The Scientific Method: Two Problems

By Mac Deaver

I want to mention two problems with what has been termed the “scientific method.” But before identifying the problems let me assure the reader that I am well aware of the fact that the “method” has over many years resulted in much benefit to the human family. It is the method of trial and error. The scientist will imagine a working hypothesis or theory that he wants to test to see whether or not it can be identified as the given cause of a certain effect. He says to himself that if x is the case (my theory is correct as the cause of this certain effect), then y will follow. He runs his experiment and finds that y is, after all, certainly present. He then concludes that x is to be presently accepted as the cause of y.

Now, the first problem is a problem for atheistic scientists who view the so-called “scientific method” as the completely encompassing route to truth. There are those among us who decry the very concept of the metaphysical or spiritual reality. They claim that there is nothing but matter. For example, Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape, even denies any spiritual person. There is no mind, according to Sam, distinguishable from a brain. Man is at most a brain without any spiritual or metaphysical agent to operate the brain. Matter is all that there is and so matter is all that matters!

And since science is the discipline that explores matter, then science is the vehicle whereby truth (all truth) is known if known at all. In other words, given this radical evaluation of reality, there is no truth accessible to man via any route other than science, and the method by which science discovers truth is the so-called “scientific method.” There is no domain outside the purview of this method since it is believed by atheistic scientists that there is nothing to be explored except matter itself.

But the first difficulty we raise has to do with the selection, identification, and application of this method. Just how is it that scientists have selected this method as “the” method for the discovery of any and all truth that is accessible to mankind? In the first place, if it is a method whose application is to matter only, then the method selected presupposes a metaphysical position with regard to the exhaustive scope of matter. For a scientist to affirm that “matter is all that there is” is not a materialistic declaration. It is an attempted description allegedly of all reality to be sure, and it is a claim that there is nothing besides matter, but the explanation itself is a purely metaphysical explanation. Rocks don’t talk. Monkeys can’t lecture. The very nature of rational explanation implies rationality (not merely a brain) and rationality simply cannot coherently be reduced to matter.

So, for one to say that “matter is all that there is” is to assert something in contradiction to the nature of the assertion. It is like saying, “I am not here.” It is a metaphysical attempt at denying the metaphysical. It is an explanation (whether correct or not), and the nature of explanation is such that it is not reducible to mere matter. A description of matter and an explanation of matter can never be matter itself. Matter cannot explain itself either by content or attempted rational explanation. A brain cannot explain itself. Brains don’t study brains. Minds can study both brains and other minds. Brains can be used by minds in offering explanations (and must be), but brains alone offer nothing by way of explanation any more than kidneys do.

In the second place, when atheistic scientists choose to employ the “scientific method” as their one and only tool for truth discovery, we must point out that their selection of this all-encompassing vehicle of discovery was not made by utilization of the method itself. That is, when they identified the “scientific method” as the alleged one route to all truth, they did not make the selection based on the use of that method at all. They did not use the “scientific method” in order to arrive at the conclusion that the “scientific method” is the route to all truth. And since they used some other means to arrive at that method, they have already implied by the selection of the method for use in science that there is some means of getting at some “truth” other than the method itself, since they used some other means to select the “scientific method” as the only way to find truth! Furthermore since they used some other means of arriving at the “scientific method” (other than the method itself) as the method of choice in truth discovery, that means that whatever it is that they used in order to select the “scientific method” is surely a more fundamental route and a far more encompassing route to the discovery of truth than the “scientific method” could ever by itself be.

The selection of the “scientific method” as the method of choice for science is a reasoned or rational selection made without the use of that method in the selection process. The “scientific method” was simply not employed in order to select the “scientific method” as the one and only method of truth discovery. And even for those scientists who are not atheistic, still it is true that their employment of the method is not based on the use of that method in the selection of that method.

The situation that I am referring to is very unlike the use of reason. We simply cannot identify and describe reason without employing it. We must in every attempt at the recognition and identification of the “laws of thought” always be utilizing them. However, it is not so with the so-called “scientific method.” And even though atheists want to claim that their method of discovery is the only means of discovery, yet their method was not discovered by means of the method! The selection of a trial and error method of truth discovery was not itself made based on any trial and error test for that method. Since the method itself is a metaphysical construct, it could not in and of itself be placed in a materialistic format for analysis. For someone to suggest that “if a is true, then y will follow, and y did follow; therefore, a must be true,” is an exercise in reason (be it right or wrong), and not simply an exercise in matter exploration by other matter. Consider the following points:

  1. Either the atheistic scientist has decided to use the so-called “scientific method” as the exhaustive approach to all truth by means of the “scientific method” or by some other means.
  2. The atheistic scientist did not use the “scientific method” to locate the method nor to elevate it to its alleged exhaustive role in truth discovery.
  3. So, the atheistic scientist decided to use the “scientific method” and prescribe the use of it for all truth discovery on some basis other than the method itself.
  4. This means that the atheistic scientist implies that the so-called “scientific method” is not the only way to discover truth!

The very idea of using the “scientific method” as “the” avenue to all truth is itself not discernible via the method. The method itself cannot possibly prove the non-existence of something outside the purview of that method of discovery. Materialism can never by a materialistic means prove the non-existence of the non-empirical (the metaphysical). In other words, the atheistic scientist who limits the discovery of truth to the “scientific method” has himself used some other criteria for giving that method its lofty and all-encompassing status. He has so elevated it but not by virtue of its all-encompassing nature, but because of his atheism!

The bottom line is that no scientist can defend the “scientific method” without reason. And when he does so, he admits that reason is superior to matter and very necessary in any explanation attempt. And when atheists attempt to claim that the “scientific method” is the one and only justifiable route to truth, they do so ignorantly and in self-contradiction since the employment by them of that route is because of a reasoned choice and not by means of some empirical trial and error vindication of the method itself. In fact, there can be no reasoned justification for the method itself, given the way that it is constructed. And that brings us to the second problem with the method.

The second problem with the “scientific method” has to do with the logical form of it. Consider the following illustration. Let us say that a couple decides to visit some nearby friends but without notifying their friends first. They get into the car and begin to drive. The husband says to his wife, “I hope they are home.” She responds, “We’ll know when we see the yard, for if they are home the yard will be mowed.” Then they get to the house and they see that the yard is mowed, and conclude. “They are home.”

Now, let us analyze what happened and put it into a strict logical form so that we can easily determine what was said and whether or not it was logical and conclusive. Let us use x for “if they are home.” And let us use y for “the yard will be mowed.” If we affirm x (they are home), then we could conclude y (the yard will be mowed). But the couple didn’t do this. They affirmed y (the yard is mowed) because they saw the mowed yard when they drove up to the house, and then they reached the conclusion that x (they are home). Now, let us suppose that they found no one at home. Even though they realized that their friends always kept up their yard work when at home (so that they had a right to say to themselves if x [they are home], then y [the yard will be mowed]), they were not counting on any explanation for a mowed yard other than the presence at home by their friends. But they found y (the yard is mowed) and yet they found non-x (the friends were not at home). Later, let us suppose, they found out that their friends had gone on vacation and had hired some yard workers to attend the yard while they were gone.

You see, the would-be visitors drew a conclusion not warranted by the evidence. They arranged their reasoning in this way: “If they are home, then the yard will be mowed. The yard is mowed. Therefore, they are home.” But then they found out that even though the yard was mowed, their friends were not at home. The argument—or, syllogism—looks like this:

  • If x then y (if they are home, then the yard will be mowed).
  • y (the yard is mowed).
  • Therefore, x (they are home).

And this is an illogical form. It is invalid. The conclusion is not established by the premises. And yet, this is the very form that is characteristic of the “scientific method.” Note this carefully. The “scientific method” entails an illogical or invalid form. And this means that the conclusion reached by using this form is not established! It is not proven! In a hypothetical syllogism (an “if-then” syllogism), we can either affirm the antecedent (what follows the “if”) or we can deny the consequent (what follows the “then”). The first form is called modus ponens; the second is called modus tollens. These are both logical or valid forms. But to deny the antecedent or to affirm the consequent is to construct an invalid form (see Lionel Ruby’s Logic—An Introduction, pp. 272-276). The couple in our illustration constructed an invalid form. They said: if x (antecedent) then y (consequent). That is, if they are home, the yard will be mowed. But then they affirmed the y (the yard is mowed), and concluded x (they are home). And this is an invalid form. They affirmed the consequent.

If a scientist tests his hypothesis and says if x is correct (if they are home) then y will follow (the yard will be mowed), and then he runs his test and finds that y is, after all, present (the yard is mowed), he concludes then that x is established at least as a theoretical cause (they are home) of y. But since the form is invalid, he has no right to reach a conclusion that is absolutely true. The whole process of his trial and error method is logically flawed. For y (the yard is mowed) may be caused by something other than x (their being home). There could well be another explanation for y (the yard’s being mowed).

It is sometimes reassuring that some scientists recognize the tentative nature of scientific claims and admit that they have not proven a position but only identified a possibility. Their conclusions they hold tentatively. However, some bold atheists and obsessed evolutionists overreach their findings and draw conclusions from their method that they deem beyond reproach. It is enough here for us to realize that no conclusion whatever reached via the “scientific method” can by that method be established as absolutely true.