The Limits of Science—and Scientists

By Guest Blogger | September 7, 2012 11:19 am

Ananyo Bhattacharya is the chief online editor of Nature magazine.

“About what one can not speak, one must remain silent.” The last line of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus tends to resonate with scientists, sceptics, atheists, and other fans of rationality. If your thought cannot be articulated sensibly in plain language then you had better keep it to yourself. Written amid the slaughter of World War I, the book became central to the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers who sat around the Café Centrale in the 1920s discussing which statements could be boiled down into verifiable empirical claims and those that could not. The latter, which included all of metaphysics and theology, they dismissed as meaningless nonsense. When the group finally convinced a reluctant Wittgenstein to visit them, he was so exasperated with their philosophy, logical positivism, that he took to turning his chair to the wall and reading Rabindranath Tagore poetry out loud during their meetings. They had misunderstood him, Wittgenstein explained. The ethical convictions, values and metaphysical ideas they had busily classified as “nonsense” were not worthless. In fact, they were the most important concerns in life.

I was reminded of Wittgenstein recently, when I read the firestorm of online criticism that followed the publication of a column in Nature magazine by Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

In the piece, inspired by a visit to the Angkor temples in Cambodia and gamely entitled “Sometimes science must give way to religion,” Sarewitz drew some parallels between science and religion. (Note, however, that he did not support the misguided idea that science and religion were the same, or that science was nothing more than a belief system.) Worse, in many people’s eyes, was that he went further and argued that science alone is not enough—humanity will always need other ways of understanding the world. Citing the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, Sarewitz says:

“For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality…in practical terms, the Higgs is an incomprehensible abstraction, a partial solution to an extraordinarily rarified and perhaps always-incomplete intellectual puzzle. By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown.”

I have my own problems with the piece. But the vehemence of the attack on Sarewitz would have made anyone think he had advocated teaching creationism in science classes while smacking Richard Dawkins around the head with a copy of the Holy Bible.

Many focused on the difference between the trust that religion and science demand of us. Sarewitz had argued that, for the layperson (an interesting term when you consider it in this context), accepting today’s scientific findings is, to some extent, an act of faith: It requires them to believe what they are told by the scientific community, as they have no way to directly verify such results themselves.

The critics disagreed. Unlike religion, science does not require blind faith, they said—only trust in scientists, who had, after all, produced verifiable results and made successful predictions in the past. But that is to conflate well-established science—a body of knowledge supported by so much experiment and observation that it is very likely true—and the new findings of science at any particular moment, which are quite likely to be false. Scientists are of course human, many as fallible as any whisky priest. So you could argue that the much vaunted “trust” in science—proclaimed by Sarewitz’s critics as being purely rational—looks a bit more shaky than it did at first sight. Sarewitz was right that accepting new research requires not blind faith but “belief,” and most dictionary definitions of the word are perfectly consistent with his argument.

But what was truly staggering was the support for the notion that science was, as one critic put it, “the best and only method we have for understanding reality”. It was here, in their rush to defend the walls of reason from the barbarians at the gate, the scientistas unwittingly took their cue from the logical positivists and came rather embarassingly unstuck. It is as if, given an excellent Philips screwdriver, someone had concluded that only cross-head screws are of any use. Or worse, that they are the only type of screw to exist.

Imagine if, the next time you go to see The Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Dark Knight Rises, the activity of your brain is recorded by an MRI machine. Would a full scientific explanation of those recordings really constitute the “best or only” way to understand the experience? For anyone?

Yet in their eagerness to bash those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe, or be moved, outside a scientific context, the scientistas happily dismiss culture without a second thought.

When the philosopher A. J. Ayer was asked in the 1970s to identify the key weakness of logical positivism, Ayer, once one of its leading propononents, replied that “nearly all of it was false.” By recycling the discredited notions of a dead philosophy, those that rashly criticised Sarewitz have demonstrated that they would benefit from a good, hard reading of poetry.

Image: bora ozen via Shutterstock

 

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  • Anthony

    This blog post seems to ascribe an awful lot of stuff to all scientists, as if scientists are not a diverse group of people with a diverse set of opinions on philosophical and theological issues.

    Poetry is fine and if it helps people make better decisions about what direction to move science in or how to integrate the findings of science then even better, but good luck demonstrating that.

    The crucial thing is, peotry has no place in science itself. The layperson does not require faith in the Higgs boson because it was not arrived at through poetry. The layperson also does not need to say that it definitely exists, only that it has met the criteria of science to be considered a fact.

  • RWilsker

    As so often happens, this article confuses belief, the holding of certain opinions despite contrary evidence, with confidence, the holding of certain opinions based on evidence and past performance.

    I have confidence in the scientists researching the Higgs mechanism because they require 5 sigma accuracy before announcing a discovery and because they have a peer review process that, over time, will enforce a convergence to more and more accurate results.

    To try to make that equivalent to blind belief is nonsensical and is a disservice to the men and women who dedicate their lives to discovering and elucidating new information about the real, and wonderful, world around us.

  • kirk

    You could not have picked a more ruinous example than the fMRI recordings of brains watching Batman as a wedge to introduce religion or metaphysics. There exists emerging science — prone to be falsified before it even gets elevated to the canon etc. — of extended minds. This is a scientific approach to embodied minds and not — as implied — spiritual woo. That is, the alternative to science is MOAR SCIENCE!

  • Andrew

    Send to me that this entire debate revolves around the meaning of the word “understanding”. For Sarewitz, it means to experience, to come into contact with; and sure, for many people scientific research is sufficiently abstract that this is easier to achieve via art. But there would be few scientists that would have no artistic, literary or musical sensitivity at all. Scientists are perfectly familiar with artistic awe, thanks very much.

    When scientists talk about understanding reality they mean something different: to be able to explain, in a stepwise cause and effect chain, how phenomena in the real work come to be as they are. And they’re right that when it comes to achieving this, science is the only game in town. Good luck trying to work out, say, details of genetics via the Angkor Wat method.

    More concisely: there are many things in the work that can make you feel excited about being alive, but only one thing that allows you to actually know for certain how the world works.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Yet in their eagerness to bash those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe, or be moved [strawman], outside a scientific context [needs explanation], the scientistas [poisoning the well] happily dismiss culture without a second thought [only baseless claims that are part of or the foundation of that culture].

  • Dario Ringach

    “Yet in their eagerness to bash those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe, or be moved, outside a scientific context, the scientistas happily dismiss culture without a second thought.”

    Of course scientists’ experiences of wonder and awe are not limited to science.

    I think most would agree with Feynman — science only adds to our appreciation of the world:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZNsIFID28

    But this does not mean one has to accept or appreciate human culture if it draws on elements of irrationality.

  • Florin

    ‘If your thought cannot be articulated sensibly in plain language then you had better keep it to yourself.’

    Really, did you read anything else from Wittgenstein except this last line? You got it totally wrong. It’s not about what you can articulate or not.

  • http://neurochambers.blogspot.co.uk/ Chris Chambers

    As the “one critic” that Ananyo cites above, I guess I ought to respond. I have a lot of respect for Ananyo, but this post strikes me as a muddled mix of non sequiturs and rapidly shifting goal posts.

    First, the example of MRI is a straw man. I argued that the scientific method is the best way of understanding reality but this in no way reduces the mode of that understanding to any one form of investigation. I could just as easily adopt a scientific method to explore the psychology and phenomenology of a person’s response to the Dark Knight and, in doing so, learn a great deal about emotion and cognition. Unless, that is, Ananyo is arguing that psychology isn’t a real science, or that studying the brain is the only way to understanding mental processes (I sincerely hope he isn’t).

    To give Ananyo the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he is instead referring to the hard problem of consciousness, that no amount of scientific enquiry can ever fully illuminate the subjective experience of another person. In other words, could I ever know whether your experience of the Dark Knight is the same as mine? Some philosophers, like Dennett, have argued that the hard problem is itself an illusion, but even if it is a genuine question then the answer may lie behind a technological barrier rather than a philosophical one. Unless there is a ghost in the machine, or a supernatural world beyond our ability to study, anything that can be ‘experienced’ can conceivably be measured and studied in a scientific manner.

    Second, Ananyo argues that because I believe the scientific method is the best way of understanding reality that me and other critics are “bash[ing] those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe”, and “dismiss[ing] culture without a second thought”.

    This is another straw man, and a mildly offensive one at that. My point in responding to Sarewtiz was simply that such feelings of awe and wonder – such us religious experiences – tell us nothing about reality. End of. A scientific study of wonder and awe itself could tell us about the basis of those emotions, but simply experiencing something is not the same thing as studying it or understanding it. I would argue that to understand something requires us to interpret our experiences through a rational filter.

    Third, in my critique of Sarewitz I said that science is not just the best way of understanding reality, but the “best and only”. I agree that the use of “only” here is debatable, and whether others agree or not may depend on their definition of what science is. There is no real consensus on the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be “scientific” but my view is quite open, which is to say that science – in it’s most basic form – is simply a way of appraising evidence through logic. The way in which this methodology is applied, and the stringency, varies across academic disciplines. But the scientific method is by now means the purview of the traditional sciences; many disciplines in the humanities (e.g. history) adopt what I would regard as a form of the scientific method, and historians I know agree.

    For anyone interested, Neuroskeptic’s post on ‘what is science’ is well worth reading: http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/what-is-science.html

    Fourth, Ananyo equates the criticism of Sarewitz with logical positivism. I’ll happily admit my knowledge of philosophy isn’t great, but my understanding is that the arguments by me and others are equally consistent with postpositivism. And if not, why not?

    Finally, it’s disappointing to see the pejorative “scientistas”, as though the critiques of Sarewitz are necessarily an argument for scientism (yet another straw man, sigh). Perhaps Ananyo means this in a tongue-in-cheek way, but reading it as written it does come across as an insult to many readers of Nature magazine. Good luck with that one mate!

  • http://clayfarrisnaff.com Clay Farris Naff

    Well done. Like Sarewitz, I am an atheist, and like Sarewitz, I have published essays on science & religion (including a notorious one on Scientific American blogs). What is disappointing about the reaction to Sarewitz’s writings and my own is not the vigor or volume of the attacks on them, but the emotionally driven intellectual dishonesty that characterizes so many of them. As you aptly point out, they caricature the writer and then savage the straw man they have constructed.

    As a longtime advocate of the scientific worldview, it is deeply dismaying to learn that scientism — the irrational, supremacist distortion of that worldview — is all too real.

    Clay Farris Naff

  • Kassaq

    The screwdriver analogy boggles the mind. One could easily verify the claim that other types of screws are of any use. Ironically, the only ways I know of to verify this claim is through observation, experimentation and rational thought (i.e., through science). Neither religion, nor metaphysics give us the tools to falsify the Philips screwdriver claim.

  • http://www.nature.com/news/ Ananyo

    Anthony – the piece, I think, is quite clear in not ascribing “an awful lot of stuff to all scientists”. It very specifically addresses criticisms of the Sarewitz piece – or rather it addresses two particular criticisms (the belief/trust dichotomy raised by Sarewitz’s critics and the notion that science is “the best and only method we have for understanding reality”). I have problems with the first point and believe the second to be utterly demonstrably incorrect.

    RWisker – “As so often happens, this article confuses belief, the holding of certain opinions despite contrary evidence, with confidence, the holding of certain opinions based on evidence and past performance.”
    I do no such thing. In-fact, I take issue with the narrow definition of ‘belief’ and ‘trust’ that Sarewitz’s critics have used in their attempts to debunk his argument. For instance, I’m not sure where the definition you’ve given above originates. But here’s one: “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof” and here’s another: “confidence; faith; trust” that you can find on dictionary.com. Certainly the latter definition is totally consistent with the idea that laypeople ‘believe’ the findings of science as put forward by scientists, and I suggest the former definition is too (the Higgs boson is not “immediately” susceptible to rigorous proof by most people as they don’t have an LHC to hand or indeed a particle physicist or the years of specialisation required to understand the maths.
    So Sarewitz is completely correct – that from the outside – acceptance of new scientific findings requires some element of belief/trust/faith – whatever you wish to call it.
    I can find no support whatsoever for your contention that the word ‘belief’ can only be defined as “the holding of certain opinions despite contrary evidence”. Indeed, I can’t find this definition in any dictionary at all.

    Kirk – you’ve missed my point. Whether or not fMRI is fully developed scientifically or not is irrelevant. What I’ve proposed is a little thought experiment – imagine if we could measure everything about the brain and its activity. Would that tell us everything of interest about our experience of watching the Batman movie? Of-course it wouldn’t – for instance, a critic might have enlightening, interesting things to say about the film in the context of the director’s past work, their knowledge of Frank Miller comics etc. Or perhaps they might produce a critique based on Marx, or Freud, or Hegel. Such analyses would not be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but if they were done well they would certainly be illuminating, and help us to understand some aspect of the film.
    ie Wittgenstein’s description of language, Marx’s theory of history etc – these are not science but are useful nonetheless as ways of ordering and analysing complex experience! ie “for understanding reality”.

  • http://timtfj.wordpress.com Tim J

    Um, “the holding of certain opinions despite contrary evidence” isn’t in my view valid religious faith. It’s as idiotic to do that in theology as it would be in science. Any valid theology has to embrace what is known about reality—all of it—not contradict it. If you believe God is truth, for example, it’s nonsensical to believe things which contradict the evidence around you—truth can’t contradict itself, and trying to get it to do so amounts to throwing out the God you supposedly believe in.

    It’s true that there are vociferous and opinionated religious people around, some with an anti-rational agenda, that many of those are in the US, and that many of them feel a deep need to spread their anti-rationalism. So, the reality-denying voice is the one that gets heard most loudly. But to equate “holding certain opinions despite contrary evidence” with religious belief is to add yet another layer of confusion; it’s a travesty of what faith is. It’s like confusing the attempt to make sense of horses with the belief in unicorns.

    You’re right to dismiss fundamentalist belief out of hand. But you’re not right to confuse it with developed theology, any more than it would be right to confuse belief in phlogiston with modern chemistry. It’s an aberration caused by people wanting certainty where there can be none—which is lack of faith, not faith. Faith isn’t afraid of being challenged or even of being wrong. It knows that openness to discovering the truth—most possibly through science—is more imortant than “having the truth”.

  • Abbi A

    I am a scientist at a Biotechnology school.

    First off, I completely agree with Mr. Anthony up there: scientists come in the many flavors represented in humanity, though we are prone to be a bit more rational than the next.

    Nonetheless, I believe in mutual respect (yes, even though morality and such are not of purely scientific nature), and that you see, I think many scientists lack today. By attacking the idea of human beings being affected by something “non-scientific” in a meaningful way, such as religion. They do not act very different from the church back in the 16th century when it faced opposing ideas from the scientific community…

    Fear is the word for it I believe, when people relentlessly attack propositions opposing their own ideas or perceptions of the world. It is almost as if the people “serving science” today, still find themselves haunted by the dark ages in West, way back in the days.

  • http://www.fortheears.co.uk Callum Hackett

    This article is a dire straw-man. You move from the claim that science is “the best and only method we have for understanding reality” to ridiculously equate this with a dismissal of non-scientific awe and culture. I mean, really? Really?! You clearly are not familiar AT ALL with the cohesive, complete world-views of such scientists. It is naive beyond measure to think that because they believe EMPIRICAL truths are best arrived at by the scientific method that they therefore think human EXPERIENCE is best reduced to formulae.

  • Chris

    Each of the comments above completely miss the point of the article. Simply that there are other ways, apart from science, through which people understand the world – poetry being one example. And that’s so obvious it hardly needs to be said. If you’re unable to to acknowledge that then you’re doing more harm to science’s image in society than good.

  • http://qpr.ca/blog/ Alan Cooper

    After reading the Sarewitz article and looking over a number of the comments, I have to say that this self-serving defense of a poor editorial decision unfairly misrepresents the positions of most of those who criticized it. Indeed, I have to agree with Chris Chambers that it constitutes an insult to a large part of your readership.

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  • http://www.nature.com/news/ Ananyo

    “Chris Says: Each of the comments above completely miss the point of the article. Simply that there are other ways, apart from science, through which people understand the world – poetry being one example. And that’s so obvious it hardly needs to be said. If you’re unable to to acknowledge that then you’re doing more harm to science’s image in society than good.”
    Chris – yes! Thanks.

    Chris Chambers: “Finally, it’s disappointing to see the pejorative “scientistas”, as though the critiques of Sarewitz are necessarily an argument for scientism (yet another straw man, sigh). Perhaps Ananyo means this in a tongue-in-cheek way, but reading it as written it does come across as an insult to many readers of Nature magazine.”

    I categorically deny that and it takes quite some bending of what I say to get to it. My piece is very clearly about the subset of those who agreed that science is the best and only way to describe reality. To me this is scientism – and it is the people that follow that creed that I dubbed ‘scientistas’ (and that group is not confined to scientists by the way). I was in research for a decade and am aware that scientists are people and come with different points of view, just like in any profession. Though I do think a narrow scientific education sometimes leads to a somewhat dismissive attitude towards culture in some.

  • MartinChoops

    “About what one can not speak, one must remain silent.” The last line of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus tends to resonate with scientists, sceptics, atheists, and other fans of rationality.

    However, latter on in his life Wittgenstein recanted somewhat in his “Philosophical Investigations”. He concluded there are necessary language games we play, in art, religion, aesthetics, that rely on an empathic understanding of what it means to be human. Something that transcends words or symbols (as Godel in his incompleteness theorems demonstrated for mathematics). This aspect of his thought resonates more with artists, poets and theologians.

  • MartinChoops

    His philosophy is often divided between his early period, exemplified by the Tractatus, and later period, articulated in the Philosophical Investigations. The early Wittgenstein was concerned with the logical relationship between propositions and the world, and believed that by providing an account of the logic underlying this relationship he had solved all philosophical problems. The later Wittgenstein rejected many of the conclusions of the Tractatus, arguing that the meaning of words is constituted by the function they perform within any given language-game.

    Wittgenstein’s influence has been felt in nearly every field of the humanities and social sciences, yet there are widely diverging interpretations of his thought. In the words of his friend and colleague Georg Henrik von Wright: “He was of the opinion… that his ideas were generally misunderstood and distorted even by those who professed to be his disciples. He doubted he would be better understood in the future. He once said he felt as though he were writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men”

    See… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Wittgenstein

  • Mr. Anthony

    Ananyo, #18:

    Well here’s a problem. Your article objects to the assertion that science is “the best and only method we have for understanding reality”, but in post 18 above you say you are objecting to the assertion that science is “the best and only way to describe reality”.

    Understand vs. describe. Kind of an important distinction, don’t you think?

  • Darren Reynolds

    To understand the colour red, you have to perceive it subjectively. Knowing the wavelength of the photons that trigger the sensation, knowing how the signals travel to the brain, knowing the electrical and chemical signals involved – that does not get you anywhere with respect to understanding what red is. Just ask someone who is chromatopsic. Instead, science needs to study subjective perception, subjectively. That is not an easy concept to grasp, because doing so probably involves invasive surgery. Hirstein’s MindMelding is a good place to start if one wants to consider how it might be achieved.

  • Geack

    “…there other ways, apart from science, through which people understand the world…” is simply not true. There seems to be a confusion here between “understand” and “appreciate” or “experience”. Ananyo’s choice of Long Day’s Journey and Dark Knight are illustrative of the point: they provoke emotions, and they provide exposure to the experiences and thought processes of other people. These are useful exposures and enjoyable experiences, but they provide no reliable picture of actual behavior.

    Think of any complex phenomenon – take, for instance, a volcano. Poetry might be the best way to share with others the emotional experience of seeing a volcano, but only careful observation and data collection (science) can allow us to understand it – how hot is was, how fast the lava flowed, how far the ash traveled, why it happened at all, when it might happen again.

    There are myriad ways other than science by which people organize their expereince of the world around them. But only the methodical recording and analysis of data that we now call science has provided actual understanding.

  • Don Byrd

    In general, most people “understand” something when they have accumulated multiple definitions, not unlike when using a dictionary to find a definition brings one full circle to the original word. Science uses a variation of this in which patterns must be found to correlate with previously agreed upon patterns in a predictable cause/effect manner.

    This method has allowed us to exploit the world in a way that no other system of ordering has. Is it a glimpse of “reality?” Perhaps. There is great joy that comes with the sense of discovery and “knowing.” In this, science is as valid as any form of exploration – but so too is art, music, and poetry. A fortunate person will find a sense of wonder in all these things.

  • Jim Clark, Winnipeg, Canada

    Any phenomenon can be described scientifically at multiple levels, all intertwined in some complex way. Our ultimate psychological (i.e., scientific) understanding of art, consciousness, and a multiplicity of other phenomena will be of the same sort. That is, explanations will operate at multiple levels from molar to the molecular (e.g., measures resulting from the fMRI example in the article). That we are still a long way from understanding these complex processes does not place them outside the purview of science. To illustrate the importance of multiple levels of scientific explanation, I would similarly defy anyone to give a quantum physics explanation for the path followed by a falling leaf or the processes by which humans were placed on the moon.

  • Christian Luca

    Thank you Ananyo Bhattacharya for this great piece in Discover Magazine!

    I especially like the following paragraph you wrote: “But what was truly staggering was the support for the notion that science was, as one critic put it, “the best and only method we have for understanding reality”. It was here, in their rush to defend the walls of reason from the barbarians at the gate, the scientistas unwittingly took their cue from the logical positivists and came rather embarassingly unstuck. It is as if, given an excellent Philips screwdriver, someone had concluded that only cross-head screws are of any use. Or worse, that they are the only type of screw to exist.”

    Those scientists or laypeople who do claim that science is ”the best and only method we have for understanding reality” indeed are engaging in scientism, and to say otherwise would not be accurate. Truth is something that is very hard to contain within either a scientific or theological box–it is something that can both be discovered and revealed. I just read today in a book I borrowed from the library, “The Greatest Science Stories Never Told” by Rick Beyer that Albert Einstein in 1905 had a remarkable revelation of the special theory of relativity on a trolley heading home, as he glanced at one of Bern, Switzerland’s famous sites–its ornate clock-tower. After wondering how the clock would look if the trolley he had been traveling in was traveling at the speed of light, in comparison with a clock sitting next to him, suddenly, “A storm broke loose in my mind”, Einstein said in his own words (pg. 100) .

    In any case, those who put science on a pedestal and do not leave any room for any other methods of understanding reality are doing the same thing that the fundamentalists of any religion do–exclude others from the blessings and truth that they believe they only possess. In being exclusive that the investigations of science that are accomplished through the scientific method span the basis set of probing reality, that too becomes an assumption that one must accept without proof, and one must make the assumption that all phenomena in nature have a pattern and are indeed repeatable and reproducible irregardless of space and time under controlled conditions. Can anyone prove that all phenomena are explicable under controlled conditions and that there is an underlying pattern (whether linear, exponential, or non-linear)?

  • Mr. Anthony

    From what I hear, one of the evolutionary purposes of language is to be vague and ambiguous so that me may safely negotiate relationships by falling back on plausible deniability. (http://www.pnas.org/content/105/3/833)

    So a lot of philosophy, I think, is doomed. We will never nail down what the difference is between words like ‘understand’ and ‘experience’. Poetry lives in the ambiguity of language.

    But we can talk about whether or not a world-view is consistent with the facts. And you better not look to poetry for that, you’d better look to science.

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  • http://www.nature.com/news/ Ananyo

    Geack’s comment summarises a lot of the unhappiness with my piece – but also shows how it has been misunderstood. As Chris says above I’m pointing out that there are many ways of understanding the world. That’s not a disservice to science – it’s a statement of fact.

    My point about the Dark Night or Long Day’s Journey was that to “understand” these elements of culture, science alone is not enough. Perhaps, as a critic would, you might try to work out what O’Neill’s work meant. You could do this in any number of ways -eg you could look at O’Neill’s life, you could analyse the symbolic meaning of the work, you could look at its influence on NYC punk rockers. All such approaches add to the ‘understanding’ of the play. Now unless the play is not ‘real’, I think what I’ve said is trivial. What I find interesting is that some seem to find this so difficult to admit.

    On a side not, the play itself, like poetry and art and literature, DO help us to understand ‘reality’ (as I’ve already said above they help us to order and interpret reality as human beings).

  • Mr. Anthony

    If ‘to understand’ means ‘to order and interpret reality’ then by all means: there are infinite possible ‘understandings’ of the universe.

    Almost none of them are true and consistent with the facts.

  • couchloc

    Thank you for this very interesting article Ananyo, which I entirely agree with. Your description of the issues and the philosophical problems involved is very accurate. One could only wish that other scientists were as sensitive to the problems with positivistic, overly empiricist approaches to knowledge as you are.

  • Jon Jermey

    “My point about the Dark Night or Long Day’s Journey was that to “understand” these elements of culture, science alone is not enough.”

    I was taught that the first requirement of science is to c0me up with a clear hypothesis. I don’t see one here. Put forward your hypothesis about Dark Knight and then we’ll see if science can test it. I’m betting that it can. Simply making vague linguistic gestures towards ‘understanding’ doesn’t help us to work out what the hell hypothesis it is you think we should be investigating.

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  • David Evans

    “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality..”

    I am an atheist and an enthusiastic follower of science. I don’t know if I could follow the mathematics behind the Higgs, but I have not in fact done so. I do not have “belief in the Higgs”. I note that a number of scientists think they have detected the Higgs, and I await further evidence. I am aware that, based on past history, they could be right or wrong. But at least they are making the effort to find out.

    This is nothing like “faith” in the religious sense. Religious faith is commonly seen as a virtue, and its denial as a moral failing, even in the face of contrary evidence. That is miles away from science.

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  • Jim Cook

    I’m encouraged to see that some of the folks who wrote above understood what logical positivism was all about and some of them understood (at least by my lights) what Wittgenstein was about at different periods in his life. But I am most encouraged since I am religious that so many of the scientistic types understand so little about religion or philosophy. For some, their critique of religion is about as weighty as a religious critique of science that runs something like this: science is X and in that construal it is wrong because it conflicts with my conception of religion.

  • IW

    “Yet in their eagerness to bash those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe, or be moved, outside a scientific context, the scientistas happily dismiss culture without a second thought.”

    How sad that we’re resorting to name-calling. Scientistas? Really? I find it hard to swallow that commenters are urged to refrain from name-calling and to address the facts, and here we have a blog which itself quotes somone who is name-calling and yet offers no censure whatsoever for it, and which once again makes a claim for a position whilst offering no supported examples.

    Must we take the existence of this “knowledge” on faith?

    The scientists who have argued against ‘other ways of knowing’ have gone out of their way to refute th assertion made in the above quote. But I urge Sarewitz not to take my “knowledge” this; he can verify it for himself by reading, for example, what people like Jerry Coyne have actually said on this topic, and then might he consider deigning to apologize to the “scientistas” for making such a bigoted claim?

    But by far the worst part this claim is that it side-steps the real issue. Experiencing “wonder and awe” (which is/can be well understood scientifically) does not count as gaining knowledge in the way that documented scientific discovery does.

    What such proponents are doing is nothing more than confusing subjective feeling with objective fact. For example, the effect of gravity has nothing to do with how you feel. You may feel wonderful as a child when you first fly high on a swing. You may feel terrified. But gravity is the same in both cases.

    So what is the knowledge gained there? Are we to conclude from this new-found “knowledge” that it’s a known fact that swinging high is wonderful, or are we to conclude that it’s a terrifying ordeal to which no child should ever be subjected? How would you make a case for either side?

    The answer is that without science, you cannot. Objectively, the only valid “knowledge” here is scientific – which may well tell you that because of our evolutionary history we will like love riding a swing, but that because of other evolutionary biochemical issues, there are some who will not.

    The “knowledge” supposedly gleaned from the thrilled child and the terrified child will never predict which other children will be thrilled or terrified, not even if the other children are siblings of the first child.

    Yes, you can communicate this “knowledge” by saying you were thrilled or terrfied. Yes, you can urge on another child with your “certain knowledge” that they will be thrilled, or you can warn a child away with scary stories based on your “hard won knowledge”, but that cannot offer any sort of prediction, solace, or guarantee for any child because it’s nothing more than a feeling that’s intensely personal to you, just as religion is. It’s not objective knowledge in the way science offers knowledge.

    After all this “knowledge”, the sad fact remains that we have no more knowledge now than we did before reading this blog. Once again we see neither concrete examples of what things are known for a fact (in the same way we can know scientific discoveries for a fact and that we know not as subjective individuals, but as a community, just as the scientific community knows things) from this “other way of knowing”, nor how such “knowledge” can be independently and reliably verified.

    Another quote:
    “By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown”

    Seriously?

    This “authentic personal encounter” has no more to do with religion than does a sunset or a view of the night sky, or the feeling of having completed a marathon, or a novel, or a hard shift at work.

    You may be convinced in your “knowledge” that your weekend sucked, but tell me: is this “knowledge” a simultaneous confirmation of the delusional nature of the scientistas who live next door, and who have the shameful temerity to declare that their weekend was wonderfully refreshing despite your certain “knowledge” that it wasn’t? Does this objectively tell us anything truly useful about the unknown quantity “future weekend”?

    You may be convinced that there are other ways of truly honestly knowing, but you certainly are not going to convince me that you have a case with such wishy-washy, anecdotal, subjective “data”.

    Sorry.

  • Bob

    The issue with your metaphor of the mri of the brain is that that mri would never be able to identify the historical factors which caused that particular brain to be that way that it responded in the way you were able to watch on the mri. that’s where the really interesting parts of it are.

  • Pingback: La scienza non spiega tutto, se anche “Nature” se ne accorge…. | UCCR « Anti UAAR()

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