Saturday, February 14, 2015

Scientific Objectivity (or: Beneath the Revenge of the Reloaded Bride of Why I Keep Bashing Scientism)

     The object is an object for the subject. —Seng T'san

     The purpose of this post is really not to "bash" Scientism. Instead, I'll try to explain certain limitations of science and scientific method which show that the transition of science into Scientism is without a valid foundation. I'm trying to be a little careful here, because it is too easy to adopt the attitude that, if one finds oneself confronted with a brick wall, then one should commence beating one's head against it. 
     Science, then, is based on objectivity. It is also based on lots of other psychological phenomena like symbolism and logic, but let's focus on objectivity. Let's make it our objective, and let's begin with an objective definition of it. The New Oxford American Dictionary says this:
(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts: historians try to be objective and impartial. Contrasted with subjective.
• not dependent on the mind for existence; actual: a matter of objective fact.
That second definition following the bullet is indicative of the juggernaut-like importance objectivity has acquired in modern attempts to understand Reality, but maybe I'll get back to that. Right now I'll add another definition which I'll be working with, or chewing on, in the following discussion: 
objective refers to an attitude which emphasizes the object, rather than the subject, in the act of human perception. 
In a way, this is just another way of stating the first dictionary definition exhibited above; yet my version may be a less objective way of saying it.
     The ordinary process of human perception involves artificially dualizing our world of experience into object and subject—the entity being observed, and the "self" doing the observing, which latter may be nothing more than the unobserved mental context surrounding that observed entity. Thus objectivity, or observed objects, make up only half, roughly, of our world of experience. It forms only half of the duality. We may try to objectivize different aspects of the subject end of the duality, thereby bringing into the realm of objectivity; but by this very process it changes and becomes something different than it was, somewhat like an organ pulled out of a living body or a cup of water pulled out of the ocean. Furthermore, if science tries to objectify the subject, as with psychology or cognitive science, it only perpetuates the duality, since objectivity, as mentioned above, necessitates a subject as well, and half the world as it immediately presents itself to us is still inevitably ignored. 
     To further complicate matters, mentality in general cannot be adequately observed under laboratory conditions as "hard science," as it cannot be quantified precisely, so our immediate experience is interpreted by science in terms of brain chemistry, which is a far cry from what we are actually, directly experiencing. Mentality is all that we really know, since knowing is itself mental, yet science must convert it into something else in order to measure it and thereby "understand" it. Thus, ironically, attempts to develop systems based on our immediate experiences instead of on abstracted theories of epiphenomenal brain chemistry may be dismissed as unscientific, lacking an adequate methodology for understanding Reality, or, in spiritual, non-objective attempts, they may even be dismissed as "blind faith"—despite their being based on direct experience instead of abstracted theory. 
     Fundamental aspects of human existence, like ethics, justice, compassion, love, beauty, etc., are not primarily objective (for example, hard science is essentially amoral, with ethical considerations affecting it from outside the system); and attempts to objectify them—not in terms of Buddhist mindfulness techniques, but in terms of brain chemistry, genetically conditioned animal instincts modified by cultural input, etc.—mutate them into something else, so that they cannot really be understood as they are. So all this is one big consideration.
     Yet because subjectivity is (roughly) half of our psychological, perceived world, it is inescapable even within the laboratory conditions of science. It is not just ignored background either, but is integral to scientific method itself in various ways.
     Scientific method involves the observation of natural phenomena, the formulation of hypotheses regarding patterns repeated in nature, and the testing of those hypotheses through experimentation which limits as well as possible all variables except the ones tested, and which makes predictions. If it passes its tests, then a hypothesis becomes a theory; and the value of a theory lies in its ability to make predictions regarding future natural phenomena. (That is a very simplistic way of explaining scientific method, and I hope I didn't botch it badly enough for serious followers of science to jump on it and tear it apart.) Now, the thing is that hypotheses do not generate themselves, and they do not follow logically and inevitably from the data collected from the observed natural phenomena; the formation of hypotheses is certainly guided by objectivity, but is fundamentally subjective. 
     One of the first scientific all-stars to publicly acknowledge this fact was Jules Henri Poincaré, a French mathematician and philosopher of science who was reputed to be the foremost scientific authority in the world at the turn of the 20th century. Among other things, he prophesied relativity theory before Einstein worked out the math. Anyway, he was intrigued by the way mathematical proofs would occur to him sometimes. For example, on one occasion he was on vacation and was pretty much ignoring mathematics, when suddenly, while stepping onto a bus, he realized that his "Theta-Fuchsian Series" of functions was perfectly congruent with non-Euclidian geometry. This sort of thing happened to him more than once, and after considerable reflection he eventually arrived at the idea that scientific formulation of hypotheses was largely subjective—which other scientists at the time didn't like at all.
     Poincaré said, "If a phenomenon admits of a complete mechanical explanation it will admit of an infinity of others which will account equally well for all the peculiarities disclosed by experiment." In other words, anything in physical nature can potentially be explained in an infinite number of ways, all of them being equally plausible. Later in the 20th century Bertrand Russell also emphasized this idea, for example in his book Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits. Also, if any of you have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance you may recall that this same idea inspired Robert Persig (alias Phaedrus), a teenage prodigy with a measured IQ of 170, to drop out of the university he was attending and to forsake a career in science. His version was, "The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite." Decades later, while writing his classic book, he added:
     If true, that law is not a minor flaw in scientific reasoning. The law is completely nihilistic. It is a catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity of all scientific method!
     If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge. 
     Getting back to Poincaré though, he said that our subjective sense of balance and elegance is what guides our search for a suitable hypothesis. We choose from a multitude, potentially an infinite number, of possible ones, and we choose the ones that are interesting, the ones that we like. And that is subjective. And the ones we can even think of to test are limited by our subjective imagination. The more imaginative we are subjectively, the more and better hypotheses we can think of to put to the test. But human imagination is limited, not to mention human, and it's hardly likely that, objectively or otherwise, we'll ever figure it all out. There may be, for all we know, obvious facts staring us in the face which our humanity prevents us from seeing. And we'll never be able to test all plausible hypotheses.
     Add to this that, as was mentioned above, scientific method tests hypotheses by their predictive power. Thus science is not so much explaining Reality as setting up an elaborate system, first and foremost, for making predictions. It's not primarily the reasonableness and plausibility of a theory that causes it to be accepted as valid, but its ability to predict the future behavior of phenomena (or its logical derivation from a theory which does make accurate predictions). And it seems to be a more or less unexamined axiom of science, or rather of Scientism, that making accurate predictions at the observational level is an adequate means of determining the metaphysical nature of Reality.
     Just because a system can make consistent, accurate predictions along certain lines does not mean that it actually understands Reality. For example, a computer program could be devised (and I'm sure many have been devised) which can predict with fair accuracy what groups of people will buy in grocery stores, but this does not imply that the program, or even the programmer, understands the reasons why people buy this or that. It's simply, for the program especially, a processing of certain patterns of data. On the other hand, a more "realistic" explanation of Reality, one which deeply understands the situation to some degree, may be less useful in making predictions. A standard, classic example could be "God made it that way"—or, for Buddhist analogs, "Karmic volition made it that way," or "Ignorance made it that way." It may be true, but it's not so good for making predictions.
     So combining the last two points, 1) that valid hypotheses are potentially infinite in number for explaining any particular phenomenon, with scientists choosing their favorites with a profound and limiting subjective bias, and 2) that science is more a system for making accurate predictions than for actually explaining Reality, then we may arrive at the following hypothetical conclusion: that science is as much a matter of invention as of discovery, a kind of intellectual technology analogous to material technology. To give a crude example, a ball-point pen does not explain Reality, but it is much more efficient and useful for writing about Reality than its predecessors, the fountain pen, the steel-nibbed pen dipped into an inkwell, the sharpened goose quill, and the reed or stick or whatever it was that preceded goose feathers. And whatever comes after ball-point pens, like a gel pen with some kind of polymer fiber tip (or an advanced word processor), will still not explain Reality, but will be ever more useful and efficient in writing about it. I doubt that anyone insists that pen manufacturers are working toward producing the true and perfect pen—they're just working toward producing better and more useful ones. The true and perfect pen does not, and probably cannot, exist, not even in Plato's heaven.
     Science is designed for making predictions, and the attempted explanations of Reality which happen to accompany these predictions may ultimately be irrelevant "filler," especially with regard to the metaphysical assumptions involved. This is arguably the case with the alleged pseudoscience of astrology today: it may somehow make useful predictions, at least when they are made by a talented and skillful astrologer, but the predictions may have little if anything to do with the attempted explanation of the reasons behind these predictions—in this case, the positions, movements, and influences of stars, planets, and the moon. Thus, if this is a valid way of looking at the matter, and science is an invented device used for making accurate predictions, with the accompanying explanations of Reality being ultimately superfluous or irrelevant, then science is still valid and useful, even if we don't know exactly why, but it is not worthy of being elevated to the religion of Scientism, i.e. the belief that science has Reality figured out. As though Reality could be figured out. (This approach to science, by the way, is called instrumentalism, and has been around for a long time, with one of its more eminent advocates being the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach.)
     There is a famous Zen story about a scholar who visits a Zen master. The master, as is often the case in stories about Zen masters, serves his guest a cup of tea. He pours tea into the scholar's cup until it is completely full, and continues pouring. Tea overflows the cup and runs all over the table, and the master just keeps pouring, until finally the scholar can't contain himself any more and exclaims, "It's already full! No more will go in!" The Zen master then replies, "Yes. Your mind is the same way. It is already full of its own ideas, and no more will go in. So I can't tell you anything about Zen." This is reminiscent of some of my attempts to teach Dharma to people in America. Their minds are so full of the American point of view, which in many respects is at odds with fundamental principles of Dharma, that not much goes in. From an outsider's perspective it is easy to see…but we are all human. People nowadays, even in the West, are just about as stuck in their belief systems, which is to say, in Samsara, as they ever were. So I can point out some of the limitations of science and especially of Scientism, and receive comments like, "But science is based on evidence," which statement is true, but was never at issue; and worse yet, comments implying that a yogic system like Buddhist Dhamma, the essential core of which is direct, personal experience, is based upon "blind faith" because it is not wholly in accordance with laboratory objectivity, going with the idea that what is not scientific, or Scientistic, is therefore invalid. True, some aspects of spirituality and "yoga" may be invalid from a scientific point of view, but it remains to be demonstrated that all of Reality necessarily follows the rules of science, or of objectivity. It seems to me that Reality, as opposed to the world of perceptual symbols in which most of us are stuck, doesn't follow the rules of science, or of any perceptual system. I may as well add that to dismiss as invalid any system not in accordance with the axioms of one's own belief system (which is what the medieval Christians, who were just as intelligent as us, did also) is a matter of begging the question, i.e., of using the restrictions of one's own point of view to justify one's own point of view, and to invalidate others.
     The best advice I can give for one trying to appreciate Reality is to adopt a way of seeing which ignores nothing and excludes nothing, especially not half of our world of experience. A comprehensive perspective would thus include both subjectivity and objectivity—although if one becomes adept at this art one may find that the two halves of the perceptual world merge together and transcend the duality altogether, with no object, and no subjective "self" observing the object. This may be viewed by objective hardheads as soft-headed, touchy-feely mysticism, but Reality itself is not objective or subjective (or symbolic, or rational), so this approach of non-exclusion and non-ignorance, and maybe of mysticism besides, comes much closer to Reality as it really is, not as it is theorized.
     Finally, as mentioned already, ethics, compassion, love, goodness, beauty, divinity, etc. etc. will always be beyond the grasp of mere objectivity; and attempting to dismiss or invalidate what cannot be objectified from our interpretation of Reality, and from our functioning in the world, can result in a civilization composed of robotic heart retards, or zombies—and Western civilization seems already to have taken a few steps in that direction. So let's accept science for what it is, and not take Scientism too seriously. Just be as awake as possible, and materialism doesn't stand a chance.
     I suppose all this could still qualify as "bashing," couldn't it. Oh well. 

The object ceases when the subject is quieted. —Seng-T'san

1 comment:

  1. Or, to put it a nut shell, science tells us that the horse shits.