Does Science Own the Truth?
Science Through the Lens of Scientism
I share with many a profound regard for science, the most successful approach to the acquisition of knowledge about the physical world ever devised by humankind. The products of science-driven technology have turned out to be - for better and sometimes for worse - world transforming. 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; nay, more: an ideology. It can be variously formulated, 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 tested - is the most valid and the most reliable, and that as such it should be extended to every domain of knowledge if at all possible. A proponent of such a view would therefore be prepared to accept any empirical finding as long as it is obtained with appropriately used scientific methodology. For instance, if many well designed laboratory studies provided reliable evidence of ESP (precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance), he would be prepared to accept their results even though seemingly at odds with current scientific assumptions about the nature of the physical world. After all, it is simply not the case that even the accepted body of scientific knowledge is always internally consistent: far from it. For instance, much research within the most mature natural science: physics, is driven by two major theories: quantum mechanics and general relativity, which although each very successful in their respective domains, make incompatible assumptions about fundamental aspects of physical reality (e.g., Macias and Camacho, 2008).
However, many, possibly most supporters of scientism go well beyond this ‘lite’ version of their creed. 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 without and within the scientific community, is often at risk of degenerating - even within the precincts of science itself - into a dogmatic ideology bent on purging the world of ‘heretical’ findings. Some historical considerations may help uncover the shortcomings of such a position.
Cumulative Growth and Revolutionary Change in Science
Since science is a historically evolving undertaking, the manner of its development is a question of great import. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), one of the originators of the scientific revolution, suggested that true science grows 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 (e.g., Kuhn (1964), Feyerabend (2010)) have shown that this is definitely not the way science always proceeds. Whereas there are indeed periods of cumulative growth, science also periodically 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 had taken 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 revolutionary changes began to unfold when trust in the essential validity of classical physics among its leading representatives was reaching its apex For instance, the first American Nobel laureate, Albert Michelson, wrote in 1902 that the most fundamental facts and laws of physics had been discovered, and were so strongly supported empirically that the likelihood of their ever being supplanted was negligible. Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) felt that physics was approaching completion, and in a similar vein Harvard physicist John Trowbridge (1843-1923) as early as the 1880s was advising his best students to avoid pursuing academic research in this discipline since all that was left to do there was to work out minor details and tide up loose ends. Incidentally, the inclination on the part of leading physicists to prophetize the end of their discipline does not seem confined to that period. In our own time, the late Stephen Hawking noted that the end of his science will be in sight once the elusive 'Theory of Everything' will have been finally formulated.
More than a century since the onset of that revolution, we are still trying to work out its implications concerning 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 physical 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 ideologues of science but scientists themselves, and science-based practitioners, at times display this attitude, with undesirable consequences, as the following examples show.
Stones From the Sky? Impossible!
Throughout the 18th century in Europe the dominant scientific view, despite abundant empirical 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 indefatigable skeptical debunker, was at the forefront of this assault on 'fake news' (see also Salisbury, 2010). By means of a chemical analysis of what was claimed to be a meteor, he discovered that the specimen contained a large amount of iron pyrites. According to Lavoisier, this proved beyond reasonable doubt that this all too terrestrial piece of rock 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 and weakens the significance of 'scientific consensus'). This 'debunking' of meteorites was considered so final that the major museums of six European countries destroyed their collections of such objects.
A Miscarriage of Medical Science
The consequences of dogmatism can be deadly at times, as underscored by Ignaz Semmelweiss’s (1818-1865) tragic life (see also Codell's and Carter's (2005) biography). 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) was twice as high as the other's. 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 lead to 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 pathological signs exhibited by that dying person and those 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 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 position toward Galileo’s claims was far more nuanced and subtle than the cases presented above.
A Psychology Without the Mind? Yes, If That's What It Takes to Make it ‘Scientific’
My preceding comments can be thus summarized: scientism is the view that places science at the center of human understanding. In its ‘lite’ version it proposes 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 seeks to mandate what is and what is not a constituent of the world 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 embarassment for this view's supporters, who generally tend to downplay their significance. More importantly, scientism in its more dogmatic expressions may actively inhibit the acquisition of new and potentially revolutionary knowledge, thereby achieving the opposite effect of its ostensible aim of promoting scientific development.
In a deeper sense however these two versions of scientism are closer than at first appears to be the case: for the scientific methodology itself constrains the way nature and the human world can be interrogated. For instance, the imperative to collect experimental findings that are quantifiable, inter-subjectively observable, repeatable, and well controlled, though laudable in most contexts, 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 (e.g., Watson, 1924). Mental processes are subjective and private events, not accessible to external observers, never exactly reproducible, highly qualitative in character 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 perception, 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 (see also Quester,207a, 2017b). 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 currently conceived. In a move entirely reminiscent of the behaviorist's approach, some contemporary theorists unwilling to recognize this possibility openly propose to dispose of the issue of consciousness altogether, by denying its very existence (Ibid.).
Like Cats in a Library?
Time to bring this hub to a close, to the relief of the few hardy souls 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 tentative, subjective, even idiosyncratic forays into the deeper aspects of reality pursued by the metaphysician, the poet, the mystic, the meditator, the artist, the phenomenologist. Their insights also should be treasured and acknowledged as expressions of our profound need to understand the world, whether or not they be 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 (see also Quester, 1917c).
Codell, C. K., Carter, B. R. (2005). Childbed fever: A scientific biography of Ignaz Semmelweiss.
Feyerabend, P. (2010). Against method (4th ed.). New York: Verso.
Kuhn, T. S. (1964). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.
Macias, A, and Camacho, A. (2008). On the incompatibility between quantum theory and general relativity. Physics Letters B. 663 (1-2), 99-102
Quester, J. P. (2017a). Is a non-materialistic view of the nature of mind defensible?https://owlcation.com/humanities/Is-the-Mind-Other-than-the-Brain
Quester, J. P. (2017b). What on earth happened to the soul? https://owlcation.com/humanities/What-on-Earth-Happened-to-the-Soul
Quester, J. P. (2017c). Is Human Understanding fundamentally limited? https://owlcation.com/humanities/IS-HUMAN-UNDERSTANDING-FUNDAMENTALLY-LIMITED
Salsbury, M. (2010). Meteorman. Fortean Times, 265.
Watson, J. B. (1924.) Psychology from the standpoint of a behaviorist (2nd ed.). Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott.
© 2015 John Paul Quester