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  MAR 9, 2018 by PHILIP BALL
Science Isn't After The Truth, It's After What's Convenient

Although science is an admirable achievement, we look silly when we claim there are no limits to what it can do, say two new books.

Science is built on skepticism. The results of any particular study means nothing unless proven through continual repetition of the study's methodology. The importance of being able to replicate results is something instilled in every elementary school science student and yet as we enter adulthood we often tend to take with a great deal of faith any professions of scientific knowledge.

The primary methodology of science is to prise apart reality into its component parts in order to better understand how the whole functions. Cartesian logic began with the separation of mind and matter and the scientific method depends upon the separation of the observer from the observed. The absolute separation between mind and matter has now been shown to be entirely fictitious - the importance of objectivity within the scientific method remains undiminished.

The most glaring problem is the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the needs for ethically based knowledge by politicians and the piecemeal and mostly inadequate assistance that divided scientific corporations are able to put on the table. Some of the scientific disciplines are overused while others are grossly underused, ignored, or even rejected as irrelevant.

Richard Feyman has been often quoted as saying that the philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. It's not clear if he ever put it quite that way, but it rings true with what we know of Feynman. Certainly, the quote is usually wheeled out for purposes of disparagement.

Similarly, Stephen Hawking, in his 2010 book with Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, declared that "philosophy is dead". Another prominent physics populariser, Lawrence Krauss, said that philosophy "has no impact on physics whatsoever...people in philosophy...have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't". Biologist-turned-philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, co-editor of a book of essays, Science Unlimited?, quotes similar examples from Steven Weinberg and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

It's not worth lingering over what Pigliucci rightly calls the anti-intellectualism of these remarks, except to wonder where this antagonism masquerading as aloof mockery comes from. At least part of it is easily understood: physicists are doing very well by themselves, thank you, and resent outsiders telling them what's what.

"Pysicists are doing very well by themselves and resent outsiders telling them what's what"

Philosopher Angela Potochnik's ambitious book Idealization and the Aims of Science is an antidote to the view that the philosophy of science tries to pronounce grandly on what scientists ought to do. Even so, many might still resent her assertion that "science isn't after the truth". But she's right. While our picture of the universe is in some sense truer than it was in the Middle Ages, and science typically does work its way closer to some sort of truth, that isn't what scientists are trying to achieve.

What they want are useful, comprehensible, workable theories of the world. Understanding trumps truth: scientists will generally settle for a less accurate model if it is more cognitively transparent. They don't strive to map models perfectly onto reality. This doesn't seem so controversial. Even Hawking agrees, indulging in a bit of philosophy himself when he states: "There is no model-independent test of reality."

Potochnik's strength is in stressing the human dimension of the enterprise. Ultimately, scientists use simplified models because, as she says, our theories and models "are designed to facilitate human cognition and action". It's not a question of them being mere social constructions or fashion statements. She means we are looking for what works for us. Our theories must fit the human mind, although the universe need not. "Scientists' cognitive characteristics and interests," she writes, "can never influence what is true, but these can shape what generates understanding." I'd like to think that the more thoughtful philosophy sceptics, like Weinberg, would have some sympathy with that.

There is no "scientific method", but there is a collection of tried-and-tested principles: try to use reason, compare theory against experiment, attempt to replicate results, that kind of thing. The precise emphases differ by discipline. Some depend more heavily on statistics. Some are necessarily empirical, with few theories. Some, like chemistry, are as much concerned with making as with understanding. At any rate, science doesn't do just one thing over and over again in different fields of enquiry. That, says Potochnik, is why there are also no clear boundaries between science and non-science.

Which brings us to the topic under examination in Science Unlimited?: the concept of scientism. None of the authors of these essays define the word identically, but it might be crudely expressed as the sin of science exceeding its proper bounds and making hubristic claims to be the sole source of reliable knowledge.

Several philosophers are here laid end to end to consider the matter - and no, they don't reach a conclusion. The views range from the proposal that scientism should be reclaimed from being a term of abuse to become a badge of honour, to dismissing it as an empty insult and to agreeing that it is real and troubling.

To argue the case, you need to decide if science has any limits at all, and if it does, what they are and what (if any) reliable sources of knowledge lie beyond. The usual suspects here - philosophy, religion and morality - are dissected by several of the authors. Some scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, seem to feel that when philosophers are reasoning in ways that are at least logically falsifiable, they are just doing science anyway. Steven Pinker has even claimed "rational thinkers" like David Hume and Thomas Hobbes as honorary scientists. It is rather as if they are saying, "Science is thinking that I like."

"There's still no good answer to Hume's insistence you can't derive an ‘ought' from an ‘is'"

Morality, though, is often seen as a branch of philosophy that scientific methods can't adjudicate. Yet some, such as Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, have ambitions to turn it into a hard science, claiming that disciplines such as neuroscience can supply objectively correct answers to moral issues.

That endeavour has often been held up as a classic example of scientism, but it is probably more useful just to call it wrong-headed. There is still no good answer to Hume's insistence that you can't derive an "ought" from an "is", and Harris relies on an assumption that is irreducibly philosophical: that the right course is the one that most enhances human happiness. We might be able to use neuroscience, game theory and evolutionary psychology to understand why people respond as they do to the infamous trolley problem or games involving punishment, but we can no more prescribe absolutely what they should do than we can prescribe who they should love. Parts of philosophy indeed deal with concepts (such as love, life and identity) that lack a rigorous scientific definition, but which seem indispensable to human existence.

And so, religion. Some of those here defending science against cries of "scientism!" from religious believers pick off easy (if justifiable) targets: woolly rhetoric about ineffable deities, say, or outright anti-science fundamentalism. And religion as an oppressive, mind-washing ideology should be attacked like any other. But arguments about "proving" or "disproving" the existence of God as cosmic designer are tedious now and irrelevant to the social aspects of how religion is typically practised.

I have seen enough breakdown of reason when New Atheists work themselves up about religion to conclude that everyone loses from attempts to argue away this particular pocket of non-rational belief that can manifest in the minds of sober, intelligent and humane folk. We all have such pockets; not all of them are God-shaped. Get over it.

Co-editor Maarten Boudry is probably right to assert that "if a factual question is answerable at all, it can be answered using methods...that are at least continuous with science". But there are questions important and meaningful to humans that can't be expressed in well-posed scientific terms. As physicist Taner Edis writes: "We often have other intellectual purposes besides investigation and explanation."

Science Unlimited? offers an entertaining and stimulating gallery of views. Everyone will draw their own conclusions from it, precisely because, while there are wrong answers to the questions it poses, there is no single right one. Sometimes science is like that too.

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