The Illusion of Knowledge
History is replete with instances of people saying very nonsensical things. The most egregious is the statement that “science can figure everything.” Due to the resulting radiant failure of science to say anything beyond providing us with a general idea of the processes and the movement of celestial orbs and the functions of our livers, the statement’s more recent variant, “science is the only way to know” has become a retreating positivist fall back stronghold. From this position, salvos of infuriated invective are hurled at any “non-scientific” conjecture. Anyone not in their ranks are branded illogical, archaic, philosophers— to be called a philosopher now is not a term of endearment. Contrary to pedestrian belief, however, science has nothing to do with logic or mathematics or, for that matter, plain common sense. A moment of incredulity may overtake us while scanning the previous sentence. Science has nothing to do with logic or mathematics? What an absurd suggestion. We hear an almost unanimous choir intoning the analogous characteristics of the three from politicians, the media, scientists, non-scientists who think in antiquated yet glowing terms, and atheists agitators. There is thus no reason to think it not so.
On the contrary, there is no reason to think it is so. And there are many reasons to think it not so. Logic and mathematics operate in the abstract and the concrete, the sublime and the earthy; their only contingency is a human mind in which they can dwell and move. That science uses logic and mathematics is of negligible relevance as it relates to the understanding of what science is, yet it can reveal a definitive terminus.
Science is dependent on mathematics and logic, not equivalent to them. Thus, if science is dependent on mathematics and logic, what are we to make of the statement “science can figure everything?” We can discard it immediately, for any scientific explanation leaves out an explanation for the pre-existing apparatus of scientific discovery, the human mind itself, that impressive device of whose workings we know almost nothing.
Evolutionary theory, a mental plug really, has provided a temporary stand in for this gaping lacuna. When thousands of papers are written attempting to find an explanation for the feeling of love in terms of its adaptive advantage it is not what is distilled that matters, but everything that has evaporated. Love interpreted as an adaptive mechanism only serves to reduce it to the sexual, and to reduce it to the sexual is to ignore it in the exceptional. Sweeping love poems, epics and novels, letters of refined sense and emotional depth dispatched to a distant lover, the tears shed upon the loss of a loved one, the feeling of emptiness upon their departure, the exclusivity of love in the romantic sense, all these aspects of love are left unexplained. Similarly, when gallons of ink spill onto thousands of pages organizing into words whose priority is to elucidate the adaptive advantage of human intelligence, a definitional argument, and thus catastrophically tautological, it is reduced to merely an organ of survival. Steven pinker said as much when he examined that human language is like a limb we use to control our environment. Thus human language is an adaptive appendage used to control our environment because human language is a faculty that can influence our environment, and because it can control our environment, it is an adaptive advantage. The circularity and dimness of this revelation is dizzying and blinding.
What accounts for this turn of events? The great scientists of past, a Kepler perhaps, did not think in these terms for fear of religious persecution, but because thinking was more widely accepted as something which generally rules out nonsensical statements rather than advancing them. Kepler, a great genius, having read The Origins of Species, would have cast it from his balcony to be trampled under horse shoes less for its religious implications than for the fact that it was a work of astounding obscurity and meaninglessness. The main thrust, that what survives, survives, is not an intellectual artifact that he would have found impressive or countenanced as science. (Many modern scientists have the same feeling, they just cant say it until they have tenure.) The rush to explain everything in scientific terms is a rush to shut a door on a divine foot that had managed to wedge itself squarely on the threshold of human scientific advance.
“Science is the only way to know,” prompted a realization that we know very little. In the 1930’s, alarms sounded all over the intellectual fortresses of Europe as this sentiment was subsumed under the banner of analytic philosophy. Great cheers rung out, a victory had been achieved, but there was still work to do, and battles to wage. The sciences could now advance, must advance, into the social and and psychological fields. Mere conjecture and theory was not going to cut it anymore. A hurried and scurried attempt was made to quantify sociological and psychological theories, resulting in a hue of mathematical and statistical certainty to pursuits that should be considered formal arts. The fact that one can go to any university in the United States and receive a bachelors of Science in psychology — no offense to psychology majors — is a lingering reminder of the effects of this imperative to explain everything in scientific terms.
The scientific field of meteorology uses statistical analysis to predict the weather based on the fundamental principles of physics, thermodynamics specifically, and chemistry. Meteorology is a derivative science, and it is a rigorous one; despite the numerous variables involved, it makes fairly accurate predictions hour to hour, if not day to day. Derivative sciences utilize principles of more fundamental sciences, which are more fundamental because uncertainty is reduced. Derivatives are natural and logical peninsulas of knowledge and methods extending from a continent of established facts. Biology, the exception, can be considered an archipelago, brief outcroppings of Terra Firma knowledge, buttressed by the physical sciences, are surrounded by the frothy sea of theory and incoherence.
The social sciences, however, are what I like to call forced sciences. They interject themselves on the scene and demand the respect due to the physical sciences. They derive their sanctity only from the maxim that for a field of inquiry to be considered legitimate, it needs to be scientific. Preparations are made to mathematize as much as possible. But while the statistical restraint and first principles, axioms, of meteorology are governed by the laws of physics, besides the fact that all men are mortal, psychology and the social sciences don’t stand on any first principles. Worse still, the ostensibly labeled first principles are derived from statistical analysis and then imputed as a theoretical model, whose justification is the very statistics that created it. Statistics are statistics, not theory. Statistics can back up a theory, they cannot create one. There exist no laws of human behavior, and their is not even a semblance of a means by which those laws could even, theoretically, be derived. Unlike the serious sciences, the only problem that psychology and sociology seek to solve is the justification for their existence as fields of inquiry
There is a circular perversity to all this. A brief examination of the history of the sciences reveals that it has tied itself into a dense, intractable knot. The human species began its endeavor on earth as beings surviving day to day. The ancient souls of mankind, humbled by the expansiveness of their ignorance weren’t afraid to proclaim that besides death, ignorance is the only certainty —- even mortality, though, was known by the ancients to be an inductive conclusion and thus subject to doubt. The theological and metaphysical musings these circumstances produced, “we know not the ways of your workings, o Lord,” were works in the human grasp for the divine, the intangible, or the meaningful, the “Form of the Good”. Humility in the face of our contingent existence was an embraced disposition. With the introduction of “science can explain everything” during the enlightenment we became certain of our power rather than our ignorance. As science advanced, the promise was hopelessly deferred, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” observed Wittgenstein. Science after the positivist intrusion and the effusive and energized acceptance that the atheist community countenanced it, became a mere playground of methods by which we can speak. Instead of the ineffable soul, we got the mind and its constituent phrenology, psychology and its statistical hand waving, anthropology and its materialist labors, and biology and its reductive habits. As Richard Lewontein observed while castigating Carl Sagan for his scientific eroticism:
The standard form of a scientific paper begins with a theoretical question, which is then followed by the description of an experimental technique designed to gather observations pertinent to the question. Only then are the observations themselves described. Finally there is a discussion section in which a great deal of energy is often expended rationalizing the failure of the observations to accord entirely with a theory we really like, and in which proposals are made for other experiments that might give more satisfactory results.1
The philosophic positivists, in doing away with any metaphysical speculations, have led science to the edge of credibility. Science has now become a means by which men and women can speak of metaphysics. Materialism, the extra-scientific view that all things have material causes and thus are legitimate subjects of scientific scrutiny, a metaphysical demand that is entirely proscribed by the standards sciences demand of theology, a field unafraid to identify itself for what it is, completes the circle of confusion, as Lewontein continues:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
The above quote is one of the most oft quoted in the history of science writing because it was written by a scientist who was unafraid to admit that philosophic materialism does not derive from any aspect or characteristic of the sciences themselves, but is an a priori pretense. We should further not be afraid to maintain that certain sciences that claim to be sciences are not sciences but ideological power tools. Absurdities in science are created and cherished because they are like mob bosses who dispatch their enemies by force and intellectual violence. As the media advances the sanctity of science, the stupidity of religion, and the supposed impressiveness of scientific theories, scientific absurdities, the equivalent of intellectual criminals, are allowed free and open reign on culture and mind.
Scientific absurdities also arise because, even in the a priori absence of the supernatural in both the scientific and social aspects, we are still beings that demand an explanation. And as long as it’s branded “scientific” it can be sold at hefty prices because demand is so high. Books that explain that you act the way you do because of your genes are much more digestible than books that say you are free to be good or bad with objective consequences and guilt. What Eric Fromm called an Escape From freedom is certainly advanced by the sciences and will lead, if not to political tyranny, than intellectual tyranny. Enough.