Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Note on the Epistemology of Science.

Images continue to be blocked, texts are altered and damaged by hackers. This is intended as a response to what I say, I guess, and (allegedly) such tactics are a defense of "science." I am sure readers will come to their own conclusion on this issue.

In The New York Times Magazine, December 11, 2005, at pp. 27-28, there is a fine essay concerning the importance of science and the public hostility towards it. Much of this essay, written by Jim Holt, expresses what I believe. For example, Mr. Holt speaks of the need to improve basic education in the sciences and to increase the amount of scientific knowledge available to ordinary people.

I certainly need to learn more science. What little I know of science, I have learned from articles in The New York Review of Books or from bestsellers explaining science to us morons. Thanks to the PBS "Nova" series, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, also Steven Hawking and Brian Greene are my science gurus.

I am a critic of claims by science or (more likely) "science-worshippers" -- who are rarely scientists -- to usurp the knowledge field, in its entirety. There are a couple of points in Mr. Holt's intelligent and useful essay that I found troublesome. Before discussing those points, I wish to note my general agreement with much of what he has to say. Mr. Holt says:

Science is also a rival to other world views that most people find more congenial. In hopes of allaying the sense of rivalry, it is often said that science and religious faith are compatible, since the former deals with "how" questions, the latter with "why" questions. As an empirical matter [the focus on the empirical already limits the inquiry to the province of science], however, that does not seem to be true. On the whole, around 9 in 10 Americans say they believe in a personal God. When scientists are surveyed that figure falls to 4 in 10. Among the scientific elite ... fewer than 1 in 10 say they believe in God, with the biologists in particular professing agnosticism or atheism at a rate of 95 percent.

The implication of this statement is that hostility to science is a by-product of religious belief or common only among those benighted masses still clinging to quaint notions of faith, such as belief in a personal God, whereas scientists are "tough-minded" realists concerned to see the world as it "really" is. The shade of William James seems to hover over this tendentious formulation of the issue.

Well, I don't believe in a personal God. I am not a member of any organized religion, so that I have been assured that I "will burn in hell forever!" Since I will be sharing rooms with a substantial number of scientists, philosophers, artists and most of the interesting people that I know, this thought does not trouble me too much. Gore Vidal will get the penthouse suite, in fact, and Christopher Hitchens will live right next door.

Religion has nothing to do with my reservations about science. The claim made on behalf of science to exclusiveness as concerns "real" knowledge, is what troubles me. Here is what Mr. Holt says on this issue:

... by limiting itself to "natural" explanations, it [science] blinds itself to the supernatural order that gives meaning to the universe. The problem is that no one has ever shown how supernatural causes can be accomodated by the scientific method, which relies on testability to produce consensus.

Notice the value term that is slipped into the discussion at this point: "supernatural." There is science and then there is the "supernatural." I do not accept that division of the intellectual and knowledge field, since I am certain that it relies on philosophical assumptions that are precisely what I question in the ideology or "religion" of science -- assumptions that are usually, disingenuously, disclaimed by adherents of the science "faith," as distinct from science itself. Mr. Holt is careful to insist that he is not an adherent of "scientism," even as he reveals assumptions that may well be characterized as a form of scientism.

What is meant by "testability"? Empirical verification? Much of science is not subject to empirical verification, so is much work in mathematics. The validity of the principle that empirical verification is the criterion of the real (What kind of "real"?) is not subject to empirical verification, so it is self-refuting.

I am sure that it is perfectly natural and appropriate to seek answers to questions of meaning from dialogue and shared experiences of art. These are kinds of knowing where emotions and feelings are important, although they have nothing to do with the scientific method. To ask for naturalistic scientific method to validate claims that are not concerned with the empirical realm (though they may refer to it) is to miss the point of inquiries into meaning and/or faith, and/or aesthetics, religion or ethics.

Romantic passion (as distinct from sex) may not necessarily be accomodated to the scientific method, being a cultural phenomenon as much as -- or more than -- a biological one. (See the writings of Professor Robert C. Solomon.) This does not make romance or loving "unreal," or anything less than a graduate course in life's values. The women I love have taught me more than any book that I have ever read. Probably the same may be said by Mr. Holt. "To know and love another human being," Evelyn Waugh writes in Brideshead Revisited, "is the beginning of all wisdom."

Argument is a valuable means of acquiring knowledge of reality that is quite natural to humans, though it may have nothing to do with empirical testing. Alas, even pernicious arguments are not necessarily falsifiable through experimentation -- though it would be nice if they were -- but they are rarely persuasive when met with counter-arguments. The point is that science and humanistic inquiries should be complimentary.

A lot of science these days is not subject to laboratory verification. For example:

What gamer programs do with increasing speed, sophistication and computational muscle, Dr. Hamilton said, is visualize things that have never been seen in the real world. And what Einstein described, especially in his theory of general relativity, are forces of time and space literally outside the real world we know or can know.


The central goal, Dr. Hamilton said, is both simple and mind-bendingly paradoxical: to visualize what cannot be seen.

Kirk Johnson, "Theoretical Physics in Video: A Thrill Ride to the Other Side of Infinity," in The New York Times, February 28, 2006, at p. F1. (Philosophical methods of "thought experimentation" used in science.)

Is there a God? This is a question which the traditional methods of science cannot answer. No experiment will do so. The key to this question is, of course, what is meant by the word "God." Here are some more "natural" questions which science also cannot answer: What is good? Is science good? (I think that it is.) What is beauty? Is it different from what we happen to find beautiful in one society or another, which is an empirical question? Are we free? What is freedom? What is personal identity? Or the Clintonesque conundrum in logic and linguistics: What is "is"?

None of these questions involves consulting a personal God. None of them are about the "supernatural." They are questions that arise quite naturally and concern our human natures, but they are not necessarily empirically resolvable. I don't believe that anyone would suggest that they are meaningless or trivialize them as the sort of thing that only people who still believe in a personal God would worry about, right before they go bowling or attend a midget wrestling match. Mr. Holt is careful and wishes to "hedge his bets," as it were:

You might concede that science is A path to the truth but deny that it is THE path.

Notice the failure to see that the crucial issue is not whether science is a path to knowledge. Of course, it is. And there are others. Science provides us with knowledge of the empirical world and of how that world "works." This includes us, persons as natural beings, but it does not necessarily provide us with meaning nor with assessments of truths that are unconcerned with the empirical world (truths which are directed to the inner world of feeling or the social world of ethics and politics), nor can it help us much with wisdom, especially emotional wisdom. For this reason, it is unlikely to be science that you will turn to during your final moments in life, unless you are very unusual.

If, heaven forbid, we are afflicted with an incurable illness, we will be wise to consult scientific experts concerning treatment options. Once these are exhausted, I doubt that we will spend our remaining evenings reading chemistry texts. We are most likely, then, to wonder about the meaning of our lives: what sense we make of them, what has mattered to us, whom we have loved and why, or whether we have been -- at least sometimes -- good persons.

These inquiries are "natural" and not "supernatural." They are not meaningless, but science will not be all that helpful to us in dealing with them. For some persons, religion will matter at such moments. For others, myself among them, art and philosophy will be important, but what will matter even more is the LOVE that we feel for a few other persons. Wouldn't it be nice if these things, love and beauty, matter to us before we are at death's door? I think so.

Love is the ultimate intellectual discipline, and the homework is great.

Even scientists have been known to love other persons and to seek meaning at such extreme moments. This is not to diminish the importance of science or its great value for us. It is to deny the claims of science or its fans to exclusiveness when it comes even to the knowledge of the "nature" of human beings in the world, as symbol-making, communicative -- and yes, naturally spiritual animals -- whether or not they are believed to be something more than animals and regardless of whether there is a personal God, whatever that means to you. See, for example, William J. Broad, "The Oracle Suggests a Truce Between Science and Religion," in The New York Times, February 28, 2006, at p. F3. (40% of scientists believe in a God who speaks to them and is active in human affairs.)

Scientists must not be seen as enemies of humanity or of meaning in life. As a matter of fact, they are servants of humanity, contributing greatly to human flourishing. As we all know, and as we may expect to be reminded soon enough, it is accountants who are the true enemies of humanity. If there is a hell, then it certainly resembles the offices of the IRS.

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