I'm a steadfast proponent of science and logic, but it's been occurring to me lately that this belief in the veracity of science may be just that, a belief---no different than a theist's beliefs in God. It seems that this idea that the universe follows a set of immutable laws is ultimately circular: logic and reason suggest that the universe follows a set of laws, and therefore logic and reason work.

I realize of course that there is incredibly strong evidence to support the idea, but ultimately, isn't this just circumstantial? Suppose there are no fixed natural laws, suppose the universe operates based on "magic", and it just so happens that so far the "magic" has been working in consistent ways that make it look like there are laws. Tomorrow we could wake up and find the whole thing has gone to pot, that the "magic" has decided to stop being predictable and consistent and the whole scientific process falls apart.

As far as I can see, science can't prove it's own validity except by relying on itself. Is there an escape from this circle, something I'm missing?

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    You might find the philosophy of maths to be a handy way to think about some of these debates in more concrete terms. Science isn't founded on "logic and reason" - it's founded on equations and models, and investigating the relationship between the world and those models, or the nature of the kinds of models and equations that mathematicians explore and find to be of interest, might be a handy in-route into some of the theoretical, cognitive and sociological foundations of philosophical naturalism.
    – Paul Ross
    Sep 25, 2013 at 13:17
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    You're not missing anything. Philosophical naturalism must appeal to ideas outside of nature to support its claims.
    – user18800
    Jan 4, 2016 at 4:43

5 Answers 5


Your problem doesn't seem to be with philosophical naturalism as such, but rather with some kind of Naive Realism about generalizations in scientific language. And in this, you would be in good company.

David Hume, in his discussions about causality, shared your sense of skepticism that there might be anything other than mere observed regularities to our discussions of natural "laws". His philosophy looks at ways in which our cognitive senses of pattern recognition or resemblance hang together in perceiving and evaluating hypothetical instances of causation - in some sense, "laws" of nature are just consequences of how we are psychologically compelled to evaluate our evidence into a structured and coherent picture of things.

By contrast, Immanuel Kant, while agreeing with Hume that humans seem to experience the world only through appearance, suggested that there would still need to be a sensible notion of "being a thing in itself" as a means of assessing where the information that appears before us in sensation comes from. Kant argues that there are some principles that simply need to be true in order for the facts of experience to be possible, and so while Hume may basically be right about method (though he ignores various acceptable mathematical methodologies to which he would be perfectly well entitled), there must nonetheless be generalized facts about the abstract behaviour of objects independently of us that our self-conscious awareness must latch on to.

These are just some historically introductory thoughts. The History and Philosophy of Science has so much to say on this puzzle. Pick an introductory text (say, the SEP article on Laws of Nature?), read it and note its bibliography, take part in discussions and seminars on its content and related topics and go wild.

  • Great response, thanks! I think I was starting to come to the same idea as Hume, that science isn't necessarily a matter of "seeking truth" so much as finding a pattern that fits the data. In that sense, science can always be valid because you can always find a function to fit any set of data points whether it's the "correct one" or not. So I'm glad to hear someone else has already done the leg work on this thinking for me =) I will definitely have to read more about it, and also read up on Kant to get an alternative position. Thanks again! Sep 30, 2013 at 12:18
  • It's definitely worth investigating! Just to point out though that I don't think Hume would say that science "doesn't seek truth", because does still have an empiricist epistemology. There are still facts, it's just that facts are in some sense properly constituted by their roles in experience. (also, I'm not familiar with the various interpretations of Hume's account of the metaphysics of good science; just that he's openly skeptical of classical metaphysical notions).
    – Paul Ross
    Sep 30, 2013 at 21:29

What you've uncovered is not a problem for philosophical naturalism in particular, but rather a much more general problem: skepticism, the problem that we may not be able to know anything at all. Skeptics point out that any way we have of justifying knowledge of anything is itself open to criticism, like "But how do you know THAT?" or "Why do you trust THAT?"

The reason this is not a special problem for naturalism is that it equally affects its opposite or counterpart position, supernaturalism. Naturalists attempt to justify knowledge by using (and learning how to be smart about using) personal experience, reasoning, learning from others ("testimony"), scientific reasoning, and other ways. But if those ways of justifying knowledge are open to skeptical challenges — and they are! — then so are supernatural or non-natural strategies for justifying knowledge. Indeed, supernatural strategies may even have MORE difficulty answering skeptics than naturalist ones do.

A smaller point: When you raise the question about circular reasoning, you pose it as if we believe with certainty that the universe follows fixed laws and that logic and reason "work." We don't, or we shouldn't. Rather, we put various DEGREES of confidence in sources of knowledge and ways of justifying knowledge as they turn out to have been reliable in the cases we've applied them to. Knowledge acquired by listening to a drunk person has been less reliable than knowledge acquired through first-hand experience while sober, and knowledge acquired from the experiences of many different people under different circumstances has turned out to be more reliable than just one person's. This may not eliminate all the ways a degree of trust in one thing depends on a degree of trust in another, but undermines the particular circle you worry about: We don't believe the universe certainly follows fixed laws, and we don't use that to conclude that science must be certainly true.


The problem is not naturalism, but your bad epistemological ideas. Those ideas are extremely common, but they are still wrong.

You write:

I realize of course that there is incredibly strong evidence to support the idea, but ultimately, isn't this just circumstantial?

It is not the case that there is strong evidence to support universal laws since evidence and cannot support any idea. The whole idea of supporting an idea is wrong.

One standard objection to support for an idea is that no matter how many observations you do, the idea might still be wrong. Every observation of the solar system for about 200 years was consistent with Newtonian gravity, but Newtonian gravity is wrong.

But this lets off the idea of support too lightly. For theories refer to unobservable events and processes. For example, perhaps nobody will ever observe the core of the sun, but we can still know something about the temperature and pressure there.

There is another problem. You have to interpret observations using an explanation. For example, there are many kinds of devices for measuring magnetic fields. They all take for granted some explanation about how magnetic fields affect objects they interact with. So if you take measurements as a means of proving ideas, you are neglecting the possibility that you misunderstood the measurement. That could lead to serious mistakes.

Observations don't prove any idea. But an observation can pose a problem for an idea. You can construct a measurement device using some explanation, observe what the measurement device does. If the measurement device does something inconsistent with your explanation of what it should do, then you have a problem. To solve that problem you have to come up with an explanation of what went wrong. You may have misunderstood the measurement device, or the system being measured or both.

Knowledge is created by noticing a problem, guessing about solutions to the problem, and criticising the guesses until only one is left and it has no outstanding problems. Some reading:

"Realism and the Aim of Science" Introduction and Chapter I by Karl Popper

"Objective Knowledge" Chapter 1 by Karl Popper

"On the sources of knowledge and of ignorance" by Karl Popper, in "Conjectures and Refutations"

"The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch, Chapters 3 and 7

"The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch, Chapters 1 and 2.

Trying to prove ideas is a mistake. It may have led some people to create knowledge by virtue of people choosing to pay attention to evidence, but that doesn't make it right.

Theism can be discarded because there are unanswered criticisms of theism and no serious prospect of any answers to those criticisms. See, for example, Plato's dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates points out that a theistic explanation of right and wrong has the following problem. There are two options for such an explanation. (1) Some idea or action is right because the gods say so and for no other reason, in which case we might as well say "shit happens" and give up on explanation. (2) Some idea or action is right independently of god and god just endorses something that is already true. But in that case, god doesn't have anything to do with the explanation of right and wrong. Similar arguments can be constructed for any subject allegedly explained by god. And this is only one of many criticisms.

There are also alternatives of with no unanswered criticisms. Biological complexity is explained by evolutionary processes that involve variation and selection among replicators. So god isn't needed to explain biological complexity.


All cultures have had their own world views that have explained to their cultures and individual minds what it is that we perceive through our five senses. Even those who believe in the physical sciences as their world view have changed over time. I think it was Lord Kelvin who, at the end of the 19th century, said that there was nothing left for us to know of the world, that science had discovered everything there was to know about the physical world. A few years later Madam Curie found a photographic plate that had somehow become exposed when left in a drawer next to a rock. And we know what happened to science after that.

The great Harvard professor, Stephen Jay Gould, who unfortunately died about the year 2000, wrote a number of excellent books in the 1980s and 90s (still available and still being published); many had articles dealing with the history of science in the 18th and 19th century. You get a good feel for what was believed by scientists in those times and what was accepted scientific theory. He makes you understand the thought processes they had to go through to change not only science theory, but how scientific men perceived the world in those times.

All reasoning and logic are circular. Even math and science eventually melt into metaphysics (what is the definition of a point or a line in math?) What are the most basic theories of quantum physics as to what makes up reality?

Every man sees the universe differently. Our minds are unknown to us; what we see is unknown to us. Our minds are x and the universe is y. x perceives y through the senses (and scientific instruments are just an extension to our senses).

What is y? We don't know. When we perceive another person or even a table, we see something that is 'solid' - we don't perceive the immense empty space between nucleuses and their electrons or the immense spaces between molecules. They are held together by electromagnetic bonds and in a sense we're perceiving the electromagnetic bonds.

TO give you 3 examples of what you think of as scientific beliefs that you probably have, but are just science myths. The first 2 were pointed out by Gould in his books. Life on land evolved from fish. Gould points out that fish have lungs. He then asks, if fish first evolved in water, and land animals evolved from fish, why do fish still have vestigial lungs? Second one is also from Gould. We are all taught that petroleum oil is the result of organic matter that somehow decomposed over millions of year deep in the earth. Gould points out that there is no scientific study ever done that ever presented this to the scientific world. He found the earliest references to this in American primary school books from the early 20th century. A myth that has been perpetuated because we were all taught it from a young age. No one knows where petroleum oil comes from! The third example is one that you test yourself. Almost everyone has seen a full moon on the horizon and seen that it is a lot bigger on the horizon than when an hour or so later it is up in the sky. We've all probably heard that it is because the light on the horizon gets refracted and it appears bigger. No, the thicker air the light has to go through is not refracting it to make it look bigger. It is your own mind fooling you. Next time, make a circle with you thumb and index finger and look through it with one of your eyes at the full moon on the horizon. When you look at the full moon on the horizon this way it now looks the same size as when it's high up in the sky! Now close the one eye and look at it with the other eye that is not looking through your thumb and index finger - it now looks big. Now blink from one eye to the other. small, big, small, big. Your mind is playing tricks on you. But we all have heard the science behind the full moon on the horizon.

At one time scientific men believed in epicycles to explain the motion of the planets around the earth. Epicycles wern't dethroned until a newer more simpler more precise theory came (heliocentric solar system). Currently most cosmologists accept dark matter, even though we can't perceive it and can't quite get it too fit. But we need it to support our present scientific world view of cosmology. Dark matter will be around as an accepted scientific principle until we have a newer more elegant and simpler explanation to the universe and the big bang. I wonder how scientific men will perceive the universe in 200 years? Are you a 21st century Lord Kelvin?


I read the question as "is the argument for (scientific) materialism circular and question begging." I believe the answer is yes.

Materialism explicitly states (virmaior comment: WHERE?) that the universe is an isolated physical system beyond which nothing exists; that is, there is nothing above and beyond physics (i.e. space, time, matter, energy, and the lawful regularities applying to these). This is a metaphysical commitment that nothing exists except for physical objects and their interactions within a closed universe.

It follows that human beings are merely clumps of matter. Moreover, it would mean that any supposed unobservable spiritual world is mere fiction occurring within the brain.

Another capacity in the brain is our ability to use reason. Reason, here, means a handful of laws in logic (e.g. material implication, conjunction, negation) (virmaior comment: this is a dubious understanding of "reason" as applied to what people do). But if the above is true, we cannot warrant the trustworthiness of these laws of logic because this happens in the brain (which is merely a part of this material physical system).

Wittgenstein argued that normative or evaluative statements are not true statements, rather they are, in his words, "pseudo-statements" expressing, if anything at all, sentiment or emotion (virmaior comment: citation to Wittgenstein? This sounds more like Russell or Carnap). His argument reflects the naturalistic fallacy. My addition to this concept, though hardly original, is that truth values themselves (i.e. "true" and "false") are themselves evaluative even if applied to what Wittgenstein described as real propositions (virmaior comment: how does this entire paragraph contribute to your answer?).

In a closed universe in which only physical entities and their interactions exist, evaluations of truth or falsity are merely contrived by our brains. Matter has no capacity to determine truth or falsity, nor laws of logic, or anything at all. As such they have no merit (virmaior comment: this seems to be question-begging.).

Let us consider the idea that God exists as a being whose essence is nothing at all like the universe and whose existence precedes His creation of the universe, and the universe conforms to His specifications so that He is free to enter and exist it at His pleasure, then truth (and falsity) and logic and all of our reasoning is plausibly warranted, but only if He has chosen to reveal this to us. Nothing merely material can provide a universal and immutable standard of truth and logic - only an immaterial God responsible for creating our brains can provide this standard. Moreover, God must enter into the universe and reveal to humans that this is the case, and leave an enduring record of this standard against which we can logically test all propositions (i.e. declarative statements of fact, both descriptive and prescriptive) for veridicality or falsity (virmaior comment: **it seems like this could just be reduced to: if there were a god, then we would have the possibility of objective evaluative judgments. ).

The materialist argument for scientific materialism begs the question on account of his belief that logical reasoning shows it to be true (virmaior comment: this is redundant. you've already made the claim two paragraphs above). He (virmaior comment: who is he?) effectively has assumed the truth of materialism as a key premise in his attempt to prove his conclusion that materialism is true. He assumes that human brains are clumps of evolved matter, and it's cognition is not patterned after a creator God's own, though obviously superior, cognition. Therefore, logically speaking (and I obviously believe in the existence of the God just described) (virmaior comment: **the point of this SE is not to share our views per se, so the question is what is the argument for what you're saying ... **), the argument supporting materialism first assumes the existence of a thinking brain brought about through materialistic processes, then proceeds to use this brain to argue for scientific materialism.

(+ virmaior This forum (virmaior comment: this is not a "forum" per SE. It's an SE). comment is a little bizarre. My writing meets the standard of prescriptive grammar most universities expect: ... (virmaior comment: it's grammatical, but that's not identical to saying university professors would like it. I would, if you were taking my class, tell you to edit it and make the same comments I've made here (and probably more because that would be a part of my job) whereas here I'm just volunteering). If my prose is difficult to follow, I suggest that this has less to do with my writing and more to do with certain readers' unfamiliarity with slightly more sophisticated morphosyntactic constructions which I have intentionally designed for sake of economy (virmaior comment: it's hard to believe your goal with this writing style is economy).)

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    The problem isn't with your writing style but with the content of your answer. I will not evaluate on your argument but I will say this: you have given your personal view which is at odds with most standard philosophy. This doesn't necessarily mean that you're wrong. But it does mean that it is not good as a Stack Exchange answer to a question about philosophy, simply because it is not the place to develop your personal view of things (and philosophical theses usually require much more arguments and justifications that can be given in a post here).
    – E...
    May 2, 2016 at 20:59
  • Scientific realism does not have to be materialism, the most popular version these days is structural realism. And that "the universe is an isolated physical system beyond which nothing exists" is not a premise even for all materialists, not even all physical reductionists. And not even they believe that "logical reasoning shows it to be true", they believe it based on their interpretation of empirical evidence.
    – Conifold
    May 2, 2016 at 21:13
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    Ok. I understand (both comments). What I should have done is present C. S. Lewis' argument from reason in which he argued that materialism is self refuting and circular. He does invoke God in the argument (one whose essence is in keeping with the God of the Judeochristian tradition). One cannot provide an exhaustive list of all the major positions and for each a fair account. One must select one or two positions/arguments to expound, all the better if they are countervailing since consensus in philosophy is atypical. May 2, 2016 at 22:26
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    Lewis's argument doesn't apply to modern naturalism because its premises beg the question(s) against it:"The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears". Since 1950s as Quine put it "we have stopped dreaming of deducing science from observations", the "picture" is hypothetico-deductive and so doesn't need "valid inferences" from them anyway, only practical success of applications.
    – Conifold
    May 2, 2016 at 23:50
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    @EliranH CS Lewis was a professor of literature and philosophy at a respected university, Dawkins in philosophical matters is an opinionated amateur. Whether one agrees with either one of them, I don't think equating Lewis with Dawkins is fair. May 3, 2016 at 16:07

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