Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Myth of Objective Science


The old Neo-Kantian bifurcation of facts and values is simply untenable. While it may seem tempting to state that science deals with "facts" while religion concerns itself with "values," this assertion cannot withstand serious analysis and a number of scientists have admitted that science is not cold or dispassionate but sometimes ideological and always informed by human presuppositions or a priori concepts. As Paul Davies points out, it seems that scientists have to start with certain "givens," which may not be necessary (in the Kantian sense) but probably are not objectionable either (The Mind of God, pp. 186-187).

Modern thought on science and cognition indicates that "there are no unfiltered facts." While I think this proposition might overstate the case somewhat, it does capture an important truth: science is not and cannot be dispassionate ex toto. Scientists may deal with factual data, but that data is not filtered through blank slates. The myth of the blank slate (tabula rasa) has been exposed thoroughly by contemporary epistemologists. Moreover, those intimately acquainted with the workings of the human brain or sapient cognitive structures will concede that feeling is an integral part of thinking. One who thinks without the presence of emotions or feelings cannot adequately think. Neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown that rationality without emotion or feeling makes prudent decision-making difficult or perhaps impossible. See his work Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. Ergo, science cannot be dispassionate or presupposition-free: it does not come to us mere mortals from the land of nowhere.

Astronomer Robert Jastrow also exposes the myth of objective science, writing:

"Theologians generally are delighted with the proof that the Universe had a beginning, but astronomers are curiously upset. Their reactions provide an interesting demonstration of the response of the scientific mind--supposedly a very objective mind--when evidence uncovered by science itself leads to a conflict with the articles of faith in our profession. It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence. We become irritated, we pretend the conflict does not exist, or we paper it over with meaningless phrases" (God and the Astronomers, page 16).

Edgar Foster

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