Monday 13 January 2020

A Modest Proposal for Science

Posted by Andrew Porter

For several centuries, modern science has banked on and prided itself in ‘the scientific method’. This scheme of hypothesis and experiment has been useful and effective in countering superstition. Discoveries of all sorts have been made and verified, from the circumference of orbits to the range of elements to the function of organelles and proteins in a cell. Confirmation from experiment seems like a clear way to separate fact from fiction. But it is crucial to note that the scientific method also fails.

Recent conundrums of physicality, consciousness, entanglement, dark matter, and the nature of natural laws have spurred many to rethink assumptions and even findings. Our search for what is real and natural needs a new method, one that is in keeping with the natural facts themselves – natural facts not as reduced or squeezed or contorted by the scientific method, but as their own holistic selves. The method of approach and apprehending that seems to offer the most promising advance is that which consists of a whole person in a whole natural environment.

Why do I emphasise wholeness? Because facts shrink away at the first sign of partiality or limited agenda. Truth, conversely, tends to open itself to an apt seeker, to a method that goes whole at a host of levels. Nature tends to recognise her own, it seems.

Kristin Coyne, in an article called ‘Science on the Edge’ in the February 17, 2017 issue of the magazine, Fields: Science, Discovery & Magnetism, writes:
‘At the dividing line between two things, there’s often no hard line at all. Rather, there’s a system, phenomenon or region rich in diversity or novel behavior – something entirely different from the two things that created it.’
She offers various examples of the same: fringe physics, borderline biology, and crossover chemistry. Such ‘science on the edge’ is one aspect of the changes typical science is undergoing. Other researchers in areas such as telepathy and theoretical physics are pushing the bounds of science while arguing that it certainly is science, just a deeper form.

This suggested new method, that would largely overturn contemporary science, would measure, as it were, by that of nature’s measurements: it is anti-reductionist; it is synthetic more than analytic. As we are learning, it may not be too much to say that one has to be the facts to know the facts, to be a synergy of ‘observer’ and ‘observed’ at all levels. The knowledge gleaned from wholeness is like a star’s heat and light understood, not just the hydrogen and helium involved.

This idea of the ‘scientist’ in tune with nature in a thorough way would be the human equivalent of a goshawk whose instincts are a portion of Earth-wide wildness. No disjunct with results that turn self-referential and untrue. If one is studying an ecosystem, for instance, he or she, or his or her team, must, by the requirements of nature, be of the same stuff and of the same conceptions as the individualities, relations, and wholes of that ecosystem. So much more of the actuality reveals itself to the sympathetic, of-a-piece ‘observer’. If we ignore or shunt aside the question of what is a whole person, how can we ever expect to discern the deeper reality of nature?

It seems to hold true that the more receptive the subject is to the essence and character of the object, the better it is understood. Who knows one’s dog better: a sympathetic owner or an objective voice? If the dog is sick, perhaps the latter, but all the time the dog is exuberantly healthy, the former is the one who comprehends.

The goal, of course, is to elucidate facts, to unite in some meaningful way with reality. Delusion is all too easy, and partial truths sustain centuries of institutions, positions, governments, and cultures. Modern science started out as reactionary in the sense of being hostile to things like superstition or intuition or revelation. It substituted experiment and observation, keeping the studied apart from those who studied. This is fine for shallow comprehension, but it only gets you so far. It obscures another possibility, that is somewhat similar to the communion and connection between the quantum realm and the macro world.

I suggest that deep facts only reveal themselves to a person metamorphosed, as it were, into ways of being in keeping with the parts or portions of nature studied. All nature may be of this type, open to human comprehension only as that comprehension is within a whole person. What a complete person is and what a fullness of nature is might not only be a philosopher’s job, but the focus of science itself, re-trained to benefit from its transformed method.

The hint in current puzzlements is that science in the 21st century and beyond may benefit significantly by re-crafting itself. A transformed method might yield deeper or actual knowledge. That is, knowing as opposed to seeming to know, may require a new approach.

Jacob Needleman and David Applebaum wrote, ‘Unless scientific progress is balanced by another kind of enquiry, it will inevitably become an instrument of self-destruction.’

The ‘objective’ revolution need not be the last. In today’s world, we have the ball-and-chain of modern scientific ways and even scientism weighting our thinking; it would be good to free ourselves from this. But we are confused. About what of objectivity is liberating or limiting, and what of subjectivity is useful or obfuscatory.


Keith said...

I have to admit, Andrew, it was somewhat eye-popping to see ‘telepathy’ and ‘theoretical physics’ mentioned in the same breath. Especially in the ambitious context of ‘pushing the bounds of science’. The side-by-side placement of these two undertakings might suggest a false equivalency; whereas, to my mind at least, they’re not even in the same orbit. I suspect that much of theoretical physics has orders of magnitude more credibility, and comes vastly closer to pushing the bounds of science and reflecting reality, than does telepathy.

That aside, your interesting essay on the scientific method reminded me of Karl Popper’s paradigm-shifting promotion of ‘falsifiability’ — that is, can a hypothesis be disproved, no matter how slimly? When, for example, CERN announced empirical evidence of the Higgs boson (that the particle was indeed spotted by the Large Hadron Collider), it did so with 5-sigma certainty. Although the latter measurement doesn’t constitute ‘verifiability’ (proof, as defined by A.J. Ayer) with hundred percent certainty — and therefore, in principle, was subject to Popper’s ‘falsifiability’ argument — the number was strong enough to declare that the Higgs boson (and related force field) does exist. For Peter Higgs, a Nobel Prize in Physics was in the making.

One other small aside, if I may: You refer to ‘scientism weighting our thinking’; rather, my view would lead to slightly rewording your expression to ‘scientism lightening [or raising] our thinking’. I’ve never heard, in my social sphere anyway, anyone contradict the notion, as you say, that ‘the scientific method also fails’. Of course it does. However, I’d argue that the bigger danger in today’s world is, rather, ‘anti-scientism’. The latter is a root cause of much ill-informed dogma.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I think this is a very good essay, of the kind which is 'as plain as the nose on one's face'. The suggestion is a new scientific method, a 'transformed method'. Yes, I think so. Yet what is that method to be? I sense that until we have that in hand, in sufficient detail to apply it, we shall continue to find ourselves agreeing with these ideas, without the required know-how to change things.

Martin Cohen said...

"Who knows one’s dog better: a sympathetic owner or an objective voice? If the dog is sick, perhaps the latter, but all the time the dog is exuberantly healthy, the former is the one who comprehends."

I suppose it DEPENDS on what you mean by knowing something, doesn't it? Do you mean knowing a dog's habits and character? Well, yes, the emotional bond helps. But owners often resemble their dogs... without seeing that resemblance. Which is surely revealing of how a kind of emotional bond blinds us.

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