A reader named “Oliver” posted the following questions in the thread to my article: “How the British Humanist Association undermines Humanism“:
“Is there a better, more reliable, way of knowing what is and isn’t true than the scientific method? If so, can you describe it?”
The first, relatively minor problem with the question is that there is no single scientific method. Or, at the very least, there is no agreement among scientists and philosophers of science that there is. Consider, for example, this excerpt from the entry on “Scientific Method” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The issue which has shaped debates over scientific method the most in the last half century is the question of how pluralist do we need to be about method? Unificationists continue to hold out for one method essential to science; nihilism is a form of radical pluralism, which considers the effectiveness of any methodological prescription to be so context sensitive as to render it not explanatory on its own. Some middle degree of pluralism regarding the methods embodied in scientific practice seems appropriate. But the details of scientific practice vary with time and place, from institution to institution, across scientists and their subjects of investigation.
We can address that minor issue by rephrasing the question as one regarding scientific methods. But that brings us to the bigger problem with the question: whether we speak of method (singular) or methods (plural), the question is still wrong-headed. Let’s start by restating the slightly amended question:
“Is there a better, more reliable, way of knowing what is and isn’t true than the scientific methods? If so, can you describe it?”
And my question in return is, better or more reliable for what? How about getting directions to that Italian restaurant you’re eating at tonight? Are you going to use scientific methods for that? How about knowing that your spouse really loves you? What about knowing that a life spent helping the poor is morally better than a life murdering them and stocking them in your basement freezer? What about knowledge of who won the 1952 World Series? Or knowledge that you’re not just a brain in a vat?
The fact is that just as there are many scientific ways to gain knowledge of the world, so also there are many non-scientific ways to gain knowledge of the world. Scientific methods have proven an enormously productive tool for gaining knowledge of the structure, processes, laws, and forces of nature. But it would be a whopping non sequitur to conclude from that fact that science provides the single preferred way to gain knowledge about anything.
For further discussion see my book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, chapter 15, “Naturalism, Scientism and the Screwdriver that could fix almost anything.”