The Value and Limits of Science

A bit of background

On the recent Field and Field four-day course (June 8th – 11th 2019), Iain McGilchrist discussed key ideas from his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, talking for an hour on each. For the most part these talks were familiar as I have attended this course before.

  • Introduction to the Hemispheres
  • Brain Disorders of the Hemispheres
  • What is Language For?
  • Are we Becoming Machines?
  • What Does it Mean to Think?
  • The Power of No

I have blogged about these topics after attending previous courses.  See my page on The Divided Brain, on this blog.

But Iain is now writing a new book which will have the title (proposed, but not yet confirmed) – “The Matter With Things”. It was good to get this update, as on the last course I attended we were told that the title of the book would be There are no Things. I think Iain feels that his philosophical position is clearer with the newer title. This new book will argue against reductionism and materialism and for betweenness.

In the second part of this new book, which Iain is still working on, he will discuss what he told us are the four main paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He stressed that we need all four, but that intuition and imagination have been downgraded in favour of science and reason, a result of left hemisphere dominance. So we were very fortunate to hear five one hour talks about these most recent ideas.

  • The Value and Limits of Science
  • The Value and Limits of Reason
  • The Values and Limits of Intuition
  • The Value and Limits of Imagination
  • Everything Flows

The value and limits of science  (These are the notes from Iain’s talk. Any errors are mine and I do not at all mind being corrected in the comments).

Collingwood wrote: Science and metaphysics are inextricably united, and stand or fall together.

And Heidegger wrote: Science does not think, science does not venture in the realm of philosophy. It is a realm, however, on which without her knowing it, she is dependent. (translated from the original by Iain McGilchrist)

(I cannot find these quotes online to verify them, and I learned on this course that my note-taking has slowed down, so I am not absolutely sure of their accuracy, but, as written, they provide the gist of Iain’s argument. For more on this, see the Update – 17-06-19 – at the end of this post.)

The word science simply means knowledge. We need science, but we rely too much on the left hemisphere. Public science is different to what good science is telling us.

The two hemispheres find two different worlds. Objectivity is not about what is out there. There isn’t a thing out there that we can know. Things only come into being through interaction with our consciousness. The more you dig into a tiny hole, the less you can see the whole. So the question is: What constitutes evidence in life? The ‘howness’ of the ‘what‘ matters a lot. Objectivity is a ‘howness’ – a disposition towards the world. You try to be just and truthful, to bring an understanding. This reminded me of the work of Gayle Letherby et al. on Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research .

There are no things that are not unique. How does science cope with this? In science when we say we understand something, we are comparing it to something else. Everything is built on analogy.

Science is not chaste (pure and virtuous). It starts from certain axioms/assumptions, e.g. the world is fully comprehensible physically. This is an unlikely but reasonable assumption. But why do we want to understand the physical?  Iain thinks this is related to ‘the matter with things’, the title of his new book, so I expect we will learn more about this when the new book is published (hopefully by the end of 2020).

Science is reluctant to accept anything that can’t be measured. It is based on a false dichotomy between facts and value. There is always a value involved in seeking any kind of truth. We try to rise to meet this through objectivity. Many things in science can’t be separated from value, but there is value involved in appreciating what is a fact.

Problems with science

There are 3 problems with science

  • Intrinsic problems built on assumptions
  • Problems of the model of the machine
  • Institutional problems – the way science promulgates what it is doing

Intrinsic problems built on assumptions

There is no one truth, only more or less truth, but we must be loyal and faithful to truth. (See Where Can we go for Truth? for more of Iain’s thoughts on truth). So how do we decide which questions are worth asking?

Values, judgement and insights are very important in science. Great scientists allow ideas to incubate for a long time. Science eliminates the idea of purpose. This is a tenet of science; there is no purpose to science. Science cannot address things like love or an understanding of God. We can see these in operation, but they cannot be explained by science. But science is teleological – things happen for a reason, although the value of reason itself can’t be reasoned.

An example of a problem built on assumptions is DNA. DNA is not a building block; there is just not enough information in DNA. DNA is a resource from which the cell can draw. It is not a script. Only 2% of it expresses anything. Quarter of a million new neurones a minute are developed in the brain. We cannot get this from a linear script. The genome is not the answer.

Problems of the model of the machine

We are not machines. A machine can be switched off, but life is constant and cannot be switched off. A machine operates close to equilibrium; you have to put energy in to make it change. Life is the exact opposite. It is always changing, but how does it remain stable enough to keep going better? Through homeostasis. Human beings and living things change. Natural selection is the thing that stops change, it doesn’t cause change.

Organisms are not on/off. They involve inconceivably complex reactions to maintain stability between motion and stasis. They are non-linear, action is not one-way as in machines. The parts of organisms themselves are changing. This doesn’t happen in machines. The genome restructures itself all the time. DNA is not the robot master. The same genes can give rise to different effects, e.g. Pax6 gives rise to different eyes in the fly, the frog and humans. Some animals can regenerate parts of their body. If you cut off the head of a nematode worm, it will grow a new head with the same memories. Living organisms are not machines. The instructions for life are within the organism.

See also a previous post – The Human Versus the Machine 

Institutional problems

Science is carried out by normal people with egos etc. Fashions of thinking dominate. Science depends on results, safety, conformity, narrowness. There are many dogmas that can’t be broken.

Scientists are expected to publish or perish. This is destructive to morale. Scientists are rated on the number of papers they can churn out, but they need fallow periods, and they can get caught up in administration, particularly if they get promoted.

Lots of science papers need to be retracted, because they have been made up. And Ceci and Peters’ research raised doubts about the reliability of the peer- review process.

Scientists are also subject to predatory journals to the extent that Jeremy Beale published a list of journals which researchers should avoid.

Truth matters, but these problems with science show that finding out what is true is more difficult. We need more replication work. The amount of replication work is very low.

Why is truth important? We are here to engage with the world. If it is pointless why go with truth?

Update (17-06-19) re the Heidegger quotes (with thanks to Iain McGilchrist for this information)

The first part, » Die Wissenschaft denkt nicht «, is originally from page 4 of Heidegger’s Was heißt denken?, the version of his lectures given in Freiburg in 1951-2 published by Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen (1954), and later translated into English by FD Wick & JG Gray as What is Called Thinking?(Harper & Row, 1968).  Heidegger then repeated it in a conversation with his pupil the German philosopher Richard Wisser on the 17th September 1969, in which he follows it by another phrase in explanation, thus: » Und dieser Satz: die Wissenschaft denkt nicht, der viel Aufsehen erregte, als ich ihn in einer Freiburger Vorlesung aussprach, bedeutet: Die Wissenschaft bewegt sich nicht in der Dimension der Philosophie. Sie ist aber, ohne daß sie es weiß, auf diese Dimension angewiesen «. In H Heidegger (ed), Martin Heidegger: Gesamtausgabe, Part One, Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976, vol 16, Reden und Andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges, Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 2000, 702-710 (705).

Exploring the Divided Brain – Where can we go for truth?

21st August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 3 (am)

This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

 

Where can we go for truth? (Some thoughts about the question of what constitutes truth)

I think this may have been a repeat of the Laing Lecture that Iain gave earlier in the year at Regent College in Vancouver. It bore the same title. I can’t find a video recording of that lecture, but the introductory text on the web page  is …

How do we think about truth? Where do we go to find it? While science and reason have undeniable power to disclose many aspects of reality, they do not reveal everything. In this lecture, Iain McGilchrist explains why we cannot rely only on the reports of science or the power of rational argument and demonstrates that it is both unscientific and irrational to do so.

… and these were the same topics and questions that Iain covered in our session.

How do we think about truth? Iain’s answer was that if there is a God (and for him God is a process, an eternal becoming) then how can we stop ourselves thinking about truth, but he believes there is no definitive answer to this question.

On reflection I wonder if underpinning all Iain’s work is a search for an understanding of the meaning of ‘God’ (and here I use the word ‘God’ for want of an alternative). As he writes on p.150 of the Master and his Emissary, ‘Things are not whatever we care to make them. There is something that exists apart from our own minds’… and on p.151, he writes, ‘[Truth]is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together.’

For the left hemisphere where understanding is built up from parts, there is objective evidence for truth, but for the right hemisphere, truth is derived from the whole and can only ever be provisional (p.142, The Master and his Emissary).

Where shall we go for truth? Iain suggested that we go to the beauty and awe-inspiring magic of the non-academic, non-religious natural world, where opposites tend to coincide as much as disperse and where intuition and insight is more directly compelling than reason. Reason, he said, is the endless paperwork of the mind, but for truth uncertainty is essential.

We cannot go to science for truth. Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Iain quoted Edmund Burke as saying – ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’, and Rabindranath Tagore:

Tagore

Source of image

Truth is not a proposition but a disposition towards the world. It is related to trust and what one believes. Belief is not signing up to a proposition but about a relationship. Truth and belief used to be embodied. We can’t passively wait for them. We have to make a move to meet them. There is no fail-safe path to truth.

Iain believes that truth has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. He mentioned but disagreed with Pascal’s wager. Pascal proposed that whether or not there is a God, we should live our lives as though there is one – just to be on the safe side! Iain believes truth is a moral value, like beauty and goodness. It is not a human convention. There will be truth when we are no longer around to see it. The pursuit of truth is greater than the possession of truth. Potential is greater than actuality.

Personal Reflection

I don’t remember God being mentioned on last year’s course as much as on this year’s course and it was interesting to hear Iain describe briefly what ‘God’ means to him. There was virtually no explicit reference to religion during the course. It seemed to me that the word ‘God’ was being used to identify or name ideas for which there is no adequate universally agreed explanation.

Reflecting on this session I remember that I have, in the past, done my fair share of searching for answers to the question of what is life all about and thinking that there must be more to it than all this. I was a child of the 60s (actually I wasn’t a child, I was already in my twenties), so I followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, owned a copy of the I Ching and practised meditation, before becoming dissatisfied and moving on to ‘religion’ (Christianity), with which, after a few year, I became equally dissatisfied.

I also remember that in the 90s when doing an MA in Education I read and wrote about the meaning of truth in relation to an assignment on research methods. On digging out this assignment, I find it includes these quotes:

‘No finitely describable system, or finite language, can prove all truths. Truth cannot fully be caught in a finite net’ (Nagel & Newman quoting Godel’s Theorem, 1959).

‘… there can be many points of view, or many faces of truth, some even mutually contradictory, and yet all equally real in the potential sense …’ (Zohar & Marshall, 1994).

So on reflection I can see that questions about truth have accompanied my life since my twenties and maybe even before, which perhaps explains my interest in Iain McGilchrist’s work and why it resonates. Having said that, what I like about Iain’s work is that whilst it makes reference to spirituality, it is more about how the right and left hemispheres view the world than about ‘God’ or religion. As he writes in The Master and his Emissary (p.92)

‘There is not likely to be ‘a God spot’ in the brain, and the area is fraught with problems of terminology and methodology: but there are areas that are often implicated as accompaniments of religious experience.‘

It’s not religion, but the idea of being able to see the ‘big picture’ and what it means to have an open mind that intrigues me.

 

Authors/people referred to during the session

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Sir William Empson (1930). Seven Types of Ambiguity

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Edmund Burke 

Rabindranath Tagore

 

Authors/philosophers who have most influenced Iain’s thinking

Of most interest for Iain is Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

Heidegger (1889-1976) – a struggle but a revelation

Hegel (1770-1831) – also a struggle but a revelation

The early and late phases of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work (1889-1951)

Friedrich Nietzsche  (1844-1900)

Scheler (1874-1928) – difficult

Mary Midgley – a modern philosopher – born 1919

John Cutting – psychiatrist and author

Louis Sass (1994) Madness and Modernism. Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought. Harvard University Press.

The work of A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) on God and the Cosmos

‘We’ – my Facebook page and me

Elise Andrew, whose Facebook page ‘I F**king Love Science‘  is followed by over 1.7 million, recently shocked her fans by revealing her gender through posting a photo of herself on Twitter.

Here she talks to CBS This Morning about this reaction and with Michio Kaku discusses sexism in the field of science.

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50143686n

Her fans’ reaction is surprising on two counts:

  1. That her Facebook followers had failed to notice her gender, despite the fact that her name is posted on her FB page.  Perhaps Elise is not a familiar name.
  2. That the stereotypical image of a scientist as being male, wearing a white lab coat, having a ‘mad’ appearance – fuzzy grey hair, glasses and the like – and being surrounded by test tubes, bunsen burners, tripods, flasks and the like, is still so resistant to change and updating.

Many children still draw scientists in this image, despite many years of trying to break down this stereotype, dating from  Chambers’ Draw a Scientist Test in 1983

 

What I found most interesting about Elise’s CBS This Morning video was that when asked what the future might hold for her, she replied

Elise: We’ve had people talk to us about TV shows and about books…..

Interviewer: When you say ‘We” who do you mean?

Elise: When I say ‘We’, I mean the Facebook page …… me and my Facebook page…

This is fascinating.  This implies that Elise thinks of her Facebook page as a collaborative effort, a community, despite the fact that she runs it alone. Elise’s Facebook page appears to be ‘open’ to anyone.  Or maybe for her, her Facebook page has a life of it’s own.

But what else does it tell us about how people use social media, or why some people gather such a large following.

In the case of Elise Andrew perhaps the factors contributing to this are her

  • undeniable and contagious enthusiasm for her subject
  • apparent lack of ego evidenced by her surprise by all the fuss
  • knowledge of her subject and of reputable scientists, i.e. her connections
  • communication skills

… all of which come across in this interview:  Elise Andrew on why she loves science

Thanks to Sui Fai John Mak for posting a link to the CBS News video on his Facebook Page.