On the deification of science and the priesthood of scientists

(Note: This is one of those posts that I usually send to the draft file, where it would uniformly stay. Most of the really difficult stuff never gets posted because I’m never happy with it. But, here’s one that’s goin’ out there, ready or not, and it’s right off the top of me head, too.)

Here’s a thought for the day: Scientists, for all their good work, make for horrible philosophers (even in the bootstrap sense of philosopher) and thus render often ridiculous interpretations of the things and relations in nature that they discover.

This is compounded when science is taken as a secular religion, with scientists as its priesthood. A term often applied to that level abuse of science is “scientism,” the notion that science per se can explain everything because nothing lies beyond its reach and because it is the final arbiter on all questions, including human values. In fact, science sometimes is barely able to note cause and effect relationships between things in nature. One of the revisions of scientific method established to cover this is the Popperian ritual of “falsification,” which establishes no fixed science principle, other than itself, which of course cannot be falsified. This might be called the cul de sac of Hume’s radical empiricism and hard scepticism as engraved in the modern science field manual.

These are not new issues, but they are with us like corpses in the morgue that won’t quit their breathing. Hence, because of the poor philosophical habits within science, the much more immediately accessible moral universe is under assault from where else but science, which insists that it can now take on the questions of right and wrong merely by looking at the data.

This is attached to the shift in the purpose and conceits of science, and their impact on philosophy, that the philosopher Edmund Husserl described as a “crisis” early in the 20th century. He understood that the natural sciences were sciences of fact. He proposed that a science of mind, on the other hand, was a science of essence, which very quickly comes down to a science of meaning. For this task he created his Phenomenology, which he termed a “rigorous science of mind.” It is “first philosophy,” and the natural sciences (natural philosophy) are secondary to it by necessity.

This he said was the proper order of things in the realm of knowledge. Husserl proposed, first, to “turn to the things themselves,” and to take them in their endless possibility of appearances, bracketing all existing understanding of them, never ceasing, but marking along the way the point where the elements of their identity clearly emerge as “essence,” i.e., what they are, how they show themselves, what they mean, both relationally, with other things, and transcendentally, as ideas. This was also the level from which knowledge of the things themselves could be expressed, shown to the world as viable and adequate concepts.

Husserl’s philosophy was an assault on positivism, the idea that measurements of the data field was all that could finally be known. He reinstalled the a priori intuitive grasp of objects in their primordial givenness, in their primoridal data, if you will, as the necessary predicate for knowing. And he pointed out that measurement itself was defined by such essential means (characterized by essence as opposed to fact) as the number series and formal logic.

Husserl was not in any sense a metaphysician. He was trying to work in the philosophical streams that had become dominant in the West, which were at their heart anti-metaphysical, but there is no question that through his own brand of radical empiricism, quite at odds with Hume’s skepticism, Husserl reopened, by readmitting essence and meaning and the transcendental, the metaphysical question, not by reinstituting its old forms, but by turning again to things and following them back to foundations. His goal, which he arguably failed at, was to establish a fundamental foundation for philosophy. But Phenomenology works as philosophical method, even where it didn’t find the far shore.

Modern science is so very far from catching up with Husserl because modern scientists, with spectacular methods of observation, have junior high school methods of interpretation, now decorated with graduate degrees. Whence come the most cock-eyed presumptions about the meaning of what we know.

Thus ever the world.

Later: Really, if that’s hitting you as incomprehensible, it’s not your fault. It’s just a note on a napkin and in six months I might not be able to get what I was meaning to say.

Later later: I cleaned it up some, and it now makes more sense. Still a note, though. I’m planning a post on “Intuition and Knowing,” and I’ll link to this one if that makes it through the valley of lost posts.

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