Saturday, 28 December 2013

Scientism

“What is the position of Science in life?” And, thus, begins a wrestling match.

As soon as I ask this question which implies that there are other things in life than Science, the sciento-philosopher, wedded to scientism, will demand to know what my epistemology is. In doing this he seeks to subject the me that asked the question above to the discipline of scientific method. My person has to be placed within the system I am trying to observe and draw conclusions about. Once I concede the game’s up. I can’t look at scientific method as an object of my inquiry because I am subject to it and, therefore, literally unable to say anything about it. It annexes and encompasses literally everything. How did I arrive at this situation? I arrived here because the world view of the sciento-philosopher demanded that I should. I demand that I shouldn’t and so the wrestling match begins.

A lot of the the sciento-philosopher’s world view is based on glib logical assertions. For example, he will exclude the possibility of there being a God in the equation with the following sophistry. There cannot be an omniscient God because it is impossible to know that you know everything. He will call this the paradox of knowledge. I have no agenda as far as the existence of God is concerned but I am stunned by the casual ease with which he writes off a major plank in the Western experience of the last two millennia. Even though I don’t necessarily believe in him, let’s take the God of Thomas Aquinas. He is the omniscient ad omnipotent creator God. IF, if, if, if such a being existed, if he had created literally everything, would he be subject to that logical conceit above? If he created everything and, therefore, knows all that he created, what value or meaning would it have to say that he doesn’t know that he knows? He would laugh at the idea. Would such a being consent to being placed under the tiny microscope of a tiny scientist in a tiny laboratory? Would he fit and would the microscope make any sense of him? Would he be ‘provable’ by his creatures or would he rather not be inconceivably more encompassing than anything they can even imagine?

Let’s use this as a metaphor. I do not insist on the literal existence of God. The universe as a macrocosm, as we look out, and as a microcosm, as we explore inside ourselves, is infinitely bigger, more encompassing and mysterious than our minds can conceive. The correct response to this is humility with regard to the fact that what we know is infinitely smaller than what we don’t know.

I have no anti-scientific agenda. Francis Bacon's scientific method seem a very sensible way in which to study the physical world (It is interesting to note that the very word ‘science’ links to epistemology because it simply means ‘what we know’). I delight in the daily photographs on the Bing homepage, I am very glad to live in the age of anaesthesia and I make full use of modern telephony, email and the internet. I’d be foolish not to. However, I’m much more than the person who uses these tools. I’m even much more than the person who is aware that, as I write this, millions of synapses are firing off in the blood-infused lump of fat and water that sits in my skull.

However, when you try to apply scientific method to what is going on when I watch Eddie Izzard doing stand-up, to my relationship with my wife, my children and my friends, to my reaction to an Emily Dickinson poem or a painting by the other Francis Bacon, where do you begin? What realms are these that scientific method cannot encompass? You can attach electrodes to me and place me in a brain scanner to see what is happening as I look at a Bacon painting but will the readout tell you all there is to know about my reaction? Is all you can say about it that electrical activity took place? If so why the libraries full of the art criticism and the History of Art? How does the scientist deal with the way the painting stimulates my intellect, my emotions, my sense of the beautiful, dare I say it, my spirit? How does he or she deal with the fact that my reaction to the painting is unique in the universe, as it brings into play all that I am now or have been in the past? What use does scientific method have here? It is redundant because we are in a realm where it should not and cannot operate. This is to say that life contains things beyond the ken of science. Any attempt to reduce the richness of the experience they offer will diminish them by cutting off limbs and forcing them into boxes that are too small to contain them. This is almost literally what happens in the various ‘cultural’ revolutions that have taken place in the last century or so. It is what happens in ‘1984’. Imprisonment takes place.

Some scientists will say that one day, with the help of warehouse-fulls of cloud computing power, science will be able to encompass my reaction to the painting. I’ll be long gone. Will it be worth the candle? Will the warehouses ever approximate to what I was? Indeed, why not just talk to me, the real human being, while I’m still alive? I’m much more amazing and interesting than the mainframes and I’ll tell you much more about my reaction to the painting than a computer ever could.

‘Scientism’, the belief that science has hegemony over everything must bow down to the fact that there are realms where it is proper for science to operate and realms where it is not proper. The scientist should see himself as small and feeble, using instruments and technologies that are limited. To seek to encompass everything inside his science is to suffer from delusions of grandeur and to risk an unbefitting smugness with regard to the universe.

So, what is my epistemology? I just ‘be’. I take in the world through my senses, my mind and my heart and I think a lot inside myself. I observe, I experience and I explore. To me it’s a mystery, a magnificent, marvellous, astounding mystery. I would not want to subject that mystery to scrutiny or analysis. Indeed, I don’t think I could. It’s too grand. It’s awesome!

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