Another way to Think About Science in Academia

Background: Got to hear a homily by a Jesuit a few weeks back on the reading from Acts covering the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15: 1-31). Those with long experience both in the pews at Mass and with Jesuits know what’s coming next: it was carefully and delicately explained to us lunkheads that the Apostles *overturned* Tradition in light of new developments – that the clear answer of tradition was for the gentile converts to be circumcised and obey all Jewish laws. But that’s not what they did – the *correct* answer was to ignore tradition in light of new developments – the clear evidence of the Spirit working among the gentile converts – and toss tradition and embrace Progress. Therefore, today, when we see the Spirit at work among women seeking ordination, couples of whatever sex shacking up in whatever combinations, and any other “developments”, we should – it was implied – toss tradition and embrace Progress, too.

Ignoring the anachronistic and forced nature of this interpretation – the real issue is pretty clearly whether Christianity is a flavor of Judaism or not, the answer to which question obviates the issue of Jewish Tradition – the argument hinges on the concept of ‘development’. What does this mean? It clearly can’t mean a simple change of opinion – we used to think homosexuality base and sinful, now we (the ‘we’ that count, anyway) think it’s just super, at least as good as being straight, so now we change Church teachings to reflect our new opinion. If this is so, Luther and Calvin, not to mention Dawkins and Hitchens, would like a word with us.  No, if it means anything other than that I get my way and you swallow it and shut up, development means something objective became known, that something ‘developed’ to which you or I as an honest thinker would be compelled by our honesty to admit as true.

So here’s a little thought: the process by which a development can become something that demands our acknowledgement as true can follow roughly 2 paths. We shall here call them the Aristotelian path and the Hegelian path. Playing a starring role along the Aristotelian path is Science. Science can  reasonably demand our conditional assent to its claims  because of our absolute assent to logic, reason and truth. This breathtaking assertion means, in practice, that Science, insofar as it is to validly demand our assent, must conform to the rules of logic and reason. Chiefly, this adherence to logic and reason is expressed in Science’s own internally developed rules of observation.What qualifies as a scientific observation – a data point, if you will – is dependent upon compliance with well-understood rules that, in turn, derive from logic and reason.

The positive aspect of agreeing to conditionally accept the claims of science is that we can be as sure of things in the material world as is possible to the embodied human mind. (Sure enough to successfully build a nuclear power plant, for example.) The downside is this: that the claims of science are necessarily very limited. Turns out that most of what’s interesting in the world does not admit very readily to successful analysis by the scientific method. To get results that can reasonably claim our conditional assent in such fields as psychology, sociology or economics is devilishly difficult, and any such valid claims are going to be, by their nature, very small and limited. Some indispensable things are clearly outside the ken of science entirely – metaphysics, for example.

Yet the disciples of science can’t let it go, and keep pushing ahead in areas of great uncertainty and as if they are not building a house of cards in mid-air. (If this isn’t clear, stop right now and read Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman. It’s way worse now than it was 50 years ago when he wrote it.) We lovers of science are honor-bound to call ‘foul!’ whenever we see this happening.

So, have there been new ‘developments’ in, for example, the understanding of human sexuality such that the modern psychologist or sociologist has knowledge both pertinent to the question and unavailable to St. Paul or Dante? Knowledge that our loyalty to reason, logic and truth compel us to accept? The answer is clearly no – if we apply the standards of science. Therefore, we would reject a call to reject the Church’s teachings even if we accept the logic of our Jesuit’s homily.

But there is another approach, and here I tread where one Hegel translator warned me off: he wisely noted that if you ever think you’ve paraphrased Hegel succinctly and clearly, you are wrong.  That said – that I am wrong – here’s what I think Hegel’s approach boils down to in regards to science: you will never understand horses by understanding horse meat. To understand horses – or anything at all – you don’t start with the pieces, you start with an apprehension of the whole, the whole living horse, the horse in its herd, the herd in its environment, the changing herd and changing environment over time. Science in the Aristotelian sense described above is for the little people and their little facts and little lives. Real understanding comes from ontology, the direct perception of Being.  Therefore, when we enlightened true philosophers determine that we’ve always misunderstood homosexuality (to stick with the same example) because our forebears understood it in isolation from Reality, we say that we now, as the Spirit further unfolds itself in History, finally understand it correctly.

This, and not Science, is what underlies claims of new developments. It must, because there are no relevant new developments under Science as described above.

So, back to the title of this post: while hard scientists are typically pretty clear about what they are doing and what constitutes scientific evidence and conclusions, soft scientists are and must be Hegelian in their approach. (If they want funding, that is – see the Feynman essay linked above.) But the word ‘science’ is used equivocally in the academy to describe both what a chemist does and what a psychiatrist does, even though the chemist would be laughed out of his profession were he to base his claims on ‘insights’ like those of the psychiatrist.

The key point here is that there is no overlap. Repeat: there is no overlap. What soft scientists tend to claim is that they are doing science just like the chemist, except that their subject matter determines their methods – which methods are still science, just different. But that is not the case. Getting back to Hegel, one of his exasperating practices is to almost never give concrete (in the common, not Hegelian, meaning of the term) examples. He can burn through 50 pages of esoteric abstractions without ever once giving you a case in point. (And, amusingly, on those rare occasions when he does give examples he almost always looks foolish – see his account of art history for example.) Similarly, it’s rare to read anything from a sociologist, for example, where the nature of the argument and evidence isn’t shaped pretty much entirely by an Hegelian act of ontological apprehension: they just know How Things Are, and present their case within that context.

These approaches to truth are mutually exclusive. When they both arrive at the same conclusion, it is either an accident or an attempt to square the circle, to make the two systems one by fitting one little corner of one system into another. (An example: brain science and brain scans, where the practitioners use the tools and nomenclature of science – they even wear lab coats! – to support their fundamentally Hegelian phrenology.) This can be most clearly seen in Marxists (and, come to think of it, Freudians), who have determined in advance what sorts of conclusions are allowed to be true, and use simple Bulverism to dismiss any claims to the contrary.

The debate in academia should not be between Science and Creationism, or Science and Religion. If the concern is really for defending truth, it should be between Aristotelian Science and Hegelian Pseudoscience. At least, it should be made clear that the claims of Science on our loyalty are vastly different depending on whether Aristotle or Hegel is the guiding light.