Under the streetlight
As a palate cleanser I was reading this review of one of Carl Sagan's books, provided via Thought Criminal. This is a typically cogent and telling passage:
There can be no observations without an immense apparatus of preexisting theory. Before sense experiences become “observations” we need a theoretical question, and what counts as a relevant observation depends upon a theoretical frame into which it is to be placed. Repeatable observations that do not fit into an existing frame have a way of disappearing from view, and the experiments that produced them are not revisited. In the 1930s well-established and respectable geneticists described “dauer-modifications,” environmentally induced changes in organisms that were passed on to offspring and only slowly disappeared in succeeding generations. As the science of genetics hardened, with its definitive rejection of any possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, observations of dauer-modifications were sent to the scrapheap where they still lie, jumbled together with other decommissioned facts.
In this Age of Trump there are countless articles trying to explain why people vote for conservative politicians and accept absurd conspiracy theories. All of these articles depend, explicitly or implicitly, on an "us v. them" dichotomy: they are not like us because they are bad, we are good; they can't think correctly, we can; etc., etc. But, as any "serious student of epistemology" can point out (which means a philosophy scholar, mind): "There can be no observations without an immense apparatus of preexisting theory."
Or, as Godel put it, there is no formal system that cannot produce a question it cannot answer. Which means only that all such formal systems are incomplete, and all theories are set aside, or even abandoned, as they reach their limits. And some facts become "decommissioned facts," because they no longer suit any current theory. Does that mean those facts were wrong, are wrong? Or are they just irrelevant?
But irrelevant to what? To where the keys are, of course. The drunk who lost his keys looked for them under the lamp, because the light was so much better there; not because that was where he lost his keys.
I have "observed" phenomena which are not supposed to have happened, according to the wisdom of the Carl Sagans of the world. My mother, according to her own report and that of my late father, sat up in bed one night, waking her husband to tell him something had happened to her twin sister, something terrible. A few hours later (in the days before cell phones), she got a call from her sister. It seems they'd rolled their car on a country road a few hours earlier. It took them a while to crawl out, walk down the road to a house, and use a telephone. Is this a relevant observation of a phenomenon? Not one science currently accepts, so it is explained as coincidence (mathematics), or illusory (my mother is lying about her experience), or simply inexplicable (it is meaningless). Without a preexisting theory, this story isn't even a fact; it's simply nothing.
My own experience has convinced me of the reality of God. Is this something I can prove by scientific methods? No. No more can I prove I love my wife; perhaps even to her, at times. Yet I do; I've never stopped doing so, in the 40+ years I've known her. Can I prove this? Who asks me to? It fits no scientific theory (except some reductio models not worth mentioning). Yet I declare it true. Of course, that declaration is important only to my wife; perhaps my daughter, perhaps my friends; but not to the greater world. So I am free to say it, and never required to make a fact of it. I say the same about my experiences of the God of Abraham, but none of those experiences would satisfy the video-game standards of modern media, where gods and monsters appear as Greek nightmares or vaguely Roman Catholic concepts (very vaguely; and all of those pre-existing theories, too). Nor would my experience satisfy any pre-existing theory, and science as currently understood won't allow my experience to start one.
Well, unless I can mash my experience into psychology in some form or fashion; but then we're back to pre-existing theories again. Even to say my experience is of the God of Abraham is to fit it to a pre-existing theory, of course; or at least a discourse with a vocabulary that allows me to discuss what I know (if you don't know your own experiences, what do you know?). So we never escape the epistemological issue; even if defenders of science want to insist "science" exists above and beyond philosophy; which is to say, above and beyond human wisdom.
But human wisdom says it is very unwise to be so arrogant.
As Lewontin puts it, in the paragraph following the one quoted above:
The standard form of a scientific paper begins with a theoretical question, which is then followed by the description of an experimental technique designed to gather observations pertinent to the question. Only then are the observations themselves described. Finally there is a discussion section in which a great deal of energy is often expended rationalizing the failure of the observations to accord entirely with a theory we really like, and in which proposals are made for other experiments that might give more satisfactory results. Sagan’s suggestion that only demonologists engage in “special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble,” is certainly not one that accords with my reading of the scientific literature. Nor is this a problem unique to biology. The attempts of physicists to explain why their measurements of the effects of relativity did not agree with Einstein’s quantitative prediction is a case no doubt well known to Sagan.
As Kuhn put the matter, in a way that always sounds rather like Yeats' theory of the gyres to me, science proceeds along the path of a theory (say, Newtonian physics) until evidence amasses that "breaks" that theory because the theory can't explain the evidence, and the evidence won't go away (I simplify greatly, let the reader understand), and then we get a new theory: Einsteinian mechanics. Well, until quantum mechanics comes along, and the two rest uneasily side by side until one displaces (almost) the other. And so on. Lewontin is pointing out that rupture between theories should really occur earlier, if "truth" were the domain of science; but only occurs at all because the new theory accounts for so much of the evidence now deemed compelling simply because it fits the new theory; not because it is a progression towards a Platonic ideal at all. A great many "decommissioned facts" get left behind because they really aren't relevant to the theory.
But is the theory, truth? "What is truth?" Pilate's question still hangs over all. Am I over reading Lewontin? It doesn't appear he would think so:
As to assertions without adequate evidence, the literature of science is filled with them, especially the literature of popular science writing. Carl Sagan’s list of the “best contemporary science-popularizers” includes E.O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, and Richard Dawkins, each of whom has put unsubstantiated assertions or counterfactual claims at the very center of the stories they have retailed in the market. Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature rest on the surface of a quaking marsh of unsupported claims about the genetic determination of everything from altruism to xenophobia. Dawkins’s vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing non-selective forces in evolution. Thomas, in various essays, propagandized for the success of modern scientific medicine in eliminating death from disease, while the unchallenged statistical compilations on mortality show that in Europe and North America infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and diphtheria, had ceased to be major causes of mortality by the first decades of the twentieth century, and that at age seventy the expected further lifetime for a white male has gone up only two years since 1950. Even The Demon-Haunted World itself sometimes takes suspect claims as true when they serve a rhetorical purpose as, for example, statistics on child abuse, or a story about the evolution of a child’s fear of the dark.
It would be useful to stop here and point out the worm in the rose of evolutionary theory: "social Darwinism," as Thought Criminal has pointed out, is not an aberrant form of Darwin's theory, but the theory ab initio. Darwin himself was an enthusiast of the idea of inferior races (to white Europeans, of course) being hobbled by evolutionary forces, because "survival of the fittest" meant not whatever species were around at the time of observation were obviously "fit" to "survive," but that evolution moved toward perfection (another Platonic idea). Are humans really more fit to survive than dinosaurs? Considering how many millions of years they occupied the planet, and by comparison what a relatively short time we have been here, on what basis does one make the judgment? And did the dinosaurs all really live and die just to lead to us? And how does "survival of the fittest" work when conditions change so radically (ice ages; meteor strikes; global warming and industrial pollution) species can no longer thrive? Evolution is proven by being the last species standing? By that standard the ruling species on the planet is the cockroach.
And I can't leave this paragraph out, if only for the reference to the Orthodox study house in Brooklyn:
Third, it is said that there is no place for an argument from authority in science. The community of science is constantly self-critical, as evidenced by the experience of university colloquia “in which the speaker has hardly gotten 30 seconds into the talk before there are devastating questions and comments from the audience.” If Sagan really wants to hear serious disputation about the nature of the universe, he should leave the academic precincts in Ithaca and spend a few minutes in an Orthodox study house in Brooklyn. It is certainly true that within each narrowly defined scientific field there is a constant challenge to new technical claims and to old wisdom. In what my wife calls the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Syndrome, young scientists on the make will challenge a graybeard, and this adversarial atmosphere for the most part serves the truth. But when scientists transgress the bounds of their own specialty they have no choice but to accept the claims of authority, even though they do not know how solid the grounds of those claims may be. Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution.
Or the last part of this one:
What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity “in deep trouble.” Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.But this is where the iron bites:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.What the supporters of Donald Trump accept are absurdities: that government functions by the fiat of one man; that conspiracy theories explain everything except the weather; that "alternative facts" are a sound explanation of the contrary of whatever you are told is true. They have a prior commitment to a theory I don't subscribe to. And the theory they accept is absolute: they cannot allow competing explanations, even ideas, to have a foot in the door. That is where they are dangerous, but only slightly more dangerous than the Carl Sagans of the world. The difference is that Trump is in office, and he is governing they way they would. Sagan, as Lewontin points out, had access to billions of dollars in tax money to pursue his theories, and yet he, too, was deeply concerned with the people who disagreed with him, who didn't see the world the way he did, who had alternative theories, perhaps even alternative facts.* Part of the risk of this new age is that we harden our opinions into pure opposition, that we settle for our beliefs as truth, simply because the "other side" can't possibly be right.
Lewontin provides an excellent example of how science still depends on the appeal to authority to make its claims:
On the one hand science is urged on us as a model of rational deduction from publicly verifiable facts, freed from the tyranny of unreasoning authority. On the other hand, given the immense extent, inherent complexity, and counterintuitive nature of scientific knowledge, it is impossible for anyone, including non-specialist scientists, to retrace the intellectual paths that lead to scientific conclusions about nature. In the end we must trust the experts and they, in turn, exploit their authority as experts and their rhetorical skills to secure our attention and our belief in things that we do not really understand. Anyone who has ever served as an expert witness in a judicial proceeding knows that the court may spend an inordinate time “qualifying” the expert, who, once qualified, gives testimony that is not meant to be a persuasive argument, but an assertion unchallengeable by anyone except another expert. And, indeed, what else are the courts to do? If the judge, attorneys, and jury could reason out the technical issues from fundamentals, there would be no need of expertsExpert witnesses are those allowed to state opinions in court; all other witnesses can only testify to the facts they have of their personal knowledge. Experts can say that, in their opinion, the death of the driver was caused by a faulty weld in the car seat itself; or the design of the product lead to the injury; or whatever opinion is within their professional knowledge to form. Expert witnesses are the authority in the courtroom on that subject; and they can only be countered with another authority. It can be like watching two elephants fight; the grass of commonsense thought often gets trampled.
Lewontin ends his article quoting the Gospel of John, that "the truth shall set you free." Not so, he says; it is the possession of the power to discover the truth that is liberating. But John wasn't to simple as that, because his is also the only gospel that records Pilate's famous question.
That power is never so easily granted, or even obtained.
*if you don't think there are, validly, alternative facts, attend a trial one day and listen to various witnesses describe the same traffic accident. You'll soon figure out why the legal system calls the jury the "finder of facts." It is a legal fiction that the jury determines the truth; what they actually determine are the facts the court rests its decision on. There are many alternatives but the courts must settle for one, and appointing a "finder of facts" is the way it is done. You may appeal the legal ruling of the court, even the admission or denial of facts into the courtroom; but you can never challenge the facts of the case, once they are "found." Before that finding, however, there are always alternative facts; and lawyers to argue for them. No, it's not what Kellyeann Conway meant, but there again, we strain at gnats and swallow camels if we aren't careful.