Apart from our Practical Dependence on Technology,
Is Science Really a Primary Human Concern?
All of modern biology, and indeed all of modern science, takes as its informing metaphor the clock mechanism described by René Descartes in part five of his Discours. Modern science sees the world, both living and dead, as a large and complicated system of gears and levers.
But is the history of science really the triumph of this kind of mechanistic materialism? Naturalists today typically accommodate the doctrines of microphysical indeterminism and even an absolute beginning of the universe to their naturalistic philosophy. But before these doctrines became widely accepted in the scientific community, it was thought that the denial of these doctrines had to be presupposed by the scientific enterprise.
If science may be said to be blind without philosophy, it is true also that philosophy is virtually empty without science . . . It is indeed misleading to draw a sharp distinction, as we have been doing, between philosophy and science. What we should rather do is to distinguish between the speculative and the logical aspects of science, and assert that philosophy must develop into the logic of science. That is to say, we distinguish between the activity of formulating hypotheses, and the activity of displaying the logical relationship of these hypotheses and defining the symbols which occur in them. It is of no importance whether we call one who is engaged in the latter activity a philosopher or a scientist. What we must recognize is that it is necessary for a philosopher to become a scientist, in this sense, if he is to make any substantial contribution towards the growth of human knowledge.
A. J. Ayer (from Language Truth and Logic, 1936)
[Karl] Popper always held that . . . the search for a criterion of meaning was a mistake. He pointed out that much the most useful knowledge we have, and the biggest body of it, is contained in the natural sciences, yet scientists are not given to debating the meanings of their fundamental terms, terms as widely different in kind as physics, observation, measurement, light, mass, energy—not to mention all the terms involved in the mathematics they use (what is a number?—what is mathematics?). Scientists leave this, for the most part, undiscussed, and get on with doing more science. And, said Popper, they are right.
The man of science says, “Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall”; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, “Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall”; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.
G. K. Chesterton (from Orthodoxy, 1909)
It was Hume who first pointed out, and with all his customary lucidity, that from no finite number of observations, however large, could any unrestrictedly general conclusion be drawn that would be defensible in logic. If every time I let go of something it falls, I might well conclude eventually that all unsupported objects fall. But the conclusion has been reached from the premises not by a logical process but by a psychological one.
Classical physics built its world out of two kinds of entity: matter and field (also known as particle and wave). Quantum theory destroyed the once sharp distinction between matter and field. The prevailing interpretation of quantum theory in the physics establishment is known as the Copenhagen interpretation, and consists of two distinct parts: 1) There is no reality in the absence of observation; 2) Observation creates reality. In essence, there is no deep reality: reality is superficial. There is a famous remark, attributed to Niels Bohr, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”
We now know that the moon is demonstrably not there when nobody looks.
N. David Mermin (physicist)
One of the problems in cognitive studies is that we tend to look at science as if it were the culmination of human thought, a continuous development of common sense notions, when I think that science is really marginal to humans. We don’t use it most of the time, nearly all cultures in the history of humanity haven’t ever used it, and we don’t need it to become perfectly competent cultural performers. That’s not to say it’s not important, and that it extends the frontiers of human knowledge beyond anything we might have hoped for before we had it. It’s just to say that using science as a model for describing other cognitive phenomena—like how we normally think—is just the wrong way to go about it.
Scott Atran (Interview)
Scientific knowledge covers a very small part of the things that interest mankind, and ought to interest them. There are a great many things of immense interest about which science, at present at any rate, has nothing to say.
The worst parochialism that scientists often invoke in interpreting their history is the notion that progress in knowledge arises from victory in battle between science and religion, with religion defined as unthinking allegiance to dogma and obedience to authority, and science as objective searching for truth.
Stephen Jay Gould
Science is a discipline of investigation and constructive doubt, questing with logic, evidence, and reason to draw conclusions. Faith, by stark contrast, demands a positive suspension of critical faculties. Science proceeds by setting up hypotheses, ideas or models, and then attempts to disprove them. So a scientist is constantly asking questions, being skeptical. Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakeable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.
Although the scientific method is neutral, the climate of scientific materialism is more inimical to faith than anything else before. Descartes’s axiom that nothing must be taken on trust was meant as a stepping stone to scientific inquiry. But this Cartesian doubt has long ceased to be a neutral tool of scientific procedure. It has become a primordial attitude, just as much as faith has been in bygone ages . . . Any image of Nature which stops where science stops is implicitly atheistic. And wherever the scientific statement usurps global validity, it is by necessity atheistic.
Thoughts about Science & Physics
All science requires faith in the inner harmony of the world.
It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it.
G. K. Chesterton
Fundamentally, we do not know why our theories work so well. Hence, their accuracy may not prove their truth and consistency.
Quantum theory works like a charm. Since its discovery in 1925 it has passed every test human ingenuity can devise, down to the last decimal point. However, like a magician who has inherited a wonderful magic wand that works every time without his knowing why, the physicist is at a loss to explain quantum theory’s infallible success.
In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.”
Stephen Jay Gould
One thing we are sure of, and that is the reality and substantiality of the luminiferous ether.
It has been an act of faith on the part of scientists that the world can be explained in the simple terms that mathematics handles.
R. W. Hamming
The final truth about a phenomenon resides in the mathematical description of it; so long as there is no imperfection in this, our knowledge of the phenomenon is complete.
Sir James Jeans
Reality is the real business of physics.
“It is wrong,” Niels Bohr repeatedly told his colleagues, “to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”
Roughly, science is what we know and philosophy is what we don’t know. That’s a simple definition.
The hope of understanding the world is itself one of those daydreams which science tends to dissipate. There is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all.
Science isn’t continuous with common sense, it doesn’t replace common sense, and it doesn’t even feed back into common sense. Shreds of science may be assimilated to common sense, but they can never substitute for it.
Scott Atran (Interview)
It is conceptually impossible that we could replace our common sense notions by scientific notions, because in the case of quantum mechanics, for instance, no one has the slightest idea what the physical instantiation of quantum equations are. You just do the mathematics. That’s all you can do. If anyone tells you they really know what the physical counterparts [are] of the mathematics they’re doing, they’re just . . . uh . . . blowing smoke.
Scott Atran (Interview)
The laws of the universe must by definition describe a consistent reality.
The great physicist Richard Feynman once prefaced a lecture by telling his audience not to worry about understanding it. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” Feynman warned. “Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ . . . Nobody knows how it can be like that.”
The scientific method, as famously laid down by Francis Bacon, requires theory to emerge from facts and experiments, unguided by preconceived notions. In other words, starting with a theory and then trying to find evidence to support it is contrary to the spirit of science. Or is it?
Darwin writes as if what he is supposed to be doing is gathering all these observations and then coming up with some generalization. Whereas in his letters to all his friends, and in his own notebooks, he makes it perfectly clear that what he’s really doing is forming hypotheses, and they’re the things that are going to direct his observations, and that any observation is going to be for or against some theory and so on.
Keith Oatley (Interview)
To many working scientists, science seems very obviously to suggest an ultimate explanation, namely a materialist one; but a materialist view of total reality is a metaphysical, not a scientific, theory.
What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to govern? Is the ultimate unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Although science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it cannot answer the question: Why does the universe bother to exist?
True science is never philosophically partisan. It is open to any new knowledge or understanding whatever the metaphysical implications.
Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.
T. H. Huxley
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