It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned scientism, nor the first time I’ve written specifically with this topic in my title. However, scientism rang positive bells with several of the audience the other night. My slides included this early bullet:
- My Sceptical Position is For “Science and Rationality”
But against “Scientism”, the narrow dogma – or accidental arrogance – that science with objective logic is the privileged answer to anything and everything that matters.
What follows elaborates on that, so let’s start with:
Treating science as …
… the knowledge, explanation and understanding of the natural world, including humanity within it
and that …
… the thing that distinguishes science from any other rational considerations, the thing that science alone brings to the party, is the repeatable empirical falsifiability of hypotheses suggested by theory, independent of subjective context.
(Note that none of this traditional Popperian definition limits the scope, nature, content or processes of the theories of science themselves nor of their creation, development, evolution, explanation of theory or models, nor any metaphorical representation exemplifying such models. The progress of natural understanding progresses on many fronts in many interacting disciplines, many of which may claim to be scientific in terms of the narrow definition, but the whole endeavour progresses on the broader imaginatively rational basis, science included. See also skdh.)
Given that, my position is that science explains:
Potentially, anything, eventually,
Necessarily, everything, now.
The only practical limits to anything and everything in the long run are (say) Wittgenstein and Gödel. That is, sharing that knowledge between humans will always involve symbolic language, lexical or visual, and reducing such a description to some formal logical language will limit the former but never fully resolve its own bootstrapping; its own definition based on some axiomatic premise. Some sort of “first cause”. There is always this minimum representational difference between the actual real world, and our model or theories of it, and our (subjective) grasp of it, empirical or intellectual.
But, as well as this residual gap, there are of course many more gaps and unresolved mysteries here and now in our real world. And, the closer such mysteries are to aspects considered fundamental to our model, the more such mysteries might run through more accepted understanding of otherwise uncontentious levels of our physical world model.
You might argue that the residual gap – the one(s) that forever elude(s) natural explanation – can quite harmlessly be considered god-like. It is after all supernatural, by definition here. A god of the primary gap. Seriously, who cares?
But that is a million miles from, absolutely no reason for, falling back on a “god of the gaps” supernatural explanation of the current mysteries and gaps within nature. I prefer to handle these as the humanity of the gaps.
Whatever we call them we need to deal with gaps in scientific knowledge here and now in our lives and in the politics of how we govern our lives collectively. Working to plug the gaps by extending models, or finding falsifiable hypotheses or other evidence to support applying existing models, is obviously part of our response to dealing with it. But life cannot be placed on hold whilst we wait for that happen, however much priority and resource we give to it. Here and now we must apply our humanity to the gaps. What certainty can we attach to evidence of what we do or don’t know, and it’s relevance to a given life decision. Popper, again, said all life is problem-solving.
And at this point it’s very important to recognise the nature of the gaps. Remember our working model is affected by gaps that may apply very locally in the theory, but which run through many otherwise non-contentious aspects in practice now.
When assembling relevant evidence and marshalling our rational resources to address an argument as part of such a life decision we need to remember that the whole model is imperfect, even though only small parts may be currently accepted as unknown or mysterious. It is too greedy to reduce the whole argument to only those parts where scientifically objective evidence can be brought to bear directly or by logical inference indirectly on well-defined objects, unless that inference also includes proper understanding of the risks of ignoring human subjective involvement. We all individually have skin in this collective game.
And for the benefit of true science the danger is to dogmatically deny, or to ignore the significance of, the gaps we deal with on a subjective level in real life. After all, in the eponymous title of the conference, itself after the lyric of Leonard Cohen:
There’s a crack, a crack in everything.
It’s how the light gets in.