Consider our world at 18-19 centuries. Our civilization knows how to print books, build steam machines, we have made first experiments on electricity. And one day the Mad God Sheogorath is emerged. He can bend the reality by his will.

For example, he can violate the principles of conservation of energy - build Perpetuum Mobile just to irritate scientists.

He can convert Darwin back into the monkey just to help him prove his theory.

He can make forgery of dinosaur skeletons, so we have found caterpillar riding tankosaurus instead of diplodocus.

He can resurrect people. And, do a lot of things we are not aware.

So, in potential he can spoil every scientific acquired experiments result in a way, that is hard to see.

So, the question is: is scientific method still possible in this world?

UPD: after 20 years Sheogorath have just vanished. Can we undo his trickery and restore science methods?

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    $\begingroup$ its very likely that he will end up dinning with some of the greatest dead squid-minds of earth history for the next centuries (if not someone shows up and tell him that his servants wait for him)... At least, you would get a Wabberjack this way. Do I have to be afraid that I will get an oblivion-gate in my garden at one day, or is he the only one who shows up? $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2016 at 7:03
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    $\begingroup$ Um, if he "can and does" bend reality, how do you into he hasn't been doing this since the beginning? Maybe he made all dinosaur skeletons and put them in the ground. Maybe he made your steam technology viable. Maybe... The point is if you know that at least one God is real, and can change reality, then you must face the fact that most, if not all things are attributed to him. Maybe he's just doing those things to show you that he did it all in the first place. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2016 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ I can just see the statistics textbooks being updated now: "In addition to the assumption of homogeneity of variance, this test also assumes no interaction on the part of Daedric Princes, or any other dark lord." $\endgroup$
    – BrianH
    Jan 21, 2016 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @emory I would think it would just be a more extreme version of it, and not easily controlled. If such a god's interference was not particularly common in the affairs of scientists, then you can just assume it isn't present - and if found to be present then the usual statistical methods would be found to be inappropriate. If the god's interference could be classified in some way, such as whether or not the effect was normally distributed, then it could be partitioned into a new form of variance and form a new part of the error term. New tests could potentially be designed to account for it. $\endgroup$
    – BrianH
    Jan 21, 2016 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ @emory I know only because the OP said Sheogorath just appeared, not that he'd been messing with us all along. I personally think a "Mad god is why stuff in the world is weird and messed up" hypothesis is perfectly believable, and only discarded in practice because it's unnecessary (Occam's razor). If it turned out to be true, I don't think I'd be all that surprised. And on the upside, we could leave our statistical methods alone and get some more interesting results sections. "We must fail to reject the null, as we cannot conclude that god wasn't just screwing with us." $\endgroup$
    – BrianH
    Jan 21, 2016 at 16:03

8 Answers 8


I think you're vastly underestimating just how different a truly non-deterministic universe would be.

Case A

If the god's influence is sporadic enough that you can still discern a "default" set of laws that nature follows most of the time, then scientists would simply study those laws.

Case B

If the god's influence is so omnipresent that you can't discern any underlying patterns at all, then frankly good luck with your story. I don't think the human mind is really capable of imagining a completely non-deterministic universe. Everything we take for granted would be gone - things like "objects fall when dropped" and "solid objects can't pass through each other". It's not just that things would have to occasionally behave differently to how we expect them to behave, it's that there could be no trends whatsoever. The very notion of causality would be effectively meaningless. And how could life even arise in such a world? In order to justify the existence of humanoid life, you need to assume that on most days, the skeleton can support the muscles, things move when tendons pull them, blood moves when the heart contracts, and so on. But if you assume all that, you're basically already in Case A.

You mention, for instance, that he can resurrect people. But the very fact that this is worthy of mention implies that you're assuming dead people still stay dead most of the time. So you're already implicitly in Case A. In order to truly be in Case B, you'd need to be assuming that basically, the concept of death doesn't exist, because "life forms tend to die after a while" is already enough of a pattern to place our universe squarely in Case A.

In conclusion: either you assume this god's influence is small enough that yes, the scientific method would still apply, or you set yourself the task of writing a story taking place in a universe so incomprehensibly different to our own that I'm not sure any human reader will be able to follow the thread of the plot. You'd essentially be writing a work of highly experimental surrealist sci-fi.

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    $\begingroup$ Jack, there's a bit more background in the link in the question regarding the nature of the god in question - he's essentially an insane nutcase who (in this case) randomly appears during the 18th/19th centuries - so effectively, straight into late/post-napoleonic era Europe and a budding United States. He is by nature fickle, so no "rule" he changes will stay the same for long, he'll change one thing, then change it to something else, or make two different people observe different results for the same experiment. There would be trends up until the point he appeared, and then none whatsoever. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2016 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ @IStanley You say there would be no trends whatsoever after he appears, but what I'm saying is that you don't really mean that. Whatever you're imagining the universe would be like after he appears, there are trends - because otherwise you wouldn't be able to imagine it (more or less). My point is that the OP is underestimating just how monumentally different a truly "trendless" universe would be. $\endgroup$
    – Jack M
    Jan 21, 2016 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ If you're imagining people walking around, if you're imagining buildings, in short, if you're imagining a universe where it's possible for anyone to exist long enough to do experiments, then you're already imagining a primarily deterministic universe. $\endgroup$
    – Jack M
    Jan 21, 2016 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ Oh Sure, but that's that the OP is asking - life effectively goes on, just with an effective omnipotent being randomly poking a stick between the spokes of your scientific wheels whenever he feels like it. No trend could be trusted, as one couldn't guarantee that it wasn't the god playing around with you. You're right, I guess it would be better to say that there would be no statistically significant trends that could be trusted enough to confirm a scientific truth. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2016 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ The point I'm making is that there is a large middle ground that you have denied in your answer: the God leaves critical things alone - enough stability to support life - but messes with physics and experimental results enough and in random enough a pattern that I have no idea whether, if I repeat my experiment, I will even get a result I've seen before, let alone a consistent set of outcomes. Even if I get a set of consistent results (I drop an coin, it always lands heads because of the god), I don't know whether this is going to continue the next time I do it. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2016 at 12:09

Caveat: I've made some assumptions in order to make this work as a potential world. Like many have pointed out, a truly mad god acting without care would probably manage to kill off the human race pretty quickly if they acted often enough to have a tangible effect on the world (by triggering a catastrophic imbalance in the environment). The only way to make this really work as an interesting world would be if Sheogorath was particularly careful in what he did, and only set out to mess with the experiments of scientists and their inventions, and changing the laws of physics/reality over very focused areas, rather than screwing with reality at random.

Scientific method relies on consistent results, and to a large extent on statistical modelling and probabilities; if I perform 1,000,000 tests of a hypothesis and all come out true, I can say with pretty reasonably probability that it is correct.

If Sheogorath's influence is obvious, or at least discernable without too much effort (As in, I can tell when something was caused by him rather than being natural), then it would make scientific advancement (or indeed pretty much anything relying on facts) cripplingly slow - I would have to double and triple check every experiment to ensure that no "spoiled" data made it into the calculations, and I'd have to ensure that the calculations themselves weren't spoiled, and every time I read a book I'd have to ensure that the words/results hadn't been changed since they were written down. In other words, everything would take forever. In this case, scientific method would be possible, but very, very slow.

If his influence is impossible to distinguish from "reality", then all scientific research would be virtually impossible — whenever I get a result, I have no idea whether it's real or Sheogorath is screwing with me. All you could do is note hypotheses and keep as much data as possible, hoping that some day it might be useful. In this case, Scientific Method would be impossible.

The damage on society is hard to predict. There's a chance that society would fall apart completely depending on whether people are aware that it is the Mad God's doing, or whether they think reality is ending. Then there's the Monotheistic religious crisis, the fact that noone can trust anything they see... theoretically all of civilisation could fall apart if critical things are warped. If he's just messing with science however, and we ignore the other effects on society he would have, then yes, science would recover, probably.

20 years isn't that long a time - people would still be alive that remembered how the methods worked. It's long enough to give up, but not long enough to have forgotten. So long as it is obvious that he is gone, Scientific Method would pick up again. Of course, you'd have to contend with the thought of whether he'd be back. Some people would probably give up saying that there isn't a point, maybe all of them, but I would think that it's likely that at least SOME people would take the risk.

EDIT: The point of Scientific Study would depend largely on the level of change being effected by Sheogorath:

  • If major changes were made to reality constantly, society would effectively collapse for those 20 years, if it survived at all. Daily life would be hard enough to predict, let alone finding the time to perform and log scientific experiments.
  • If minor/minimal changes were made, reality would be deterministic enough that scientific development could probably still be deemed worthwhile. If enough people repeat the experiment, the chances are that eventually there will be enough data to make a probable correct statement. It might be wrong, but it's worth a try... provided Sheogorath doesn't then on a whim decide to make it the opposite just because you've made the discovery.
  • In an increasing range between the two extremes, Scientific discoveries would be increasingly more unlikely, because everything would be increasingly untrustworthy.
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    $\begingroup$ Pointless? Not really. It would just mean you'd have lower confidence. The internal combustion engine depends on thermodynamics, and yet thermodynamics is inherently statistical in nature. If you have a truly mad/random god (i.e. he is destroying your stuff because he feels like it, not because he doesn't like your technology or something), it doesn't really change much - you'll just have to live with things blowing up in your face once in a while even when you did nothing wrong. Maybe you'll focus more on redundancy (if it helps with your particular mad god), but that's about it. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Jan 21, 2016 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ Think about it like this: when Shaggy says your plow explodes, it explodes. When Shaggy says your tractor explodes, it explodes. Does that mean that tractors are "pointless"? Of course not - they still allow you to do more work in the time they are not exploding. And Shaggy could say you explode one day anyway. In a way, it's like government regulators - they could say your business is illegal one day. How do you fight that? Well, you just accept it as part of the cost of having your own business. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Jan 21, 2016 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, ok, I get your point. There's no point in arguing "Who would drive a car if it could blow up in your face at any time?" because it's effectively the same as "Who would go outside if they could fall into the sky?" Society would fall apart if it was bad enough that you couldn't make developments. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2016 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ "I have no idea whether it's real or Sheogorath is screwing with me" - that sounds exactly like research on human participants now :) $\endgroup$
    – BrianH
    Jan 21, 2016 at 15:54


To quote some mouseover text from a certain webcomic: 'We don't use science to prove we're right. We use science to become right'. The scientific method is just as valid in your crazy mixed up world as it is now, and will remain so unless the world becomes so crazy that no logical sense can be made of it at all. This is because science isn't something that we use to show a particular result, it's the way we can explore the world around us.

If, suddenly, the rules don't seem to apply because a mad god is messing with us, then the scientific method can still be used to tell us whether or not there is something messing with us. Then it can be used to explore the limits of this entity, and even it's psychology. This then forms a new paradigm of the world, and new theories start to form around that, bolstered by the scientific explorations mankind is making into the nature of our environment with the mad god in it.

The only way in which this doesn't work is if the mad god is randomly changing everything, all the time, to the point where everything that humanity could possibly know breaks down. At that point it's a somewhat moot point, because the universe will have become a tumultuous maelstrom summoned from the fever dreams of a crazed god.

As an example: The mad god has decided to break all experiments that require electrical measurements. Scientists notice that while all their lab equipment is broken, the lights are still on. A simple experiment therefore becomes: when I turn the light switch: do the lights turn on and off? My hypothesis is that the light switch controls the flow of electricity to the light. Now the mad god has a choice. Either the lights continue to work as normal (hooray, the scientific method worked!) or he chooses to change how lightswitches work. If he goes for completely random on-off for lights and light switches, either the world now works in a different way, namely, nobody can control the lights, or it's just our scientists that are affected. Either way we then know more about the world around us, either something powerful is messing about with rigorous scientific experiments, or that lights now turn on and off at random, and nothing can stop it.

TL:DR: The scientific method is used to figure out how the world works. If the way the world works is that we're captive to the whim of a god who doesn't like science, that's what we'll find out using it. From that point on it's one for the theopsychologists.


It very much depends on your god's sense of humour.

If he's decided for example that da red wunz go fasta and anything blue can fly then you've pretty much had it. All the rules that you come up with are going to be wrong.

If his logic has an internal consistency and lasting effect even after he's gone, messing with the fossil records etc, then the damage is done and you can never get a right and proper answer. If there's no consistency and he's just randomly poking experiments and giggling then it's all about spotting and excluding the results that don't fit.

If on the other hand, the red ones continue to go faster even after he's gone and you can ignore aerodynamic lift and just paint it blue instead, perhaps the scientific method remains valid. You just won't get the answers that maybe you did before he came along.


Is the scientific method still possible in this world?
More or less.

The scientific method depends heavily on being able to prove things are either true or false (at least it used to) with as many few "maybe" in between as possible. Those "maybe" being mostly regarded as proof of falsehood.

Simply put, it depends on what has the Mad God touched.
If all it does is punctually changing one thing, then scientific method can still be applied to everything else, with the warning that this all powerful being can have messed with it for fun and giggles.
So the scientific method would take exceptions into account and distrusts single fact as proof - one way of another - even more than today.

The problem would come if the mad god changed some fundamental things so that they permanently gave random results. If she made it so that light passing through a prism changed color randomly, all science related to this particular field would be devastated.

After 20 years Sheogorath have just vanished. Can we undo his trickery and restore scientific methods?
It depend directly on the permanence of the effects : killing zombies, deciding that once occurring tankosaurus are proof of nothing is easy.
Restoring laws of physics bent by the will of a god is another matter.

A short conclusion :

All in all it could be regarded as pranks from a couple ten year old mischievous, all powerful kids.
Fear and annoyment would be the main feelings toward the results.

Oh, and hate of those responsible. If it's linked to a scientific group, then the whole scientific community could be seen as responsible, thus creating a huge problem.


I don't think this would devastate or invalidate the scientific method. It may well keep it from becoming popular.

We live in a semi non-deterministic world now. But there is a clear distinction between the deterministic parts and non-deterministic parts. We expect a rock to be a rock. But we expect people to be moody.

In a world like you describe, physics may have less to do with Newton's laws and more to do with Sigmund Freud's. If you want a rock to be a rock you may first have to spend some time listening to it talk about the day it's had.

So science wouldn't be dead. But it would sure be different.

If this god keeps screwing around eventually he'll get caught and a theory about him will be born. You're describing a case where he's leaving indirect evidence behind. Sometimes that's enough. We make have discovered a new 9th planet just by looking at how the orbits of other objects have been arranged.


This is actually a very common misconception about the scientific method that we seem to teach in schools. The scientific method is not just about identifying the "right" laws governing the universe. It is also about building useful models of the universe. In fact, if you are willing to sit down with any real scientist, and use the right philosophical buzz words, you can even get them to admit that they can never provably achieve the former. So let's start to play with some of those philosophical terms!

Philosophers call the study of reality "ontology." The word "reality" gets treated many different ways, but intuitively, ontology is looking for what is actually real, not just what appears to be real. Epistemology, on the other hand, is the study of knowledge. Empiricism, a word you may have heard with reference to science, is a branch of epistemology. It studies what we can know through observation of the world around us.

The line between these can be seen several ways, but I find the most impressive of them to be the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment. Consider the possibility that you are actually just a brain, sitting in a vat somewhere, being fed neural stimulus like you were part of the Matrix. Ontology would be very interested in the "real world" where you are a brain in a vat, and would call the neural stimulus you are receiving a "simulation." However, just as we saw in the The Matrix, it is remarkably hard to make definitive statements about this reality while you're still jacked into the matrix, and have never observed the outside world. This is the epistomological side: how can one know the state of reality? An empirical approach would focus entirely on what can be observed, the stimulus. A 100% empirical scientist would actually not really care whether they are a brain in a vat or not until they identify an observation to defend it (although, in reality, no human is ever 100% anything!)

How do we get confused? There are three major categories of thought in logical philosophy. You're almost certainly familiar with deduction and induction. Deduction is going from the general to the specific (all swans are white, so this swan must be white too). Induction is going from the specific to the general (these swans are white, so perhaps all swans are white). There is a third you hear very little about: abduction. Abduction is the ability to infer the best explanation is true. In many discourses, such as science, you end up with many explanations. Maybe your empirical results line up with your theory because your theory is ontologically right, or maybe someone is cleverly massaging the world behind the scenes to fool you. At some point, you may decide the best explanation is that you've found something useful, so you infer your theory to be correct. This mode of logic is a fascinating little puzzle because the term "best explanation" leaves so much room for alternatives (read the SEP link above if you're interested). However, any claim of an empirical method, such as science, yielding an ontological truth must go through this abductive step.

So where does that leave us for the scientific method in the presence of your Mad God Shegorath? Well, from an abductive perspective, the alternative explanations of "Shegorath is just fooling us" starts to become a better explaination, so it becomes harder to use abduction to claim you have arrived at the only worthwhile best possible explanation. You would see additional questioning of scientific results.

Enter the Engineer.

Engineering and science are tied together intimately, like husband and wife, or perhaps even like conjoined twins. While science provides epistemological ways to "know" things, engineering uses that knowledge to build up the world around us. Of course, science never feeds us perfect knowledge. Only recently did we find out that all of our equations of motions we've been using for a long time get gummed up by relativity. Only recently did we find out that much of the world is non-deterministic thanks to quantum mechanics. Yet what we created from that era is still useful. How?

Engineers have a phrase, which I commit to my heart: "All models are wrong, some are useful." We can assume that every model we come up with can be ontologically wrong, because the track record of scientific "knowledge" being revised as new data comes along is 100%. That's not a shortcoming of science, that's actually its strong point: it always tries to incorporate the new observations, no matter how undesirable they might be. However, it turns out that for almost everything you or I could want to do, it doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be close enough to be worth doing.

Take teflon, PTFE. Science can develop the molecular structure of PTFE, and say "this is how PTFE works." However, never once will we create a magical perfect PTFE molecule. Every process to make it is slightly flawed. The engineering side is worried about how to use what the science knew about PTFE to coat a non-stick pot. If the science is a little wrong, that's okay. We'll do a test run first, to make sure the pots are useful, before selling them! The science is just treated as a guideline -- what really matters is whether the process works or not, not whether it matches exactly the predictions of science. If the science turns out to not be useful for engineering, it will just sit on the shelf until it becomes useful, or dispelled.

This is, for example, how we managed to make electronics work for hundreds of years, despite getting the flow of current backwards the entire time. Ben Franklin had to make a guess as to which way the charge was flowing. He guessed wrong, so technically everything we've done with electronics is incorrect. However, his model of electricity was useful enough that there was no need to correct it, until the semiconductor era, where paying attention to what is an electron vs a hole can actually matter.

So the scientific method would still be viable in this world with a Mad God. It would simply gravitate towards applications where behaviors are still relatively predictable, even after the Mad God. Consider the fact that you're looking at a computer screen right now. If the Mad God were to make the laws of physics too unpredictable, photons would not go in straight lines, and you couldn't read.

Of course, it's possible the Mad God decides to only screw with science. He might decide that every science experiment is going to go awry. In this case, he creates all sorts of interesting looping structures as we try to define what a scientific experiment "is." He may actually disappear in a poof of logic, akin to Douglas Adam's god in Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy! Or he might form a strange loop a. la. Douglas Hofstadter, where he controls the universe, and the universe decides what he will do.

If you're going down this path, you're going to have to describe what "viable" means in the question "is the scientific method viable...." If you are presuming an ontological world with such a crazy powerful entity, you are going to have to define your term "viable" in a way which makes sense in their presence. There may also be the question of whether the viability, once defined, can be known by a mere mortal. These questions oft leave philosophers awake at night.

As a final fun tidbit, what's to say he hasn't already acted? The ultimate observation, in philosophy, is one done by a being that can think. The ability to do this is called perception. As silly as it may sound, philosophers do not have a clear sense of what perception is, nor how it behaves. Maybe we are just a brain in the jar. Could we perceive it?


As a writer and reader, if I'm dealing with a being with what we might call "godlike powers", they still have to operate within a larger reality. For example in your setup, Sheogorath builds a tiny "Perpetual Motion Machine" but is actually cheating because in some mysterious god power way, it is perfectly converting a few molecules of MysteriousInvisibleSubstance to Energy at the nano-level. Maybe there's even enough MysteriousInvisibleSubstance to last a thousand years and it's really really hard to detect. MysteriousInvisibleSubstance can also alter visible reality so that Darwin is now stuck in what appears to be a monkey body. Sheogorath can also in some odd way travel in time and use his nifty MysteriousInvisibleSubstance powered MatterReasssembler to screw with the fossils just to screw with the human's of the future's heads. Then Sheogorath disappears.

Until the sentients are clever enough to figure out how to detect and then use MysteriousInvisibleSubstance at the molecular level, no "laws of reality" in that fictional world disturbed. That said, for the WorldBuilding exercise to be any fun to read, etc. When the sentients or others of Sheogorath's species figure out what he's been up to and how, Sheogorath is going to be in BIG BIG trouble, right?


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