Monday, June 09, 2014

Is Science the only Way of Knowing?

Fast track to wisdom: It isn’t.

One can take scientism too far. No, science is not “true” whether or not you believe in it, and science is not the only way of knowing, in no sensible definition of the words.

Unfortunately, the phrase “Science is not the only way of knowing” has usually been thrown at me, triumphantly, by various people in defense of their belief in omnipotent things or other superstitions. And I will admit that my reflex is to say you’ll never know anything unless it’s been scientifically proved to be correct, to some limited accuracy with appropriate error bars.

So I am writing this blogpost is to teach myself to be more careful in defense of science, and to acknowledge that other ways of knowing exist, though they are not, as this interesting list suggests, LSD, divination via oujia boards, Shamanic journeying, or randomly opening the Bible and reading something.

Before we can argue though, we have to clarify what we mean with science and knowledge.

The question “What is science?” has been discussed extensively and, philosophers being philosophers, I don’t think it will ever be settled. Instead of defining science, let me therefore just describe it in a way that captures reality very well: Science is what scientists do. Scientists form a community of practice that shares common ethics, ethics that aren’t typically written down, which is why defining science proper is so difficult. These common ethics are what is usually referred to as the scientific method, the formulation of hypothesis and the test against experiment. Science, then, is the process that this community drives.

This general scientific method, it must be emphasized, is not the only shared ethics in the scientific community. Parts of the community have their own guidelines for good scientific conduct, that are additional procedures and requirements which have shown to work well in advancing the process of finding and testing good hypotheses. Peer review is one such added procedure, guidelines for statistical significance or the conduct of clinical trials are others. While the scientific method does not forbid it, random hypothesis will generally not even be considered because of their low chances of success. Instead, a new hypothesis is expected to live up to the standards of the day. In physics this means for example that your hypothesis must meet high demands on mathematical consistency.

The success of science comes from the community acting as an adaptive system on the development of models of nature. There is a variation (the formulation of new hypothesis), a feedback (test of the hypothesis) and a response (discard, keep, or amend). This process of arriving at increasingly successful scientific theories is not unlike natural selection that results in increasingly successful life forms. It’s just that in science the variation in the pool of ideas is stronger regulated than the variation in the pool of genes.

That brings us to the question what we mean with knowledge. Strictly speaking you never know anything, except possible that you don’t know anything. The problem is not in the word ‘knowing’ but in the word ‘you’ – that still mysterious emergent phenomenon built of billions of interacting neurons. It takes but a memory lapse or a hallucination and suddenly you will question whether reality is what it seems to be. But let me leave aside the shortcomings of human information processing and the fickle notion of consciousness and knowledge becomes the storage of facts about reality, empirical facts.

You might argue that there are facts about fantasy or fiction, but the facts that we have about them are not facts about these fictions but about the real representations of that fiction. You do not know that Harry Potter flew on a broom, you know that a person called Rowling wrote about a boy called Harry who flew on broom. In a sense, everything you can imagine is real, provided that you believe yourself to be real. It is real as a pattern in your neural activity, you just have to be careful then in stating exactly what it is that you “know”.

Let us call knowledge “scientific knowledge” if it was obtained by the scientific method applied by what we refer to as scientists’ methods in the broader sense. Science is then obviously a way to arrive at knowledge, but it is also obviously not the only way. If you go out on the street, you know whether it is raining. You could make this into a scientific process with a documented random controlled trial and peer reviewed statistical analysis, but nobody in their right mind would do this. The reason is that the methods used to gather and evaluate the data (your sensorial processing) are so reliable most people don’t normally question them, at least not when sober.

This is true for a lot of “knowledge”, that you might call trivial knowledge, for example you know how to spell “knowledge”. This isn’t scientific knowledge, it’s something you learned in school together with hundreds of millions of other people, and you can look it up in a dictionary. You don’t formulate the spelling as a hypothesis that you test against data because there is very little doubt about it in your mind and in anybody’s mind. It isn’t an interesting hypothesis for the scientific community to bother with.

That then brings us to the actually interesting question, whether there is non-trivial knowledge that is not scientific knowledge. Yes, there is, because science isn’t the only procedure in which hypothesis are formulated and tested against data. Think again of natural selection. The human brain is pretty good for example at extrapolating linear motion or the trajectories of projectiles. This knowledge seems to be hardwired, even infants have it, and it contains a fair bit of science, a fair bit of empirical facts: Balls don’t just stop flying in midair and drop to the ground. You know that. And this knowledge most likely came about because it was of evolutionary advantage, not because you read it in a textbook.

Now you might not like to refer to it as knowledge if it is hardwired, but similar variation and selection processes take place in our societies all the time outside of science. Much of it is know-how, handcrafts, professional skills, or arts, that are handed down through generations. We take expert’s advice seriously (well, some of us, anyway) because we assume they have undergone many iterations of trial and error. The experts, they are not of course infallible, but we have good reason to expect their advice to be based on evidence that we call experience. Expert knowledge is integrated knowledge about many facts. It is real knowledge, and it is often useful knowledge, it just hasn’t been obtained in an organized and well-documented way as science would require.

You can count to this non-scientific knowledge for example also the knowledge that you have about your own body and/or people you live together with closely. This is knowledge you have gathered and collected over a long time and it is knowledge that is very valuable for your doctor should you need help. But it isn’t knowledge that you find in the annals of science. It is also presently not knowledge that is very well documented, though with all the personalized biotracking this may be changing.

Now these ways of knowing are not as reliable as scientific knowledge because they do not live up to the standards of the day – they are not carefully formulated and tested hypothesis, and they are not documented in written reports. But this doesn’t mean they are no knowledge at all. When your grandma taught you to make a decent yeast dough, the recipe hadn’t come from a scientific journal. It had come through countless undocumented variations and repetitions, hundreds of trials and errors – a process much like science and yet not science.

And so you may know how to do something without knowing why this is a good way to do it. Indeed, it is often such non-scientific knowledge that leads to the formulation of interesting hypotheses that confirm or falsify explanations of causal relations.

In summary: Science works by testing ideas against evidence and using the results as feedbacks to improvements. Science is the organized way of using this feedback loop to increase our knowledge about the real world, but it isn’t the only way. Testing ideas against reality and learning from the results is a process that is used in many other areas of our societies too. The knowledge obtained in this way is not as reliable as scientific knowledge, but it is useful and in many cases constitutes a basis for good scientific hypotheses.


  1. Hi Sabine,

    the text is an interesting attempt. But, from my point of view sharper definitions of science and knowledge are needed. The definition "Science is what scientists do" covers one aspect, and an important one, as you see, if you read the definition below. But to define science only from the scientific method goes wrong. In fact this is the definition of "research" and "research process".

    I like the definition below. I think that many aspects of your text are contained in it in a very concise form. Moreover it makes it easy to separate for example between knowledge from experience or scientific research:

    Science is an permanently evolving system of knowledge about constitutive properties, causal relations and laws in nature and thinking that arises from social practice. This knowledge is fixed in form of terms, categories, measure definitions (i.e. the relation between quality and quantity), laws, theories and hyptheses.

  2. Science is an outgrowth of something I've taken to calling humanity's only superpower: the ability to make things up and believe them, according to some rule set.

    Note that pretty much all religions rely on this power too, just with a different rule set. I think that the point you're trying to make here is that the scientific rule set for abstract belief is not the only rule set that can generate useful knowledge.

    This is, of course, does not mean that any arbitrary rule set can necessarily generate useful knowledge, merely that the scientific rule set (which is not written down anywhere) is not unique in this regard.

  3. A broom is properly ridden with its bristles horizontal and forward to hold the candle lighting your way. A discipline offering as few deliverables as faith-based engineering is managed research. The former is smartless by happenstance then tradition, the latter by design then reward.

    "The R&D Function" Harvard Business Review 61(6) 195 (1983)
    Sliding down the razor blade of life, even then.

    Many disciplines talk a good stretch. Only one is reliably there for the moment.

  4. Sabine, all I can say is:


  5. Sabine,
    For someone who recently replied that she claimed no expertise in epistemology you have covered a lot of bases.
    This is a difficult topic to take on if for example as some hold there are limits to any knowledge. Or if there is a deeper foundational, perhaps as much trivial wisdom beyond our diverse models of inquirey that stands out as science that seems to adapt revisions to our illusive common sense.
    we do need to look into this area that it helps define our scientific methods. It could apply to so many current general questions facing us today in cosmology and particle physics.

  6. Cold fusion is what cold fusionists do, I suppose.

    I think science is a collection of techniques that worked in the past, just like Grandma's yeast dough. That is what it boils down to, if one goes with "science is what scientists do".

    I think we have to go deeper into how science works, and why we think it works, even if defining science is not possible for us today. Maybe we don't know why mathematics works in describing nature, but surely we can say more about why something like the scientific method seems quite effective. I think it will help make clear certain deep characteristics of nature that are necessary in order for the scientific method to work.

    You will notice that in Harry Potter's universe there is no path to knowledge. (Good fantasy books do provide an epistemology for magic. That is singularly lacking in Harry Potter.). Why our universe has sufficient regularity or some other property that makes a certain kind of knowledge possible is something to be understood.

  7. Arun:

    The sentence "Science is what scientists do" refers the definition of science to the definition of its practitioners, it's the next sentence that defines the practitioners. Standing on its own, the sentence isn't very helpful, if that is what you are saying. Best,


  8. Michael,

    As I said, one can debate endlessly what you want or do not want to call science. In reality, we call it science if it's done by scientists, and we identify scientists by their belonging to a certain community. Take a random piece of knowledge and try to decide whether you want to call it science, and that is, in practice, what most people will do. That may or may not be a good way to define science - you can argue eg that the community should not insist on what I call 'added guidelines' because they can be hurdles to progress - but I think it comes very close to how the word is used. Best,


  9. L. Edgar Otto:

    You referring to my fb comment? You misunderstood that. What I said was that I'll not lead arguments that contain the word 'epistemology'. Best,


  10. Trying for a clear definition of a community within a community and its attributes?

    What about, "γνῶθι σεαυτόν", where we recognize what is tacit and what is explicit.

    By definition, such knowledge in the community, can contain both. But by "what information and knowledge," do you really know?

    It is clear then that you have define the community of scientist as a group given that definition, but you fail at what experience shows and is defined as and by as Innatism?

    The possibility then, "that you do not know anything," versus, "that you indeed know something." Thus in that sense while you recognize the community, within the community, you recognize "you know" but, "do not know how you Know."


  11. I like your idea of the feedback loop of empirical testing, and also I think the recognition of it being more general than science is important---otherwise, it's hard to see how science gets started: if all knowledge is scientific, then knowing how to do science would only be possible after we knew how to do science.

    Of course, such views are somewhat traditionally susceptible to allegations of circularity: we test what we hypothesize ultimately by means of sense experience. This of course takes the facticity of sense experience for granted. But how to test that? We can hardly again appeal to sense experience to justify itself.

    But I'm not sure all knowledge can fit into this mold. Take, for instance, mathematical knowledge: unless you are a Platonist, it's hard to see what 'evidence' it should be judged against.

    Or take subjective truths: I know that I'm hungry, or that I have a headache, in a way that seems quite different from me forming the idea that I do so, and then confirming that this is indeed the case by observing my behaviour. Indeed, I would consider the headache---the very same one that I'm feeling, and thus, know I have---to be the cause of these behaviours.

    There's also knowledge to be gained through conceptual analysis, which does not seem to need recourse to empirical matters---if I know John is a bachelor, and I know all bachelors are unmarried, I know John is unmarried. This is not something I need to check against the real world, or my sense impressions thereof---it's true conceptually.

  12. Sabine,
    Thanks for the clarification. The place of our "you" in the mix is a current observation (of my state of mind when I think about it, and others of various ages and levels I have encountered on the street recently). The list you linked to clearly seems like certain non-scientific ways, or the appeal to a mental state as scientific, strikes me as appeals to emotions and a rather low grade attempt far from what deep truths they may contain. The misuse of science where it narrows thought, prevents adapting the self, leads conflicts between communities - is indeed the source of these philosophical paradoxes, I imagine.

    Plato-Hegel and Jochen, good contrast of points here. Jochen, the role of judgement is certainly center stage in both scientific and philosophic debate (peer review or the sense of a community) it goes beyond the question of what is valid in circular reasoning and groups in groups analogies.

    For example the claims of feminists in the active or passive senses of epistemology if one can every be stable enough to reach an understanding of what the world looks like thru another's eyes, what is dominate or dominated regardless of gender issues, even the reversal that one or the other is intrinsically superior as an emerging argument. Beyond this the idea that different periods of history may seem totally alien to how we see things now - what was the world like in WWII before the bomb? or in Ancient Rome or Greece?
    The key concept here being that since Descartes made this division of mind and matter the result seems to support a male dominated interpretation of subjective and objective things related to science or other knowledge.
    But I am not sure we really can or should declare a given wisdom as something to fall our of the evolving or possibly emerging paradigms of our era - Science is a clarity hoped for in the first place- but true believers who back up their beliefs and impose it on others are perhaps trapped in a powerful method of conversion that does not address that science in itself can be a superior knowledge after all.
    What in the heck can Lady Gaga be thinking to need such a low level of exotic wisdom? We are actors in roles I guess, and still a little changes in our acting.

  13. I would like to add that in the state of our current visions we would benefit from defining science as two kinds of knowledge:
    1. That which can make predictions and test them. and
    2. That which has appeal as explanation power although in principle may not make predictions.

    This is foundational (and such science is a growing community of sorts). But it may reflect the abuse of philosophy with a purpose to claim science rather than inspire it.
    The two approaches seem to converge in part by various theoreticians as suggested a third way of knowing by which many find the same concepts quite independently in whole or part.
    For example the work of Peter Rowland and his analysis of Dirac's nilpotent algebra.

  14. Of course science isn't the only way of knowing. It just happens to be the only way of knowing that has a track record of working....

  15. Here's the Tyson quote from your link:

    “Once science has been established, once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world,” Tyson told Colbert. “What I’m saying is, when different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.”

    That seems pretty difficult to disbelieve. In other words, if you don't accept this basic definition, you can pretty much believe anything you want. (Well, you can do that anyway, but that doesn't mean that it is right.) No, science can't explain everything, but what Tyson was addressing here are people who think that it is a matter of opinion whether anthropogenic climate change, or evolution, or whatever, is real.

  16. Phillip:

    The phrase 'science is true' is complete nonsense. To begin with I would argue that we can never know anything real to be true, but I see that the word 'truth' has a colloquial meaning that extends it to reality. Be that as it may, statements, hypotheses or conjectures may be 'true' (in the sense of being 'correct to some precision'), but [noun] is never true or false, it's an meaningless adjective, much like saying "9 is false".

    What Tyson meant was probably "Science works whether or not you believe in it." Best,


  17. Mathematics is also a way of obtaining testable statements, and math is not science, i.e. you do not need an experiment to prove a theorem.

  18. A., what is the difference between a test and an experiment?

  19. One of the ways that science does not always have anything to do with the "truth" has to do with the smell test. One of the prime ingredients of human psychology is in making hidden assumptions about things. Even GR, which by most lights is a beautiful theory and also accurate in most regimes, has loads of hidden assumptions. Most of them we don't even know how to formulate.

    But many people have a very good "nose" and it has little to do with formal training. A good nose requires some background of knowledge in a given scientific field, but not nearly as much as most trained professionals require.

    Of course, more training also helps. That's provided that the extra training doesn't just bring a boatload of indoctrination with it. A person with a good nose implies a person who can trust his or her instincts when venturing into unknown territory.

    I would say Dyson, and Brian Green for that matter, are second rate scientists with a very poor nose respectively. They are typical extroverts who never question hidden assumptions and suffer from the Dunning-Kruger syndrome that so many extreme extroverts suffer from.

  20. Anytime I want to feel completely unintelligent, I will visit this blog.

  21. I would say that scientific knowledge is about "potentialities"(a.k.a. laws) whereas other kinds of knowledge is about "actualities" (a.k.a. "states"). The latter are subject to the laws, as far as we know. That's it !?

  22. Reply to Zaaikort: I should have said "provable" instead of "testable".

    As far as the comment of Makus M is concerned, one can define the "scientific knowledge" only within some larger formal system, i.e. one has to choose a metaphysics.

    I think that the best metaphysics for incorporating science and mathematics is the platonic metaphysics (beside our spatio-temporal reality there exists an independent world of abstract ideas).

  23. Bee,

    A recent study estimates that some 86 percent of earth’s species have yet to be fully described by science. They are apparently living by their own lights as if no one is watching.

    It is likely that a similar or larger percentage of the world’s population is in pursuit of life without conscious recourse to the laws of physics, even though they may move through a terrain increasingly shaped by that science.

    Say you were to attach accelerometers to the foreheads of some reasonably well-read physicists and chart their physical paths over a period of time. How many of those movements - the decisive steps, the turns, hesitations and round-a-bouts are actually determined by their scientific knowledge? I would imagine not many.

    What is the simple math of knowledge? Can we add it all together, put it in one pile and say, “This is what we know”? Is there any way to add what you know to what I know and effectively bring it to bear in any of life’s odd moments?

    And life is where our knowing is ultimately tested, not simply upon some lab bench. Knowing is not solely an academic exercise. It would seem to me that, most broadly and at root, knowledge is a kind of living basketry or like the slow growing accretion of a coral reef. It is in the evolving shape of both traveler and terrain and the turns of the path between them. Most elusively, it is what is.


  24. This is just picking a nit, but I think it's perfectly fine to say 'science is true' in English, because the word 'science' is somewhat more wide-ranging in meaning than the corresponding German 'Wissenschaft': it can also mean 'knowledge arrived at using scientific methods', see e.g. definitions 2, 4, and especially 5 in the wiktionary entry. (

    Of course, the more interesting question is then whether 'science is true' is true. There are two important issues here: one is the underdetermination of theory by data---there are always, at least in principle, alternative theories given as good an account of observations as the ones we know, however with different commitments to theoretical entities. The other is the so-called 'pessimistic meta-induction', which observes that historically, there has been no great continuity of content between newer, more accurate theories succeeding older ones. Thus, we have every reason to believe that our present day theories, and with them, existence statements of certain theoretical entities (e.g.) we now hold to be true, will be eclipsed by newer, better theories.

    On the other hand, the success of science seems inexplicable without there being at least some truth to it, or uncovered by it (Putnam's 'no miracles'-argument).

  25. Hi Sabine,

    Thank you so much for your entry. I am not convinced that there are many who would argue that the scientific method is necessary for ascertaining certain truths (such as whether or not it is raining or the sky is blue). I think they may disagree with your definition of science. To say that science is what scientists do is uninformative. Science provides a tentative, model of explaining the world we experience.

    I do agree that the statement "science is true whether you believe it or not," on a purely semantic level, fails to meet the requirements to communicate anything meaningful – at least on its own. My question for you is this: Can Tyson really be held to such a strict degree in a body of work that argues against such rigor? In other words, is it fair to hold Tyson to a standard of semantics, when, in context, especially when his assertion is meant to be connotative? Yes we could argue that the statement "science is true" is in itself meaningless (perhaps a poor choice of words), but his statement is meant to convey that science behind ides such as gravity, light, and evolution, is true whether you believe it or not.

  26. Jochen and Coen,

    While your points are brilliantly said I do not think it clears up things as semantic (although we do need to explore that especially if we use the words like miracle or meaning or informative). Science is knowing so are we trivially asking is knowing the only way knowing?

    Science and what scientist do seems to be to have a higher definition. (a practical method of scientific phenomenology of which to me Sabine has a keen sense of)

    There is the god in gaps argument and perhaps the world created by a spoken word (rhea) or logic (logos)or silence, or even degrees of belief. - Again, science as a plausible and tentative stance to whatever the paradoxical content of probability as an established calculus may be. Either way there are things that do not change yet can in a sense emerge as new in our experience of universe. Science in this sense can evolve its own intuitions to test against the universe.
    Yes, there are defects or cracks in the models (some simply bent on conquest rather than a balance of the free sovereignty of individual thought, problems of personal language, and directions of inquiry. Or great concepts we missed because they not there which would make a difference to the cultures and political world.

    Science is also the explanation of holistic concepts while being neutral to the ultimate issues of what grounds free will or determinism. Yet, as there is evidently some truth, as you say, in science that may be seen as casual or causal, the mystery we are alive in relation to things and aware of it, there is a range of linear pathways fractal like by which the defects or cracks are there if we imagine the geometry. Science sorts them out as a job and hopes to find solutions, tries to do so while old systems persist as today's sad case of religious wars.
    But I do not speak for or fancy I understand the world from Sabine's viewpoint in its depth.

    Lizzy Tex Borden, On the other hand when I visit here I feel I grow more intelligent. As your blog of Western myths or traditions on the frontier. It is a case of we are riders on the purple (ultra violet sage).

    Best all around.

  27. "Lizzy Tex Borden, On the other hand when I visit here I feel I grow more intelligent. As your blog of Western myths or traditions on the frontier. It is a case of we are riders on the purple (ultra violet sage)."

    Heh heh... Cheers!

  28. Well, I was disappointed in this essay for once. To me, the scientific way of knowing is to make careful observations, try (in any way including random guesses) to construct patterns or models which could predict those observations, and then test the constructions against more observations. I am not a scientist, but I have used this method to debug computer code and to solve engineering problems. I don't see why it can't also be used by plumbers and chefs and historians and even mathematicians and musicians. More basically, it is the method of biological evolution (keep trying things until something works), which seems a natural method for evolved creatures to evolve to use.

    Of course one could define science as what scientists do, and engineering as what engineers do, and plumbing as what plumbers do and thereby create multiple ways of obtaining useful knowledge, but it seems better to me to look at general characteristics which good practitioners use in every field, and the best term I know for these characteristics is "the scientific way of knowing" (in honor of those who make the most and best use of the method).


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