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Understanding the difference between science and scientism

Saturday, 19 April 2014 / Published in Articles / 2,758 views

By Chaitanya Charan das

Question: When I talk about God, soul, rebirth, people often question why discuss such unscientific things in this modern age of science?

Answer: Their question betrays their basic misconception: science has a monopoly on human knowledge and that only things that are “scientific” are true. This misconception is not a result of science, but of scientism, the peculiar school of thought that places around science a halo of “omniscience.”  However, scientism itself is unscientific! There is no scientific experiment to prove that scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge. Thus, their question itself, being based on an unscientific assumption, is not scientific. So, if they feel that people should not discuss unscientific things, then firstly they themselves should stop raising this question.

Nonetheless, now that the question has been raised, let’s explore its answer further. Pointing out the proper place of science in humanity’s quest for knowledge is sometimes misunderstood as an insult to science and to the human intellect itself. But far from being an insult, it is a tribute to the human intellect. The same extraordinary human intellect that has led us humans to the heights of scientific knowledge has also led to us to remarkable insights in many other fields. As Albert Einstein stated, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” By acknowledging this all-round accomplishment of the human intellect and not letting scientism monopolize human knowledge, we open for ourselves the door to a holistic understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.

Question: But isn’t science the most reliable way of acquiring knowledge?

Answer: That depends on the field one is considering. Noble Laureate Physicist Erwin Schrodinger eloquently stated the abilities and the inabilities of science: “I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” To better appreciate Schrodinger’s remark, let’s consider an example. Suppose a brain surgeon returns home to find his wife upset with him. If science were to be his only means of acquiring knowledge, he would have to do a brain scan of his wife to find why she is annoyed. Would that help? Obviously not; it would compound his wife’s annoyance into rage.

Here’s another example. Consider the experience of seeing a beautiful sunset. We can directly experience the beauty of the sunset. But can any scientific experiment measure that beauty? Science could perhaps measure some parameters like the intensity of the sunlight, but such measurements would do little to convey or explain the actual experience of the beauty.

To summarize, science does have its utility and authority in certain fields, but extrapolating that authority to judge all fields of knowledge is unwarranted, unproductive, and sometime even counterproductive. We can save ourselves from the misleading spell of scientism while simultaneously maintaining due respect for science by bringing to mind the sage advice of Copernicus about what constitutes knowledge: “To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

Question: Isn’t science more reliable than other branches of knowledge because it deals with factual things?

Answer: Science doesn’t reserve itself to the study of factual things, if by factual, we mean things that are seen by our eyes or otherwise perceived by our senses. Let’s see just two categories of such areas of study within science

  1. 1.    Study of unperceivable objects: Most of the objects studied in modern physics are not perceivable at all: electrons, mesons, neutrinos, hadrons, to name a few. Moreover, in some cases, this non-perceivability is not just a practical limitation imposed by insufficiently sophisticated instruments. Quarks, for example, are considered non-perceivable even in principle; they are so tightly bound inside the protons and neutron that nothing can make them break out on their own. Yet all these particles are treated as scientifically factual, and their existence and behavior is given as a scientific explanation for many direct physical observations.
  2. 2.    Study of abstract mathematical conceptions: Additionally, with the increasing use of mathematics in physics, the gap between the concepts studied by science and the factual objects of the world has widened. This trend was noted by Nikola Tesla nearly a century ago: “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.” Since Tesla’s made this insightful observation, the trend has only aggravated further.

Question: Isn’t scientific knowledge more reliable because it is objective? After all, the observations of one scientist can be verified by others.

Answer: Not all scientific knowledge is objective or verifiable. Here are a few such categories:

  1. Difficult to observe: Not all scientific observations are so easily verifiable. For example, when physicists claim to have observed a fundamental particle using a high-energy particle accelerator, their observation can be verified only by those who have access to those expensive equipments and can understand the complex technical jargon intrinsic in the claim of the observation.
  2. Impossible to observe: Further, in quantum physics, objectivity is widely thought of as impossible because the very act of observation is said to change the observed object.
  3. Subjective bias in observation: Moreover, observations are not as objective as they seem to be, as is pointed out by the English astronomer Arthur Eddington: “A scientist commonly professes to base his beliefs on observations, not theories. Theories, it is said, are useful in suggesting new ideas and new lines of investigation for the experimenter; but ‘hard facts’ are the only proper ground for conclusion. I have never come across anyone who carries this profession into practice – certainly not the hard-headed experimentalist, who is the more swayed by his theories because he is less accustomed to scrutinize them… It is better to admit frankly that theory has, and is entitled to have, an important share in determining belief.” The pioneering quantum physicist Max Planck was even more forthright in stating the role of subjectivity: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The subjectivity inherent within the scientific enterprise is systematically documented by historian of science Thomas Kuhn in his eye-opening book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He shows that scientists, like the rest of us, are also fallible human beings, who are often motivated by their personal interests and preconceptions, constricted by the beliefs and biases of their superiors, subject to peer pressure and concerned about the availability and continuance of research grants.

Question: Isn’t scientific knowledge preferable because it is free from dependence on faith?

Answer: Science demands faith both in its general method as well as in its specific theories. Let’s analyze a few of the elements of faith in science:

  1. Its underlying assumptions: Consider the following statement of physicist Gerald‘t Hooft: “We [physicists] are trying to uncover more of that [the universality of our scientific theories]. It is our belief that there is more.” Obviously, “our belief” means “our faith.” Scientific research is based on the implicit faith that nature behaves according to laws that can be uncovered by human intelligence. This implicit faith is just an assumption without any actual proof or without even any theoretical possibility of proof. In fact, the behavior of many of the fundamental particles in atomic physics defies description by any scientific laws. Nonetheless, physicists toil on hoping to find out some such laws in the future. To hope for the existence of unseen and unproven things: isn’t that what faith is all about?
  2. Its dependence on the inductive method: Moreover, most scientific knowledge is acquired using the inductive method, in which patterns discerned from finite observations are extrapolated into universal laws. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued powerfully that the use of induction can never be rationally justified, and his arguments have never been persuasively refuted. Inductive reasoning is thus a fundamental, indispensable article of faith in science.
  3. Its use of hypothesis: Further, when scientists propose a specific hypothesis to explain a set of observations, they have faith that their hypothesis is correct and that it will be verified by future observations. Often, even when subsequent observations don’t support the hypothesis, they continue to believe it, hoping that future observations will. For example, evolutionists believe that all species have evolved from a common ancestor, but the fossil record doesn’t show any evidence of transitional links (intermediate species that are supposed to have existed in the past and that formed the evolutionary link between two existing species). So, some evolutionists claim that evolution occurs too slowly to be seen by the human eye, and too fast to be seen in the fossil record. Even the most dull-witted person can understand what this claim boils down to: faith – faith despite the absence of supporting evidence.
  4. Its hype among the masses: Far greater than the faith that scientists require in their research is the faith that common people have in the findings of scientists. The extent of unquestioning faith that scientific findings command is seen in the following observation of Einstein: “Tell a man that there are 300 billion stars in the universe, and he’ll believe you…. Tell him that a bench has wet paint upon it and he’ll have to touch it to be sure.”

Question: Isn’t science special because it follows the scientific method?

Answer: Let’s consider the typical steps that comprise the scientific method:

  1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
  2. Form a hypothesis that potentially explains the observation.
  3. Devise testable predictions from that hypothesis.
  4. Conduct experiments that can test those predictions.
  5. Modify the hypothesis until it is in accord with all observations and predictions.
  6. Arrive at a conclusion of whether the hypothesis is true or not.

Now consider the reasoning of a cricket fan:

  1. Observation: A cricketer X hits sixers frequently.
  2. Hypothesis: His ability to hit frequent sixers is due to his strong arms and his swift, smooth arm swing.
  3. Experiment: When cricketers with strong arms and swift, smooth arm swing are examined, they are seen to hit sixers frequently. When cricketers without these bodily attributes are examined, they are seen to not hit sixers so frequently.
  4. Conclusion: Hypothesis confirmed.

Clearly, the above reasoning parallels, in an abbreviated way, the scientific method. This parallel shows that the much-touted scientific method is not unique to science; it can be used and is often used in many other fields. In fact, the scientific method is nothing more than a systematized version of common sense, as is confirmed by Albert Einstein, “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” Just as common sense can give us right answers, so can science. And just as common sense can give us wrong answers, so can science. That’s why the notion that scientific knowledge special and privileged because it is acquired using some reverence-worthy “scientific method” is fallacious. There’s no such method.

Question: Isn’t the fact that science works the proof of the truth and the speciality of scientific knowledge?

Answer: The history of science reveals many theories that worked, but were subsequently shown to be wrong. The phlogiston theory of combustion is a classic example. Oxford University Press’ Philosophy of Science explains: “This theory, which was widely accepted until the end of the 18th century, held that when any substance burns, it releases a substance called ‘phlogiston’ into the atmosphere. Modern chemistry teaches that this is false: there is no such substance as phlogiston. Rather, burning occurs when things react with oxygen in the air. But despite the non-existence of phlogiston, the phlogiston theory was empirically quite successful: it fitted the observational data available at the time quite well.” The American philosopher of science Larry Laudan has listed more than 30 such theories that worked, but were wrong. Many modern scientific theories have met the same fate, but because these are generally phrased in technical jargon and mathematical symbols, most people are unable to even understand what the theories are, leave alone understand how they have been shown to be wrong.

Question: Do you mean to say that all scientific knowledge is wrong?

Answer: Not at all. Scientific knowledge has its utility and value. Scientific technology has astonishingly transformed almost every aspect of our daily living. Science should undoubtedly be given credit where credit is due. At the same time, understanding how science works helps us to see its findings in proper perspective. In the vast panorama of sensations that nature presents us, scientists choose in advance their parameters of study: the measurable, quantifiable properties of nature. While this approach helps in manipulating a certain slice of nature, it gives a significantly incomplete picture of reality. That’s why philosopher of science Karl Popper remarked, “Science may be described as the art of systematic oversimplification.”

The reputed physicist Fritjof Capra in his well-known book The Tao of Physics explains how science is like a map. Just as a map helps – and helps immensely – in navigating the mapped territory, science helps in manipulating the physical world. However, a map, no matter how exhaustive, is neither the territory, nor a complete description of the territory. Similarly, science, no matter how exhaustive, is neither the reality, nor a complete description of the reality. If the map helps us to precisely reach a particular house in a city, where we meet the owner of the house, will we decide that the owner of the house is non-existent and imaginary because he is not shown in our map? Obviously not. We will recognize that the map has now served its purpose and will switch to another knowledge-source, perhaps skillful communication, to know more about the owner. Similarly, science may efficiently guide us in our exploration of the physical world, but when we encounter essential features of our world that are not found in the world of science –emotions, consciousness, free will, the quest for meaning and purpose, should we reject these features as unscientific and so unreal? Obviously not. We should instead seek other knowledge-sources that help us know more about these features.

The danger of scientism, of mistaking the map to be the territory, is eloquently stated by former US President Theodore Roosevelt: “There is superstition in science quite as much as there is superstition in theology, and it is all the more dangerous because those suffering from it are profoundly convinced that they are freeing themselves from all superstition. No grotesque repulsiveness of medieval superstition, even as it survived into nineteenth-century Spain and Naples, could be much more intolerant, much more destructive of all that is fine in morality, in the spiritual sense, and indeed in civilization itself, than that hard dogmatic materialism of today which often not merely calls itself scientific but arrogates to itself the sole right to use the term. If these pretensions affected only scientific men themselves, it would be a matter of small moment, but unfortunately they tend gradually to affect the whole people, and to establish a very dangerous standard of private and public conduct in the public mind.”

Question:  Can science by its onward march discover spiritual principles?

Answer: Every field of knowledge has its own distinctive methods. Attempting to gain knowledge of that field without adopting its methods is generally difficult and sometimes impossible, especially with regards to advanced concepts in that field. To illustrate, let’s consider different scientific instruments of increasing complexity:

  1. We can measure our bodily weight quickly using a weighing machine. However, to measure the weight without using the machine, we have to adopt the cumbersome process of standing on one side of a weighing scale and stacking one kg weights on the other side until the two sides balance.
  2. We can measure the distance from the earth of a particular star in a distant galaxy with a telescope. However, to measure that distance without using the telescope, we have to adopt the expensive and impractical process of boarding a spacecraft and flying until there while keeping an eye on the distance meter – assuming of course that we stay alive until then.
  3. We can measure the speed of a fundamental particle using a particle accelerator. However, measuring that speed without the accelerator is impossible.

Just as science has its distinctive methodology, so does spirituality. Without using the spiritual methodology, we can gain some understanding of basic spiritual principles like the existence of soul and God using scientific means. However, to understand advanced spiritual principles, like the identity and personality of God, we need to adopt spiritual methods.

Srila Prabhupada inspired his scientist-followers to not only establish the basics of spirituality as scientific in the terms of modern science, but also to show how the entire process of Krishna consciousness was scientific, in the broad sense of the term “systematic, logical study of a subject.” Subsequently, many ISKCON scientists like Dr T D Singh, Dr Michael Cremo and Dr Richard Thompson have written several books to fulfill the mandate given by Srila Prabhupada.

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