Said Simon

My thoughts as a Secular Humanist and student of politics

Culture and ‘science’

A couple people have requested of me that I make a blog post about this topic. I am not sure I am going to contribute anything novel to the discussion, but I’ll try to at least bring in some of the literature and philosophy of science that I think is relevant and which many people ignore or don’t know. I am probably not going to link every name or concept, though I’ll try to link to more info on some of the less clear references. One could also skip to the end if they were in a huge hurry, but I don’t recommend it…

The ‘topic’ is whether science is a culturally contingent construct; whether it is reasonable to talk about ‘science’ as something ‘Western’, and no more warranted than ‘other ways of knowing’, perhaps from the ‘East’ or wherever.

The prompt for discussing this topic is an essay by Natalie Reed, whom I hold in general esteem for a great many reasons, but who has to a large degree missed something important with this particular contribution.

The premise of her essay is that it is wrong for people to dismiss science as no more reliable or epistemologically sound than other ways of enquiring, other ways of interrogating nature for its secrets, other ways of investigating reality. The people who dismiss science in this way typically come from positions of political and social subordination, and they view ‘science’ as a kind of hegemonic and oppressive construct that serves to delegitimate the philosophies of other cultures. Yet, according to Natalie, this is both foolish and clueless:

The differences between the “West” and other cultures aren’t so fundamental as to speak to how we think, how we feel, how we know, how we process knowledge….Even if it were true that science as we understand it is simply a “Western” construct being inexactly applied to a more universal kind of thought, does that say anything about science being wrong? Dangerous? Harmful? Does it’s relative “Westerness” have anything whatsoever to do with the applicability of science, or it’s beneficial nature relative to human bias?

Let me first praise Natalie for some things that I think she has done better than I probably could. She has, with empathy, sympathy, and authenticity, captured why it is that so many people are inclined to view ‘science’ and the accompanying narrative of progress as coercive. She also hammers on what one friend of mine has called ‘noble savage worship’:

To say that science is “Western” is intensely condescending, dismissive and Euro-centric. It takes the same old colonial narrative of the “advanced”, civilized peoples of Europe, and the savage mystical primitives of Everywhere-Else, and repackages it in such a way as to be enjoyed within the halls of contemporary academia without any post-imperial guilt.

Bravo! I am genuinely refreshed and delighted to see this sentiment expressed by someone who is otherwise enormously sensitive to the position of marginalised people in our society. I am filled with respect for Natalie’s condemnation of this sort of hypocrisy, and also for her steadfast belief that principles of scepticism, self-criticism, and methodological rigour will do more for the cause of the oppressed than mysticism ever will.

Except now there are some philosophical problems I want to discuss. The above paragraph hints at how Natalie understands science, and she makes this understanding more clear later in her essay (and pardon the long quote):

Science is by definition non-cultural. It is not a part of a struggle between different cultural worldviews. In so far as a cultural worldview falls into a scientist’s interpretation of her data, she’s screwing up. She’s making the kind of human error science is structured to minimize as much as possible.

Science is not a “way of knowing”. It is a process. A process designed to minimize all of the different little biases, cognitive distortions, logical fallacies and errors of perception that define a cultural perspective, or subjective vantage point, or “way of knowing”. It’s streamlining a bunch of different principles that have been practiced by all human beings in all cultures for millenia to help us tell what’s really going on from what simply seems to be going on, to tell what is probably true from what we want to be true, to tell the important variables from the coincidences, to tell the actual causal relationships from things that just happen to come after other things.

And it wants to be wrong. It wants to make sure it can be shown to be wrong. It questions itself, it’s open to criticism, it values self-questioning, skepticism… the things I fear our progressive movements don’t value nearly enough. It’s wrong over and over and over again, and it KNOWS it will be wrong again. It acknowledges its margin of error.

Let me deconstruct this a bit.

Oh wait, before I do, let me just point out that Natalie reifies ‘science’ in a way that seems problematic here. I caution against ascribing any desires or values to Science. ‘Science’ is not a mind, and it has no will. As Natalie herself points out, it is something involving processes. Those processes are employed and acted out by people – scientists – and we should avoid discussing science in a way that may lead us to forget that science is something that scientists do, whether or not we believe that there is a single, universal method that all scientists should follow. And despite her protests to the contrary, science as Natalie conceives of it is precisely a way of knowing. It is very evident that Natalie believes science to be a process of generating knowledge about an ‘objective’ reality, and that process involves ways of minimising such things as ‘observer bias’ or ‘inaccuracy’.

There are certain assumptions to Natalie’s position. Let  me spell out the ones I think are salient:

  1. We live in an ‘objective reality’ independent of our experience of it; there would be things like mountains and trees whether or not we were around to believe in them;
  2. We can observe that ‘mind-independent’ reality;
  3. Our observations are warped and flawed due to our cognitive biases, but those biases can be minimised to produce knowledge of reality that is more accurate or approximately true;
  4. There is a sort of common-sense aspect to science, such that many of its core principles have been practiced by all people in all cultures;
  5. Scepticism and self-criticism is an essential component of science

These assumptions seem pretty intuitive, and I think that to a large degree they follow from the ‘naive realism’ – to quote a term from one of my favourite philosophers and cognitive scientists – with which we view our world. But these assumptions are to varying degrees highly contentious, and they have been the subject of much debate amongst philosophers of language, science, mind, metaphysics, and so on.

1 and 2. The notion that we all live in the same ‘objective reality’ can be attacked in a number of ways.

The most powerful attack, in my opinion, comes from Wittgenstein. That attack claims that many, if not all, of the objects we observe to populate reality are only ‘objects’ because we have made them into objects through social practices, which he calls ‘language games’.  Language games aren’t necessarily about words, but rather are about the development of conventions or rules through context-specific practices (‘forms of life’). We learn to divide our world according to have we interact with it, and how we interact with it is learned and patterned. Other variants of the linguistic attack include Foucault’s ‘power-knowledge’, and certain awful post-structuralists whose names I shall not mention. While the strongest empirical formulation of this challenge, the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, seems largely false, the underlying philosophical implications of the linguistic attack upon realism  – the epistemological and ontological aspects of it – make it difficult to imagine that any statement we could make, any proposition or predicate, could ever describe something ‘mind-independent’.

Another powerful attack comes from the instrumentalist tradition. This attack rests upon the notion that our observations are phenomenal: they are constructions of sense-data created by our brains, and as such, they represent reality but never grant us reliable or unmediated access to it. This tradition is very venerable, and rests upon Cartesian and Humean foundations. According to instrumentalists, all we do is divide up our sensations into useful and consistent patterns in order to effectively manipulate the world and solve our problems. While advances in cognitive science have shown that our brains appear to naturally divide sense data in certain ways, this doesn’t actually tell us anything about what is True, only what we can be reasonable confident will persist as phenomena.

There are, of course, excellent and interesting defences to theses attacks, but we should not be blithely assume that they succeed.

3.  The notion that we can develop approximately true knowledge of reality by minimising our biases or by following certain methods has many powerful challenges. Ever since the Duhem-Quine thesis – that we never falsify single theories but rather sets of theories – received broad (though not universal) acceptance in the 1950s, and Kuhn’s historical discussion of the many ways in which scientists are most definitely not sceptical, most definitely do not test all their assumptions, and most definitely do not progress in knowledge in any kind of linear way, scientific realism has been under attack.

Recently, realist philosophers of science have roughly divided into two general camps. The first, in the Lakatosian tradition, believes that while we don’t have the ability to ‘falsify’ individual theories in any kind of non-contextual way, we do have the ability to falisfy methodologies – substantive sets of assumptions about what the world is and how it can be studied – by seeing whether they allow us to accurately predict new things. The second believes that we can make true statements about cause and effect, and that we can possibly also divide reality accurately into entities based on their emergent properties, using a kind of principle of ‘inference to the best explanation’, or ‘abductive reasoning’.

However, anti-realist and instrumentalist philosophers have hit back hard. Larry Laudan, in ‘A Confutation of Convergent Realism’, has pointed out that the history of science is filled with theories that enabled highly accurate and new predictions, but whose central terms are now believed to be total fictions. Examples include phlogistons or aethers. Other philosophers have criticised the reliance upon emergence as being logically contradictory, and thus attacked the suggested that we could ‘abduce’ real entities out of our observations of cause and effect.

As in the previous case, all of these points are the subject of fierce and, in many cases, unresolved debate amongst our bright lights of ‘analytic’ philosophy.

4 and 5. We can’t even agree on what the principles of science should be in our culture. And to my knowledge, no other culture has produced such a vibrant debate over what they should be. However, it is true that basic principles of logic – non-contradiction, exclusion, and identification – appear to guide philosophical and ‘scientific’ debates in many other cultures than ours. As for scepticism…well, Wittgenstein has quite a bit to say about that too (language game!), as does Laudan (that it’s a context specific attempt to solve problems), not to mention many others. They’re all worth reading.

I’m going to suggest an alternative understanding of science, since it should be quite obvious by now that Natalie’s understanding of it is entirely culturally and philosophically contingent upon specific traditions. My alternative should allow us to still view science as a special process of enquiry  worthy of our esteem, and also give us grounds to criticise mysticism or fortune-telling as bankrupt. Here goes:

Science is a process of enquiring about the world that occurs within a community of people who a) engage in constant self and mutual criticism of the methods, assumptions, and conclusions of their enquiries and who b) produce ‘knowledge’ that is publicly accessible and c) in principle designed to clarify and disclose the world irrespective of any particular moral stance.

By this definition, we can criticise mystical claims about the world for being unwarranted on the grounds of their own methodological insufficiency (ie they are not reasonable even from within the system that produced them), and privilege science on the grounds that it is by definition something that is – or should be! – a public and politically neutral domain of enquiry, there to resolve disputes about how the world is regardless of how we think it should be. And crucially, we can criticise people for dismissing scientific knowledge when we have good reason to believe that it was produced according to methods that have a lot of potential for making our lives better – as Natalie has argued so pointedly.

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