Monday, December 3, 2012

A Quick Thought on Arguing the Supremacy of Science [Jay Watts]


I started working on a post that felt oddly familiar.  Then I realized I wrote something similar back in October 2011 on my personal blog.  Two things struck me: (1) That old post is better than the one I was currently writing and (2) no one ever reads that blog.  So rather than reinvent the wheel I brushed off the old post, changed a word or two, and reposted it here.  

I am currently reading a philosopher who will remain nameless because I haven't finished her book yet so any criticism is premature. She at once impresses with her intellect and frustrates with the gaps in her reasoning as it pertains to the supremacy of scientific knowledge over what she terms “more meaningful” but less verifiable intellectual pursuits. 

So here is question often asked in rebuttal: What type of arguments will we be forced to make in order to defend the proposition that testable scientific knowledge is superior to philosophical knowledge?

It is one thing to state an obvious fact; testable experimentally verifiable knowledge enjoys the luxury of being demonstrated again and again so as to earn our confidence. Reasonable people must accept the fact that water freezes at 32 degrees F/0 degrees C (at 1 atmosphere of pressure). If presented with a case where water failed to freeze at 32 degrees F, it makes sense to question the facts in order to determine what mistake was made. We are left with a few probabilities: it is not water(H2O), the thermometer is incorrect, the water was supercooled so that it dipped below the freezing point before actually freezing. It must be one of these things because all reasonable people acknowledge that water normally freezes at 32 degrees F. This is the strength of this type of knowledge. Inquiry leads to trustable answers. 

Mathematics are also an extension of this. 2 + 2 = 4 is demonstrably true and reasonable people acknowledge it. (Except , of course, defenders of Fictionalism or a type of Nominalism that denies the reality of numbers and so denies that the equation is literally true, but you don't run into too many of these people at the soccer fields and in the normal work place) Combine the rational power of math and experimental sciences and we have the basis for some of the greatest accomplishments in human history.

But when you argue that experimentally verifiable scientific truth is superior to philosophical truth you aren't arguing the more limited claim just discussed. Arguing that it is superior is arguing that the information in question has qualities that make it better by nature than other types of information. Uh oh. Qualities? Nature? This sounds suspiciously like philosophy to me. 

Objectors tell me that they are merely stating that scientific exploration works in a way that philosophical consideration cannot. Science discovered everything that makes our life better than our more primitive ancestors. “But what do you mean by better?” I ask. 

And why did we advance science? What drove the men and women to pursue vaccines, clean drinking water, stronger protective dwellings, and advanced medical treatment? Was it the idea that we ought to take care of our fellow man and limit suffering? Do our perceived obligations and duties to others often inspire the endeavors we are talking about? Certainly those motivations for exploration are not scientific by nature.

Another consideration, we can all agree that science produces useful information, but how do we assess the application of that knowledge? Zyklon B was a cyanide based pesticide. It was used to keep citrus groves, food stores, and shipping vehicles free of insects and rodents to protect food supplies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was also used by the Nazis to kill millions of innocent Jews in death camps. How do we evaluate the different applications of the same scientific principle? One – the killing of insects and rodents - is a possible good and the other – the killing of innocent human beings – is a monstrous evil. Are these judgments scientific? Nope. And IF the scientific fact that Zykon B kills living things is the preeminent truth THEN how we use it is of secondary importance. The moral judgements of the different uses of Zyklon B are less clear  in comparison to the certainty of how it works. After all, we have scientific certainty that Zyklon B kills animals while the moral judgements upon those actions belong to the realm of knowledge that we are told cannot be trusted. 

But how is that possible? How can the moral applications of scientific advancement be of secondary importance to the mere fact of discovery itself? 

That is the crux of the problem. In order to be superior someone must explain why the truth discovered through experimentation - though more verifiable by its nature - is of greater importance to the beings those discoveries serve than philosophical truths concerning morality, duties, justice, the existence of God, or the presence of greater purpose to life. This requires contemplation on what kind of beings we are, what is best for us in life, what's our destiny, and what information will best serve us. These questions cannot be melted, burned, vaporized, frozen, or weighed. They cannot be the subject of scientific inquiry in any traditional way that empirical study is understood. In fact, they are exactly the kind of questions that the champion of the supremacy of science is trying to undermine. The arguments justifying the supremacy of science are undercut by the attackers own criticisms of philosophy.

Or in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols:

“The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”

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