It seems that scientific theories are not infallible, since it is conceivable that they will be proven wrong (or at least partially wrong), and be replaced by better theories. Thus, they are not infallible, yet most people would agree that scientific theories constitute knowledge.

What would be the definition of knowledge, in this context?

IMHO, the usual definition of knowledge as 'justified true belief' implies that the belief is definitely true, and scientific theories are not knowledge in this sense.

  • Truthlikeness, Verisimilitude, Bets Explanation ? Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 17:52
  • 1
    Yes, the usual definition of knowledge implies that what we know is true, but it is generically assumed that what we claim is true, whether it is related to science or not. We do not need any different definition of knowledge, we already admit that we are fallible about what we claim, including what we claim we know. If a scientific claim turns out to be false then it simply means that we were mistaken about it being knowledge.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 18:55
  • @Conifold I don't think we admit we are fallible about everything we claim. For example, we think we might be fallible about the law of gravity, but we don't think we're fallible regarding the observation that apples fall down,not up.Or to give another example, I may be wrong to think that my partner's isn't a spy. But I don't doubt that I have a partner! Furthermore, if we admit we are fallible about a claim, then it isn't really correct to call it "knowledge". It would be better to say that we are unsure (but there is a high probability that this claim is correct).
    – Sam
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 16:54
  • 1
    We are fallible whether we doubt it or not, objective truth is not tied to psychological confidence. We could be hallucinating, living in a Matrix, have our minds manipulated by aliens, etc. No matter how unlikely we can never completely rule out being wrong, it is only a matter of degree. Of course, the degree matters in practice, and scientific claims are trusted more than others for good reasons, but there is no difference in principle.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 17:48
  • If you are satisfied with one of the answers below, please accept it. Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 11:56

4 Answers 4


I think the term "truth" is used of science today in a largely colloquial or aspirational way, though for many scientists the "aspiration" may assume the reality of a nearly mystical ideal.

Science cannot rest with analytical or a priori truths, so must engage in induction and probabilistic confirmation. Experimental methods provide the "justification" for belief, particularly with Popper's conditions of falsifiability, and "surprising" predictions. Along many other possible qualifiers.

The "true" in true belief would simply be correspondence to "facts," with none of the eternal implications. We expect scientific knowledge to evolve and even update our prior assumptions. Einstein's gravity corresponds better to "facts" than Newton's. Even so, I think most scientists would hesitate to call Newton's theory "untrue."

Newton's claims are justified, believable, and "true" under such and such conditions. And later theories are "true" under both those and further, previously unexplained conditions. But no inductively justified knowledge would claim to be "true" under all conceivable conditions.

So "true" in science has lost some of its grandeur to a more pragmatic stance and may be a bit of a red herring. But it remains the north star of science and I'm sure any number of scientists would still say proudly that they are "searching for the truth." But it is a glorious process like "riding into the sunset," not an unconditional status.

Wait, did I just say truth was both a "red herring" and the "north star?" That's about as mixed as mixed metaphors get...

  • Why do scientists feel comfortable with asserting both that they are "searching for the truth" and asserting that they will never find truth (in the sense of being definitely, 100 percent correct)?
    – Sam
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 13:29
  • Because most working scientists aren't overly concerned with theory, "truth" is often used by all of us in an informal sense, and "truth," as I say, can be a direction not a destination. And because there is a difference between the inductive methods of science, in which there can never be 100% certainty, and the personal certainty or conviction that some scientists may feel about some concepts. Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 15:54
  • seems that "truth can be a direction not a destination" describes how most scientists think.However,I don't think it really makes logical sense.Going in a certain direction, implies having a destination one wants to reach,imho.In daily life,a person that would drive in the direction of city A is certainly going there because he wants to reach that city (or perhaps city B, taking city A as a temporary stop). Why would one even go to a certain direction if there is no destination for himself? Reflecting that one has no destination to reach,demotivates one to go in a direction
    – Sam
    Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 5:48
  • Perhaps you are being bit too "logical" here. Also, "truth" is not so simply defined. I don't think most scientists, within the realm of science anyway, would feel easy with an idea of "absolute certainty" outside of very particular contexts, and the contexts change the more we discover. We can talk about a "horizon" for example, it's there, it's not an illusion. Yet it is irreducibly relative. You can't actually get there or point and say it is "in that direction." Perhaps better to think of highly abstract "absolutist" terms in that way. Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 14:35

“Definitely” is an interesting word. We often use it casually to just indicate strong ascent or certainty - the absence of doubt. Or it can also act as a kind of synonym for “unambiguously” - that something is clear and precise.

Justification in epistemology is an interesting beast, since it often seems right to say that one can be justified in having a belief without that belief actually being veridical. You were perfectly reasonable in drawing the conclusion that you did that there was a hay barn some distance ahead of you, because you weren’t to know that the farmers around here like to make big wooden stands and paint them to display barn facades to keep the tax men on their toes. Why would you think that in a vacuum? Nobody thinks anything less of you because you were deceived into thinking something about the presence of a barn - the whole purpose of the facade is to do just that.

But, here’s the thing. The evidence that led to your belief clearly wasn’t unambiguous, regardless of whatever strength of belief you might have in your belief. The visual information you received was equally consistent with the thesis that it was a finely crafted illusion. It’s just that, most of the time, this possibility is totally irrelevant to the situation, so we (generally speaking) learn to discard that possibility. So having a justified belief here isn’t the same as a “Definite” belief; there were some alternative possibilities that you just decided were less likely.

Importantly, adding the truth condition does not change this. To see this, consider - what if there really is a hay barn there, but it’s completely hidden from sight by the facade? This would make your belief both true and justified, and yet there seems to be a kind of lucky coincidence at work that made those two line up; you never actually saw the real barn, so how could you be said to know that the barn was there on the grounds of your visual evidence?

This is a thought experiment popularised by Alvin Goldman in his paper “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge”. Goldman was a proponent of a Causal theory of knowledge, which (in short) argues that it’s not just that the belief in question corresponds to a fact (I.e. is True) but also that it has to have been in some way causally connected to that fact - that your “reason for believing” is in fact tied to the actual state of affairs that makes your belief true.

This view puts a lot of weight on the concept of causation, so in classic terms we might call this a “rationalist” view of scientific knowledge. For a more “empiricist” take on the same underlying idea, we could instead suggest that the kind of justification involved in scientific knowledge attributions requires a greater sensitivity to the context of utterance.

Basically, as Fred Dretske emphasised, we also need to ask ourselves about those alternatives that might be relevant to the situation we find ourselves in. Our justification might not be definite - the question is, are the ways in which our justification has possible holes salient, and if so, our scientific analysis must account for them. We might be perfectly justified in thinking there’s a real hay barn there, but if we know we’re in “fake barn county” then a suitable amount of skepticism ought to be brought to bear, in addition to what might count as evidence the rest of the time.

The practice of Science is a context of particular scrutiny, and so a great many alternatives could well be relevant to any given thesis. A scientist doesn’t just seek good reason to believe themselves - they also seek models making sound predictions, productive explanations and regarded publications! So on this view, it makes sense that Scientific knowledge ought to be taken as more rigorous than knowledge of other forms.

There’s plenty more to explore on alternatives to the Tripartite model; hopefully what my attempt at an intro demonstrates is the space into which one person’s “definite” beliefs might well be too presumptuously strong for a theory of scientific knowledge.

  • Well presented. Cheers,
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 4:33

There is nothing special to science. Science is exactly what every human being does without even thinking about it, except that science has a budget and specialised workers, it is more organised, more rigorous, more technical than most human activities, it has procedures for verifying results etc.

There is also nothing special about scientists believing and insisting that what they believe is knowledge. We all think like that. We think we know who is our spouse, our children, all members of our family, who is the prime minister or the president etc. Yet, it is the case that on occasions we have to admit that we were wrong, which is enough to falsify the idea that we know what we believe we know.

We don't always even admit that we were wrong, though. Many scientists themselves still don't accept that Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation was false. This, too, is standard behaviour whenever people have vested interests to deny even the obvious.

There is no absolute problem in having no knowledge of the material world. Humanity, but also life itself, the entirety of life, demonstrate that having no knowledge of the material world is not a necessary condition to prosper. All we need is to have beliefs that we trust and are effective in keeping us alive and comfortable. And we do.

Science is not knowledge and yet it is undoubtedly a very effective belief. It seems to be the best belief we have, if we limit our belief to science itself.


In modern science everything is changing. There is no ultimate truth. So the Truth also must be changing. According to modern science it is supposed that science is going from good to better. So change must happen to become better from good.

But the Truth must be something never changing.

Your doubt is because there is something greater than what you/we believe as truth. Of course, there is and it can be realized.

Characteristics of Truth:

1. Truth must be universal.

2. Truth must be indestructible or incorruptible.

3. Truth must be constant.

4. Truth must be independent.

5. Truth must be the cause or the source, but not the effect.

Since the structure of these sentences are similar you could combine all these five and form a definition very easily.

The characteristics of truth mentioned here can't be a mere saying. It is a solidified idea after many verification by great men. Otherwise it must have already been disappeared in the flood of time.

(Not all...but) Almost all of us are unfamiliar with such a thing and so we hesitate to accept this idea. If you think contrary to any of these ideas you will never get a definition of Truth. You can have check it thoroughly.

You will get the explanation of these characteristics of Truth from the following link. Though the website is religious, the facts regarding truth are not so at all. If it is religious and cannot be treated as universal, do treat it as foolishness.


  • Very idealistic (romantic) notion of truth, and purely subjective as well.
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 4:27
  • @CharlesMSaunders: Of course. If purely subjective it can't be related to truth. I admit it. But I don't know whether at least here in the case of truth it would ever be completely objective. Thanks for your personal opinion. I believe your opinion is constant always. So I believe yours can be taken as objective. I would certainly appreciate if you could explain from whom would an objective opinion come from. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 6:49
  • When it comes to truth, objectivity may not be a reachable or even desirable goal. If objective truth is located outside of human perception then it is an 'occult' quality. As for certainty, that is reachable but by no means easy to acquire. A solid but not so easy to understand definition of truth/certainty can be found at wikisource. See Spinoza's "On the Improvement of the Understanding" . Unders contents see Answers to Objections. Read paragraphs 39-43.
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 19:16
  • @CharlesMSaunders: Did you see this idea--"Objective truth is located outside of human perception." anywhere in my post. Or, is it because of your subjectivity? Anyway if perception/realization is possible only through senses I shall agree with you. Actually, the characteristics of truth given in the answer was not a mere saying. It is became solid only after verification. It won't evaporate as long as humans can penetrate to the innermost. No comments from me here anymore regarding this answer. I have given up. Thanks. Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 3:14
  • @SonofThought- Please excuse me. My reference to thought being outside of human perception was not directed to your statements on 'truth'. It was merely a propositional if, then assertion. As I just re-read your, Characteristics of Truth' I finally understand what you are trying to convey and I concur with your characterization of the conditions which must hold for 'something', to be considered true. Thank you, very well presented. Regards,
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 4:05

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