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science is a culture, not a method

Over at Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander has been responding to a Jim Baggot piece at Aeon criticisng ‘post-empirical science’. This is already a response to a follow-up to a response, so I’m not going to give you any in-depth summary – go read, dorks. But to unfairly slam it all into a few sentences, it boils down to this:

  1. Baggot thinks any theory that by its very nature cannot be held to some kind of empirical standard, isn’t ‘science’
  2. Alexander says “a-HA, but what about XYZ, isn’t that science, HMMMMMMMMM?”

Predictably, I think they’re both partly right and both partly wrong, for the same fundamental reason: they talk about ‘science’ like it’s an actual discipline or field or methodology, when it really isn’t. Let me explain.

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Most of the clues as to the central problem lie in Baggot’s article. He repeatedly contrasts science with “pure metaphysics”, borrowing from Einstein/Popper. In this respect he represents a long-standing tradition in scientific culture, whereby metaphysics is referred to politely and sometimes fondly, but with great condescension and non-too-subtle smirking. Of course this attitude is without question a case of just desserts: for centuries after the Greek enlightenment, metaphysics wallowed in neoplatonic mysticism and theological scaffolding. From the perspective of modernity, it got nobody anywhere, in stark contrast to the undeniable explosion of knowledge that resulted from the European renaissance and enlightenment, marked perhaps most notably by Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Given all the triangluar hocus pocus and deity-fanfiction that had dominated metaphysics since the Greeks, it is perhaps understandable that as European enlightenment intellectuals regarded the transformative, world-shaping consequences of their age, they sought to distinguish and demarcate it from what had gone before. What was happening was clearly something different and powerful and above all better – the impact of this new tradition was astonishing. And so, about a century after Newton and amidst the upheaval of the American and French revolutions, the notion of a ‘scientific revolution’ emerged, generally regarded as beginning with Copernicus. The concept of ‘science’ as we know it began life as a retrospective construct (and as I will argue, has never really got past that).

At the core of this new intellectual culture was a marked emphasis on empiricism. Volumes have been written about the relationship between ‘science’, empiricism, and creativity. But I think the best (and ultimately, most appropriate) way to capture the standard conception is through simple metaphor: if you write a theoretical cheque, we should be able to cash it in the bank of empiricism. This sounds great, but as thinkers like Kuhn and Feyerabend have pointed out, that’s not actually what happens. From Copernicus to Newton to Einstein, a lot of the greatest advances in ‘science’ were clothed and fed on the back of some pretty big IOUs and the good grace of their peers, because for decades their proponents were drastically short on hard empirical cash.

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In truth, metaphysics never really went away. The best bits of it were gradually rebranded as ‘theoretical physics’ and bought into the fold as part of the family of respectable sciences, a largely quarantined culture of intellectually rigorous, non-mystical, typically peer-assessed and empirically rooted fields of knowledge. Indeed, this is what metaphysics was in the first place: Aristotle, one of the early fumbling empiricists and most influential metaphysicists, would have seen physics and metaphysics as part of a continuum. The disciplinary distinction is almost certainly editorial in origin, made centuries after his death. Even as late as Newton (whose extensive work on alchemy and the occult is often forgotten), the two were not seen as separate in a disciplinary sense: the full title of the Principia Mathematica is Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – ‘natural philosophy’ encompassing both physics and metaphysics as we know them today.

In my opinion, the modern idea of ‘science’ was retroactively introduced and adopted not because it captured any particular methodological approach, but because there was so much drivel marching under the banner of philosophy, and ‘natural philosophy’ in particular. A century after Newton, it was apparent to the best of the European intellectual class that there was a world of difference between his work on classical mechanics and his work on alchemy. Even going back as far as Aristotle, they could identify a difference in kind between his work on biology and physics, and his work on metaphysics. There was a desire and a need to draw a line in the sand, between this new culture of rigor and empiricism, and the worst excesses of philosophical speculation and mysticism. What we now call ‘science’ began as the emergence of a new intellectual culture, and a just schism from the medieval and scholastic traditions. It was a new set of shared norms, practices and values that were strongly associated with legitimacy and truth. And its success can be seen in the fin de siècle scramble of other fields to reimagine themselves in this light, with various degrees of success and subtlety (ahem, ‘social sciences’).

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And this is what brings us back to the beef between Baggot and Alexander. Theoretical physics is running out of experimental road, and Baggot is afraid: he sees PURE METAPHYSICS rising from the abyss to destroy science, like some kind of D&D critical failure roll. Alexander responds with creationist and palaeontological analogies and a reductio ad absurdum which he gamely sums up as:

“you wouldn’t want to conclude something like that, would you?”

The ‘something’ being that normative palaeontology isn’t science because of its methodology. And there’s the problem: they’re both trying to draw oil from a water well, a methodology from a culture.

Baggot is right that theoretical physics is becoming less empirical and more speculative. But that’s just the intellectual state of play: our metaphysics are outpacing our physics for the first time in centuries. It’s probably not a coincidence that Galileo and Newton both did their most important work within an 80-year period immediately following the invention of the refracting telescope. Had it been invented earlier, someone else would probably have come up with the same ideas, and had it never been invented (however unlikely that is), Newton would probably have spent his whole life seeking the philosopher’s stone and trying to turn crud into gold. Maybe at some point, with enough metaphysical noodling, the means of testing these new theories will present itself. Maybe an unexpected technological advance will make it possible. Until then, IOUs and good grace may have to suffice. That doesn’t mean we have to abandon intellectual rigor – theoretical physics seems pretty up there on the rigor-front to me. It just means we might have to accept that we can’t wallow in empiricism just because we lack the empirical means to test our metaphysical theories. The show must go on, until somebody invents the quantum dildothongic telescope or whatever.

But we should recognise that and acknowledge it openly, rather than making ever more nebulous space for ever more nebulous theories in our circle of ‘scientific’ legitimacy. If “pure metaphysics” is back, so what? Either deal with it or invent the quantum dildoscope. What we shouldn’t do is keep defending ‘science’ as though it’s a set of methodological principles waiting to be perfectly defined, as opposed to a set of cultural norms that never can be. When Alexander talks about the distinguishing characteristic being “elegance” (yes, it’s that apt), this is what he’s stumbling on. Elegance is about good manners, decorum, the done thing done well. You will never, ever be able to reduce it to a methodology or anything remotely axiomatic, because that’s not where it comes from. And that’s fine!

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So maybe instead of trying to define (or more accurately, claim) what is or isn’t science, we should accept that it’s a shit debate about a term which like ‘natural philosophy’ before it, has had its day, or at the very least needs conscious and deliberate revision. I am all for the circling of wagons against the forces of nonsense, but maybe the acceptance criteria need to be expanded to include non-empirical rigor (and yeah I’m just going to bypass the gross racism I discovered in writing around that metaphor, yikes). Maybe we need to to dump the term ‘science’ and return to a taxonomy of distinct fields, until a better term comes along. For what it’s worth, my preference is very much for the former.

At any rate, it would be real swell if people could stop talking about science like it’s… a… a… science… this isn’t rocket science, people!

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