Sunday, September 14, 2008

Science is never finished

I've decided to start posting a quote from Carl Sagan each Sunday, to remind me of why I have chosen the name "Saganist" to identify myself on this blog and in other places around the Web. Carl Sagan had a way of expressing many of the hopes and ideals I would like to express myself, except that he was much more elegant and succinct than I am. I hope you enjoy the quotes.

I urge you to bear in mind the imperfection of our current knowledge. Science is never finished. It proceeds by successive approximations, edging closer and closer to a complete and accurate understanding of nature, but it is never fully there. From the fact that so many major discoveries have been made in the last century – even in the last decade – it is clear that we still have far to go. Science is always subject to debate, correction, refinement, agonizing reappraisal, and revolutionary insights. Nevertheless, there now seems to be enough known to reconstruct some of the key steps that led to us and helped to make us who we are.
– Carl Sagan

Recently on another site I frequent, someone implied that scientific naturalism requires as much faith as theism, and as evidence for this claim, he pointed to the fact that physicists disagree with each other just as theologists disagree with each other. Specifically, he said,

I notice today in the news...Stephen Hawking has a $100 bet that the elusive "God" particle won't be found by the new particle collider and it will be back to the drawing board for even the "standard model".....yikes....Again, it seems to me that physicists disagree among themselves as much as theologists do.....

The difference between physicists and theologists is that physicists do experiments. Whatever evidence the LHC provides, scientific theories will need to be adjusted to account for it. This is not a weakness of science; this is science's greatest strength. It is what connects scientific understanding to reality. Theology does not need any such connection.

I actually agree with the assertion that science is not infallible. It is a method used by humans; and humans make mistakes, take wrong turns, disagree with each other, and play politics. But I believe science is simply the most effective method we have found so far for discovering the nature of reality, and in the long run it maintains the balance of wonder and skepticism that is necessary for finding truth.

The fact that physicists disagree with each other is a good thing! It means that there is much left to discover, and we don't have all the answers. I think the media tends to portray scientists as thinking they have all the answers, but continual uncertainty is integral to scientific inquiry. As Dr. Sagan said, science is never finished. If you think science claims to have all the answers, I think you misunderstand science. Disagreement among scientists is usually about how to interpret the evidence, or which theory best explains the evidence. It is not disagreement about whether to follow the evidence at all, and that is what makes it so different from religion.

I leave you with a quote from Bertrand Russell:

The scientific temper of mind is cautious, tentative, and piecemeal; it does not imagine that it knows the whole truth, or that even its best knowledge is wholly true. It knows that every doctrine needs emendation sooner or later, and that the necessary emendation requires freedom of investigation and freedom of discussion.


C. L. Hanson said...


This is exactly why I trust science to provide the closest approximations we fallible humans are likely to come up with. :D

Saganist said...

Yeah! Actually, in an email exchange with a different friend today, I was thinking about this in more detail (why science is better than other methods of discovering the nature of the universe). I think I'll write up a separate post on just this topic.