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The Myth of Science

March 18, 2010

With my first post here I would like to shake things up a little. In the past I use to regale in the opportunity to wax philosophical with a few like-minded people. Our unspoken agreement on certain subjects freed us up to unravel the secrets of the universe — truly a productive evening to say the least! However, when I left the cloisters of various Cantabrigias I encountered a few people with radically different opinions and ideas. This challenged me and after some initial discomfort I was glad to have the dust shaken off. So let’s do some dusting.

One of the phrases I keep seeing in one form or another in both Christian’s and Carl’s posts is “Science tells us that…” It sounds awfully spooky to me, but it is a phrase that a lot of people, including myself, use when discussing ideas that have popular interest and import. “You see, Science tells us that the Universe started 14 billion years ago,” or “Science tells us that it’s the interaction of the Moon and the Earth through the occult force of gravity that we have tides.” You should then ask yourself “What does this sound like?” To me, it smacks of another phrase that gets its fair share of use: “The Bible/Qu’ran/Torah tells us that…”, or in the case of Christian’s friend, “God tells me over the Sunday crossword that…”. In all of these cases we are appealing to some sort of authority and we can only hope when we use this phrase in conversation that the people we are trying to convince put stock in the same authority. So the question that seems to be at the heart of the matter is

“How can we get other people to recognize the authority of Science over the authority of Religion?”

This sounds kind of dangerous, right? Perhaps a good way of approaching this problem would be to don some black slacks and button-up shirts and move door-to-door, wait politely for someone to answer and then ask the unshaven man in the bathrobe and pink slippers “Have you heard the word of Darwin?” I’m sure some believers would disagree with this approach and might instead advocate that each man and woman find Science in their own way. Cast off the clergymen of Academia who seek to put themselves in between yearning souls and Science! Be gone with the rites and rituals and years of practice deemed necessary to understand the wisdom of Science! Sounds like a war is brewing in the Kingdom of Newton, but let’s face it:

Science is an organized religion.

The stories of yesteryear in Religion have been replaced with more elaborate stories in Science. How do we know the things that science has to tell us? Well, we have The Hypothetico-Deductive Scientific Method. Ah, but how predominantly used is the scientific method when answering the fundamental questions of life, the universe and everything? “Does it provide the only rational way of cognitively organizing our experience?”

Let’s take the canonical switch from a myth of religion to the truth of science: the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism. The basis for this switch is not nearly as centered in Science as one might believe. Simplicity of the model certainly wasn’t a reason. One might say the Platonic ideal of a solar system with the Sun (our symbol for God) at the center of it was as much a reason to adopt heliocentrism as any.

Let’s not mis-interpret my true feelings on the subject. I find Science to be one of the greatest narrations developed by man. I also think that it is the “right” method for knowing the “truth”. I think the predictive nature of science is truly a great triumph and developments in engineering have already demonstrated the power of science as a process and way of knowing.

However, this is where I lay down my cards. The title of this post, “The Myth of Science,” is a favorite phrase of Paul Feyerabend – a distinguished philosopher of science who has done much to expose the epistemological anarchy prevalent in modern science. Science, as he points out, is not the consistent application of one magical “truth-tool”. In his own words:

Science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits (Against Method, p. 295).

Albeit extreme, the epistemological basis of Science is both more depressing and wonderful than that. Science in its modern form is often too complicated and detailed to be evaluated by the lay-public or even by professional colleagues. We have to trust that the results of experimentation and calculations were carried out accurately (Are you going to build your own LHC and independently verify it’s results?) .  Scientists aren’t open-minded truth-engines and are quick to dismiss “crackpots” if the what someone says doesn’t align with the current paradigm. Who is to say that scientific education isn’t actually indoctrination, even if it is harmless?

This is even the case with Mathematics! As a more or less current example, Grisha Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture is so massive and technical that the mathematical community must leave it to a trusted few to release the white smoke and assuage everyone’s fears. However trust me as an ardent member of the Church of Mathematics that the higher-ups have spoken and the Poincare conjecture is a conjecture no more.

Let us return to the original question of attracting people to the paradigm of science. First, back up. Why must we convince other people that Science is a superior storyteller than our local priests and shamans? Can’t we just content ourselves with the knowledge that we are right? No, because we don’t really know anything! If we examine the basis of scientific knowledge we are left with probabilities that we don’t even know how to calculate (“I’ll bet you $100 that there are no purple unicorns”). Even if we could win people over to the side of science, How might we satisfy them? What stories would we have to tell them? How do we turn dry science into spirituality? How do we destroy ignorance and violence in a secular world? How will a New Inquisition make the world a better place? How do we make people happy in our brave new world?

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