Does science lead to objective truth?

Are scientific theories objective truths about the universe, or just the creation of human minds?

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بسم الله الرحمٰن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a well-known and respected physicist, published this tweet a few days ago:

No doubt, he is referring to scientific discoveries when he talks about “objective truths.” But does he have any rational justification for asserting that? Is he correct when he talks about science and its objective truths? The answer is no, for one underlying reason: scientific theories are nothing more than the products of human minds.

The above statement is probably controversial, so let me break down what I mean. I am asserting that scientific theories – such as Evolution, the Big Bang, Relativity, and others – were created by human minds and aren’t necessarily “objective” portrayals of reality. I am NOT saying that the aforementioned theories are “false,” or that they don’t have empirical evidence to back them up.

My argument is threefold. First and foremost: there are many competing theories for certain scientific phenomena that are in complete contradiction with each other. For example, gravity. One theory says gravity is caused by the curvature of spacetime (Einstein’s Theory of Relativity). Another theory says that gravity is caused by particles called gravitons (Quantum Mechanics). The two are irreconcilable. So you have different people, using the same method, come to different conclusions about the universe. Does that mean a scientific theory can be “objectively” true? Hardly, because there can only be one objective truth.

Critics might allege that I’m committing a “god of the gaps” fallacy by exploiting a “gap” in scientific knowledge, that gap being the irreconcilability of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. But it’s not a “gap” in scientific knowledge we’re talking about here. It’s a contradiction. It’s not like we can’t explain gravity and therefore attribute it it a deity; rather, we have different explanations that contradict each other. The key point is that these different conclusions were arrived at by different people using the same methodology – namely, the scientific method.

Let’s say that hypothetically, there is an advanced alien civilization out there in the universe somewhere and they also use empiricism to come to conclusions about reality. Are their scientific theories the same as ours? No way! That’s because they perceive the universe through a filter – their senses – just as we perceive ours through our five senses.

Second of all, scientific theories change all the time. We believed certain things to be true 100 years ago, and when we look back at them now we realize they were completely wrong. A classical example of this is the luminiferous aether. Anyone who has studied special relativity will know what I’m talking about.

So why should the “objective truth” change everyday? That’s not very objective then. Indeed, will there ever come a time when scientists announce to humanity that everything to discover has been discovered, and that’s the end of science? Or course not!

A brilliant post on this same topic at MuslimMatters stated:

Ptolemy… proposed his geocentric cosmology to account for the volumes of empirical data on the night sky. The model provided an empirically accurate description of the motions of celestial bodies, which then advanced the navigational methods of seafarers as well as the “predictive powers” of astrologers. In these material terms, his model was very successful, though we know today that his model had little to do with reality. What makes us think that our current theories are any closer to reality than Ptolemy’s? What makes us think that we are not the Ptolemys of tomorrow?

In other words, our scientific theories are certain to be eclipsed by tomorrow’s theories, and those by the next ones, and so on. This is not indicative of any kind of objective truth.

Last but not least, our brains are limited. The mind of the human being, we are told by biologists, evolved to survive on the African savanna. So what makes it think it can understand the universe? The fact that the universe is intelligible is not explained by evolution at all; I think attributing this to God is a much better explanation. Also, the universe we as humans observe is subjective because we perceive it through filters such as our five senses and our cognitive abilities, as I already stated.

Before I end this post, I want to address some potential criticism. Some people might say: “how can you criticize science, when it has done so much for humanity! All these discoveries, inventions, improved lives, et cetera!”

Let’s get this straight: I’m not criticizing science, I’m criticizing scientism, and there’s a huge difference between the two. Scientism is the belief that the scientific method is the best (and for some people, perhaps the only) way to discover reality. But the idea that “reality” is this thing that is gradually uncovered by science is utterly absurd. And I acknowledge the debt that our civilization has to science; one does not have to believe that science leads to objective truth to be a scientist or contribute to discovery. I’m simply asking people to acknowledge science’s limitations.

Salaam,

~ Yousuf

18 October 2014


UPDATE: I found a quote in a book by Fethullah Gulen that I think exemplifies what our attitude towards science should be. It’s from Pearls of Wisdom, page 41 (the first page of Chapter 4, Knowledge). Here’s the quote:

Avoiding the positive sciences fearing that they will lead to atheism is naivety, and seeing them as contradictory with religion and faith and as vehicles for the rejection of religion is prejudice and ignorance.
Science and technology are beneficial to the degree that they guarantee human happiness and help us attain true humanity. If they are developed to harm humanity, they become devils blocking our road.
At the beginning of this [the 20th] century, some short-sighted materialists made science into an idol and sacrificed everything to it, while the most famous scientist of the century [Albert Einstein] was criticizing this tendency in a pleasant way by saying: “Science without religion is blind; religion without science is lame.” What would they have said if they saw those of today who are both blind and lame?!
Claiming that the positive sciences are of no value is ignorance and bigotry; rejecting everything else outside their fields is a crude fanaticism. Realizing that there is still a great deal to be learned signifies true scientific mentality and sound thinking.
~ Yousuf
23 October 2014

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