Mechanist: Without a doubt.
Satan: And how does science achieve this tautological objective?
Mechanist: What do you mean, tautological?
Satan: Well, your philosophers tell us that the Cosmos -- the universe -- is that that is understood, and that Cosmos stands in contrast to Chaos, that that is undifferentiated and not yet understood.
Mechanist: Yes, so ... ?
Satan: So, if Universe is that that is understood, and if the purpose of science is to make understood that that is already by definition understood, then science runs in circles. It defines itself!
Mechanist: Don't play games with me. You asked if science furthers our understanding of the universe, to which I answer yes.
Satan: Seems to me like a minor detail, actually. I still don't see how your liturgical, holy Science gives you such insight into universal phenomena.
Mechanist: Your sarcasm aside, Science proceeds by allowing us to formulate ideas and to test them against empirical evidence. The ideas may be called "theories," or better, in a working environment, "hypotheses."
Satan: I see. So with empirical evidence, you can definitively prove or disprove an hypothesis about some phenomenon, is this so?
Mechanist: Wellll ... "prove" is a fairly strong concept. I believe that the majority of scientists, especially those in the "softer" sciences such as organismic biology, would concur that the process of science actually proceeds to disprove ideas. That, of course, is the Popperian approach.
Satan: You can never confirm an idea?
Mechanist: Of course we can. That is the cornerstone of science: repeatability.
Satan: But you just stated that ideas can only be disproven, by which I assume (quite rightly so, as my logic is indeed impeccable) that ideas therefore cannot be proven per se. So why the infatuation with repeatability?
Mechanist: Without repeatability, one never knows whether the results and subsequent conclusions from a scientific examination have arisen spuriously, or are indeed the result of some true underlying principle. No scientist worth his weight in Scientific Americans would dispute that!
Satan: You still haven't resolved why repeatability is so important, if all you do is throw academic spit-wads at each other's "hypotheses" in attempts to "falsify" them!
Mechanist: Falsification is not the heart of science, my dear confused friend.
Satan: Just the scientific method, eh? And of course, method is not the heart of science, is it? Does not each and every hypothesis, in a general sense, constitute a model of understanding some part of the universe?
Mechanist: Yes, I guess I would agree with that.
Satan: And does not every model consist of a simplification, a distillation, of the real world?
Mechanist: Well, I wouldn't say that is the purpose of a model, to distill the world.
Satan: Why, then, do you build models?
Mechanist: Models are meant to represent how the world works, to teach us how the world works.
Satan: Really, now! The entire world?
Mechanist: No, of course not. That would be beyond the scope of -- eh...
Satan: Right, my point exactly; let me finish your sentence:
beyond the scope of analysis and mathematics. There. It is
said. Thus, I continue, preferably without your interruptions for
a moment, if you are so capable:
Does not each and every model, each such representation, contain subjacent assumptions to aid in that simplifying process? And are not assumptions inherently false, at least under some circumstances? That is, an assumption -- and its associated model -- is true only under ideal or limited circumstances. So it is also false under less than ideal conditions. So each and every model contains a flaw -- a fatal flaw, as you are want to say. Therefore, each model, every single hypothesis you can advance or even conceive of, by its very nature, will, indeed should, be falsifiable!
Mechanist: You're throwing a curve into this conversation by implying that scientific understanding is only methodology. I was simply referring to scientific method as it relates to the generation and retention of theory. That was your original question, was it not?
Satan: Quite so. All right, then, let's return to the question of repeatability. You said that science repeats experiments and observations so as to intuit some subjacent principle, is that right?
Satan: And results arising from the ubeities, the contexts, of the moment during some experiment or set of observations are "spurious" or of dubious quality.
Mechanist: In general, yes.
Satan: So the generalized scientific "principles" ...
Mechanist: ... we call them "laws" ...
Satan: ... all right, so scientific "laws" are free of context, are immutable through space and time, and pertain to no particular environment. Correct?
Mechanist: Basically, yes. A scientific law is an idea that has become confirmed and corroborated through repeated testing, and pertains to particular phenomena.
Satan: How can "repeated testing" confirm an idea?
Mechanist: Well, based on statistical method, by failing to falsify it.
Satan: My good Lord! and excuse my terrible profanity! So science and its immutable stanchions of intellectual thought are based on failures? Does that mean that the best scientists, those that will be immortalized by naming "laws" after them, are the world's biggest failures?
Mechanist: You twist my words.
Satan: I paraphrase.
Mechanist: ... ahh, no; "failures," as you say, do not of course constitute greatness. Ideas become immortalized because they work. And they work in many different settings; that's why they're "universal" laws.
Satan: So now science has at its heart a utilitarian yardstick. Good science is measured by its degree of pedestrian and vulgar function, is that it? What will you tell me next, that science, by this mundane method, builds up absolute knowledge through time?
Mechanist: Yes, actually. What of it?
Satan: This is quite remarkable. What is this "absolute knowledge?"
Mechanist: It is knowledge of the world that science secures by exhaustive -- and often exhausting (heh, heh) -- effort. Scientific knowledge is that that does not change. Here's a perfect example. We known the insides of the human body, physiologically speaking, thanks to the pioneering work of many anatomists from the Enlightenment Period onward. You can`t tell me that such knowledge of physiology and anatomy has not been added onto and increased by empirical observation and physiological testing over time.
Satan: Your example is but one more stain on the self-erected
intellectual pillar upon which you place yourself and your Holy Science.
Time has come to help you see the light. First, to work backwards because
that is how you seem to think, your example merely serves to
demonstrate that knowledge really is mutable, impermanent, and subject to a great number of contextual and chance events. Do you really believe that physiologists have been merely cataloging and compiling some encyclopedia of Absolute Facts?
Mechanist: I will humor you only so far as to allow you to reach the inevitably inane conclusions of your own argument. Yes, the history of science, as of physiology and anatomy, is replete with examples of building knowledge through time.
Satan: I submit that the knowledge that finds function -- returning to your very own admission that science proceeds by how well it functions -- is knowledge that derives from an historic, cultural, and theoretical background. Anatomists, early on, thought that the human Geist -- spirit or soul -- inhabited the body in the form of Vapours, correct?
Mechanist: Well, simplistically stated, yes. But those ideas have been proven false, to return to my earlier contention that incorrect scientific ideas are eventually falsified. The Vapour concept was superstition, anyway, not scientifically documented theory.
Satan: That entire cultures and eras put faith in a "wrong" view of their own existence doesn't bother you, then?
Mechanist: I don`t follow.
Satan: Put another way, because these earlier cultures and eras didn`t see things your way, you condemn them to ignorance, superstition, and incorrect thinking?
Mechanist: Of course not. It's just that we've advanced, thanks to science, to a correct and even useful view of physiological process.
Satan: Which of course now remains immutable.
Mechanist: The basic facts and principles are of the order of scientific law, yes.
Satan: Vapours aside, what of the case of ancient astronomers?
Mechanist: Go on.
Satan: All those ancient cultures -- the Mayas, Zapotecs, Toltecs, Olmecs, Amerindians -- planted their corn and harvested their crops by following a remarkably intricate knowledge of seasons and natural cycles. Was that not practical?
Mechanist: I suppose.
Satan: You suppose? Their very existence, the future of their families and cultures, depended on it. I hope you do more than suppose. To continue: their knowledge of astronomical phenomena, such as the lunar synodic periods, solar and lunar eclipses, rise and set and shifts of celestial constellations and planets, was built from direct empirical observation and from painstakingly cataloguing events over centuries. Yet their view of the universe, if you have your way as deity of truth, was wrong? Because they believed not in a heliocentric solar system, because such belief was not even pertinent to how they predicted environmental changes for planting and reaping, you condemn them to ignorance and lesser knowledge?
Mechanist: I ... their knowledge was of a practical nature, not scientific.
Satan: So scientific knowledge is not to be practical? Not to be based on specific contexts of observation, of empirical study, of particular natural systems?
Mechanist: No, I didn't say that.
Satan: You most certainly did.
All right, let's now approach the problem of how science keeps itself on its pedestal. I imagine you would argue that scientific understanding is, in some absurd way, better than other forms of understanding.
Mechanist: What do you mean?
Satan: Well, allow me to play the Scientist for a moment. Here I am, surrounded by my textbooks and journals that catalogue vast arrays of experiments and observations, and that expound Scientific Law. I, as Scientist Baronial, am asserting that scientific understanding is more permanent, more pure, more absolute, more universal, more true than the pitiful shards of pseudo-knowledge expounded by my lowly academic colleagues versed in poetry (pun intended), literature, social studies, politics, and, Devil forbid, agriculture!
Mechanist: Their forms of understanding the world do not constitute the same kinds of more universal and absolute knowledge as derived from scientific method, no.
Satan: Then how were the cultures of those ancient cultures that I mentioned able to exist? How could they possibly predict changes in the weather and successfully plant, grow, and harvest their crops? Are you aware of how tightly their astronomical -- scientific -- understanding was integrated into their culture, into their politics, into their religious beliefs? There was no scientific method separate from the religious or political. Or agricultural. All was one united whole. And it made sense, it worked. It was only during your so-called age of rationality and enlightenment that you cut your own umbilicus to the world, that you divorced yourselves from the environments from which you were born, that you severed your now-sterile and peurile scientific method from the whole of life and living and reality. The ancients did not use differential equations to denote the dance of the planets and the tilt of the seasons, but you, my closed-eyed friend, assert that formulae and models and conceptual distillations tell you more about the world?
Mechanist: I still assert that scientific method produces the only true, repeatable, defensible form of understanding the world.
Satan: Praise be to the textbooks! If your knowledge is Absolute and immutable, why search further? If you already have Scientific Laws, why proceed with further study? Science has obviously reached its ultimate goal when it produces such self-assured intellectual giants as yourself. May I kiss your ring?
Mechanist: Cut the sarcasm.
Satan: My point is this: scientific ideas -- hypotheses, theories, laws, Cosmic Rules, whatever names you choose to apotheosize them with -- are merely mirrors reflecting the current configuration of background theories and cultural moors. Science "advances" toward Absolute understanding no more than the Earth in its elliptical orbit advances toward the Sun. Absolute understanding is sham. How can you be so egoistically assured that your current ways to explain physiological process is not a twentieth-century version of the Vapours? Need I sink into nauseating detail on how scientific ideas of the very fabric of the universe have undergone massive revision? Look to the Copernican revolution ... or the Einsteinian ... or to current trends in particle physics. As you spiral ever downward into the subatomic universe, with each step your very view of the origins and fate of the universe are rebuilt. Where is the spirit of Universality and Immutability of knowledge in any of this?
Mechanist: Science is the gathering of fact and the discovering of ... uhh ... generalized Laws.
Satan: Now you're sounding like some of the Adventist proselytizers I get down here! You certainly take your Seventh Day Science with a remarkable degree of faith!
* * *
- Bruce G. Marcot
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