philosophy science

as iron sharpens iron, so one thesis sharpens another

I love logic. It just makes sense!

I want to share with you a method that will save the world. Well, not really, but it’s really cool.

Basically, this method consists of the principles behind the Scientific Method. Call it what you will, but it applies to ANY topic – Theology, Philosophy, Physics, Geology, Sociology – ANY topic.

It has to do with making sense of ‘things’ that we observe in reality (whatever ‘things’ you may be ‘observing’ in ‘reality’). People have different ways of interpreting and explaining what they observe in reality. The so-called ‘law of non-contradiction’ (which is about as basic as it gets with logic!) says that two contradicting statements about the exact same thing cannot both be equally accurate.

Anyway, you start with an observation of a ‘thing’, then when you explain this ‘thing’ to someone you do so by means of a statement – your ‘ideas’ about it – your ‘thesis’ (or hypothesis, if you like). A diagram of this would look like this…

Now, the problem with an idea or ‘thesis’ all by itself is that it could be wrong. Sure, it could be right as well, but you’ll never know unless you contrast it with another one. It is really unfortunate that many people never even make this first step. They simply hold on to their precious thesis and never test it to see how strong it is. You need to test your ‘thesis’ against other ones! The diagram enlarges to show the 2-way dialogue with another ‘thesis’…

This is wonderful when this actually happens. It could be a simple mis-understanding between friends. “Oh, I see. I thought you meant ‘x’, but now that you’ve explained it, I realise you actually meant ‘y’! I’m no longer upset anymore!” Of course, this could play out in an endless number of scenarios. Either the ‘thesis’ or the ‘anti-thesis’ could become (or appear to become) more correct or less correct.

What happens (if an agreement or ‘middle ground’ is reached) now, is that something emerges from the conversation. This ‘something’ is one of a few things: a) it is the original ‘thesis’ (only now stronger – having been contrasted with another one), b) it is the ‘anti-thesis’ (having been shown to be stronger than the ‘thesis’) or c) a mixture of the two – a syn-thesis! This looks like this…

What happens here, is that this stronger idea – this syn-thesis – becomes the NEW ‘original’ thesis! Which makes our diagram look like this…

At this point, what do we do with all theses (plural of ‘thesis)? Remember? We test them against other ones! This is no different here. The NEW, stronger thesis needs to seek yet another ‘anti-thesis’.

This is called learning. I hope it is clear that this is an on-going process!

I think we actually can make real progress, but also think we need to remember that as we ‘advance’ our theses, we may look back and observe that what we thought was an ‘advance’ in the past was actually a step backward (and yes, even this observation itself could later be seen to be ‘wrong’ – and so on ‘ad infinitum’!).

Two ‘theses’ in dialogue is a wonderful thing, but it is even better to have 3 or more! The ‘synthesis’ you emerge with will be all the more stronger! (This is often referred to as the process of ‘peer review’ – and it’s a wonderful thing.)

There are difficulties, too, which we will need patience for. Too many voices in one ‘conversation’, means that it will simply take longer for each thesis to have its say. It could well be that a mixture of ‘smaller conversations’ and ‘larger ones’ could be a great thing, because each would have its own strengths and weaknesses/hindrances.

Another hurdle come because this process has been going on quite naturally for some time now, and in many, many different fields – theology, sociology, etc. It seems that after a time, there can be ‘patterns’ that emerge. Details that were originally hotly debated are given less and less time and often assumed to be valid in later conversations. This can be antithetical to the process of this method, as the whole point of it is, of course, to expose ALL of a thesis to criticism.

As I suggested earlier, patience is necessary! But we must be about this business of dialogue with other theses! We must grow. We must learn. To not dialogue is to fail to ‘advance’ at all (whether or not they are real or ‘illusory’ advances!) To not even attempt to advance is to slip backward.

“Iron makes iron sharp; so a man makes sharp his friend.” Proverbs 27:17 (BBE)

25 replies on “as iron sharpens iron, so one thesis sharpens another”

My difficulty with this analysis is that after your initial observation of the “thing” it seems to have been left behind.

My understanding of scientific method is not that theses, hypotheses, theories are tested against each other, but are tested against reality. Even the disagreement between 2 people needs testing against the real event to get a real resolution.

We can have evolution of theories without the need for rival theories (although this of course often occurs, and they often co-exist for some time) because the theory suggests further ways of evidential testing (experiment) and the results lead to modifications, or even rejection and starting a new theory from scratch.

To me that is the power of the scientific method – constant testing in practice.

Ken is right on… the “scientific method” can be summed up as the following:

1) Observation (… of interesting phenomena.)

2) Hypothesis (Formulation of the description of the causes of the phenomena that were ovbserved.)

3) Predicition (What are the implications of your hypothesis?)

4) Experimentation (Compare the predictions you made to real-world behavior. Also, look for observations that don’t fit the description you formulated.)

Note that “opinion” is not part of the scientific method.

Opinion comes in when there is more than one way to interpret an observation, or several hypotheses which cannot immediately be tested through experimentation, or where no hypothesis has been formulated which can explain all of the observed phenomena. And the interplay of ideas can cause the synthesis of better ideas and explanations. But the only way these can be thought of as “better” is if they more successfully describe the behavior of the phenomena they are trying to model.

I’m going to give an example of the scientific method at work:

There are scientists interested in how the sun works. They took all of the knowledge we have of the sun (OBSERVATION), both direct (from monitoring the radiation emitting from the sun), and indirect (from our knowledge of how other bodies interact with the sun, and from our understanding of nuclear reactions on earth), and they formulated a theory of how the sun works (HYPOTHESIS). They hypothesized that the nuclear reaction that dominates the behavior of the sun is fairly simple: 4p + 2e –> He + 2Ve. That is, four hydrogen atoms (protons) plus 2 electrons fuse to form one helium atom plus two electron neutrinos. They used this relationship and our “standard model” of nuclear reactions to calculate (PREDICTION)the neutrino flux we should observe on earth(that is, the number of neutrinos that we should detect in a given volume).

Some scientists calulated the electron neutrino flux predicted by the standard model and designed a test to measure it (EXPERIMENTATION). It turns out we only detected 1/3 of the electron neutrinos that we had predicted we would detect!

Scientists thought about the problem: was our model of how the sun works wrong? Or something else? And some came up with a new hypothesis: The nuclear “standard model” (which describes how nuclear particles interact) states that there is no direct relationship between neutrinos of different flavors (electron, muon, and tau). What if there is? Then, some electron neutrinos could change their state during their transit between the sun and the earth. Using this hypothesis, they formulated new rules to describe neutrino behavior. Scientists then designed experiments that would measure the total neutrino flux coming from the sun. It turns out that the neutrino flux was just what it should be if electron neutrinos changed flavor during the transit as predicted in the new hypothesis.

Now, the scientific method is still at work. There are still aspects of neutrino behavior we don’t understand (how neutrinos have mass, which is required for “flavor ixing”, for instance). But the beauty of the method is that the process is self-improving. Each iteration of the method (observe, describe, predict, test) is closer to the truth than the last.

I’m not sure that this method works well for religion, which has inherently untestable predictions.



Thanks for the comment. I was attempting to outline the most basic principles of thoughtful enquiry. Your concern with leaving behind the ‘thing’ is especially relevant to physics, which (as you can see in the term ‘phys-ics’ itself) studies ‘things’ that are physical/material.

(A quick aside: I again call to mind the mystifying ‘atom’. Seriously. How ‘physical’ is the world? I am fascinated by how much ‘room’ there seems to be ‘inside’ an atom! [I say ‘seems’ because from what I understand we really don’t know?])

My use of the term ‘thesis’ was intentional. Not only is it applicable across the various disciplines/fields(areas of enquiry), but it also (I suggest) is helpful because our knowledge in each of these areas (physics, geology, sociology, philosophy, etc. [and yes, I do realise that these areas don’t operate exactly the same!]) is not complete. For example, (atoms again!) all agree that atoms exist, but not all agree how they work. There are different levels of observation!

Our ‘theses’ are based, therefore, not on ‘purely objective observations’, but on a mixture of observation and interpretation.

Your suggestion that theses are ‘tested against reality’, I suggest, begs the question – ‘…tested against which interpretation of reality?’

The perfect example is that of historical theses. Did ‘such-and-such’ actually happen? History – both fortunately AND unfortunately! – doesn’t always repeat itself. The theses have to sharpen each other.

Anyway (I’m rambliing!), I take your point that we have to keep in mind the intial observation, but my model was meant to include areas of enquiry in which continuous observation is impossible. I think the principles still hold. Indeed, even with continuous observation – our interpretations of our observations can change.


Thanks. As I just mentioned to Ken, the method was meant to outline the principles involved in thoughtful enquiry. Not all observations can be repeated/re-enacted.

On ‘opinion’…
I’m a little confused here. First you observe ‘interesting phenomena’ (who decides what is ‘interesting’, and why is their opinion best?); second, a hypothesis is formed (isn’t theory, interpretation or ‘opinion’ at least vaguely synonymous?); third, a prediction is made (free of ‘opinion’?); and fourth, you compare predictions with ‘real-world behaviour’.

I’m not trying to nail you down with semantics, but opinion seems pretty involved right througout!? For me, this is not a problem. That’s why it’s not something that you only do once! The testing/sharpening/correcting/etc. of ideas, theories, theses, descriptions, predictions, observations (and the interpretations that go along with them!), etc. is an on-going process!

Doesn’t your well-detailed example about the sun clearly demonstrate this? Again, I’m baffled by your suggestion that ‘opinion is not part of the scientific method’… Did I just read you wrong?

I suggest that my basic outline of the principles of (it its attempt to remain non-categorical) thoughtful enquiry still accomplishes what I intended – but please do correct me further with any other problems with it! :)


Well, as far as “interesting” goes — everything is interesting at some level to someone. Different scientists study different things for different reasons. I work in the semiconductor industry, on problems that are “interesting” for the production of electronic devices. Others may study nuclear interactions, the weather, how the universe works, or whatever they find interesting.

A hypothesis is not an opinion:


hypothesis: noun, a proposition, or set of propositions, set forth as an explanation for the occurrence of some specified group of phenomena, either asserted merely as a provisional conjecture to guide investigation (working hypothesis) or accepted as highly probable in the light of established facts.

A good hypothesis describes all known physical behavior for the phenomena it describes, and can be tested experimentally.

There are people who think that science is “relative”. They interpret the world based on their philosophy — fascism (Nazi Germany), communism (the Soviet Union), fundamental Christianit — that is, based on their “opinion”. These groups use(d) their world view to define their scientific understanding of the world. When phenomena in the “real world” contradict their world view, they either ignore the data, or say that the world is wrong!

Good science is as devoid of opinion as it can be. The law of gravity is the same for all human s, whether they are communists, democrats, or Christians.

I’ll grant you that scientists are human and imperfect like everyone else and opinion sometimes slips in — read up on the Pons & Fleishman “cold fusion” affair of the late 90’s. But using the scientific method, the truth was discovered.

The scietific method is ongoing and self correcting in the circular manner you describe. But opinion should have as little to do with it as possible. Just because I “like” something doesn’t make it right, it has to better describe the world around us.




“Your suggestion that theses are ‘tested against reality’, I suggest, begs the question – ‘…tested against which interpretation of reality?’

That is only restating it as a thesis-thesis interaction. I mean testing against reality itself, not an interpretation of it.
Sure this is harder in some fields than others, that is why we have far less confidence in the prevailing ideas in some fields.


It seems pretty simple to me, really. As long as our theses are in the slightest bit ‘subjective’ (and they are!), they remain ‘stained’ (if you like) by ‘opinion’.

Again, my description of the model is to outline the most basic principles of thoughtful enquiry. No more – no less. :)

I’m quite intentional in restricting the model to basic principles. This allows it to be applied to basically any area of thoughtful enquiry.

Also, I’m not a fascist, communist or a fundy, yet I recognise the ‘relativity’ in any intellectual knowing. None of us are ‘omniscient’ – all ‘scient’…

Sure, we’re not all equally stupid, I agree. There are such things as expertise and wisdom… It’s just important to remember our limits.

Yes, because all theses are ‘tainted’ by interpretation (at least at SOME level).

Anyone else,
This model is to represent the most simple and basic patterns of contructive and interactive thought-improvement. Its simplicity (and adaptability) is its strength. More corrections?


You might take a look at an article on Wikipedia that gives a nice discussion of the “philosophy of science” The article on the scientific method is also good.

The use of the scientific method, and of review by many other scientists is used as much as possible to objectify as much as possible application of the scientific method. Scientists are human, and imperfect, so “opinion” can creep into the process. Because peer review exists, this is usually a problem that gets corrected rather quickly.

I’m going to make this observation:

An “opinion” is not a hypothesis unless it is able to explain all of the observed behavior of some phenomena, and make predictions which are testable.

There are situations where our explanations for the observed behavior of phenomena are not imediately testable, in which case they are opinions, until scientific advances catch up. At that point, the scientific method can be put into play to verify or disprove them.

Some subjects are problematic to apply the scientific method to — Wikipedia’s article on the philosophy of science has a nice write-up on that.

take care,


Dale, I think you are avoiding the issue by refusing to see the vital role of testing ideas against objective reality. This has been the key to the power of modern science. Reality itself is not tainted.

I know there is a postmodernist approach which sees this reality as determined by the cultural prejudices of the investigator. But, I see that as just another way of people trying to defend their own beliefs, or even trying to impose their beliefs on reality. Of avoiding the conclusions derived from empirical facts.

This, of course, is the essence of our disagreement on ID/creationism. I think many (some, most – I don’t know?) theists reject current knowledge in this area because this conflicts with their beliefs. (I agree with Joe that it doesn’t have to, but clearly some theists have specific beliefs which contrast with the modern knowledge in this area). It’s not a matter of evolution being atheist but of some theists making that interpretation for themselves.

The clear answer to this sort of situation is to examine one’s beliefs (not deny the facts). This might be hard (we all have emotional attachment to beliefs and in the religious area this can be very strong). But, in my experience, initial beliefs have always had to give way to empirical facts, and the resulting, modified, renewed, theories and beliefs have always been so much richer as a result.

But not to do this, to hold on to beliefs against the evidence, has a very sorry history. We can see this with the ID proponents who now have to stoop to dishonest means to defend (rather than change) their beliefs. The US school text book “Pandas and People” they promote is an example where they have had to tell lies in order to create the impression that there was something basically wrong with evolution. They keep getting caught out, but they still continue in the same vein.

The dishonesty, more than anything else, is , I think, why ID cannot be seen as scientific.


Thanks. When I get time, I’ll have a look at the Wikipedia links. I’m sure they’ll be helpful.

I think we agree that, however undesirable, and however hard we work at eradicating it, opinion is involved in the process.


Have we met? :) Because you keep using terms/phrases that I insist aren’t helpful (‘objective reality’, ’empirical facts’). Surely we’ve engaged enough with one another that you not only know how I will react to these terms, but you also know I’m not a (stereo)typical card-carrying ‘creationist’.

I certainly do not see the hard and fast chasm between faith and science. I actually see my faith instructing me toward rational, intelligent use of the brains that we have. Turning a deaf ear (or a blind eye) to scientific enquiry is utterly unwarranted.

I actually have changed many of my beliefs over the years and suspect that I will continue to do so.

At any rate, my main point with this article was to – at the risk of sounding like a broken record – outline the basic principles of thoughtful enquiry; and to do so using terms/principles that translate to all fields of enquiry. In a sense, yes, I ‘avoided’ the issue of ‘ID/creationism/evolution/etc.’ because I didn’t want my model to be distracted by that. I simply wanted to demonstrate how the human thinking community sharpens itself, and that refusal/hesitance to subject yourself to the process actually ‘dulls’ the given ‘thesis’ in question. Surely we all agree that thinking/sharpening works this way? Can we not put aside the evo/ID/etc. issue for just one moment and agree on these principles? I think so.

To put it another way, the above article was about the sharpening/growing of ‘knowledge’. Sure, you may say that’s giving undue priority to philosophy, but I do think the principles I’ve outlined, actually are being played out in each and every area of ‘thought’ful enquiry. Actually, they indeed may not be – but I’m suggesting that they should be! :)

Please. This article isn’t directly about physics, religion, biology or faith; it’s about how we ‘know’ at all, and how we ‘sharpen’ this ‘know-ing’. Sure, there are obvious links into various areas/conversations, but please critique the article on its own terms/principles.


p.s. – randomly, if anyone is in the Auckland area tomorrow night, my rock band ‘merleau’ is playing at the Masonic Tavern with 2 other bands, starting at 9pm – small cover charge. Cheers!

terms/phrases that I insist aren’t helpful (‘objective reality’, ’empirical facts’)
That is the crux of the matter – without this as the basis on which we build our knowledge, then the knowledge is not worth anything – any real attempt to apply it would show it to be false.

You might insist this as unhelpful – I certainly won’t. It is absolutely critical to modern scientific method.


You’ve highlighted very acutely the point I’m talking about. My model is seeking to demonstrate the sharpening/growing process involved with all kinds of ‘knowing’. I wonder… When you say ‘objective’ and ’empirical’ do you really mean ‘physical’?

At any rate, my outline above doesn’t at all EX-clude the very neccessary physical experimentation that would need to be performed if the thesis in question was able to be experimented on physically!

This is where I will not at all be surprised for a materialist to part ways, as for them everything is material, and can therefore, in principle be interpreted materially; perhaps we may not have ways of interpreting all material things now, but give it time, and we will find ways.

The model above, however, whilst IN-cluding the necessity of interpreting physical (‘objective?’ ’empirical?’) things, does not EX-clude the probability of interpreting things other than physical; it is unbiased – if you like – as concerns physicality/non-physicality.

This need not be a problem! Physical experimentation/interpretation is IN-cluded – just not EX-clusively.

And by the way, it should be logically obvious that we are not going to EVER discover the reality of non-material things by using only materialist experiments/observation-tools…

Now, just to be cheeky – a question: what are the ’empirical facts’ of sub-atomic physics?


“My model is seeking to demonstrate the sharpening/growing process involved with all kinds of ‘knowing’. I wonder… When you say ‘objective’ and ’empirical’ do you really mean ‘physical’?”

I think the problem is that the scientific method DEPENDS upon objectivity and empirical data.

The scientific method is applied by making physical measurements (observations) that are as devoid of “opinion” as possible. The more devoid of opinion they are, the better the application will be. These observations are then compared to hypotheses (ideas), and the ideas that best fit the hypotheses “win”.

As far as “empirical facts” of sub atomic physics — they exist, but you will have to do some study to understand them. The empiracle evidence that exists in this regime is not always “direct” (it is difficult if not impossible for us to “see” a neutrino, for instance — but we CAN see the products of the interaction of neutrinos with protons), but we can see it by secondary data and by inductive reasoning.

The scientific method is really an algorithm for describing the nature of the world. The trouble comes when you try to apply an algorithm that requires physical measurements to an unmeasurable phenomenon — you basically end up with a GIGO error (“garbage in, garbage out”) the “opinion” that you are referring to.

This is what Wikipedia says:

“However, there are limitations to what any truth-finding method based on objective replication of experiments can discover. Some fields, such as economics, ecology, or social science can be very hard to experiment with. Even more problematic is the study of human consciousness, which is by nature subjective, yet undeniably “real” in some sense. The human race does not at this time possess reliable techniques to study these and other subjects; better methods of truth-determination for these difficult areas are (or should be) an ongoing project of epistemology, the study of knowledge.

This is why science, though extremely powerful, cannot by itself give rise to a truly complete or balanced worldview. Just as those who do not understand or do not trust science cut themselves off from what may be the largest and most accurate body of knowledge and technique that humankind has ever accumulated, anyone who studies only scientific fields denies a huge amount of knowledge, both currently known and potentially knowable.”

take care,


Thanks Joe,

Really great comment. I really think we agree. The model I present is an epistemological one, showing how knowledge of all kinds is grown and sharpened. There are direct parallels, I suggested in the article, to the scientific method, because I suggested the scientific method follows these basic epistemological principles…

I loved your last paragraph!

Cheers all,


OK, I think (hope) we agree on the basic source of scientific knowledge in objectively existing reality.

I think this has to be remembered even in the “less scientific’ disciplines such as economics, sociology, etc. Harder to get at the raw material, much more problem with people imposing their own pet beliefs, etc., but in the end this is the only real test.

Three points:

1: Denigration of this principle is often used to deny a scientific approach to, for example, consciousness. A new field with some very important recent discoveries all made using the scientific, naturalist, method. Of course ID/creationism is a similar example of attempts to deny and undermine the scientific method. Science does come under attack on these sort of issues, and the attack (by its nature) also threatens the rest of society (cultural renewal of ID?) as it represents an abandonment of reason. Superstition and irrational beliefs are still very prevalent in the world today and they need to be resisted. Hence my passion for defending the scientific method.

2: Yes, of course knowledge and culture are much wider than science – I don’t know anyone who denies that. Scientists can get very narrow in their work – be extremely good at understanding extremely small areas. But I don’t think they deny areas outside their specialties. Of course there are arrogant scientists, just as there are arrogant accountants, politicians and theologians.

3: A question. I, of course, don’t believe in the supernatural and hence don’t believe anything is “unknowable”. Everything that exists is natural. Now, I know many others think differently. An associate, for example, has problems (guilt) with his Ph. D. studies because it conflicts with his knowledge of the “truth” (his religion).

So my question(s): How can one say they have knowledge about something that is “unknowable”? And how can they call that knowledge “truth” in contrast to knowledge derived from things that are “knowable”? If we can’t use the scientific method what do we do? And what are these “unmeasurable phenomena” anyway?

In advance, I should say that knowledge or “truth” based on (interpretations of) quotes from the Bible, Karl Marx or V. I. Lenin don’t influence me.

Thanks Ken,

I think (hope) that we all agree on the basic principles of how knowledge progresses.

As for ‘scientific knowledge’, I think that ‘reality’ does indeed objectively exist (contra some interesting philosophical suggestions that ‘our senses may be failing us’!), but I would say that while reality exists objectively, our ‘knowledge’ of it (in all areas) will always be (at least partly) subjective.

This leads to your three points, I think.

But I must direct our attention to yet another inevitable semantic problem. We’ve already discussed it a bit. It’s the semantic differene between ‘knowledge’ and ‘science’. As you may know, Latin for ‘knowledge’ is ‘scientia’, so there are obvious etymological (and connotational) links. This is why, I suggest, for clarity, when we use the word ‘science’ we often need to use a specifying word (i.e. ‘natural’ sciences, ‘physical’ sciences, ‘social’ sciences, etc.) However frustrating these specific terms may be, the term ‘science’ alone is too vague – especially for our conversation.

Ken, if you don’t mind, could you re-phrase your three points/questions and add specifying words when you use the word ‘science’?

I know it’s a bit of a favour to ask, but that would really help the conversation, I think…



These are my questions:
“So my question(s): How can one say they have knowledge about something that is “unknowable”? And how can they call that knowledge “truth” in contrast to knowledge derived from things that are “knowable”? If we can’t use the scientific method what do we do? And what are these “unmeasurable phenomena” anyway?”
To help I can define” scientific method” as that of “methodological materialism”. I know materialism is a can of worms for many so will quote from a US National Academy of Sciences document:
“Science is a particular way of knowing the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from confirmable data – the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.” In that sense all science is natural science.

So I am attempting to understand the methodology used to deal with the “supernatural” etc. Those areas which are not amenable to investigation using the “methodological materialism” inherent in the NAS statement.

I think Ken is hitting the nail right on the head. The “knowledge” Dale is referring to is not “knowledge” in the sense that we refer to “scientific knowledge”.

Ken, you ask an interesting question, that brings it into focus. When we (as scientists) study something, we measure it, defining the accuracy of the measurement, and giving other scientists enough information to make their own confirming or denying measurements. Given this knowledge, we describe the phenomena we have observed and try to show that the description is valid by predicting measurements that have not yet been made. If the hypothesis fits the data, we say that it is “correct” or “true”.

But how does one get “knowledge” of God? God, and the supernatural, is NOT “measurable” in the scientific sense of the world. We cannot SCIENTIFICALLY learn anything directly about God.

Is there direct evidence for God? The reason I believe that there IS a God has to do with cause and effect. In everything we have observed in the world, we have seen “cause” and “effect”. In our limited understanding of the formation of the universe, for lack of a better description, “the big bang,” we have a cause and no effect. I have made my personal choice to understand the “cause” behind the “effect” as God.

So, by studying His creation, we can come to know God. Paul talks about this at some length in one of his letters.

Besides indirectly studying the Creator by studying creation, I believe that God has interacted with humans (and me) directly as is documented in the Bible.

Finally, God interacts personally with humans.

One traditional Christian belief is that you can only “know” God if He opens your heart to receive Him. This is called Calvinism. Calvanists believe that man is completely “fallen” so that we are in a state where we will not choose to know God under any circumstance but one — if God actively forces us to do so. Calvanists believe in predestination — you are only saved if God chose you at the beginning of time, and there is nothing you can do about it one way or the other. A Calvanist would say that you learn knowledge of God because God opened your heart to receive Him.

Another traditional Christian belief is called Arminianism. Arminians believe that although we are fallen we still have the ability to freely choose to accept God. If we accept God, he opens our hearts to know Him. If we choose to resist Him, He does not force himself on us.

In both cases, once a human has received God, God then reveals Himself through His personal relationship with the believer.


You learn “knowledge” about God through:

— His creation
— His revelation through scripture
— His personal revelation to a believer

As you say, and I think this is where Dale has a problem, none of this “knowledge” of God is “scientifically” testable using the scientific method.

That isn’t to say that there are not a host of people writing academic papers purporting to “prove” Christian (or other religions) beliefs in a scientific format. Unfortunately, these papers are filled with errors in observation/measurement — when measured phenomena don’t fit their hypothesis, the measured phenomena must be incorrect!

Science works the other way — the hypothesis must fit the pbservation or it is incorrect.

Sorry to ramble on so much!

take care,


“In our limited understanding of the formation of the universe, for lack of a better description, “the big bang,” we have a cause and no effect.”

I did, of course, mean to type we have an “effect” (the universe) and no “cause”.



Ken and Joe,

(Prophets course-reading and youth-camp-planning has me flat out, so I may not be able to respond through the week…)

I appreciate the USNAS definition, though I would have a few philosophical/logical/linguistic quibbles with it (use of word ‘science’). Also, notice the words ‘particular’ and ‘restricted’… As I suggest, and remain convinced, ‘natural science/KNOW-ing’ [remember the Latin etymology?] is but one type of science/KNOW-ing – a very important one indeed.

I think a better way to say it is this: Naturalistic/materialist ‘science’ is an area of science that studies/researches/etc. things that can be naturalisticly/materially observed/experimented/tested/etc.

In this sense, I would modify your sentence by saying that “Explanations that cannot be based on material evidence are not part of materialist science.” :)

Perhaps you should just say what it seems you are thinking (?), that material science is more authoritative than any other science. Is this not what you think?

As you can see, I’m really trying to un-bind the term ‘science’ from being restricted to only ‘material’ science. Might be a lost cause in this conversation… :)

I agree about ‘knowing’ God through creation (you can tell a lot about someone by the things they make, and how other people treat it), scripture (which recounts the history of humanity’s experience of God), and personal revelation (the in-audible ‘whispers’) but would add that we ‘know’ God most clearly be studying/learning about Jesus. (I trust you agree here!)

I also like the idea (though I’ve not looked into it much) from Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ known as the ‘double knowledge’; ‘knowing God – knowing man, knowing man – knowing God’, suggesting that the more we truly know ourselves the more we truly know God, and vice versa…

Must run now…


Hey Dale,

I think we may have trouble moving to your definition. It all comes down to observable and testable.

When two scientific descriptions of the world conflict, we can use measurement and observation to determine which is “best” by best fitting those observations. You can’t do that with religion.

For instance, which is correct: Calvinism (salvation by predestined grace) or Arminianism (salvation by free acceptance of grace), and show me your evidence so that I can make a confirming measurement. This is how the “scientific method” works.

“I agree about ‘knowing’ God through creation (you can tell a lot about someone by the things they make, and how other people treat it), scripture (which recounts the history of humanity’s experience of God), and personal revelation (the in-audible ‘whispers’) but would add that we ‘know’ God most clearly be studying/learning about Jesus. (I trust you agree here!)

Ummm… Isn’t that what scripture is? I include both the Old and New Testaments when I say “scripture”.

I think it is worthwhile to study Biblical history and culture (both Old and New Testament), because that gives us insight into scripture, but all necessary revelation is contained in the Bible. So I’m not sure what you mean by “studying/learning about Jesus” outside the context of scripture.

take care,


interesting discussion, might come back to comment later…

ps is that the same Joe with all the “Joe” comments? And is that Joe I know?

I am the same Joe with all the Joe comments. I don’t think you know me as I don’t recognize your name. I’m new to these boards — ran into this blog when I was Googling “spiritual gifts” and “tongues” — my church is putting on a program on discovering your gifts this fall/winter, and I have a different view on gifts than most of the leadership team holds. I found Dale’s blog entry on tongues, and got hooked.

I work in reasearch and development at a semiconductor company in Maine in the US, and am an active member of an ABCUSA affiliated church. I’m the webmaster of our homepage,, if anyone wants to check it out.

If I post too much more here, I’m going to need to think about registering with this service…

take care,


Those are really good comments Joe, your writing reminds me of that of a friend of mine called Joe, but I didn’t think he knew all that stuff about hydrogen atoms and electron neutrinos!!

I think you are avoiding the questions. Your attempts to redefine the scientific method won’t change the way science is done.
But the questions:
How can one say they have knowledge about something that is “unknowable”?
And how can they call that knowledge “truth” in contrast to knowledge derived from things that are “knowable”?
If we can’t use the scientific method what do we do?
And what are these “unmeasurable phenomena” anyway?”

I am an outsider on this issue, not believing in the supernatural, but can attempt some answers.

It seems to me that religious knowledge, and its epistemology, contrasts with the scientific method as follows:

Religious “truth” is based on authority and witness. Authority as in using religious scriptures (Bible, Koran, etc.), or more specifically interpretations of these. Different people, groups, churches, sects, etc., may use different interpretations or select different texts, hence may advocate different actions. (We can use authority to justify peace, love, humanitarianism, war, ethnic cleansing, bombing government buildings and clinics, flying planes into buildings, etc., etc.)

This contrasts with the scientific method as there is no way of testing with an objectively existing reality (or at least a natural reality. Testing with a supernatural reality comes back to authority and interpretation).

Witness implies acceptance of anybody’s related experience at face value. Almost implying that critical assessment is disrespectful. Again, no way of testing against reality as above. (Testing against reality may well lead to a conclusion of delusion anyway. I am reminded of the fact that every year Israeli authorities have to detain a number of tourists who have come to Israel to provide witness of their experiences (or delusions). I am sure that there is the same problem with some of the ordinary citizens of this region too).

Or am I wrong? Does religion not use authority and witness? Or do religions have a way of critically assessing information derived in this manner?


(sorry for the hiatus, I was flat out for a few days there!)

I can appreciate your frustration at what appears to you as an attempt to ‘redefine the scientific method’, but I have not tried to do any such thing. What have tried to do is to navigate through various issues of semantics. This is very frustrating, but can be very important. (actually, it is a bit frustrating for me when you keep using words like ‘supernatural’ when I’ve said many times now that I don’t use the natural/supernatural distinction myself, and don’t find it helpful at all…) Honestly, if I wanted, we could get a lot more ‘strict’ about the usage of words. It really does matter, because ideas are attached to words, and if we’re not referring to the same idea when we use the same word, then that obviously will limit the fruitfulness of the dialogue…

But (having said all that) let me be completely clear: I am logically committed to the principles of the scientific method. It seems basic to me. Wonderfully simple and effective. I wouldn’t want to change that method.

Your questions:

knowledge about something ‘unknowable’
When Christians speak of ‘knowledge’ of God or other spiritual realities, they may mean any number of things depending on how they have been taught to understand such things. I humbly suggest that what Christians should mean when they speak of such things is not a ‘knowledge’ that can be ‘had’ fully or ‘possessed’ completely, but a relational knowledge. This type of knowledge (much like human relationships) is – yes – subjective (if you like), but also very meaningful and – dare I say – real. I don’t fully know Diane, but I ‘know’ her. Make sense? The key concept is that this knowledge is not ‘objective’ knowledge (i.e. – having a ‘gods eye’ view of god), but relational. Knowing ‘god’ be what ‘god’ is like – what ‘god’ has done reveals ‘god’s’ nature/personality. That is the ‘knowledge’ spoken of – which, of course, you would naturally want to discredit as ‘subjective’ or something… :)

Again, Christians may actually say and mean any number of things, but I think they should also speak of ‘truth’ in a relational sense. This, of course, is not the stuff of test-tubes and labs, but rather the stuff of… well… ALL of life. Love (preserving a relationship in spite of that person being not what you want them to be, etc.), Justice (the desire for ‘things’ to be fair/just/’right’ in the world), forgiveness (the removal of guilt when one party has wronged another), mercy (not giving someone the punishment they deserve), grace (undeserved favour)… These things – in the context of relationships (between God/humans and human/human) – is what ‘truth’ is all about. And yes, I believe that Jesus is ‘the truth’.

‘if we can’t use the scientific method, what do we do? ‘unmeasurable phenomena’
The scientific (knowledge/’scienta’) method is about sharpening knowledge, and can be used in all fields of enquiry. I have never said we can’t use the ‘scientific method’. Please specify which KIND or AREA of science that you think we can’t use to sharpen our knowledge of the above concepts, and then I can answer your question.
I have already (many times) said that it’s just silly to expect to materially ‘test’ for the existence of and nature of non-material things, so of course we can’t use (for example) physics to try and ‘search’ for god.

‘Unmeasurable phenomena’… I don’t think this phrase belongs to me, but there are lots of examples of phenomena that cannot be measured. This, in fact, is one of the biggest challenges in the field of history. You can only measure phenomena that are repeatable. One-offs are not up for complete verification – only speculation. Now, we can speculate quite well, though. But that’s another question…

authority and witness
First, I don’t separate ‘truth’ into ‘religious’ and ‘other’… All truth is All truth. (That should work with just about whatever definition of truth you’re working with!) :)
Secondly, you continue to use the distinction between nature/supernature, which I have repeatedly said that I find unhelpful (and extra-biblical). Please, let’s get behind/past/over these terms…
There is a great article by N.T. Wright on biblical authority called ‘How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?’. For too long, the Bible has been described/used as a ‘rule-book’ or ‘owner’s manual’, etc. As Wright says, ‘All authority is God’s authority’. I do think that the Bible carries authority, but not in the sense of ‘this is the rule-book for life’ kind of way. Happy to share more about this ‘authority’, but Wright does a far better job than I (
As for your complaint that we can’t test this ‘authority’ against ‘reality’, I would, again, suggest that ‘reality’ is far more interesting and complex than materialists may suggest. And, again, our knowledge of ‘reality’ is anything but fully ‘objective’. Why don’t you just say ‘material’? Isn’t that what you really mean? Isn’t this disagreement regarding non-materiality at the very centre of our discussion? Me thinks yes. :)

‘…acceptance of anybody’s related experience…’ Nope. Not me. Lot’s of people say lot’s of things. Critical assessment is not only respectful, but I would say God-given!

Sure, ‘authority’ and ‘witness’ are things that I think are good, but maybe not in the way you thought?


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