Friday, August 5, 2011

About the Scientific Method

This year we note the 45th anniversary of the publication of Jaki's first book, The Relevance of Physics. In it he quotes a fundamental epigram from one of the greatest physicists, a statement which we ought to learn by heart, and post in our labs and offices and classrooms:
One of the severest tests of a scientific mind is to discern the limits of the legitimate application of scientific methods.
[SLJ TROP 382 quoting J. C. Maxwell, "Paradoxical Philosophy" (1878), reprinted in The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, edited by W. D. Niven, II (Cambridge, 1890), p. 759.]
And, we might add, one of the severest tests of a member of the Duhem Society is to explain just what these "scientific methods" are, as well as those limitations. Otherwise, we are either (1) doing magic, since there is no causal relation underlying our work, or (2) working mechanically, and all our work is just as natural as a ticking clock.

I think the problem arises from the very popular but quite mistaken notion that there is something "scientific" - that is, akin to a mathematical proof-system - underlying the idea of "scientific method", and that this formal hidden substructure gives an unarguable truth to all matters resulting from or derived from these methods.

Wow, and people talk about believing things without any reason?

The simple fact is that science is just as much a matter of faith as every other thing we do - our Master, G. K. Chesterton, put it in one of his great epigrams which belongs up there with Maxwell's:
It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:236]
Now, this is very irritating to some, but then they are making what the philosophers call "a fallacy of equivocation". They think that because I and GKC and SLJ and PD and a large number of others state that "reason is itself a matter of faith", this means reason (and hence science) is therefore chained or enslaved to a particular religious system, probably Roman Catholicism.

Oh my. We could talk THAT - I mean, about the connections between Science (writ large) and Roman Catholicism for quite a while, considering that is a good deal of what Duhem and Jaki (and Chesterton) wrote about. But that is an interesting sidetrack we'll reserve for some future conference. For today, I will just say NO THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEAN AT ALL! [See note at end]

I will use the argumentational device the medievals called distinguo = "I distinguish". I distinguish "faith" as here meaning "an assertion of the intellect about the truth of something without either (1) direct sensory experience or (2) proof by mathematical rules". (As opposed to "faith" standing as a sort of pronoun or variable or place-holder for "a particular system of worship or religious practices".)

It is obvious on the face of it that we cannot "experience" reason even as we do it - it's there, like time, and we accept it as binding matters together from our experience or from our memory - but we neither "experience" it as a sense-impression, nor do we "prove" it by theorems and axioms.

This issue is tied to the idea of "tradition" especially as it touches faith in the other sense, meaning a system of religious practices, or even to topics like politics. It touches - or rather, rests firmly upon a very strong foundation, which some will find even more objectionable - the idea of the Appeal To Authority - since again they will leap to the conclusion that I am talking about the Pope. Not just now! Very simply, we take Authority as a given just as much as we take "Proof" or even "Sense-Experience".

Why? Because we have to. We always have to.

For very good reasons, too. Without Tradition and Authority, we would be completely mute. Language itself is neither sensory nor proveable. We do not "sense" language, nor do we "prove" language. We take it Upon Authority. We were taught it by authorities, and its usefulness is borne out in countless ways as we proceed with our lives - it is not a debatable matter.

We could go on and on about this, but I have no time today. Indeed, this is a clue to the next step in our discussion. You might want to think about that, but I'll give you a hint.

Just consider this very interesting bit of Chesterton, and we'll see whether I can continue this discussion at some future time...
When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say "My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell." No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine...
Exactly because when my mother said that ants bit they did bite, and because snow did come in winter (as she said); therefore the whole world was to me a fairyland of wonderful fulfilments, and it was like living in some Hebraic age, when prophecy after prophecy came true. I went out as a child into the garden, and it was a terrible place to me, precisely because I had a clue to it: if I had held no clue it would not have been terrible, but tame. A mere unmeaning wilderness is not even impressive. But the garden of childhood was fascinating, exactly because everything had a fixed meaning which could be found out in its turn.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:360-1]
And in the same way, we take ideas like "the scientific method" and "reason" upon Authority. This is excellent; we therefore have powerful tools, indeed tools of almost unimaginable capability to use in our work, and we are thereby enabled to advance in knowledge. And recall that knowledge in Latin is scientia. Our Science (writ large) is nothing more than knowledge about Reality, and since we cannot expect to live long enough to do Every Conceivable Experiment - nor even to invent our own language (like Tolkien) so as to truly express ourselves in our own way - it is quite fitting that we base our work upon Tradition (as in language) and Authority (as in texts and reference works).

Let me suggest a fun piece of homework to consider. If one was to deny all this, what could be suggested as a replacement? (Be careful; it's a trick question.)

* * *

Note at End: One does not "stop" doing mathematics when one does physics or chemistry, as if these things were kept in two different rooms. One might not be working directly on a theorem (call it "performing active mathematics") when one is in the lab with equipment - but one is still aware of the theorem, acting in some way as a strong support in one's mind... it is in some sense the same for the Scientist who is a practicing Believer. One might not be praying (call it "performing active religion") in the lab with equipment, but... well, think about this. The idea is that we may have a reminder of why we work with us, and this serves to strengthen us as we work. One cannot stop being human in order to be a scientist. (You WILL get hungry, and tired.) There's more to this topic, and perhaps we shall consider it another time.


JC said...

"It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all."

Yes, and sometime--perhaps often--the only thing which can be said to the solipsist is, "Stop talking o yourself."

The Definitive Word said...

Chesterton is right, of course, that reason is a matter of faith. Reason depends upon the faith that there is such a thing as truth and that it is discoverable (through reason).