Saturday, December 25, 2010

LIFE LINES 91 -- What is Reality?


Scientists usually ignore philosophers of science just as some artists ignore art critics or authors ignore literary critics. There is a gulf between those who interpret how a profession goes about its business and those who do their “sullen craft.” There are different philosophies of science. One of the oldest and hence one of the earliest to be repudiated, is Francis Bacon’s belief that scientists see patterns or ideas or laws of nature by immersing themselves in a lots of data. This is called induction. Many philosophers believe this is deceptive and claim most scientists really have their ideas before they get data to test or prove them. Two exemplars of Baconian science are Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. Darwin spent eight years of hard work before the idea of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution came to him from a mountain of data. Mendel spent seven years in his monastery garden before he figured out what we now call Mendel’s laws of heredity.

Some of my colleagues, especially in the social sciences, reject not only Baconian induction but the very heart of scientific belief – that we as scientists describe a reality that is out there. They think this is quaint and look for the day when the scales fall off our eyes and we will admit that reality is constructed. One of my colleagues tried to convince me that Darwin’s theory of evolution is just capitalism of the industrial revolution disguised as science. Another colleague in psychology claimed that all of science is just a way each generation constructs reality. He was not persuaded by his own argument, however, when one of his students, who got an F on the final, tried to show that the F was just a construction by his instructor and not an earned grade.

Artists construct a reality of their imaginations. And they are very enjoyable visions. If there is no underlying reality, how then does science differ from art? To the scientist it is the external reality that checks every scientific hypothesis and theory, constantly correcting it because our imaginations cannot fully anticipate nature. If there were no external reality to test our ideas or constructions, quack medicines should be as effective as those tested by carefully controlled experiments. Instead of penicillin we would be drinking concoctions made with turtle dung.

Social scientists are probably correct when they claim our knowledge of society is largely a construction because only bits of history, culture, and the remnants of civilization may be left behind for us to reconstruct. The New York City of 1875 may be very different from what we interpret it to be because many voices, events, preferences, habits and beliefs of the day may be lost. Psychologists are also correct that we are influenced in how we see things and interpret them. Few scientists would dispute this, but we know how often our own pet ideas fail to meet the test of observation or experimentation. Scientists rely on careful experimentation and verification by independent laboratories as their safeguard against self-deception. Consensus and authority are frequently spurned by scientists who much prefer the frustration of failed experiments, unexpected results, and inconsistency as a spur to discovery.

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