So, I was in a common area of the college I work at. Two students and a faculty member were discussing philosophy. (My apologies for being a horrible eaves-dropper.) The discussion inevitably included references to Star Trek: The Next Generation and whether or not Data had a consciousness – not, of course, whether or not the writers envisioned him as having one or whether or not Brent Spiner was attempting to act as though the character didn’t – but if a mechanical creation could have it, regardless of how complex that machine was. It’s an interesting question, I suppose. It reminded me of this:
The conversation involved whether or not various ideas by various philosophers (that I am not familiar with) violated principles such as the conservation of mass/energy, this was coupled to a positive assertion that the “laws of physics” don’t change in time.
This opens up an issue that I think about quite often, since my background is in physics. For full disclosure, my background is not in theoretical physics nor to I have a PhD. I’m just a happy button-monkey who teaches introductory physics classes, and has soft spots for microscopy and acoustics. The very basic concept though, of using science as a window into philosophy is something I have some business discussing.
Here is the idea: Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, science (even the most fundamental laws) by it’s nature does not tell us what ought to be only what appears to be. It’s observing and making sense of what we have observed; creating models that appear to be predictive. We only think that the conservation of mass/energy is reasonable, because we have evidence to support the idea and no strong counter-examples to dismiss the idea. We only entertain the notion that nature does not change fundamentally with time, because it would be inconvenient if it did and we have little evidence that it does (at least right now).
One activity of experimental physicists is to study “violations” of “laws”. Many times these experiments simply find out how certain we are about the patterns we see. We add significant figures to our measurements and length to our ranges and greater certainty of applicability within the confines of what is currently practically observable – but always fail to “prove” our models as universal, eternal, or true.
I realize that using scientific principles to drive philosophy is not the same as using science as a prescription, or imposing “science” on ethics or behavior. Any examples I can think of are, by nature, pseudo-scientific. For example, some people have used the concept of “natural law” to oppress and demonize sexual minorities. This is ludicrous on two levels if you think of “natural law” as coming from science: 1) As mentioned before, science does not tell us what ought to be only what appears to be, and 2) The current science starkly conflicts with many statements of “fact” that are usually used to justify the oppression and demonization of sexual minorities on “biological” or “psychological” grounds.
More fundamentally, the concept that the “law of physics” (for example) govern the universe, instead of the other way around, is pretty popular. Although, to be fair, most creation-science groups have stopped using the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an argument against evolution, it was pretty popular for a while. The idea is that evolution violates the Second Law because it asserts that more complex things came from less complex things; that structure somehow spontaneously erupted and that just CANNOT happen because of the Laws of Thermodynamics. The idea was pretty popular, until enough people picked up on it; using it as a prime example of how creation-scientists misrepresent science, since the argument hinges on the absence of the sun, not to mention geothermal energy, and is really easy to make fun of. (If only there was a gigantic, practically inexhaustible, energy source bathing the earth with high quality electromagnetic radiation and decreasing the entropy of the earth’s systems through differential heating! Oh wait…)
The implications go beyond bad science however. The argument was that evolution CANNOT happen because of the Laws of Thermodynamics. This sets up physicists as gods. Apparently we decide what can and cannot happen in the universe?! Besides simply debunking the argument on the grounds that it doesn’t make any sense scientifically AT ALL because evolution does not violate the Laws of Thermodynamics; a more thorough refutation includes the idea that the Laws of Thermodynamics simply doesn’t matter. Evolution can be observed. It is backed with observational evidence. If the Laws of Thermodynamics and The Theory of Evolution actually conflicted, it would not be evolution that would be in jeopardy but the assumed universality of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The laws themselves – our models of the universe – have no power (at least we like to think they don’t).
So what about using physics as a basis for philosophy? Does it make sense to throw out “Newtonian” determinism in the light of “Heisenbergian” probability distributions? Does it make sense to use Conservation Laws to evaluate philosophical constructs and arguments?
The scientific method, methodological naturalism, and Occam’s razor define modern science. It is a powerful “way of knowing” – or at least, a way of creating the best models of natural behaviors to make the best predictions. In a nutshell, what scientists do, is create models based on existing evidence and then obtain additional evidence to either support of falsify aspects of those models in an effort to uncover weaknesses to drive meaningful revisions. Essentially, we attempt to prove ourselves wrong. We search for violations of our own “laws” and “principles”.
In testing, we usually end up gathering more evidence in support of well-accepted theories. That’s why they are “well-accepted”. However, if we start to assume we are correct – all the sudden science stops. If we forget that our task is to test and not just to support, we become scientists prone to confirmation bias at best and quacks with pet theories at worst.
In this context, asserting that an idea CANNOT be true based on scientific principles, laws or theories – seems undesirable. It’s simply weird to use scientific principles as philosophical assumptions when, philosophically, scientists try desperately not to assume those principles are universal, eternal, or true. We certainly know that, throughout the young history of modern science, well-accepted models contained deeply divergent philosophical implications. The danger of misusing science as a means to bolster otherwise philosophically painful stances, while arguably based on “bad science” and not applicable here, looms with such brilliant awfulness that it casts a shadow on the conversation as well.
Enter Sam Harris:
My knee-jerk reaction, due to how he framed the whole conversation, was to be incredibly pissed. I have not read his book, and perhaps if I did I would understand his position better. I also toned down my pissed when I watched the talk again, and tried to give him the benefit of careful listening. The reason for the initial pissed-ness? I routinely teach my students that science is not prescriptive, but descriptive – I mean, I feel so strongly about it that I would be likely to blog about it. (Ha.) I see this distinction as a way to ease some of the anti-science sentiment creeping into American culture and politics – and I wasn’t keen on Sam Harris making it more difficult when I attempt to explain that science is apart from what “ought” to be the case, how someone “ought” to act, that evolutionary theory was not responsible for the holocaust…as well as, making me a liar every time I asserted that atheists do not use science as a religion.
Science cannot tell you that it is good to attempt to reduce suffering or that it is wrong to take away the autonomy of others or that genocide is wrong. It can’t do that. It can’t tell you if forcing women to cover is wrong, or if banning burqas is justified, or if allowing women to run around naked without fear of societal condemnation is awesome. Can we use scientific methods to attempt to figure out what the psychological or sociological effects of various attitudes, actions and policies are? Sure – and it appears that Sam Harris actually stops there, but that isn’t science telling us anything about moral decisions, it’s just science helping us gather information.
Can it tell you how to weigh that information, such as balancing the well-being of the majority and the few? Can the fact that scientific methods are used assure the applicability of those results to all situations and to all people for all time?
To assume that specific scientific principles are “true” for sake of argument or for the creation of theory based on those assumptions – with full understanding of the limitations of science – can be pretty fruitful, I realize. Without the “thought-experiments” Einstein is well-known for, we may not understand the universe as well as we currently do. I get it. Certainly, the original over-heard conversation between a couple students and a college philosophy professor was in that category. It might seem a bit alien to me, a little strange, but I do not maintain a stance against it.
In contrast, to pretend that science can give you answers when it simply can’t…is not good. How did I decide that it wasn’t “good”? Trust me, I didn’t use the scientific method and I am not currently devising an experiment to test my hypothesis concerning the “wrongness” of it and expecting my data collection and analysis to either support or falsify that “wrongness”.