What the [blank] do we know?

There’s a great post by Totally Baked on the joy of irrationality. There’s also an interesting post by Mike at tuibguy on the topic of science and truth. Which all brings me to my own topic: what really do we know?

There are various ways in which we can know things, and philosophers love to debate about how we can know anything. As Totally Baked states:

Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists, on the other hand, claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

What we know can be defined, depending on your point of view, as what we can experience with our five senses (thank you, Thomas Aquinas), what we can reason (a tip of the hat to Aristotle), what we are told by God (“he who has ears to hear, let him hear”), what others tell us about the past (history), and what the courts tell us (who do we blame for this one?), such as “OJ is innocent” and “ID is Creationism.”

There is also knowledge which results from the scientific method – more than merely what we experience, but what can be observed and experienced repeatedly. (If I were in a sarcastic mood, I would also mention that type of truth which we believe exists simply because it’s repeated loudly enough or often enough. But, I’m not being sarcastic so we’ll let that one go.)

But, what do we really know, and how much can we ever know? The two key avenues of knowledge in our rationalistic culture are science and logic. Science, by it’s own definition, limits itself to that which is observable in the natural world. Therefore we have at least two possibilities when answering what we can know from science: If we are materialists, denying that anything exists outside of the material world, then science is only limited by our current ability to observe. The invention of the microscope, for example, allowed us to observe on a scale never before possible (or even imagined). We can only assume that as our abilities progress, we will continue to observe more and more “new frontiers.”

However, if we are not materialists but also accept the possibility of a god, then we still recognize the potential knowledge as the materialists plus we recognize the added knowledge which comes through either super-natural experience or revelation, which is by definition outside of the realm of science. By comparison, scientific knowledge is more limited, and would arguably be subordinate to this other knowledge which is out of the scientist’s reach.

With the realization of the Big Bang also came the realization that the universe was finite: it had a beginning, a point at which prior to it, there was no universe, and afterwards there was. We must also presume, then, that the universe has an end; to go on forever, either in distance or time, would be illogical. We also must accept that scientific knowledge, that which results from the observation of a finite universe, is also limited. There was a rather bad movie a few years back, The Thirteenth Floor, that was similar in concept to The Matrix in that it presented a virtual, computer-program world. I am reminded of a scene in the movie where a couple of the characters, on a hunch, drive out to where they find the end of the virtual world; at that point, the world as they knew it stopped. This is how I envision scientific knowledge; at best, in a finite universe created by an infinite Being, there is a boundary which science cannot cross, or even see past.

Recently several scientists have ventured to propose that science is capable of declaring that there is nothing beyond the finite boundary of the universe. Now, if this were the plot of some new movie, we would certainly scoff at the ridiculous position taken by these obviously deluded scientists. Why? Because the logic is elementary: if the universe is finite, science is finite (able to observe only the finite) and science cannot see beyond the one finite point we’ve been able to identify. Therefore, how can it see beyond?

Any information outside of the observable, material world would have to be communicated from the outside to the inside – and we call that revelation. Now, if there is nothing “outside,” then how can anything be communicated? Logically, the only information which can possibly be communicated from outside our finite universe is that there is something there. So, it seems we have two options: either there is something beyond the finite universe that can communicate to us within the finite universe, or there is nothing there. But, we can never prove this second option, because to draw any conclusions from silence is illogical – the god may just be unwilling to communicate, or we are not able to recognize that communication.

Now, we come to another question: If science is unable to comment on that which may exist outside the universe, can it be trusted within the material universe? Here, we may simply not know. At this point it seems appropriate to bring up Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorum, which says that in any formal mathematical system there exists a formula which is not provable from within the system; you must go outside the system, to a “higher” system. This has also been applied to philosophical, and arguably it is applicable here. Can the scientific method even prove its own validity, if it is logically impossible for it to address anything it can’t observe?

While science is obviously a marvelous approach to the study of observable phenomena, and scientific discoveries have benefited mankind in innumerable ways, does the scientific method break down at some point? Is it possible that the methodology is more limited than even our observational capabilities? I’m not sure that science is capable of even addressing that question.

I’m not offering any answers, mind you… I’m just asking the questions.

One thought on “What the [blank] do we know?”

  1. Summer theologica

    Aquinas reasoned God
    from five philosophic deductions.
    They work pretty well I suppose.
    But right now,

    in the heat of this dry, brown
    afternoon, I prefer these
    plump raspberries, which I pluck
    from this prickly bush and eat

    one by one by one.

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