The Scientific Method

Starting around the 16th century, our “ascent” to a separate human realm underwent a dramatic acceleration. Language, technology, number, image, and time each became the object of an ambition of Babelian audacity: to extend their demesnes to encompass the whole of reality. Although hints of this program can be found in ancient times, in Greek and Biblical urges to exert dominion over the world, it was only with the Scientific Revolution that we began to envision a plausible means to actually achieve it.

Four centuries later, we see a world utterly transformed. Miracles and magic, the province of the gods, now operate on a daily basis. Instantaneous communication across continents, travel through the air, entire books at the press of a button, perfect moving images, and much more are now commonplace—thanks to science. It is to science that we owe civilization’s ascent. It is science, we believe, that has lifted us above primitive superstition to obtain verifiable, objective knowledge. Science, the crowning achievement of modern man. Science, unlocking the deepest secrets of the universe. Science, destined to bring the whole of the universe into the human realm of understanding and control.

The very adjective “scientific” implies deep suppositions about the nature of reality and our relationship to reality. Science offers prescriptions on how to live life and how to organize society, how to understand the world and how to pursue knowledge; it tells us who we are, how we came to be, where we are going. Speaking of another culture, we might describe these prescriptions and these stories about the way of the world as a religion. For ourselves, we call them truth, fact, science—fundamentally different from other cultures’ myths. But why?

Our culture is not alone in believing its myths and stories to be special. We think that ours are true for real, while other cultures merely believed theirs to be true. What are our justifications? Two stand out, one theoretical and one practical: the doctrine of objectivity, and the power of technology.

On the practical level, we believe in the validity of our science because of the great and demonstrable power it has given us, through technology, to manipulate the material environment. The world of our experience—an artificial world, a human world—is science materialized. The very existence of the world we live in is proof of the validity of science. The god Science has given us the ability to reshape the very landscape, alter the code of life, and enact the “magic and miracles” enumerated above. Having given us such tangible power, how could it be a false god?

Yet it is not hard to imagine other cultures that would dismiss our power over the physical environment as inconsequential, an unimportant aspect of life, or that would even deny that our power is really so great. Do we not eat, sleep, pass waste, make love, grow old, grow sick, and die as all other human beings? Do we not experience the same gamut of emotions as human beings everywhere and everywhen? Henry Miller said,

We devise astounding means of communication, but do we communicate with one another? We move our bodies to and fro at incredible speeds, but do we really leave the spot we started from? Mentally, morally, spiritually, we are fettered. What have we achieved in mowing down mountain ranges, harnessing the energy of mighty rivers, or moving whole populations about like chess pieces, if we ourselves remain the same restless, miserable, frustrated creatures we were before? To call such activity progress is utter delusion. We may succeed in altering the face of the earth until it is unrecognizable even to the Creator, but if we are unaffected wherein lies the meaning?[1]

Yes, we can move mountains and build skyscrapers and talk with people on the other side of the world, but perhaps the importance we place on these things as demonstrations of the truth of our science, of our stories, says more about our values and emphasis than it does about their ultimate validity.

In other words, we have a highly developed science of (certain aspects of) the material world, and we cite our power over exactly those aspects of the material world as proof of the validity of our science. The logic is circular. Another culture might have a highly developed science of aspects of the world that we do not even recognize, or that we consider unimportant. An Australian aborigine might consider us hopelessly primitive in our understanding and use of dreams; a traditional Chinese doctor might find us laughably ignorant of the energetics of plants and the human body.

This leads to the second justification for the belief system we call science. We accord a privileged status to our stories because we think that the Scientific Method ensures objectivity. Ours is more than a mere religion, we think, because unlike all before it, it rests on verifiable, objective truth. Science is not just another alternative; it encompasses and supersedes all other approaches to knowledge. We can examine dreams or Chinese medicine scientifically. We can perform measurements, we can run double-blind studies, we can test the claims of these other systems of knowledge under controlled conditions. The Scientific Method, we believe, has eliminated cultural bias in prescribing an impartial, reliable way to derive truth from observation. As physicist Jose Wudka puts it, “The scientific method is the best way yet discovered for winnowing the truth from lies and delusion.”[2] This belief is essential to the ideology of science: that it has escaped the bounds of culture and, by insisting on replicability and logic, freed knowledge from the yoke of subjectivity.

The Scientific Method, through its testing of hypotheses, invites a kind of certainty absent from other approaches to knowledge, a universal validity that is not culture-bound. Anyone from any culture can perform the same experiment and get identical results. As long as we abide rigorously by the Scientific Method, we have a reliable way to distinguish fact from superstition, an intellectual razor that cuts through layers of cultural belief to get at the objective truth underneath. Finally, we are free from the bonds of subjectivity, the personal and cultural limits to understanding.

But are we? Or could it be that the Scientific Method is not a supra-cultural royal road to truth, but itself embodies our own cultural presuppositions about the universe? Could it be that science itself is a vast elaboration of our society’s more general beliefs about the nature of reality? Could it be that the entire edifice of science merely projects our culture onto the universe, a projection which we then validate and reinforce through selective observation and facile interpretation? Could it be, in other words, that we too have constructed a myth?

Perhaps we have simply done as all other cultures have done. Those observations that fit into our basic mythology, we accept as fact. Those interpretations that fit into our conception of self and world, we accept as candidates for scientific legitimacy. Those that do not fit, we hardly bother to consider or verify, prove or disprove, dismissing them as absurdities unworthy even of consideration: “It isn’t true because it couldn’t be true.” It was in that spirit that Galileo’s scholarly contemporaries refused to look through his telescope, because they knew Jupiter couldn’t have moons.

History has shown that scientists are no less subject than anyone else to peer pressure, self-deception, institutional blindness, and tunnel vision. Our culture is not alone in believing itself to possess the truth; nor is it alone in the certainty of its belief. However, the problem goes much deeper than the abuse and manipulation of the Scientific Method. More significant are the Method’s inherent limitations, which spring from hidden assumptions woven so seamlessly into our world-view that we rarely question them; indeed, we rarely notice them at all. They imbue our common sense about how to live life and how to organize society, how to understand the world and how to pursue knowledge. Yes, the Scientific Method can be twisted to serve cultural or institutional biases; what is less obvious is that the Scientific Method itself represents a very deep and subtle presumption about the nature of reality. Rather than freeing us from cultural prejudice, it draws us in even deeper.

Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? The scientific reader might think I’m babbling. What presumptions could there be, when the Scientific Method says in effect: “We will accept nothing on faith. We will test every hypothesis to see whether it is really true.”

Here is a central assumption of the Scientific Method that may seem so obvious as to be beyond dispute: if two people perform an identical experiment, they will get the same results. This requires (1) determinism: that the same initial conditions will result in the same final conditions, and (2) objectivity: that the experimenter can be separated out from the experiment. These two assumptions are intertwined. If we include the experimenter as part of the “initial conditions”, then they are never really identical—not even if the experimenter is the same person performing it at a different point in space and time.

At bottom, the Scientific Method assumes that there is an objective universe “out there” that we can query experimentally, thus ascertaining the truth or falsity of our theories. Without this assumption, indeed, the whole concept of a “fact” becomes elusive, perhaps even incoherent. (Significantly, the root of the word is the Latin factio, a making or a doing,[3] hinting perhaps at a former ambiguity between existence and perception, being and doing; what is, and what is made. Perhaps facts, like artifacts and manufactures, are made by us.)

The universe “out there” is in principle unconnected to one or another observer; hence the replicability of scientific experiment. If you and I query the universe with an identical experiment, we arrive at an identical result. So blinded our we by our ontology that we see this not as an assumption, but a logical necessity. We can hardly imagine a cogent system of thought that doesn’t embody objectivity. Neither can we imagine a system of thought that dispenses with determinism, which encodes the modern notion of causality. These we see as basic principles of logic, not the conditional cultural assumptions that they are.

The unfortunate fact that the whole of 20th century physics invalidates precisely these principles of objectivity and determinism has not yet sunk into our intuitions. The classical Newtonian world-view has been obsolete for a hundred years, but we have still not absorbed the revolutionary implications of the quantum mechanics that replaced it. Amazingly, eighty years after its mathematical formalization, quantum mechanics defies interpretation. Today some five or six major interpretations of quantum theory, along with countless variations, boast adherents not just among amateur philosophers and new-age seekers but among mainstream academic physicists, many of whom eschew interpretation altogether and use the mathematics of the theory in apparent disregard of its ontological significance. Either they cannot agree on the interpretation of the theory or they have given up even trying, because no interpretation is compatible with our fundamental cultural assumptions about the nature of reality.

The world-view of classical science I describe in this chapter, obsolete though it may be, still informs the dominant beliefs and intuitions of our culture. Science is a vast and elaborate articulation of the defining myth of our civilization: that we are discrete and separate selves, living in an objective universe of others. Science presupposes, embodies, and reinforces that myth, blinding us to other ways of thinking, living, and being.

Both justifications for the religion of science engender the same kind of limitation. The power of technology confirms, with circular logic, the practical truth of our science in precisely those areas in which it applies, yet it limits us to those areas. Meanwhile, the Scientific Method by its very nature excludes whole classes of possible phenomena from ever being established. It is constitutionally incapable of apprehending phenomena that are not objective or deterministic. Believing in the Scientific Method as the “best way yet discovered for winnowing the truth from lies and delusion,” we therefore conclude that such phenomena don’t really exist: they are lies, delusions, hoaxes, superstitions. Our ontology and method is fundamentally unable to countenance such possibilities as “The unicorn was there for me and not for you” except by explaining them away along the lines of “it was there but you didn’t see it.” Existence, being “there”, is assumed to have an absolute, objective reality, independent of whether or not anyone observes it. More precisely, we naively associate existence with some event in an absolute Cartesian coordinate system: if the unicorn was at point X,Y,Z at time T, then it exists.

Go ahead, try it! Close your eyes and visualize something, a fork, say, merely existing. Do you see a disembodied fork floating alone in space? Separation is woven into our conception of being. Existence happens in isolation, not in relationship. To be is to occupy a discrete point in space and time.

That would be fine if the universe were “really” like that. However, ancient ways of thinking and 20th-century physics both agree that it is not. The absolute Cartesian universe is at best an approximation, a mathematical tool useful for solving a very narrow range of problems. Yet we have attempted to force the whole of reality into its mold. In elevating the Scientific Method to a defining test for truth, we implicitly decree, by fiat, the very assumptions upon which it rests.

The Scientific Method relies for its supra-cultural validity on principles that are themselves among its own assumptions. The logic of its justification is circular. A parallel would be an aborigine insisting, “Okay, let’s settle this question of whether scientific experiment or dreaming is the way to true knowledge once and for all . . . Let’s settle it by entering the dreamtime and asking the ancestors.” It is hard to imagine, but the principal assumptions of objectivity and determinism that lie at the foundation of the Scientific Method are by no means shared by all the world’s traditions of thought. A non-objective, non-deterministic, yet coherent system of thought is possible. It is more than possible: it is necessary given the impending collapse of the world of the discrete and separate self that we have wrought. It is also necessary in light of the new scientific revolution of the last hundred years. Our ways of thinking and being are not working anymore.

Science is the intensification of trends of self-conception going back thousands of years. Objectivity and determinism reflect profoundly the way we understand ourselves in relation to the world, infiltrating at the deepest levels our thought, language, and reason. Witness the above phrase, “. . . if the universe were ‘really’ like that.” What is this “really”? It means something like, “Not just in the opinion of some, but in actual fact.” And what is this “actual fact”? Non-objective thinking is exceedingly difficult to communicate, when the assumption of objectivity is built into the language of that communication. Again, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Objectivity and determinism are woven into our very self-definition. That is why the new sciences of the 20th century have been so difficult to integrate into our general understanding of the universe. That is why the findings of quantum mechanics seem so counterintuitive, so weird.

We sense ourselves as discrete beings, separate from the universe around us. Accordingly, the Scientific Method is unable to handle phenomena of which the experimenter is an inseparable aspect. Suppose something like telepathy works if and only if the experimenter genuinely believes it will. If this is the case, telepathy is inherently beyond the reach of the Scientific Method, because the experiment is not freely replicable. A skeptical experimenter cannot confirm it by precisely replicating the “initial conditions”, because the initial conditions bring different results for different experimenters. This failure of determinism—identical initial conditions bringing different results—can only be resolved by recognizing the experimenter as part of those conditions, thereby invalidating the principle of objectivity.

I am not advocating the abolition of the Scientific Method. I am simply illuminating its inherent limitations as well as the type of knowledge it is constitutionally able to produce. The Scientific Method has a place—a very important place—in the new science that will emerge as our society evolves. At its heart, the Scientific Method rests upon a beautiful impulse, an ideal of humility and intellectual non-attachment that would serve any system of belief in good stead. In Chapter Six I will describe a different approach to experimental science, a play with nature and not a Baconian interrogation, that preserves the ideal of humility without objectivity’s alienation.

Generally speaking, the Scientific Method fails to deliver certainty whenever the very act of formulating and testing a theory about a supposed reality “out there” creates or alters that reality. A model for understanding how objectivity in science can fail is journalism, which clearly illustrates the necessary codependence of observer and reality. People behave differently when they know a journalist is present; moreover, by reporting an event we change its significance, to the point where some events are newsworthy only because there are journalists present. Further compromising objectivity is the inevitable projection of a news organization’s values and priorities onto its criteria for newsworthiness. Nonetheless, journalists still pretend to an objectivity which is not only an impossible ideal but, even worse, an incoherent concept and a dangerous trap.

Yet objectivity remains a near-universal standard of intellectual probity in our culture. The ideal of the detached scientist eliminating personal prejudice in a quest for pure objective truth projects into other fields like journalism, law, and even personal life, in which a “rational” decision is one made free from emotional attachment. A little reflection reveals that such objectivity is impossible; moreover, its blind pursuit limits what we can possibly apprehend and erects a dispiriting wall of separation between ourselves and the universe.

Not only scientific objectivity but reason itself expresses and reinforces our gradual abstraction from nature. As David Bohm explains, reason is essentially the application of an abstracted relationship onto something new. We observe the relationship between A and B, and say that the relationship between C and D will be like that too. For example: “All humans die; I am a human; therefore I will die.” A is to B and C is to D. Or, A:B::C:D. That is a ratio; it is rational. Reason is the recognition and application of abstracted regularities. The criticism of professional skeptics on such forums as reason-dot-com, that New Age spirituality and other denials of objectivity-based science are irrational, has merit. Reason as they understand it is contingent upon, and not prior to, the assumption of an objective reality from which we can abstract. If this assumption is untrue, then other forms of cognition are valid, and reason fraught with peril.

The mathematical connotations of the word “rational”, containing as it does the word “ratio”, suggest as well that rational thought embodies the rigor and certainty of mathematics. And unlike a mere number, which (originally at least) is associated with concrete objects and therefore, as in science, attached to units, a ratio cancels out units to arrive at a pure abstraction, disconnected from any specific experience. This contributes to our elevation of reason to a supernatural province abstracted from concrete reality—abstracted, that is, from nature. As the faculty of reason is unique to human beings, we consider it proof of our ascent above nature. And the more we rely on reason, the farther above nature we ascend; hence the dream of the perfectly rational society as the pinnacle of human development.

Science and indeed reason itself are based on the discovery of regularities in nature. The possibility that we are not observing but rather creating these regularities through our beliefs presents a profound challenge to the very validity of science as we know it, implying that we are merely observing our own reflection. Beyond these two opposed possibilities lies a third, dialectic, possibility of mutual co-creation of belief and reality that affirms the fundamental non-separation of subject and object. The deep presumption underlying the Scientific Method and the whole edifice of scientific reason is that there is a reality “out there”, independent of me, waiting to be discovered. It is the exact counterpart of our foundational cultural assumption of the separate self in a world of discrete others. It is yet another flavor of the basic dualism of subject and object.

This is the cultural assumption that grew through the ascent of humanity whose origins I explored in the previous chapter, which motivated technology and was in turn motivated by technology in a self-reinforcing loop. Science has merely taken it to its logical extreme, to its fulfillment. Science, therefore, is not prior to our understanding of self and universe, it is an outgrowth of this understanding. Science is an ideology.

Like other cultures before us, we have created a mythology, a constellation of stories to explain The Way of the World. It includes the forces of nature, the forces of human nature, the story of our origins, and an account of our role and function in the universe. Like those of all cultures, our mythology is not wholly fabricated but a window on the truth, paned, however, with the distorting lens of our culture’s prejudices. Science is this mythology’s consummation. The study of science, therefore, reveals as much about ourselves as it does about the world. This chapter explores the scientific life, personal and collective, that we have made for ourselves.

 

[1] Miller, Henry, “The World of Sex”, 1940.

 

[2] I’m not actually sure if Wudka originated this phrase, because it is all over the Internet. It matters little: the belief it articulates is centuries old.

 

[3] The verb is facere (to make, do, or perform). The root of “fact” might also be the participle factus, “made” or “done”.