical commitment to it (although some individual scientists certainly do have that commitment) […]”

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. The abstract concept of science does not always correspond to people’s idea of science. One thing is the scientists themselves, but among this growing group of common people who hold science and reason as their ideals there has been formed such a materialistic mindset combined with a great disdain for the “non-materialistic” that non-materialistic concepts and ideas are thrown away and laughed at by an ingrained reflex.

    Science exists in two forms. There is the concept of science itself, and there is the group of science. Just like one has Christianity as in the bible, and Christianity as a group belief that often has little relation to the bible. There is science as a method or idea, and science as a symbol; a group ideal that one feels connected to.

    There are Christians who react with violence to “heathen” behaviour, though the bible tells one to turn the other cheek. This is Christianity as the group symbol – the reaction does not stem from the belief in Christ, but from the group attachment. Similarly there are scientists and “believers in science” (I hope what I mean by that is clear) who not only discards but ridicules statements, ideas, experiences and thoughts without as much as considering the possibility of their “truth”, much less trying to disprove them, though this is far from how conclusions are reached by scientific means. Not to mention those who seem to deny the possibility that current scientific theories may have overlooked/misunderstood something – those that in words may say that “according to current knowledge there is no indication that…” while behaving as if, and obviously believing that, “there is no possibility that…”.

    I think such behaviour is why many call atheism and “science” for beliefs. Religious people’s behaviour towards their religion does not come from the fact that they believe in a God, but because the religion is, as I have called it here, the group ideal. This type of behaviour and attitude comes from humans group behaviour, and it is only natural (and reasonable) that such behaviour should occur within “science” as well, when it becomes a group ideal.

    The call should then not be for science to be more open to “non-material” phenomena, as science, as you rightly say, has no bias against or in favour of materialism, but rather that people, perhaps scientists in particular, keep this “group ideal” and all that comes with it in mind.


    1. Excellent point! I was describing science as a historical process, but you’re right, there is also the tribe of science, just as there is the tribe of Christians, or the tribe of skeptics. (People can belong to more than one of these tribes.) People often react to things, not because they’ve considered the thing in and of itself, but by how they understand someone from their tribe is supposed to react. Group think is very human.

      So, if scientists and science advocates are also tribalists, how do we get from that tribalism to the historical pragmatism of science? Competition. Science is an intensely competitive endeavor. Many young scientists are eager to make a name for themselves by demonstrating previously undiscovered phenomena. And scientists by and large love to point out each other’s mistakes. Group think may slow the adoption of some ideas, but with a worldwide population of scientists looking to make a name for themselves, the valid new ideas will get attention.

      It’s worth noting that the delay of new ideas is historically rarely long, among scientists. Ideas like natural selection, relativity, and quantum mechanics were radical departures from previous paradigms, but were accepted in scientific circles within a generation. (Of course, acceptance among the general population is often a very different matter.)


  2. SAP,

    Excellent analysis. I think your last paragraph nails it – while it may be true that there is an incorrect bias among many scientists toward materialism, coming out and claiming that there is some collusion in regards to this without having near the same level of evidence as previous revolutions begins to make them look awfully similar to pseudoscientists. I would agree with them in that we should all have an open mind (which I for sure do) to the fact that the evidence could grow to support their ideas in the future, so we shouldn’t completely shut our ears, but from what I read of the Huffington post article it sounds like they are making a much stronger claim than that. Sounds like they are claiming that something akin to mind body dualism is correct. Given all the evidence that seems to show that the mind is what the body does this is tough to believe right now. I saw a good debate on this topic a few months ago. It had Sean Carroll + Steven Novella against Eben Alexander + Raymond Moody. I wrote a review of it and didn’t think the mind body dualist side made a good case. I haven’t been able to find any other debates on the topic. There is obviously a lot of information in non-debate form though.

    I guess I’ve never really thought deeply enough about exactly what the axioms of science really are. I’ve likely assumed too much in the past. Hopefully not too pedantic, but from what you wrote maybe there are 2 axioms: (1) truth is better than fantasy, and (2) reliability is key. The two may be synonyms, but I think there may be a difference between them. Could some truths about reality actually be unreliable? I’m not totally sure to be honest. But if information is unreliable then I guess it’s pointless to say there is some truth we could get out of that – perhaps there could be some truth about reality out of our reach then. I’m thinking too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Howie! And well said. We should keep an open mind, but not so open that we ignore past evidence.

      On “truth is better than fantasy” and “more reliable information is better than less reliable information”, I see the former as a shorter snazzier (but admittedly less precise) version of the latter one. (I tried the longer one in the title but felt it lacked punch.) By “reliable”, I meant reliable knowledge of a phenomena, that is, unlikely to be proven wrong, as opposed to the reliability or unreliability of that phenomena itself. For example, the location of a single photon is random (at least in our observable universe), but we can gather reliable information about how photons in general behave.

      On axioms, I don’t want to downplay the crucial importance of empirical evidence in science, but we should understand that modern science’s reliance on it was itself a scientific discovery.


      1. Ah, the whole 1 axiom thing makes more sense from that perspective. You’re points about reliance on empirical methods actually being discovered rather than being axioms Is very interesting.

        Some of this discussion on “what science is” reminds me a little of a book that you might like: “Worldviews, An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science”, by Richard DeWitt. I’ve only made it through about a quarter of the book because I’m easily distracted, but I’ve enjoyed it so far.


    2. “Could some truths about reality actually be unreliable?”

      I had this same thought. I wonder what counts as reliable and if the answer to this may be the key to why the evidence that counts is empirical in nature. What about untestable theories? What if they are true but can’t be verified to be reliable? Or is this like saying, what if rocks could talk and we just can’t hear them?


  3. I pretty much agree with this, and I think it’s well thought-out. But I don’t really like the name. Heh. The reason I say this is that I think there is a problem with how we as a culture understand fantasy. I wouldn’t consider myself a dualist by any means, but I’m nonetheless fascinated by actual phenomena that are studied under the names “fringe” or “para.” Whatever the causes of an NDE, for example, the experience itself recurs frequently enough with the same defining features that everyone agrees it is an actual phenomenon, which is to say, nobody thinks people have made up the *experience*, as I think you’ll agree. Other related phenomena–bedtime apparition experiences, OBEs, waking apparition experiences, etc., are not rare, but quite frequent. This frequency leads me to doubt the idea that they should be considered pathological in nature, and that they more likely serve/served some sort of adaptive functions (though, granted, this latter point is just an idea).

    Of particular relevance here is the theoretical, and controversial, construction called the “fantasy-prone” personality, which has been predicted in roughly 4% of the population. It is defined by a number of features, including a higher instance of reported realistic hallucinations and the belief that one is psychic, for example. However, fantasy-proneness is not considered by psychologists (who agree with the idea) to be pathological (usually). One major criticism of the fantasy-proneness model is that it may stigmatize peoples’ experiences and beliefs. I think that fantastic experiences really are stigmatized, but this stigmatization in itself needs to be studied better. As with the different types of fantastic experience listed above, the ubiquity of fantasy and its vast impact on our culture, as well as how poorly its been studied, leads me to question how we approach the concept, especially in debates concerning the supernatural–where how we understand fantasy v. reality frequently lies at the heart of the issue. How is experience related to belief? Why is fantasy socially and culturally significant? What I’m saying, I guess, is that science needs to work toward some truth about fantasy itself. So while I agree, in essence, with what you’re saying, I’d say the last thing scientists should be dismissing right now is fantasy.



    1. Thanks. I’m grateful for your thoughtful comment.

      I can definitely understand your concern with the “truth is better than fantasy” part. My original title was “Science has only one axiom: more reliable information is better than less reliable information”. While a more accurate reflection of the sentiment in this post, I felt like it lacked a certain punch, and took some poetic license with the pithier version.

      But either statement is made from the point of view of the scientist, not necessarily their subjects. Some fantasies may be psychologically beneficial for people, and I’d totally agree that scientists should be open to that possibility.

      I also agree that we should study phenomena like NDEs, OBEs, and the rest. Unfortunately, I perceive that a great amount of the work in this area is poorly done, with many practitioners looking more to bolster beliefs they desperately want to be true (or that they know their readers want to be true), rather than attempting to understand what is actually happening.

      The fantasy-prone personality concept is interesting. I suspect we’re all prone to it to some degree. Even the hardest skeptic has things they accept without scrutiny. I agree that scientists should study fantasy, but that they should strive to know truth about fantasy rather than accept fantasy about fantasy, if you understand what I’m saying.


      1. I counter your gratitude and raise it. I agree, and I especially relate to your perception concerning work in this area. I also agree with your statement about scientists versus subjects; sorry if I wasn’t clear about that. In fact, this is another problem of approaching such phenomena–that much of the data must come directly from subjects’ personal accounts.


          1. Interesting discussion. I couldn’t see a comment field there, so I thought I’d post here. I think that there are people within the fields of fringe science that do approach their topics of study with serious rigor, but they’re extremely few and far between. What I’m most familiar with is ufology. I’ve found that not all people that study UFOs believe that they are extraterrestrial, and some even implement well-designed methodologies to create rigorous and, ultimately, peer-reviewed studies. I’d point especially to physicist James Mcdonald and folklorist Thomas Bullard, but there are others too. Of course, I expect and ask you to be skeptical. 🙂 What’s interesting to me is that it’s been pretty well demonstrated that some sort of strangely behaving “objects” have been well-documented in the atmosphere, but none of them–including ball lightning and earthquake lights, among others–have a physical explanation or are even well classified. ONLY if you’re interested, here’s a couple short pieces I wrote on this topic on my personal, no-profit blog:

            Anyway, with regard to applying inductive reasoning to purely experiential data, I strongly recommend David Hufford’s A Terror That Comes in the Night, which is a folkloric study of bedtime apparition accounts he gathered in North America during the 1970s. It was Hufford that for the first time correctly described both the features and epidemiology of sleep paralysis apparitions. Since that time, the phenomenon has also been documented extensively in contemporary sleep studies.


          2. Thanks. Yeah, sorry, I had to cut off comments on posts more than 30 days old in order to keep my spam tab manageable.

            As I commented on one of your posts, nicely written, I like your approach. Grounded and sticking to reasonable theories.

            I think my main reaction when reading about things like mysterious lights in the sky is to acknowledge that the unexplained phenomena exist, but that it’s reasonable to require extraordinary evidence before concluding they are indications of anything extraordinary.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post! Simply and clearly written, as usual. It gives me a lot to think about. I was under the assumption that science must be materialistic, almost by definition. (Or maybe I should say “the natural sciences” in the old fashioned way to make this point clearer.)

    “The authors of the declaration are asking that science not judge consciousness and other phenomena on a materialistic basis and be open to paranormal, near death experiences, and similar types of claimed phenomena. They accuse modern science of being beset with the dogma of “scientific materialism”.”

    On the subject of scientific materialism, and based on my assumption that science must be materialistic, I always believed the term “scientific materialism” was meant to refer to individual scientists who, in a dogmatically narrow focus, couldn’t accept other forms of knowledge. Accusing science itself of “scientific materialism” is like accusing religion of being “religious.”

    I honestly don’t know how I feel about science opening its doors to paranormal and near death experiences in such a way. That’s primarily because I can’t see how it would operate. I agree that the proof is in the pudding. If these scientists could actually do work that shows how this is to be done, their point might prove more interesting.

    “I don’t want to downplay the crucial importance of empirical evidence in science, but we should understand that modern science’s reliance on it was itself a scientific discovery.”

    This is a fascinating topic. I wonder if you could elaborate on this? It could be enough material for another post. I wonder what science would look like if it didn’t rely on empirical evidence and if this science would be rigorous enough to satisfy us.


    1. Thanks! I think you’re right that materialism is an integral assumption of science (actually a broad set of assumptions that we lump into one word), but only because it’s been a productive one for centuries. When was the last time it was a controversial assumption (scientifically)? I’d say in the 16th and 17th centuries, as the “mechanical philosophy”, the idea that the universe was one vast mechanism, was developing as an alternative to medieval “sympathies”, the idea that similar objects influenced each other at a distance.

      What “materialism” actually means isn’t always obvious. For example, when Newton published his theories on gravitation, many scientists at the time were skeptical because it seemed to re-introduce “action at a distance”, which they saw as a step backward toward “sympathies”. But Newton’s theories matched observations too well and eventually had to be accepted, and the materialistic assumption simply broadened to include gravity. This means that “materialism” has a tendency to mean what science can demonstrate.

      This could indeed be a good post. Let me cogitate on it. I may have to re-familiarize myself with the history of science stuff I read a while back.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi ‘SAP’, just wanted to let you know I hadn’t fallen off the edge of the world and am still reading, though a number of your recent posts have tended toward things philosophical, and my brain is currently on a self-imposed philosophy-restricted diet.

    My first thought on this post was my surprise that Deepak Chopra was *not* a signatory on the declaration. Actually that’s not true – that was my 2nd thought. My first was, in reaction to the title, somewhat unrelated and of *practical vs factual realism* more generally, ie outside of the realm of science. It reminded me of:

    “Our brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, a system that evolved to assure not truth, logic, and reason, but survival.” – James Alcock, ‘The Belief Engine’

    As something of a philosophical question itself, though, I have to admit it’s not a *front-burner* question I’ve looked into much yet. It is, however, on the agenda … someday 🙂

    I recently started Bruce Hood’s latest, ‘The Domesticated Brain’, which I’m enjoying. He writes with an enthusiasm for the topic at hand I enjoy and find catching. What are you reading these days?


    1. Hey amanimal,
      Good to hear from you! I was starting to get a little worried that I hadn’t seen you around in a while, although I was relieved when I saw you comment on one of Conner’s posts.

      I can understand the desire to limit your philosophical diet. I find the really interesting scientific discussions to be inescapably philosophical, but there’s a limit to how much time I’m willing to spend on unanswerable or unresolvable questions.

      On what I’m reading, I don’t usually read old science books, but I’m making an exception for ‘The Selfish Gene’. I heard another debate about its relevancy, saw that it’s not that large of a book, and decided to stop reading about it and actually read it. I’ll likely do a post on it when I’m done.

      After discussion on this thread, I’m also re-reading parts of ‘The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ by Lawrence Principe. I have some other books queued up, but I’m not sure how fast I’ll get to them.

      Other than that, I have some science fiction novels I’m hoping to get to. (I read John Scalzi’s ‘Locked In’ and enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to post on it but it keeps falling through the cracks.) I have Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Acceptance’ queued up, and I’m looking forward to Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Sword’.

      I’ve also been trying to wrap my brain around the twin paradox of special relativity, reading various explanations of it online. I’ve read about it multiple times in the past but struggled to understand how it resolves.

      ‘The Domesticated Brain’ looks interesting, although the description on Amazon seems a bit perfunctory.


      1. Wow, that *is* a pretty uninspired promo for ‘TDB’ on Amazon. Had I not read ‘SuperSense’ and/or ‘The Self Illusion’ I doubt that description alone would prompt me to order the book. Were I in Hood’s shoes I might have to have a talk with my publisher(assuming that’s the source). Another reason I’m enjoying Hood’s writing is its basis in developmental psychology, an area I’m a bit weak in.

        I look forward to your write-up on ‘The Selfish Gene’ as I’ve considered reading it a couple of times myself. Besides Hood I’ve got Gottschall’s ‘The Storytelling Animal’, Mlodinow’s ‘Subliminal’, Sack’s ‘Hallucinations’, and McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and his Emissary’ waiting in line. All of which, along with a steady stream of various papers online should keep me busy into next year I think.

        So not much fiction in my immediate future. ‘The Storytelling Animal’ is going to be my break from reading about brains, though I won’t be surprised if it mentions it them too.


          1. Definitely ‘SuperSense’! I had put off reading it having read Boyer’s ‘Religion Explained’ and more online on cognitive by-product theory, but it was ‘SuperSense’ that introduced me to the developmental side of the equation.

            While I’m a tad hesitant after recommending ‘The Watchman’s Rattle’, I’ll go out on a limb and say that ‘SuperSense’ rates “must read”* if you’re interested in “Why We Believe in the Unbelievable”.

            * undoubtedly biased as Hood references more than a few authors/researchers I’ve read previously 🙂


          2. Thanks! Just added SuperSense to my Kindle, which raises the likelihood that I’ll read it at some point.

            On Watchman’s Rattle, no worries at all. I’m sure I’ve sent you some you could have done without. I get far too much fascinating material from you to dwell on the very rare loss.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t know if it should be characterized as a scientific dogma, axiom, working hypothesis or hidden assumption, but there is also the principle called the Uniformity of Nature. Hume brought it up in the “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”:

    “For all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qualities. If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future. all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future, since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance. Let the course of things be allowed hitherto ever so regular; that alone, without some new argument or inference, proves not that, for the future, it will continue so.” (chapter on Sceptical Doubts, part 2)

    I found part of an article by Wesley Salmon from 1953 in which he says that John Stuart Mill thought this principle was “an empirically established truth”; Kant thought it was an a priori truth (applicable to all possible experience); and Bertrand Russell among others thought it was a “postulate of knowledge, impossible to establish as true, but necessary to assume in order that inferences may be made”.

    Gideon Rosen sums up Hume’s position in some class notes:

    “It is, in Hume’s phrase, a matter of custom or habit; but it might better be called a matter of instinct. We do not reason our way to the principle: we do not accept it on the basis of arguments. Rather, to accept the principle is a natural feature of all human and indeed all animal life. Hume does not pretend to know how we came to accept the principle. It might be a trace of divine beneficence, or it might have any of a number of other causes. But wherever it comes from, it is so deeply engrained in us that we have no real choice about whether to accept it. We can temporarily suspend our intellectual assent to the proposition. But nature will soon reassert itself in us and force these doubts from our mind.”

    Some have recently question the uniformity of nature, suggesting for example that physical laws may change over time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should have probably explained that by the Uniformity of Nature I meant the idea that the same natural laws or regularities apply everywhere and at all times.


    2. Wow, that’s an excellent observation. I totally agree that the uniformity of nature is a fundamental assumption of science. I suspect if Hume had known about evolution, he probably would have speculated that it is an adaptation that we had evolved. (Such as an understanding of causality which some intelligent animals, such as crows, seem unable to grasp.)

      For science that has led to technology, engineering, and medical advances, uniformity seems like an assumption that has been empirically well validated. What we assume is that the same methods that are successful in these practical payoff sciences are being equally successful in sciences like astronomy. But if the laws of physics change, say, outside of our galaxy, or across billions of years, most of our conclusions about the large scale structure and history of the universe may be hopelessly wrong. (Vernor Vinge is one of the few science fiction authors that has actually explored this possibility in his novel ‘A Fire Upon the Deep’.)

      But, I think uniformity is still an operational assumption rather than an axiom, because if we observed phenomena that indicated that nature wasn’t uniform, as utterly unsettling as that would be, science would modify its assumptions and continue trying to work to understand what we could of the universe we were left with.

      On the Discovery link, I do wonder sometimes if Newton’s laws of motion set up a false hope for physics. Those laws were very elegant and relatively simple. Everything since then has been progressively uglier and weirder, at least by human standards. And things don’t appear to be getting any simpler or more elegant.


      1. One way to decide whether a principle is a dogma or an operational assumption would be to see how much evidence is required for scientists to give it up. A scientist who interpreted experimental results as showing that nature isn’t uniform would obviously meet a lot of skepticism. Some scientists would probably go to their graves believing that there was a hidden explanation for the apparent lack of uniformity, as some (especially non-physicists) probably go to their graves thinking there’s a hidden, deterministic explanation for the “apparent” randomness at the quantum level.


        1. That reminds of Fred Hoyle who, to his dying day, stubbornly refused to accept the big bang in lieu of his steady state theory, even when the rest of astronomy had left him behind. The Max Planck quote about physics progressing one funeral at a time also comes to mind.

          The question to me is what science as a whole would eventually end up doing. I suspect that overall, science would move forward with whichever assumptions were more productive, similar to what’s happened with QM. (Although I realize that from a strictly historical perspective, that isn’t guaranteed. The late antiquity neo-Platonists and late medieval Islamic philosophers come to mind.)


  7. I think there are two other central axioms of science, and they’re implicit in some of what you wrote originally and in what you and your readers have been discussing. The first is isotropy (a given experiment done in different people, or in different places, orientations, or times, gives the same results). The second is that the very idea of measuring reality is a coherent idea (it requires, firstly, isotropy, and secondly, some measurement protocol).

    All three depend on an external reality (realism), and in that sense science is absolutely a form of materialism. (Or physicalism or naturalism or whateverthehellism. Basically we’re talking here about realism — the idea that reality is external and consistent.)

    We should be careful when we talk about truth, which is subjective. Science is the search for objective facts and a theory that ties related facts together. That last part is also a crucial part of the science process (and could be the part one labels the search for “truth”). Just measuring stuff isn’t enough — the end game is a theory that explains the measurements.

    The problem with woo, as you suggest, is that science has studied it, and it’s failed to be measurable, and it’s failed to produce any theories. So science draws a line and says, “This is not a part of me.”

    That’s not always exactly the same as saying it’s not true, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I noted to Larry, I think isotropy is a product of science. I suppose you could argue that the isotropy of isotropy 🙂 is an assumption, but then like all inductive conclusions, it’s subject to being falsified at any time.

      There is actually a minority of scientists who are instrumentalists, who don’t assume that scientific theories describe reality, that they are only convenient frameworks to relate and predict empirical observations. The overwhelming majority of scientists are realists, because what motivates them is to understand reality. Of course, it helps to be able to occasionally put on the instrumentalist hat, to evaluate if a theory is necessarily about reality or if it is, like Ptolemy’s astronomical model, a framework that makes predictions but isn’t really about reality.

      On truth, I’ll paste the comment I made on your post. I guess it depends on your definition of “truth”. For me, facts are true, otherwise they’re not facts, and truth is the factual. What intuitively feels true may be subjective, but I can’t buy, using the commonest meaning of truth, that truth itself is anything but objective truth.

      On woo, I would say it’s not just about measurement. Or perhaps more accurately, the measurements are always zero or equivalent to background noise. I think the only reason people resist the obvious conclusion is a strong desire that something actually be there (something science has learned to guard against). But that’s the skeptic in me talking 🙂


      1. Ha, yes! There is a kind of chicken-egg thing with isotropy, isn’t there.

        Thinking about this, it occurs to me there seems an important distinction between a dogma and an axiom. A dogma can reflect a belief or an attitude. An axiom has a more formal definition — axioms are building blocks in theories.

        I think you’re right that science has a single central dogma, one I’d phrase it as: “Knowing is better than not knowing.”

        I’d still argue science takes realism almost as dogmatically, even if a few individual scientists are skeptics (such skepticism being an important part of science’s self-checking), but that’s just my 1/50th of a buck.

        Truth v. Facts addressed at length on my post, so just a quick response to: “I can’t buy […], that truth itself is anything but objective truth…”

        Which is the objective truth: The Rolling Stones are better than the Beatles. The Beatles are better than The Rolling Stones. It depends who you ask, but even in the context of an opinion, how does one defend it as objective?

        “I think the only reason people resist the obvious conclusion is a strong desire that something actually be there…”

        Of course there is a strong desire! The alternative is an uncaring universe devoid of (intrinsic) purpose and meaning. It may even be free of free-will — nothing more than a projection of a movie filmed 13+ billion years ago.

        That well may turn out to be true, but it’s a reality I don’t want to be in, so — very much like supersymmetry theorists 😀 — I hold out hope for “something more” as long as it remains possible. Also as with SUSY theorists, it’s true the ice floe does seem to be shrinking.

        (FWIW: You say “obvious conclusion” but a more accurate term might be “apparent conclusion.” With regard to reality, science has a long way to go before it can really start talking about “obvious”! 🙂 )


        1. I addressed the Rolling Stones vs Beatles truth on your post. (Any interested reader can follow the link to it in my comment above.)

          “Obvious” was too value laden a term, but perhaps “apparent” is as well in the other direction. Maybe “customary”?


          1. Nah, “customary” refers to custom. I’m surprised you find “apparent” weighted in opposition of “obvious” — I saw it as a milder, less weighted, version, not a negation. I take it you feel “apparent” implies skepticism?

            But then, isn’t skepticism what a scientific person is supposed to feel?


          2. ROFL! “Skeptical… all the way down!” 😀

            In this case it’s not quite so self-referential. The question is of skepticism regarding an “obvious” outcome of an experiment.

            Which, to wrap this back to the starting point of your article, is the conundrum. Does the inability to scientifically study some phenomena necessarily label those phenomena as non-existent or just as impossible to study scientifically?

            Is it possible there are real phenomena which are not isotropic, possibly which can’t even be measured (perhaps the concept of “units” doesn’t apply)?

            From our discussions I believe a key difference between us is that I don’t find that idea incoherent. I think it’s possible there are things that cannot be studied with what we would recognize as the scientific method.

            To put it in the context of your title, perhaps there are times when fantasy is better than truth.


          3. “Does the inability to scientifically study some phenomena necessarily label those phenomena as non-existent or just as impossible to study scientifically?”
            It depends on whether it’s existence can be scientifically established. No one currently knows how to study dark energy, but we know it’s there. On the other hand, psychic prediction should manifest a testable effect on reality, if it exists. (If it doesn’t manifest a testable effect, it’s not what most people think of as “psychic prediction”.)

            “Is it possible there are real phenomena which are not isotropic, possibly which can’t even be measured”
            Certainly. Some isotropies have already been falsified, such as time flowing uniformly across all of time and space or in all frames of reference.

            “From our discussions I believe a key difference between us is that I don’t find that idea incoherent. I think it’s possible there are things that cannot be studied with what we would recognize as the scientific method.”
            Actually, you might be surprised to read that I don’t rule this out. For example, we may never be able to truly understand wave particle duality (although I hope we never give up trying). But I’m skeptical when people evoke this for things whose existence we can’t even establish, particularly when the things described should have observable effects.

            “perhaps there are times when fantasy is better than truth.”
            For psychological comfort, that may be true. But it wouldn’t be scientific. Indeed, I think valuing fantasy over truth violates the one inviolable rule of science, from which all its other rules follow.


          4. So, bottom line, you remain confident there’s nothing that exists which can’t be studied scientifically? That’s a point on which I think we would have to disagree.

            The twist is your extremely inclusive definition of science. That opens doors others might close.


          5. Sorry, I thought I made it clear that I don’t rule out the possibility of there being things like that. Dark energy and wave particle duality might eventually turn out to fall into that category. If we had evidence for the existence of spirits, but were not able to find a way to study them, I’d see them as candidates for that category. But if we did have such evidence, I doubt scientists would ever give up trying to study them.

            My conception of science is broad, but not scientistic. I don’t insist that things like pure logic, mathematics, ethics, art appreciation, or metaphysics are science.

            Liked by 1 person

          6. Interesting SAP, I’m realizing that our approaches are very similar here. I would give the same response to Wyrd. I also don’t rule out that possibility (and I thought that was clear from your previous comment by the way).

            I’d add a slight bit more and say that if things exist outside of the bounds of critical reasoning and objective empirical investigations then it should remain simply as “a mystery” and a “possibility” rather than stating that we have confidence in describing what those things are and what they are like. This seems to be the biggest difference I have with pseudo-science and religion supporters. Some unfortunately go even further and judge others for not going along with their statements of confidence in these nebulous “might be” things that could be out there somewhere. That approach doesn’t seem right to me.

            Liked by 1 person

          7. Thanks Howie. That’s pretty much my personal philosophy too. I try not to be judgmental toward religious believers, for a variety of reasons (as long as they’re not judgmental of me). However, my attitude toward pseudo-science tends to be much harsher, because it’s often a cynical attempt to hijack the credibility of science for snakeoil or similar dubious notions.


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