Is science just a system of thought?
There goes an argument which states science is merely one system of thought – one which is of equal, or at least similar level, to that of unscientific ‘spiritual’ systems of thought. The reasoning behind this is said to be that although science itself might be rational, at some point it is still reducible to assumptions about the world (assumptions which can’t be ‘proved’). I.e., although science can tell us how long a piece of wood is, it has to make assumptions about what good evidence (in this case, measuring) entails, or it has to assume that our senses (such as our eyes, which are seeing the piece of the wood and the measurements) are telling the truth.
The strange thing about this view (which is held by the majority in philosophy) is that it takes an overly philosophical, and entirely inaccurate, view of how science works. Consider the following quote that I was recently made aware of, by popular particle physicist Brian Cox:
“Science is different to all the other systems of thought…because you don’t need faith in it, you can check that it works”
Cox is quite right to state this. It may seem like science is making assumptions, but the assumptions it makes are so basic that the point is more or less mute to anyone who values rationality. It assumes only two things:
- That observation, when repeatable and reliable, can provide evidence.
- That rationality and logic are valuable – and we shouldn’t evoke ideas with which there is no evidence, when we can explain them rationally.
These are really fairly simple, and even the philosophers I mentioned earlier – who believe science to be ‘one of many’ systems of truth finding – make these assumptions themselves. This is proven by the fact that they argue rationally (they don’t randomly spurt words out of their mouths, but instead form grammatically correct sentences in a logical manner) and use evidence in the same vein.
The disagreement with science appears when these philosophers point out (rightly so) that science makes assumptions, but then use it (wrongly so) as an excuse to do one of two things:
- Make any assumption they so wish, on top of the assumptions science has already made (and justifying it by appealing along the lines of ‘science makes assumptions, so isn’t any better’)
- Ignore scientific assumptions, as and when it suits them, if their new assumptions give them the results they want when in place of the scientific assumptions.
Like so many things in philosophy, instances of these two points should make a rational mind shudder in disgust. Science doesn’t make the assumptions about evidence or rationality so as to prove a particular world view, or push a particular perspective – it makes them because it has to, and because it’s the best way we have of finding real truths and dismissing imaginary one’s. Without such checks and evidence, we have nothing.
Assuming to get results
If a philosopher decides that method 1 (that of “making other assumptions on top of science’s assumptions”) is acceptable, then they must have a jolly good reason to do so, given that science doesn’t make assumptions lightly. Yet what reason can there be? Moral intuitionists are a famous example of a sect that do this – and they are also a large, if not majority, of ethicists. They are happy to argue rationally, live in the real world, and use and handle evidence on a daily basis – and yet they also decide that moral facts exists because ‘intuitions’ we have about morality are referring to some universal ‘moral facts’. In other words, they assume that moral facts exist and are referenced or proven by our intuitions.
Again, a rational brain should shudder at this kind of belief. If intuitions, and intuitions alone – with no further evidence or reducibility to other facts – can be constitutive of facts and truth, then anything can be. A good rule of science which refutes such an idea (without having to dig particularly deep) is the principle of rationality – if a concept can be explained rationally, then there is no need to imagine a further explanation. And given that morality can be shown to have evolved in various species as a social matter without the need to invoke ideas such as ‘universal moral facts’, it seems bizarre to say something like ‘intuitions are actually referencing non-physical facts about the world’.
Pardon me, non-physical facts about the world? Non-physical facts that you know about, and other philosophers know about, but for which there is no evidence? Shudder, for a third time.
What’s worse, and should really be making us think twice about our belief in moral intuitionism, is that such a belief also follows mistake 2): Ignoring scientific assumptions, as and when it suits, if the new assumptions give the the results they want. Science tells us how and why morality evolved, there is no need to invoke an idea such as ‘universal moral facts’ when it appears that morality is an entirely relative social tool for ensuring survival. We might very well be able to invoke the idea of objective moral facts, as an academic matter, but not as some referencing of non-physical facts about the world – facts which there is neither evidence nor suggestion for, outside of the halls and circles of philosophers who think we should make them up.
In truth, yes science does make assumptions – not because it has something it wants to prove, but because it has to make them, and because these are the tried and tested ways of making assumptions for finding actual truth. The assumption it makes about repeatable observation as a form of raw data, for example, is backed up by the fact that the laws and rules which it helps us to create often work. For instance it might just be assuming that the observation of the ‘4 metres’ of the length of the window frame is correct, but when we cut the window to a size of 4 metres and it fits perfectly, our initial assumptions are vindicated not just by this one instance of proof that it works, but also by the thousands of years before hand where such systems always work.
These assumptions are not to be taken lightly – they are tried, tested and provable themselves in many ways, in relation to good evidence. What many philosophers would have us believe is the opposite – that science simply stumbles upon assumptions, or worse, that it hand picks assumptions to appease some materialistic view of the world which it holds. Neither of those points are true, and unsurprisingly there’s no evidence for either claims – but then what did you expect from a position that wants you to believe that a lack of evidence is not an important factor in whether or not you believe something? Don’t believe nonsense like this for a second. Philosophy has thousands of years of expertise, and with it come certain norms and values – like those above mentioned norms about assumptions. Science is continually still showing these norms to be insufficient at finding truths, and the age old ‘assumptions’ argument is the latest to grace the firing line. I hope the above logic has done enough to convince you against this poor ancient way of ‘doing philosophy’, but you know what, if it hasn’t and you want to go and find more evidence, good on you.