The Epistemology of Dogmatic Sciencey Skepticism
March 5, 2012 10 Comments
Or, The Enlightenment rationalist laid bare
An interesting discussion/debate recently transpired. A friend who is a scientific “skeptic” discussed his dubious demeanor in terms of there being advanced secret technology for two reasons. First, such ”conspiracies” are doubtful because they are “theories” and come from persons who want to promote a certain worldview (namely a conspiratorial one). Evidence is gathered, so the theory goes, that is interpreted in a certain fashion to back up the said theory. Pause for a minute: doesn’t that sound a lot like the modus operandi of those who utilize the “scientific method” to “prove” a certain theory? Why, yes it does!
Second, he made the argument that the process of scientific advancement is such that whatever advances occur, occur because “someone contemporary to said person would eventually discover the same thing.” Scientific advancement and discovery happens (so this narrative goes) in a community of objective, non-biased “scientists” committed to the use of “reason” and the building up of human knowledge and progress. Communities of scientists don white lab coats and thereupon, like Mormon underwear, become sacramentally endued with a sciencey force field that shields them from bias, groupthink, deception, forgery and other nasty human tendencies.
Let’s examine both of these arguments philosophically. The business of philosophy is the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions, and all the sons of the Enlightenment gloat to no end about their forebears who exalted “reason” above and all “revelation.” The operant assumption at work here is that there is a universally shared international discourse of egalitarian scientific rationale that men are nobly committed to. The warrior souls have long battled religionists, only to wrest control of the university and the social arena from “God talk” and letting “science” have the free reign. These enlightened ones are the true Promethean heroes who distilled the superstition of the middle ages and brought about the dawning of the new age of evolutionary progress into computers, cellphones and the Xbox. Do you notice that this is starting to look like a religious mythology? There is a narrative developing, you see, that encompasses past, present and future, and the fittest (namely, those who have sufficiently mastered this reductionist quantification of all reality) press on to inherit the future.
“But wait!” comes the cry from the army of lab coats, “you now reveal yourself as a Luddite! Nietzscheanpostmodernisthorkheimeradornoist! You are refuted by the very computer you type on! Unenlightened fool! You’re no philosophe, you’re a philo-oaf!” I say no such thing. I reject the mythology of the Enlightenment just as much as what I believe to be the false mythology of the postmodernists, Marxists and existentialists. I still hold to the rationality of religious revelation and tradition, but that is another argument. For now, we are examining whether it is “rational” to take our doubting to a deeper degree than the Enlightenment thinker above did. He doubted his religious views of youth and so adopted what he saw as a freeing, “scientific” worldview. This then inducted him (so he would think) into the glorious association of the communion of saints of “science” and lab-coated genii. But wait–the foundation of all this is the “scientific method.” This great building block of all modernity is now what grounds our many theories upon a certain and firm basis – trial and error, which then confirms our theories, or conversely falsifies them.
But if we are now believing things to be true on the basis of the “scientific method,” then we must ask for the demonstration of the scientific method on the basis of the scientific method. This cannot be done, and is logically and mathematically demonstrated as impossible by Godel’s incompleteness theorum. There is no inner-system principle which can be appealed to to justify the system itself. The Enlightenment rationalist’s (and his sciencey progeny) appropriate distrust of Thomism and classical foundationalist epistemology ends refuting their own! And the beauty of Godel’s theorum is that it’s “scientific”! Ah but wait–once you bring these facts up, you will begin to see how quickly irrationality and bias sets in! “Godel’s theory is only a mathematical analysis! It doesn’t apply! It doesn’t matter!” I though we were guided by reason and logic and mathyness in this great sciencey age? The opponent is now trimming the evidence to fit his preferences, and the crucial point here is that this is common among human activity. The keen student of human interaction is anything but a glorious legacy of enlightened objective “scientists” (as if this was some ontological class of being to which a certain group belongs), but rather individuals who become proficient in certain areas.
Thomas Kuhn showed how revolutions in science occur, and they are paradigm shifts that occur with certain individuals who begin to see things in a radically new way, shifting the dominant paradigm of collectivist groupthink into which the academic masses had been previously ossified. Kuhn is wrong, I think, to think that rationality itself is culturally relative. However, this questioning of equal rationality among men is correct, and is yet another assumption by many “sciencey” types–the idea being that “reason” is somehow equally distributed amongst all men of all nations, who will only utilize it based on proper education and schooling. This approach is utterly naive and again based on an ignorance of human nature which, in most cases, flees rationality, and delights in its rebellion against reason. And this has nothing to do with a lack of education, but as those in the know know, relates far more to DNA and genetics: yet another sciencey discovery that disproves the mythology of the Scientific Enlightenment’s assumptions. Since rationality is had by few and is not the province of any special collective in labcoats, it thus follows that scientific advancement and progress is done by individuals and this brings us to the second objection my friend had.
The second objection was that “someone eventually would have made paradigm-shifting discovery x,y,z, so there is no special relationship to the genius of Tesla or Newton or Einstein. Not only is this a bogus argument based on a non-existent future/past contingency, it’s also another naive assumption about human nature and its patterns of operation. The assumption again is that there is a rational society of objective thinkers, free from bias, who operate with the motivation of “furthering science.” Is this how humans operate? Why is it that objective sciencey analyses of scientific lab interactions and examinations of the sources for grants and funding demonstrate that the lab operates no different than any other realm of human action? Note that I do not agree in toto that all scientific facts are arbitrarily constructed, but the point still stands–humans are humans and donning a lab coat and title does not shield anyone from standard flaws. I thought this was the whole point of challenging the Medieval Aristotelian dominance? Yet we see another power structure erected in its place, just as Foucault accurately describes. To think that humans suddenly become purely rational and objective in a lab is an example of magical, irrational thinking. It’s not true.
“But look at the inventions of science! You are saying they are all wrong!” Not at all. Newton’s experiments were accurate in spite of his physics not being applicable at the subatomic level. His experiments and theorums for our dimension also weren’t dependent on his lack of knowledge of the subatomic level. Godel’s theorum doesn’t mean mathematics is irrational: it means it’s supra-rational, and that is the point. It’s foolish and arbitrary and precisely human to make the presuppositional error the rationalist science-worshipper makes. It is this “position” which becomes a new dogma–a dogma of irrational and impossible skepticism that is more often than not a device for tossing aside any facts or evidence that do not fit the preconceived and accepted orthodoxy of the Enlightenment’s methodology.
What becomes evident upon analysis of this debate is that the disbelief of secret and suppressed technology is rejected and not pursued before any evidence has been presented. To examine the evidence could lead to a shifting of paradigms or worldviews, and one thing humans hate is being wrong. Again–isn’t that why we rejected Medieval Aristotelianism? Does that mean reason is never attained? Of course not, but it is certainly not attained by the masses, and often unattained by those who loudest proclaim they are rational scientists. Scientific knowledge of human patterns of behavior should make this obvious.
Consider Susan Cain’s talk which is essentially about individuals.