October 27, 2009

Science and Absolutism: The Worship of Truth

Posted in Scientific Revolution at 12:38 am by Jeremy

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson created a splash with his inaugural post last week on ScienceBlogs, proposing “Science as a religion that worships Truth as its God”, producing over 100 comments in response, along with some thoughtful posts from other bloggers.   Some posts, such as the one from Henry Gee of Nature, argued back more from an empirical perspective, emphasizing that the value of the scientific method is its focus on “doubt” rather “truth”.

But one post in particular, by Eric Michael Johnson, struck me both by what it claims and what it misses.  Eric’s focus is on the relativity of scientific truth, and he argues that:

Asserting that science is the new priesthood that is seeking to reveal a single Truth is to fall victim to the same self-aggrandizement that the clergy have been guilty of for centuries.

I couldn’t agree more with that statement.  So what’s the problem?  The problem is that many (perhaps most?) of his fellow scientists follow a different scientific program (religion?).  Just for a taste, I point Eric to three different Nobel Prize-winning scientists, some of the greatest minds of the 20th century.  Let’s begin with Stephen Hawking, who famously wrote in A Brief History of Time of the time when physics will arrive at a unifying Theory of Everything:

Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist.  If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.[1]

But Hawking isn’t out there alone in the universe with his mystical vision of scientific Truth.  He might state it more loftily than other scientists, but he’s only giving voice to what Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg calls Grand Reductionism:

… the view that all of nature is the way it is (with certain qualifications about initial conditions and historical accidents) because of simple universal laws, to which all other scientific laws may in some sense be reduced.[2]

We’re talking about more than physics here.  The Grand Reductionists believe that their Truth applies to all fields of science including those messy, “soft” areas such as consciousness.  Here’s how our third Nobel laureate, Francis Crick, describes it:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.[3]

So much for Eric’s view of science as a world of “provisional” truths.  This scientific view of its own absolute Truth has the potential to be as damaging to sensitive, individual psyches as the monotheistic Grand Truth has been over two millennia.  For a poignant example, let’s look at this excerpt from an Amazon review of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene:

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it… On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings out of such complex processes… But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade… Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper – trying to believe, but not quite being able to – I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further.  This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.

It’s not surprising that David Sloan Wilson should view Dawkins and his other pilgrims of Scientific Truth in religious metaphors… they come out of the same absolutist Western thought tradition as their Christian adversaries!  Ever since St. Augustine anointed natural philosophy as a lawful Christian mode of understanding God’s intent, the scientific search for Truth has taken for granted that the Holy Grail exists out there.  Whether God is the source or the Blind Watchmaker (per Dawkins), there’s still an underlying agreement that the Truth does exist.

Here’s the considered view of Galileo, one of the great heroes of the scientific tradition for his struggle against Catholic mysticism.  But wait a minute… who’s talking about God here?

God, by his immediate creative knowledge of nature, thinks into the world that rigorous mathematical necessity which we reach only laboriously through resolutions and demonstrations – God is a geometrician in his creative labours – he makes the world through and through a mathematical system.[4]

So, God does exist after all, He’s just a giant supercomputer!  And of course, if God is the Great Programmer in the sky, then to understand Him and His works, we need to speak His language:

Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes – I mean the universe – but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written.  This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it[5]

“It was just the times,” I can hear my dear reader saying, “he wouldn’t hold those beliefs now.”  Well, the tradition continues.  Hundreds of years after Galileo, another great hero of science, Georg Cantor, believed numbers “were externally existing realities in the mind of God… They followed God-given laws, and Cantor believed it was possible to prove their existence from God’s perfection and power.”[6]

And this belief in the existence of Absolute Truth, (whether or not the word “God” is associated with it) continues to this very day.  In the New York Times last year, reviewer Jim Holt remembers giving a lecture to an international audience of elite mathematicians, and finding three-quarters raising their hands to identify themselves as Platonists.[7]

Is it any wonder then, that philosophers such as Václav Havel raise concerns about how modern science “kills God and takes his place on the vacant throne”?[8] I’m not arguing against the benefits the scientific method and its consequent technologies have brought to humanity.  But I have grave concerns about the absolutist tendency of the scientific worldview.  In the words of South African novelist Laurens van der Post, “It is not reason that needs to be abolished, but the tyranny of reason.”[9]

The problem is that science, in claiming “the throne” from its progenitor, Christianity, has presented most of the modern world with a bad choice between dualism and reductionism: continue to believe, against all evidence, in the abstraction of our immortal soul separate from our living body; or give up all meaning and subscribe to the “nothing but” reductionism of science.  No wonder our world is careening out of control.

And it’s not like science even has a valid claim to this throne.  We keep hearing about the astonishing predictive powers of science… but what about the stuff it can’t predict?  Physicists Nigel Goldenfeld and Leo Kadanoff describe well the dichotomy between these two regions:

One of the most striking aspects of physics is the simplicity of its laws… The world is lawful, and the same basic laws hold everywhere.  Everything is simple, neat, and expressible in terms of everyday mathematics, either partial differential or ordinary differential equations.

Everything is simple and neat – except, of course, the world.

Every place we look – outside the physics classroom – we see a world of amazing complexity.  The world contains many examples of complex ‘ecologies’ at all levels: huge mountain ranges, the delicate ridge on the surface of a sand dune, the salt spray coming off a wave, the interdependencies of financial markets, and the true ecologies formed by living things… So why, if the laws are so simple, is the world so complicated?

– Goldenfeld, N., and Kadanoff, L. P. (1999). “Simple Lessons from Complexity.” Science, 284(2 April 1999), 87-89.

Why indeed?  One reason, of course, is that the natural world follows principles of complexity, where intricate dynamics of self-organization at one level lead to the emergence of a new set of interactions at another level, which could never be predicted by the reductionist view.  It is this approach, embracing the complexities of nature which go far beyond what science can yet predict, that offers a way for science to earn its place on “the throne.”

Biologists Ricard Solé & Brian Goodwin express the hope that “the new understanding of complex processes takes us beyond the traditional scientific perspective of prediction and control of nature, to a relationship of participation in natural processes that are unpredictable, though still intelligible.”[10] Goodwin offers a challenge to science “to move toward a participatory worldview which recognizes the intrinsic values that make life worthwhile.”[11]

I sure hope science gets there.  Our future human prospect on this planet may be depending on it.  But it can only do so, in my view, once it reaches true maturity and throws off the absolutist values of the monotheistic mindset it inherited.


[1] This quotation has been cited by historians of science:  Appleyard, B. (1992/2004). Understanding the Present: An Alternative History of Science, New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks; and Gaukroger, S. (2006). The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Weinberg, S. (1995). “Reductionism Redux.” The New York Review of Books, 42(15:October 5, 1995).

[3] Crick, Francis (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, New York: Touchstone.

[4] Cited by Burtt, E. A. (1924/2003). The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, New York: Dover Publications.

[5] Cited by Burtt, E. A. (1924) op. cit.

[6] Barrow, J. D. (2005). The Infinite Book, London: Vintage.

[7] Holt, J. (2008).  “Proof.”  The New York Times, January 13, 2008

[8] Cited by Weinberg (1995) op. cit.

[9] Quoted by Drew, Wayland in Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[10] Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

[11] Goodwin, B. (2001 [1994]). How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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