A commitment to the natural and the observable

Way back, near the start of this blog more than a year and a half ago, I posted an article titled “Science: not just another religion.”

In that article I agreed with Richard Dawkins’s contention that science, unlike religion, doesn’t give unyielding precedence to tradition and authority, and it doesn’t give any credence to claims grounded in faith or revelation.

Having recently finished viewing a full 24 hours of video lectures and discussions from the 2006 and 2007 “Beyond Belief” conferences — not consecutively, in case you were curious — I’d like briefly to pursue a somewhat more nuanced version of Dawkins’s claim. This seems especially relevant in the context of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

What I won’t do is to slacken in any way my thoroughgoing commitment to the supremacy of the natural and the observable as the only true reality. What I hope to do is examine the nature of that commitment itself, as an epistemological stance — there is no other way to know — and as a heuristic — there is no other way to know.

One of the most striking features of the discussions at both “Beyond Belief” conferences was the apparently universal acceptance of scientific investigation as both of these things, as both the category of information which alone yields real knowledge and as the sole reliable methodology for acquiring information.

In a meaningful sense, the scientists and philosophers gathered in San Diego were, in the words of more than one participant, a “tribe,” a bonded group of related individuals who are joined not by shared DNA but by a shared way of looking at the world.

To look at them in this way threatens to evoke cultish images, and indeed, in some ways, these thinkers did exhibit a veneration, even an adoration, of what are to them the rational equivalent of sacred values. Theirs are values which I share, despite having spent my working life “on the other side,” studying and teaching literature.

It should go without saying that, used in this sense, “sacred” means something much closer to “respected” or “venerated” than to “holy” or “religious.” Unless “sacred” is defined so loosely that all commitments to principle are religious, dedication to science is not a religion. But dedication to the principle and practice of empiricism is the core value of the scientific enterprise.

In Structure, Kuhn wrote of the orthodoxy of scientific work, how almost all of the practice of science takes place within an accepted framework, a way of seeing things — famously, a “paradigm.” New ways of seeing arise when the existing theoretical framework can no longer adequately account for the data, when anomalies accumulate to the point that an entire new paradigm gains hold. Aristotle’s conception of motion, for example, is supplanted by Newton’s, and Newton’s conception of space and time is replaced by Einstein’s.

Some people, most of them “on the other side” themselves in the social sciences and the humanities, including theology and the rest of philosophy, interpreted Kuhn (misinterpreted, he long maintained) as claiming that scientific inquiry produced only relative and temporary truths. If the predictions and explanations of one scientific era were destined to be succeeded by others, and so on indeterminately, then this must mean that the realities described by science were contingent. Being contingent, they were no more concrete than were other, equally mutable ways of seeing the world.

I’ve disputed this relativist view of science elsewhere, and I won’t get into that again here, other than to insist that there’s a central way in which this criticism of science is certainly wrong. That way has to do precisely with the notion that a commitment to science is not only an assertion of epistemological preference but also the only reasonable preference given the success of scientific investigation as a methodology.

In other words, while it is possible to choose to value different ways of “knowing” than scientific rationalism, real knowledge about the things of the world, including ourselves, can come only from a method of inquiry that is, in crucial ways, external to the observer.

One simple way to express the epistemological commitment to science is to see what it is not. Throughout human history, in religions and other philosophical approaches, much value has been placed — and continues to be placed — on internal, subjective “truth.” Our personal experiences, our “ways of seeing,” are validated not only as real truths but often as deeper, more significant truths. That these experiences are wholly interior, in many ways independent of outside reality, is seen not as a disadvantage but rather as a sign of superior validity.

The inner life is just as present to the rationalist as to the mystic. The rationalist experiences beauty and majesty, feels awe and joy, in the same ways as does the most inward-seeking spiritualist. How else, for example, could I, rational thinker that I am, have spent three decades exploring and sharing books and poems, many of which I truly love?

The difference between the rational thinker and the entirely subjective thinker isn’t that the one can’t or doesn’t experience life subjectively, while the other does. It’s simply that the rational thinker separates the thing perceived from the experience of perceiving it.

Each of us has these perceptual experiences, and if that were all there is, each of those perceptions indeed would be equal. But rational inquiry strives to understand the thing in itself, not just how one interacts with it.

And it’s this willingness, often this need, to step “outside” oneself that constitutes the sacred value that is a commitment to scientific inquiry.

So the “Beyond Belief” participants can be seen as a kind of  “tribe.” But this tribe isn’t satisfied to dance blindfolded around a totem.

One thought on “A commitment to the natural and the observable

  1. In the end our reaction to the frozen waterfall, or the poem, or for that matter the hubble photos, leave us with both the reaction and the extrnal causation. Both matter.

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