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Science and Reality

by Martin O'Hagan


Browse through daily newspapers and you are sure to come across the imprimatur of science boldly going where others would not dare.

It is one of the enduring myths of our age that if science says so then it is. How often have bow-tied boffins stood before those children of lesser gods proclaiming the new scientific testament which so many now take as gospel.

Truth, once the preserve of a now deceased God, is enshrined for example on celluloid sheets crossed with tiny dark smudged specks which modern scripture informs us is DNA, the genetic material of all creatures. Or gleaned from one end of a telescope pointed into the endless cosmos.

Ironically many are quick to point to the triumph of science over religion as concrete evidence of bourgeois man's superior cognitive qualities and understanding of the world around us. For while the general mood today may be one of scientific pessimism, the veracity of scientific canons are rarely doubted. During the 19th century and in much of the 20th, the so-called scientific hallmark allowed us to go behind the scheming facade of reality and discover in degrees the Kantian 'thing in itself'.

Even the social sciences slavishly followed the positivistic method, only to end up in a cul-de-sac of dozens of perspectives and unable to move in any direction. In fact, trying to understand society is like trying to understand and predict accurately next month's weather.

It is fair to say that the new high priests and priestesses of science are now accepted as the truth designers who set out the template on which is inscribed everything we know to be so. And yet does science per se provide us with a much better method for understanding the basic certainties of our lives? Are we pushing forward the frontiers of such knowledge or are we merely continuously modifying wisdom that has been around for thousands of years?

In comparison with the certainty of mathematics, science is a poor relation. Descartes recognized mathematical certitude when he locked himself up in a stove room and considered if he existed at all. Descartes' theory of knowledge rests on his method of doubt which led him to the famous Cogito ergo sum. This attempt to place philosophy on some sort of scientific basis failed and led to much debate. But the method wasn't lost on those in the social sciences.

On the other hand, mathematical proofs begin with a series of axioms, that is, statements which are taken to be self-evidently true. To argue logically is to move by clear steps from premisses to conclusion. If the axioms are right and the logic is flawless then the conclusion cannot be denied. By this method Pythagoras was able to prove that the square on the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle was equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

What we now know as Pythagoras' Theorem was known by the Chinese and the Babylonians hundreds of years before the Greeks. But the greatness of Pythagoras — or whoever among his cult followers actually worked out the theorem — was that it was right for all triangles and not just some particular triangle, or pyramid under construction. The Pythagoreans reasoned and proved mathematically that it was not necessary to measure all right angled triangles in order to prove the theory.

The Pythagoreans highlighted the universal truth of mathematics and bequeathed to the world a powerful and vigorous conception of the truth by comparison with the less exacting concept of truth used in everyday discourse, or indeed in the more specialized language of the physicist.

Scientific proofs, by contrast with mathematics, are based on hypotheses put forward to explain a phenomenon. Yet scientific proofs are fickle and can be scrapped if a better description comes along.

But hypotheses don't merely describe a phenomenon, they also predict the results of other phenomena. Experiments can be designed and performed to show the predictive power of a hypothesis. If the prediction is successful then it evidence for the truth of the hypothesis.

When evidence is overwhelming, the hypothesis becomes accepted as a scientific theory. But it should be remembered that the theory can never be proved to the same absolute level of a mathematical theorem. A scientific theory will always be considered, at most, 'highly likely' based on the available evidence.

So-called scientific proof relies on observation and perception which are fallible and provide only degrees of the truth. English philosopher Bertrand Russell recognized this declaring that all so-called exact science was dominated by the notion of 'approximation'. All accepted scientific proofs always have an element of doubt. While we feel that this element is continuously being reduced, it can never disappear completely.

This apparent weakness contains the strength of science. For there is the possibility of a scientific revolution where one theory previously accepted by all as the best approximation to the truth is replaced by another, better theory.

Perhaps the best example of one theory being dumped in favour of another is to be found in physics. Since the 19th century ideas about the make up of the world have radically changed. Atoms were once fundamental but then came along notions of electrons, protons and neutrons forming miniature solar systems. The ideas of that generation changed until today we now think in terms of anti-matter, quarks and other funny sounding terms that are supposed to designate fundamental things.

Indeed the very concept of a 'thing' or 'particle' is now being undermined by the notion of strings that vibrate differently. Different vibrations give a different particle in much the same way — metaphysically speaking — as the string of a musical instrument gives different notes for different lengths.

Pythagoras died in the faith that what his school proved mathematically will be true for as long as the concept of a triangle is meaningful. Mathematics does not rely on fallible systems of experimentation and perception.

In comparison, science operates on a judicial system according to which a theory is right beyond all reasonable doubt until contrary evidence is produced. Yet the fact that the notion of science can be historically grounded implies the possibility that as a method its time will eventually be superseded by something more precise to go behind the veil of appearances.

© Marie O'Hagan 2001

Martin O'Hagan IN MEMORIAM