Science: It’s Tricky

I received a letter (yes, some people still send paper letters!) that contained a lovely quote from Max Planck.
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.

Perhaps Planck was being metaphorical about “dying,” but regardless, Planck makes the salient point that scientists are as resistant to new ideas as everyone else, clinging dogmatically to their beliefs and their metaphorical turf.

How often have you run across someone who says, “science is my religion?” A few of my students have such sentiments. It’s one of those beliefs that sounds good to people with a certain worldview. But does it make any sense for science to be a religion?

The problem is that God did not create science. We did, we humans. As such, science manifests not divine perfection but human imperfection. Science deserves our attention and sometimes even our respect, but it never warrants our devotion.

Science Is Not an Oracle

It is an article of faith to believe that the universe conforms to science or that science explains the universe. Yes, faith. And more than that, idolatry — worship, explicit and implicit, of the priests of science and their actions — requires a lot of blind faith.

Now, the idolizers of science will retort that the ideas of science do explain some phenomena. That is true. What humans do, continually, is create beliefs to explain phenomena around them. Many beliefs do that. In this, science is just one way, among many, of human attempts to explain things.

One of my favorite stories in philosophy, whether it is true or not, is one told about Ludwig Wittgenstein. The story goes that Wittgenstein was sitting with his students who were condescendingly discussing how ignorant people were in the past believing that the Earth was the center of the universe. Wittgenstein reportedly interrupted them saying, “I wonder what it would look like to us if the sun did revolve around the Earth?”

The point, of course, is it would look to us exactly as we see it every day, and people in the past believing the sun moves around the Earth were perfectly rational in that belief. We call the phenomena “sunrise” and “sunset” because those labels accurately describe what we observe. That is what the universe shows us. We humans develop beliefs to explain phenomena, and using the words “sunrise” and “sunset” to describe the sun moving around us fits the bill just fine.

Believers in science will argue that science is progressive in its understanding of the universe. This is also true. Everything evolves, even religions. Humans are pretty good at adapting to circumstances and adjusting their beliefs to accommodate changes. Science is no different. It adapts to events and circumstances and changes. That’s important to accept—science changes.

False Prophets and False Gods

But when science changes, it is because it makes mistakes. Science gives us wrong explanations. Scientists make mistakes, misinterpret their observations, and make wrong predictions. Science and its priests are not inerrant. Sorry for the heresy, these are true facts.

I am NOT anti-science. But my obligation as a philosopher is to dig deeper, be unafraid of complexities, and disabuse people of false notions. I am willing to call BS when I see it, and there is a goodly chunk of BS in science.

To be fair, generally speaking, science has no more and no less BS than any other area of human endeavor. The thing is that people who say, “science is my religion,” and others who idolize science, believe that science will provide the answer to everything. In that belief, science stops being an inquiry for greater knowledge and becomes a fundamentalist religion of scientism–idolatry.

Scientism is the assumption that science should be the primary or even sole source of knowledge, establishing an ideology that places science beyond questioning.

Believers in science may retort that what differentiates science from religion is that scientists believe that science is the most successful approach ever to questions about the universe. Well, that’s no different than what a religious person would say about their faith: “Big-end-eggists believe that big-end-eggism is the most successful approach ever to questions about the universe.” Insert any religion or school of psychology into that sentence and it works. It is elitist exclusionism under any name, as evidenced by the “science is the most successful…” folks going on to denigrate every human endeavor that isn’t science.

What is the appropriate tool for the task?

If you want to say that science is “an” approach to answering questions, that’s good. Science is one useful approach among many. Science is a tool, and like any tool it works to accomplish certain tasks.

The purpose of any belief system is to explain phenomena and come up with useful ideas on how to do things. Science just deals with a particular set of sensory experiences, filtered by a particular set of assumptions, that lead to a limited set of useful ideas on how to do things. To have science as your religion is to limit yourself to one tool, when there are many tools in the human toolbox.

Human, All Too Human

Science is an is an expression of us as human beings. Religion is an expression of us human beings. Art is an expression of us as human beings. Like every other human expression, science is human.

The meaning of “science is human” is not only that science is as flawed as humans are but that science follows human predilections. Yes, scientism takes it on faith that science follows some higher form of knowledge. Very Platonic. Very biased. Too often, humans go into a situation assuming they know what is true and overtly or subconsciously twist their perceptions to fit their prejudgments. That’s true for all human situations — religion, philosophy, art, and science.

Edmund Husserl observed that scientists are self-forgetful theorizers. Scientists pretend they are not a part of their experiments and observations. Granted, good scientists do their best to keep their experiments and observations clean, but do they remember that any experiment they set up is “contaminated” by their own personal biases and assumptions? Scientists, or at least the followers of scientism, deride us philosophers for our alleged uncertainty, our constant questioning of ourselves, but scientists should also be continual self-questioners. We all should, because we are all human, all too human.

I’ve touched on these general topics before in some of my articles. I was inspired to write this article when I saw an article that researchers have uncovered that humans did not emerge from a single region of Africa. That idea sparked my interest because it is an example of how human assumptions create biases in science.

Thomas Kuhn argued that science was not the continual march of reason that it so often pretends to be. Instead, science is a human endeavor marked by long periods of dogmatic slumber resistant to new evidence and new ideas. Only when a sea change occurs, when science is flooded with overwhelming evidence, do the minds of some scientists change. Max Planck’s quote expresses this reality. Again, that is how all humans behave, and scientists behave that way because they are human.

The single-origin theory of Homo sapiens has had its long period of dogmatic slumber. It is difficult not to wonder how much the Abrahamic religions’ single-origin theory has colored science on this issue. Similarly, it is difficult not to wonder how much the Abrahamic religions’ Big Bang theory has colored science on that issue. Again, humans develop beliefs to explain phenomena around them, and humans prefer simple explanations. People prefer beliefs that the universe and Homo sapiens have single, simple origin stories. Scientists do too, and, consistent with what Kuhn and Planck said, scientists are resistant to evidence contrary to the single-origin theory of Homo sapiens and to the Big Bang-expansionist theory of the universe.

Alas, for humans, reality is complex, chaotic, and multdimensional. Most importantly, reality does not conform to human desires. We can theorize all we want, but the universe does not change in response. But we change when we see the universe in a different way. We gain more by being shown our mistakes than by being self-satisfied that we are right.

Science is tricky because reality is tricky, complex, chaotic, and multdimensional. Truth is an instrument used by human beings to solve their problems. Since problems change, then so must truth. Scientists should be researchers not religious idolators. They need to be less focused on having answers and more on questioning. We all do. Science is a very useful tool to gain knowledge that can help solve our problems. But just as we don’t have only one tool in our toolbox, we shouldn’t have only science as a tool in our quest for understanding.

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