Friday 13 March 2020

What is science? Part 3


Since especially the middle of the nineteenth century science has been put on a pedestal. Here is truth. Here is knowledge. It has taken the place of the Church. There was a brief struggle between those who wanted to follow Darwin and those who didn’t. Darwin won. Since then with few exceptions almost everyone has taken scientific truth to be the highest truth available to us. There is of course a lot of justification for doing so. Doctors who dispense truth as they dispense pills are part of this. Doctors have studied the science of the human body and even the human mind. They know how each of us works. They know our innards and our outards. If we are sad, they can make us happy. If we are fat, they can make us thin. They have the power of life and death over us. This one we will save, this one we will put on the Liverpool pathway to death. I think it is for this reason that the NHS is treated as a sort of religion in Britain. It is the equivalent of the pre-Reformation Church. There may be inefficiency, there may even be corruption, but it would be heresy to even try to reform our wonderful, perfect, world beating NHS/Church.

But although I have always acknowledged the achievements of science and medicine, I have also questioned.  Like everyone else I have relied on scientific knowledge each time I fly, or each time I have been treated by a doctor. But I remember studying psychology for a couple of years and the assumptions were wholly deterministic. Medicine and especially the medicine that deals with the mind and the brain is almost wholly mechanistic. Certain chemical reactions are going on in your brain and these cause you to feel this way or that way. The more I looked into science the more I realised that the whole model was that the universe and everything in it was just one enormously complicated machine that was either determined or was random. There may at times be chaos. The causes may be so complex that we could not possibly discover them, but in the end, science believes that everything has a cause and that each of us is a stimulus response machine.

It is here that I began to question science. I did not question the results. I have no problem believing that modern medicine is highly successful at treating people and that physics, chemistry and biology accurately describe the world around us. It’s just that I think they miss something. The basic assumptions of science and medicine do not describe our basic experiences.

When I look at a post box, I see the colour red. But science tells me that the post box itself is not red. The experience of seeing red is merely the conjunction of light rays of a certain frequency interacting with my eye and sending signals to my brain. I am willing to accept the scientific explanation and yet it contradicts my experience. When I look at the post box I don’t in anyway doubt that it really is red. I might as well doubt that "I think therefore I am" than doubt that the post box itself is red.

Without this basic experience of seeing the world and believing that it really is as I experience it, I could not even begin to do scientific experiments. Is that ph paper red or blue, I don’t know it hasn’t any colour in itself, the colour is only in my brain. How far would chemistry reach if we proceeded in this way?

My fundamental experience of the world is not as science describes it. I see no atoms. I don’t think of chairs and tables as collections of protons, neutrons and electrons buzzing around each other and containing mainly empty space. I think of them as solid. 

I don’t even think of a pet dog as a stimulus response machine. I think almost all animals can at least to an extent choose and that they can decide to go left or go right and that the choice that they make is not determined. It is simply impossible for me to think of myself as determined. I feel free. I feel that when I choose to cross the road, I could choose either way. I could do otherwise than I did.

The problem that science faces is fundamental. Science is epistemological. It is based on experience. Ancient science was frequently based on reason. The world is this way or that way because my reason tells me that it ought to be this way. Modern science broke away from this model in the Middle Ages and began to be grounded in experience. The whole success of science is based on observation. But right at the beginning modern science contradicts experience.

My experience of sadness is not an experience of my brain chemistry being misaligned. When I fall in love, I don’t feel that various hormones are rising or falling, nor that my brain is suddenly filled with serotonin or some other chemical. When I see a beautiful picture, I think that it really has this quality of beauty. When I see another person, I don’t think of him as a collection of atoms which form some enormously complicated kind of robot.

If I did think of other people as science thinks of them, I would be unable to convict them of any crime. Without freedom of choice, it is simply unjust to convict someone of murder. It wasn’t his fault that he shot her. A long chain of complex causes made him do it. Not only that. If a person is merely a collection of atoms, it wouldn’t matter if that person was killed anyway. Why value this collection of atoms more than that one?

Science is based on observation and experience, but there is a contradiction at the heart of scientific teaching. What we learn from science contradicts our basic experiences. But if my experience of freedom, love and beauty are inaccurate, why do I suppose that the experiences I use to measure scientific experiments are accurate?

The solution to this dilemma is neither to reject science, which would mean I couldn’t live in the modern world at all, nor is it to reject the fundamentals of our basic experience, but it is to recognise that science does not capture everything in the world. There are areas of life that go beyond science.

Just as science cannot tell me what I had for lunch last week. Just as science is extremely limited in what it can tell us about historical events. So too science can tell us little about morality, it can tell us little about freedom, love or beauty. It may try to do so, but invariably when it tries it misses the point.

I assume that I am free, that I can love and that I can experience beauty. I assume that chairs are solid and post boxes are really red. I assume these things because they are fundamental to my existence. I cannot assume otherwise. But these assumptions are no less valid than the other assumptions that science makes. I assume that the world is regular and that the future will be like the past. If we didn’t assume this, we couldn’t even begin to make experiments. But nor could we make them if we couldn’t choose to get up, choose to get on this bus rather than that one. In order to work at a university at all a scientist needs to be a moral being who interacts with other human beings with respect rather than as mere collections of atoms. If scientists really thought they were determined and not responsible for their actions, they wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed.

It is simply self-defeating for scientists to deny the truth of our everyday experiences, because without them science could not even begin. To question my ordinary experience, to tell me that it is wrong, or misjudged or untrue is the equivalent of a drilling a hole into the cup from which I am drinking.