It Is Irrational to Believe in Science

These guys must be out of their minds.
These guys must be out of their minds.

This article only begins the subject; it does not end it. Atheists, beware the So’s-Your-Old-Man Fallacy.

Belief in the absence of evidence is irrational. There is no evidence for believing in science; yet many do believe in science. Therefore, belief in science is irrational and many people ought to find new hobbies.

The form of this argument is valid. The adornment to it with the true observation that many do believe in science, and the appendage of the moral judgement that it is better not to be irrational if one can help it are unnecessary to the central point and can be removed, though they do no harm. The argument passes the test for logical correctness: people should not have a slavish devotion to science. Is the argument sound? That depends on the premises.

Let’s agree, as atheists would, that the first premise is true: belief without evidence is irrational. There are niceties here, but let them pass for the moment. The conclusion surely follows from the two premises: it is irrational to believe in science given that belief in the absence of evidence is irrational and that there is no evidence for believing in science. So we only have to examine the minor premise: is it true? Yes, absolutely: but it depends on what we mean by evidence and science. (All arguments are conditional on the definitions of the terms they use, so it is no surprise that this should be so here.)

Science, everybody agrees, uses math: 1 + 1 = 2, and all that. Only there is no evidence that 1 + 1 = 2 or for any mathematical statement. Science, since it relies on mathematics, is therefore irrational. The belief that 1 + 1 = 2 starts with the belief, in the absence of evidence, that 0 is a natural number. It proceeds to the belief that for every natural number x, x = x; and from there to the belief that for all natural numbers x and y, if x = y, then y = x; and from there to the idea that for all natural numbers x, y and z, if x = y and y = z, then x = z; and from there to belief that the successor of every natural number is itself a natural number. None of these beliefs have evidence to support them. This list is only an introductory set which, taken with their unstated cousins, eventually lead us to the proposition 1 + 1 = 2. But there is much more to it: We also have to admit the belief that our process of reasoning from these axioms—for that is what these beliefs are called—to the proposition, and this belief in our powers is also sans evidence. What do I mean by this?

This article started with a logical argument in a familiar form. There is no evidence here that our powers of recognizing this form and applying it have been done correctly. We just have to believe that we’re doing it right, or we have to believe the form itself always leads to validity, but even that belief is unfounded. The same powers of reasoning in which we place our trust are also in use as you read these words, of course, so we’d better hope they work here, too.

I’ve been dancing around the word evidence. Time to make it concrete. Now in real life if you take one banana, you notice that because you have one banana, you conclude you really do indeed have one banana. If you had two, you’d reason you have two. And so on. From that humble observation, and many similar ones, arises the belief that for every natural number x, x = x. This is impossible to check for all numbers. You must take it on faith. Or if you don’t like putting it that way, you must believe based on the evidence of your bananas and the reasoning provided to you by induction. The induction moves from the specific instances of bananas and other objects to the general idea that numbers (and not necessarily objects) have certain properties. There is empirical observation, sense data, to start the idea going, but it is induction that carries us to the goal; there is no complete empirical observation that will ever prove our belief. And this applies to all the axioms of mathematics and logic.

Incidentally, although we use objects to form our ideas of numbers, that numbers are not objects should be obvious because objects do not always behave like numbers. Adding one electron with one positron does not result in two objects but in a burst of light, just as one man uniting in holy matrimony with one woman does not produce two persons but one flesh. Nevertheless, and no matter what, 1 + 1 = 2.

Since mathematics and logic and the other powers of our reasoning are based on induction, which provide statements of universal generality that can never be checked and will therefore never have complete empirical evidence for their belief, our belief in science, which uses all these things, is irrational. Unless we’re willing to say evidence is not merely empirical, error-free observation, and that instead evidence is partly measurement and partly the sorts of thing that takes place in our intellects. via induction. Now this is not to say how these inductions swim into our view, and it says nothing about the nature and types of the different kinds of induction (there are at least five). That topic is huge and beyond this short article. The only point relevant here is that empiricism as a basis for science, must be wrong—though, again, we have to be careful to define empiricism.

One definition is that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience. This isn’t incompatible with the canvas I painted above if we’re liberal about the word derived, so that it includes induction. But strict empiricists are dogmatic and say only observation (or measurement) counts. That view is clearly false, unless we’re willing to toss out all mathematics and logic.

I haven’t said much about science itself. And won’t—not here. But induction comes to play even here. Gravitational attraction is determined, we say, by these certain equations to any reasonable degree of measurement fineness. Very well. We try out these determinative equations and find they work here, and that they work there. But do they work over there? I mean, way, way over there in outer-outer space, in the areas hidden from us by (say) dark matter? We can take no measurements, directly or indirectly, yet we suppose, since there is no reason to think otherwise, that gravity is the same everywhere. It’s not necessarily the same everywhen, as aficionados of inflation theory will tell you. We believe, with no direct empirical evidence, that things work the same everywhere. There are plenty of indirect measurements; namely, that gravity works in all the spots we’ve so far examined. However, just like with the math example, we can’t check everywhere.

Anyway, it’s not only gravity, and it’s not only widely separated places in time and space. Right here on Gaia herself, we take it for granted that trees make a noise when they fall and when a government-grant wielding scientist isn’t there with his microphones to document it (indeed, under the sway of scientism, we’re unlikely to believe anything that wasn’t peer reviewed). This is a kind of faith—or another kind of induction. It is, by definition, not based on any direct observation or measurement. Though it could, if we’re careful, be based on indirect measurement. The absence, say, of the operation of the electroweak force in some remote patch of the Brazilian jungle (that’s right: jungle) might become apparent if we knew to look out for it and have deduced the consequences of its absence. But suppose instead, in the ranges of the Sahara where no man or beast roams, an extra neutrino or two appears behind some small dune, in direct opposition to every theory and explanation we have about particle physics. We take for granted that such things do not happen. Induction again. Of course, if it did happen and it was noticed and written about, the discoverer would find himself…in a heap of trouble—if the theory he contested was beloved by the powers that be. That’s only because science is run by scientists, which is to say, people, and, we say under the sway of induction, all people behave like people.


  1. Wow! You must be in an especially self-punishing mode here! I say evolution is an unprovable theory and they roll out the stocks to main street–I shudder to think what they’ll do to you.

    Does 1+1=2 because it does or because math defines it that way? Again, is 0 a “natural number” or a “defined number”? This is language to me, not science. We define certain things to be true. Your whole explanation of math looks shaky that way. Mathematicians will undoubtedly disagree with this. (And, yes, you can do that with most of “science”–a tree is a tree because we defined it that way. It’s a frog even if we change the name. The tree exists independent of what we call it–belief in the tree standing in front of us is evidence for that tree’s existence, no matter what we call it. Not so for the term “tree” as it applies to everything from a 2 foot sapling to a 500 ft sequoia. “What is” and “what we can that or define it as” are different things.)

    We agree that things worked exactly the same for the 4 billion years the earth has existed–but have no evidence thereof. We just agree to it. (Maybe physics really is absent in the Bermuda Triangle? Maybe it’s not pseudo science at all, just not discovered science?)

  2. We believe, without no direct empirical evidence, that things work the same everywhere.
    “without no” – – your enemies are inserting double negatives, which according to a former grammar teacher of mine, is wrong. As in very wrong. Inductively speaking, that is.

    As for the essay, “absence of evidence” is one thing, some evidence is another. After accepting the premise that we really can’t *know* anything (strictly defined), we do have long experience that many things do not behave irrationally [as an aside, this grammatical construct of a double negative actually is acceptable. What a curious language we have.] So it comes down to probabilities… and now we’re down the rabbit hole.

  3. Briggs, I’m not sure where you’re going with all the above. Is it supposed to be a parody on the philosophy of science? If so, I’m not sure it’s working. In any event, others have beat you to the punch. Nancy Cartwright, in “How the Laws of Physics Lie” and Bas van Fraassen, in “The Scientific Image” and “Laws and Symmetry”. You can read about these in my post “Tipping the Sacred Cow of Science–Confessions of a Science Agnostic”
    (shameless self-promotion time again).

  4. Gary,

    What a clue! Perhaps my enemies are German!


    This is only somewhat related to Cartwright, and more of a refutation of van Fraassen. With an intentionally provocative title.

  5. Your arguments on points like this are getting more and more clear — “pedagogical” in the most profound and best sense. Warm congratulations.

    Whitehead and Russell, of course, thought that they had successfully derived 1 + 1 = 2 (though it took them until Volume II, if memory serves). It would seem you have thought this through more thoroughly than even the authors of the Principia Mathematica. I don’t mean that sarcastically; I think that you have really done so.

    And you didn’t even have to mention Goedel!

    I remember the moment when I had finally absorbed the meat of the Incompleteness Theorem, thinking, “Well, that’s it, then.” No Theory of Everything is possible. Reason itself had proved that Reason is incomplete. But you didn’t even need that.

  6. “x = x” allows us do to begin to define what “=” means.

    But If you reject Peano’s axioms as depend upon an article of faith, then I can just as quickly say that the logical structure of a syllogism depends on faith. In which case, you have lost your argument in the first paragraph.

    But then, if we reject Peano, we can’t define ratio, therefore nothing is rational.

  7. Sheri–

    10 thumbs up!

    I only take issue with your comment about the Bermuda Triangle… I submit the laws of nature are suspended in the White House, most Gubmint agencies, the UN, and many parts of Europe.

  8. I’ve gone through the article again, and being a “bear of very little brain”, understand it somewhat better. There are operative cosmological principles, the Principle of Uniformity, the Principle of Isotropy, that say “physical laws” operate the same elsewhere as the do in a particular lab experiment here. This assumption makes calculations easier. Nancy Cartwright does not believe the Principle of Uniformity; her “Dappled Universe” would have different “laws” applying in different regions. That I don’t believe. I believe God gave us a brain so that we (not individually, but as a species) begin to understand the wonderful creation He made, and thus to give even more reason to adore Him, or, as it says in Psalm 19a, “the heavens declare the glory of God” and so forth.

    On another tack: have you ever wondered how children begin to comprehend the notion of number? I think it is understanding number first as a sequence, the integer chain, then as a quantifier (counting numbers of things and knowing two trucks are the same as two cookies). Perhaps psychologist might have some notion of experiments on early childhood learning numbers. I recall my grandson at the age of two greeting people (including us, his grandparents) with “what number are you?”. I was tempted to reply as did The Prisoner, “I am not a number!”

  9. if people are not capable of making judgment about an argument, why should anybody believe this particular argument? Arguments against arguments being usefull for finding true statements are by definition self-refuting.

  10. I like how some commenters have gotten all “solvitur ambulando” on the Zeno-like paradox in which Argument shows that Argument is necessarily incomplete.

    “It is solved by moving” didn’t quite resolve Zeno; and protesting when Argument shows that Argument is radically incomplete doesn’t quite take the point, either. Neither does an implicit “Oh, yeah?” when the subject of the post, if I recall, is demonstrating that a belief in science is irrational, at least by a standard of argumentation commonly deployed. Matt was just followin’ the rules, baby.

    Hurts when the post-modernism is on the other foot, doesn’t it?

    But maybe Plato, whose Forms could never be apprehended by man, who taught that an always-ineffable intuition was man’s closest link to the Forms, and who deliberately and publicly resorted to myth to ground his system, was the first systematic post-modernist in that sense.

    Speaking of Plato, Goedel never became an Aristotelian; rather, he thought that the Incompleteness Theorem practically proved the existence of Platonic Ideas.

  11. “Well, that’s it, then.” No Theory of Everything is possible.

    Strictly speaking, such a theory may be possible, but we can never know if we have found it.

    Would it be fair to summarize that: if by “evidence” we mean physical, material, empirical evidence, then there is no evidence for logic and mathematics, and hence for modern science to the extent that it is expressed in mathematical language.

  12. YOS, you said
    “then there is no evidence for logic and mathematics, and hence for modern science to the extent that it is expressed in mathematical language.”

    You are probably familiar with the mathematician and physicist (and Nobel Prize Winner) Eugen Wigner’s comment “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (See:

    On the other hand, I agree with Galileo who said something like
    “The Laws of Nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics.”

  13. This article is so poorly written and so badly misinformed, Dr Brigg’s I am sorry but I couldn’t finish it. And I don’t even know where to start to begin to correct all the basic errors in it. I understand — it is obvious — you’ve got no formal education in philosophy, especially not epistemology. I don’t know if you are or are not a brilliant statistician, but I’m more than happy to work off the assumption that you are. On the other hand, is it too much to ask that you at least expend a bit of effort exploring the topic by reading the appropriate texts before you pontificate? Your sources are obviously third and fourth hand, and not at all properly digested by you. How would you feel if I started to lecture on topics I understand very poorly, such as statistics?

  14. While at various points in the history and philosophy of mathematics, some mathematicians have speculated that maths might be empirically based, this has never been the mainstream point of view. Maths is grounded in logic and consists of various types of axiomatic systems. You don’t “prove” through observation that one banana plus one banana equals two bananas. The *definition* of 1 + 1 = 2. If you ever discover that one banana plus one banana (through observation) does not equal two bananas, this does not mean that you’ve disproved that 1 + 1 = 2, but that you’ve miscounted your bananas. Mathematics is not empirical. And BTW, no serious philosopher has ever argued that everything in existence is based in empiricism. Even extreme empiricists such as David Hume would not argue that. A lot of stuff in this article has simply been made up.

  15. Oh, that explains it. Neo Aristotelian nonsense…

    What you could have discussed here, perhaps, is the most mainstream ‘controversial’ view on science skepticism, such as Paul Feyerabend Against Method. You know, stuff that is intellectually influential. Rather than weird stuff everyone ignores because it’s intellectual toilet paper.

  16. Hmmm… one travels in very small circles indeed. Franklin being a ‘hard core’ Catholic and friends with that other philosopher you cite, Stove. Just coincidence, I guess. Although I can’t say I’ve read Franklin, nor would I bother. Good philosophers go where they think truth takes them. Bad philosophers try to arrive at what they already believe. Since one can’t read everything, why would one spend time time wading through nonsense that any competent philosopher would pull apart in seconds? Although one would hope Franklin is a great deal smarter than what was written here.

  17. One more comment, and then I’m out of here. Statements about science are made by philosophers (and others) who have not done any work in science. I can think of only one exception, Bernard d’Espagnat. I think they miss the point because they have not been engaged in the day-to-day slog of producing and judging scientific work.

  18. Bob,

    So if I dismissed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as anti-semitism, I would be ignorant for doing so because I have to admit I’ve never read it, right?

    Or if I found a science textbook that declared that the moon was made of green cheese (obviously of a very sophisticated variety), I could not dismiss the rest of the book until I’d read the entire thing because it might convert my beliefs by the end?

    Not your finest moment there Bob. Anything smart to say?

  19. “I think they miss the point because they have not been engaged in the day-to-day slog of producing and judging scientific work.”

    That’s the standard whine of every scientist who can’t do philosophy. Relax Bob. Philosophers don’t always get it right. In fact, most of the time they are wrong. Even the best ones are wrong about most things. Just in the same way that the best scientists are wrong about most problems they try to solve. That’s because philosophy is hard. Science is hard. But I’ve never met a scientist (well very few at least) that didn’t worship at the alter of Popper. Falsificationism and all that. The null hypothesis and so on. All that has its basis in philosophical works. So it seems to me that ‘working scientists’ complain about stuff when its convenient and don’t complain when it isn’t.

  20. Dr. Briggs,

    Another good book you may be interest in is Benedict Ashley’s “The Way Toward Wisdom.” It is a general defense and grounding of metaphysics as proceeding epistemologically from natural science with detours into mathematics similar to your discussion.

  21. It’s interesting to note that scientists were once more broadly educated. Think of Mach, Poincare, Heisenberg, even Einstein. Also interesting is that the last cohort of scientists to be educated in philosophy was also the last to make revolutionary breakthroughs in physics. Everything since then has been unpacking and elaborating on the quantum mechanics and relativity that they devised.

  22. YOS, I didn’t read any philosophy until after I retired–too busy grinding out research. But you’re quite right about the need for scientists to read philosophy. There are a few contemporary scientists (that I know of–there may be more) who seem to have a background in philosophy. I mentioned Bernard d’Espagnat, who participated in the Aspect experiments testing Bell’s Theorem. There’s also Roger Penrose who’s a Platonist.

  23. I thought “belief in the absence of evidence” was called “faith”. What else does the “leap of faith” carry us over?

  24. Rich,

    Faith without evidence is fantasy. And the idea that faith is baseless belief is a common, deliberately misleading accusation. The evidence may be shoddy or scrupulous, little or great, scientific/historical or metaphysical, convincing or not, but so-called faith without anything to support it just isn’t faith. The “leap” is the decision to accept the conclusion, even though the premises can’t prove it. That applies, as Briggs points out, to everything we accept as true.

  25. Will: Your assumption seems to be if one’s philosophy adds evidence to what one believes, that somehow confirmation bias is always involved. A good philosopher has no idea where the idea leads and just follows it. If it agrees with his other beliefs, so be it.
    Bob is probably ignoring you by now. You don’t have to read the entire book, such as the one you mentioned, to know it’s anti-semitism. You do need more than one review or one source for that belief, however. Rejecting a book without reading it is definately avoided learning anything new. As for the textbook saying the moon is made of green cheese, remember we again use leeches for healing wounds. Not all that was stated in “primitive” science is wrong, nor, as some naturalists say, is it all right. You don’t have to read the book, no, and I seriously doubt much of anything changes your beliefs. I’d read it just for fun and to see if there was something in it. To each his own.
    Why do you assume a person has no formal education in philosophy? Philosophy is notorious for no “real answers” and there are so many schools of philosophy, sometimes I think anything could pass for philosophy in the right setting.
    For a “philosopher, you certainly insult people a lot. That’s not philosophy or anything similar to it. Insults are something entirely different.

    John Z: Thank you and I agree on the other areas you list where the laws of nature are suspended!

  26. Belief in the absence of evidence is irrational. There is no evidence for believing in science; yet many do believe in science. Therefore, belief in science is irrational and many people ought to find new hobbies.

    If one replaces the word “science” with “God,” the above makes sense to many people too.

    Scientist will tell you that their acceptance is based on the evidence, not based on faith. This is not to say that scientists can always evaluate the evidence without error.

    We all tend to think “rational people” will agree with us!

    Not sure about the war between atheists and theists is about, perhaps it is a just hobby.

  27. @Sheri

    Philosophy is blood sport. Don’t indulge if you’re unable to deal with criticism or are easily offended. Lots of things you can do with your time that doesn’t involve fooling yourself. If I was a physicist working in academia and I received every week a paper from a Doug Cotton type, who from his garage managed to find all the faults in Einstein’s papers, and who has invented his own new system, or whatever, I’m not going to read it. And I’m not going to apologize for not bothering. Because life is short and people are busy and have useful things they could spend their time doing. I’m not going to read 50 tedious pages of gooblygook by Franklin on how he can reconcile all the problems in Aristotle to make that ancient writing compatible with modern thought. It’s not an actual problem. Aristotle was wrong. You can’t read 10 sentences written by Aristotle without noting 9 science or philosophy mistakes. Get over it. Move on. One’s time is better spent trying to solve real philosophical problems. Spending decades of your life trying to reconcile modern philosophy with two millenia of failed and obsolete Catholic philosophy is not a serious exercise in critical thinking. Franklin’s motivation is that if he can make sense of this ancient gibberish, it will renew the lost prestige of the Magisterium. That is also why Dr Brigg’s spends time on these obscure people. Not for their ideas, but for their goals. He doesn’t come out and say it, of course. If he did, his position would be indefensible. It derives from a mind set that firmly believes in the infallibility of the Magisterium. If you’re Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox (much less Jewish or Hindu), then you are wrong. You are living in ignorance. You are following the wrong doctrine because there is only one true doctrine. Dr Brigg’s knows this, Franklin knows this. And others like them know this. Because their *hearts* have spoken to them. Of course, they can’t just come out and declare that is how they know what they know, for obvious reasons. They need to wrap their feelings in a philosophical veil. Now, a few centuries ago this was not necessarily an unreasonable position to hold. In this day and age, I can only imagine it is a form of arrogance that stems from personal insecurity.

  28. Will: Yes, philosophy is a blood sport. If one defines blood sport as childish name calling in place of actual discourse. I had a very different education in philosophy where name calling was forbidden and actual logic had to be used.

    I don’t care if you read Doug Cotton or not—I do care if you criticize his papers without any basis for that criticism. You don’t have to read “gooblegook” from Franklin. As long as you don’t comment on it as if you actually knew what he wrote. Nor do any of us have to read “gobblygook” from you, either. Yet you continue to comment and alienate people. Some have indeed stopped bothering to read or answer you. Now, if in true philosopher style, you don’t care if anyone listens or believes, you just like to type up stuff in comment boxes, fine. If you actually are sharing information or something you think might be useful to others, you’re missing by a mile in many, many cases.

    Yes, we should all get over Aristotle and lot of other philosophers, especially those you are not particularly in agreement with. Where you got the idea I agree with Aristotle on everything I have no idea.. It must be something that just materialized in your head because there are NO philosophers I agree with on everything.

    It’s interesting that you have no problem reading and commenting on Briggs while continually stating he’s wasting your time. Seriously, stop reading.

    What form of arrogance results in constantly attacking people whose blog you read all the time? Are you just reinforcing in your head that you’re right? I can’t come up with any other ideas.

  29. Sheri, not here for your approval. You have to win an opponent’s respect before they worry about your feelings. I’m not here to attack anyone but I will ruthlessly shred lousy ideas. If your response is to knock over the chess board, that counts as a TKO. Here is a tip for winning an argument. Don’t start with your belief and figure out what claims might support the belief. Dr Brigg’s does this all the time with his more metaphysical musings. It’s the lawyer’s approach to debating. When you do that, you can’t see the flaws in your arguments that someone else will immediately detect.

  30. You’re not here for my approval or apparantly anyone else’s. That’s good, because no one is giving any so far as I can see. As far as respecting someone before they can hurt your feelings, no one respects anyone with your attitude. If you think you have respect, re-evaluate. Could be faked emotion to soothe your huge ego.

    So if I don’t start with my belief and then defend it, do I start with something I belief to be wrong and shred ti? Seems that the same thing, only in the negative with the same flaws. So that leaves defending something I believe to be wrong or denouncing something I believe in (defense attorney strategy—they just want to win). Either is a touch irrational and, to use one of your favorite words, pointless.

    As for knocking over the chessboard being a TKO, there’s a more accurate term—childish tantrum. We call it “trolling” on the internet. Knocking over ideas and beliefs because you don’t like what someone is saying and you don’t care to have an honest discussion.

    I’m sure Doug Cotton and David Appell would agree with you 100% on what you’ve written here. Think about that—two trolls using your recommended techniques. (You really are not that different from Doug, who believes completely in what he argues and does not care if anyone disagrees because he respects no one who disagrees with him. He is only running around “ruthlessly shredding lousy ideas”.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *