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Three academics launch a vague attack on science and propose a vague solution of some kind

January 27, 2019

Here is a brief critique of a truly awful and vague attack on science. I just saw it mentioned on Jerry Coyne’s website and decided to look at it.

It is written by no less than three academics. It’s called The Blind Spot, but the title in the URL gives a bit more detail ‘the blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience’. Many will already be able to guess what their argument is going to be at this point, and the same number will also find it hard to nail down exactly what it’s all about. They will get no help from the authors.


Before starting, I want to note that I think there is a case to made for the idea that there are some things which can only be experienced or decided subjectively. Do we see green all the same? is an obvious one, (which usually first occurs to 8 year old children, and is swiftly forgotten as being insoluble). A more pressing one is the question whether or not others feel pain. I can only surmise that they do, based on their reactions and statements. I could of course remain skeptical and start hitting people with hammers when I feel like it, but it would quickly cease to be an abstract philosophical issue, and would ruin my life and the lives of those who got hit.

That example is clichéd and ridiculous, but it illustrates the point where these science-can’t-really-know-anything arguments fall down. They only seem compelling or substantive as long as they remain hypothetical, and as long as nothing is riding on the answer.

Well, let’s see how their particular argument pans out.

They start off talking about the difficulties in thinking about the beginning of the universe, and note the same problems that occur to the average 8 year old: “We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is.” Ok, but what about within the box?

Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it.

For me, this is a bit too vague. Which “many of us” think this? At least one name would give me a pointer to the kind of thinker they are referring to. Such a view would barely rank as a caricature of scientists whose work I’ve read or studied. Before even hitting the math, quantum physics confirms that the our mammalian perceptual system evolved in a way suited detecting the things that most immediately impinge upon survival. These limits are completely obvious from the point of view of evolution, not baffling, as the authors imply.

But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

But what about the approach summed up so succinctly in Karl Popper’s term ‘falsifiability’, which limits science to that which is testable. Narrow as this strikes some people, it does not preclude speculation. All it does is insist that speculations be clearly labeled as such.

Science can appear authoritarian, dogmatic and unimaginative if one picks a science text-book — so many blunt statements of fact. But that is because it is for the most part only blunt statements of fact that make it into the text books — that’s why they’re text-books. Scientific research, on the other hand, is all about identifying gray areas and pursuing unanswered questions. Facts are used as a basis for speculation. Theoretical understanding based on the apparent facts sets the parameters and helps guard against wasting time. Speculations are clearly labeled as such, before the researcher tries to back them up with facts. Facts are what scientific progress is built upon.

This is not a “God’s-eye view”. Quite the opposite. Mythology or religion, on the other hand, does try to give a God’s-eye view of reality, by trying to make a home in the universe for the human psyche. But science is committed to leaving such a home half built at best. If the facts aren’t there to construct a roof on it, it stays without a roof. All there is a sign saying “No one knows what goes here.”

Instead of ‘truth’ or ‘fact’, a better word might be ‘certainty’. There are things which we are so certain of, it would be a waste of time to check them again. I can’t know for a fact that this cup will fall if I let go of it, but I am certain of it. I don’t know for a fact that God didn’t create the world 5 minutes ago, (complete, as Bertrand Russell put it, with Englishmen with holes in their socks), but I live my life as if it existed much longer than that.

Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world.

This is an unfounded assertion, made with no attempt to support it.

That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.

Ok, so the eye cannot see itself. But it can see; and it can see other eyes; and the brain it belongs to can recognise that it has an eye that sees. I reject this vague notion that this somehow “creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world”. Rather, it creates a fairly realistic sense of that distance. There is a distance. When I die, it just won’t be the same, at least from my perspective — for me that is an important distance between me and the world.

And what is “lived perception”? And what does it have to do with this supposed distance?

Behind the Blind Spot sits the belief that physical reality has absolute primacy in human knowledge…

They are already leapfrogging away with this “Blind Spot” stuff, but they haven’t shown why it is especially ‘scientific’; why it has bad consequences; why it detaches people from reality; or how it can be overcome by some kind of non-science.

….a view that can be called scientific materialism. In philosophical terms, it combines scientific objectivism (science tells us about the real, mind-independent world) and physicalism (science tells us that physical reality is all there is).

As noted above, science takes what we can be certain of, and tries to use it to gain a better understanding of what we aren’t certain of. There are cases where what we are certain of not only tells us about what is, but also what is not. We know that all the non-genetic theories for reproduction are wrong, for example…

The authors note that science can check its hypotheses–

But these tests never give us nature as it is in itself, outside our ways of seeing and acting on things.

Again, 8 year old children get this, note how odd it is, and move on. But these authors don’t. Instead, they add another vague and unsupported assertion:

Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals.

What are they talking about? Who knows. I doubt they do themselves. But what they have achieved with this move is to equate “experience” (that is, “lived perception”) with scientific knowledge. And instead of trying to back up this deceitful and extraordinarily stupid claim, they leapfrog to the next point.

The second problem concerns physicalism. According to the most reductive version of physicalism…

Note that they use the “most reductive” version, but continue as if this represents science.

…science tells us that everything, including life, the mind and consciousness, can be reduced to the behaviour of the smallest material constituents. You’re nothing but your neurons, and your neurons are nothing but little bits of matter.

As always when spiritual folk pull this trick, just cross out the entirely anti-scientific “nothing but”.

Here, life and the mind are gone, and only lifeless matter exists.

They speak as if ‘life’ is an independent thingy of some kind. There are good reasons why biologists dropped the idea of vitalism: after searching for the life force for 300 years, the concept bore no fruit. Instead ‘life’ can be clearly defined and identified: it involves an imperfectly replicating molecule that is capable of undergoing evolution.

Consciousness is of course much harder to pin down, and it is not uncommon for scientists to be a bit bold here. But the authors use this as a launching pad for asserting that consciousness disproves that ‘physical reality is all there is’, because consciousness can’t be explained by the physical sciences.

Again, this assertion is left unsupported. The authors don’t realise they have wandered into Maybe/maybe-not’s-ville. In this village of the damned, science becomes a mediocre branch of speculative philosophy, and we can all sit about in armchairs and talk about how ‘our intuitions are an inner path to understanding objective reality which is isn’t objective anyway.’

The authors mention a few philosophers, while retracing the steps that Fritjof Capra took more deftly but just as fruitless in his 1975 book The Tao of Physics — which also placed speculation on the same level as fact; and also ended up sitting in the same armchair that Aristotle was trying coax Plato to get up from and look at the nature he found so dull and second-hand.

The only new thing from these authors is labeling it The Blind Spot. They conclude:

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge.

Again they repeat that science is unaware of perception; is hindered by this failing; and that becoming aware of it will somehow rescue the supposedly blind from their supposed “delusion”, whose existence has merely been asserted.

It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture….

Yes, to do this thing that scientists supposedly haven’t done, is to embrace a hope. Very nice.

…in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature…

Another baseless and completely unsupported assertion. We are a product of nature. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know. Thinking you’re an “expression” of nature sounds like something a Romantic like Schelling might have said (and far more coherently), but Schelling could at least point to Goethe as proof. All these guys have got is Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra.

…and as a source of nature’s self-understanding.

Well that’s a nice way of reframing it, though also not exactly new. Would it surprise any biologist to hear that they are a product of nature, and that as such, a portion of nature understands part of itself? I doubt it.

In fact, all this speculation-presented-as-fact that we are “expressions” of a nature which is seeking “self-understanding” is exactly the kind of theoretical guff that detaches people from the natural world and the present moment, preferring instead to speculate about how in the golden future a non-Blind-Spotted New Science will be when it finally arrives.

Their great conclusion:

We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

Uhuh. That would be good, wouldn’t it. Whatever it is.

Posted by Yakaru

5 comments

  1. […] UPDATE: Over at the site Spirituality is No Excuse, writer Yakaru does a good job deconstructing the Aeon piece in a post called “Three academics launch a vague attack on science and propose a vague solution of some kind.” […]


  2. Yeah, that’s quite a piece of garbage. The whole thing is an attack on a straw-man version of science (not unlike Lipton’s Newtonian BS). Like this, near the end: “To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge.” Only the science-ignorant have the view that science gives “absolute knowledge”. Scientists tirelessly explain that it delivers probabilistic assessments of propositions. The professor of astrophysics, and the theoretical physicist, ought to know this, and the philosopher ought to know that we’ve known that there’s an unbridgeable epistemic gap for millennia. A proportion of the general public might beileve that science steps outside reality to measure it and give us absolute knowledge, but they don’t represent science and they’re wrong. We do not need three professors pretending nobody was aware of this until they decided to “wake us up from the delusion” and set us on course towards a new paradigm (of poetic prose, apparently). Jesus, it’s bad enough that random idiots are saying shit like this all over the Net. Now they’ve got another “academic essay” to link to. I hope they get the reviews they deserve. I pity their students.


  3. Good post, Yakaru.
    Well said, John.
    A large part of my ‘skeptical beginnings’ was fair analysis of psuedo-medicines. After a flood of wank and unsubstantiated claims I learned the first question, “What Is already known about this ? What has well designed and controlled testing shown in connection to any aspect of this particular claim?
    I’ve long grown tired of vague, often somewhat ‘cosmic’ explanations. They advance my knowledge not at all.
    You are so right, mate. It must be disprovable before it is provable. If it is not disprovable, it’s just another naked-dwarf-fallacy. (we cannot disprove that a naked dwarf dances upon the mountains of Mars) It’s always the same, mate. Those who decry science know the least about it and how it works.

    Woody


  4. @John,
    Yes– this Newton Descartes stuff they were pulling is the same trick Lipton would pull if he knew how. I even said something along those myself once, 30 years ago in a philosophy and the lecturer nodded sagely. Now I realise it’s utter bollocks.

    @Woody,
    I hadn’t heard of the naked dwarf fallacy. I guess with the arrival of the Mars rover it needs to be updated to ‘as long as no one is watching. And of course, the fact that there even is a Mars rover shows how much science has progressed. All this talk of a new paradigm in science has been around since at least the 1960s, and so far there is nothing whatsoever to show for it.


  5. Gordon Bonnet, host of ‘skeptophilia’ named that logical fallacy. Now … with the data gathered by unmanned probes we know some about the atmosphere, temperature, chemical make-up and so-on of the surface of Mars. We also have many not-entirely-blurry pictures of some rocks. You know as well as I that if confronted with how incredibly unlikely it is that a dwarf, of any known species, naked or clothed, could survive on the surface of Mars, let alone dance upon its mountains, the believers would quickly claim an alien or eldrich-spiritual origin of the dwarf. As i’ve discussed with John before, as soon as we involve magic of any kind in our conclusions, no rational debate may follow. As the clock ticks they dig the same hole !



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