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How to Love Science without Worshipping it

Updated on May 26, 2016
John Paul Quester profile image

A mostly retired academic, with a background in psychology and philosophy.

The Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider | Source

Science vs. Scientism

I share with many a profound regard for science, I the most successful approach to the acquisition of information about reality ever devised by humankind. The products of science-driven technology have proven, for better and sometimes for worse, to be world changing. Science and its technology are among our most precious achievements and should be handed over as such to the generations that will succeed us.

Scientism is another matter. It is a philosophy of science; even more: an ideology. It can be formulated in different ways, but at its core is the demand that science be granted a position of absolute authority and dominance vis-a’-vis all other forms of human knowing. Science is the final arbiter in deciding how things are. It is the ultimate legislator of reality. Elements of knowledge acquired by other than scientific means are acceptable only insofar as they are compatible with scientific findings.

A minimalist version of scientism could simply claim that the scientific method, the way by which knowledge is acquired and validated, is the most valid and the most reliable, and as such it should be extended to every domain of knowledge if at all possible. A follower of such a view would therefore be prepared to accept any finding as long as it is obtained with the proper use of scientific methodology. For instance, if many well designed laboratory studies provided reliable evidence of ESP (precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance), he would have no problem in accepting these findings even though seemingly at odds with some assumptions concerning the nature of the physical world characterizing the natural sciences of the day. After all, it is simply not the case that even the accepted body of scientific knowledge is thoroughly consistent: far from it. For instance, much research within the most advanced and mature of natural sciences, physics, is driven by two major theories, quantum mechanics and general relativity, which make incompatible assumptions about fundamental aspects of physical reality.

However, many supporters of scientism go well beyond this ‘lite’ version. For them, the basic features of reality as envisaged by the hard sciences at any point in time must be accepted. Hence, if findings that originate from no matter how rigorously conducted studies outside the scientific mainstream seem at odds with the established scientific view of reality they must be rejected, or explained away. This stronger version of scientism, broadly adhered to both within and without the scientific community, is often at risk of degenerating into a dogmatic ideology bent on purging the world of ‘heretical’ findings. Some historical considerations may help reveal the shortcomings of such a position.

Galileo Galilei, ca. 1636
Galileo Galilei, ca. 1636
Max Planck (1858-1947), one of the originators of quantum theory
Max Planck (1858-1947), one of the originators of quantum theory | Source

Some Historical Observations on Science

Since science is a historically evolving undertaking, the manner of its development is a question of great import. Galileo Galilei, one of the originators of the scientific revolution suggested that true science is bound to proceed in a linear, cumulative fashion by first building a solid, unshakable foundation of indisputable facts and principles, and by then adding one after another new, increasingly general facts and theories, in unending progress. Historians of science have shown that this is definitely not the way science always proceeds. Whereas there are periods of cumulative growth, science also experiences revolutions, in which fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality previously deemed unquestionable undergo drastic change.

A major such revolution took place in physics at the beginning of the 20th century, when ‘classical’ physics within a few years gave way to the new perspectives disclosed by the theories of relativity and even more fundamentally by quantum mechanics. It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which this revolution affected the people who had carried out their research under the classical paradigm, which they took to be fundamentally true. Many felt that their whole life work had been rendered meaningless by the new discoveries; a few committed suicide.

Ironically, these changes took place at a point of maximum confidence in classical physics; for instance, some of its more celebrated representatives, like Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), felt compelled to advice their best graduate students to pursue their research outside of physics, since this discipline, in their view, was essentially completed, and further work reduced to refining the values of some physical constants in the fourth or fifth decimal place.

More than a century since the onset of that revolution, we are still trying to work out its implications for what pertains to the ultimate make up of physical reality. This is not the place to address this fascinating issue. Suffice to say that, for instance, the assumptions that the objects investigated by the physical scientist have a full existence independently of the observations undertaken by the scientist; that some kind of contact whether direct or mediated by a medium is required for objects to influence one another so that the so called action at a distance, which Einstein called ‘spooky’, is not a physical possibility; that the universe is ruled by strictly deterministic laws, that the fabric of space and time is smooth and homogeneous: these and other fundamental tenets of classical physics were subverted by the discoveries of the ‘new’ physics.

Since science does not always proceed in an orderly, predictable and cumulative manner but sometimes undergoes changes that require it to tear down from the very foundations its laboriously erected edifice, and replace it with a largely new one: given this fact, findings and perspectives that are not comfortably accommodated within the existing horizon of scientific knowledge should be granted careful if critical consideration rather than being dismissed out of hand. But no such attitude characterizes the supporters of dogmatic scientism, who seem to be invariably confident that what science prescribes at a certain point in time is, if not the absolute truth, at least the only acceptable view of reality.

History shows that not just these ideologists of science but scientists themselves, and science-based practitioners, at times display this attitude, with undesirable consequences, as the following examples show.

Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794)
Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) | Source

Stones in the Sky? No Way!

Throughout the 18th century in Europe the dominant scientific view, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, denied the very existence of meteorites. The prestigious French Academy of Sciences played a leading role in this refusal to give credence to what was regarded as a superstitious belief. Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), one of the founders of modern chemistry and well known for his activities as skeptical debunker, was at the forefront of this initiative. He carried out the chemical analysis of what was claimed to be a meteor, which revealed that the stone contained a large amount of iron pyrites. This proved, he argued, that this all too terrestrial specimen had probably attracted lighting, which event had led to the extravagant claim that the stone had actually fallen from the sky.

For many centuries, cosmological theories had concurred that outer space contained only large solid celestial bodies, namely the planets and their moons. There were no ‘stones’ in the sky. Hence, what people claimed to be meteorites had to be the resultant of volcanic activity, lightning strikes, or some other earth bound phenomenon. Scientists in other countries were only too ready to embrace the views of their prestigious colleagues (a very pernicious habit which persists unabated to this day). This 'debunking' of meteorites was considered so final that the major museums of six European countries destroyed their collections of meteorites.

Ignaz Semelweiss, 1860
Ignaz Semelweiss, 1860

A Miscarriage of Medical Science

The consequences of dogmatic scientism can be deadly at times, as underscored by Ignaz Semmelweiss’s (1818-1865) tragic life. In 1846 he was a resident physician in a Viennese teaching hospital who catered to needy patients. In one of the two obstetrical clinics of this hospital, the mortality rate resulting from puerperal fever (a bacterial infection of the female reproductive tract following childbirth or miscarriage) twice as high as the other. This was so well known that many women preferred a much safer ‘street birth’ to admission to the first clinic. In general, this infection could at the time produce mortality rates as high as 30%.

Semmelweiss sought to find the cause of the differences in mortality rate between the two clinics by systematically comparing them. By a process of elimination he finally zeroed in on the different type of personnel who was undergoing training at the two clinics: medical students in the first clinic, midwives in the second.

A major breakthrough resulted from the death of an observer accidentally injured by a medical student’s scalpel during an autopsy. Semmelweiss noted a similarity between the pathology exhibited by that dying person and that of the women dying from puerperal fever. This led him to postulate a connection between the fever and the contamination of hands and surgical instruments resulting from the manipulation of cadavers on the part of the medical students and their teachers. It was they, he thought, who infected the puerperae they went to visit after leaving the autopsy theater by carrying on their hands deadly ‘cadaverous particles’. The midwives who visited women in the second clinic had no contact with cadavers, and this could explain the difference in mortality rate between the two clinics.

Semmelweiss managed to persuade the medical students to wash their hands with a solution of chlorinated lyme following autopsy work and before visiting the puerperae. As a result, the mortality rate in the first clinic dropped rapidly, later became comparable to that in the other clinic, and eventually approached zero.

Semmelweis's hypothesis: that cleanliness was essential in reducing mortality among the women in his clinic, was ignored, rejected, and ridiculed despite its obvious efficacy. The medical establishment even found reason for offense in the assertion that the physicians’ hands were not always perfectly clean. He was dismissed from the hospital, harassed by the medical community in Vienna, and eventually forced to move to Budapest, where a similar destiny awaited him.

Overwhelmed by this turn of events, he experienced a prolonged mental distress, was finally committed to an asylum, and died shortly thereafter as a result of a severe beating at the hands of personnel of that institution.

Semmelweiss's observations were unacceptable to the medical community because they clashed with the established scientific views of the time. Diseases were generally attributed to an imbalance among the four basic ‘humours’ constituting the human body - for which the main treatment was bloodletting -. Diseases originating from infections were more specifically attributed to an atmosphere poisoned by terrestrial and astral influences.

Semmelweiss's practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) developed the germ theory of disease, thereby offering a theoretical rationale for Semmelweiss's observations.

These examples - and many more could be found - reveal one of the less savory aspects of the scientific community’s behavior when basic assumptions are challenged by evidence that cannot be accommodated within the current horizon of scientific understanding. This kind of response to challenges to the ideological status quo is not all that different from the way the Catholic church dealt with Galileo’s views, which led to the epochal trial and condemnation of this pivotal scientist. In point of fact, the Church’s behavior toward Galileo’s claims was far more nuanced and subtle than the cases presented above.

John  B. Watson, founder of behaviorism
John B. Watson, founder of behaviorism

Science and its Limitations

The above discussion can be summarized as follows. Scientism is the view that places science at the center of human understanding. In its ‘lite’ version it propose that science be regarded as the optimal method of acquiring knowledge about the world, to be employed whenever possible. Any insight arrived at with the proper use of scientific methodology should be accepted whether or not it fits into the existing body of scientific knowledge.

The more stringent version of scientism mandates what is and is not scientifically possible based upon the scientific theories prevailing at any point in time. The fact that science at times undergoes drastic changes in its fundamental assumptions about reality and therefore about what facts are scientifically possible constitutes something of an embarasment for this view. More importantly, it may inhibit the acquisition of new and potentially revolutionary knowledge, thereby achieving the opposite effect of its intended aims of promoting scientific development.

In a deeper sense however these versions of scientism are closer to one another than at first appears to be the case: for the scientific methodology itself constrains the way nature and the human world can be interrogated. The imperative to collect experimental findings that are quantifiable, inter-subjectively observable, repeatable, and well controlled, though laudable in itself can sometimes seriously limit the scope of a research enterprise, especially at its onset.

Behaviorism, the dominant school of American scientific psychology over several decades of the past century offers a good demonstration of this peril.

The behaviorists’ drive to create a discipline whose methods were as close as possible to those of the physical sciences led to a psychology, not just without a ‘soul’, but also without a mind. Mental processes are subjective and private events, not accessible to external observers, never exactly reproducible, highly qualitative in characters and difficult to describe: all attributes which are antithetical to standard scientific methodology. Hence the behaviorists’ choice to ignore mental phenomena altogether in favor of the systematic study of the relationship between a laboratory created, drastically simplified and artificial ‘environment’, and a similarly narrowly defined behavior. Since they both can be inter-subjectively observed, quantified, and measured, the formulation of rigorous relationships between them becomes possible, and ought to lead to laws of behavior ideally not unlike those of physics.

In this way a scientific psychology was built which avoided all the difficulties associated with the study of mental events. Behaviorism did produce interesting and valuable results, but proved unable to address the true complexity of mind-mediated behavior, a flaw which eventually led to its demise. Its successor, cognitive psychology, reintroduced the study of mental phenomena such as attention, memory, and cognition. But its mechanistic characterization of the mind as a computer-like device may prove similarly unfit to provide an adequate account of its subject matter.

More in general, across the broad domain of the so called cognitive sciences, questions concerning nature and function of consciousness remain largely unanswered. In the view of some influential thinkers, the existence of conscious mental life remains so mysterious that a profound, as yet unfathomable change in our overall conception of the cosmos and of the place of mind in it will be required if we are to make substantial progress in understanding it. Part of the reason for our difficulties in this area may well reside in the constraints inherent to the scientific methodology, as as currently conceived.


Like Cats in a Library?

Time to bring this hub to a close, to the relief of the few who had the patience to accompany me this far. As noted science is a wondrous achievement, to be treasured by us all. But its limits should be fully acknowledged along with its strengths. This awareness enables us to make room also for the more subjective, idiosyncratic forays into the deeper aspects of reality pursued by the poet, the mystic, the meditator, the artist, the phenomenologist. They also should be treasured and celebrated as expressions of the nobler aspects of our nature, whether or not they lead to insights compatible with scientific findings.

The great American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) wrote that in some respect, when seeking to grasp the deepest core of reality we humans may fare no better than cats meandering in a library. They can see the books, hear the learned conversations: but the meaning of it all will forever escape them. If this is even partially the case, it would be ludicrous to deliberately ‘turn off’ whatever means are available to us for sensing the great mystery which envelops us in the name of a misguided allegiance to science.

© 2015 John Paul Quester


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