Science and Its Limits

Worldview and You

800px-Scientist_looking_thorugh_microscopeWhat is the proper place of science in contemporary culture, and what happens if we lose sight of where science belongs? David Gelernter’s recent exploration of those questions, in his “Commentary” article “The Closing of the Scientific Mind,” is worthy of further reflection. His article opens,
The huge cultural authority science has acquired over the past century imposes large duties on every scientist. Scientists have acquired the power to impress and intimidate every time they open their mouths, and it is their responsibility to keep this power in mind no matter what they say or do.
We live in the age of the expert. Every field has them: experts in Egyptian history, Shakespearean literature, pop culture—virtually anything you could think of, including of course science. Science’s “huge cultural authority” comes not only from its expertise, however, but also from the overflow of that expertise.

By overflow, what I mean is this: Shakespeare experts have something to say about love, ambition, pride, and (undoubtedly) the state of film and TV today; but they rarely pronounce it as if speaking with all knowledge. Science is rarely that restrained, nor does the public allow it to be. We listen eagerly to scientists who speak of love, ambition, pride, and so on, because (in our minds) they speak for science, which is tantamount to speaking for knowledge itself.

Scientism: Science Out of Bounds

Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting effects of power comes to mind. We’ve granted science almost complete authority over knowledge. Given that much power, the natural tendency is for science to forget its fallibilities and to overstep its boundaries. As Gelernter goes on to say,

Too many [scientists] have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support. Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics. But science used to know enough to approach cautiously and admire from outside, and to build its own work on a deep belief in human dignity. No longer.

But I am speaking too carelessly: I need to identify more clearly what I mean by science. There is science as a practice by which we acquire knowledge, chiefly about nature; and there is science as a multifaceted institution of research, education, publishing, and technology. It is humans, not their methodologies, who are prone to the effects of power, and it is the human institution of science in practice that is prone to overstep its proper bounds.

This overstepping is commonly known as scientism: roughly, the belief that science is the one useful source of knowledge in all areas of human interest.

Science is not scientism; scientism is not science. Scientism has more to do with a philosophy of knowledge than with the pursuit of knowledge. You could say that scientism is science gone imperialistic with respect to knowledge. It’s built on the belief that science is not only a very good and powerful way to acquire knowledge, it is the only reliable way; thus what is not known scientifically is not knowable at all (and probably isn’t even real).

The Submerging of Human Subjectivity

One problem with this, as Gelernter points out, is that science’s competence is limited to the objective, observable world. What is not objectively observable in that manner cannot be known scientifically—which includes most of our deepest human experience: our consciousness, our experience of perceiving the world, our thoughts, our feelings, our very identities.

What reality lies beneath these things? Science has no access to the answers. Scientism therefore suggests that our consciousness, our thoughts, our feelings, may not be quite real. Gelernter writes,

Many wish to banish subjectivity altogether. “The history of philosophy of mind over the past one hundred years,” the eminent philosopher John Searle has written, “has been in large part an attempt to get rid of the mental”—i.e., the subjective—“by showing that no mental phenomena exist over and above physical phenomena.”

I was recently in an Internet discussion with someone who was quite certain the laws of logic themselves are physical things that evolved “during the population bottleneck during the evolution of our ancestors in the plains of Africa.” Computers use logic; therefore, he said, what computers do is what humans do when we use logic. (Never mind that “logic” means something different in computers than it does in human rational thought.)

But this interlocutor of mine was right in line with current fashion, which is to think of minds as fancy computers. It’s a viewpoint that supports a peculiarly scientistic idea of humanness: Just as nothing happens in a computer except the running of software, so there is nothing to your mental life except wetware algorithms. Replace the wetware with hardware, as transhumanist Ray Kurzweil foresees us doing someday—substituting high-tech parts into our bodies at key points—and nothing important changes.

After all, it’s deucedly difficult to detect consciousness anywhere except subjectively, inside ourselves, out of the reach of third-person objective science. What do you or I really know of anyone’s subjective experience but our own? Consider (as Gelernter does) a human-ish zombie, who acts and reacts and interacts exactly the way a conscious human would, without actually being conscious. If that were your friend, your spouse, your child, could you tell the difference? Everything objectively observable would be exactly the same.

What Is Humanness For?

Which leads to Gelernter’s great question, “What is consciousness for?” It’s an especially challenging question for those who believe we came to be through unguided evolution. Evolution cannot “select for” anything other but objectively accessible features like physical characteristics and observable behaviors. Why then has it included consciousness in the human package? Why are we humans and not zombies? What is humanness for?

Some thinkers tell us evolution didnt give us consciousness: that it’s just an illusion. If consciousness is an illusion, however, it’s an illusion of which we are conscious—which is troublesome (to say the least!) for that theory. Others say consciousness is an evolutionary “spandrel,” a feature that evolution didn’t directly intend, but which showed up fortuitously alongside some other adaptive feature. I can’t help but be impatient with that sort of thinking. Consciousness is too complex and too essentially human for it to have been a mere evolutionary ride-along.

Humanness Submerged

But that was a most unscientific thing I just said: “too essentially human.” Where’s the objectivity in that? It’s the kind of thing a poet or novelist might think about, but they don’t deal in knowledge, do they? After all, there’s hardly anything scientific about what they do.

Thus humanness gets submerged under imperialistic scientism.

I do not blame science for this. Science is but a discipline, a tool, a methodology. It’s a description of what people do, not a thing in itself.

Ducking Under Cover of ‘Science’

In our species’ seemingly advanced state, though, when it has become unseemly to abuse and misuse authority, “science” provides convenient cover: “This isn’t me giving you my opinion—it’s science!”

For example, “How can you oppose abortion when there’s no scientific reason to think the fetus is a human person?” Or, “Where’s the science showing that gay marriage is wrong?” Questions like these move quickly on to “Don’t speak in your own defense unless you can show you have science on your side,” which is unfortunately not far removed from, “‘Shut up!’ he explained.”

And that may be the most disturbing aspect of scientism in our society. “It’s not me, it’s the science,” can whitewash a multitude of power grabs.

Expertise Within Bounds

There’s nothing wrong with relying on experts. We must learn, however, to trust them within their disciplines. We don’t ask experts in Egyptian history to explain “Macbeth. We ought not to count on scientists, experts in understanding the objective world of impersonal nature, to explain the personal world of humanness to us. And we certainly ought not to accept the dehumanizing, imperialistic power grab represented by the philosophical viewpoint known as scientism.

Image copyright The National Cancer Institute, courtesy of Wikmedia Commons.

Tom Gilson is the national field director for Ratio Christi, the chief editor of “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” and the author/host of the Thinking Christian blog.

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