The Issue With (Some) Scientists and (Most) Non-scientists: Part 1

Note that the title indicates not a problem with science but some scientists – this distinction is key. Science is what scientists ideally do, but no scientist exists in a vacuum. Science is, after all, a social enterprise, and even the great Sir Isaac Newton dedicated more time to alchemy and theology than the development of calculus - but does this indicate a lapse in intelligence, or is it simply a reflection of the beliefs that were taken for granted within a specific socio-historical context? The doctrines of today may be the fairy tales of tomorrow, but how does the ontological status of a perspective change? I hope to provide a hint of this answer in this two-part series.

Some Tendencies underlying Scientific Practice

The progression of science has not been smooth, even the most ardent naturalist must admit. But this acknowledgement does not entail the scientific method to be “merely socially constructed activity” and leave it at that. Indeed, a host of disproved theories, suspicious claims and premature extrapolations are cherry-picked by many postmodernists and theologians alike (what strange bedfellows!) to make us question whether “progress” is even a viable descriptor when addressing the technology of today! To address this charge head on is beyond the scope of an amateur blogger, but the interested reader is directed to “Fashionable nonsense…” by Sokal & Bricmont, which is a classic text in this regard.

For our present purposes, I will simply outline a number of trends that have permeated throughout the history of science that have led to many of these inconsistencies, at least historically. Until quite recently which, these trends were considered appropriate even as the dualism that was permitted inadvertently maintained a belief in the “other.” So widespread is this tendency to submit to abstract entities as explanatory causes that it SEEMS to be a “given” of human nature, though I will argue it can be fought (in part 2). It suffices to say that such dualistic tendencies once directed the evolution of the biological and physical sciences, and though they have been relegated to the archives of history, one final, crippling remnant persists. But before I discuss what this is, and how it may well be the last bastion of a theistic/deistic stance, let me unpack some of these trends.

Vitalism

There was a movement within biology known as “Vitalism”, a spandrel of the church’s once-overarching influence on scientific activity. According to this view, "living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things” (Wikipedia; Bechtel & Richardson, 1998). Although few respected biologists would associate themselves with this worldview in the present day (although there are exceptions), it is worth noting that at one point in time, vitalism was both fashionable and rationally permissible, with the enormous complexity of biological machinery being cited as only explainable through the incorporation of an animistic element.

Nowadays, the concept remains mostly in the vernacular of various “new age” therapies involving crystals, auras, or whatever object pleases the quack’s aesthetic fancy; thankfully, it has (mostly) been discarded from serious science (but google ‘NCCAM’ for a disheartening exception). I suspect the greater majority of the world still believes there to be some fundamental “non-physical/supernatural” element governing our personal lives giving them “meaning”, despite the obvious paradox in such thinking, namely, that if a supernatural event affects a natural event, what is its medium of interaction? Does it lie in the supernatural or natural domain? If the former, it is by definition unprovable. If the latter, how was the first event supernatural? Admittedly, we cannot blame the biologists of old for they lived in a context not unlike those in many Islamist countries today where, for many, unbelief is not even an option.

Aether

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The physical sciences had their own ghost in the machine, of course. Everybody knows about the mysterious “aether” that the Greeks thought enveloped the heavens, a concept that physicists could not disentangle themselves from until as recently as the 20th century. The most famous proponent of this mysterious substance in (relatively) recent times was none other than Einstein’s own contemporary and Nobel prize winner, Hendrik Lorentz, which should remind the reader that a human being may well be exceptionally-talented, hard-working, honest, kind, intelligent, and scientific while still engaging in wish-thinking, even if s/he does not believe s/he is doing so. Aether has re-appeared in a new guise nowadays; widespread publications of non-verified ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ abound in the popular press, whereas more parsimonious accounts that do not involve the postulation of invisible entities both exists and, in many cases, predicts the asymmetrical decay in orbital velocity of stars far away from the center of spiral galaxies as well as accounts postulating mysterious ‘dark’ entities (the interested reader is encouraged to google ‘Riccardo Scarpa’ and read his seminal 2006 paper for an introduction to the topic). The take-home message is that although predictions can be met with sufficient accuracy in the short-term by liberally incorporating free parameters (recall Tycho Brahe’s epicycles), doing so can clog up the progression of science (we won’t all be fortunate to have students like Kepler!)

Are you starting to pick out the common tendency yet? Perhaps with the succeeding section, the revelation will become apparent.

The Invisible Elephant

So we discarded the anima (vis-à-vis Vitalism) in the biological sciences, although aether is undergoing a veiled re-appraisal in the physical sciences…but how does this relate to supernatural beliefs amongst intelligent human beings? I understand applied professionals provide services and businessmen chase profits, while the postmodernist/poststructuralist/constructionist is satisfied to remain engaged in casuistry. Can we blame our politicians for this mess, as our preferred scapegoats? For once, however, politicians cannot be held accountable (for philosophical immaturity) - expecting politicians to enlighten their constituents is akin to expecting a dog to teach French.

The more worrisome question is, how can those advancing the boundary of human knowledge still hold on to fairy tales involving flying horses and wooden crosses? It is our tendency to prognosticate, our desire to predict, our need to understand that drives the most rational of our enterprises…unmitigated, this same tendency leads to a most toxic of abstractions from the slightest of premises i.e. a belief in an unverifiable “other”, a reification of the non-real, an actualization of the made-up. And this dissonance will never be remedied until we exorcise humanity of its’ own ghost in the machine, the “soul” in all its guises, including, but not limited to, the “mind”. I take on this invisible elephant in part 2 of this blog.

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