SATURDAY, JANUARY 24, 2015
At 8 pm we gathered over wine and cheese and bread and a delicious pesto pizza that Don and Anne brought. At 8:30 we moved into the living room to begin our discussion.
1. An Overview of Our Reading on the Scientific Revolution
I started by giving a rough overview of some of the materials that we had read for the meeting, particularly those focusing on Galileo and Francis Bacon. (I thought it would be worth it to take a few minutes to do this, for those who had perhaps not had a chance to get to all the reading.)
Galileo Galilei, 1564 – 1642
So we began with Galileo.
For more than 2000 years before him, I reminded the group, from the ancient Greeks and Romans on through the Middle Ages, natural philosophers had used their vaunted power of reason to generate universal principles. As a kind of afterthought, they would sometimes seek to demonstrate these principles by way of experiment.
Galileo respected this more traditional, deductive approach to science.
But he also employed a new approach.
Namely, Galileo began to perform experiments and collect data first, and from these experiments he would derive a universal principle – which he would then confirm by way of reason.
Put this way, this is only a difference in the order of steps, right?
Reason → Experiment
Experiment → Reason
In fact, as we all know, this change would have profound ramifications for the world.
For experimental data come directly from nature (and not from the error-ridden presuppositions of the mind).
Data are accessible to anyone.
Data cannot be imposed from above. Data may surprise and astonish and offend, and they are not afraid.
Francis Bacon, 1561 – 1626
In this way, Galileo inaugurated a new era in thinking, by his use of mathematics and thought experiments (and even a few hands-on experiments) as a way to investigate the world.
Francis Bacon did something important too. He was the first to attempt to articulate, in a cohesive fashion, what we recognize today as “the scientific method.”
A contemporary of Galileo, Bacon was not a scientist, but rather he was… a lawyer. His importance to the development of the scientific method lies, accordingly, not in any of his discoveries, but in the way that he formulated a new approach to inquiry.
Bacon advocated starting with nature, and generating exhaustive lists of observable facts, or “histories,” not unlike someone preparing a case for court.
Based on these histories, he argued, certain questions could be framed, and – importantly — experiments conducted, from which conclusions about the world might be drawn. Bacon’s approach is one of induction (as opposed to deduction), trying to understand nature from the bottom up, as it were.
It turns out that Bacon had a big influence on the course of science, and much of it after his death.
A meeting at the Royal Society, Somerset House, London, 1843
He died in 1629. But in 1662 a group of his admirers formed the Royal Society, with the explicit goal of advancing Baconian principles. And over the centuries that followed, the Royal Society proved to be a formidable engine of scientific discovery. It was, for example, the venue that fostered Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, more than two hundred years after its founding.
2. Tom’s Presentation: Are the Values of Science All We Need?
Overview of the readings done.
At this point I pivoted to make a more personal point.
Why did I want us to read on Galileo and Bacon, anyway? I explained to the group that, to my mind at least, this is not dry, dusty history at all.
I have the strong sense that the underlying values of science, so long obscured to the public by the productions of science, are now, some 400 years later, more important than ever.
For many years, I pointed out, science has meant… stuff. The steam engine, the cotton gin, chloroform, the screw propeller, the telegraph, the telephone, the machine gun, the airplane, central heating, penicillin, nuclear fission, the computer — you name it, the changes wrought on our lives have been overwhelming.
As a result, science has been (and to a large extent, remains) synonymous, in many people’s minds, with technology. Out of a sense of caution, people have kept everything personal and emotional and sacred in their lives away from it. They have the reasonable urge to protect those things that they associate with deeper meaning from these baffling technological changes. (See C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 essay, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution for a discussion of the division between science and the humanities that runs through our education system as well.)
But now something new, something big, is happening, I think.
And we are lucky enough to be alive to witness it.
After some 400+ years, the saturation of science into our world has reached the point that even non-scientists are beginning to grasp the value of the scientific method as more than… stuff, but a meaningful perspective on life itself.
When you think about it, in fact, the values of science are pretty much exhaustive of the values of a well-lived life.
I mean, let’s consider the threshold requirements for doing science…
Everyone is equally welcome.
Tell the truth.
Rely on evidence whenever possible.
Use parsimony (Occam’s razor) to distinguish between contrasting interpretations.
Accept the demand of verifiability (or more accurately, falsifiability).
Insist on public confirmation of private results (submit to peer review).
Feel comfortable with uncertainty.
These, I would suggest, are not merely a batch of coherent values – they are exactly the values we need for a good life! They pretty much will do it for us, if we are willing to live by them.
Oh — except they leave out one, perhaps the most important: love.
Which, I suggested, we can add, like so much gold dust, sprinkling it over the top of the others…
Doubt. Parsimony. Truth-telling. Turning to evidence.
What more do we need?
Nadine spoke up first to say that the scientific method reminded her of how children play.
They explore first, without taking a principled approach or even making a hypothesis. They bend an object, twist it, taste it, bite it, and so on — until it breaks. So perhaps the inductive, bottom-up method behind science is innate in us, and it has only been blocked for so many millennia because of pre-conceived notions (which adults make up and force upon their children)?
Don suggested that, perhaps, until recently we were ill-equipped cognitively to apply ourselves in the rigorous, doubting, highly attentive manner that science requires. He referenced research (Don — can you give us a name of the study?) on the toll that our poor diet took on our capacity to engage in the processes of higher reasoning. “When all you are eating are stems and roots,” Don said, “You can’t do much more than get through the day.”
Ken brought up the work of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn to call into question the idea that the underlying values of science are so important and effective after all. Kuhn famously argued in his work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, that progress in science is not as open-ended and driven by discovery as we imagine it. Instead, as Ken explained to the group, Kuhn details how the prevailing paradigms in each scientific field are highly rigid — and consensus is strictly enforced by scientists upon one another. A culture of groupthink prevails right up to the moment when the data contradicting this paradigm (let’s say the classical mechanics of Isaac Newton) make it no longer defensible, at which point the paradigm shatters and someone else picks up the pieces to build a new paradigm (e.g. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity). If Kuhn’s theory is true, Ken suggested, then it should cast doubt on the idea that humans are engaged in some high-minded pursuit of truth by way of the scientific method.
Setenay also mentioned that there are always questions of resource distribution, exclusion of unwanted groups, academic politics, flawed assumptions in basic models, and many other factors that make science less of a pure, universally accessible, truth-seeking enterprise than my remarks might suggest. “Pure science,” she offered, “may incorporate many of these great values you mentioned, Tom. But very few scientists, in my field of environmental engineering, for example, practice this kind of pure science. A whole slew of personal, social, economic and even political considerations inevitably enter into our work, our projects, even into our models and interpretations of data.”
Anne, who is a science journalist, gave a rousing defense of the ideal of science, saying that despite corruption and bias she believes that science does prevail in the end. And if you are rejected from one journal, or squelched in one area of research by the prevailing “paradigm,” there will be other journals, other resources, over time. Truth will out. The scientific method prevails.
3. Is Science More Open to ‘Miracles’ Than Religion?
I was with Anne. While fully admitting that my view of science is romantic (I see science through the rose-tinted spectacles of someone who reads about it, but doesn’t do it), I felt compelled to defend it too.
In my attempt to do so, I presented the following “thought experiment.”
With as much drama as I could muster, I began…
“If Jesus of Nazareth were to descend from the ceiling, this moment, and hover a few inches above this… this… dias…” (I was pointing to a small, circular coffee table, marred by stains from years of tea mugs) “…what would we do?”
Yep. This guy.
In mid-air above the coffee table.
My voice began to quiver with ersatz rapture as I continued…
“You see the light, streaming from His head. The white robe, rippling around Him… He gazes at us with fierce eyes…
“I have no doubt — do you? — that we would be open to accepting Him, despite not being religious!
And here’s why: after we got over our initial shock, we would receive this visitation of Jesus of Nazareth as observable data, just like all the rest of the data in our lives. Considering how remarkable this vision was, we would, of course, be absolutely curious to know more about it! We would want to examine it in all its particulars, have teams of scientists conduct studies on it, converse with it (if possible!), record the event on HD video, etc.
“Once we had managed to establish that there were no hidden projectors or magicians tricks involved (in other words, once we had assured ourselves that it was based on evidence; could not be falsified; that there was no more parsimonious explanation available; etc.), we would be happy to consider the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth’s Second Coming really happened in a living room in Berkeley, California, at a meeting of the Old New Way, in the year 2015.”
(Most of us anyway. Maybe Dean would be a hold-out?)
“For something would have changed our (scientific and therefore always provisional) worldview: the arrival of the convincing sense-data of a floating figure in our midst, a creature previously unrecorded in the annals of science!
“The appearance of Jesus, in this case, would not represent a miracle; we would not be succumbing to a religious point of view. On the contrary, it would represent a fact!” (Mind you, this would take multiple, double-blind studies on the phenomenon, peer-reviewed in respectable journals, before we could call it, even colloquially, a scientific “fact”. With that we are with you, Dean.)
“And here’s what is really interesting, I think. I am convinced that a group of religious people would be more likely to look aghast at this apparition, run away, scream, curse it as the work of the Devil, than us scientific-minded folk. Okay, okay, maybe if this Jesus just so happened to act and look precisely in the manner that they expected then they would accept Him faster even than us. (Surely most evangelical Christians in the U.S. would accept that fair-skinned, blue-eyed, goldilocked guy we all know so well with minimal friction.)
“But if he did not match their preconceived picture, I think that this floating figure would be seen as a terror, a threat. I suspect that their lack of curiosity about the material world, their lack of familiarity with the inductive approach of Bacon et al. would hamper them from exploring the particulars of this event standing before them. Indeed, they might face a kind of psychological paralysis, or traumatic event, considering that their private certainties would be overturned. Jesus is not supposed to look like this! Jesus would not appear now, here, in this random living room in Tom and Renée’s house on a Thursday night! I didn’t imagine it this way.”
When I was done, Renée spoke up to say that this “thought experiment, whatever it was,” struck her as… “not useful.” She wanted to move on.
Taken aback by her vehemence, I briefly made an effort to explain why I had brought it up:
“But, but — what I’m just trying to say is that those who have absorbed the values of science are actually more open to facts in the world, even including seeming ‘miracles,’ than religious people!”
But it wasn’t working. She gave me a look as if to say, “Are we done?” So we moved on.
4. Dean’s Assertion of Scientific Facts — and His Frustration with the “F-ing Idiots” Who Refuse to Accept Them
At this point Dean could no longer contain himself.
He argued that it was all well and good to admire the values of science, the doubt, the provisional nature of its findings, and so on.
But there are certain findings that are really irrefutable and should not be questioned. Scientists are their own worst enemies when they constantly talk in a muddled way about the uncertain and provisional nature of scientific facts, because it feeds the idiocy of the deniers and nuts who subscribe to mystical and religious pabulum of all kinds.
“The universe began approximately 13 and a half billion years ago. Period,” Dean stated. “It started with the Big Bang. If you deny these facts, then you are a fool. So my question is: what should we do when we encounter people who live with a completely different worldview which denies the scientific consensus on things like this? Or even worse, when they deny things with direct consequences… like, say, the relationship between the release of carbon into the earth’s atmosphere and climate change? What do we do, ignore them? Try to convince them? I want to put that out there for the group to answer.”
Heather argued that we would not be able to convince them because their “attachments” align them otherwise. Their emotional and personal needs position them on the other side of the science community in these cases, and therefore they select only those findings that fit with their own narrative.
Yann mentioned a study (click here for the link) in which it was shown that, in the United States at least, it is actually the more highly educated, in areas of the country in which majorities deny the effect of human activity on climate change, who are the most inflexible and adamant in their position. This is counterintuitive, he acknowledged, but it is revealing too. More education, more facts, he said shaking his head, will not sway opinion.
I tried to reframe the argument — as a way of answering Dean’s question of what we can do when faced with such obstinacy. As Heather and Yann are suggesting, I agreed, we can’t meet their certainty with our certainty and have any hope to convince them. They have a narrative in their heads about God’s glorious plan for the earth. And our own certainty about the damage being inflicted on the planet by the burning of fossil fuels isn’t going to change that one bit. That kind of approach is a losing battle from the beginning. And we will lose it every time, I argued, because with Dean’s approach we have already ceded to them the frame in which we are talking!
When you meet one certainty with another certainty, you are tacitly accepting a quasi-religious claim to what knowledge is.
Instead, I argued, we have to get it through their heads that there is no capital-T Truth, and none of us will ever have certainty. There is only evidence… probability… and yes, degrees of consensus, which in the case of scientific inquiry really means nothing more than “the consensus of a many people who have looked carefully at this question and checked their work against one another’s.”
We have to ask them: what’s your method? Private revelation? Appeal to authority? We have to get them to try to defend their method against ours, and insist that ours is more public, more open-ended, and ultimately more humble.
Dean is concerned that we weaken our argument by resorting to talking about the preponderance of the data and provisional claims — that is, when we use the language of science. Yet I would argue that we should actually double-down on this kind of talk! We need to insist that our claims for, say, the age of the universe or the danger of carbon emissions in the atmosphere ARE provisional and uncertain, but they are also THE BEST HUMANITY CAN CURRENTLY DO.
In fact, seen this way, our framework, the scientific worldview, encompasses theirs (all of their talk of God’s glorious plans and the Garden of Eden, etc., are equally viable as research subjects, just as much as anything else). All we are saying is that if you can convince others who are willing to check your facts and your reasoning, then even your religious-infused interpretation of the temperature trends of the planet has a fair shot! But you can’t refuse to subject your judgments to scrutiny, and then turn around and say that all those interpretations and judgments which have been subjected to scrutiny are no more valid than yours.
Nadine brought up, in this context, her concern that ultimately those of us who are not scientists (or even if scientists, are not specialists in the field in question), are compelled to take much of what we read on “trust” — or even, dare we say it, “faith.” So what is the difference, she asked, between the faith of the religious person and the faith of those who are willing to accept scientific findings?
Luis pointed out that the difference is one of willingness to revise if necessary. The person who accepts the age of the universe to be 13.798 billion years old because he or she understands that it is the scientific consensus (based on measurements of electromagnetic waves, “red-shift” etc.), will be willing to revise this to 14 billion years, or even, hell, one day, if the scientific consensus shifts accordingly. We are admitting the possibility of error. So our “trust” or “faith” is in a method, not in a particular answer.
I was tempted to bring back the Second-Coming-of-Jesus thought experiment here, to illustrate once again the willingness of scientific-minded to admit error. But one glance at my wife and I knew better.
5. Do the Monsters Unleashed by Science Rightly Undermine Its Appeal?
At this point we branched into a different discussion.
I felt it was important to acknowledge the serious costs inflicted on humanity and the earth by technology, which is, after all, made possible by scientific method. We can praise the underlying values of science all we want, and perhaps they have done much good (particularly in the fields of health and agriculture). But then we have the threat of nuclear extinction, a planet which may be heated beyond what is sustainable for human life, the acidification of the oceans, and so on. Don’t the various productions of science discredit the whole project?
My own answer to this was that you don’t reject love entirely, just because of the harm done in some cases by… divorce. There are bad consequences of some good things, but those consequences can and must be distinguished from the thing itself. (Marie-José, having no idea what I was talking about, heckled me from her position on the other side of the room, “Love makes divorce? What?”)
Yann was more hopeful that the monsters will be managed. He spoke of an “arc” of progress, which has been demonstrated in many fields, according to which a new practice or method “self-corrects” itself over time. (I would like to see some study on this, Yann — please send us a link.) If he is right, then not only can we distinguish the good of science from its more unfortunate productions, but we can expect science to get it right over time and reduce the number of errors it makes along the way. Though Yann admitted that there is a risk that it won’t self-correct in time, and we will face extinction.
Heather sighed somewhere in this discussion, “Oh, I have had about enough of this…” (She can’t stand talk of extinction, annihilation, apocalypse.)
6. Where Love Fits In With Science
We had fallen into the trap, so common in our culture, of discussing the values of science merely in terms of the effects of science. As if science must be cordoned off to its own sphere.
So, as it was getting late, I steered the group back to the conversation that we had at the beginning of the meeting. Do scientific values apply to other aspects of our lives? Should they?
Marie-José spoke up to say that she felt science may be able to describe the biological and chemical processes of love, but it can never capture the actual experience of it. Therefore it doesn’t satisfy as a worldview — we need poetry and music and other unquantifiable depictions of first-person experiences to guide us too.
Dean said that he believed that all of it is measurable and quantifiable — even our love for our children, which can be reduced to an evolutionary impulse to protect our DNA. And yet this still leaves us feeling these things. Science does not drain life of meaning because of its descriptive and explanatory power.
Heather offered her view that we need illusions. That the raw and ugly truth offered by an exclusively scientific outlook would be too bleak. (She was still recovering from all that talk of annihilation and extinction.)
I countered Heather’s point to say that I did not think that truth, when exposed, is necessarily raw and ugly. Her comment reminded me of my problem with John Gray’s book The Silence of Animals, an excerpt from which we read for the meeting. Gray suggests that scientists and liberals generally are trapped in a myth of human “progress,” and that without this myth we would be bereft. As I read him I kept thinking, “No. Not true.”
I don’t have any conviction, any myth, of progress! (Do you?) I see us as animals, with a drive for consumption and even hoarding of energy and resources. Our intellectual capacities are no doubt fascinating, but limited. In the end, we may very well sabotage the only planet we inhabit (as Dean memorably put it, humans ‘shit in their own soup and eat it, again and again!’). Yet I’m not bereft. To my way of thinking, the lack of absolute meaning does not lead to a nihilistic worldview. When you let go of your myths you soon come to terms with all the changeable, small meanings in your life, and you get quite attached to them without making a myth out of them.
But the point of Marie-José that love’s subjective experience lies outside the reach of science did resonate with me, I added. I had talked at the start of the meeting about sprinkling the values of science with the “gold dust” of love — but what if this is a combination that just doesn’t mix well?
How do we mix the third-person “objectivity” of science with our first-person subjectivity? How do we know when to move from one habit to another? What’s the trigger, for example, during an argument with a friend, that we might use to move from our impartial assessment of the evidence and the application of the rule of parsimony (in scientific values mode with him)… to a decision to simply, silently, hear our friend’s hurt, not with the aim of recording it as data but instead just hearing it (love mode)? How can science tell us when to make that switch in our approach?
Close to the end of the meeting Gerry shared his own experience as a cardiologist, circling back to the skeptical view of the scientific method. Although he recognizes the great achievements of science (after all, the entirety of his work is based on them), he has also seen over the years how much the scientific consensus is shaped by distortions in the health care market, by the whims of editors in scholarly journals, by trends in the field. He has learned to adapt to the point that five years from now he expects to be doing very different things than he does now, some of them in direct opposition to current practices. That was a useful cautionary note from the field.
Luis mentioned that famous quote from Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” He said that he thinks of the scientific method along these same lines: flawed, but the best we have.
By the end of the meeting I, for one, realized that we have a long way to go before we determine that the values of science are all we need for a good life.
They are surely valuable (I’m still enamored of them!), but perhaps they are more applicable to social, external, even political settings? Perhaps at our more private and internal moments we need another source of guidance?
Interesting, that back in November we found Epicurus to be too individualistic in his philosophy. For example, he struck us as too focused on the insubstantiality of his own death while not acknowledging the enormous suffering and loss that his death might cause in the lives of others (and, similarly, the suffering and loss that the death of friends might cause in his life). And here in our next discussion we find science to be perhaps too outward-looking in its outlook! It looks to public confirmation, evidence, verifiability, but it leaves out the subjective and unique experience of each person.
Onward. More investigating to do in the months ahead.
It is such an honor to be part of this open and searching (and loving, gold dust and all!) group.
See you in February.
A few thoughts after reading these notes on the meeting…
From Brian Greene’s book, “The Elegant Universe” i found the distinction between theoretical physicists and experimental physicists illuminating. Both follow the scientific method inasmuch as they both acknowledge that they are building a construct that is perturbative, that is, the first brick in the edifice could later prove to be flawed and all that followed would need to be rebuilt. The difference is that the experimental physicists only rely on data. The theoretical physicists make use of their human capacity for imagination and ‘flights of fancy”, in other words, artistic license to project without available data. For example the ‘string theorists” recognize that there is no available mathematics to apply to confirm their theory. Einstein’s theories were later proved when the data and the math could be applied. Your point that the scientist must always be prepared to accept that everything is provisional and only probable and be prepared to jettison certainly applies to both types. I would argue that the theoretical physicist melds the scientific method and artistic sensibility.
The other reading I benefited from was E.O. Wilson, ” The Meaning of Human Existence”. As a octogenarian biologist he can afford to use such a hubristic title. He stresses the importance of applying the scientific method, namely data mining, to our archeological and paleontological past. His emphasizes collecting our data from the earliest evidence as important for the “first brick” in the edifice. Darwin is the fabulous example, but doesn’t go back far enough.
Also, I thought this article in the New York Times was interesting:
At least once scientist would not be ready to believe in the second coming even if you proved it to him!
Robert Sapolsky – answer to What do you think is true though you cannot prove it?
On another note, we do incorporate the scientific values you mentioned (truth seeking, doubt, falsifiability, uncertainty tolerance) in our intimate lives – we form and test hypotheses about the feelings and motivations of others and ourselves. The psychoanalyst Carlo Strenger beautifully describes how this ‘scientific’ (my word) attitude can (must!) live in tension with an unselfconscious immersion in our own experience. It is a tension “between identification with one’s own perspective and the detachment from it…as human beings we have the ability to experience ourselves from within and to reflect about ourselves from without…[but] we cannot be in a constant state of self-reflection. Perpetual self questioning and self evaluation would leave us with nothing to live for. If we only step back and watch ourselves from the outside, nothing can ever acquire value and meaning…Critical reflection can create knowledge and correct biases, inconsistencies and incoherence in our desires and values, but its activity must be based on basic desires which are not of rational origin. We have a profound need to take ourselves, our values and our desires serious, and to live them rather than to think about them.” [From The Classical and Romantic Vision in Psychoanalysis, 1989]
Some questions may never be answerable with science (Are other beings conscious? What happened before the big bang?), and some are simply not the purview of science (what is the meaning of my life?). I believe this is called the Demarcation Problem.