The meaning of science

I used to be a science communicator. When I did a PhD, my research drew mainly on the philosophy of science and science studies. My postdoctoral research was getting more into the history of science, Darwinism in particular. There’s also:

  • the sociology of science
  • science and technology studies (STS)
  • the history and philosophy of science (HPS)
  • science education
  • the rhetoric of science
  • and science journalism.

That’s a whole bunch of science-focused disciplines. They differ in their methods and aims. I’ve never felt at home in any of them.

What I’m really interested in is the meaning of science.

I’ve never been all that interested in promoting science. A lot of science is fantastic, but I’m not losing any sleep over the funding priorities (already skewed to STEM) or the stock price of pharmaceutical companies.

I’m not that interested in critiquing science either. I’m a hardcore sceptic. I’ve never felt swayed by any branch of knowledge so I’m not worried about getting sucked into this or that paradigm. Is scientific knowledge constructed? You bet. Does this spell the end of knowledge? Maybe — if you’d never thought about anything before. What goes for natural science goes for every other branch of knowledge. If cosmologists can’t be sure of what they say, neither can sociologists of science. And far from engendering relativism, it just means the bar is much higher for being confident about anything. The best knowledge — from science or anywhere — is that which is most humble, self-reflective, and useful. In practice, that means a lot of stuff that goes under the label “science” but lots of other stuff too.

In my search for meaning, I’ve often wound up in the philosophy of science (the analytic tradition) and science studies (the continental tradition). But even then, both of these disciplines fixate on epistemology: how can we know things are true or false, how are we deluding ourselves, etc. For my brand of scepticism, that’s not the main game. In every day life it’s frequently obvious what’s true and false. In science, there are conventions and loads of people arguing about it (including like ten science-focused disciplines, as mentioned above), and reasonable incentives that do a reasonably good job of keeping everyone honest.

How good? Nowhere near perfect. There are systematic problems involving peer review, falsification of data, group think, P-hacking, the problem of induction, implicit bias, explicit bias, et cetera. But before modern science there was no way to investigate most of the areas it studies, at all. So compared to simply being in the dark, it does quite well. The most important thing, I think, is that it is increasingly being taken out of the hands of individual attempts at reasoning and into the distributed systems of technology, open-source, collective knowledge, know-how. But still, it’s massively fallible. Scientific facts change all the time. This is all classic philosophy of science stuff. But, if there’s no danger of being utterly convinced by any knowledge, then the question of how you can be certain of something is moot anyway.

But what of the implications of scientific ideas? Forget for a moment how much confidence we can have in Darwinism, string theory, or the out of Africa hypothesis. We have to behave as if they’re good ideas, at least provisionally. So what do these things mean for our lives?

Having come from a literature background, this is how I approach everything. Why study literature? For (i) enjoyment and (ii) to think about life: the whole thing, all of its layers mixed up together. For me it’s ditto for science. Let me anticipate an objection: “You can’t derive an ought from an is! Science does facts, the humanities do values, if they were ever to mix, my brain and gonads would turn to dust.” It’s true that you can’t derive an ought directly from an is-statement. But I think you can’t derive an ought from an ought-statement either. And I’d argue that you can’t actually derive an is from is-statement anyway. Stop trying to derive things. My take is that there’s one world and the more we learn about it the more we can experience, the more we can improve things.

The world of values, morals, ethics, oughts, purposes, meanings (what some might call the normative realm) is a bit iffy. If you think it exists independently of the world of things and events — that it descends on us from some ought-cloud (lol) — then you have your work cut out for you.

A new discipline?

This is where I find myself monomaniacally advocating a whole new field of inquiry that takes a sceptical approach to scientific knowledge, but with a greedy eye to sucking out as much pith as it can. We in the humanities should devour scientific knowledge, in our ongoing quest for meaning, complication, challenge, ambiguity, irony, and inspiration. What to call it? Science appreciation? Too lame and devotional. Science criticism? Too lame and snarky. Science theory? Too vague and also lame. I don’t even think it should have science in the title because that already reifies some big distinction between science and other branches of knowledge. Really, it’s about the world or reality and taking solid knowledge from anywhere to sift through it for hacks to use in this project of living. (Reality studies? Too grandiose. And lame.)

This is the rationale for my book. A lot of the stuff in it is ideas from science. That’s because I think what we call science has thrown up a heap of challenges to our intuitive way of thinking and to the conventions and institutions on which we’ve previously relied to navigate the world. But some of these challenges also come from linguistics, history, anthropology, philosophy, literature. Some of these are bit sciency, or at least social sciency. But whatever. If you’re worried about which category they fit into you probably belong in a funding body, not the readership of my book.

Here’s an example.* The many worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics says there are innumerable doppelgängers of me who are as literally real as I am. What should I do with this knowledge? Most approaches to science focus on interrogating the the basis of that knowledge. But this is crazy. Think of it from a risk point of view. The smartest scientists in a highly competitive arena say this is what the world is like. Sure, it smashes just about everything you were taught in Sunday school or therapy, but it’s much higher confidence knowledge than other things you bet your life on (like the content of Sunday school or therapy). So you could cross your fingers and point to a think piece saying that experts have it all wrong or that other experts are right. I’d call that high risk/high return. But think about the potential implications if this is true. It might change how we view reality.

(N.B. I’m a non-expert but I’ve read a lot of books about the interpretation of QM and I don’t know what to think. Philip Ball’s excellent Beyond Weird has pulled me back a bit from MWI, but I still concede that it makes sense when David Wallace or Sean `Carroll talk about it. But Carlo Rovelli doesn’t like it and he usually has a good line on things.)

The naturalistic fallacy fallacy

If you think you can safely cordon off all ethical, moral, political implications of scientific knowledge, you are going to hate almost all modern science which shouts at us that some of the things we most cherish don’t even exist (souls, ghosts, reincarnation) and that others are radically unlike what we think they are (stars, germs, consciousness) and that there are whole new things that were never imagined but which might impact our lives (DNA, clathrates, dark matter). If you don’t think how to live is dependent on the nature of the world we live in, then maybe you’re a psychopath. Aggressive, I know, but that’s what we call someone whose actions and choices are entirely insulated from the reality in which they’re embedded.

The most frustrating case of ignoring scientific knowledge is of course climate change. Is it ethically or politically relevant that global warming is real? You bet. “But climate science only tells us the Earth is warming, not if it’s good or bad.” I hope never to be on a sinking ship with one of these people. This obeisance to the fact/value dichotomy has not helped us. Climate scientists, in understandable fear of deranged climate deniers — some of whom run countries and/or own media empires — have pulled back from being “activists”. There’s a long history of scientists being selectively political, often on the same issue in the same career (see: Manhattan Project).

That’s one for the historians of science to disentangle. (Incidentally, of all the science-focused disciplines, I think the history of science has, in general, the sanest intellectual stance. Those historians just try to figure out what the fuck happened and are very reflexive about their own knowledge and methods and don’t grind as many axes as some others groups I will now mention: rhetoric of science people.)

So here’s the upshot:

  • facts and values are one big jumble, I don’t lose sleep over it;
  • some science is shit and worth criticising, but others do it better than me;
  • other science is great but doesn’t need me to advertise it;
  • assuming the good science is worth banking on, as much as any knowledge can be, I care about what it means for our lives;
  • (and I don’t mean the best diet for your microbiome or how to get better wifi reception);
  • I mean for the bigger questions of existence.

*Overall, the two most important “findings” of modern science, are the general account of reality from physics since the 1920s and cognitive science since the 1970s. So, both predate my birth and have been around long enough to be absorbed into wider intellectual culture: but they haven’t been. The physics says the world is nothing like what it seems. This doesn’t just undermine traditional ways of knowing, but also what is believed by most people today who call themselves materialists, scientists, naturalists, atheists, rationalists, etc. Not that it in any way validates spiritual, religious, or Deepak Chopra-y worldviews either. I think the nature of reality at a very fundamental level is simply unlike any previous imaginings and no existing worldview really aligns with it. Compounding this weirdness is the fact that our minds and consciousness are also nothing like what they seem. This one is even harder to accept because we feel like we can be deluded about the world, but that we can’t be wrong about the subject that is deluded, that there is an irreducible or unshakable fact of subjectivity or first-personhood. But I think it is precisely this familiar self/subject/experiencer that is negated by modern brain science. Again, I think believers and non-believers alike are unprepared for the real implications of this. One interesting philosopher/author who has recognised it is R. Scott Bakker; he calls it the “semantic apocalypse“. I think that’s a taste of what our traditional worldviews are in for. At the most mind-bending level, these modern ideas about the world completely obliterate even the categories which we use to argue about the nature of the world — and that includes even the notion of aboutness. So, how to find something like meaning in a world that is utterly strange and where even aboutness doesn’t exist? That’s what my book is “about”.