Act Three – Exploring the limitations of science.
Next up was a Scotsman. “I soon reached Glen Lednock,” he began.
He was stood some distance away so I walked over and joined him.
“I am sixty one years old,” I replied. “At school I joined discussions in the astronomical society debating the pros and cons of steady state theory versus the big bang theory. I have seen scientific claims come and go; always, always claiming they were right. And the world – journalists, broadcasters, politicians – picked them up and proclaimed they were right…because they were scientifically proven! And then they were wrong or at the very least disputed. That is why I am sceptical of science. Too often it makes unfounded claims and speaks in half truths.”
“That’s quite an unkind summary,” said Professor Science.
“Is it?” I replied, “Do you remember the BSE epidemic in the 1990s. Scientists told us the disease could not pass from cows to humans. They were so certain, so positive, but it turns out they did not know and could not foresee that the virus would be able to morph, change shape to adapt to a new host; and people died. (Hinchliffe, 2007)”
“And when I hear eminent folk like Stephen Hawkins arrogantly proclaiming ‘Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does the Universe follow this particular set of laws and not some others? Why do we exist? Traditionally these are questions for philosophy but philosophy is now dead. Philosophy has not kept up with the modern developments in science…’ (Page, 2012, p8) revealing a complete ignorance of the philosophical notions that underpin his branch of science, then I think I have cause to be wary of science and its claims.”
“In what way do you see science being underpinned by philosophy?” asked the Professor.
“That’s easy,” interspersed an American voice. “Science as we know it today is underpinned by empiricism and atomism. The first idea was mooted by Empodocles in Ancient Greece in about 450 BC, the other by Democritus a few years later. Empiricism effectively says we can only know the world through our senses and atomism, as the name suggests, suggests the universe is made up of tiny particles. Empiricism has had supporters throughout history, Aristotle for example and Thomas Aquineas. Atomism took longer to catch on. (Leahey, 2004).”
“Who are you?” asked the Professor.
“I am a historian of science,” replied the American.
“Oh,” said the Professor, “but we have moved on since the Ancient Greeks and we now know the universe is made up of atoms, well a variety of particles really, and although we make use of a variety of equipment which effectively extend our senses, our senses are still the only way we can know the world.”
“My friend Hegel would certainly dispute that,” said the voice I had heard earlier alongside Herr Heidegger and the Frenchman. “He pretty much demolished the whole idea of sense-certainty.”
“And you are?” said the Professor, perhaps a touch defensively.
“A Romantic,” came the response, and a little laughter travelled around the room.
“Well I think we can dismiss you dreamers,” said the Professor, emboldened by the laughter.
“That’s a typical scientific response,” I said. “You think the only voice of note is that of science. A voice itself at times full of nonsense, a voice that has nothing to say about the important things, that is how we should live and feel; yet it thinks it is the only voice with anything to say.”
“Nonsense?” said the Professor. “When do scientists talk nonsense?”
“Where do I begin?” I said. “Multi-dimensional universes (Hooper, 2014), particles that are waves and can travel along two routes simultaneously (Brooks, 2010b). Even one of your own, Roger Penrose, scorns some of the new physics. He says it opens the floodgates for every flaky idea under the sun (Brooks, 2010a). Maybe in fairness it isn’t nonsense, who am I to judge? But to the man in the street it is just as nonsensical as talk of demons and fairies.”
“As Lyotard (1984, p29) informs us,” interspersed the Librarian, “scientific knowledge ‘cannot know and make known that it is the true knowledge without resorting to the other, narrative, kind of knowledge, which from its point of view is no knowledge at all’.”
“Good old Jean-Francois,” called a young German voice that I had heard earlier, “he understands. I too have investigated the games language can play and how knowledge can be delegitimized (Lyotard, 1984).”
“Whoa,” said the Historian, “before you get into an argument let’s just discuss the nature of science a little further.”
“Science as generally understood,” he continued, “is derived from positivism, an idea introduced by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century. This idea was further refined and developed by the logical positivist school of philosophy in the 1920s. (Chalmers,1999). Positivism, like empiricism, believes that knowledge should be based on observation from which it is possible to describe, and even predict and control, events. No explanation of why things happen the way they do is necessary. They just do.”
“I don’t think that is the impression given by most scientists, including Stephen Hawkins,” I said, “It seems to me that they think that they, and they alone, know how to uncover knowledge. And that was a Freudian slip, which I will blame on years of exposure to the scientific discourse; nobody uncovers knowledge, they construct it.”
“Indeed many if not most scientists believe in some form of external reality,” said the Historian. “they adopt what is known as the causal approach. This approach assumes the goal of science is to penetrate the structure of reality and discover the causes of the ‘laws of nature’ (Leahey, 2004). These scientists are not afraid to go beyond the facts and embrace the metaphysical. They are willing to offer explanations but protect their findings from superstition by rigorously testing every hypothesis and challenging every theory. Philosophically of course this position can be critiqued from the perspective that causal structure is always beyond observation.”
“So some scientists go beyond empiricism,” I stated. “They invoke rationality, build theories.”
“Yes,” said the historian, “Both positivists and causal-realists build theories. According to the latter these represent our best knowledge of Truth, the true nature of the universe. For the former (sometimes known as nomological-antirealists) theories are simply useful models, essentially collections of sentences beginning with observational terms building through axioms to theory (Leahey, 2004).”
“So where do you stand?” I asked Professor Science.
“Erm…well…erm I have never really thought about it,” he replied. “Using Truth like that is a bit of a puzzle but my immediate reaction is that there is a real universe and we are uncovering its mysteries.”
“And,” he continued, “we do this very scientifically, basing all our conclusions on good solid evidence. Basically we observe something, gather lots of, as has been said, empirical evidence and propose a theory based on that evidence. We then test that theory to make sure it holds up and, if and when, it doesn’t we refute it.”
“Precisely as Karl Popper used to argue,” said the Librarian, “A theory is not a valid theory unless there is some way it might be disproved (Popper, 1972), otherwise any statement could claim to be a theory and it would not be possible to refute it.”
“But it is always just a theory,” I pointed out, “and scientists build theories on theories and ultimately claiming these constructs, these models, are a truthful depiction of reality. Further they and their supporters claim that these models and the associated methods are the only worthwhile ones and when faced with problems theirs is the voice we should turn to.”
“ Hence, I would suggest,” I said turning to the Professor, “your smug response to our friend here.”
“Thank you,” said the Romantic. “Actually I have no problem with this idea of building theories on theories provided they work. As I said earlier, though you may not have seen me, my friend Hegel used it to great effect; he called it the principle of determinate negation (Sills, 1995).
“Take care,” said the Librarian, “Ludwig Wittgenstein no less has suggested ‘we may not advance any kind of theory’ (Pleasants, 1999, p2).”
“Thank you.” It was the young German again. “You are very kind.
“Fair enough,” I said whilst wondering who that young German could be, “but it is the way scientific claims are made that annoys me. They claim to be so right, then next time you look their claims have fallen through and we are told, with a straight face and without the slightest sense of foolishness, that it is all different now, this is how the world is.”
“I think you are referring to paradigm shifts,” said the Historian. “It has been argued that science moves forward in paradigms (Kuhn, 1970). Essentially science would build up a particular model and put it forward as the way things are until the evidence refuted it and pointed to a new model or paradigm. Others would argue that this is an over-simplification that, in fact, science is always made up of competing research programmes (Lakatos, 1970) each of which has their supporters, and therefore science does not point to one absolute Truth.”
“Well that explains Roger Penrose’s comments,” I responded, “And I guess in this world of competing programmes some are eventually killed off as evidence accumulates in favour of another programme. But all that just underlines my point, science is just another voice built on theories. Theories grounded in empirical evidence maybe but that does not make them right, nor does it make them in the only theories worth considering. For example we could rationalise and deduce theories. Provided we state our fundamental axioms and provided our subsequent models work then they are as good as any scientific theory.”
“Metaphysics, yet again metaphysics,” called (possibly fewer) voices in the background.
“No,” I said, “Just my way of making sense of life. I make no claims to Truth.”
“You sound more than a little like Paul Feyerabend, who some might describe as an anarchist,” said the Historian. “In essence he argued that the scientific method was a just a veil to hide the subjective views of the scientist and hence no more reliable than witchcraft (Chalmers, 1999).”
“Ah, my friend Paul,” shouted Arne from the bar, “he wrote to me about the limitations of language and knowledge and my intuitions pertaining to deep ecology. He noted how difficult it would always be to truly understand one another, how we therefore each had to find our own way forward and how in effect one way was as good as another (Feyerabend, 1999). I told him of my agreement, of my admiration for the way he maintains many views and how this resonates with the deep ecology principle of diversity (Naess, 1991).
“Well I am not sure about the witchcraft bit,” I said with a wry smile, “but I am with him on the limitations of language and finding our own way forward, and with you Arne on the diversity bit.”
At this point I turned back towards the Professor. He had been joined by Mr Commerce and they had been chatting. Looking towards me he said, “Well you can say what you like but surely there is one thing you can’t deny, progress! Science has taken humanity forward, we are so much better off than we were. Through science we have progressed.”
I looked at him “Progress that has lead to warm, comfortable housing and to travel beyond the imagination of those alive one hundred years ago? Or progress that has lead to machines capable of doing all hard labour on our behalf? Perhaps you mean progress that has lead to instantaneous communication worldwide? I don’t suppose you mean the progress that has lead to melting ice caps, vanishing species, hydrogen bombs or internet pornography and freely available drugs and guns?” I countered.
“That’s not the fault of science,” he said quickly, somewhat irritated I think.
“Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t,” I said, “but I repeat science is just one voice. It does not have the answers to everything and never will. It is a voice to be respected – mostly – but it and the world in general need to be aware of its limitations. There are moral and ethical, not to mention aesthetic, dimensions to the way in which we live our lives about which science has nothing to say.”
“I don’t get you,” said Mr Commerce. “Why do you come down so hard on science?”
“I am hard on science,” I replied, “because knowingly or unknowingly it is a discourse that underwrites something I really dislike. Capitalism! Capitalism and its inevitable corollaries, control and inequity.”
“Ah now I see, the politics of envy,” responded Mr Commerce.
“Not at all,” I smiled, “Though we may return to that discussion later. I repeat, I refer to the way in which the discourse of science has been used to underwrite and support capitalism and all its excesses.”
“What do you mean by discourse then?” asked Mr Commerce.
“I see discourse as the conceptual framework that shapes our thinking (Hinchliffe and Belshaw, 2003) and I believe these discourses shape and are shaped by the power that flows through human society and indeed life in general,” I said.
“How is science a discourse?” queried Mr Commerce.
“Let me explain,” said a Frenchman stepping out from the crowd. I wasn’t sure if I had seen him before.
“First we need to understand the way we know things and how ‘science’ came about. Then we need to understand the nature of control and how that has changed over time. Then perhaps we will understand the role of power in shaping control and in particular the linking of science and commerce.”
“And you are Monsieur?” asked Mr Commerce.
“I am Michel Foucault,” he replied, “and I have spent a great deal of time studying history.”
“It appears to me that there are three distinct periods of time wherein the nature of knowledge itself, ie the nature of what is considered to be knowledge, changes. In the 16th century knowledge was based on resemblance or similitude. There were four ways in which things were known, convenientia (adjacency or proximity to other things), aemulatio (emulation), analogy and sympathies. Ultimately it was the interpretation of one or more of these similitudes that allowed things to be known (Foucault, 2002)”.
“So we could not actually know something?” I said. “We just knew it because of its relationship with (and its difference from) everything else.”
Foucault continued, “By the end of the 16th century we had begun to enter the Classical Age. This was the age in which all things were to be classified, to be placed in taxonomies, tables and lists. For example in the early part of the century a natural history would describe a creature or plant by referenced to ‘its elements or organs as of describing the resemblances that could be found in it, the virtues that it was thought to possess, the legends and stories with which it had been involved, its place in heraldry, the medicaments that were concocted from its substance, the foods it provided, what the ancients recorded of it, and what travellers might have said of it’ (ibid, p140). Later in the century another writer would subdivide a chapter on the same plant or animal ‘under twelve headings: name, anatomical parts, habitat, ages, generation, voice, movements, sympathy and antipathy, uses, medicinal uses’ (ibid, p141). The former could be described as a “show” whilst the later version might be described as an arrangement or ‘table’. ‘What came surreptitiously into being between the age of theatre and that of the catalogue was not the desire for knowledge, but a new way of connecting things both to the eye and to discourse. A new way of making history’ (ibid, p143)”.
“And so we make a break from the interrelationship of everything,” I added. “From now on everything is analysed, atomised and made to stand alone.”
Foucault was non-committal. He continued, “At the end of the 18th century there is ‘a discontinuity as enigmatic in its principle, in its original rupture, as that which separates the Paracelsian circles from the Cartesian order’ (ibid, p235). Knowledge was ‘no longer that of identities and differences, that of non-quantitative orders, that of a universal characterization, of a general taximonia, of a non-measurable mathesis, but an area of made up of organic structures, that is, of internal relations between elements whose totality performs a function.’ (ibid, p236). Knowledge is no longer arranged in comparative tables but in functional silos linking observations through time. I call this The Age of History and link it to the birth of ‘the empirical’ (ibid, p237). Here is ‘a philosophy deprived of a certain metaphysics because it has been separated off from the space of order, yet doomed to Time, to its flux and its returns, because it is trapped in the mode of being of History’ (ibid, p238).”
“So,” I said, “In the Classical Age knowledge was tabulated according to traits that were somehow linked to a pure, metaphysical form but now, in the new age, knowledge is based on worldly observations that build up over time; knowledge such as biology and economics.”
“Knowledge that is surely inward looking and constrained by its own roots,” I continued, “ myopic and unable to look outside itself to see the world in its totality.”
Foucault remained impassive, it was for others to draw conclusions. “The roots of the discontinuity lay in the limitations of the ‘tabular’ method,” he said. “Essentially classification depended on the identification of a general trait to classify against and problems arose when there is more than one such trait to classify against. This problem was tackled by way of the Kantian critique which offered the possibility of transcendental essences as a means of classification but this metaphysical approach was at odds with the empirical approach to knowledge. This schism between two forms of knowledge remains with us today in an era I sometimes refer to as the Modern Era (ibid).”
“OK,” said Mr Commerce looking at me, “I can understand this view on the history of science but I think your interpretation of it is, at best, idiosyncratic.”
“Myopia explains science’s blundering approach to what it calls progress,” I interposed quickly. “Each branch of knowledge works inside itself and as a result too often fails to see the unintended consequences of its findings. What is needed is a more thoughtful, holistic approach to knowledge. But that has not suited the rich and powerful and, as a consequence, we have not endeavoured to develop such an approach.”
“Power,” said Foucault, “is the key.”
There was a dry chuckle from somewhere at the back of the inn. I noted that Nietzsche was still with us.
“Power in the Middle Ages,” continued Foucault, “lay in blood, in life itself, or rather in the ability to take life. If you disobeyed your master, your king for example, he had the right to take your life. This power was manifested in him by some deity and you were called upon to obey”.
“Over time this power dissipated and obedience came to be achieved through administrative control. Such control depended on knowledge of the controlled and this knowledge in turn depended on science.” (Foucault, 1978)
“And the two continue to work together to subjugate the citizenry and maintain the status quo,” I added. “That is the retention of power by the privileged few and a gross inequality in the distribution of wealth and income.”
“And it isn’t just the citizenry,” added another voice – Mother Nature had joined us. “Science is the very alter of human reason with its supreme faith in its supposed “ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper (Ehrenfeld cited in Lindholdt, 2012, p102).’ I too am under attack from science.”
“Oh it’s you again,” said Mr Commerce, “Sulking as usual. You are far too defensive.”
“Yes,” said the Professor, “I have never attacked you. I have simply made better use of your resources, freeing them up for everyone’s benefit.”
“Everyone?” asked the Religious Man, who had also caught up with us. “Or perhaps you mean every one? Thus implying an analysis of life into discrete units and almost certainly favouring some units above others, ie humans.”
“Is that all humans?” he asked wryly, “Or do you favour particular groups?”
“Don’t start that nonsense,” replied the Professor with not a little irritation, “My colleagues and I simply study the world, and indeed the universe, objectively then make useful observations and offer useful explanations to enhance our knowledge.”
“You remind me of the story of Pontius Pilate,” replied the religious man. “You take no responsibility for the so-called knowledge you offer and you blissfully ignore how you resource your studies.”
“So-called knowledge, what does that mean?” asked the Professor pointedly.
“Knowledge of a techno-economic nature within a knowledge based economy (Martin, 2005),” returned the Religious Man. “As compared to compared to knowledge that refers to cultural renaissance, socio-political empowerment, intellectual pursuit or spiritual awakening (ibid) for example.”
“Your knowledge,” he continued, “is a technology-based science which disregards the ‘life-world’ and the foundations of meaning in a subjective world (Husserl, 1970). Further it is epistemologically-ethnocentric in that it is biased towards the science and technology developed in the west and assumes there is nothing to be learned from non-western cultures. As such it has underwritten an ecological imperialism that has devastated ecologies and sustainable living patterns (Crosby, 1986).
“Summarizing,” said I, taking up his rhetoric, “my critique so very eloquently whilst making the important link between science and technology.”
“It is technology that makes control possible (Habermas, 1971) and enables the administrators in their quest for control.” I continued.
“And who are these demons, these administrators?” asked Mr Commerce with a rather superior look.
“Well actually, today, they are you and your colleagues.” I replied.
The Scotsman was finishing his story, “I was quickly enveloped in mist and could see no more than 50 yards in front of me. However there is a clear path all the way up to about 2,500 feet so there were no navigational problems at this stage, and I could always walk back down the path if I felt uncomfortable at any point. As I walked I began to formulate my future plans and slowly my head began to clear. At about the precise point I had settled the thoughts in my head, in fact at precisely the same point, I walked out of the clouds to see the peak of the Ben clearly etched against the sky high on my left. The sun was shining through a saddle directly in front of me and the sky was clear blue.
I looked around me and I was standing above the clouds. Various peaks were rising above the clouds as if to greet me. It was majestic. I climbed a little higher, to a point just below the saddle where the path turned left towards the peak of the Ben. I sat on a stone and soaked up the view. These are the moments that take hill walking into your very soul.
Out of respect to the Ben I did not continue the climb. After he and his neighbours had helped me clear my mind I could not “conquer” him like some zealous youth out to conquer another Munro. He was my friend and that would have been disrespectful.