What is Science? Lecture 1

September 30, 2015

This is a coursemars-lineae-slopes-hale-crater-perspective2-PIA19916-br2 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  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 that 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 is water on Mars, but that someone says that there is water on Mars, and that someone else can observe them and agree that they really is water on Mars. There would be water on Mars whether there was science or not, or even human beings. It only becomes part of a scientific theory when some says ‘There is water 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 all, 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.


Subjective Atheism

April 16, 2014

Abraham and Issac2I am writing this lecture in response to Martin’s lecture on atheism the week before last. In one sense, Martin and I stand in the same corner, we are both atheists, but in other sense, we are, to mix a metaphor, poles apart. If I were to describe Martin (and of course in the end he must speak for himself), I would say that he is an objective atheist, whereas I would say I am an subjective atheist. This difference between an objective atheist and subjective one is mirrored in those who have a religious belief (mentioning that word that Martin did not want to be mentioned, ‘religion’). There are those, I think, who believe objectively and those who do so subjectively. Because of this cross-over, I think, strangely enough, that there is more in common with subjective believers and subjective atheists, than there is between objective and subjective atheists, and thereby more in common with objective atheists and objective believers. What subjective atheists and subjective believers have in common is uncertainty and doubt (what I would call faith). Whereas, what objective atheists and objective believers have in common is certainty and conviction (what I would call fundamentalism). This is why when you listen to a fundamentalist religious believer and a fundamentalist atheist (like Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens), they sound, to me at least, the same.

What is at the heart of objective atheism is a certain conviction about science. That science, as Martin, tells us is what is real. The opposite side of this conviction is that religion is a falsehood, because religion tells us that there are fairies at the end of the garden, when clearly there are not, or that Santa Claus exists, when clearly he does not. There are two ways to respond to this accusation. Firstly, this is a very positivist view of science. Positivism is the assertion that there are only true facts about the world are empirical, that science is the only method that can investigate these facts, and as science progresses we are getting closer and closer to what reality is. There are no doubt many people who believe this, and indeed there are many scientists who do (Brian Cox being currently the most famous of its adherents). This would mean that art, literature (which is what Martin does), philosophy and all the other activities that human beings engage in that are not science, would have nothing true to say about the world at all, which would be rather extraordinary. Yet what most people don’t notice about the assertion ‘only science can tell us what reality is’, is that it is not in fact a scientific statement at all (how would you empirically prove this?), but a matter of belief. To believe that only science can tell you what is true is not science but scientism, and scientism is a conviction, a fundamental belief. Scientific theories themselves, like quantum mechanics or evolution, are remarkable open and uncertain (that is they allow for anomalies that cannot be explained), otherwise they would not be able to function as theories that set the boundaries for what we see as normal science. Scientism is in fact normal science raised to the status of objective belief and that is why objective atheists tend to become indiscernible from objective believers. They both believe that they have an iron grasp of what truth and certainty might be. One of course sees it in their equations and the other in their sacred texts.

Secondly, however, and even if Martin were right to think that science tells us what reality is (and I don’t think he is), this should not make a difference to anyone who has a religious belief (I am pretty certain that no one who entered the lecture hall with a religious belief came out of it suddenly having lost it). This is because I do think there is any conflict between science and religion because they are totally different discourses. Even though I am sceptical that science could ever come up with a definite answer to the question about what the nature of reality is (which would be pretty bad for science anyway since it would have come to an end), I still think that it is about the external world. If I wanted to know what a tree is, then I would ask a scientist. Religion, on the contrary is not about the external world but the internal one. If I want to know about my internal world, then it would be better to ask a priest, and if I don’t like priests, then it would be better to ask an artist, like for example Camus, who Martin actually quotes (who I would say is a subjective atheist like me, and not an objective one like Martin).

I know that the clever ones amongst you will say to me that science surely can now tell us about our internal world and we don’t need religion and art anymore. Does not neuroscience tell us how our brains work, and aren’t our brains just who we are? I think the claims that some neuroscientists make are pretty absurd, and if you talk to any of the serious ones, they will tell you that we hardly know anything about how the brain works, but even if we did, nothing that science says externally about the function of the brain, allows one to make the jump from an objective description to the meaning of subjective experience (and ‘meaning’ is the key word here). Sometimes you here people speaking about how their brain does this and that . Their brain opens the door, their brain drives their car, their brain loves their children, and so on and so on. But of course a brain does not do any of those things. It would be pretty messy if it did. We know really that it is a metaphor when someone speaks of their brain opening a door, but this metaphor hides a lot of metaphysics that gets surreptitiously sneaked in so we don’t have to think about it. Someone who thinks that brains open doors, drives cars, kisses children on the forehead, is like someone who thinks that programme that they are watching on the TV or the book they are reading in their hand is to be explained by the objective description of the TV (the wires and electronics that make it up) or the book (the paper, ink and binding), which of course doesn’t. What explains the programme or the book is the subjective meaning and not the objective description.

So having said that what is common to a subjective atheist and subjective believer is uncertainty and faith, I am now going to say something categorical: there can never be an objective description of a subjective meaning, not because we lack knowledge, but what is subjective is never open to an objective description. This is why I would say that if you want to know what the meaning of love is then read literature. Knowing which part of your brain ‘lights up’ when you are in love is not going to tell anything at all, even though it might be objectively true and in itself very interesting.

So what is common to an objective atheist and an objective believer is both of them reject subjective experience, though they do so in very different ways. Now I don’t think it is very difficult to understand why an objective atheist might do so, since the positivist image of science would impel then to do so, even though I think they are wrong, but what is difficult to see is how anyone religious has managed to get themselves in the confusion that their religion is objectively true and needs to be so, when everything that we know about the world tells us that it cannot be so. Why would anyone think, for example, that there is a conflict between a belief in God and evolution? One is subjective and the other objective. Why would anyone think that what is written in a sacred text like the bible is literally true since these are historical documents written by people like us with subjective experiences shaped by the societies they lived in? This does not mean that these documents still cannot speaks to us, but so does Shakespeare, but we do not have to think that these are literally true. The answer to these questions are probably political, and that as usual, fundamentalism is all about power and control. What better way to dominate others that to get them to deny the reality of their subjective experience through objective ideologies? But such a fundamentalism is just as possible in science as it is in religion, and no more true of religion than it is of science.

I am going to end this lecture with a writer who I have been reading for some time, Soren Kierkegaard. He is someone perhaps some of you have heard of. He is said to have been the inventor of the philosophy that Martin himself mentioned last week, existentialism, but that is not of course, how he would have seen himself. He saw himself as a religious writer, indeed a deeply troubled and uncertain one. No doubt what he had to say about religion affected other more philosophical writers (like Heidegger, for example), but that is not what would have interested him. What mattered to him was what it meant to become a Christian, and it is important that it was becoming a Christian that concerned him, because religion is a philosophical abstraction, whereas, he would argue, becoming a Christian is not.

So the key question for Kierkegaard is how does one become a Christian (or even how does one not become one). Whatever one’s answer to this question might be, he was certain that at the heart of it was the issue of what it means to be a self. In other words, there is no objective answer to this question (including whether God exists objectively or not). To exist as a self is an accomplishment and a task and not something that one simply is. It is possible to describe one’s existence objectively, and this is what science does. In that way, you and I do not exist any differently than a stone or the Big Bang that began the universe. This is why some people worry whether God is necessary for such an existence, or some that he is not, and to suggest so is to be superstitious. But this is not where Kierkegaard thinks the absence or presence of God is.

How can we say that the matter of my existence is different from that of a stone? Because I can lose it. Again you might reply, the stone too can lose its existence. It can be annihilated by the hammer as I can by the bullet. But that is not the loss that Kierkegaard is talking about. He says that we can lose our existence simply by not being ourselves, by thinking and acting in the same way as everyone else. To be objectively is actually quite easy; one simply is. But to be subjectively, now that is really very hard indeed. Becoming or not becoming a Christian has to do with that. How one decides to live one’s life. Now of course, this is a very difficult decision, so we like falling back onto objective reasons why we should or should not be a Christian. The fundamentalist falls back onto his sacred texts or culture and history, the objective atheist onto science and logic. Yet these are objective answers to a subjective question, and so miss what is stake completely.

Why is the subjective question more difficult than the objective one? It is not because it requires more or less knowledge, but rather the opposite. It is because it can only be answered in uncertainty. At the very moment that I think that I am being most true to myself, I could be betraying myself, and vice versa. Nothing objective could make you become a Christian as a matter of faith. No-one becomes a Christian through the proofs of the existence of God, even if these arguments were truly objectively. On the contrary faith is not a matter of reason for Kierkegaard but a subjective decision and it would be an ontological error to measure the latter by the former (as though faith were irrational in relation to the rationality of reason). An ‘objective acceptance of Christianity,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is paganism or thoughtlessness’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.108). What is ‘thoughtless’ here is not that one has made an objective mistake, but one has confused the subjective with the objective.

The objective justifies itself in the face of the universal (rules, reasons, and axioms – what Martin calls science), but the subjective in the face of the absolute. This mistake is to think that the absolute and the universal are one and the same, but they are not. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard retells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. From the outside, he is either a murderer or a man of faith, but if he is a man of faith, then what he does makes no sense at all (one might imagine Martin standing at the bottom of the mountain berating Abraham for his foolishness and superstition). No judgement from the outside can compare with the inner anguish and torment of Abraham’s acceptance of God’s command to sacrifice his son and his long journey up the mountain. Our judgement of him would pale in comparison. For he knows that there is no reason to listen to this voice, no scientific, no logical, indeed not even religious, in the objective sense, and yet he does. How would he know if what he was doing was right or not? He could not be certain. His faith could only be subjective. You might reply to me. Haven’t religious people always done terrible things in the name of a God that speaks to them? But they do so through certainty, and not through a subjective God that they do not even know exists. Even Jesus, Kierkegaard says, doubted whether God existed or not, how much more so should a Christian live in doubt. But even if they think they are acting objectively they are wrong. They are doing so subjectively. Every certainty has its roots in a uncertainty that it forgets and represses. What I am saying in hold onto the uncertainty subjectively, whether you are an atheist or a believer.

Abraham acts the way he does because he believes in God. From the outside this does not make any sense at all. We should be appalled by it, and Kierkegaard wants to us to be horrified by it and worst still would be disgusted by those who would use this story objectively to prove the existence in God. From the inside, the whole story changes. He acts because he believes in God. His trial is not to commit the act, but not not to commit it. Objectively God might not exist, and then he is a murderer. Or objectively God might exist (though this makes no sense to Kierkegaard), then he is a man of faith, but subjectively this makes no difference. He acts because he believes.

I do not believe, but I do not do so objectively like Martin does, but anxiously in the face of the absolute whose absence I feel with a passion. To me there is something banal about filling in this absence with facts about chimpanzees and super novae, however wonderful both may be. I want to face the terror of the absence of God with the same horror that must have seized Abraham when he thought he heard the voice of God tell him to sacrifice his son. If some feel the subjective need for God, then they already in a relation with God. Nothing that anyone says objectively about God is going to make any difference at all. Of course, you can also feel the subjective absence of God, but I do not think that this is an objective decision. That would be to confuse what is at stake here. An atheist who comes to their atheism objectively is not really an atheist at all (or perhaps it is better to say that they are confused about their atheism, for anything that matters to us, even scientific understanding of the universe, is subjective, for without subjectivity there is no passion). But equally, anyone who thinks there are objective grounds to be religious, whether in the universe, or in their sacred texts, is at best stupid, and at worse dangerous.