Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

‘Other ways of knowing’

Today on campus, there was a Christian Union talk about atheism, entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist‘. I can’t stay away if atheism is being discussed, and while they’re usually well-read on Dawkins et al. and give a good critique of the Gnu Atheism, they don’t always apply the same critical eye to their own faith. I was hoping the speaker would explain how Christianity improves on atheism, and in this I was (inevitably) disappointed.

A guy named Rory was the presenter. He was a good speaker — enjoyable to listen to, funny at the right times. His main reasons for being a Christian and not an atheist were:

  • He had no compelling reason to doubt his ‘sense’ that a god exists. It seemed to me that if he’d been born elsewhere and -when, he’d have no compelling reason to doubt his sense that Odin or Vashti exists. Beliefs are true to the extent that they are supported by evidence, not hunches.
  • The Christian world-view ‘resonated’ with his experiences. But people who have different world-views also find that their experiences ‘resonate’, whatever that means. Our experiences don’t always mean what we think they mean.
  • He found it satisfying to have someone to thank (after thanking people). I understand that — I feel grateful to the people in my life, and once I’ve thanked them, I like to pour my effort into making things better for them through service.
  • Finally, he found it hard, within an atheistic worldview, to account for things that are wrong in the world. I don’t know why he decided to press that point. Why would he use this as a strike against atheism, when this is actually much harder to explain from a Christian perspective? In question time, I mentioned that it was very easy for atheists to explain evil in the world — people decide to do things that harm people. But it’s very difficult for believers in an all-powerful, good god to explain why bad things happen. There’s a whole branch of theology (called theodicy) dedicated to trying to explain this very thing, yet the Problem of Evil remains. But Rory couldn’t quite get why atheists would see a thing as ‘evil’ outside some kind of ‘god’ frame. Unfortunately, we had to move on before full understanding could be achieved. Rory — if you’re out there, let’s continue this, because I’d like to understand your view.

I did ask one other question, though. His last point in the presentation was that he found it naïve to think that science was the ‘only way of knowing’ something. Now, I’ve heard people say that there are other ways of knowing, and when I ask them what they are, they invariably respond with something that is… not a way of knowing.

In response, Rory mentioned Dawkins’ letter to his daughter, in which he wrote that tradition, authority, and revelation are bad reasons for believing something. But Rory thought that these were okay reasons to believe something, part of this complete scientific breakfast. He also mentioned intuition as something that was important in finding truth.

I explained that intuition was important — say, in coming up with a hypothesis — but intuition is not a way of knowing. If someone has an intuition about something, they do not know that that thing is true. It appeared that he was confusing ‘how you get an idea’ with ‘knowing that the idea is true’, which is a rather serious mistake.

So I want to say this very clearly: The way to know something is by empirical observation. That is the only way. (And even when we’ve observed something, it still might be wrong! Which is why replicable observation is so important.) There are no other ways of knowing. Not tradition — many traditions have turned out to be wrong. Not authority — authorities can be wrong. Not revelation — you don’t know the source of a supposedly supernatural revelation. It could be all in your head. Science — systematic, reproducible, empirical observation — is the only way of knowing.

If you think you have another way of knowing, leave it in comments, and we’ll have a look.


  1. By MAKING it true! … oh dear, I think you have just answered some of my questions from tonight's bikini post.

    Btw, I just realised tonight, while reading this post of yours that I can hear your voice while I'm reading it, haha. I definitely experience that when I read Hitchens and Dawkins and now you've made it into that realm too, in my head anyway 😛

  2. Ego! If it was a wrong idea, I wouldn't have thought of it! 🙂

  3. What about Math? I do not know that the square root of two is not the ratio of two numbers by empirical evidence, but rather by a process of thought.

    What "empirical observation" is involved in determining that pi is transcendental (in the mathematical sense)?

    Or do you think mathematical reasoning is empirical? That seems suspicious to me.

  4. Maths is a really good point. That would be the only other way of knowing that I could think of.

    Whether that counts under empiricism depends on how tightly linked you'd say maths and empiricism are. I'm not a maths guy, but I've heard that it would be possible to create a system of maths that is different from the one we have now and is internally consistent. So, the reason we have the system we have now is that the results it gives matches (and continues to match the more we develop it) the empirical results we see in the world. That is, it has high predictive validity, like anything scientific.

    But I could be talking out my hat. Anyone who knows more than I do is welcome to pitch in at this point.

  5. Math is a weak area for me, but surely some of it — geometry, for example — can be empirical? And applied math — in engineering, physics, and astronomy, for example — is also empirical, is it not?

    But that's off the top of my head (which is about as far as my mathematical knowledge goes). I'd like to hear from somebody who knows more about this too.

  6. I don't see how math is relevant to the discussion. Gods aren't purported to exist in the mind like math is.

    While we colloquially use "to know" when we say we "know" that 2 + 2 = 4, this "knowing" is a different kind of knowing and uses a different kind of justification than the justifications required to show that an allegedly factual claim about reality is true (which is empiricism).

    This problem of knowing sure throws a wrench into the whole "life eternal is knowing god" deal.

  7. I think of maths as models. Science is about finding reliable mappings of such models onto the world.
    Eg. real-numbered vector calculus is a model. One application of it is to Newtonian physics (3space+1time dimension).
    So-called "truth" in mathematics is like grammaticality for sentences: it's only about whether your model hangs together in the right ways.
    Truth in science is, on the other hand, like truth of sentences.
    Finally: could there be a different explicit self-consistent mathematics? No, because mathematics includes all explicit, self-consistent models. Yes, because of explicit, self-consistent models mathematics only deals with ones mathematicians (a) know about, and (b) find interesting. So what mathematicians don't know about (yet), or find to dull to discuss might qualify.

  8. Although it answers a slightly point, the article here lists five things (categories of truth) that we can rationally claim to know but cannot be proven via the scientific method. (I may be biased since I wrote it 😛 but I think it's decent.) I originally wanted to title it "Five Things Science Cannot Prove" but the editor decided to change it. It isn't meant to disparage science in any way (science is fantastic) just to suggest that the scientific method isn't the only valid method of reasonably supporting a claim to know something. (Caution: I'm not a philosopher or anything, so I may not use certain terms in the most precise way!)

    I came across your blog today by searching on your name (did you create the Perspective Sans font btw?) and from what I've read it looks interesting so I will likely return. 🙂

  9. Yep, Perspective Sans is one of mine. Glad you found the blog.

    Your title was a better one — the things you mention really are 'unprovables' rather than inexplicables. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's okay to believe in something that can't be 'proven'. Proof is for mathematics. In the real world, we have to rely on evidence.

    1) Existential Truth: Science cannot prove that you aren’t merely a brain in a jar being manipulated to think this is all actually happening.

    That's true. But that's because this idea is non-falsifiable, so it's outside the scope of science. Science suggests that, for this reason, the idea is not to be taken seriously.

    2) Moral Truth: Science cannot prove that rape is evil.

    Sure, it can, if we can get an operational definition of evil (e.g. 'something that is bad for people'). Difficult, but not impossible.

    3) Logical Truth: Consider the statement “Science is the only way to really know truth.” How could you prove that statement by science?

    I wouldn't try to prove it. I'd get evidence instead. I'd find out how science helps us find 'truth', and then see if anything else does it, too. So far, nothing else I've found does (depending on whether maths is part of 'science').

    4) Historical Truth: Science cannot prove that Barack Obama won the 2009 United States presidential election.

    We can't rerun historical events, but we can find evidence of them, to the point that it would be perverse to withhold assent.

    5) Experiential Truth: Science cannot prove that your spouse loves you.

    I have a lot of evidence that my girlfriend-partner-fiancée (or GPF) loves me. They are in the form of observations. My theory that my GPF loves me even has some predictive validity: I can predict that she'll give me a kiss when she comes home today.

    I think the proof/evidence distinction is a good one.

    I enjoyed responding to the first part of the article, and if I get time, I'll delve into the second half.

  10. 5) Experiential Truth: Science cannot prove that your spouse loves you.

    As someone pointed out in a comment on the post, science can prove that one. We have at least the beginnings of a good picture of the physiological characteristics of people in love. So we can compare your spouse's characteristics with the known characteristics of people in love and tell whether she loves you or not.

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