Samuel Johnson’s Foot

The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, who it is said was once asked how he knew something was real. In response, he walked up to a tree and kicked it. This is a proper and robust environmentalism cum epistemology.

The following is an excerpt from a much longer talk I wrote but did not deliver, as I learned the day before the event that it was desired that I deliver a very different sort of lecture. The essential thrust of the talk, written for a mixed audience of both believers and unbelievers, was to prepare them to receive the Gospel, in this case, specifically by encouraging them to look at knowledge as something that is not mainly information but participation. This talk is titled “What is Truth?”

I have an atheist friend who believes that it should be illegal for parents to expect their minor children to follow their religion. When I asked him why he believed that, he said that it was because the kinds of claims that religion makes are inherently non-falsifiable. If you’ve not encountered the term falsifiable before, I won’t annoy you with a complex philosophical definition, but you should at least know that it refers to a truth claim that could be proven true or false by anyone.

An example of a falsifiable truth claim is that Barack Obama is currently the president of the United States. The evidence to prove or disprove that claim is fairly available to all, assuming, of course, that we are not trying to thwart the Secret Service. A non-falsifiable truth claim would be something like this: Zeus is the ruler of all the gods. We do not have the gods at hand to interview as to whether their fealty has indeed been sworn to Zeus, nor are we likely to be able to get Zeus himself to speak in front of a congressional committee, to offer testimony regarding the part he plays in Olympian politics.

Thus, falsifiable truth claims are the sort of thing that can be scientifically, objectively proven, while non-falsifiable truth claims cannot be addressed within the context of objective science.

My friend is, of course, quite sincere in his belief that children should not be subjected to participation in non-falsifiable truth claims. There are, however, a number of problems with his position that parents should be prohibited by law from teaching their religion to their children and encouraging their participation in it. Such a law would, for instance, make it illegal for Roman Catholics to have their babies baptized or for Jews to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after their birth. But even aside from the disturbing political issue of suggesting that the state is a better arbiter of parental practice than parents, there remains the question of why it is that only falsifiable truth claims should be taught to children.

Anyone who has ever tried to raise a child knows that most parenting time is not spent on falsifiable truth claims. Indeed, claims such as “It is good for you to stop hitting your brother” are not provable by scientific means. In fact, science might suggest that hitting your brother is an excellent idea, because it helps to keep you in control of his toys. This sort of thing could be said about any moral claims, and although we take many of them for granted, such as the Golden Rule, there really is no hard science which demands that we live that way. In fact, science never says that we ought to live one way or another, but childrearing is precisely about teaching how one ought to live.

The truth of our human existence is that the noblest, most powerful, compassionate, beautiful, and remarkable things in life are almost never undergirded by purely falsifiable truth claims. So why would we want to deprive children of these things, even if we were capable of totally shielding them from such experiences? Who better than loving parents to feed children not just with physical nourishment but nutrition in what is at the heart of humanity? (Of course, loving parents are an inherently non-falsifiable phenomenon!) But supposedly, this is the best way to apprehend the truth without religious or philosophical bias, so that only facts may be known.

What underlies this whole approach to knowing the truth is the notion that truth is a piece of information. If truth is, indeed, only information, then of course it can be reduced to the category of fact. Much of our culture’s behavior is based on this characterization of truth, which is why studies and claims clothed in the language of science and fact are given so very much stock in public discourse, while appeals to higher, nobler kinds of truth typically find their way into the public square only in terms of sentiment. But when we mean business, when we’re being really serious, then we bring out the falsifiable truth claims. That’s when we want men in white coats doing something called “science,” giving us something we call “facts.”

One of the underlying assumptions of our modern idea about truth is that it should be objectively true, no matter what anyone’s particular subjective experiences tell them are true. That’s why we have peer-reviewed scientific journals, so that other scientists can check on the claims of their peers. But underneath this model of knowledge is the idea that we can know things simply by observing them. If we are somehow personally involved in the experiment—for instance, by using ourselves as test subjects—then the results are suspect.

Yet the reality of human existence is that most of us do not solely take up supposedly objective, distinterested means in order to make decisions and live life. For instance, it is unlikely that any of us conducted stress tests on the floor currently beneath us in order to make the decision that we would stand and sit upon it without fear that it will collapse under us in the event of an earthquake. And I doubt that geologists were consulted before this evening’s lecture to determine by means of the scientific method whether there would be an earthquake. And I must confess that I did not ask for a copy of this building’s blueprints to assure myself that the roof would not fall in, should that earthquake in fact take us entirely by surprise.

Setting aside for the moment the incredible difficulty in using the scientific method to predict earthquakes—how, for instance, does one do a controlled experiment on the North American tectonic plate?—the precariousness of our situation from a supposedly scientific point of view should give us pause. Just how do we know that this building will not suddenly send us all quickly to meet our Maker, Whose existence by definition is a non-falsifiable piece of information? We really do not know, at least not in scientific terms, and even if we were to undertake all the possible tests that could be done to try to assure ourselves that this place is safe, conditions would change so much in the meantime that our results would almost necessarily be obsolete before we could sit back and enjoy them.

The end result of all this nonsense is that attempting to live life according to purely “scientific” standards of knowledge would end up in a sort of annoying paralysis of analysis. We simply don’t have the mental or computational power to figure out all the possibilities. And even if we could, how can we say we absolutely know for certain that our own senses are not fooling us when we read the data?

Now, my purpose this evening is not to engage in a lengthy discursus on epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know, but I do think it’s worth at least asking ourselves just how we really end up living life, how we make decisions, and how we live with them, especially since there’s really no logistical way to put all our eggs in the “science” basket that our society claims to revere so faithfully.

What we usually think of as a “scientific” philosophy of knowledge is not really science, anyway—it is a philosophical outlook known as positivism, that all knowledge must be based only on empirical sense experience. Yet some of science’s greatest advances, such as Einstein’s theories of time and space, as well as most of quantum physics, are not credible by positivistic standards, instead requiring leaps of imagination and intuition which are beyond what empirical means can yield. And credible scientists hold such things to be true.

The truth is that we all end up functioning mainly on trust. We trust that this floor is solid. We trust that there will not be an earthquake in central Pennsylvania tonight. We trust that the architect and the general contractor responsible for putting this building together did their job correctly. We act on this trust, despite not having the sort of information that we probably really “should,” at least according to the exacting standards of the scientific method. (So anyone whose concern for our safety has been sufficiently raised and would like to exit the building now is welcome to do so.)


  1. Not to be overly pedantic, but a falsifiable claim cannot be proven conclusively true, but it can be proven conclusively false. For instance, the claim that “all honey is sweet” can be falsified if we can find honey that isn’t sweet. I can’t prove the claim to be conclusively true (I can’t taste all honey) but I might be able to prove it to be false, if I can find the evidence.

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