Tag Archives: Mark Vernon

Can science attain truth? Why science is like golf

Scientific knowledge is provisional: it is founded on empirical evidence and our knowledge of empirical evidence will always be incomplete. Thus there is always the possibility of new evidence coming along to show that some area of scientific understanding is wrong.

This leads to a common claim that science can be disregarded because its ideas are always changing. For example, the fundamentalists at Answers in Genesis say:

We agree that scientists should continually refine their views as new information becomes available, but that is precisely the problem … Evolutionary scientists have changed “common knowledge” multiple times over the past century, yet the Bible has not changed. It still clearly teaches that the universe, earth, and dinosaurs were made during a six-day period about 4,000 years before Christ.

And the complaint isn’t only from Biblical literalists. Mark Vernon, a liberal “agnostic Christian” who used to be an Anglican priest, writes in the Guardian:

There are, of course, differences between scientific and religious myths. For one thing, scientific myths are far less long-lived than religious ones. The great faiths of the world daily turn to myths that are thousands of years old and find truth leaping off the page as they read them. Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton?

Is the complaint fair? To use an analogy, science is like golf, where the “hole” we are aiming for is truth, and by a “true” scientific theory we mean one that matches the empirical reality of our universe. Nature sets the lie of the golf course and the location of the hole, and science tries to find it. So we revise our theories when better empirical evidence comes along, and each time we do that we halve our distance to the hole. Continue reading