Science as a belief system or a method of enquiry?

This is the central question posed by Rupert Sheldrake’s book The Science Delusion, and I think it is an extremely pertinent one.

I have, for a while, been losing patience with the attitude of media scientists (most particularly the irritating Brian Cox) who talk and write about their subject as if it were some kind of dogma rather than a body of knowledge and theory that rightly evolves with time. It is not so much that Cox and his ilk deny the evolution of knowledge. The fact is, I heard his honestly pointing out, when the neutrinos in the OPERA experiment at CERN appeared to travel faster than the speed of light, that science is a discipline wherein you merely remain at any given point in time less wrong than before. No, my petty irritation arises from the arrogant and haughty dismissal of any experience or possibility that sits outside the current scientific orthodoxy.

Sheldrake writes most interestingly on the subject of the mind, something that many scientists will insist exists entirely as a set of experiences formed in the brain through the activity of chemicals, electricity and neural pathways. In fact, there are some who will say that because they can measure activity in the brain before we make a conscious decision that any free will we may think we have is a delusion, our brain has already decided for us. Thankfully, there are scientists that understand, from their own experience and that of others, that there is a lot more to us, our minds, our conciousness than that. I heard a psychiatrist on the radio the other week likening the use of brain scanning techniques to understand mental illness with the idea that you would better understand the plot of Eastenders if you dismantled your telly to observe its wiring. Comparing apples and oranges? Well I suppose so, but they are both fruit and it’s an analogy with some mileage in it to my mind.

When I write ‘my mind’, I don’t mean only my brain – I am sure of it because I have observed my own experience. I might mean a combination of my brain, epigenetics, embodied cognition, collective conciousness and quantum mechanics. If I were to agree with Richard Sheldrake I might mean the field of my mind and morphic resonance too.

You see there is a lot more knowledge out there, up in the air, or wherever, but not just in our skulls than the orthdox scientific community feel compelled to enquire into. What’s worse, those that do enquire are given short shrift by the establishment. Richard Dawkins refused even to look at the evidence contained within Richard Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, let alone discuss what it might mean. Yes, the orthodox scientific community’s methods are superb for describing what goes on in the human brain but these descriptions should never be conflated with our understanding of why, or perhaps how.

Many scientific leaps have been made through close observation of experience and that includes the observation of trial and error. Many trials and a few errors or accidents have created the breakthroughs in medicine and technology that we so rely on in our lives today; hence the sworn fealty to the scientific way. Not all of that effecting of positive outcomes has given us the lowdown on the Why of it though. For example, we regularly make people lose consciousness through administering general anaesthesia in hospitals. The person has a painfree surgical procedure that improves their life. Then the anaesthetist brings them round. We can do all this, but we still don’t know where consciousness comes from. We go to sleep daily and we have a different sort of conciousness, we can describe what it might feel like if we dream, but still we don’t know where conciousness comes from. After all the brain is still there, doing its thing. It doesn’t entirely nod off too, does it?

That is why Sheldrake’s central question is a valid one. I do not necessarily agree with all his various hypotheses, but his insistence about the necessity for the scientific community to get its collective head out of its arse and enquire methodically into all aspects of the human experience (not just those that fit with its current preoccupation with the materialist model) is a valid one. After all, metaphysics is not just for poets, philosophers and religion.

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Posted on March 2, 2012, in Philosophy, Science and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. While I agree that science is not the only useful way of gathering knowledge about life, I do not agree that science ought to change its methodology. There is no need or warrant for theistic science or intuitive science or anything like that. Science deals with nature. But there are also ways of expressing knowledge and discovering it via art and literature. But these things are not science and do not go with science. I would embrace Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA or Non-Overlapping Magisteria in dealing with this controversy. What say you?

    • I am not sure I suggested science should change its methodology. I may mean that scientific enquiry could be applied more widely to the human experience of life. I also think that science does not need to only concern itself with observable facts – by which I mean that if we cannot observe something but have reason to suspect its existence (like the Higgs Boson) do we not go looking for it? If we are prepared to invest so heavily in the search for something invisible at CERN it seems a reasonable proposition to me that we might attempt to disprove field theory or whatever so as to better understand ourselves. As regards the NOMA principle, I would say that I think that the ultimate questions of existence will always overlap and that the empirical realm of fact is indeed the what, but that the theory is the how not the why, and the why is where the overlap occurs – if not in the domain of science then evidently in the mind of the scientist. Are the two separate? Objective science says yes, but science is not always as objective as it likes to appear!

      I was just enjoying reading your post on the #1 of thermodynamics and the questions posed there. I am not a scientist but I am afflicted with a spirit of enquiry; this blog is where I think aloud, and comments help to adapt or move the thinking forward, so thank you for your comment! I hope I have made sense, my brain has to work quite hard at this, but that is the point.

  2. Hooray for writers who step up and shout it out that science is not dogma!

    I actually found myself standing up in my office cheering by the end of this posting!

    Rupert Sheldrake is a courageous and dedicated thinker, who has taken several of the established dogma’s of science and turned them on their ears with his insightful and enormously thought-provoking approach to them. One of my favorite books by him is called, “The Sense of Being Stared At,” in which he takes a reverse approach to the subject and applies a rigorous methodology to demonstrate a most unusual phenomenon where people are actually aware that someone is looking at them, even though they cannot see them. The book is fascinating, even though there is only a slight advantage to his ideas demonstrated by the data revealed in the studies.

    I am also blogging here at WordPress as someone who feels that our scientific community needs to “…enquire methodically into all aspects of the human experience (not just those that fit with its current preoccupation with the materialist model)” and a poet and philosopher who believes that “…metaphysics is not just for poets, philosophers and religion,”

    Thanks for providing the opportunity to cheer!

    John H.

    • Thank you for the comment John, it is appreciated. I have made a trip to your blog and will be returning to read further when I have some quiet time. I did pick up on the theme of being compelled, if not qualified, to write as that is pretty much me. There is a writer’s quote they use after posting here sometimes – I think it was Isaac Asimov who said, ‘Writing to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.’

      That sums it up for me.

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