Scientific Thinking LO22058

John Gunkler (
Wed, 30 Jun 1999 09:28:44 -0500

Replying to LO22035 --


It makes sense in the context of this discussion, I thought. But all I
can do is give you my interpretation -- you'll need to make your own

I understand it to mean that there are unscientific beliefs (i.e., beliefs
not substantiated by scientific methods) against which one cannot argue --
by science or logic or any other method. These beliefs are just as firmly
held as if they were substantiated -- so strength of belief is not a good
measure of "truth."

Karl Popper (and other philosphers of science) would regard beliefs such
as the woman's about the giant turtles as having no "empirical content"
(because they are not, even in principle, falsifiable) and, therefore, not
subject to scientific methods.

Some would want to dismiss all such beliefs as unworthy of consideration
in any manner. But I also take it to mean that, perhaps, there are some
areas of human thought where science should not intrude -- I think of
religion, in particular. Religious beliefs, especially in protestant
theology, rely upon something like Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" which is
something that, unless you've experienced it you cannot "understand" it
and once you've experienced it you cannot question it. This is a kind of
belief that has no room for scientific "proof" nor refutation. That is
not to say that such beliefs cannot be justified. A pragmatic
justification is clearly possible, I think -- along the lines of "does
this faith work positively for you in your life in the long run?" Other
kinds of philosophical justification have been put forth over the ages as
well. But science -- nope; hands off. Does this mean that scientists
cannot have faith? Of course not. One must only decide something like:
science and scientific methods apply to the "natural, physical world" and
faith is of another realm, at least metaphysical ("beyond-natural") or
perhaps spiritual or some other characterization.

However, it is very important for all of us (I believe) to distinguish
among those beliefs that are supposed to have empirical content -- beliefs
about the physical world, at the least -- and those that are not. Those
that are supposed to be about the "world" need to meet certain criteria --
one of the most important of which is, to my mind, that they be (in
principle) falsifiable. Otherwise I, for one, will not credit such a
belief and will not waste any further time considering its truth value.

I also think that the William James story is simply very funny! Can't you
just see the most celebrated thinker of his time standing there face to
face with a frumpy little old person and being completely stymied by her
argument? I imagine him blubbering somethihng like "but, but, but ..." as
she blithely walked off.


"John Gunkler" <>

Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <>