Things, Bodies, and the Assumptions of Modern Science
The distinction between ‘things’ of the intellect, and ‘bodies’ that are external reals ‘there right now’, is one of the basic difficulties human beings have. Were this distinction clear to more than a few people, a huge number of pseudo-arguments could be consigned to the dustbin they deserve. The best treatment of the topic I have found is that in Bernard Lonergan’s major work ‘Insight’.
A ‘thing’ in any area of experience is a collection of relations comprehended by the intellect as a unity. Its validity is contextual: what is valid in one area of experience, for instance biological experience or the dramatic experience of social life is not valid in the context of physics or chemistry, and vice versa. A ‘body’ is something valid specifically in the biological realm of experience. A dog may take a passing interest in a still photo of another dog, but quickly loses interest since it does not respond in the manner that things of interest to a dog do, and so for a dog is not a ‘body’, not ‘real’ in the common sense meaning of the term. The same dog, though, might sit for hours watching dogs on television (dogs will even do so, in some cases, when the televised dogs are cartoons), the interaction and behaviour, however a dog perceives and conceives them, qualify those as ‘real’, as ‘bodies’ that are external to it, there at the present time, and can be interacted with in the way that dogs interact with other real bodies. The problems of mereology (the study of wholes and parts) is fundamentally an inability to understand and maintain that distinction. At its extreme there is the mereological nihilism of someone like Cian Dorr, who maintains that the only ‘real things’ are subatomic particles, everything else is just an aggregation. The idiocy of this notion becomes vividly apparent when you attempt to comprehend the traffic patterns of a modern city as ‘really’ the result of the random movement of subatomic particles. Oddly, as a supposedly scientific mereology, Dorr’s ideas violate the first principle of a scientific ‘thing’, that it be verifiable via observational evidence. Since subatomic particles can only be partially and indirectly verified via the behaviour of ‘things’ Dorr treats as arbitrary aggregations, his ideas rely on the very experiences of ‘things’ at a greater scale, the very experiences he is at pains to claim as ‘illusions’.
In the definition above the most difficult term, although we use it non-conceptually fairly regularly without really specifying precisely what is intended, is ‘relation’. Defining a thing as a given unity of relations appears to ignore what common sense sees a thing as made of, in favor of something common sense finds difficult to accurately define. For common sense, things are composed of parts, not relations. Of course even the most pragmatic person knows that parts have to have some kind of arrangement to be a particular thing, but the notion of ‘relation’ is not especially clear when thought of in terms of ‘arrangement’. To clarify the matter a little for those of the more pragmatic persuasion, I’ll indulge in a somewhat lengthy, not to say arbitrary, example:
1. I own a car, as it happens a relatively old one.
2. Cars are made of parts, after all when something goes wrong, my first stop is likely to be an auto parts store (assuming I do the necessary labor myself).
3. Given that my car is 31 years old, and I am its third owner, chances are pretty good that a fair number of parts have been replaced over its lifetime.
4. \Since the original manufacturer, at this point, doesn’t stock parts for such an old car other than regular maintenance items that sell in reasonable quantities, parts that have been replace in, say, the last 15 years most likely didn’t come from the manufacturer, particularly since buying parts from someone else is generally cheaper than going to the dealer.
5. Parts from someone else, of course, can’t be a random generic part. Only parts designed for that car, for the most part, will fit on the car. In the event a broken part is simply not available from anyone, my choices are to get a used part from a wrecker, or re-engineer everything that part interacts with in order to use a similar part from a different type of vehicle.
6. My car, like everyone else’, is a specific type of car. If someone wasn’t familiar enough to know what type it is, my response on being asked would be to name the make and model, and possibly the year and trim type, if the variations are sufficiently different from one another.
7. When choosing parts that were designed for my specific type of car, I have usually a few choices. While the dealer may not stock all the parts I might at some point need, larger distributors do keep stock, and the parts are generally separated into three classes: OEM, OES, and aftermarket. This separation is due partly to common ways in which cars are designed an manufactured, and partly due to different target markets for the parts’ makers.
8. Most parts in any given car are not made by the car manufacturer themselves. This would require any car company to be proficient in too many specialties, which generally results in an unmanageable operation. Different companies specialize in, for instance, cooling system parts, fuel system parts, etc. The car manufacturer designs the car, sometimes with already existing parts, sometimes specifying modifications to existing part designs that will improve cost or performance on a specific model.
9. An OEM or Original Equipment Manufacturer part is generally the part the car manufacturer themselves used when designing and building the car. Buying an OEM part for my car, for instance a Behr radiator if it needs replacing, is replacing the original with an identical part from the same company.
10. For both logistical reasons and to meet regulated standards, however, for most parts a car manufacturer is obligated to have an alternate source. This is for the car company’s own protection (if a supplier can’t meet demand for a part, the alternate is used and production continues) and for the consumer (if the OEM company went out of business or stopped making the part five years after you bought a new car, there would most likely still be the alternate around, and they would have increased incentive to continue making the part). These ‘alternate’ parts, called Original Equipment Specification or OES parts, are generally not identical with the OEM part, but they are interchangeable in terms of functionality and performance.
11. The third class of parts, aftermarket parts, are made by companies who often had nothing to do with the original car manufacturer. There are various reasons why a company would make an aftermarket part: In certain cases, both the OEM and OES parts manufacturers for some reason no longer make the part, but there is still a sufficient demand in the market for another company to create a new part that will work in place of those. In other cases, the OEM or OES part may be priced so much higher than manufacturing cost that there is a sufficient demand for a similar enough part at a lower price, these parts may or may not have completely interchangeable specifications – for instance ‘universal’ type parts fit well enough in most cars to be usable, but can’t be precisely interchangeable on a large number of different car types. Windshield wipers, for instance, generally fit most cars, although exactly how they are attached varies slightly from car to car – the universal part simply has close enough connectors for most cars, and in fact has two or three types of connector, each of which is close enough for a significant percentage of the market. The last type of aftermarket parts are those designed to improve on the original part. ‘Improve’ is a pretty vague word, and indeed how they ‘improve’ is often a buyer opinion. Some aftermarket manufacturers, for instance, specialize in looking at commonly problematic parts on cars that have a relatively long life expectancy. By fixing a fault, for instance, in a part that didn’t show up until the cars were five or ten years old, the aftermarket parts maker can hopefully convince parts buyers that their part is superior, and if used will not need to be replaced as quickly as another OEM or OES part. Other ‘improved’ aftermarket parts may be cosmetic, or simply trend-conscious.
12. The question, then, that all this is leading to, is that given that a fair number of parts have most likely been replaced (and some I know have because either I replaced them, or they are noticeable modifications to the original design) the car still ‘is’ the year, make and model today that I said it was last year, or that the company advertised it as 31 years ago? Not only are some of the parts not original, they are different in design and come from a different origin to the original parts, yet the car is still the same car. This ‘sameness’ is not an illusion, as the more physicalist minded mereologist might claim. Even after major parts have been replaced, the car has a distinctive feel, a distinctive manner of operating, of turning, braking, etc. that a competent driver would soon intuitively recognize, and quickly associate definitively with that type of car.
13. The answer is of course that the car is not a collection of parts. Quite simply, if it were merely an ‘aggregation’ as mereological nihilists claim, a Ferrari in a parts bin should be as immediately recognizable as a Ferrari on the road as you hear the distinctive exhaust sound and see the distinctive shape leaving my 31 year old sedan in the dust. In fact, only a Ferrari engineer would recognize one in a parts bin, even a Ferrari driver would be unlikely to immediately know it was a Ferrari, unless by chance the part had the insignia on it.
14. So, then, the car is a unity of relations, since the identity of the parts themselves are not decisive in determining the identity of the car. What then is a relation? The key is in the fact that unless I purchase an OEM or OES part, I’m not quite guaranteed that the part will have the exact relations as the original had. Nissems, for instance, makes aftermarket cooling system parts, mainly for European cars. In many cases these are actually higher quality than the OEM or OES part, but any backyard mechanic who has used them knows the double-entendre of their slogan “Making the Difference”, because a very common side effect of the differences they introduce to improve the durability and performance of the part is that the parts directly related to it require minor but often time consuming and annoying modifications to parts that are related directly to it. Even in this case, though, the car is still the same type of car, the slightly modified minor relations do not change the more effective relations that determine the car’s identity. Those relations, which are often at a higher scale but need not be, must be kept very close to the original for a car to feel ‘right’ in the way that car did originally.
15. When a car doesn’t feel ‘right’ after work has been done (assuming the ‘not right’ feeling isn’t due to something having been done wrong) the interaction of some aspect of the car with every other aspect is not the same as it was. A relation, then, is a determinate and identifiable potential to interact.
Now a car, as you might gather, is also a body to those of us raised in 20th and 21st century civilization. It is ‘out there now real’ as Lonergan puts it. However it need not be a body to still be legitimately a ‘thing’ in a specific area of experience. A sentence, for instance, in grammar is a ‘thing’ grammatically. It has a determinate range of structures that allow it to be identified as such. However it is not in the usual sense a ‘body’, i.e. is is precisely not ‘out there now real’, but has a different mode of being, one only accessible to the intellect, and only to the intellect as grammatical in a specific mode of that intellect. Many, if not most of the ‘things’ that interest scientists are of this type. To speak of them as if they were bodies however is to talk the kind of nonsense Dawkins spouts: a gene is not a ‘body’ to either itself or anyone else, much less a ‘selfish’ body. It is only a gene for a scientist if it is apprehended as such via the intellect, using a complex set of tests that still in many cases are inconclusive. The gene, more cogently, is only a gene to a self-aware creature that posits it as a factor in its own origin. For itself, were it to have the type of cognitional ability Dawkins apparently ascribes to it, it still wouldn’t be a gene, selfish or otherwise, to itself it could only be a structure of chemicals that under certain conditions will copy that structure to a different set of chemicals, replicating its own structure. Dawkins, like most science ‘popularizers’ always subsequently claims it as to be a mere metaphor for the public that doesn’t understand ‘hard’ science, but never mentioning what is supposed to be said if the metaphor is dropped, precisely because nothing at all is said if the metaphor is dropped. Researchers in their daily work probably rarely pay attention to the ‘as if’, the metaphor that makes their work not nonsensical, because the metaphor, rather than being described in natural language as an imaginative projection, is described in symbols as a mathematical projection. But only what can be imaginatively projected in some manner can sensibly be projected mathematically, and the only arbiter of a mathematical question that could have multiple answers is to be found in which implied imaginative projection is impossible and/or paradoxical. Physicists don’t need to consider the ontological validity of their equations each step of the way, but determining if an infinity that crops up is a ‘real’ infinity or a spurious infinity triggered by the infinite divisibility of the ‘real’ number system, an infinite divisibility not found in reality itself, requires that the physicist revisit the ontological implications of the infinity, to determine if it in fact makes sense or not. The metaphors that are always involved in a scientific explanation when put into natural language are not artifacts of some mysterious difficulty, that is simply obscurantism, and as such is no different from the obscurantism of any other set of people who claim an ‘extraordinary’ knowledge not sharable with ‘just anyone’, but only for the initiated, in other words a magician’s contrivance. These metaphors are the intrinsic content of an explanation that is for the most part handled in formal symbolic mathematical projections, rather than in the mode of imaginative hypotheses in which they originated and still have their proper sense and meaning. If a scientist’s metaphors don’t make sense, in most cases their theories are also nonsense, but couched in a formal language that is not known well by the majority of non-scientists. The much worse problem though occurs when a scientist does understand his field, and his metaphors do make sense within the context of his science. The temptation is always to go a step too far and claim that that is how things ‘really are’. This is the problem that plagues the work of intelligent, sincere attempts to convey the context and meaning of scientific insights to a wider audience. As a creature that is still also an animal, despite his intelligence and reason, what every scientist has in common with the general populace (or at least every human scientist) is a desire for ‘their’ things to be ‘really real’, i.e. to be satisfying in the way that an interaction with an ‘out there now real’ is satisfying to an animal’s desires and necessary to their survival. The claim of Carl Sagan, repeated most loudly by Neil Tyson, was a sincere claim, but was only a half truth. Living as we do in an age where much is revealed by technology alone, we do need an understanding of the essence of technology as a mode of revealing. However we do not particularly need an accounting for what technology reveals that rarely catches up with what technology has revealed, and certainly not one that only performs that accounting in the terms already set out by technology. Modern science is that accounting-for what technology has already revealed i a technological manner, which is to say as measurable and therefore exchangeable, and nothing more. For something to even become an object for science it has to already have been revealed in some manner, and since the technology of the telescope reinvented astronomy, that manner has been almost exclusively technological, at least in the natural sciences. The human sciences, over the same historical period, have merely managed to ineffectually ape the same type of accounting-for with very few of the requisite technological revealings to account for.
Plato began to understand the difference between things and bodies a couple of millenia ago, Aristotle was clearer on the matter. It took Augustine a couple of decades to figure out what Aristotle and Plato were talking about but he wrote the problem and the solution out in a more explicit fashion than either Aristotle or Plato. It took Aquinas a number of years, even though he had Augustine’s writings as a guide. It took modern physics four hundred or so years. Not until the 20th Century with Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein and a few others was science able to deal with its ‘things’ purely as scientific things, without requiring that they be externalizable as ‘at hand bodies’. The majority of scientists today, including a competent physicist such as Neil Tyson, never mind the stamp collectors of science such as Dawkins, don’t understand it.
Related to this are the twin problems of validation and evidence. Scientific evidence and validation is a very peculiar case of what is considered validation and evidence in a more general sense, because virtually nothing in science can be validated without at least indirect observational, empirical evidence. A relatively higher percentage of valid ‘things’ in the sciences are inherently imaginative projections that create models, and those models are judged by how accurately they predict relatively simple interactions. This is fairly useful, but also extremely limited in its basic truth claim. No matter how correct, imaginative models (and mathematical models are simultaneously imaginative models) cannot lay a fundamental claim to truth, precisely because the things they accept as valid are already removed from their meaningful context, and only when removed do they become objects for science. Without a meaningful context, any statement may be correct or incorrect, but the question of truth and falsity is not thereby answered, because it is never even raised. Scientific ‘objectivity’ has its only valid basis in this removal of a scientific object from the contextual situation that make it meaningful as the thing that it is, which is to say, its being. As an example, a scientist may be able to tell you all kinds of things about a statue, viewed as a scientific object: its age via carbon dating, where it was found, the distance from the found object to the location of the materials from which it was made, etc. But in becoming an object for science, what science cannot tell you without stepping out of the scientific mode of experience is what it is, which is always what it means in a specific context. Nothing that science can tell you would distinguish an object, say, as a statue of a Buddha from a bust of Elvis. Of course one might be able to infer much of the object’s original being via an interpretation of scientific statements, but in each case one has to bring non-scientific understanding from other areas of experience to accomplish the inference. This is not a fault of science, rather it is precisely its strength when considered appropriately. However what can be considered ‘objectively’ is of necessity still extremely simple. To put the supposed ‘power’ of advanced mathematics and physical models into perspective, to this point we can predict the potential movements of an abstract model containing only identical abstract bodies and only one force if there are two bodies in the model, but not more. Our most powerful and advanced mathematics fails when we add a third abstract, identical, perfect body to a model that only models the potential interactions via one idealized force.
People who ‘believe’ in science as something it isn’t will immediately point to our ‘advanced’ understanding of nuclear power, and ‘advanced’ breakthroughs in medicine. Just to set them straight, our ‘advanced’ understanding of the atom, as exemplified in nuclear fission, doesn’t suffice to enable us to understand why we can only create the effect with a couple of isotopes of specific elements that happen to have unusual properties, nor do we have any understanding that can relate the atomic model of an element to its behavior, other than behavior that is affected by mass and nothing else. In fact, those unusual properties of those specific isotopes of those specific elements were precisely the properties that the model of atomic radiation attempted to account for in the first place. A circular argument may be vicious or virtuous, depending on to what degree it advances our intuitive understanding of a topic. But a circular explanation is at root a non-explanation.
The advances in medicine in the last couple of centuries touted as evidence of science’s prowess have largely been achieved by the highly scientific methodologies of dumb luck and trial and error. The most common treatment for manic depression was discovered to be effective by a doctor who was merely trying to use its dulling properties to quieten some particularly boisterous manics. Antidepressants were discovered while testing a couple of particularly ineffectual antihistamines. In neither case do we have any understanding beyond guesses as to how they work. How does the medical establishment look for other potential medications? By trying out chemicals that look similar, also a highly scientific methodology. Finally, how do medical researchers determine if in fact a similar looking chemical has desired therapeutic effects? Primarily by asking the people that take the chemical in a research trial. Notch one there for the power of scientific ‘objectivity’, when the result of clinical trials is determined primarily by collecting samples of subjective judgments. I’m not damning medical research, any more than denying the undoubted effectiveness of nuclear power based on specific isotopes of uranium, merely pointing out that the supposedly well understood ‘scientific’ basis of both is for the most part mythical, as is the supposed use of scientific methodology in their discovery. The most common means of discovery of anything new over the last few hundred years has been technology, and by that I do not mean an unexamined entity referred to as ‘science and technology’, for the good reason that technologists do not in general use scientific methodology, it would interfere with what they in fact do. Nor are technologies ever based on science, what is revealed by any given technology, as the intrinsic meaning of that technology, has to have already been revealed by that technology before it can become a possible object for science.
In other areas of human activity and experience direct, observational, empirical evidence is not a necessary or even usual criterion for verification of the validity of any particular ‘things’ relevant to that area of experience : our social and political ‘things’ are validated by our ability to get by in the social and political milieu we live in; biological ‘things’, which are generally the same as ‘bodies’, are validated by our survival and ability to reproduce, not by empirical observation; our common sense ‘things’ are validated by our ability to accomplish tasks such as driving to a mall, buying what we need (and knowing what that is) and getting home without any detrimental incidents. None of these modes of behaviour require observational evidence for validation of their truths, nor can their truths even be expressed in an ‘objective’ manner, in any meaningful sense of the term. The ‘things’ of science, interesting as they might be to a scientist or a curious layman, are irrelevant to a carpenter insofar as he is engaged in being a carpenter, and a scientist claiming it is ‘more true’ that a table is made from subatomic particles and not wood is just promoting an unverifiable model over the validated reality of a carpenter’s work. Scientific nonsense such as the ‘hologenome’ as the unit of evolution, notwithstanding that it comes a tiny bit closer to sense than the organism as the unit, is only possible where both an organism and its microbial contingent, as well as evolution, are posited as ‘bodies’, as ‘out there now reals’ and not simply unities of explanatory conjugates in a specific scientific context. The nonsense arises due to the ambiguity with which we cross from things to bodies and back without distinction. Evolution, in its most general sense, is not itself a ‘thing’ but a description, specifically a description of how nature as a whole appears when viewed historically. The Neo-Darwinist myth that Darwin’s ideas replaced teleology and teleological understanding, rather than supplementing our understanding of how teleology might function, aside from contradicting Darwin’s express statements about his ideas as inherently teleological, makes no sense in a concrete context, and is only possible if evolution is viewed as something ‘out there at present and real’, a ‘body’ in the sense that humans, like other animals, understand perceived unities in their environments. A description is only a ‘thing’ to the active intellect, it has no subsistence ‘out in reality’. As a description of nature viewed historically, the only sensible ‘unit’ of evolution is nature itself. This can be easily demonstrated by the simple reality that individuals do not in a general way evolve, neither do individuals if you include their microbial attendants, neither do species, simply because any significant evolutionary change generally creates a new species. Where teleology still applies is in attempting to answer the basic question surrounding the evidential history of nature: why does nature, viewed historically, appear as evolutionary. Not only does natural selection contain an implicit teleology, simply because the ‘environment’ involved in selecting is only an environment when posited as such by an organism that has already distinguished itself from the rest of reality. That ‘rest of reality’, or that portion of it that is relevant since it can interact with it, is now its ‘environment’, which of course leaves the origin of the organism as teleological.
From the practical perspective of understanding how nature should appear as evolutionary, nothing in any of the various modifications of the notion of natural selection appears to preference a general tendency to increasing diversity and complexity, in fact organisms with the most robust survivability and the greatest likelihood of recurrence are those that are simple and very much alike. Bacteria survive in more environments, and more diverse environments, than any multicellular organism, and despite the vast variance of environments, bacteria all look pretty much alike. In fact the genotypical diversity of bacteria far outstrips their phenotypical variation. From a physicalist perspective, the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, would by all intuitive projections imply that over time beings should get less complex and less diverse due to the overall loss of structural energy in whatever scale system we take as the operative one. The laws of thermodynamics are not themselves explanations but descriptions of what actually happens on a directly observable, i.e. human, scale, while the other two main branches of physics deal with the extremes of non-human scales – micro and the macro, which is the reason thermodynamics is always the arbiter of theories in particle physics and relativity physics – if a model in either relativity physics or quantum particle physics contradicts directly observable evidence, which is fundamentally laid out in the laws of thermodynamics, then it cannot be a correct model, since it is itself unverifiable and contradicts the verified.
The evidence of the historical record of nature, though, shows a general tendency towards evolutionary change. This evidence is not something which existed in the past, as simplistic creationists often argue, but exists precisely in the present as the historical record of our origins. Dinosaurs exist (beyond those particular dinosaurs that are not extinct, i.e. birds) as fossilized historical records. That they ‘were’ extant in some sense millions of years ago is something we can validate and have validated, albeit indirectly via other directly verifiable observations. Precisely what that sense was we cannot know, since our notion of being is dependent on the human context of any being’s extantness, i.e. its meaning. Obviously they did not exist at that time as part of our historical origin, that is our experience. Their experience of themselves is as fundamentally unknowable as a galaxy’s experience of itself.
Evolutionary change is not random change, but change with a specific tendency towards ‘more’ in terms of diversity and complexity, although occasionally interrupted by catastrophic incidents, some of which are self-caused by nature. We implicitly recognize evolutionary change as this specific type, as is demonstrated by our immediate ability to distinguish between evolutionary, random and devolutionary change in most cases (as in many things there are gray areas, but these are fairly low in incidence percentage-wise, we tend to over-focus on them because they are rhetorically useful). We also implicitly recognize in historical change as evolutionary, the history nature as our origin. We experience human history implicitly as the origin of our social being, and natural history implicitly as the origin of our bodily being. The difficulty though in demonstrating a reason, outside the implicit teleology of being our origin, is precisely the root of the issues many have with the concept of evolution. Those who jump on the ‘scientific’ bandwagon in attempting to simply silence critics, rather than attempting to understand why they have an issue with an idea that not only appears obvious to most modern, scientifically educated minds, but in fact was historically the first hypothesis known regarding natural history, predating creationism by many centuries. In all the science of natural history done since Darwin, his basic and most important insight, that nature is historical, and that the history of nature is a history of increasingly complex and diverse interplay between all its aspects, has been completely missed in favor of a naive belief in simplistic causality and almost an exterminative campaign against anyone that dares to wonder why nature would have such a history when the inverse would seem to be more probable. It is in the ideas involving systemic self-organization, self-optimization and strong emergence of both physical and meta-physical systems, and the retroactive nature of teleology itself in the meta-logic of Hegel and others, that a satisfactory understanding of what that basic question contains and the beginnings of an attempt at a satisfactory answer may be found, not in the equivalently misguided attempts of naive materialists and naive theists to simply explain it away with their opposing beliefs. The constantly fueled ‘argument’ between the two serves no purpose other than the desire of those enjoying privilege within the status quo to maintain that privilege, while the two sets of people most likely to challenge their right to that privilege argue over two equally worthless positions, on a question of tangential and abstract importance.,
Applying scientific methods to other modes of reality, and only considering ‘things’ if they qualify as such in a scientific context, is not only a sure way of being annoyingly irrelevant, it falsifies what science itself is about and can and cannot do. As a result it’s not only irritating but dangerous. A common statement that exhibits this generalization of scientific validity outside its relevant areas of experience is “only what can be measured is real”. Any minor consideration of biological, psychological, social or political realities shows the statement to be nonsense, yet many scientists and so-called ‘scientific philosophers’ continue to make the same or equivalent claims without even realizing how inane the statement is. In fact it is only valid in science to the degree that science already accepts only what is revealed technologically to be real. This is not an ontological reality, merely an inherent limitation in the way in which technology reveals what had previously been hidden. The way technology reveals is not incorrect, but neither is it close to being comprehensive. Modern science, which is simply science to most people who have neither studied ancient science nor done advanced work in postmodern science, originated in technology, most notably the technology of the telescope. It was justified via a theology that intrinsically posited a creator being with the nature of an ‘ultimate engineer’. The origin of the claim that “only what can be measured is real”, or in our terms, is a ‘body’, is an indemonstrable posit that all reality can be modeled by a mathematics that isn’t even defensible, in the post-Cantor era, as mathematics, never mind as a model of reality.
Virtually every attempt to apply such thinking to areas such as social and political reality, for example, has resulted in a number of pseudo-sciences from phrenology to social Darwinism, to socio-biology, evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology. All these pseudo-sciences have two things in common: by applying scientific methods where they are not relevant they create an appearance of validity for propositions that are in reality ‘just-so’ stories; those ‘just-so’ stories are almost invariably themselves based on unquestioned assumptions that arise from ,and simultaneously assist in maintaining, the status quo of the society into which their participants were initiated. The last three have the dubious prestige of being promoted by a certain Richard Dawkins, who evidently is interested only in maintaining Oxbridge privilege, even at the cost of irreparably damaging actual science.
Of course nearly anything can be justified via this misapplication of both scientific method and unquestioned scientific assumptions: selfishness and altruism; rapacious capitalism and stifling totalitarianism; justification of the maintenance of privilege and justification of any means whatsoever to eradicate it. The ‘evidence’ of these pseudo-sciences is irrelevant in the human, political and social realities they operate in. Superstition and false conclusions that arise from invalid assumptions are by no means the exclusive province of cults and religions, in fact the most pervasive and most lethal have been generally propagated by so-called scientists who themselves believed their superstitions to be factual. This tendency is itself a psychological and sociological issue – neuropsychology is merely a neuropathology. Within the real sciences, which is more serious as far as any consideration of science itself goes, scientists still constantly justify simplistic theories via a superstitious attachment to Occam’s razor, that the simplest sufficient explanation is always to be preferred, although the historical record demonstrates more than sufficiently that the most common reason for the failure of scientific theories has been that they were too simple. To make the irony that much greater, the justification for Occam’s razor is a very particular (and theologically naive) protestant Christian idea of the nature of god. By contrast, the more Catholic theological equivalent is the argument of Leibniz – that what satisfies the human imagination the most is to be preferred. Leibniz posited the human imagination as the closest thing to a god’s creative power, which requires an underlying notion of the nature of that god as being more like an artist than an engineer: rather than doing things the most efficient way, and once for all time, the unspoken assumption is that god tries this and that, blots out things that don’t work, and tweaks his work until he’s finally either satisfied with it, bored of it, or both. That both are theological in their basis is part of the historical reality that modern science developed in a world for which a creator being was simply a reality, and not a question. The lack of questioning of the basis of the one more usually preferred, though, demonstrates the more serious issue that although science constantly questions its results, it rarely questions the assumptions that guided it from the initial perception, to a hypothesis, to a developed and testable theory, to the design of the tests to validate that theory, and the interpretation of the results of those tests. Science can, and probably should, rid itself of its theological dependencies. Very few non-religious scientists realize that would involve a revaluation of every scientific observation, theory, and every acceptance of the interpretations of experimental validations of each theory. Even fewer are willing to allow the inevitable loss of prestige and credibility such a revaluation would cause to the sciences in general society. Those outside the intellectual worlds of science and the philosophy of science would inevitably take it, not as a positive step in ridding itself of the superstitions it has so pointedly criticized elsewhere, but an admission of the complete failure of science and its methods.
The world we need to navigate as members of human society is far more complex than science can either model or validate, yet we have to make difficult decisions and complex judgments on a constant basis. To do an item by item logical comparison between living in the United States and Europe, with scientifically verifiable observational evidence for every factor could not be completed in a lifetime, and by the time it was partially done both societies would have changed sufficiently to make the completed work irrelevant. But if the relevant manager at the job we work at asks us to relocate from one to the other we haven’t that kind of time, we have to go with the political, social and common sense realities we already know from having been initiated into a specific political and social milieu. The ethical, social, and political ramifications for both you and those closest to you are both drastic and inherently unpredictable, but the choice has to be made, and we have to take full responsibility for that choice.
Which brings us to the last and most dangerous theological inheritance of modern science: predetermination. While the theological complexities of how some religious sects deal with the apparent contradiction of free will and an omniscient creator are themselves an interesting topic, modern science did not originate within such a complex understanding of theology. Even today, when both quantum and relativity physics have been forced to abandon the reductionist, physicalist determinism of early protestant theology, it remains fully operative in most of the other sciences, where the exceptions to the likely course of events are rare enough to simply ignore. Although the bottom-up ‘explanations’ of the Neo-Darwinists and converged theorists contradict both mathematical and experiential evidence, and lead to paradoxes that can only be resolved by abandoning the invalid assumption on which they are based, many if not most scientists hang on to the belief that such explanations are at least theoretically possible, if impractical, with a fervor that rivals the most fervent of religious fanatics.
Technologists, perhaps fortunately, perhaps not, do not themselves use scientific methodology, except perhaps as an occasional self-critique. They use what works, and don’t bother with accounting for its working. Modern science, looked at properly, is precisely an accounting for what technology has revealed, and continues to reveal further. The last irony I’ll mention is a hypothetical discussion between physicalist, non-telelogical biologists taking place over a 3G or 4G cellular network (whether they’re using phones or iPads is up to the reader’s imagination). The topic of the discussion is a current controversy within biological circles: whether self-organization, self-optimization, and strong emergence are possible. The irony is that, while the technologists that invented the techniques used in 3G and 4G networks cannot scientifically account for how these systems increase performance on what is basically the same hardware, they do so via self-organization and self-optimization of an emergent system using algorithms inspired by a speculative philosophy of nature, and the basis of this strongly emergent system is the dynamic relations between the physical and logical components of the system itself. Perhaps someday scientific biology will be able to account for what we (and it) already not only use, but take for granted.