Think Bomb

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

My Thoughts on Science
 
Those who know me as a scientist and are interested in picking a fight with me (especially religious people who might consider scientific knowledge at odds with their belief system) are sorely disappointed when they discover just how accepting I can be of their views. Although I have a great love of science and see it as an extremely useful method for acquiring knowledge, I do not follow it religiously or seek to force a scientific explanation for things which are fundamentally non-scientific.
Scientific truth is not absolute truth. Science concerns itself primarily with what is empirical. What we can test empirically though so often comes down to what we can observe and this can sometimes be limiting. A theory can reach beyond what is directly observable and still be considered scientific, but it is only considered such because it best explains the observed phenomena.
As an example of something that is scientifically true but was not thought to be so at one point, let's consider the electromagnetic waves that lie in spectra beyond what we can see. These waves (like microwaves and radio) existed before technology advanced to the point where they were empirically provable, but they were not considered a scientific reality until they entered the realm of empiricism. That does not mean electromagnet waves outside of the visual spectra did not exist, they were just not a scientific reality at the time. From past experiences like this we can speculate that there are, today, many elements of our reality which are not scientifically verifiable but may be brought to scientific light in the future. I am also willing to suggest that there are things in our reality which are indeed true, but may never be scientifically verifiable (Now this is a stance that really gets me into trouble with my scientifically minded friends!).
Science, limited by our powers of observation, is limited in what truths it can divulge. Science, therefore, is not an arbiter of absolute truth. Rather, science is an eloquent tool which enables us to make predictions which are largely accurate and advance technologically. It is a practical method of inquiry, but it is not always the best method, and I refuse to fully dismiss all other methods.
So what then is truth and how can one determine reality? Truth, in my opinion, is dependent upon the lens through which you are viewing reality. There is no absolute truth, and there does not need to be. Instead, veracity must be examined in the context of the conjecture.
Take for example, a discussion I had the other night regarding the possible past existence of dragons. From behind the lens of paleontology, dragons did not exist as there is no adequate fossil evidence. From the view of physiology and developmental biology, the proposed bodily design of many dragons is considered impossible and therefore they could not have existed. It is not until we consider the existence of dragons from behind the lens of anthropology and myth that they become real, as cultures across the world show depictions of dragons in some form or another in their written history. So did dragons exist? Yes and no. It depends entirely upon which set of philosophical spectacles you adorn.
Even more weighty questions involving such unearthly things as say, the meaning of life or the soul, are largely not only unexplainable by science, but not at all the concern of science. Enter religion, spirituality, and metaphysics. The fundamentally unobservable and untestable belong to their realm, and here I relinquish the driver's seat.

8 Comments:

  • Once more, I agree with this post 100%-- I have explained this concept to quite a few people in my time that claim science is a dogma/religion like any other. It seems like some biased perceptions lead to a belief of science as a static thing, and scientists as a cult of lab coat clad fuddy-duddies who, given the proper subject, will shove their fingers in their ears and have a tantrum.

    Science is not a religion, it's a method of observing and attempting to explain/analyze phenomenon that occurs in our world. Yes, on the outer reaches of quantum physics it does seem mind-bendingly esoteric and somewhat dubious. No, we're not going to drink poisoned kool-aid if Stephen Hawking tells us to.

    Part of the reason I don't think I'm cut out to be a scientist is because I don't have an open enough mind. When we did tests in Micro lab to determine whether an organism could produce catalase, I would see a color and say, "This one can definitely do it!" Then my lab proctor would walk over, sigh, and say, "You mean that it has a presumptive positive for catalase production."

    I didn't get the difference, really.

    I'm just not patient enough to do a bunch of tests and then NOT sound like I know everything when it's over. Kudos to those who can.


    -Sam

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:02 AM  

  • Hi Kim,

    Have you had a chance to read up much on the philosophy of science? It seems like a subject you'd enjoy if you haven't already approached it directly. I suggest Karl Popper as a good place to start, I think you'd find his works clarify and encapsulate a lot of the thoughts you're having. Of course, I'm also a big fan of Descartes and David Hume. Give em a whirl, philosophy is fun.

    By Blogger Nathan, at 6:32 PM  

  • How do dragons become real through the "lens of anthropology and myth?" Either there's physical evidence of their existence or there's not.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:27 PM  

  • Anonymous- To an anthropologist, the historical writings of a culture are proof enough. You are suggesting there needs to be evidence that can be universally agreed upon, which is a different way of looking at things. As a biologist, I would personally prefer to see the fossils before I believe, but I also understand that my training and profession is strongly influencing this view of reality.

    By Blogger Kim Russo, at 1:18 PM  

  • It's not open to perspective whether or not a mythical creature literally walked the earth at some time. That's not the difference between anthropologists and biologists, that's the difference between scholars/scientists and David Icke.

    If you're splitting hairs over what people might have called a dragon and what would now be called a dinosaur then that's a different story, and objective truth is elusive. But you seem to be saying one idea is as valid as another regardless of whether it's informed by the facts, just because it might fall outside your own philosophy.

    Obviously it's not a scientist's job to declare the unknown as impossible - quite the opposite - but there's a lot of room between dogma and a lack of responsible inquiry. You want real-life dragons? Prove it. You want a world-wide flood, a man on a boat with every animal on earth including dinosaurs, and the god that made it happen? Show me. You want to believe in a god that exists beyond the scope of human comprehension without a need for evidence? Can't touch you, just don't run around telling the kids the fossils were put there by Satan or anything, or you're picking a fight.

    For reading on the philosophy of science, you can't go wrong starting with Carl Sagan, especially when it comes to its relationship to spirituality.

    Sorry if this comes off as pedantic. Everything else is pretty much spot-on. The dragon-relativism thing just seems like a bizarre non sequitur in an otherwise eloquent post on science and theology.

    -Then how do you explain all the dead unicorns?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:40 PM  

  • Anonymous-
    Perhaps reality is not subjective (although some could argue it is), but perception certainly is. Our perception is limited by technology and by the evidence we can gather.

    As a pragmatist, I follow interpretations of reality that work toward problem solving--and so induction and the scientific method prove most useful to me as they are predictive.

    At the same time, I realize that the sciences I entrust arose from mystical, pseudoscientific practices (chemistry from alchemy, medical science from healing and herbalism). Such practices are often the budding basis for novel sciences and discovery, our technology just has not caught up yet to make the scientific method applicable.

    That is why I wont fully discount religion, mysticism, or the pseudosciences when they concern matters to which empiricism cannot yet be applied, not because I have any interest in denying the truths imparted to us through the scientific method, such as suggesting that Noah's Arc existed.

    Like you, I will lean toward the view of reality which the most scientific disciplines can agree upon (eg: Noah's Arc is found in mythology, but is discounted by our knowledge of evolution, genomics, and geology, so I would put more weight in the notion that such a craft did not in fact exist, or perhaps a more minor version did that was taken to epic proportions fr the sake of good story telling)

    By Blogger Kim Russo, at 1:33 PM  

  • Don't forget that indirect observation and inference are valid in scientific inquiry. Since we can measure human experience (fMRI) it's likely we'll eventually be able to measure very precisely the impact of any possible interaction on that experience.

    If there is anything in the universe that by definition can not be observed, then, since we can measure human experience, such a thing could not possibly have an impact on human experience. And if we can't know anything about it, then any decision we might make about such a thing would be, by definition, utter conjecture. To allow such a belief to affect a decision would be irresponsible.

    BTW, it's OK not to believe.

    By Blogger Richard, at 11:32 PM  

  • (Not meant as a posted comment, just a personal note.)

    Don't forget Richard Dawkins either, if you're not already familiar with him.
    You might like him better than Sagan, being a biologist yourself, though he is a bit more hard-nosed.

    Fairly relevant to the topic at hand:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1APOxsp1VFw

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:51 PM  

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