Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#27 - Science and Postmodernism

American Heathen:  aired: 19 January 2013

Postmodernism is a philosophical position that holds there is no objective reality because everything we experience is via our brain’s interpretation of sensory input.  This idea was the basis for several scenes in the first Matrix movie.  The basic principle in that movie is that if sensory input is controlled by ‘the matrix’ (a machine intelligence), it would be impossible to tell the difference.  It’s a variant on the old sophomoric question “What is reality?”  Of course, in the movie, the hero Neo somehow is able to sense that something is wrong with the world created for him by the machines and so joins the “underground” opposition comprising people who are free from the control of ‘the matrix’.

Postmodernism sees science as an activity that’s a completely social construct with no firm basis.  This viewpoint can also be understood as a form of scientific relativism.  If an objective reality exists, in this view, we would have no way to be certain of it.  Hence, science is a completely relative thing, conditioned on the social context from which it has emerged.  Among other things, postmodernism has been used to justify the notion of ‘feminist science’ that proposes the difference between the cognitive styles of men and women allows for distinctly difference science to develop between the genders.  If science has no basis in an objective reality, it seems plausible that science thereby would depend strongly on its social, human context.  A wide diversity of distinct forms of science would be possible, perhaps up to one for every human being on Earth.

I probably won’t convince any postmodernists out there, but I believe this to be a bunch of sophomoric philosophy that flies in the face of our actual experience.  I’ll be attempting to dispel this notion in what follows.

There can be no doubt that science is done by human beings, with all of the baggage that humans carry with them.  Amidst that baggage train are cultural and societal biases and beliefs.  If the history of science is followed as it emerged from the Dark Ages, we can look backward and recognize that at any moment in the past, various prejudices affected the scientific consensus about specific scientific topics.  If you are raised in a world where virtually everyone believes in a flat Earth, it can be very difficult to have that implicit assumption not contaminate your attempts to understand the natural world.  In the original Cosmos series, Carl Saga describes how 17th century astronomer (and astrologer!) Johannes Kepler labored long at trying to fit the astronomical data to a concept known as the ‘music of the spheres’ – a futile attempt to impose a social construct on the reality of the observations.

In his book “The Mismeasure of Man” – an exploration of how cultural prejudices produced the erroneous notion that intelligence could be established with a single measure – Stephen Jay Gould says “I criticize the myth that science is an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view the world as it really is.”

I say that all of us – every last one – views the world through a filter each of us has developed for ourselves.  This filter is unique to individuals, but may share many elements with the filters of other people.  We began work on this filter from the moment of our birth.  It has been shaped by our experiences but it, in turn, influences us in how we see the world, and what we deem to be either important or important … to us as individuals.  All of us are blind to much of the factual reality that surrounds us.  It’s there in front of us, but we simply don’t see it.  It’s only by some process that is hard to understand that some of us can finally get a glimpse beyond our self-imposed blinders and recognize something no one else has ever seen before.  Kepler went through many failed attempts to impose his conceptual model on the astronomical data he had but, in a flash of insight, he at last divined an elegant way to match the data that eventually made Kepler a famous figure in the history of science.  When that insight comes, it apparently emerges from the subconscious, which may be more open to new thoughts than our conscious minds.  Humans continue to be far from a thorough understanding of how our minds work!  I’ve had this experience myself in my research and it’s amazing how you suddenly can see something so clearly that has been there all along but no one took notice before you.

The point is quite simple, actually:  to be a scientist, you must assume there’s a factual reality!  We’ll never understand it completely, but science demands that we test our understanding of that reality using evidence (data).  If a concept comes along that fits the data better than any previous notion, it becomes the basis for a revised understanding.  We cannot escape the social context in which we’re embedded, but science proceeds on the very pragmatic idea that we accept only concepts that fit the evidence.  When new evidence is collected, old ideas must be examined courageously against the new evidence – if the ideas don’t fit, they must be discarded no matter how much we may cherish them.  There can be no such things as ‘feminist science’ or ‘conservative science’ or ‘presbyterian science’ – there is only science.

Because we’re human, science is always incomplete and flawed, always contaminated by the implicit assumptions of our time and place, never totally objective.  The process, however, is one of continuing self-examination and self-correction when errors or misconceptions are found, inevitably driven by evidence.  To the extent that our scientific understanding of the natural world seems to be quite successful when applied to solving practical problems is strong evidence in its own right that our assumed factual reality is actually out there.  No matter how limited our comprehension of that reality has been along the path of science, we scientists (who come from all cultural backgrounds and all types of humans) have been demonstrating that we’re all engaged in the same process:  science!  The postmodernists and scientific relativists are demonstrably wrong.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.