is all truth scientific truth?

In the 1600s, the enterprise now called natural science got fully underway. How to define it and determine its limits are controversial questions. Science cannot be limited to experiments (Galileo dropping spheres from the Leaning Tower of Pisa) because experiments do not stand alone, and scientists do other things: they measure, discover, observe, classify, and build models, for example. But even if we bracket the question, “What is science?” we should acknowledge that it has generated remarkable truths. The heart circulates the blood, germs cause disease, human beings evolved from other primates, and our values originated as adaptive traits of a primate species. These are not truths “for science” or “within the scientific framework”: they are true.

But if all truths were scientific truths, we would be in deep trouble. We would then reject  any claims that science cannot support. For example, do all human beings have equal value or worth? Either that makes no scientific sense (because objective or intrinsic value is not a scientific idea), or it is manifestly false, because science translates “value” into something like capacity or functioning, and then it is obvious that not all humans are equal. A hospice patient has nothing like as much capacity, potential, flourishing, or significance as, say, Mitt Romney.

Human equality is just one example of a truth that we would have to jettison if all truths were scientific. All other moral assertions would also have to go. There would not even be any point to practicing science. As an individual, I might have good reason to take advantage of pertinent scientific findings–for example, to take drugs that attack germs causing me harm. But I would have no reason to contribute to science or to acknowledge scientific findings that were inconvenient to me. I will only respect and support science if public service, the pursuit of truth, or integrity are values, but they are not discoveries of science. So the value of science is not a scientific truth.

Fortunately, we are already used to a pluralist world in which there are truths generated by science and also other truths. Mathematics, logic, and basic epistemological and ontological truths are not findings of science. Some are separate from science, and some are preconditions of science. That does not mean that science is relative (i.e., only valid if one adopts certain preconditions), because the preconditions may be truths as well. But they are not generated by science; they stand separately.

Along with science, we have another very richly elaborated way of thinking about human beings and the world. This moral or “agential” perspective does not regard people as complex biological machines in a causal network with all the other objects in the universe. We are indeed such machines, but as agents, we are also reasoning creatures guided by principles and objectives and responsible for the goodness and rightness of our actions. All the work of moral philosophers, novelists, and historians has enriched and complicated our understanding of human beings as moral agents.

So we have a choice: Science is the only source of truth, the agential perspective is the only source of truth, neither view is true, or both are true. The answer is not given by science, and science does not imply or presume that it is the only source of truth. Science just rolls along generating the kinds of truths that it generates, saying nothing about ontology, morality, or the role of science in a good life. Those questions are philosophical.

The way to think about this is to assess the benefits and limits of science from the outside. What perspective is available outside of science is a controversial question, but I would use an ethical/pragmatic stance, basically asking what contributes to a fully good human life. The answer, it seems to me, includes a very strong respect for science, because science provides knowledge that we need in order to act effectively and also because pursuing empirical truth is a virtue. But the answer also includes a strong critique of science, because science is amoral and can give us Zyklon B as well as penicillin, anomie as well as the “CUDOS norms,”and despair as well as hope.

[Disclaimer: This is basically a naive post because I have not read the vast and impressive literature on naturalism. I’ve been pondering these issues since hearing a good presentation by Mario De Caro, but one 30-minute talk, no matter how skillful, does not replace an entire literature review. Probably the best way to describe the above is as my default view–what I would need a good argument to be talked out of.]

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Marcus Stanley

    Hi Pete. I think I will become your blog commenter. I don’t think this post goes far enough — drawing the line simply between values and science sets up a ‘non-scientific’ sphere that is much too narrow. More broadly, the methodology of the physical sciences does not work very well for the entire area of the ‘human sciences’ such as the social ‘sciences’ including economics, anthropology, and even large portions of psychology. That is because the scientific methodology works by abstracting from context and social facts and social causation are completely embedded within a cultural context that mixes physical facts and human values and interpretations. E.g. the answer to the seemingly factual question ‘how many Americans are unemployed’ mixes objective physical facts with a complex set of value judgements about who *should* be working and what counts as work.  As those values change the ‘fact’ of the unemployment rate will and should change as well. Because everyone’s social action is embedded within a framework of interpretation, the social sciences are also shot through with self-fulfilling prophecies — e.g. the answer to whether ‘economic policy A will increase economic growth’ seems like a law-like regularity but in truth depends heavily on whether people *believe* economic policy A will increase economic growth. None of this BTW means that quantitative measurement or mathematical modeling are unimportant or lack usefulness in the study of social processes.

    All of this is related to the question of whether history or historical truth can ever be ‘scientific’ which I know you have written on before so perhaps you have thought about it in more depth than I have. Many others have written on it too of course, from Dilthey to Jon Elster and plenty of sociologists. But in any case the idea that there is just some narrowly circumscribed notion of ‘values’ and everything else is amenable to understanding through the methods of the physical sciences concedes far too much to science. (It is also possible that I am reading the ‘methods of the physical sciences’ too narrowly, as a sociologist of knowledge or even some philosophers of science would likely argue these are a matter of communal consensus in many ways as well, but the differences I am pointing to arise from the distinction between the social life of self-conscious thinking animals and the simply physical existence of material objects).

    • PeterLevine

      That’s right–I think I was experimentally trying to bend over backwards for the naturalistic, scientific position in this post. I’m normally in the mode of arguing that (1) the fact-value distinction won’t really hold up in discussions of human beings, (2) prediction is uniquely difficult when dealing with human beings because they know the predictions and can adjust strategically, and (3) values are not merely subjective opinions but can be defended with reasons. So inquiry into human affairs can be rationalistic, but it is not strongly predictive or otherwise scientific; and pretending that it is leads to various errors and dead-ends.