The limits of science

The limits of science

Welcome back, Seeker!

Last week we made the first step in our daring adventure by dropping all our previous knowledge about the world and ourselves and reaching only after the sole thing we can be sure of: Sentio, ergo sum. I am aware, therefore I exist.

Now, we must put back the puzzle on the rest of the world. What do we know about the reality surrounding us?

Before we can answer that question, however, we must analyse our mental tools and processes. So let’s start with a very basic question: What is Knowledge?

Knowledge, in itself, can be defined as a set of information (or data) that carries meaning. Acquiring knowledge can be seen as a three-stage process:

  1. Through our senses, we receive information in various ways (empirical observation)
  2. We interpret the data (reason and logic)
  3. We integrate the interpretation of the data with our incumbent body of knowledge (our worldview) and thus we add knowledge about a specific aspect of the world.

To make sure we keep picking only the clean apples, let’s closely look at what each step entails:

First, when observing the world, we inherently do so from a first person view. Remember, you already discarded everything, including all that you think you know about what other people know! This is a very deeply entrenched bias that we, humans, have, because we are social animals and empathy and the theory of mind are fundamental aspects of our daily interactions. So, for now, only focus on your senses. Rationalists argue that senses can be treacherous, as there are numerous illusions. But no matter how you put it, the experience of an illusion is a real thing to you when it happens. Only when you rationalize it and compare it with the experience of other people, then it gets categorized as illusions or hallucinations. But remember, this is step 1, not 2 or 3.

The senses might play tricks on us, but the experience of an illusion is equally real to our unbiased mind

 

Secondly, we use logic and reason to analyse what we perceive. This is the most tricky step, because it is usually loaded with a lot of unwarranted assumptions. This is why I added step 3 as a separate one, even though one might argue that 2 and 3 are two sides of the same coin; I wanted to make the distinction clear between what we think we know and what we actually know. Here, in step 2, we have to rely on logic to make sense of the world as we perceive it. One might say that even if we drop any knowledge, logic in itself stays. Even if knowledge of logic is just another type of knowledge, logic is more than content waiting to be analysed. Logic is a special tool, that we cannot discard (if we value our sanity). I will come back on this point more thoroughly in another post.

Last, but not least, we compare the results of our computation with what we previously believed about the world. Does it make sense? If you saw a flying whale outside the window, was it something real or just an illusion? This is the moment where many of our experiences get a a posteriori labeling, and we add them to various little boxes and bottles that we frantically try to keep in order. See, seeker, we humans are afraid of chaos, of disorder. Our nature as temporary entities loathes epistemological uncertainty, because uncertainty cannot be controlled, and losing control would eventually entail the loss of the self. And this is something that we cannot easily permit.

So we seek certainty.

We do so by appealing to the assurance of other observers, of other minds – another human. After all, if another person saw a flying whale, then it was real, otherwise, it was an illusion. This is our reasoning.

What makes real, REAL? And what’s with people and flying whales?

 

Science as a tool for knowledge

Everything I briefly summarized so far (at least step 1 and 2, the third one is my own devise, to differentiate “how it should be” from “how it usually is”)  is known as positivism, and it a fundamental philosophical tenet upon which all modern science (ever since Newton). And I personally see it as very sound. It represents the sole philosophical position that can lead to the possibility of steady and incremental acquiring of knowledge about the world, in the most skeptical and critical possible way.

But what is science? And how do we use it to make sense of the world around us?

Simply put, (doing) science is a way of gathering and organizing knowledge about the reality we experience, offering testable explanations and predictions about every aspect of the universe.

And just like any major field of human activity, it has its own rules. Carefully devised over the ages, the scientific method is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries online as “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses”.

The scientific method, shamelessly grabbed from Wikipedia.

 

So do we have a way of acquiring solid knowledge about the workings of what we call “outside world”? Sure we do.

Is that science? Hell yes.

So does science answers all the existential questions that we might have, about the nature of reality, the meaning of our life, or the nature of consciousness?

NO WAY.

Wait, what?

The problem with science was never the fact that it is not able to answer the questions that are within its scope. The problem was that the scope of science and of the scientific method cannot, not even in theory to answer deep, metaphysical questions. Add to that the fact that in practice, the scientific community is made of fallible humans and we get a plethora of issues with modern day science (as a real phenomenon, not in theory). Where should I start?

I. Scientists doing philosophy while scorning philosophy

Well, that might sound like a head-scratcher, but it happens. A lot.

Take Bill Nye’s rant about the “uselessness” of philosophy to acquire knowledge. Or Neil deGrasse Tyson stating that philosophy is not “a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world”. Or Stephen Hawking declaring that “philosophy is dead.” The irony is double here. Not only they fail to understand that science both relies on philosophical assumptions to be able to reach for any knowledge, and that it historically derives from philosophy, but they also DO philosophy when they state such things (they make epistemological statements, more precisely; and in a very amateurish way).

II. Scientists abusing the limits of the scientific method

In the last 400 years, science (and the technology and engineering derived from it) changed the human existence. Mostly for the better. The lifespan was greatly extended, we got the abilities to exert control over nature to degrees never before reached, etc.

In our thirst for knowledge, we peered deep into space and into the subatomic realm, looking for ultimate answers. Alas, there are none. There are always smaller pieces of reality to peer in, and postulated things out there, in both physical space and metaphorical mental space. This thirst never seems to be quenched because the scope of science itself is to observe regularities, patterns in nature and to formulate predictions about their behavior, laws of physics and of the emerging complexities. But that always entails explaining one thing in relation to another. There are always two sides of an equation (metaphorically or not).

Also, there are practical, physical limitations of the things that can be tested through the scientific method:

Multiverse & string theory – probing the limits of science

Suppose you are a theoretical physicist specialized in cosmology. And in the zeitgeist of reductive physicalism, you observe that if the values of cosmological constants were just slightly off their current value, existence as we know it would be physically impossible. What do you make of that data? Well, you come up with a way of explaining why this amazing “coincidence” is something rather trivial – you postulate our universe as just one among myriad others, each with their own random universal constant values. Then, even the most uncommon set of events would become certain somewhere in the vast, infinite multiverse. With the obvious catch that you could never observe any other universe.

Sounds like something you would make up to win an argument in primary school? Yet it is a serious cosmological theory, the eternal inflation model.

But how is that science if you could never test the hypothesis? I would argue that it is not real science, it is just a mathematically well-devised way of defending a set of beliefs. Luckily, I am not the only one thinking that. Paul Steinhardt, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University and one of the early contributors to the theory of eternal inflation considers that “The multiverse idea is baroque, unnatural, untestable and, in the end, dangerous to science and society.”

Now let’s move from the size of the biggest to the size of the smallest. What is concomitantly the smallest brick of the universe and the key to understanding the forces that govern it? Enter String theory. The mathematically beautiful idea that at the Planck scale, strings of energy vibrating in 11 dimensions make up for anything in the Universe is also untestable. It would take peering at a scale 10 million billion times smaller than the resolving power of the Large Hadron Collider to test such a hypothesis.

So what both the above hypotheses have in common? Apart from a fairly large acceptance in the scientific community, of course. Well, the inability to be tested. But wait, wasn’t that one of the basic aspects of science? Falsifiability?

It turs out empiric falsifiability of hypotheses is what makes them science.

This is where I introduce today’s sidekicks for our journey. Mr. Karl Popper and Mr. Thomas Bayes.

Damnit, Bayes.

 

Karl Popper was an Austrian-British philosopher, best known for his contributions in the philosophy of science. A contemporary of both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, Karl Popper used the works of the two giants as a case study to draw a very important line between science and pseudoscience.

Einstein, for once, started with a rationalist approach. He looked at space and time from a totally fresh perspective and came up with some predictions. Even if the process did not start from observation, but rather from re-conceptualization (see: rationalism vs empiricism), he made falsifiable predictions. Which were confirmed. Einstein’s general relativity was science.

Freud, however, was slightly adapting his psychological theories to fit the observations of various cases. Such hypothesis was both un-falsifiable and could not make any specific prediction. That, concluded Karl Popper, was not science.

This line of demarcation would make the above stated hypotheses not science.

However, the proponents of the said untestable hypotheses defend then with something called Bayesian confirmation theory. Based on the work of the 18th century statistician Thomas Bayes, the idea of this theory is that trust in a hypothesis is on a continuum scale, where people set the goalpost for evidence to be convinced. So, ummm… basically if you want to believe in it, you do? No, thanks. The concept of (Bayesian) trust should have nothing to do with science in my humble opinion. Trust is too much of a similar concept with faith or belief to be scientific.

III. The scientific zeitgeist

Behind the German word Zeitgeist lies the idea that there is a set of ideals and beliefs that dominates the thinking in a group or society at a given time. Thomas Kuhn wrote extensively on how the Zeitgeist defines the beliefs of the scientific community in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 

Kuhn made a poignant argument on how the accumulation of knowledge in the scientific community is not slow and steady, but made from a cyclical model in which periods of conceptual (and metaphysical) lull are followed by periods of revolutionary science and paradigm shifts. This also was a watershed on the sensible topic of what I call scientific inertia: Scientists that have build their lifetime career on the development of an idea would do almost anything to see it defended. That includes ridiculing alternative explanations, the file drawer effect, and even making some areas of research taboo. In a psychological way, it is understandable. If you made your life from selling plumb additives, would you like to see it exposed as harmful? Yes, this is a real case.

As Kuhn shows, there are 5 phases in the evolution of any scientific zeitgeist:

  1. Pre-paradigm phase. In this phase, there is no mainstream paradigm. All competing views are equally debated and this is one period when the freedom to research is the highest. Eventually, the actors in the scientific community gravitate towards one conceptual framework and that leads to widespread consensus on many aspects of research, from topics, methods, terminology etc.
  2. Normal science phase. In this phase, all science is done within the context of the dominant paradigm. If you research something outside it, you are ridiculed, ignored, punished in various ways. Eventually, there are cracks in the mainstream paradigm, stemming mainly from the inability to explain observed phenomena within the current paradigm. Most are ignored; that is, until a critical mass is reached, where the weakness of the old paradigm are revealed. Nowadays paradigm is reductionist physicalism (or eliminative materialism).
  3. Crisis. The number of anomalies observed rises, as scientists start researching previously taboo areas.
  4. Paradigm shift. Also called a scientific revolution, this phase means usually changing important aspects of the worldview, a period where many underlying assumptions are reexamined. Much like we do on this journey.
  5. Post-revolution. The dominance of the new paradigm becomes consensus and the scientists return to normal science under the new paradigm.

Luckily the cycles are tens, if not hundred of years-long. And the explanatory power of the new paradigm was always better than the previous one. This is a positive aspect. That science is dominated by subjective guidelines is not.

IV. Scientism

I chose to present scientism last, at it is the gravest threat to science as a method of seeking knowledge.

“About what one can not speak, one must remain silent.” This is the last line from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. It is also one of the most misinterpreted lines in the history of the philosophy of science. The book was the subject of much interest among the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers that were trying to grasp to stable concepts while the rug of history was swept from under their feet in the changing time of the ’20s. They wanted to boil down all reality to empirical facts and to dismiss anything else as nonsense. In a way, they were probably the fathers of scientism – a form of exacerbated logical positivism where anything that cannot be measured (including things like ethical convictions, values and metaphysical ideas) was considered nonsense.

There is an anecdote that says that when Wittgenstein himself finally joined the group meetings at their invitation, he was so exasperated by their fallacious interpretation that he started reading Rabindranath Tagore poetry during their meetings.

Wittgenstein, the original misquoted guy.

 

The idea that science is the sole instrument for knowledge, discarding the importance of subjective experience, of philosophy and metaphysics etc, is a belief set. You might consider it a religion in itself. And just like any religion, they have a number of tenets:

  1. Science is the only important knowledge. All problems are scientific problems.
  2. Scientific knowledge should trump all other forms of knowledge.
  3. Certainty is always more important than wonder and mystery.
  4. Objective knowledge always trumps subjective knowledge.
  5. Lack of ability to secure scientific knowledge about a particular issue fundamentally makes it a non-issue.

On our search for knowledge, we should steer away from dogma. This one is no exception. The scientific method is an excellent tool for knowing the world. But we should keep in mind that the narrow narrative and agenda of nowadays science elite it is not the sole carrier of knowledge.

Seeking truths was never a easy and comfortable endeavor. We may not rest assured that men in white coats do the mental heavy lifting for us. They do their part and they represent a phenomenon that changed the world. Science is a mighty hammer to nail down the questions regarding many practical aspects of life. But it is not the only tool we have.

And not all questions are nails.

Choose and know your mental tools wisely and have faith in science, not in the scientific community!

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"There is no wealth like knowledge, and no poverty like ignorance." - Buddha

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  • Dana Lomas

    I don’t know that I’ve read a more cogent or eloquent exposition as a way to begin challenging the prevailing paradigm. I only wish blogs like this were around when I began that journey. Thanks for conceiving and creating it … looking forward to more.

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