Thursday, January 10, 2013

Science vs the Man on the Clapham Omnibus

(I previously published this over Christmas, but my Feed wasn't working, so many of my readers never got to see it.)

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, or Water, 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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Vanessa - said...

Profound text. I too prefer the gods and wish we were still polytheists. It was more fun at least.
It really gets my blood boiling when I see scientists/science being elevated to 'divine' status in our culture. Don't get me wrong, they've made wonderful contributions and we benefit from it daily (to a certain extent), but they have now usurped the throne and are on a revenge path - some of them - against religion. It's as if, they have been treated poorly for centuries by the Church and now it's payback time. So instead of opening up for a dialogue, they are out to tear down religion and metaphysics. It seems that the pendulum has swung way out to the left. I do hope that with the more adventurous sciences (i.e. Quantum Physics) we will be able to have a dialogue between science and religion.
Otherwise, as in so many fairy tales we are in danger of being engulfed by a long winter of lack of imagination and enchantment. It would be a dark world indeed.
Thanks for the thought provoking posts!

Suzie (Suzanne Minnette) said...

Hooray, cheered up my evening. Love it.

Karen said...

Bravo! Very well done!