The sobriety of science vs. the intoxication of the world – a hypothesis

Assume that Aristotle hit  bedrock when he called science the search for conclusions resting on certain causes. But then we redefined causality, or at least became convinced that causes were just indices of our expectation of a conjunction of future events, usually based on our experience of a constant conjunction of the events in the past. As a result, science became an attempt to articulate or sift through our expectations of the future, and so essentially a game of prediction and probability.

This would all be fine in the world didn’t throw off such an intoxicating allure of objectivity. It would take a heart of stone to make a prediction of any significance, have it pan out, and not think you’d discovered something about the world. If your experimental results are anywhere near what you predict – or even if the experiment works at all – no one can resist thinking that he’s seen into some secret of nature. Trying to stomp out this desire is as pointless as trying to make everyone eunuchs.

But where does that leave us? We have a system that we put together in a mood that was sober, pessimistic, realist and skeptical, and yet whenever it works it sets off feelings of intoxication, optimism, idealism and certitude. We adopt a method that was never intended to find real causes and yet inevitably convinces all but the sturdiest of doctrinaire Humian Humean-Kantians that they’ve found them.


  1. thenyssan said,

    December 29, 2013 at 8:13 am

    Humean? I can never find an adjective form I like for him.

    This is a neat post. I think it relates back to a problem with how we teach and talk about science. Any 9th-grader can tell you that chemistry is the class where you memorize tables and definitions of obscurata like valences and bonds and whatnot. A chemist, on the other hand, is making things go boom and giggling with glee when his experiment works (and his neighbor yells at him). The problem is that all our talk about science on TV and the internet falls back on the 9th-grader’s definition. It’s not really science–it barely has anything to do with the world at all. Only people who don’t do science could possibly think it is a hazy, uncertain, probabilistic muddle. Real science grabs you, the world grabs you, even the smallest discovery or confirmation is magical.

    After all, you and I are about the same age. What was the name of the famous TV scientist we learned from? Before that Bill Nye hack came along?

    • December 29, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      Feynman was merciless in condemning anything that pretended to be science that wasn’t based on touching nature – he would mock textbooks as not containing any science at all. Somewhere on the blog I have a link to him flipping through a textbook at random, pointing to a definition, and then saying that if you actually wanted to teach anything, you would dare the kid to go off and do something to actually get a view of nature doing something.

      I’ve wanted many times to teach science courses like shop courses, but the experiments are hard to get to work. Still… can you imagine if you could learn physics from, ya know, the physical?

      • thenyssan said,

        December 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm

        I think my dream course would be “Discover electrons.” Not just re-do the historical experiment, but realize that you need to find them in the first place.

        The one I do at school a little with a colleague and interesed kids is astronomy. “Look at that thing. Prove to me its distance (or size).” I think “discover the principles of angular diameter” is one of the coolest things in history.

  2. fontofworlds said,

    December 29, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Well… sciencewise, in the golden age, was Mr Wizard. He was at the hindbrain of my consciousness… as he faded right about the time I was watching Captain Kangaroo. Then there was 3,2,1 Contact! Which was decent, but not nearly as good. Then there was Bill Nye, and I was unimpressed. Admittedly, Newton’s Apple wasn’t bad, but they didn’t have the global Disney apparatus behind the marketing.

    But I still miss the days when Connections was considered children’s television, and the Hysterical Channel (that is, the so-called History Channel) would be laughed off the airwaves.

    What I’m interested in is why this Disease of Objectivity in modernism is so often blamed on the Schoolmen. More regurgitated Reformation propaganda? My hazy recollection suggests it goes back further– perhaps to Duns Scotus.

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