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Myth And The God-Given Order

February 23, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By JUDE DOUGHERTY

“The Myth of Scientific Objectivity” is the title William A. Wilson gave to an insightful article recently published in Modern Age (November 2017). Wilson examines how unacknowledged beliefs often influence investigation, especially in the so-called social sciences.
Scholars whose work focuses on colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, he believes, are especially vulnerable to preconceived notions. Peer review, grant making, university funding, and access to laboratory facilities are often determined subjectively. Scratch a scientist, says Wilson, and you will find a metaphysician, even if he doesn’t realize that he is one.
Admittedly, it is difficult to write about science in the abstract. There are many sciences each employing a methodology of its own appropriate to its object of study. The Latin term scientia means knowledge. But not all knowledge can claim to be scientific. Enumeration is not science, nor is technology to be equated with science, though it is often thought of as such. Precise observation is not science, nor is the correlation of data that at first blush seem to be related. We speak of medical science when we mean the art of medicine. Engineering, too, is thought of as science but, like medicine, while it draws upon a wealth of scientifically derived information, it is not itself a science.
The systematic collection of data is often taken to be scientific, as is the ability to make predictions based on the accumulation of data with respect to past instances. The application of scientific information is essentially an art with its own rules of application, much like prudence is the application of wisdom. We may not think of theology as a science, but Aristotle made room for “divine science.” Today we call it “natural theology” and distinguish it from sacred theology — that is, theology that has as its premises propositions derived from Revelation. There is a whole cadre of disciplines we categorize as social science, but most of the time when we talk about science we have in mind natural science.
The fundamental goal of science, as Aristotle taught, is to render intelligible that which is unintelligible in terms of itself. Science is not to be equated with description and prediction, but is directed rather to an understanding of nature and the processes of nature. Plato taught that all science is of the universal. We may examine the particular, but it is the universal in the particular that we seek.
A philosophy of science, as Wilson recognizes, is but a part of one’s overarching metaphysical outlook, normally derived from considerations of nature, law, intelligibility, causality, and inference. Reflections on the nature of science are undoubtedly shaped by the social and intellectual milieu in which those philosophical reflections occur. Thus the history of philosophy is much more a part of philosophy than the history of science is a part of physics.
Modern philosophy, with roots in British empiricism, cannot be understood apart from its break with Plato and Aristotle. In limiting knowledge to sense experience it reduces science to description and prediction. But true science is not limited to description. Many an important discovery has been based on inference. The existence of bacteria was inferred long before the microscope displayed their reality. In physics and chemistry, molecular structures were similarly inferred before the electron microscope and particle accelerators confirmed their reality.
In 1933, the state of particle physics was such that it seemed necessary to posit the existence of a particle as yet undetected. The Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, assuming its existence, built his theory of beta decay upon it and gave the undetected particle the name “neutrino,” Italian for “little one.” In spite of support from Niels Bohr, he was subjected to good-humored remarks about his poltergeist, since no one had empirically shown it to exist.
It remained a hypothetical entity until Clyde Cowan, with access to a particle accelerator at Hanford, Wash., performed an experiment that confirmed the neutrino’s existence. He duplicated that experiment in 1956 at the Savannah Laboratory in Georgia. Today no one challenges the existence of Fermi’s little one.
Albert Einstein’s “theory of special and general relativity” may be an exception to normal procedures of discovery. His theory was not based on the observation of something that needed to be explained. It was advanced as a supposition, but one that he believed could be confirmed empirically. In comparing the measurement of energy emitted by silicon and sulfur atoms with MIT measurements of the mass of the same atoms, it occurred to Einstein that the mass of a system measures its energy.
Without any empirical evidence, he postulated the famous formula E equals mc2. Proof followed.
Yet science is open-ended. In 1925 when Edwin Hubble proved that the universe was expanding, Einstein had to revisit his account to include time as well as space, whereas he formerly assumed space to be a cosmological constant. With the quantum revolution in the 1920s, Einstein was confronted with the difficulty of reconciling the laws of quantum physics with the laws of classical physics upon which his theory of general relativity depended. Nearly a century later, the quantum world and the classical world operate on two incompatible sets of laws.
Wilson finds that Einstein in his Autobiographical Note, said, “A theory can be tested by experience, but there is no way from experience to the construction of a theory.” Yet seemingly Einstein did just that when he postulated the notion that light is subject to the curvature of space/time and set about finding the mathematics with which to calculate the curvature. Sir Arthur Eddington provided the empirical evidence as a result of measurements he made during the total eclipse of the sun in Ecuador in 1917.
A famous example of reasoning from effect to cause is provided by the discovery of Lisa Meitner, then head of the department of particle physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Berlin, and her nephew Otto Frisch. The two, reflecting on the empirical work of Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, concluded that the German team had actually split the nucleus of the uranium atom which they had bombarded with neutrons. That heavy atomic nuclei could be split into lighter ones was unthinkable at the time. Yet here was a report that as a result of the irradiation of uranium with neutrons, barium and one unknown substance was produced. Meitner reasoned that if the uranium nucleus were split, the two particles would fly apart with tremendous energy and combined would be lighter by one fifth.
With some quick arithmetic, she multiplied the one fifth mass by the speed of light squared. It came out to be 200 million electron volts, not enough electricity to power a table lamp, but the implications were clear. Here was data compelling a theoretical explanation, one that could be (and within weeks) was tested.
Wilson rightly points to the cultural dimension of science, both in its creation and in its use. One thing to be kept in mind is that modern science is distinctively European and could have arisen only in an intellectual tradition, centuries in the making. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was with reason that science flourished in university centers such as Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, and Manchester where intellectual, cultural, and ethnic factors favored its advancement.
Michael Polanyi had it right when he wrote, “Science is a community that functions under common social norms….It requires a society in which there is a general freedom of speech and comment. Science is not an individual vocation but a system of deliberate apprenticeships, first systematized” he reminds his readers, “in the German university system.”
The sources of Western culture date to Greek and Roman antiquity where we find articulated the basic principle of scientific inquiry. No scientist denies that there is a natural law governing events in nature. Water runs downhill; gold is malleable, copper conducts electricity. By contrast, the acceptance of telos in nature is rejected by philosophers wedded to Hume’s empiricism, and, in the social sciences, by cultural progressives.
If there is no God-given order that leads to personal fulfillment, the moral compass is without a magnetic field.

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