I Have A Low View Of Science

I’ve been pondering issues around the frequent claim that some set of presuppositions are unique to science in a way that is analogous, even identical, to theological presuppositions. This thought process caused me to return to something Karl Popper said at the beginning of his 1958 radio talk on “Kant and the Logic of Experience.” No, I didn’t hear the talk; I read it and so can you.

In this talk I do not propose to speak of ordinary everyday experience. I intent, rather, to use the word ‘experience’ in the sense in which we use it when we say that science is based on experience. Since, however experience in science is after all no more than an extension of ordinary everyday experience what I shall have to say will apply, by and large, to everyday experience also. [emphasis added]

And then later in the same talk,

Kant also showed that what holds for Newtonian theory must hold for everyday experience, though not, perhaps, to quite the same extent: that everyday experience, too, goes far beyond all observation. Everyday experience too must interpret observation; for without theoretical interpretation, observation remains blind – uninformative. Everyday experience constantly operates with abstract ideas, such as that of cause and effect, and so it cannot be derived from observations. [emphasis in original]

I would add “alone” at the end of this second quotation. But that’s just me. I disagree with Popper on a wide range of issues. I think his views on the metaphysical nature of evolution with natural selection, what he called Darwinism, are untenable and I have more than a few other problems with much of the rest of his philosophy of science even as expressed in this talk. That said, I strongly endorse the view that “experience in science is after all no more than an extension of ordinary everyday experience.”
Perhaps perversely, I will avoid in the following remarks the word “experience” mostly because it contains its own bag of worms with which I’d just as soon not deal. I will speak of the interaction between observation and generalization, not as a substitute for “experience” but as a way of getting at my point rather than Popper’s. Also, I will perversely use “presupposition” and “generalization” as if they were approximately the same thing even if they aren’t.
Allow me to use a little potty talk by way of illustrating my own thought on the nature of science. Assume that I’m in a restaurant and need to go to the restroom. I actually start with a series of presuppositions on the subject: the restaurant has a restroom; it is likely, but not necessarily, accessed from inside the restaurant and so on. Further assuming there is no one available at the moment of necessity to ask for directions, another set of loosely coupled ideas, presuppositions, if you will, comes into play. Over time, I have observed that, depending on the design of the restaurant, the restrooms are generally speaking near the entrance, or near the kitchen, or . . . . Acting on these presuppositions, I head in the highest probability direction and begin looking for clues, for evidence. If I’m lucky, I eventually find clear, unambiguous evidence, a sign that says, “Men’s Restroom.” Note: I know observations and evidence are not the same thing but bear with me. I’m in a hurry. Sometimes I am not so lucky and the evidence is ambiguous, an image on a door of something that I don’t fully understand for example. Is that a man’s or women’s sombrero? Probably it’s a man’s but I’d better find the other restroom and compare the image before entering. But even finding a women’s restroom often confirms that I’m headed in the right general direction. Of course, another presupposition forms the basis of this limited confirmation. (Side note: Shirley complains that the women’s room is generally more distant from the dining area than the men’s room. I think she has something here; at least it’s a testable hypothesis) Once inside, there is addition evidence that I’m in the right place. The fixtures and layout, for example, confirm that I am in a restroom and not the kitchen. Depending on several other observations (or lack there of) I am reasonably certain that I am in a men’s restroom. The process of finding the men’s room in turn reinforces or modifies the various presuppositions that helped me find it in the first place. It also hones my powers of observation with regard to men’s room related stuff.
Does this process fail? You bet it does. Long ago, I was attending a United Methodist Church Annual Conference at the University of Redlands. I had used a men’s room in the campus chapel several times. One day, while passing the chapel, I decided I’d better use the restroom before my next meeting. I entered the same room that I had used several times that week and even more times in previous years, found an empty stall and proceeded to do what I came to do. It was then that I noticed that the “man” in the adjacent stall was wearing high heals. No foot tapping here. I also noticed that the “men” at the washbasins were chatting in voices that I associated with women’s voices. Evidence was building and I was becoming uncomfortable in more ways than one. Had I made a mistake? Well, yes and no, but mostly yes. It turned out that, because it was “Ladies’ Day,” the restroom czar had temporarily turned this men’s room into a women’s room. In my haste, I had missed an important piece of evidence. The czar or one of his lieutenants had posted a temporary sign on the door that said in effect, “For Today Only, Women’s Restroom.” It even gave direction to a designated men’s room. Ooops!
What does all this potty talk have to do with science? It illustrates everyday informal science. The only difference is that when faced with my first example a restroom scientist would write down and systematically collect her observations about where she had found restrooms in restaurants. A restroom scientist would then carefully study those collected observations seeking formal patterns that would lead to increased levels of predictability when faced with the problem of finding a restroom. Her work might lead to finding the most customer friendly place to locate restrooms in restaurants. While I rather doubt it, she might even be able to express her findings in mathematical terms, the most formal of generalizations. She might be able to manipulation these mathematical expressions in ways that lead to additional insights. With luck and perseverance and if the evidence allows it, a restroom scientist may even be able to develop a theory of restroom location. A restroom scientist shares her observations and generalizations with other restroom scientists. She seeks their confirmation or, if she is truly a great scientist, their disconfirmation. Even with our informal science, we often share observations and generalizations while seeking confirmation, “Did you notice that the restrooms at Chili’s Bar and Grill restaurants are generally at the rear on the opposite side from the bar.” This isn’t rocket science but neither is rocket science.
This interaction between observation and generalization has served our species (and others) well. It helped our ancestors find food and shelter. It allowed them to find mates and reproduce. As our population (and our leisure?) increased, some of us began exploring this interaction beyond our daily survival needs. As but one example, we looked to the stars and over millennia recorded differences in their movements. We sought ever-improving methods of observation, ever-greater precision in measurement. We used these improving observations to bootstrap to more powerful generalizations that themselves lead in turn to still better, more meaningful, observations. Eventually, with the luck, genius and courage, we found generalizations that were highly predictive of further observations. The process continues. Some of these generalizations moved our world from the center of the universe to an unremarkable spur of an unremarkable galaxy.
Other than its rigor, I see nothing special about science. But I do worry that many of those who want to draw some kind of parallel between science and religion do. I think an overly high view of science is in play whenever that parallel results in the rejection of all or part of science on non-scientific grounds or in the attempts to place science in some special domain along side of other supposed ways of knowing. I worry that those who would pervert science in support of some dogma have an excessively high opinion of science. I worry that many see in science something categorically different from the regular, if imperfect, cognitive activity of everyday life. They see it as having presuppositions that are somehow unique to science but not to everyday cognitive processes, presuppositions that are somehow strangely parallel to some other supposed ways of knowing. On the one hand, the presuppositions of science are no different, other than in degree, than the presuppositions that I use in looking for a restroom. On the other hand, categorically different presuppositions do play a very big role when one looks to things for which there are no observations to interact with generalities, things for which there is no evidence.
So you see, I have a very low view of science. I have an even lower view of other ways of trying to explain this world or any other.

2 thoughts on “I Have A Low View Of Science”

  1. One of my main concerns with the popular perception of science is that science is considered as of more value than other human pursuits. I very much enjoy science and I read a lot of scientific literature, but it strikes me that critical thinking about any discipline is what is truly important. Being a “religionist” I often find that full-time academics (most notably deans) assume that the study of religion is the promotion of religion whereas the study of science is objective and therefore of more value. In a sense, I suppose religious scholars are to blame; if we did a better job educating people then this mistake could be curtailed. At the same time, popular views (as in the media) show science as progressive and religion as retrogressive. We like to judge things simply — it takes less mental rigor.

  2. Steve,
    I hope it is obvious from other posts that I think the study of religion and things associated with religion have value. My point is that science is not a special pursuit in rather important ways. I don’t think the study of religion is special either. Or at least I don’t think it should be. The same kind of interactions between observation and generalization should apply when we study religion as when we study, say, quantum mechanics. The problem with much of the study of religion is that most questions in the neighborhood are so woefully underdetermined that it is seemingly impossible to develop meaningful or even stable generalizations. This issue alone makes anything with even the appearance of progress nearly impossible. I too think if wrong to use progress as a criterion for educational value. The problem of underdetermined questions comes up in certain areas of the so-called hard sciences also. To deny the importance of the study of religion is to deny the importance of the study of the much of the history of our species.

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