Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why Science needs Philosophy.

This suggestion by Keith Kloor at the Discovery science blog rests on a particularly naive view of science held by naive people who haven't looked beyond their narrow faith in science:
In a perfect world, every conversation we have about childhood vaccines, GMOs, alternative medicine, and global warming would be based on a set of facts agreed on by a majority of scientists working in those spheres. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so many conversations on the aforementioned subjects are often driven by emotion, ideology and politics.
This suggestion is based on a model of science that has never existed, will never exist and can never exist because scientists are just people who are part of a particular culture that informs how they understand the world, a world that includes science.  For example, if this approach had been in place in the 1920s, a majority of scientists would have vouched for racism as the true state of reality, and it would have been vouched as an orthodoxy which only heretics would contradict.

This idea is nothing new. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions painstakingly documented the philosophical ideas of "paradigms' and how science normally works within the accepted paradigm that defines the normal presuppositions of science. There is also the dramatic "paradigm shifts" when scientists drop their old assumptions and pick up new ones. The reasons for a paradigm shift and for the selection of the new paradigm do not - despite what romantics and consumers of Hollywood entertainment may believe - is not a matter of logical proof by "Spock-like" emotionless Vulcans, but rather it is a matter of persuasion who have an emotional stake in the outcome. Kuhn writes:

In addition, what has already been said combines with the result of that survey to suggest that, when asked about persuasion rather than proof, the question of the nature of scientific argument has no single or uniform answer. Individual scientists embrace a new paradigm for all sorts of reasons and usually for several at once. Some of these reasons—for example, the sun worship that helped make Kepler a Copernican—lie outside the apparent sphere of science entirely.9 Others must depend upon idiosyncrasies of autobiography and personality. Even the nationality or the prior reputation of the innovator and his teachers can sometimes play a significant role.10
Kuhn, Thomas S. (2010-10-22). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kindle Locations 2677-2682). University of Chicago Press - A. Kindle Edition. 

The fact that our scientists are not Mr. Spock is a good thing. It means that we can't be coerced by scientific proofs into ideas and values that we find abhorrent. A few years ago, I was a co-author of a UCLA law review article entitled "Can Science be Inopportune: the Constitutional Validity of Race-IQ Research." The premise of the article was that the government could restrict science that could "prove" that certain racial groups were inferior in their intelligence as a matter of genetics. My section was on whether there was a "less restrictive alternative" and I relied heavily on Kuhn's insights to argue that the "less restrictive alternative" was "more research" in reliance on the idea that non-racist scientists in a non-racist culture would not be likely to find evidence to support a belief that was so antithetical to their core values (and if that wasn't a core value, a ban would not have much of an effect anyway.)

Ironically, this insight that belief cannot be compelled is also a theological insight.  Vatican I affirmed two propositions on the relationship of reason and the belief in God. The first was that the existence of God could be proven as a matter of natural reason:
2.1 If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.

The second was to affirm that belief nonetheless remains a matter of free will:
3.5. If anyone says that the assent to Christian faith is not free, but is necessarily produced by arguments of human reason; or that the grace of God is necessary only for living faith which works by charity: let him be anathema.
A court of science would therefore be a very bad idea in that it would be much more likely to enshrine contemporary prejudice and give it the imprimatur of an objectivity and consensus that does not exist. It also would not necessarily or even largely return a verdict on science.

In short, Kloort is offering a naive kind of "scientism" that more reading in philosophy might have prevented.



Anonymous said...
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a Martin said...

Well, I think it's modern day science that he means, not the one from 1920. We have come a long way. I still think science is the best tool we have when it comes to finding out objective stuff. Of course your finding will have to be discussed and naturally that involves some philosophy. Still think the order shoumd be science first, then philosophy.

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