On Science

There is a common belief that the closer we get to science, the closer we get to truth. This belief is commonly expressed in terms of the objectivity of science, its “over-there-ness” where it stands independently of human knowing. A friend of mine recently posted an affirmation of this on Facebook that set me thinking (mostly about why I don’t agree):

One of the great things about science is that it’s true whether we believe it or not.

This statement is based upon a set of confused ways of thinking about truth, language and reality (as well as science) that merit exploration.

First, we need to distinguish between science and the things science studies. If the statement is intended to say “things are the way they are whether we believe it or not”, then it might avoid some of the confusion, but not all of it (see below). Unfortunately, the way things are is not what science studies, and scientific knowledge does not consist of knowledge of the way things are, although we can be forgiven for having been led to think otherwise.

Unfortunately, “the way things are” is not what science studies.

So, second, whatever science tells us about the world is not knowledge of the world but a more or less coherent account of a set of theories about the world to which the world seems to conform under certain kinds of experience and testing as performed by certain kinds of creature with certain kinds of sensory organs. Science says more or less that if we do this and that we will experience or “see” this and that, and it provides some explanations for why this is so. But the further from mathematics science goes, which is to say from theoretical physics, the less true even this becomes, and theoretical physics is only partially and tenuously related to experimental physics. When we consider chemistry and biology the relationship between theory and experiment is more tenuous still.

Third, then, our conviction that science possesses a particular and even unique kind of truth that is true “whether we believe it or not” is based upon a mistaken attribution of the theories of science as confirmed by our best experimental practice and something as vague and philosophically problematic as “the way the world really is”. Since nobody could reasonably complain about a statement like “the world [really] is the way the world [really] is”, a science that told us how the world [really] is would be true whether we believed in or not. Unfortunately there is no such science, and never will be, and there are even more problems with a notion such as “the way the world [really] is”.

Surely, someone will ask, this “and never will be” is too strong? Surely the history of science is of a convergent discipline that increasingly renders more and more reliable, accurate and therefore true knowledge of the way the world really is? That is what we like to tell ourselves, and in a loose sense we are right, but we need to be clear about how we are also and will always be wrong.

The ideal of scientific knowledge represented in the first quotation would only and could only be achievable were we able to know things as they are when they are not being known. But it is obviously impossible to achieve such knowledge, so instead we have to settle for knowing things as they are known by the best theory we have right now. But that is quite another thing. In other words, science cannot tell us about the real world unless it describes the world as it would be when it is not being described. And “the best theory we have right now” is not something that would be true whether we believed it or not since it is a theory whose provenance depends upon our belief in and advocacy of it and which will always fall short of knowing things as they would be known were they not being known, which is to say knowing “things in themselves” as Kant put it.

There is no such thing as complete objectivity because there is no knowledge of things as they are when they are not being known.

The best science is the best account of the world that can be given by creatures constituted as we are and positioned as we are; other intelligent life might well have a completely different science that worked for them just as effectively – or not – as ours works for us despite it bearing no resemblance to our science (just as their language and conceptual apparatus would probably bear no resemblance to ours).

One of the great things about science is that its intellectual power provides us with the best theories of the world we can manage right now, …

… and another great thing about it is that it provides a defining quality of what our species takes to be a rational mind.

Of course, whether an alien civilization is bound to have discovered the same mathematics and know the value of pi is an altogether different matter for another occasion.

What constitutes “the best” theories of the world depends upon a point of view. For some, “the best” means those that give greatest control and predictability; for others it means those with the greatest scope; for yet more it means those that afford most security and reassurance.

There will be those who want to defend scientific objectivity and truth by saying something like “Well, yes, if you set impossibly high standards for scientific objectivity, such as that it should describe the world as it is when it is not being described, science can never achieve objectivity; but the problem is that your standards are absurd precisely because they are unattainable.” To which one would happily agree but for the fact that as soon as one turned one’s back the old version of objectivity – the one that says that what science says would be true whether we believed it or not, for example – instantly reasserts itself. And there is no science that can satisfy this criterion or be true to this notion of objectivity because if nobody believed what science says there would be no science. Yes, of course there would still be a world – we can debate that somewhere else, if you like – but there would be nothing at all that we could say about it that would satisfy the kinds of standards that would make what we say of it true in this person-independent sense.

The only way out of the dilemma is to stop believing in something that remains true even if nobody believes it, which is to say, to stop believing in an unrealisable kind of objectivity.

At this point someone usually stamps their foot and says “Yes, but surely you believe that there is still a world, even if we can’t say anything about it?” To which one can really only gives Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brilliant reply, “Nothing will do as well as something about which nothing can be said” (Philosophical Investigations) because if we can’t say anything about the world, what does it mean to say we believe in it?

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