Sheldon Klein on Religion and Science

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Sat, 17 Aug 1996 01:14:43 -0500

On Fri, 16 Aug 1996, Sheldon Klein <sklein@CS.WISC.EDU> said, in part:

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The usual logical positivist rules of the game of science are:

1. If you cannot think of a test that would prove something 'true' or 'false',
it is 'meaningless'.

2. If you can think of test, but cannot carry it out at the present time,
it's status is 'indeterminate'.

3. If you can & do test it, it is either 'true' or 'false', but to no greater
extent than the significance of the test.

(e.g. if one says, "beauty is truth" and " beauty = 1",
"truth = 2", it is 'false' but not in a way that has much

========== End quote ============


As to 1: Nope, if you come up with an idea (a proposition, a hunch, a
hypothesis, whatever) and cannot think of a test, it might mean
you're not thinking hard enough.

If you can demonstrate conclusively that nobody could possibly
come up with a test, it still doesn't make the idea
"meaningless". It only places the idea outside the realm of
questions for which the approach of logical positivism is
appropriate. For most of us, it just ain't science.

You can't test whether Billie Holiday's way of singing a song
was "true" or "false", either, but it sure wasn't meaningless.
(That was prompted by what I have playing in the background:
her recording of "Strange fruit", if you want to know.)

As to 3: I think you've missed a major point about both logical
positivism and science: If you can and do test an idea, you CAN
definitively show that it is false. If the idea says "A will
happen and B will not", and the test shows that B happens and
A does not, then the idea is false. No problem.

Now suppose that in your test A does happen and B does not:
do you know that the idea is, therefore, true?

Hell, no!

All you know is that *by this run of this test* the idea was
not contradicted.

Next year, or next century, or somewhere else down the line
somebody may come up with another test and the idea will
fail. Then we'll know that it was false all along. It is a
central tenet of logical positivism that we can never know
the absolute truth of a testable proposition, and we don't
seek to know it, either. What logical positivism tells us
to look for is "falsifiability", not "truthifiability".

So what do positivists substitute for truth? Falsifiable propositions
that have have been tested but have not yet been falsified, that's what.

In science, to think otherwise is the path of madness. Whatever we think
is a reasonable operational hypothesis today may be rejected by new
evidence tomorrow. (If it were impossible to reject that hypothesis by
any conceivable test, then the hypothesis wouldn't be open to scientific
analysis.) In the meantime, as long as it is open to test and is tested
and is not falsified, a hypothesis can be ASSUMED to be as meaningful as
if it were true -- FOR THE TIME BEING.

It is still possible to distinguish among hypotheses that have been tested
and have not been falsified. A different level of evaluation asks if a
hypothesis is productive: does it lead to more hypotheses? Yet another
asks whether a hypothesis is useful: does the ASSUMPTION that this
hypothesis is dependable let us do anything we couldn't do if nobody had
come up with the idea? If it does, does anybody want to do that? Those
tests are not "scientific", either, if you define science as coterminous
with the approach of logical positivism. Nonetheless, those questions
are extremely important to science and to scientists.

Anyhow, truth me no eternal truths if the game we're playing is science.
In science, we NEVER know that a hypothesis is true -- never, never, never!

Don't come back at me with the objection that I'm making a statement that
I offer as true: it is true BY DEFINITION, and is therefore not falsifiable.
Which ought to demonstrate conclusively that my statement can't be a
scientific hypothesis. It is nonetheless perfectly meaningful.

-- mike salovesh, anthropology department <>
northern illinois university PEACE !