Monday, May 16, 2011

The case against science

To: Samuel S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The case against science
Date: 28 May 2002 12:27

Dear Samuel,

Thank you for your e-mail of 21 May, with your first essay for the Associate program, entitled 'The Case Against Science'.

As a general comment, it seems to me that a case can be made for saying that your case is weakened rather than strengthened by your several references to 'the Post-Modern age' and its consequences.

If science is just one 'language game' we play amongst others, if there is no such thing as truth, but only a good or bad move in the game, then this counts against any proposed alternative, e.g. the 'art game' or the 'religion game'. No human enterprise can claim access to the ultimate level of reality, because there is none. On the other hand, if we really are free to choose which game to play, then the scientist can retort, 'I play the science game and I am quite happy with that.'

I suspect that you want to say that there is an ultimate level of reality and human beings do have access to it. The case against science, in these terms, is that it claims to have access to the ultimate level when in fact it doesn't.

What is science, or the scientific method? Care needs to be taken here that you are not attacking a straw man. There is a highly influential approach to the philosophy of science which fully accepts what you say about the limitations of scientific method. According to Karl Popper (see his 'Conjectures and Refutations') the testing of hypotheses is the 'objective' aspect of science, not their selection. To be judged 'scientific' a hypothesis need not have any prior evidence in its favour. It is sufficient that the proposer can state testable consequences of that hypothesis.

You might reply that objective 'testing' is an illusion, and whether a hypothesis is accepted or rejected depends upon our prior philosophical assumptions. Consider the statement, 'According to theory T, when we do X, effect Y will be observed.' According to the theory that a telescope enables you to see aspects of faraway objects that are not visible to the naked eye, if there are mountains on the moon, and you look through a telescope at the moon, you will observe mountains. Famously, the inquisitors who looked through Galileo's telescope refused to believe what they saw, and had a ready explanation. It's the work of the devil. Is that an example of what you mean?

The chief challenge to Popper's approach comes from Thomas Kuhn's 'Structure of Scientific Revolutions' which is notably missing from your bibliography. The main charge is that in practice, theories are held despite sometimes overwhelming evidence, simply because of the inertia of the scientific community. Kuhn talks about periods of 'normal' science, where researchers follow given paradigms of investigation, punctuated by 'revolutions' where new paradigms are put in place. Paul Feyerbend, in 'Against Method' takes this critique one stage further, arguing that 'scientific method' is never practised, and that the true situation is far more anarchic than scientists are prepared to recognize.

There is certainly a good case for saying that not all knowledge can be systematized. Personal experience and intuition are important sources of knowledge. What you need to show, however, is that science, or the idea of science is incapable in principle of being expanded to incorporate these ideas. To take one example, Sigmund Freud viewed psychoanalysis as a 'science'. Yet he places emphasis on the personal qualities of the analyst which cannot be reduced to the application of a series of rules that anyone could follow.

One of the chief claims made in favour of science as a source of knowledge is that it enables us to make predictions, hence your quote from Robert Park. One way to restrict science would be to argue that not all knowledge enables us to make predictions. How do you show this? Consider an individual whom we judge to be a fine judge of character. You say, 'Mr Brown is not to be trusted, despite appearances to the contrary' and I agree. I credit you with being a good judge of character, and you return the compliment. Naturally, because we both agree. But whether a person really is a fine judge of character is something which can be put to the test. For example, to everyone's surprise (except you and me) Mr Brown runs off to Mexico with the Society funds and the Chairman's wife.

On the other hand, not all intuitive knowledge is like this. For example, religious experience, or aesthetic experience. What is the case for saying that these are not just experiences which many human beings share, but a source of knowledge of the real world? It is not enough to argue that science is limited, that there are problems which science may never be able to solve (e.g. problems arising from irreducible complexity) because all that justifies us in saying is that there are limits to knowledge set by the human condition. It does not justify, without further argument, the claim that there exist alternative sources of knowledge that can be used to fill the gap.

I know that I have raised a lot of points. However, this looks a promising essay, and I certainly would not wish to dissuade you from exploring the topic further.

All the best,

Geoffrey