It is interesting that scientists rail against Christian fundamentalists, because so many scientists are equally fundamentalist about their own disciplines.
Let us begin with examples, data; let us use science against the scientist.
I have previously mentioned Bernard Barber’s paper, ‘Resistance by Scientists to Scientific Discovery‘, and Thomas Kuhn’s slender but essential – and largely impenetrable – book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Both of these make it clear that each generation of scientists was absolutely sure that they had cornered truth, then used their success to ignore and block new research, despite the perennial pattern of the next generation upending large portions of what was known to be absolutely true. For example, it wasn’t so long ago that scientists and engineers lamented that they had discovered all the basic concepts in the universe, and that only clerical work remained.
Then Albert Einstein appeared.
Barber and Kuhn show, repeatedly and dependably throughout history, that truth is more elusive than the typical scientist believes; in fact, it was Kuhn who gave us the much-abused phrase, ‘paradigm shift’. And so despite scientists’ boast about their objectivity and open-mindedness, I will argue that they can can be quite closed-minded in their approach to new ideas, and of the error of their positions.
Karl Popper said it well, “We cannot reasonably aim at certainty. Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.”
In order to exam these problems in science, let me propose basic characteristics of a fundamentalist system. Fundamentalism comprises:
First, no one ever admits to closed-mindedness. Admitting closed-mindedness shows that one’s considerations are incomplete and therefore unreliable, so that presents the first hypocrisy.
Second, any model/paradigm is necessarily an abbreviated version of reality. This means that, even if the model were true, new problems will constantly arise that seem to violate the model, and which will need to be addressed. But given the unquestioning self-referentiality, the fundamentalist will either dismiss the problems immediately – summary rejection of all challenges – or investigate them with great bias and any resulting conclusions will, again, be unreliable.
Third, even if we were to possess a universal, all-encompassing paradigm – and right there we have an important clue, because a universal paradigm is a goal of scientists, but not science (vide infra) – it would remain unprovable and defy scientific inquiry. We cannot test all of reality; and even if we could, that does not mean that everything that currently exists, is all that could exist. This is not hair-splitting. We can consider the Big Bang, which proposes unique processes that cannot be reproduced and tested, and which might never exist again. But more importantly we must consider organic evolution which constantly produces things that did not previously exist; and to one of my central themes here, intellectual evolution likewise produces things that did not previously exist. So by its approach fundamentalism tends to vacate intellectual progress.
Taken together, these problems generate a critical diagnostic of fundamentalism: as fundamentalists sweep aside contradictions, they do it without even considering them. For instance, both Christian and scientific fundamentalists will reject my characterizations here, and argue that their approaches are perfectly logical, even while refusing to consider other possibilities. In so doing, they demonstrate the problem.
There is an interesting social experiment here, a bit of scientific inquiry, if you will. If you take up these ideas with a scientist, or even with yourself, see if they pause and reflect on the ideas, or immediately refuse to discuss and explore the problems.
And if they dig in their heels, ask them: “When have you ever considered that your beliefs may be untrue?” If at that point they do not walk off or resort to self-referential arguments, then ask them, “If you have never considered they are untrue, how can you be so sure that they are not?”
That leads to the question, “How many times to we need to consider that we may be wrong, in order to be absolutely sure we are not?”
Finally, the particularly daring (or obnoxious) person might follow up with yet another question: “If you’ve never questioned your beliefs, why do you think they’re yours, and not simply a repetition of what you have been taught?” This last one is telling; fundamentalism is frequently dogma.
As noted, fundamentalism cannot handle questions nor doubt, so the fundamentalist cannot and will not answer these questions. The open-minded individual will entertain the ideas, if they have not already considered them. And so by rejecting the questions the religious and scientistic1)Not all scientists are fundamentalists, a minority are quite collegial, philosophic, and open-minded about it all. So I needed a word to distinguish scientific fundamentalists from the larger umbrella of scientists, and ‘scientistic’ is is. demonstrate the problem.
And on the rare instance that a fundamentalist does attempt to answer these questions, it suggests she has just taken the first step to recovery.
Having laid out these ideas, let me consider a specific problem. Neal deGrasse Tyson is all over the Internet with the pop phrase, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” I would guess that most scientists and many other educated people would enthusiastically agree with him.
But if you take the quote and replace “science” with “the Bible”, you will realize that his approach is indistinguishable from that of the Christian fundamentalist.
The most concerning aspect of quotes like this one is that they demonstrate that most scientists aren’t even clear about what science is. Science cannot be true, simply because science can contain no truths. Science is a process. It is an approach that allows us to generate useful information, something that passes for true while useful.
Because the fact is that science is a product of philosophy. That presents a problem: nothing within the scientific method could ever prove the scientific method. So to claim that science is ‘true’ is error enough; to pursue self-referentiality with a process that cannot be contained within its own paradigm, is fatuous.
And even as a product of philosophy, science presents some concerns from the outset. The scientific method was produced, not by a scientist, but by a lawyer, one Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon was a colorful character, and his life was a constant string of adversarial struggles, in the law courts, in the royal courts, and in his social and intellectual life. Without doubt, the scientific method has produced much useful information; but when we consider its Baconian origins, we have to assume that the initial contemplations originated from a system where absolute proof is, in fact, legal proof: science can show, beyond reasonable doubt, that something is true. But history shows that scientists get it wrong all the time, as do the courts.
With that, it is important to consider that Bacon probably suggested his approach in order to win his battles and overwhelm his rivals. When we consider the incautious, triumphant claims of the scientist, particularly when faced with a long history of constant error and correction, we see what appears to be the same the same prideful gloating in both the scientist and the courtier.
I have repeatedly talked here about the fact that what the scientist ‘knows’ today, will be folly tomorrow. If scientists took even a cursory glance at the history and philosophy of science, they would not make such grand pronouncements about their efforts, least of all about possessing any inescapable grasp on truth.
Truth is not science, it is scientistic; and we should be highly skeptical of any categorical, universal claims by scientists.
Or anyone else.
Helmholtz courtesy of Wikimedia.
Neil deGrasse Tyson quote courtesy of sideways8 on Imgur.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Not all scientists are fundamentalists, a minority are quite collegial, philosophic, and open-minded about it all. So I needed a word to distinguish scientific fundamentalists from the larger umbrella of scientists, and ‘scientistic’ is is.|