Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | March 3, 2010

Almighty Test Tubes

We are taking our sciences too far. Our test tubes are becoming almighty.

I don’t mean that we are exploring matters that should be taboo or that we should curtail our scientific efforts. Far from it. Nor do I believe in limiting science by imposing a separation between it and non-scientific fields, such as those that deal with human meaning like philosophy, religion, the arts, spirituality, etc. Spirituality and science should not become our new Church and State.

I say let scientists have at it! They haven’t gone nearly far enough. Let them figure out the “neural basis of spirituality.” (See a news report or an abstract of a clinical study.) Doing so should not pose a threat to anyone or anything. Learning how something works does not explain why it works or why it’s important that it works, unless we decide beforehand that “why” can be reduced to an elaborate “how.” (By the way, that’s a philosophical decision that cannot be addressed by science or supported by evidence.) To the extent that science and other fields of knowledge are explorations of truth conducted in good faith, we don’t need the checks and balances between them that we require in order to ensure sanity and safety in other quagmires of human behavior, like politics for example.

So what is “too far” and in what way are we taking science there? We’ve gone too far in our expectations of science. We’ve come to expect that science should do things that it was deliberately designed to prevent. I’ll explain.

The scientific method is a disciplined form of self-imposed dumbness. The scientific method takes what humanity has for millennia called “beliefs” and instead calls them “hypotheses.” Hypotheses must be tested, and test results must either confirm or deny our hypotheses. If test results are inconclusive, it just forces us to test some more. The scientific method tells us, so to speak, “Even if you are absolutely sure that something is true, you must act as if you don’t know it.” We’re supposed to act dumb, dumber than in our heart of hearts we believe that we really are.

The scientific method demands that we open the obvious to question and testing, and then that we consider the test results without bias before coming to conclusions about our hypotheses. The “dumbness” involved is not a side effect or accident of the scientific method; self-imposed “dumbness” is the main point of the scientific method. The “dumbness” eliminates bias. The scientific method has been a great way to eliminate bias from our knowledge about the universe. It would actually do a lot of good if we applied the scientific method to some our systems of human value, like religion for example.

None of that is a problem. The problem is that we’ve flipped the logic of the scientific method backwards and are letting it kick us in the behind. We’ve come to think that unless we treat our beliefs as hypotheses and test them and confirm them, then we have no right to believe them. It’s as if we decided that being dumb about scientific hypotheses worked so well, we might as well be dumb about every other matter in life.

What about “faith?” We can, of course, invoke “faith” as our right to believe this or that. This only confirms that we have let scientific thinking kick our convictional butts. “Faith” is the quintessentially undemonstrable right to believe whatever we choose. Seeing “faith” as our only resort for certainty beyond the reach of science shows that we see the situation as an either-or: science or faith. If you have one, you don’t need the other. I don’t like either-ors. They tend to be tricks to get us to ignore valid alternatives. This either-or would have us believe that beyond the leading edge of demonstrable “scientific fact” (ugh, not even scientists like that term) lies a wilderness of scientific uncertainty in which we either invoke “faith” or roll dice until science catches up.

The catch? We make decisions and live out the most important parts of our lives in that wilderness. The veritable whirlwind of conflicting scientific claims that we have created for ourselves only aggravates our feeling that we wander a jungle of competing claims with no clear path. We have left ourselves wondering, waiting for the next survey or scientific study to help us decide what to eat, what to be, who to marry, how to please our partner, how to raise our children, and what really happens when we die. No wonder some of us resort to “faith.”

If you think that I’m being melodramatic, just consider what you will (or did) tell your children when they come (or came) to you asking, “How do I know when I am in love?” or, “How do I know if she/he is the right one?” Oh, well, that. “That’s not a matter for science!” Exactly. If we don’t know how to answer questions like that, what exactly do we think that we do know, and what does it really matter?

The irony is that this tangled mess of uncertainty is the result of our pursuit of certainty, in part through science. The scientific method doesn’t allow us certainty about anything that hasn’t been tested and confirmed. Until we can scientifically confirm something, the scientific method expects us to act dumb about it. That’s just fine for scientific investigation. What isn’t fine is dumbly carrying that dumbness over into other areas of life, abandoning reasonable alternatives for achieving certainty, leaving “faith” as our only option.

Of course, this dumbness is poppycock. No one actually lives by it, not even scientists. We would all be much more humble if we did. We live in a myriad of ways and do a million things apart from the deliberate dumb-down of the scientific method. Many of us would do much of our lives over again, just the same way that we did things the first time. Did we get things right because of science?

When we get things right, it’s usually because we know in our heart of hearts what to do. Sometimes we get things wrong in our heart of hearts. Or maybe we get things wrong because we ignore our heart of hearts and listen to something else instead. We regret some of what we did and wish that we could do it over. Getting important things right and regretting what we did wrong have little to do with science, nor could science do much to improve the situation. We make decisions, attend to each other, fall in love, get married, have babies, raise children, get divorced, hate our exes, do each other harm, and finally face death, (not to mention pay our taxes,) all without hypothesizing, testing, and confirming or denying anything based on scientific results.

If we fall for a girl or a guy, which of us hypothesizes? What kind of test would we devise to confirm or deny our belief that we are in love? Being met with scorn, do we conduct a survey to test our perceptions? Of course, we all do informal testing that we call “validating.” We might check to see if we still feel the same way about the girl or the guy the next morning or the next week. (We don’t usually keep the jury out much longer on that one.) We might ask the scorner if he or she was suffering from indigestion. Validation is not science, but it’s about as far as we go with most things, even really important things. We make our most important decisions and most of our less important decisions using a very unscientific method: the judgment of our heart of hearts. Who would really have it any other way?

The scientific method, designed to eliminate bias, is a terrible way to approach matters of the heart. Bias is why we get involved in matters of the heart in the first place. Take love or hate for example. Consider loyalty, devotion, honor, or any other highly regarded human value. We don’t adopt our passionate convictions about those notions because of dispassionate, “objective” scientific testing. We can’t even describe how science might instruct us in those matters.

The scientific method is a poor way to decide to be altruistic, for example. For that matter, it’s a poor way to decide to not be altruistic. The scientific method would be a great way of deciding whether our notions of altruism and our decisions to be or not to be have certain predictable outcomes. We can test whether predicted outcomes occur in fact. If more believers scientifically tested the outcomes of their claims, they might be less arrogant about them. Less forgetful, too, especially as those dates when the world is going to come to an end keep coming and passing. But that’s right–I forgot. Those are claims of “faith.” Science doesn’t apply. Or so they say.

With sincere respect to all people of faith, one of which I happen to be, science can tell us if our claims are right. That is, science can tell us whether our claims indeed happen as we predict. But science can never tell us whether what happens is a right or wrong or good or a bad thing, because science is not designed for that. Science might one day describe in detail the neurological underpinnings of human values. Put another way, science might explain the neurology of matters of the heart. Science might explain the neurology that makes those matters matter to us. But science can never tell us which values to adopt or how to decide which matters of the heart should matter to us. Science can explain phenomena, but it cannot tell us which phenomena to want or which we should want to want, because what we want and what we believe are biases–precisely what the scientific method was designed to eliminate from its process.

Most people see some level of conflict between science and our need for meaning as evidenced by our investments in relationships, spirituality, religion, philosophy, etc. The real conflict is not what we typically think it is. The real conflict doesn’t arise from mutually antagonistic intents, as if science were trying to undermine human value systems by explaining away their mysteries, or as if human value systems stubbornly insisted on introducing delusional elements into our thinking, corrupting the purity and objectivity that would be ours through unadulterated scientific knowledge. (sic) Such antagonisms might or might not occur at different times in different places, but they are beside the point.

Science and human value systems are merely tools that we use to try to understand, different approaches that we use to figure out the very same thing: navigating life in this universe. The argument between science and human value systems is an argument over which tool is best. It’s like arguing whether a saw is better than a hammer. The best answer is: it all depends on what you’re trying to do.

Scientific knowledge will never completely explain human behavior, because no amount of scientific information could ever substitute for a sincere answer to the question, “Do you want to?” or, “Do you like it?” Science can tell us in scientific terms about the processes that figure into answering those questions and might even explain some day why we are inclined or conditioned to answer them one way rather than another. Our answers to, “Do I want to?” and, “Do you like it?” will always be ours to create each time we actually ask the question at any point. Each of us answers those questions every time we make a decision. Lose or ignore those questions and we become tools, less than human, something closer to glorified, programmable, carbon-based machines.

We need to put the test tubes back where they belong, doing what they were supposed to do: confirm or deny our hypotheses. After all, they are our hypotheses. We made them up. We made up the testing that was supposed to confirm or deny them. It is all our doing. We control it and we can change it, but we forgot our creatorship and have been bowing down to the work of our own hands. After all, sometimes that work sucks. Every technological step that we have taken since the Industrial Revolution was confirmed by the science of its day. (At least we were told that it was, but that opens up a whole other can of worms.) With each decade of the last fifty years bringing its own unique potential for self-annihilation, see how well that has all worked for us?

When our heart of hearts tells us that something must be true or that something cannot be right, we should pay more attention. We don’t have to wait for test tubes to give us the go-ahead, and we can still go ahead even if they tell us not to. They aren’t hooligans with clubs. In retrospect, there were many times when we would have served our interests well by maintaining a healthy skepticism towards “expert” conclusions based on test results. These days, we are coming dangerously close to regarding scientific findings with the wide-eyed, uncritical credulity we associate with true believers for their dogma.

We need to consider what our test tubes tell us, but we also need to remember that they are our test tubes. We made them. We make them tell us what they tell us. We can’t forget that science is a matter of us talking to ourselves. Science is a conversation that we hold with us, enabled by a particular method of seeking certainty. It’s not the only conversation, and it’s not the only method. I realize that there are avid science bigots who insist that it’s the conversation and the only method, but they have a big Achilles’ heel: they have no evidence for that claim. Our test tubes are no less fallible than the hands that fill them, hold them over Bunsen burners, and put thermometers in to take their temperatures. They are certainly no substitute for our hearts.

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Responses

  1. Okay, I read your article, and these are my thoughts…First of all, I think that your title for it is very clever. Secondly, Your intelligence shines through in your writing like a beacon. I don’t care how much formal education you have had, your writing and thought processes are that of a very intelligent, educated, and analytical person.
    Thirdly, I like your discourse of the scientific method vs. the heart. To sum it up, a good piece of writing.

    • Thanks Christy! Very kind. 🙂


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