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(SCIENCE and PHILOSOPHY – continued)

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Philosophy of Science and Limits to Knowing

In the 1600s a Frenchman, René Descartes, advocated disciplined philosophical argumentation integrated with physical science. He believed in doubt. The only thing he could claim that was beyond doubt was the observation of his own existence: I think therefore I am. But in time this came to be accepted as unedifying.

Given the vastness of the world microscopically and its vastness extending out into the universe, and given that our knowledge is built on interconnections, none of us should be confident that we have grasped anything completely.

And we can dismiss the absolutistic skepticism of the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who blabbered on about his knowing that we could not know anything.

Though limited in knowledge we can surely admit that we know something. Science tries to accumulate knowledge. Scientists refine what they perceive as best they can. They hypothesize, waiting for someone to make a more sophisticated approximation. Scientists entertain uncertainty as a condition with which they must live. They live with the induction fallacy. For example, one might see nothing but white swans all his life and conclude that all swans are white and then have his theory destroyed: he sees a black swan. Scientists have what they call the "uncertainty principle," a recognition that we live with limitations in measurement. To measure with certainty one needs to know the whole. Scientists don't claim to know the whole, at least scientifically, and to discard measurement entirely would be absurd, so they measure as best they can.

A difference exists between science as method and the philosophy of science – although the scientific method has origins in philosophy. A scientist can employ the scientific method regarding the empirical world and believe in a world beyond the empirical. A good scientist may claim to believe in God, and some famous scientists have – Newton for example.

Scientists can be sloppy in their use of language. They might speak of the origins of the universe or the universe having started from nothing, but they do not know what may lie in what they merely perceive as nothing. They cannot take a position as scientists between the universe as finite with a beginning or the universe as an infinity, in other words no beginning and no end. This is beyond the empiricism of science.

The philosophy of science holds that people should limit their beliefs to that which is empirical (the natural world), in other words exclude that which is supernatural. The philosophy of science is agnostic about matters beyond the empirical.

Some who include metaphysics in their philosophy accuse science of being weak because it is uncertain. They want science to be what it is not. Among them are those who accuse the adherents of the philosophy of science as having run from the question of God. Some of them describe agnostics as well as atheists as being as metaphysical as they. They fail to see the difference between the claim of knowing the mysteries of the whole and the claim, or admission, of not knowing – an absurdity to those who agnostics.

People who say they do not believe in God have a problem of definition. What do they mean by God? Whose definition of God? What is this God they do not believe in. God can be defined as nature-as-a-whole (another philosophical problem). When a god is described, the god Jehovah, for example, or Krishna, or the ancient god Saturn, they can refute that god with the claim that such a god is knowable. Refuting is not the same as arguing or proclaiming that no such god exists. Thus the proposition debated on Intelligence Squared (in December 2012) was "Science refutes God."

An agnostic doesn't need a definition of God. They have no reason to define that which they don't have knowledge of, or that which they do not wish to refute. If they are to remain true to their agnosticism they will stick not proclaim knowledge of that which they have no knowledge.

Some people describe agnostics as postmodernists. Postmodern philosophy has produced at least one aphorism: by Paul Karl Feyerabend (1924-94), an Austrian who was a professor of philosophy at U.C. Berkeley. Said he: "The only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths." In saying this, Feyerabend is going beyond those who believe that their knowledge is limited. How can he know that there are no absolute truths unless he knows the whole of reality? It would be something else, of course, if he merely said that he knew of no absolute truths.

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