In “God vs. the flying spaghetti monster at the Society of Edmonton Atheists (Part 1)” I summarized the first part of my address to the SEA. However, the lecture was interwoven with dialogue and so rather than continue on with a summary of the lecture, I’m going to spend some time unpacking some points on the issue of science which seemed to become a genuine impediment to understanding. The problem was well summarized by one gentleman who, looking rather perturbed, accused me of “butchering” the word “know”. Judging by the expressions of others this seemed to be a widely (if not universally) held sentiment.
What was this butchering? The charge was apparently rooted in the fact that I was doing the work of an analytic philosopher by examining the incautious and unreflective way we use terms, often without any precise definition, and often in support of rather dubious presuppositions. Thus, I was attempting to identify those underlying dubious presuppositions. For example, if it became evident that a person’s incredulity toward my talk was rooted in a belief that knowledge must be linked to “scientific” enquiry, I would point out that this person’s objection was rooted in an implicit commitment to scientism. Moreover, I’d point out that this commitment was not only unjustified, but it was even self-refuting, for scientism is a philosophical position rather than a scientific one. For those untrained in this kind of careful critical reflection and unaccustomed to reflecting on their own presuppositions, this could indeed appear to be a “butchering” of a word. But, to put another spin on things, if a person holds a fallacious concept, then perhaps that concept does need to be not just dissected but butchered. The fortunate thing, as I attempted to point out (with middling success at best) is that there are other, far more defensible definitions of terms like “know” than the scientistic one. Thus I wasn’t just cursing the darkness: I also sought to light a candle.
Similar resistance followed when I pointed out that there is no single scientific method. There are, rather, multiple overlapping scientific methods. The relationship between these various methods could perhaps be thought of as analogous to the overlapping senses of the word “game” (an illustration famously proffered by Wittgenstein). Physical anthropologists, psychologists, astrophysicists and evolutionary biologists all share certain virtues but there are also important differences between the various lines of enquiry that they follow. Moreover, and this is probably the crucial point, there is no unanimity among philosophers of science on the necessary and sufficient criteria to mark off one particular mode of enquiry (but not another) as being scientific.
In the same way that there was resistance to thinking of scientific methods, so there was resistance to speaking of sciences. My point here was both simple and complex. It was simple in that I was pointing out that science is a human endeavor. But it is very complex because understanding what it means to say science is human is multi-dimensional. To begin with, we start with human brains with a particular limited sensory apparatus gained from evolutionary history. To give but one illustration, it is only in the last ten years that scientists have stumbled upon dark energy, a mysterious entity which likely composes the bulk of what constitutes the universe. It is possible (certainly for all we know) that a different evolutionary history could have yielded different organisms who would have had some kind of sensory experience of dark energy that would have made it as readily apparent to them as, say, gravity is to us. We didn’t have that advantage. Who knows what else of reality is lost to us at present because of our human limitations.
Not only are we human, but we are particular humans, and this too feeds into our faltering science. For example, our religious (or non-religious) commitments guide the kinds of questions we ask and the lines of enquiry we pursue. Anybody who doesn’t believe this should read up on Michael Faraday and the fascinating link between his mystical Christian beliefs and electromagnetism. And anybody who doesn’t think that evolutionary psychology is driven by philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality would do well to revist the enormous controversies surrounding E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology back in the 1970s or A Natural History of Rape two decades later. And when you broach questions of science and technology like cloning humans or manipulating human DNA then we all find ourselves wrestling with questions of a theological and philosophical nature. Is it wrong to experiment with human nature in this way? If so then why? Do we have rational reasons that we object to the scientific enquiry which could come through cloning human beings? Or merely emotional ones? If they are rational ones, are they rooted in a particular conception of human nature and if so then what is that conception? And so on.
Beyond this, science is also driven by a powerful economic engine. Science today is, for the most part, not a low tech enterprise. Sometimes it is. Jane Goodall sitting in the jungle observing chimpanzees for example. But often times it involves elaborate experiments and millions of dollars in investment (the CERN supercollider being a great example). In that case, scientists compete for a limited amount of investment dollars. And to think that this economic force does not shape how science develops is foolish and naive. Consider, for example, how much we know about the genesis and treatment of male baldness and male impotence. Scientists often follow the money.
And let us not forget personal character and ego. Scientists are human, and often they are all too human. Occasionally this means that they cook the data. Fortunately this type of behavior is rare and is usually caught through the complex and vigorous process of peer review. But it is much less easy to deal with a stubborn intransigence, a resistance to accepting a failed hypothesis. As Imre Lakatos pointed out, scientific theories don’t, strictly speaking, become falsified, since aspects of the theory can always be tweaked to deal with prima facie falsifying data, and this can in principle continue in perpetuity. What in fact happens is that theories are eventually abandoned because they become explanatorily degenerate: essentially more trouble than they’re worth. But this doesn’t change the fact that some scientists spend too long defending their baby because they’ve invested their own lives in the theory. And so it may be eventually that only the scientist and a gaggle of faithful grad students have failed to see the writing on the wall.
Finally, there is a fundamental question: does science ever yield truth about the way the world is? Or does science just yield ever-more effective means at predicting phenomena? There is actually a lot to be said for the latter view. After all, think how our picture of the universe has changed in the last century (or even the last ten years). How radically different will things look in the next century? We can’t even imagine. Even now some scientists are seriously arguing that all matter is really a holographic projection. The reasoning seems to trace to some strange fact about black holes recording the data of the things they consume on their surface like a magnetic strip. I don’t really understand this at all. But I do get the lesson: our picture of the universe is much less accurate than we often assume that it is.
Now I’m not suggesting that we deny science can yield any understanding about the way the world actually is. For example, I’m persuaded that the earth is spherical, not flat. But that doesn’t change the fact that we probably understand much less about the way the world really is from science than is commonly assumed. The basic problem is that we simply don’t know what of our current understanding will stand the test of time and what will not.
Unfortunately I think there was a general failure on my part to communicate these nuances to those gathered. So instead they seemed to be reading me as being some kind of iconoclast by denying that there is a scientific method and by questioning and qualifying the results of science. Not at all. I just don’t want us to have a naive and uncritical understanding of science. It is a staggeringly successful endeavor, but it is also a staggeringly human one.