CHAPTER 10: The Scientific World


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The seventeenth-century institutionalization of science grew out of a sense of spiritual brotherhood…

Particularly in England. See: Charles Webster “Puritanism, Separatism, and Science” in Lindberg & Numbers, p208: “Pioneers of organized science… were nurtured in the context of ‘spiritual brotherhood’ of Puritan churchmen and their lay patrons… Some of the early scientific clubs… called for the abandonment of self-interest in favor of pooling information, the aim being to make advanced knowledge available in the republic in a form applicable to the solution of pressing economic and social problems.”


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Nature itself becomes hearsay, even literally a museum piece.

As a literal example, New Zealand’s national museum at Wellington (Te Papa Tongarewa) proudly features an outdoor garden of “native bush.” The irony is that most of the original forest was harvested long ago and has been replaced with pine plantations or pasture. Many natural history museums feature indoor “interpretive” exhibits that are literally artificial. The model has displaced the reality—nature taken indoors.


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…an uneasy balance with the requirements of empiricism.

See, e.g., Richard Dawid “Scientific Realism in the Age of String Theory” 2007, p14: “String theorists, though still subscribing to experiment’s position as the ultimate judge over scientific theory, in fact seem to diminish its role by assuming that scientists can develop a considerable degree of confidence in the viability of scientific statements on a purely theoretical basis. In a nutshell, they claim: experiment is important if we can carry it out, but if we can not, scientific progress can proceed without it.”


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a limit on the kind and the terms of reflection that may be undertaken.

“A good argument can be made that the silent but general agreement to keep the discourse consciously in the phenomenic-analytic plane, where statements and routines can be shared, is the main reason science has been able to grow so rapidly in modern times.” [Gerald Holton Einstein, History, and other Passions, p151] By ‘phenomenic-analytic’ he means the rational and the empirical, considered as orthogonal “dimensions,” defining a two-dimensional “plane.” Restriction of description to this plane is the defining characteristic of first-order science.


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Mathematics by itself does not usually take us outside the closure of first-order description.

First of all, because it is primarily a tool in the service of specific goals and assumptions. But also, I believe, because mathematics is about an external reality, whether the physical world or a platonic domain. Either way it reflects a first-order point of view, of the subject upon the object. I do not mean, of course, that mathematics would play no role in a second-order science.


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The scientific establishment is effectively a gated community.

The same question confronts those who deem themselves guardians of knowledge and those who deem themselves guardians of the state: should the gate be simply removed from its hinges, so that anyone who wishes can pass through unimpeded? In the case of governance, that would mean total democracy, so that every citizen has a direct say in it. Apart from the logistics involved, this has never seemed desirable to those already in power, who have traditionally represented the privileged class. In the case of knowledge, lack of vetting would mean a free-for-all of ideas and opinions, with the risk that such knowledge would fail to serve technological progress or confer the social and national advantages of superior technology. Experts would lose their relevance as gatekeepers of knowledge.


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plays an important role in the scientific world, as in other social realms.

There are a number of reasons for convergence of opinion in physical science. Historian of science Gerald Holton [Einstein, History, and other Passions, p103-4] lists four: 1) Problems have one right answer; 2) Problems are well-defined, so that they are everywhere understood the same; 3) Most practitioners in a field share the same ideology and epistemology; 4) Data are uncontroversial and can be reproduced by others. Clearly these four are related: problems have one right answer in part because they are well defined and universally understood; data are uncontroversial in part because scientists think alike. That problems should have one right answer may be no more than a cultural bias. What price is paid for choosing problems that are well defined? A common ideology and epistemology may be the unfortunate result of intellectual communities isolated by specialization; what different directions might result from greater cross-pollinating? Data are always subject to interpretation; the standards for evaluating data can always be questioned.


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…intermediate states are not defined at all.

The basic notions of classical physics and those of conventional digital computation are essentially at odds. The basic ontology of quantum physics is quantized and hence superficially more compatible with digital concepts than classical physics. Yet, it also involves superposition, based on a continuum. The fundamental discreteness of the world at the quantum level may or may not turn out to be an expression of a more fundamental continuity.


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… presented not as speculation but as the latest portrait of how the world really is.

For example, the usual interpretation of cosmic expansion as an expansion of space itself. Steven Weinberg seems to contradict the current dogma: “It is misleading to say that the universe is expanding, because solar systems and galaxies are not expanding, and space itself is not expanding. The galaxies are rushing apart in the way that any cloud of particles will rush apart once they are set in motion away from each other.” [Weinberg Dreams of a Final Theory Pantheon 1992, p34 footnote]


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Should education teach us how to make a living, but not how to live?

See Alain de Botton Religion for Atheists: a non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion McClelland and Stewart 2012, p105: “Whatever rhetoric may be rehearsed in its prospectuses, the modern university appears to have precious little interest in teaching its students any emotional or ethical life skills, much less how to love their neighbors and leave the world happier than they found it.”


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According to Freud…a rebellion against the very strictures of civilized life.

Nazism drew heavily on Romantic ideas, as Hitler himself proclaimed: “A new era of the magical explanation of the world is rising, an explanation based on will rather then knowledge. There is no truth, in either the moral or the scientific sense…” [Quoted in Holton EHP, p31] Holton cites a “chief cultural hero of Nazi propaganda” as warning that technological success of science leads to the dangerous notion of man’s mastery over nature and spiritual impoverishment of society. Holton earmarks this idea as a symptom of the romantic disease of anti-scientism, with uncomfortable echoes in the present. He complains against such sentiments—and irrationality behind the rebellion against the limits of rationality—but does not challenge the accuracy of such descriptions.


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…science, which has…hardly taught us how to avoid destruction.

E.g., Václav Havel, quoted in Holton EHP, p33: “Traditional science, with its usual coolness, can describe the different ways we might destroy ourselves, but it cannot offer truly effective and practicable instructions on how to avert them…. The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief… that the world… is a wholly knowable system governed by a finite number of universal laws that man can grasp rationally and direct for his own benefit… It was an era… in which the goal was to find a universal theory of the world, and thus a universal key to unlock its prosperity.” Havel writes as though his description should horrify the reader, whereas it is merely an accurate description of traditional science, which society embraces for its benefits. The truth he is inadvertently pointing to is that science could offer instructions for averting the disasters it has helped make possible if it had the will to do so. That is, if it expanded its traditional role as description of nature to include our relationship to nature, and expanded its implicit role of controlling nature to include controlling man’s relationship to nature: controlling man’s control.