MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Doubtful Philosophies of Science - Part B: Criticisms

Part B: Criticisms

In Part A, we looked at philosophies of science that focus on uncertainty, and saw how both certainty and uncertainty fit into the scientific process. Now we turn to more severe criticisms of science, which claim the scientific process is fundamentally flawed.

The Whole and Parts

"Holists" argue that science is too "reductionist", while true understanding requires an holistic approach that looks at the whole instead of the parts. Consider this except from "Technological or Media Determinism":

The philosophers Democritus (6th century B.C.) and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had both taught that the way to knowledge was through separating things into component parts. It is a feature of reductionist explanation that parts are assumed to affect other parts in a linear or one-way manner, and interpretation proceeds from the parts to the whole.

Reductionism contrasts with "holism", which is broadly concerned with the whole phenomenon and with complex interactions within it rather than with the study of isolated parts. In holistic interpretations there are no single, independent causes. Holistic interpretation proceeds from the whole and relationships are presented as non-directional or non-linear. It is holistic to assert that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, a proposition with which it is difficult to disagree when you think of a working motor compared with the stacked parts.

Such views represent both a misrepresentation of science, and a flawed view of cause and effect.

In terms of what science actually is, firstly, many scientific disciplines are explicitly interested in whole systems (e.g., ecology and even physiology). Secondly, there is no logical equivalence of "reductionism" with "linear or one-way" effects. Attempts to understand individual causes do not imply that those causes have linear effects, and most definitely do not imply an absence of multiple interacting effects or feedback (an effect directly or indirectly affecting its own cause). Indeed, both are well known in science, as in the regulation of cell growth and even such commonplace phenomena as temperature regulation in our own bodies.

While it might be "holistic" to assert that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, that is not unique to holism: it is where holism and science overlap. The question is not whether the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but whether the whole can be understood by studying the parts, or without studying the parts. Ironically, the above quote's own example, a working motor, proves the former: for the working of a motor can be understood completely by reductionist science – motors having been invented using the principles of such science in the first place. One wonders exactly how a holist could achieve the same end.

Even when the whole is more than the sum of its parts, it remains caused by simpler things. Nothing is causeless, and no whole can cause itself nor can it be more than the sum of its parts and their interactions. Unless you tease out specific causes, you can in fact learn nothing about causality, hence, you cannot explain what you are studying. Hence the attraction "holism" holds for mystics, who replace objective understanding with subjective, arbitrary assertions.

It is only through reductionism that the whole can be understood. Isolating simple causes, then finding out where they are insufficient to understand the whole, is how one ultimately discovers how the various parts interact individually and as systems in order to generate the whole. One finds the easiest causes first, then the more subtle or complex ones, until complete understanding is achieved.

Cultural Activities

Science bases its pursuit of and claim to truth on objective enquiry. Denials of the possibility of objectivity therefore attack science at its root.

Such denial lies at the base of diverse but related criticisms of science, from post-modernism's "everything including science is just a text", to multiculturalist claims that science is a subjective social construct no more valid than the beliefs of non-scientific cultures, to radical feminist theories of science as specifically "male".

The basic assumption behind such arguments is that science cannot be objective because it is a human activity. That is, objectivity is impossible to human beings, therefore science's claim to it is false: all human discourse is subjective and culturally (or racially, or sexually) defined.

Such collective-subjectivist claims are in essence racist or sexist, ignoring the many excellent scientists of both sexes from all over the world. But that is not their worst feature. There is no honest attempt to avoid objectivity (as any honest attempt can result only in silence): only an attempt to disparage evidence in order to enthrone arbitrary claims in its place. A person who has evidence does not seek to deride objectivity, but to appeal to it. Only someone who knows their views cannot stand objective scrutiny attempts to drag the objective down to their own level. Thus, the spectacle of such claims being made by people who wish to avoid the rigours of science being applied to their own beliefs, while insisting that you should believe what they are saying, despite their avowed subjectivity and lack of proof!

Arguments for the cultural subjectivity of science that are not outright attacks on objectivity as such amount to the obvious but irrelevant – "Scientists study what interests them, and what interests them depends on where they live." What else should scientists study, than what interests them or those who pay them, and what should interest people, besides what is relevant to their lives? But the whole meaning and validation of objectivity is not that you don't care or choose what you study, but that the answers you get depend on the nature of reality, not on your prior beliefs, prejudices or desires. The many serendipitous discoveries in science (from nylon to conductive polymers to penicillin), where an important new fact or principle has been discovered while studying something else, is a consequence and validation of this.

Indeed, whatever plausibility such claims might have is similar in nature to that of the "paradigm shift" theory of science. That is, in the absence of good evidence, all sorts of theories are possible. A few poorly understood facts can support any number of wild ideas and, as a consequence, they can also be shoehorned to fit baseless prejudices. But in the long run, false theories will fail. The presence of good evidence (as determined by the rules of inductive reasoning) severely limits the possible theories one can validly propose to explain the facts.

Thus, while one could argue that anthropological "proofs" of European superiority in the 19th Century were "culturally determined" by the prejudices of Europeans – the evidence adduced was never sufficient for such claims. On the other side, one cannot argue that modern aeroplanes do not fly, whatever prevailing prejudices existed before powered flight was made a reality.

The Passion...

The history of science is filled with debates, some vicious. Yet scientists are meant to be objective. Thus people often have a picture of the "ideal scientist" as a person who is disinterested in the results of their experiments, has no emotional commitment to a particular theory, and will change theories to fit the best current evidence: and any deviation from this ideal is proof that science isn't objective.

This is a misunderstanding of objectivity – a misunderstanding whose ultimate root lies in the ancient reason-emotion dichotomy. But there is no necessary dichotomy between reason and emotion or between facts and values. Rather, values should follow from facts, and emotions rooted in rational values serve reason. Yes, a passion which overrides or replaces reason is irrational: but passion flowing from rationally chosen values is not.

A scientist should care – about what is true, and what can be achieved by knowing the truth. For the purpose of science is to learn the truth, and the proper purpose of knowledge is the improvement of human life. It is literally, if long-range, a life or death activity. As witness the improvements to human life from modern agriculture, genetics, electronics and medicine.

Scientists should be passionate about the truth, and such passion is more rather than less likely to make them strong defenders of their favoured theories. This is a good thing. It is an important part of scientific progress that theories have partisans, who don't accept contrary evidence at face value and are motivated to find weaknesses and alternative explanations.

However a passion for the truth must be just that: a passion for the truth. Thus any such passion has to be subservient to rationality and the rules of inductive reasoning, as our only means to know the truth. Science derives from an objective epistemology, and has no place for subjectivism or any other irrationality. Scientists must place nothing above the facts, not even their own or favourite theory. Thomas Huxley called it:

The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact.

But it is not a tragedy, it is the virtue and strength of science.

...And The Power

Whatever the basis of fundamental criticisms of science, they come up against one stubborn fact of reality: science works. Indeed, science is so successful that its opponents all use its results daily even while attacking it. Whether you look at nutrition, medicine, agriculture, metallurgy, transport, computers, clothing, engineering, water supply or waste disposal, science is pervasive in its benefits. Science has mapped the moving of continents and the motion of galaxies, measured events lasting femtoseconds to billions of years, sequenced the genomes of many organisms including man, enabled machines of metal to fly hundreds of people around the world in a matter of hours, and sent spacecraft to other planets and beyond the solar system. And all that in the few hundred years that science has existed, out of the hundreds of millennia humans have walked the earth eking out a living by spear and plough.

The questions to ask any critic of science as a tool for discovering truth are simple: How do you explain what it has achieved?, and Why do you use so many of its results in your own life? There is no explanation, except that science does what it claims.

Judgement Day

Individual scientists are individuals, and are not always rational or objective. But while that is bad for them and can slow the progress of science, fundamentally it doesn't matter for the integrity of science itself, just as the fact that some scientists commit fraud doesn't matter in the long run. As discussed in Philosophical Reflections 30, science is a process designed for objective enquiry, designed to catch and correct errors, and whatever the errors that might happen along the way, the truth will eventually out. This is another example of where the principles underlying paradigm shifts apply: conflicting opinions, whether justified or unjustified, will eventually triumph or fail according to, and only according to, the evidence found in reality.

Because science is based on objectivity, it should never be treated as dogma, and thus a scientist should never expect to be taken on faith, but rather to prove what they say by reference to facts. Conversely, their audience needs to be able to evaluate that evidence. That is one of the issues we will discuss in our next topic: Philosophy & Science.

© 2005 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.