I ended that post rather abruptly and at a somewhat provocative point. I claimed that science does not have anything to do with reality.
I acknowledged, however, that this would need to be clarified.
This is what I shall attempt to do today: to clarify.
So science “does not have anything to do with reality”.
How did we get to this conclusion? What does it mean?
Which brings us back to our main issue: What is truth? How do we establish it?
As we saw, it is rather easy to establish the truth value of a statement such as “the cat is on the mat”. All we’d have to do is to check and see whether there is a cat on the mat. That would do.
In contrast: How do we establish the truth of a scientific statement? Say, for example, that someone, a particle physicist, publishes a paper: “Higgs boson exists”. What do we need to do to check if this is true? Is it enough to just have a look? What is a Higgs boson, anyway? What does it look like?
The thing is, we do not know -or rather, we don't really know.
Higgs boson is a hypothetical massive elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics. The two keywords here are “hypothetical” and “predicted”. Higgs boson is a research hypothesis. In order to establish the truth of this hypothesis, we need to check it against our evidence. But the evidence for or against the existence of Higgs boson is not of the same kind as the evidence for the existence of that cat on the mat; the truth that we are trying to establish is not similar either.
First of all, nobody would really be able to “see” Higgs boson. One can only infer its existence indirectly by studying the products of collisions between elementary particles accelerated at immense speeds. This is why we need instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider. Their job is to accelerate particles at very high speeds, and let them collide in a controlled (and monitored) setting.
But we cannot “see” the products of the collisions either. We can only infer their existence indirectly by observing the interactions between these products and some specially constructed detecting instruments. These interactions, too, can only be inferred by indirect evidence. And so on and so forth.
In short: the evidence that we need in order to establish the existence of Higgs boson makes sense only within the highly sophisticated network of interdependent theories and hermeneutical models of particle physics. It does not make any sense outside of it.
In fact, this evidence –if ever collected– would only confirm the internal consistency of our theories, not the “reality” of Higgs boson. Our theories, both the ones that predict Higgs boson as well as the others that explain all the intermediate steps that we have taken in order to interpret our evidence, might be proven wrong or incomplete or inadequate, and might be abandoned or replaced.
Of course that’s not a problem. As we said, this is what scientists do: Questions of reality are irrelevant to them. They are only concerned with consistency –i.e. with scientific, not real, truth.
The point that I think is important, crucial really, is that sometimes people forget this distinction, and allow this “forgetfulness” to blur their understanding of truth.
This is a fallacy, and, as such, has major repercussions.
Last week I commented in passing upon how questions of a “subjective” nature (such as how beautiful a house or a painting is) are usually brushed aside, precisely because “they are subjective”. We usually accept this as a fact of life. We accept that “subjective things” are out of the reach of science. We accept that science can only study “objective” things, and we are fine with this.
Why shouldn’t we be fine, really? Objective things are measurable and verifiable –what is better than science to deal with them?
Higgs boson, for example, is such an objective thing. It is measurable, albeit indirectly, and verifiable. Yet, we do not know if it is real. Even if we collect evidence about its existence, we will still not know if it is real. But, as I tried to show above, this would not matter; what matters is that our theories remain consistent.
The fallacy that bothers me, is when we take qualities such as consistent or objective (in the sense of measurable or verifiable) to be identical with real; this fallacy leads to a further, more serious, fallacy that only objective things are real –with the corollary that subjective things are not real, i.e. non measurable or verifiable, and therefore unsuitable for serious study.
Do you see where this leads us?
It leads us to a place where I can study Higgs boson, even though it is hypothetical, but I cannot study something very real but subjective such as one’s sorrow for the loss of a loved one.
And instead of recognizing that as a limitation of our tools and our scientific worldview, we try to tame (one would say, bully) subjectivity into becoming objective, i.e. measurable.
We usually do this with the help of questionnaires. But whichever the way, the approach itself is highly problematic. This I will try to elaborate in another post.
For the time being, though, let’s summarize the argument.
- Science deals with objective, i.e. measurable and verifiable, entities.
- Scientific thought is only concerned with consistency, not with “truth” or “reality”.
- People, however, tend to confuse scientific truth with real truth.
- Subjective reality is taken, then, to be less “real” than objective reality –where in fact it only is less measurable.
- Subjective reality is brushed aside, or forcibly converted to objective, e.g. with the help of questionnaires.
I shall return to this.
In the meantime, please feel free to leave your comments, using the form below.