In the opening essay of the BYU physical science textbook, the authors included a section on some of the basic premises upon which the reasoning portion of the scientific method rests. They explain, “All reasoning must rest upon assumptions, and the scientific method … assumes basic philosophical ideals as a foundation. … There are some assumptions that are so logical and basic that we present them here as six â€œself-evident truths.”1
When I first read this essay as a college freshman, I got kind of excited, wondering what those fundamental truths might be upon which the rest of my text was based. I was a little disappointed when I read some of them.
1. Existence. There exists a physical world separate and distinct from our minds that is comprehensible through our senses. We expect in addition that it is governed by certain generalities called the â€œlaws of nature.â€
2. Causality. Eventsâ€”effectsâ€”in the physical universe have natural causes. Causes precede effects and can be explained rationally in terms of the laws of nature.
3. Position symmetry. The laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe.
4. Time symmetry. The laws of nature have remained the same through time. They are the same now as they were in the distant past, and they will be the same in the future.
5. Noncontradiction. Of two contradictory propositions, both cannot be true.
6. Simplicity (Occamâ€™s Razor). If alternative explanations of any phenomenon are available, where each are logical and explain the phenomenon equally well, then the simplest explanation shall be chosen.1
While I can see why these assumptions can be useful in simplifying and expediting the scientific process, and while I agree that they are probably true in many ways, I have reservations about calling them all “self-evident” truths. And because of that, I find myself qualifying every conclusion based on them. They may have pragmatic value for solving everyday problems, such as in medicine and engineering, but when they are used to draw problematic conclusions, I find myself reaching for a grain of salt. I will examine each premise and its claim to “self-evident truth.”
Noncontradiction. I didn’t have any major problems with number five. Of course, that’s with the caveat that many times two true statements appear to be in conflict, but that is usually due to either limited knowledge or the ambiguities of spoken language. Note, for example, that the rhetorical definition of “paradox” is often “an apparent contradiction” due to dual meanings, not necessarily a genuine conceptual contradiction.
Existence. I would accept the first sentence in number one with a qualification. The physical world is largely comprehensible through our senses, but I would be presumptuous to think my senses (or technological instrumentation) could detect all of the physical world. Who knows what aspects of the physical world may never be detectable through senses or mechanical instrumentation? Especially in light of the doctrine that “all spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes” (D&C 131:7). Likewise, who knows what aspects of the physical world may never be “comprehensible” to our finite minds? I would be sad if the universe were mundane enough that none of it was outside our current mortal ability to comprehend.
The second sentence may need qualifying, too. The universe may be “governed by certain generalities called the ‘laws of nature,'” but I wouldn’t say that they are the only things that govern the universe, nor that they are the highest governing factor that trumps all others.
Causality. Number two depends completely upon the definition of the word “natural.” It’s obvious that events have to have causal links from other events; I think that’s one thing Bruce R. McConkie meant when he said that agency requires laws in order to exist: laws binding an effect to its cause. But assuming “natural” here means mechanistic and without the involvement of divine will and intervention, then it would preclude any involvement at all by Heavenly Father on earth. Tell me, what would be the “natural” cause of the First Vision? Or of a spirit entering a body during gestation? Or of a sudden storm that happens to save Zion’s Camp from destruction?
Saying that all effects in the universe have “natural” causes not only precludes divine will; it also precludes human will. When a man and woman selflessly serve their children, is that merely the unavoidable outcome of several initial environmental conditions? Are they inert puppets, maximizing the odds of passing on their genes because those genes demand it, or do they genuinely choose altruism? The gospel makes clear that every person is free to choose, and that means “natural causes” cannot explain all, or even most, of what we see happen every day.
I am not trying to prove each of these points wrong; I am trying to show that some are wrong and that others have not been proven right. In fact, they may be unproveable. Of course, that is the nature of a premise—it is a starting point from which further conclusions flow. So we should be very cautious about what we accept as a premise, as well as any conclusions drawn from them when they remain unexamined. In my next post, I will examine the other three “self-evident” premises.
Continued in More “Self-evident” Premises of Science.
1. Physical Science Foundations, 2nd ed., BYU College of Physical & Mathematical Sciences.