Vanity thought #1014. Scientific Method – facts and observation

If we discuss existence of God or evolution or countless other topics with atheists we are very likely to run into the “scientific method” defense. It has become one of their most popular tools of late and they won’t take any our statements seriously if we can’t comply with their “scientific method”, discussion ends there.

To get around this stumbling block we need to find another approach so we don’t trigger this defensive reaction and they don’t retreat into their shell, or we need to challenge their “scientific method” assumptions and so deny them their safety. I won’t touch on the first solution today, I don’t think I even know how to do that, it’s the second one that I want to focus on, even if in the spirit of “know you enemy”.

First of all, science is given a status of magic. Attach word “science” or “scientists” and whatever you say immediately carries a lot more weight. Some disciplines add “science” to themselves to sound important and authoritative. There are things like “political science”, because it sounds better than simply “politics”, and even “literary science” because “art” is not an authoritative label.

On religious side they have “Christian science” and “creation science” because they don’t want to be associated with simple faith. Śrila Prabhupāda also used the word “science” to describe Kṛṣṇa consciousness and we even have “Science of Self-Realization” but at least we try to explain what we mean by science because clearly what we practice doesn’t look like scientific research.

I’m not saying that Christians have no right to use the word “science” to describe their studies, I’m just saying that there could be an ulterior motive in trying to elevate their status by cashing in on science popularity and prestige.

This popularity is largely based on the unassailable “scientific method” which is assumed as being superior to any other method and, especially, acquiring knowledge from religious texts.

Wikipedia gives five steps to the scientific method:

  1. Formulate a question
  2. Offer a hypothesis
  3. Make predictions
  4. Test
  5. Analyze

There’s a bit more to it, however. At the very basis of it lies an assumption that science deals with observable facts, that whatever science produces is solid, verifiable truth and anyone can prove it to themselves, leaving nothing to faith.

We usually say that even science requires faith but it’s not faith in the sense atheists understand it. They see it as trust in research done by others. They depend on this trust so that they don’t have to replicate previous research themselves. It does not challenge their fundamental belief that anyone can follow the same scientific procedures and arrive at the same results.

That’s why they deal with facts, observation, and laws. It’s all objective for them, all these things are true regardless of who does them and when. That’s why they call it an objective reality as opposed to mystical and supernatural world of faith.

Perhaps we should start the critique of scientific method by analyzing this assumption that it is based on observable facts and that they would be objectively true at all times so that scientists can reuse them to build further theories.

First of all, observation is tricky. Atheists assume that everyone looking at the same picture or event would observe the same thing. That is not always true. It is equally not true that by observing the same thing everyone would come to exactly same conclusions.

Look at this optical illusion, for example:

It’s a staircase, obviously, but which way does it go? Is it a regular one or inverted upside down one? We all see the same picture but what we actually observe constantly flips from one vision to another. The three dimensional aspect of it confuses us. Why? Partly because we are modern city people, we deal with geometrical forms all the time – buildings, roads, everyday objects. People who grow up in the villages do not have such a strong sense of 3D and there are tribes in Africa who can’t see staircase at all because they have no such concept, they have never seen a staircase, and they have never drawn any objects in 3D. We, otoh, can’t see this image as two-dimensional, it doesn’t make sense to us, we can’t associate it with anything we know.

This is just an example of how we see things but we might actually not SEE them because what we observe is based on our previous, subjective experience. Example from science – cells under microscope. People looked at them for over a hundred years before they figured out what they were. To observe a cell one must have a sufficient scientific background, simply looking at it is not enough. We can all look at chest x-rays and see ribs and the heart but only trained doctors can discuss finer details of the lungs and signs of chronic or acute diseases.

One could easily find more examples from whatever field one is familiar with, and this should give us enough ammunition to challenge the assumption that scientific theories are based on observable facts. Not at all, observable facts are based on existing theories instead.

Scientists will say that observable facts can modify and improve existing theories so it’s a self-correcting mechanism and this is true but only to a degree because these ever expanding theories feed on themselves and do not bring any new information in.

Example from science – for other a thousand years everyone thought that matter was made of four-five elements – earth, fire, water, air and ether. They’ve developed lots of theories based on that, correcting and improving on their understanding. Then it all had to be thrown out, lifetimes of research and entire disciplines like alchemy. It all was very rational and logical and based on observable facts but it was all false, as we know now.

Similarly, for thousands of years observational fact has been, and still is, that the Earth is stationary. We don’t take this observational fact as true description of reality but on itself it’s still true. As Prabhupāda once quipped – Earth is flat wherever I go.

So, the point today is that observational facts are not uniform and objective but depend on one’s subjective background, and that theories are not based strictly on facts but facts are observed according to existing theories.

This should open up a theoretical possibility that there could be a parallel system of knowledge that is perfectly consistent on its own and that the current view of the universe or the atoms is not the only correct way to see them. That’s our foot in the door, and it’s based on the same scientific principles, just with a different starting point to develop on. It’s not how Vedic science works, of course, but we could present it this way to comply with the “scientific method”.

Me listing five steps of that method was overly enthusiastic, I haven’t gotten even to the first one, but this is not my last post either. Perhaps tomorrow

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