Science and Knowledge – Lecture 1

September 30, 2014

Religion and ScienceThis is a seminar about the place of science in our everyday lives. Most of us are not scientists and do not even plan to be scientists, but nonetheless science dominates our conception of the world. Most of us also, I suppose, believe that science tells us the truth about the world, and that generally what scientists say can be trusted. If we want to know the answer to something, or to a problem, then it is to science we turn. This is not only the case when it concerns nature, but also ourselves. But why do we trust science so much, even when many of us do not do science or have very little knowledge of what it is that scientists do?

Is this because science, for us, has become like a religion? How ironic this might be, since many scientists, if not the most famous (though it is not the case that all of them are so) are atheists and would see science as completely the opposite to religious belief. Think for example of the publication of Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the publicity around it.[1] Here is someone who thinks that science and religion are completely the opposite. Indeed it is the duty of science to rid the world of religion entirely by demonstrating that all religious people are irrational, and worse, violent. Personally, I do not think that science and religion are making the same claims, though there are many religious people who think they do. If religion is a science, then I am certain it can only be a pseudo-science, and can make no proper scientific claims at all. But equally, if religion is not a science, which I think it is not, then it absurd to argue that it is a pseudo-science. Are not religion and science doing different things, and making different claims?

But what do we mean by a science and what does science do that religion does not? The answer might be that science has to do with facts and religion beliefs. But are we absolutely sure what we mean by facts and how are they the basis of the science? A fact seems to be something I observe. I say, ‘There is a table in front of me’ and there really is a table there in front of me. How do I know that? I can, because I can see it with my eyes. Facts then are then something verified with the senses, in this case sight, whereas beliefs do not appear to be so. If a Christian says Jesus was resurrected on the third day how can it be verified by simply looking at it? At most it is a report, but I cannot verify it myself. Religion does not seem to be about facts at all. It is something subjective, personal and a matter of faith rather than reason.

Is this opposition watertight though? Perhaps not if we think that difference between religion and science is just that one is about facts and the other not. Are facts really that simple? Isn’t there more to facts, so to speak, than meets the eye? If I did not have an understanding of what a chair was, would I see a chair at all? Let us imagine rather than being a member of my culture, where coming across chairs was pretty common, I was born in a tribe in deepest Amazon that had never come across chairs before or even Western civilisation for that matter. Let us imagine again, that for some unknown reason, a chair that was being transported by air carrier fell out of the plane and landed in a clearing in my forest that I used every day to hunt. Would I see a chair? No I certainly would not. No doubt I would have an image of a chair on my retina and that image would travel down my optic nerve into my brain, but I would not see a chair, because I have no concept of chair.[2]

How do we pick up concepts of things? Not simply by looking at them, otherwise we’d be right back at the same paradox again. Rather they are part of the conceptual background that makes up our world, and this conceptual background is something we learn in any given culture.[3] Only in this way can I recognise something as something, rather than just a mysterious object that has suddenly appeared in my world, like the chair in the clearing of the jungle. The meaning of the chair, the fact that I can see it as a chair, is given by the context of its use. In this sense, if we were to apply this to our idea of science, scientific practice might define what a fact is and what it is not in advance of the research itself which is meant to explain these facts. In other words theories are not justified by facts, because in reality theories precede facts.

This is exactly the case when we look at the practice of scientists. They don’t just look at things in isolation and then base their theories upon them, rather their theories already tell them where to look and what they should be looking for in order that they know what the relevant facts are. If you like, facts are not just facts. They are not just perceptions; rather they are perceptions plus understanding, and the perception does not come first, and then the understanding second, but they both arrive together. They are part of the same conceptual or if you prefer, phenomenological whole, how we actually see the world within a given context, whether we are scientists or not.[4]

Science already makes us aware of this because when we think of a fact, we don’t just think about a state of affairs but make statements about a state of affairs and these statements only make sense within a community of speakers that understand them. The fact isn’t that they are mountains on Mars, but that someone says that there are mountains are Mars, and that someone else can observe them and agree that they really are mountains on Mars. There would be mountains on Mars whether there was science or not, or even human beings. It only becomes part of a scientific theory when some says ‘There are mountains on Mars’, and then someone else gets a telescope and sees that this statement is true.

Rather than saying that science is based on facts, perhaps it would be better to say it is founded upon statements which can be verified through observation.[5] Yet aren’t we faced with the same problems we found with the chair? What we find as relevant in an observation again will be determined by the conceptual background that we inhabit. Chalmers uses an example from the history of science to explain this (Chalmers 1999, p.16). Before scientific revolution of the 17th century, it was taken as given that the earth was stationary. The observable phenomena seem to corroborate this. When I jump upwards, I do not fall back to a different place on the earth, which would seem to the case if it were moving. Of course the reason why this is not the case is inertia. I and the earth are moving in the same direction and thus the same forces are acting upon us (for the same reason a tennis ball that you throw up in the air in a moving car falls back into your hand, because you and the car are moving in the same direction and speed). But because no-one knew the theory of inertia at the time, what was observed did appear to prove the earth was stationary (and I imagine there are some who still believe this for the very same reason). It is the theory that determines the meaning of our observations, rather than the other way around, our observations determining our theory.

Does this mean that science is just subjective and what you see is just what you want to see? Then there would not be any difference between science and religion, for it clearly is the case the religion is subjective.[6] Rather, what is required, to clearly delineate science, is a better definition of observation. For this is precisely what scientist do. Rather, than seeing observation as something private and passive, where I see the chair and the image is projected on my retina, we should see it as public and active. Active, because the observer is always involved in what they see, correcting and changing their observations in relation to their understanding and interpretation, and public because these observations are always shared with others who can interpret the results.

Chalmers gives us two examples of how scientists actually work (Chalmers 1999, pp.21–4). One is Hooke’s pictures of the eye of fly under a microscope. First of all the image of the eye was affected by the very instruments he was using, such that he had to work out how to use a light source that did not affect what he was looking at (candle light through brine, eventually). Secondly, he published what he saw, and told people how he had seen it, so that they too could do the same for themselves and see if they came out with the same results. Secondly, in the case of Galileo, he saw in his telescope the moons of Jupiter, but he needed to prove them to his fellow scientists. For this he had to modify his telescope so that he could gain an accurate measurement of their trajectory to show that they were moving around the planet, and finally when he had obtained these results he published them, so everyone else could test them for their reliability.

What is important in this process is to understand that these observations are not infallible. The difference between science and religion is not that one in infallible and the other isn’t (however you might want to understand this). On the contrary observation is fallible. What we see is determined by how we look and how we look by the conceptual background we find ourselves in. But anyone can come along and show us that this background is incorrect and it is preventing us from seeing something. What is important, however, is how they do this. They do it by pointing to what is observable when we do change our theories, but also that this hypothesis can be tested by others. They do not do so by simply asserting a belief about something. The moon is made out of cheese, for example. So Chalmers can define science in this way: ‘According to the view put forward here, observations suitable for constituting the basis for scientific knowledge are both objective and fallible’ (Chalmers 1999, p.25). This means that objectivity is not the same as absolute truth, but quite the opposite: what is objective can be corrected and changed through observable evidence, whereas what is subjective cannot. A religious belief based on observation would not be a religious belief at, but an inferior and poor scientific theory, since it would never be falsifiable. This does not mean that religion per se is inferior. This would be the case only if it were doing the same thing as science. The test for faith is not observation, but existence. To be a Christian, for example, is not to belief X, Y, Z, but to act as a Christian. Only when a Christian thinks their faith is supported by objective knowledge do they come in conflict with science, as for example those who people who think that the creation story is a scientific theory in competition with evolution. The irony, of course, is they are dependent on the very scientific method that they despise, for one can only disprove a science by another science.

Bibliography

Ayer, A.J., 2001. Language, truth and logic, London: Penguin.

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Dreyfus, H.L., 1991. Being-in-the-world: a commentary on Heidegger’s Being and time, division I, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gardner, S., 2006. Kant and the Critique of pure reason, London; New York: Routledge.

Jebens, H., 2004. Cargo, cult, and culture critique, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Uys, J., 2004. The gods must be crazy, Culver City, Calif.: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

 

[1] You can hear his defence of this book on NPR here, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9180871.

[2] I am thinking here of what are called ‘cargo cults’, though the evidence of such practices is controversial (Jebens 2004).There is a famous film about a coke bottle that plays with this idea (Uys 2004).

[3] We might ask further whether this conceptual background is even first. Are we not first of all living in a world before we understand it? This is the basis of Dreyfus’s stress on the importance of Heidegger’s philosophy (Dreyfus 1991).

[4] The key issue here is whether this position would lead to relativism. This depends on how one understands the truth and objectivity of science. This will be at the heart of our reading of Kuhn in the second half of this course.

[5] Such a position is what is called logical positivism, whose most vocal defender is A. J. Ayer (Ayer 2001).

[6] This is not a criticism, for what is subjective is not necessarily worse than what is objective, and indeed the objective might have its basis in the subjective, but it all depends on what you mean by the subjective. This was certainly Kant’s view, who placed practical reason (subjective, though in a special way) above theoretical reason (Gardner 2006, pp.319–25). The ultimate end of reason is not knowledge for its own sake, but the Good. We might call this position humanist.

Advertisements

Humanities in Crisis in a University in Ruins

September 26, 2014

MoneyYou are a student in the school of humanities. You have come to study a particular subject. Some English, some History, some Philosophy, and so on. All of you, perhaps, have some idea what you subject is about. You might not know very much about your subject and hope to learn something about it, but you do have some idea how to get about it, so to speak, and where to begin. But humanities? What is that? Does anyone know anymore what that word means and why should anyone be interested in it at all? If I am English student, then I want to study English. Why should I learn anything about history or philosophy, let alone linguistics or creative writing. Aren’t those students who claim that knowing about the humanities isn’t relevant to their course right after all, and why should we criticise their lack of motivation?

It goes without saying that I do not think so, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing in front of you now introducing this course to you with a few words. First of all, I think the specialism of English education system is not beneficial. I think a student should know about these other subjects. Indeed, I think humanities students should know about science and science students should know about humanities, but that would be another story. But this isn’t the major reason why I think you ought to have some grasp of the humanities. To understand humanities is to understand what a university is and why it exists, though as we shall see this might not be such a happy story, because today I am going to tell you that the university is crisis and humanities is at the heart of it, not of course as its cause, but its symptom.

What it the history of the word humanities? The word comes from the Latin studia humanitatis that was linked to the rediscovery of the classical world in the Renaissance out of which grew literary and historical criticism (both of which are essential to discovery and preservation of ancient texts). What began, however, as a spiritual awakening soon became institutionalised in the university, and even became associated with a certain discipline of the mind that was necessary for particular professions (as though knowing Latin and Greek somehow made one a good civil servant). Perhaps the greatest influence of the ideal of humanities was the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. He redesigned the curriculum of the university of Berlin which became the template of the modern university around the world, even here in England. Central to the idea of the university for Humboldt was Bildung. This word is usually translated as ‘culture’, but it means more than that. It comes from the verb bilden, which means to ‘form’, whose earlier form the English verb ‘build’ derives. Culture, in this context, means self-formation. To study the humanities is to be on a journey of self-discovery, not just to learn about something outside of oneself, but to discover oneself. This is the tension that is at the heart of humanities. It is not enough simply to know stuff. One has to form an opinion about them that is an expression of one’s own self-development. Somehow the study of humanities makes one a better person. It develops one’s character, and this development is expressly moral.

Humanities is just as much defined as what it is not as what it is. What it is not is science. As opposed to the humanities, the object of science is not the cultural production of humans themselves but the investigation of nature. And why also no-one can agreed a common method to the study of humanities, everyone is pretty certain what scientific method is. It is the study of facts through empirical means. Moreover, not only can everyone readily agree what science is, we can also see around us the fruits of its success. Science gives us IPhones and Google. What has the humanities ever done? Science produces wealth on which the humanities are parasitical, and even the humanities student is seen as a shirker and scrounger.

Of course one only has to investigate deeper underneath the headlines to know that this absurd (you can find numerous list on the internet of famous and successful people who have studied the humanities), but that is beside the point. The prejudice against the humanities is evidence of something very real, which for some time now there has be a real crisis in the humanities and this has to do with what we now think the function of a modern university is and which has little at all to do with how Humboldt imagined it when humanities was at its heart.

I think that Bill Readings is right to say that ‘it is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is’ (Readings 1996, p.2). This is because the university is no longer tied to the idea of culture (and a national culture at that), but is increasingly seen as a corporation, which is part of a trans-global network. Its function is to produce capital and capital of a particular kind: human capital. In this context, the student is more likely to see themselves as a consumer rather than some who is on a journey of self-discovery and the object of their study is less like to some national cultural artefact (why should studying George Eliot be in any better than studying the Simpsons?). If the purpose of the contemporary university is to produce technology (sciences) and training (professional and vocational subjects), what possible place is there for the humanities? You can hear people say that they offer great transferable skills, but why should they be better than any other training, and anyway to defend them in this way, is this not already to admit to defeat?

How, then, can we defend, if it is at all possible, humanities today on its own terms, if the cultural project of the university is now over? Reading again suggests a way forward for us. Rather than justifying national and cultural identity, whether at the individual or state level, the role of the university in the era of globalisation, and more specifically humanities, is to question what it is that we value. ‘Accountants,’ he writes, ‘are not the only people capable of understanding the horizon of contemporary society, nor even the most adept at the task’ (Readings 1996, p.18). Paradoxically the ruin or crisis of the humanities might be the very reason for its salvation, but if it continues to cling to the old ideas of culture and tradition, then it will be doomed.

So what is it that we can value today, and how might humanities be a part of this question? The modern university was a university of culture, Bill Readings explains. It both formed the basis of a national ideal that functioned both as a unity of knowledge and of citizens in a nation state. The university of culture was a national university. In the European university, philosophy had this function. In the English and American universities, it was literature. For the English, literature was defined as tradition, where Shakespeare stood as the pinnacle, whereas for America, literature was defined as a canon, since American had no tradition it had to define its own as the act of a republican will (‘we the people,…’).

It is this university of culture that has disappeared because of the weakness of the nation state in relation to global capital. It is corporations who have captured the state, not the state global capital (which explains the decrease in political participation across democracies). What has replaced the university of culture, Bill Readings tells us, is the university of excellence.

Now every university has excellence as its highest goal. A paradoxical goal, because it does not tell us anything, since anything could be excellent. You could be an excellent charity worker, but also there could be an excellent tyrant or murderer. This explains our rather cynical attitude to many of the statement of universities, since their prospectuses are increasingly becoming like company brochures promising us excellence in everything: excellent in teaching; excellence in research; excellence in student experience. The last excellence also show us that students themselves are no longer to see themselves as subjects of culture, but as consumers.

So what, we might say to ourselves. Perhaps it is better to be a consumer rather than subject of culture. That might be the case, but if you really did think like that that it is hard to understand how you are going to be motivated to do a humanities subject, because whatever you might think at them, or whatever subject you are doing, you cannot consume them. Why? Because you are bound to, at some point (and you should expect this) in your university career, to be asked to read, learn something, or even write or produce something, you might find difficult, boring and even, at the time, pointless. No why would you consume that? It would be strange to go into a McDonald’s to ask for a burger that was dry, tasteless and overcooked, pay for the experience and be happy with it. Secondly, and this is perhaps more important, apart from filling you up, the burger is not going to change you as a person, and I for one certainly hope that my students, who are studying philosophy and religion, would be changed by their education as individuals, and might think about themselves and the world differently through the process and stay of their education.

For all that, however, the university of excellence, with its obsession with human capital, is here to stay. There is no way we could get back to the university of culture, where humanities was at the heart of the university, even if we wanted to. So what place can humanities have? I believe the point of humanities is to offer a different kind of accounting. In a world that is dominated by money, where the only value is the profit line, and the only purpose of any activity is the accumulation of capital, it can offer us other values, for what is humanities except the question what does it mean to be human? Ecolinguistics, for example, which you will study here, asks whether language itself effects the way we think about nature and our place in it; history, how our past shapes our present, but also how there have alternative histories than our main narrative; literature, how there have been both major and minor literatures and not just one dominate literature, each showing us alternative ways of living; philosophy, how there have always been other values and we should never accept there only being one; religion, that human practices have never been just about the material but also the spiritual and ethical; and finally creative writing, which is about the creativity at the heart of every human being to produce for the sake of the art itself, and not for some extrinsic worth. In a world increasingly dominated, if not wholly so, by global corporations and financial capital, where we might think the relation of the individual to itself, to others, to nature, and to God, if one believes in such a being, is damaged, then humanities will continue to have a place. If we do not think so, nor do we think there are any other values than the value of the accumulation of capital, then humanities will be increasingly irrelevant and they will finally disappear. For if the only reason you have to study philosophy, religious studies and religion, literature, history, creative writing and linguistics is to get a better job, then that is no reason at all.

Bibliography

Readings, B., 1996. The university in ruins, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.