The Arrogant Humility of Scientific Inquiry (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on 2012/02/25

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During my time teaching and speaking about physics, I have often met replies which speak of the ‘arrogance of science’. I presume this sometimes refers to particular scientists. This is doubtlessly the case, and I could name a few candidates.

However, a more insidious accusation is that, somehow, the whole enterprise of scientific investigation is arrogant, and is unable to know that which it is supposed to claim. This view is held by a variety of different groups.

For example, the moral commitments of many religious people, and the miracles they profess to strengthen their faith, are often criticized or denied by scientific research. Of course, they respond by charging scientists with ‘arrogance’, and this is often interlaced with a charge of ‘arrogant atheism’ as well.

Then there are those groups who have commitments to philosophical views on free will or consciousness. This group often includes many of the religious. In addition are are the ‘psi advocates’ (who I have critiqued here), who often suppose a form of Cartesian Dualism, and cry ‘arrogance’ if any scientist deviates from their favorite speculation.

Lastly we have the group who just simply deny that scientific inquiry could ever achieve a complete description of the world, and uses this apparent humble doubt to strengthen the credibility of reports of ghosts and other apparitions. The sort of people who’s favourite quote is Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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From what I have seen, there are four main types of complaint. I list them in increasing order of misunderstanding.

‘It is arrogant to suppose that…

  1. …there are rules to the universe.’
  2. …we can know the rules of the universe.’
  3. …we can deny miracles.’
  4. …there are rules to the universe which are extend throughout time and space.’

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(1) I have written about this in my previous article ‘An Inbetween Universe’, however this idea is so frequently misunderstood, it seems to require constant emphasis and repetition.

Scientific inquiry need not presume there are rules in order for the inquiry to be achievable. We could still try to guess rules, even if there weren’t any at all and the universe were a bewildering white noise.

However, scientists might guess that there are objective rules, independent of scientific inquiry, given their collective success.

The important thing to say is that we do not know there are rules to the universe in the commonly supposed sense of know. We have our own guesses (the laws of physics), but we can’t know if the universe actually has rules (whatever that may mean).

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(2) On the subject of the definition of ‘knowledge’, the philosopher David Miller puts it well when he writes:

“…what we call scientific knowledge simply is not knowledge in the philosophers’ sense of being justified, or supported with good reasons. If it is knowledge at all, it is conjectural knowledge. Perhaps critical rationalists (as Popper and those who follow him describe themselves) are guilty of changing the meaning of the word ‘knowledge’… Whatever else scientific knowledge is, it is not justified.

No one who understands critical rationalism could imagine that critical rationalists have been secretive about this; it is one of our principle contentions that human knowledge is always unjustified and unjustifiable, and one of our principal problems to explain how nonetheless it can develop and improve, and how skepticism can be kept at bay.”[1]

We – well, critical rationalists at least – do not suppose that we can know the rules of the universe, in the sense that they are certain. We can only conjecture rules and attempt to classify them as false by seeking refutations – instances when they are contradicted by the occurrences of the world.

This is a view that recognizes the problem of induction, as formulated by the philosopher David Hume. If we conjecture universal hypothesis – guesses that speak of an infinite number of occurrences – we can never prove (or justify, or make more probable) these guesses with a finite number of observations.

Since the condition of being human seems to include being limited and finite, we must conclude that we can never prove universal hypotheses to be true. Accepting Hume’s problem of induction is to accept the human condition.

Popper cites that Xenophanes provided the most concise summary of all this (Popper’s translation):

‘The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us; but in the course of time,
Through seeking we may learn, and know things better.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
And even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it;
For all is but a woven web of guesses’[2]

It is worth noting that in the first three lines, ‘Xenophanes formulates what may be called his license to search.’ It is a recognition that we need to work for knowledge of the objective world. It is not innate, nor immaculately conceived.

After his translation, Popper enumerates the key elements of Xenophanes theory of knowledge, which might well also serve as a summary of Popper’s own work:

  1. Our knowledge consists of statements
  2. Statements are either true or false
  3. Truth is objective. It is the correspondence of the content of a statement with the facts.
  4. Even when we express the most perfect truth, we cannot know this – that is, we cannot know it with certainty. We can never have sufficient reasons.
  5. Since ‘knowledge’ in the usual sense of the word is ‘certain knowledge’, there can be no knowledge. There can only be conjectural knowledge: ‘for all is but a woven web of guesses’.
  6. But in our conjectural knowledge there can be progress to something better.
  7. Better knowledge is a better approximation to the truth.
  8. But it always remains conjectural – a web of guesses.[3]
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(3) If you accept the response to (1) & (2), then it is clear we do not, and have never had, certain knowledge that we possess the rules of the universe. Indeed, the many moments in history where we have been shown to be incorrect about the universe is an indication (although not a proof) that we do not possess a complete picture of the universe today.

Therefore, denying the possibility of miracles is simply a recognition that we don’t know when a Law of Nature has been violated, because we don’t know what the Laws of Nature are! I have written more about this here. This isn’t to deny the physical possibility of miracles (whatever that may mean), but to deny the possibility of knowing (either with certainty or high probability) when one has occurred.

Turning the accusation around, we might charge those who cry ‘miracle!’ with arrogance, as they are claiming to know, with certainty, when a Law of Nature has been broken.

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Conclusions

I’ll leave my reply to (4), which is rather lengthy, for the next post.

To summarize what has come so far:

  • We can’t be certain if there are rules to the universe.
  • We can’t be certain if we have the correct rules (even if we did have them).
  • Therefore, we can’t sensibly claim to know when a rule has been broken, and any claim to a miracle can be no more than a guess.

References

[1] Miller, David (1994) ‘Critical Rationalism: A Restatement and Defense’ Peru, IL: Open Court pp 53-54

[2] Popper, Karl R (1972) ‘Conjectures and Refutations’ London: Routledge & Kegan Paul LTD p 26

[The first three lines derive from B18 and the last six from B34]

[3] Popper, Karl R (1998) ‘The World of Parmenides’ Routledge pp 48-49