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Introduction: How to reason

Section 9:
Facts, knowledge and science

Science is the only method we have of determining facts and adding to our knowledge.

0.9a Facts are . . .

Facts exist whether or not we are aware of them. They are "reality". The Americas existed long before the first people arrived there. Blood circulated in the bodies of humans and animals long before the phenomenon was described by Ibn al-Nafis in the thirteenth century or by William Harvey three hundred years later.

0.9b Knowledge is . . .

Knowledge is the information that people have about the universe in which they live - it's what we have in our brains and what we write down in books and on the internet.

As individuals, we assume that our knowledge is accurate, but we may be wrong. How accurate our knowledge is, and how willing and able we are to amend it depends partly on on our personalities and partly on our exposure to new information.

Together, people have shared knowledge. This is much greater than individual knowledge - not everyone knows about medieval Persian poets or baseball scores in the 1960s. Shared knowledge is also more accurate - more people know that the capital of Nigeria is Abuja than hold the mistaken belief that it is Lagos.

Both shared knowledge and individual knowledge can be wrong. Most of our ancestors believed that the earth was flat. They were wrong. Until it is proved wrong, however, shared knowledge is usually more accurate than individual knowledge because it has been verified by more people.

Not everyone accepts shared knowledge.

How good is your reasoning?

Can you distinguish lies from truth? Or a good argument from a false one? Can you when tell someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes?

We keep physically fit by exercising regularly and eating healthy
food. The same is true of our minds - we need regular mental exercise and a good diet of solid facts and logic.

This chapter offers basic reasoning skills to help you understand the contradictions that lie at the heart of all religion.

0.1: Basic principles
Start at the beginning

0.2: What do we know?
Separate fact from fiction

0.3: Start with the question ...
... not with the answer

0.4: All the evidence ...
... not just some of it

0.5: Cause, correlation and no connection
What's the difference?

0.6: Don't jump to conclusions ...
... or you could land in the ...

0.7: No way
Proving a negative

0.8: Occam's Razor
The simplest solution

0.9: Facts, knowledge and science
What we know and how we know it

0.10: Know or believe?
The impossibility of God

0.11: Reason and faith
Understanding the difference

0.12: Summary

Finished the introduction? Move on to

Chapter 1
Defining God

Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we describe God? What versions of God are on offer?

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People learn things in different ways and have different abilities to understand what they learn. Sometimes they know that that their knowledge is uncertain - they are not sure, for example, if a shark is an animal or a fish. Sometimes they explicitly reject shared knowledge that the majority accepts - some people, for example, claim that evolution never took place.

0.9c Science is . . .

So how do we learn facts? How do we update our knowledge and correct it when we are wrong? Through science.

Many people think that science means "things that we know". We often talk about "the sciences", such as biology and physics which represent bodies of knowledge. Even scientists often make this mistake, using the word "science" to mean "what we know".

Strictly speaking, however, science does not mean what we know; it means how we know it. The most accurate description of science is not a collection of facts, but a system; it is a method of observing facts and acquiring knowledge, a means of gaining new knowledge and of helping us to correct, when necessary, mistakes in our knowledge.

0.9d Apply the method

How does this method, aka science, work? There are three stages: first, we see something (we observe a phenomenon); second, we think of an explanation for what we see (we create a hypothesis); last, we test the explanation. If the explanation fails, we go back to the second step and think of a new explanation; we test it, and if it fails, we go back again. And again and again until we have an explanation that works in every circumstance. We have knowledge, and that knowledge reflects the facts.

The scientific method is easy to explain but difficult to carry out. The problem lies in the third stage - testing the hypothesis - because the hypothesis has to be predictable. That means that every time the same conditions occur, the same phenomenon must result. Furthermore, it must be possible for anyone to repeat the test and confirm the same result.

To take a simple example: you have a theory that green-leafed plants require sunlight to grow. Every time you try to grow them in darkness, they fail to thrive. Every time you try to grow them in sunlight, they thrive. When others follow your example, they come to the same conclusion every time. That means your theory has proven correct. Your next task is to explain how this happens. Exactly what is the mechanism that converts light into plant growth?

It has taken many generations for people to come to develop this simple idea - see, hypothesise, test - and it can take decades or more for even the simplest phenomena, such as the circulation of blood in the body, to be thoroughly tested and proved. But this method, lies at the heart of every single piece of confirmed human knowledge that we have. It is thanks to science, and only science, that we know as much as we do.

Several methods of investigating or describing phenomena are not scientific, either because they do not make hypotheses which can be predicted and tested or because they make hypotheses which fail. These non-sciences include astrology, Creationism and Intelligent Design; we discuss them in Chapter Three

0.9e Science and uncertainty

Science does not claim that we know everything. Science recognises that our knowledge is surrounded by uncertainty. But science allows us to continually examine and refine and correct our knowledge. Science is a means of narrowing uncertainty. It is thanks to science that we know that the earth is round, that water is comprised of hydrogen and oxygen, the composition of our DNA and the fact that many diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses.

That much we know. These statements are facts. They are certain. Of course many uncertainties remain. How did life begin on this planet? How many dimensions are there? Can we stop the aging process? There are many hypotheses around these and other questions. Because these questions are complex, so too are the hypotheses to explain them. And because the hypotheses are complex, so too are the tests needed to confirm or reject them. But the basic principle remains, that science - the method of observing, hypothesising and experimenting - is the only means we have of determining facts and adding to our shared knowledge of the universe around us.

This is the end of the basic course in reasoning. There are two options ahead:

For a short cut to atheism, read the final two chapters in this section - Know or believe? and Reason and faith - or go to a fuller discussion at Instant atheism!!!

If you'd prefer to take the long road and analyse the evidence for and against God's existence, move to Chapter One: Defining God.

And if you've forgotten some of the points made so far, check out the summary to this introduction.

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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