Here is the thing. Whatever anyone, including science as a whole, could say about how things are is always a reverse-engineered knowing based on what we think is happening.
This is not at all the same as knowing what is happening.
Think about all the things that are taking place as you sit here reading this post, things you don’t know about. Think other cultures, other times, other ideas, other species and infinite other ways of knowing and being.
How much, in this context of numberless knowers and knowns, do we really know? Do we really know where or who we are apart from the names we made up for things? Do we even know what experience is?
To say that our ignorance massively overwhelms whatever we may think we know is a colossal understatement.
Indeed, whatever we know is never known in terms of all that is happening – who can claim the perspective of all that’s happening? — but only in terms of the limitations imposed on knowing by our space-time specific coordinates, or our own perspective.
Knowing, in short, is dependent on the knower and his present understanding of what reality is like, whether this knowing is subjective, meaning limited to one person, or objective, meaning limited to what the scientific community believes is true at any given time.
This simple yet radical limitation of all reverse-engineered knowing – including all knowing that is science — is not always clear to our public science educators, especially the new generation of the so-called science popularizers.
Sagan, Dawkins, Dennett, Tyson, Pinker, Krauss and even Hawking persistently confuse what is being pointed out here: knowing what we think is happening is not at all the same as knowing what is happening.
Since no one (apart from Richard Dawkins perhaps) can lay claim to a universal viewpoint that trumps all of space-time, our belief that “knowing what we think is true” and “knowing the truth” are in any causal relationship whatsoever is just that – a belief.
As powerful a method as science has proven to be, it isn’t and has never been about capital “T” truth, but about what works, or what is reproducible under very specific circumstances. The belief that science must be true because it works, or that science is about what is true, is not only a logical fallacy, but effectively a leap of faith — a deeply non-rational, perhaps even a religious gesture.
A recent and rather interesting Scientific American article “Philosophy begins where physics ends, and physics begins where philosophy ends” touches on the above-discussed problematic with some insight, juxtaposing the older generation of more philosophically literate scientists – Bohr, Einstein, Gödel and Heisenberg – with our new generation of science dogmatists.
The article points out, for example, that scientists, even those who reject the value of philosophical inquiry outright, are always already doing philosophy in the sense that they presuppose a philosophical viewpoint (an unprovable yet taken-for-granted metaphysical position — “scientific realism”, for example) when explaining their scientific findings.
While the article doesn’t clearly spell out why philosophy and science are not about the same kind of thing – philosophy being about the conditions that must be satisfied so that what is apparent can become apparent (see: critical turn in philosophy) — it does make an important observation that our popular science apologists are telling an extremely one-sided story about what science is, does and knows.
Understanding this is especially important today because after over a century of scientists’ and philosophers’ continuous attempts — and rather miserable failures — to articulate a demarcation line between science and non-science, we are starting to understand that developing such a categorical line is simply not possible. Not in scientific practice and not in how we understand what science does.
In other words, scientific discovery, and so scientific methods, are so complex and so enfolded into the process of life as a whole that they cannot be abstracted away from it and set up as some kind of pinnacle of human understanding, a final means to discovering the truth of the universe.
(More about this here.)
- What is abstraction?
- Rethinking science communication in plain English
- Science Writing: Between Correlation and Causation
- Science Writing: Content Development
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