Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Science vs the Man on the Clapham Omnibus

I’ve been thinking about what we see as truth, and particularly what we might call ordinary human observation versus scientific methods of truth.

A novelist, we could say, tells us what people are like through his or her observation in everyday life. Jane Austen’s famous, ironical opening to Pride and Prejudice is a good example: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

It is ironical because while the statement seems to be about about rich single men, the real point is that is how other people see such a man, often with their own self- interest or schemes at heart.

But it is not a scientific truth. You could never set up a double-blind experiment to prove it. And yet we accept it. And we have the sense to know that it is not true in all cases, and that it is partially true in some.

Scientific truth is a recent phenomenon, as human history goes. I think it is a very specialised form of truth that is very good at gaining a precise understanding of how matter works. It has had spectacular results, and generated world-transforming technologies, to the extent that it has come to seem to be, with its ‘rigour’, the highest form of truth. 

It can seem to be only a matter of time before the brain is understood to the extent that all human behaviour is explicable, leaving the primitive understanding of Jane Austen et al far behind. And even more so any claims to a metaphysical understanding of the universe, such as we find in religion.

The proponents of science as Truth have become particularly aggressive in recent years with the the rise of the New Atheism, led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al, who have advocated the view that scientific progress has now reached the point at which "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”
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Of course, there is much that is awful in religion, particularly when, like modern science, it views itself as the only reality and the group mind takes over. If you’re going to have deities, than have more than one, so that reality remains multiple and ever-shifting.

But I think at best religion is rooted in the ordinary human observation and understanding that I am banging on about. A desire for meaning, the sense that reality is deeper and subtler than it seems. It is an understanding that is more complete, because it uses more of our faculties, than science ever can be.

And astrology, which seems to particularly incense the triumphalist secularists, is also rooted in the ordinary human understanding. You observe how people with a strong Taurean component delight more than most in the natural world and in nice things, nice food. Sometimes you can just see a strong astrological signature in someone, and sure enough when you look at their chart, it is nearly always there.

The 4 elements are a good way of looking at this. Science uses the Earth and Air elements as the basis of its understanding: Earth is its basic material, the physical universe, and the evidence it collects. Air is the theories it generates to explain the physical universe. It sees itself as ‘objective’ because it eliminates the ‘subjective’ elements of feeling and intuition, Water and Fire respectively.

As a method it has its place, very much so. But its understanding is contributory to ordinary human understanding, which is wider because it uses all 4 elements. Sometimes our ideas seem to come out of nowhere: that is intuition, Fire. A good businessman will sense an opportunity, where the market is going, what the fashions will be. That is untuition. I mean intuition, but interesting slip. Feeling shows us how to be with other people, we sense how they are and how to respond, how to create a flow between us.

In my last post I was arguing for putting our experience before what we are told, and using the example of the Sun going round the Earth as being our experience, whereas no-one has probably ever seen the Earth going round the Sun. This may seem like a mind-game, but it’s not. I really mean it. Experience and the understanding that comes with it, that stood our ancestors in good stead, needs to be reclaimed.

And the same with our ordinary ability to observe and understand. That needs to be reclaimed from predatory scientism, with its limited methods, that wants to be seen as all powerful. This diminishes us, disempowers us, as human beings. So much of science is not directly observable, it is about inference and bits of paper.

Science is full of contradictions. It lets pass the insights of a novelist, while it is offended by astrological insights, yet they are both based on ordinary observation. The psychiatric profession has high scientific status, yet it has very little idea of brain function, let alone the workings of the drugs it administers. It is a scandal. Evolution is one of the fundamental theories of modern science, yet it cannot be tested. Astrology is probably more testable than evolution. The Big Bang is similarly untestable. Ironically, the idea of evolution is one that any layman can understand and observe through the fossil record. It makes a lot of sense to ordinary human understanding.

Every scientist should have a proper philosophical training, particularly people like Dawkins. Now I haven’t had one, but where do you get one nowadays? When I was at university I found the philosophy texts unreadable, and I still would.

But it seems to me basic and obvious that since the brain constructs the reality that seems to be around us, that we have to treat everything as a model, we have to put inverted commas around it. We can love the natural world like a Taurean would, we can feel thoroughly rooted in it, yet also know that it is a dream, a temporary thing that only appears as it is while we have a physical existence. Science is just one approach to this slide show: let’s pretend that the physical universe is ‘out there’ and then analyse it using just reason. I don’t have a problem with that.

But it is a model, and like all models it breaks down when you push it to extremes. Hence the counter-intuitive nature of quantum reality at the micro- extreme, and at the other extreme the composition of the universe being 84% undetectable dark matter!

I think the best understanding of the world is mythological, that what we have is a collection of stories, and science is just one of them. Multiple realities, all in inverted commas, none of them literal. But some of them very real, very profound. Like astrology – or divinatory archetypal psychology, as I sometimes call it. The planets as gods which are both within and without us, each with their own claim, and our life as a process of answering those claims.

I prefer gods to archetypes. They are kind of the same thing. But archetype feels like a concession to the modern scientific intellectual understanding of the soul. No, the planets are gods. I experience them, but not with the 5 physical senses. I feel them around me, I kind of see them. 

They are powerful, they are the power behind this world. And they have been toying with the scientists for their hubris, humanity’s eternal tendency to get inflated with its own cleverness and to ignore the gods. They have been throwing in jokes like quantum reality and dark energy. But there is also Nemesis, an avenging goddess who punishes hubris. She is probably thinking up some suitable punishment for the astronomers who demoted Pluto back in 2006. What a way to treat the Underworld!

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Brian61 said...

When I try to imagine the Universe with nothing in it, no physical matter, and then suddenly something exists, the planets, the stars, I can't fathom it. According to science all things have an explanation, yet who can explain the endlessness of space and time? No edges, no beginning, no end? Science cannot explain where these first particles of matter came from. Nor can religion really. Religion says "God" created it, but where did "God" come from? I believe science and religion, stem from this inability of our relatively finite minds to understand the non-understandable. It gives comfort to us to say we 'know' how the Univesre got here or we know who made it. And yet, we don't really know. And that really freaks us out at our core, freaks the ego out at least.

Sara said...

Science is just another form of religion. It's language is all symbols, as in math, chemistry, physics - all held together and punctuated by lines and crosses as in plus +, equal =, minus -, divide /, greater or lesser > <, etc. It has its own set of gods, too, Einstein, Hawking, Newton, etc., and heroes (saints). There's no real difference beyond the venue. But like any religion, there is always a mystery to be solved, such as how big IS the universe? And where does it end? And why does that map of the known universe look like neural ganglia?
And they still haven't found the God particle.
But who in either science or religion has sat on the side of a high hill to watch the sun set over mountains in the distance? Who among them can explain spontaneous remission of cancer? Have any of them, in either religion or science, got up ahead of dawn, just to see the moon and Venus conjunct in the dawn sky?

Good column, again. Merry Christmas.

Magic Dragon said...

Very interesting post. It generates a lot of ideas.
Often, Dawkins included, Science is viewed with a XIX or XX Century frame of mind that does not apply to today's deeper understanding of science. Science is an approximative knowledge. It is a coming closer, but not getting quite there. And, it is subjective, as much as any other knowledge. It isn't superior to any other way of knowledge, just different and it has its particular fields, a piece of the whole.
True Epistemology today knows science is an approximation, (closer to imagination than to pure reason), and that it is only a part of a bigger whole in which everythng is interconnected and nothing is above, before, better or ahead of anything else.
Even deep scientific thought is at the end more comfortable and gives a better explanation when it uses Metaphor as the best means of conveing its ideas. Metaphore, Myth, intuition, imagination, introspection and contemplation.... the stuff that true understandign is made of.

Maya said...

This is wonderful! I'd like to re-blog this, with your permission?

Dharmaruci said...

Of course, I'm quite happy even without asking, as long as I'm credited with it.