He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Benefit of Doubt: The Gospel of Science

Last night, I was listening to a bartender poke fun at how scientists so often don't seem to have a very certain grasp on some basic aspects of reality, as if they were somehow not living up to the promise of science.  By contrast, I suggested that it was a good thing for scientists to not be entirely certain, that they had a duty to entertain uncertainty about their conclusions in order to utilize scientific methodology well.

I realized that these two responses to the uncertainty of science were reflective of a larger divide in human society with regard to what the scientific project should be accomplishing, and also reflective of a smaller divide among scientists and philosophers of science with regard to what scientific theories accomplish.

Theory formation is a fascinating subject which I had the great fortune of studying in college during a Philosophy of Science course.  It's a fascinating subject because it functions at the boundary between science and philosophy; it provides the bridge by which we can travel from the raw data observed by our instruments and observations made by our perceptual mechanisms toward new experiments and general conclusions about our world.

There seem to be two popular conceptions of the telos of science:

1.  Scientific inquiry should provide us with certain knowledge about the world, and to the extent that it does not, we should make an effort to bring science up to that standard.
2.  Scientific inquiry should not (and perhaps cannot) provide us with certain knowledge about the world; it should always remain uncertain of its conclusions so that we can remain open to learning more.

Unsurprisingly, those who agree with the first proposition almost invariably view scientific theories and explanations as authoritative narratives about reality.  They are (usually without being aware of it) known as scientific realists for those of us versed in the philosophy of science.  They take the view that science provides us with correct ontological beliefs, beliefs about the true nature of things, supplanting the tired and worn field of metaphysics, quietly euthanizing the philosophical discipline so that we no longer have to endure its misery.

Also unsurprisingly, many scientists and philosophers who are at least in part professional skeptics tend to agree with the second proposition.  I think that Neil Tyson explains it fairly well:

"We should not be ashamed of not having answers to all questions yet...I'm perfectly happy staring somebody in the face saying, "I don't know yet, and we've got top people working on it." The moment you feel compelled to provide an answer, then you're doing the same thing that the religious community does: providing answers to every possible question."

Center for Inquiry, New York Academy of Sciences, July 21, 2009

While I think that he's ignoring the evidence of mystery religions in the latter part of his comment, I also think that his point is sound nonetheless. It is simply not necessary to answer every question with a certain response rather than an admission that we don't know.

I tend to think that the benefits of scientific inquiry are at least in part the benefit of doubt, the systematic uncertainty that allows us to continue to learning and growing to the extent that we can do so with our tiny, under-powered hominid brains.  I think that treating science as a source of certainty, no matter how tempting it might become because of its predictive power in many domains, threatens to terminate the highly valuable benefits which doubt has brought to scientific inquiry.

Is the good news about scientific theory that it is objectively true regardless of what anyone believes (as Neil Tyson has also claimed)?  Is the good news about scientific theory that it can answer all of our questions?  Or is the good news that we are not certain whether current scientific theory is true or not, that scientific inquiry operates under the assumption that we have more to learn?  Can science, in principle or in practice, actually answer ontological questions, or must it leave ontological questions open?

These questions start to uncover the smaller divide among scientists and philosophers of science with regard to the nature of science, a topic for the next piece in this series.

Note: The above is a picture of the top of one of my science fair trophies.

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