So, like, uh, What Exactly is Modern Science?

It’s perhaps an embarrassing feature of modern science that there exists no experiment one can perform to prove that modern science is a more legitimate way of ascertaining the truth about the world than any other. For to look to some experiment as proof is to take it in advanced that such a method of establishing truth is the one that carries the day. Of course, this awkwardness doesn’t stop the juggernaut of science from marching along swimmingly: new inventions continue to be produced, grant money gets dolled out, lives are saved, Nobel Prizes are awarded, etc. (Just a few weeks ago we witnessed one of the most important scientific events of our lifetime: the “discovery” of gravitational waves). But it does render the enterprise perpetually exposed to attack. What I have in mind are not the kinds of attacks lobbed by, say, anti-vaxers or climate change deniers or even those who make a hoopla over the so-called replicability crisis; the problems alleged in those cases have to do only with the integrity or competence of individual scientists and scientific practices, with their being insufficiently scientific. Here, in contrast, let’s be interested in probing the soundness of edifice as a whole. Why do we trust modern science so much in the first place? And should we?

This type of challenge can come from both sides of the political-philosophic spectrum: from the right, for example, by those who accuse modern science of being corrosive to religious or philosophic understanding, and from the left by those who accuse modern (Western, logocentric phallocentric) science of tyrannizing over non-Western worldviews and modes of living. In neither case can the challenge be dismissed simply.

Of course, most of the time we do dismiss it; or rather: we simply ignore it. Precisely because modern science nowadays is so successful at certain things, like delivering us higher standards of living, increased mobility, and longer lifespan, we don’t spend too much time thinking about what we’re missing out on. But consider: the privileged status that modern science has as a source of authority in many realms of today’s world is not very different from the status of Christianity 500 years ago. Statistically speaking, you are as likely today to believe in the teachings of modern science as you would have been to believe in the doctrines of the Church had you been born then. So, is there any reason not to think 500 years from now our own faith in science will seem outdated to a large portion of society?

Another way to get at this topic: in an age when we’re sensitive about not wanting to impose our values on others, how can one respond to the charge that science isn’t just another way one imposes a particular vision of reality on the less well positioned? One might begin an answer by saying the difference is that science is a true description of reality, but that doesn’t help much since it’s not like people of other eras didn’t think their beliefs weren’t true. But what’s probably meant by that is that modern science thinks it thinks about truth in a different way from previous eras. Its lodestone is a concept that didn’t exist before the year 1600: the fact. The main feature of a fact is that it is supposed to be something that can’t be argued with. Whereas things like scripture and art are subject to conflicting interpretations, facts, it’s posited, are something no one can dispute and thus can unify people. For example, if there’s a tree in front of a group of people, you can argue about many things (whether it’s pretty, how to use its resources, what its name is) but doesn’t everyone have to at least admit that there’s a tree there?

Actually, they don’t. There’s a famous story that when Galileo used his telescope to discover mountains on the moon, the philosopher Cesare Cremonini refused to look through it. Today, this case is often given as an example of deliberate dolt-headedness, an intellectual ancestor of the currently en vogue “I am not a scientist” defense. But Mr. Cremonini had a not-so-crummy reason for not looking into the scope: the inquisition was going on, and he was trying to avoid heresy. And for our purposes there’s another non-political grounding for his objection, which we’ll get to in a second; but first, let’s consider flipping the question around. Imagine you’re an atheistic scientist. Ask yourself: what would it take to make you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior and died for your sins? Is there anything that could convince you? If Jesus himself appeared to you, would you not just assume that he was a madman or that you yourself were suffering from a neurological disorder? (If there’s too much baggage attached for you to think about Jesus, try substituting Obatala, the sky spirit of the Yoruba religion, in his place). If you’re having trouble imagining any circumstance you would accept as evidence of Jesus’s/Obatala’s divinity and thus change your beliefs, can you really say you’re more open-minded than Mr. Cremonini? And so wouldn’t you have to admit that you too refuse in advance to accept the possibility of the kind of evidence that would carry currency to the believer? Or consider the question of miracles: if a miracle were to occur, what would it take you to believe that it really happened? Surely instead you would hunt around for some causal, scientific explanation behind it. And if you could find none, would you not just assume someone else smarter could find one or you’d sooner doubt your own eyes, or think you were going crazy than accept that a miracle really took place? Modern science can only explain the laws of nature and by definition a miracle is something that defies natural explanation. But isn’t the greatest miracle of all that anything exists in the first place?

The reason that Galileo’s gambit isn’t as simply as it may seem, and why Mr. Cremonini’s reaction may have been warranted, is that Galileo wasn’t just demanding that the philosopher put his eye in front of a piece of glass; he was demanding that he accept that an individual’s direct experience is a reliable source of knowledge. Yet for most of prior human history, one looked not to one’s own experience but to authority figures for wisdom, and so looking through the telescope would entail rejecting this worldview. Of course, it’s not actually right to say Galileo was consulting direct experience, for the mountains on the moon aren’t actually visible to natural humans on earth. Only with the artificial instrument, the telescope, could they be seen. So one can understand how one could accuse the telescope of producing the mountains, for without the instrument a human wouldn’t be able to see them.

In Wallace Stevens’s perplexing poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a speaker meditates on the song of a woman singing beside the ocean. It opens, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea,” explaining that “Even if what she sang was what she heard,” still, “It was she and not the sea we heard.” That is, the song the singer made was of her own creation even if she was trying to channel the sound of the sea in her song. The individual’s influence contaminates all observation, Stevens suggests:

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.

Elsewhere, he writes “The material world, for all the assurances of the eye, has become immaterial. It has become an image in the mind.” A straightforward reading of “The Idea of Order at Key West” (though I’m open to — and maybe will find time to write sometime on — a non-straightforward reading of the poem) contends that realism in art is impossible. Does the same hold for science? Is a scientist taking measurements of the ocean in a position any different from the woman trying to sing about it? Or does every attempt to hold a mirror to nature collapse into a more or less sophisticated way of talking about ourselves?

At first this seems a dumb question, and perhaps it is. But let’s think for a second. Modern science contends that it studies the natural world. But how curious that it studies the natural world by creating the most unnatural conditions, for isn’t the whole point of controlled experiments is to remove as many elements of nature from something as possible? Look at the thing that discovered the gravitational waves. It consists of two 4-kilometer-long giant metal vacuum metal tube things slashing through the landscapes of Louisiana and Washington. Is that natural? Think about astronauts floating around the cosmos. The only things they interact with are objects that are man-made; any direct contact with their natural world around them would literally cause them death.

This is not to say that modern science is completely dependent on the will of those doing the experiments. No matter how much they willed it, alchemists could not turn base metals into gold. There are some things that are impossible, although you don’t know what’s going to happen in advance. One of the consequential things about the gravitational waves discovery is that, like the invention of the telescope, it gives us another lens into the universe, allowing us to see things we couldn’t see before. We don’t know, however, what we will find when we look out with it.

Yet, the open-endedness of what is possible for science to discover only goes so far. The greatest feature of the LIGO experiment was that it was able to detect the previously undetectable: black holes. But that doesn’t mean that all things which are undetectable will necessarily one day be capable of being described. If God existed, in all likelihood no instrument could detect it. And just because there are certain things that are capable of being discovered or enacted by modern science and certain things that aren’t doesn’t mean that the totality of the world consists only of that which can be described by science. A scientifically minded person will say, well of course science doesn’t try to explain everything, it only goes after the things that can be measured. “The word ‘everything’ will never ever be used in science” a friend explained to me yesterday. Except of course, chirped in another scientist in the room, there’s the fact that so many modern physicists are fixated on discovering a “Theory of Everything.”

At a certain point you lose patience with these games and say, “okay, who cares why science works, the point is that it does and gives us lots of things we like and so why do we need to ask so many questions about it?” But that only forces the question of what “it works” means. Certainly, the world wars of the 20th century gave us horrifying evidence that more science doesn’t always lead to a more peaceful world, but rather than cut back on it in the aftermath the West ramped it up to historic proportions.

A second reason that the “it works, shove it” argument is lacking is that even if science avows that it cannot understand non-scientific realms of experience, it can still affect them significantly. I once read a paper (though I can’t track it down now) about electroshock therapy done in the United Kingdom in the late 20th century. Some of the patience were having extraordinary experiences — hallucinations and visions and things of the sort. (Incidentally, their experiences matched very closely those said to have been exhibited by saints in the Middle Ages). But after being treated with electroshock therapy, the symptoms disappeared. Conversely, another story in the paper described a priest who had recently become depressed and was suffering a crisis of faith. He now no longer felt comfortable offering Mass. But after undergoing electroshock therapy, his faith was restored and he carried on as he once was. So, this suggests that scientific treatments can have a dramatic affect over peoples’ experience of religious feeling, but as we’ve said before we have no way of knowing scientifically what religious experience is actually like. So the person in charge of administering electroshock therapy must face a difficult dilemma of trying to respect not just the patients’ physical health but also his or her psychic, and this requires a different sort of training than a scientist is likely to normally get.

Finally, there’s a problem with the “it works” argument that’s internal to science. At the beginning of this, I put “discover” in quotations when referring to the discovery of gravitational waves because they are something that isn’t new but rather has been known about for over 100 years — Einstein predicted their existence in 1915. What actually happened in the past month was that their existence was measured. The fact that we credit LIGO with the discovery and not Einstein shows the prejudice of modern science to favor the evidence over the idea. But while adopting the “it works” mentally can explain the research done by the scientists at LIGO, it cannot capture what motivated Einstein. His method was not experimental. He was motivated not by funcationality but by simplicity. He writes: “In a certain sense, I take it to be true that pure thought can grasp the real, as the ancients had dreamed.” He believed in the simplicity of the natural world, and we would never have discovered gravitational waves unless he did.

The question then is from what did Einstein derive his faith that pure thought can grasp the real? What must be true about the universe in order for his faith to be justified? Why do we observe there to be order, when just as easily there could be disorder?

I mean to offer these questions genuinely as questions. I have no cards in my back pocket. So if you have any helpful ways to think through these dilemmas, please do share your thoughts!

Thanks : )