Can science hold all the answers?

Revisiting the thinkers who challenged the scientific method’s claims to a monopoly on truth


This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Measurability, reproducibility, independent verification, accurate predictions — these are the criteria that have elevated scientific experimentation to the arbiter of truth in modern society. Besides the long and impressive history of accomplishments and discoveries attributed to these standards, they possess the advantage of an imaginative appeal. Instinctively we associate numbers, repetition and unanimity with objectivity, certainty and permanence. Humanity is fallible, arbitrary and transient, but the mechanical and the impersonal offer us a grip on reality.

In our polarised and relativistic age, it is a relief to affirm a field of knowledge as indisputably trustworthy and authoritative. When a sudden crisis — such as the Covid-19 outbreak — compels us to take joint action, it is a necessity. We may splinter in our ideals and habits, but so long as we occupy the same space and rely on the same systems and services for survival, we find common ground somewhere. Whilst other disciplines have fallen under the disrepute of critique and deconstruction, science has maintained enough of its authority to be a unifying hope and guide in times of fear.

C.S. Lewis observed this deference to science as early as 1945, in his brief “Meditation in a Tool Shed”. He first reminds us that there is an alternative to scientific insight, another way of knowing. Imagine sunlight streaming through a crack in the walls of a shed, its brightness the only thing visible in the dark, enclosed space. By standing back, we can observe the beam and the dust floating in it. If we step forward and let the light strike our eyes, we no longer see the beam itself but instead the garden and sky it reveals through the crack.

Lewis compares scientific observation with looking “at” the beam of light instead of looking “along” it — that is, examining the beam rather than using it to examine something else. This difference manifests in a mathematician understanding himself as “contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity” whilst a cerebral physiologist sees “only tiny movements in the grey matter” of his brain. 

If truth does exist, science has the last word on it

Likewise, a young man considers himself in love, but the psychologist declares it a biological impulse; an anthropologist explains rain dances as fertility rituals; a sociologist attributes the chivalric code to a function of economics.

“Which is the ‘true’ or ‘valid’ experience?” asks Lewis. “Which tells you most about the thing?” He contends that one way of knowing may be superior to the other, or both may be true in different ways, but “for the last 50 years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted … The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten.”

Lewis protests this imbalance in the name of fairness, but the modern mind feels no compunction about affirming the superiority of scientific knowledge. This assumption largely passes unexamined because it is rarely questioned. “It has been assumed without discussion,” as Lewis complains, across the ideological spectrum. Moderate progressives who embrace the relativisation of public morals — everyone must decide for themselves what is right and wrong — would unhesitatingly urge acquiescence to directives derived from scientific findings. 

Meanwhile traditional and religious-minded dissenters bolster their positions by producing scientific findings in support. Even postmodern, anti-rational movements like transgenderism might assert subjective truth over biology, but they do not scruple to highlight studies and research that reinforce their claims. Truth may not exist, but when it does, science has the last word on it.

If pressed, we may justify our preference for scientific knowledge by pointing to the aforementioned criteria: measurability, reproducibility, independent verification, accurate predictions. Science, particularly physical science, is tangible. We feel that what we can touch (or at least count) is more real than what we can only imagine. Furthermore, we can test science across space and over time  to confirm its claims to ourselves and others without room for doubt. No other discipline can claim such rigorous methods for separating fact from fancy, reality from conjecture, truth from falsehood.

If the general public stepped inside the beam of science and shared the experience of a leading research scientist, this comfortable assumption might rapidly reveal itself as a comforting fiction.

Writing concurrently with Lewis, distinguished chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi contested the inherent superiority of his own discipline. “The capacity of scientists to guess the presence of shapes as tokens of reality,” Polanyi argues in Science, Faith and Society, “differs from the capacity of our ordinary perception, only by the fact that it can integrate shapes presented to it in terms which the perception of ordinary people cannot readily handle.” In other words, the work of science requires specialist skills, but it does not differ in essence from how non-scientists arrive at non-scientific knowledge.

In the opening sally of this complex argument, Polanyi speaks to epistemology, the nature of knowing. He does not assert that science is prone to errors, or that science is fallible to the extent that its human practitioners cannot be perfect. He makes the more radical claim that science has no more privileged access to reality than any other human discipline, or indeed undisciplined thought.

Polanyi dispels the myth of mechanistic, impersonal research

To defend this claim, Polanyi dispels the myth of mechanistic, impersonal research. Pitilessly he slaughters the sacred calves of our imagined scientific ideal: “The popular conception of the scientist patiently collecting observations, unprejudiced by any theory, until he finally succeeds in establishing a great new generalization, is quite false.” 

As to the notion of the scientist devising working hypotheses and standing “ready immediately to abandon them in the face of conflicting observational evidence”, Polanyi declares it “either meaningless or untrue”. He concludes grimly, “Thus science has been carried on successfully for the last 300 years by scientists who were assuming that they were practising the Baconian method, which in fact can yield no scientific results whatever.”

Against the “Baconian method”, Polanyi articulates the realities of pursuing scientific research based on his own experience. “In my laboratory I find the laws of nature formally contradicted at every hour,” but he must decide for himself as to which contradictions he should dismiss as experimental errors, and which contradictions he might pursue as the beginnings of a great discovery. 

In making these decisions, the scientist cannot rely upon the standards of measurability, reproducibility, independent verification, accurate predictions. “Take the most important rules of experimental verification,” writes Polanyi. “These are powerful criteria; but I could give you examples in which they were all fulfilled and yet the statement which they seemed to confirm later turned out to be false.” The hallmarks of the scientific method, which our society entrusts with determining truth, cannot eliminate the possibility of “mere coincidence”. 

In the persistence of doubt which taints experimental methods as much as any other method of knowing, “it is for the scientist to decide in the light of his own judgement whether to consider such doubt as reasonable in any particular instance”.

The more detached from human judgement, the more the modern mind tends to regard an outcome as reliable. “After all,” as Lewis puts it, “we are often deceived by things from the inside … Having often been deceived by looking along, are we not well-advised to trust only to looking at? — in fact to discount all inside experiences?”

Polanyi echoes Lewis in rejecting this conclusion as not only undesirable but unworkable. Scientific discovery owes its achievements not to routine procedures, but to “processes of creative guesswork” akin to creating artwork, solving riddles, summoning a lost memory and “the prayerful search for God”. The key features of this process include mental effort and a resistance to the temptations of fanciful enthusiasm, but most importantly a belief in something real that may be discovered.

Along with philosophical coherence, science itself is at stake

By ranking science alongside artwork and spiritual quests, Polanyi does not intend to discredit it. On the contrary, he writes, “As I am convinced that there is great truth in science, I do not consider its guesses as unfounded.” He contends the mechanistic view has misled us, however, because the greatness of science derives not from the rigours or uniqueness of its methodology but from its commitment to truth. This transcendent ideal upholds the integrity of scientific discovery. Where operational procedures prove inadequate, the commitment to truth acts as “not merely a guide to intuition, but also a guide to conscience … not merely indicative, but also normative”. Each member of the scientific community joins by embracing that ideal, and they hold themselves and each other accountable by honouring it in their decisions.

The validity of scientific knowledge depends on exactly the type of experience which the most radical scientism would regard as inferior: participation in a tradition. To look at nature with the scientific method, we must first look along the scientific view. This view holds that reality exists and is knowable, principles not necessarily shared by other interpretations of human life. As Lewis pointed out, “you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another”. If we disallow any other way of knowing, we lock ourselves into an ultimately meaningless cycle, where one scientist’s study of moving grey matter becomes nothing more than the object of another scientist’s study and so on endlessly.

Along with philosophical coherence, science itself is at stake. By “disbelieving every proposition which cannot be verified by definitely prescribed operations”, Polanyi warns we would dissolve the very conditions necessary for participating in science: “belief in truth and in the love of truth itself”. 

What would be our motivation for pursuing universal knowledge if our findings lacked universal significance? The scientific method is not self-sufficient. Once we have cut away everything else, we will eventually find we have cut it off at the root.

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