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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.
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