Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Burden of Empirical Science in the Modern World

Medieval monk writing on a book tablet

Science may be today what religion used to be in the Middle Ages. Back then, religion was a constant guide of life that one followed closely, and one literally hung on each and every word of the clergy. Any questions about existence, God or on how to live life were addressed to those who were supposedly “in the know.”

Nowadays, a group of scientists has the last word in these matters, since they have usurped that power and privilege. When it comes to questions of health, life, even sanity, we turn to science. Science decides what is truth, what is falsehood, what is reality and what are phantoms, what is sanity and what is insanity. A grave case of mental illness used to be considered a possession of the devil, while today it is a malfunction of the brain to be treated with pills and medication.

Science has the upper hand today because it produces results. Science has helped not only to interpret nature, but also to control and manipulate it. It has given us technology which enables us to do feats that the medieval minds could not even dream of. Medicine has managed to cure and eradicate various deadly diseases.

When it comes to serious illnesses most people in the modern day of age would prefer medical procedures over prayer. Of course, I do not doubt the powers of prayer, but medicine, despite its failings and shortcomings would be a much surer bet; ideally both will be practiced because one should not underestimate the power of faith and belief, as psychologists often tell us.

Yet despite it all, science has struggled over the centuries. Some philosophers have questioned its validity. Although reason and logic have prevailed, there is one undeniable and accepted fact about science: its focus on empiricism. Why do or should we trust our senses so much? Scholasticism was based on the concept that one's senses deceive and are hence unreliable and that one should use logic only to achieve certainty. They would disagree with our common-sense notion of “seeing is believing” and change it to “seeing is deceiving.”

And others would say that we will never know for sure that the objects out there actually exist. Descartes believed that everything can be doubted with the exception of one's own self. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. I can doubt and for me to be able to doubt there needs to be a distinct “I” to doubt things. Therefore, I must exist. But does this table in front of me or the computer I am working on really exist? Can it not be simply a figment of my imagination, an elaborate well-devised hoax designed to deceive me?

These types of ideas are not so much “bogus” with the advent of quantum physics. If all is just made up of atoms that are moving fast, while “hard” and “soft” are just sense impressions we receive that have no basis in reality, then how can we be absolutely certain that it is really real?

We perceive certain waves as color and sound but do these two exist independently, on their own? If you are colorblind, the world exists of a combination and confusion between green and red. Are you wrong and is the rest of the world right? Or could it be the other way around? Surely, it would be unscientific to claim that truth is what the majority believes it to be, right?

It may lead us to the sceptics who claim that nothing can ever be known with certainty. Even cause and effect may just happen to be coincidence and not a reliable law. Our brain may be wired to see events in a certain way, while it may not be able to see many other events. Ghosts may be perceived by some and not by others. Our sight may not be sensitive enough for such perceptions, yet they may still exist. A blind person could be able to “see” more than we do. A medieval monk may have been right, and it is us who are on the wrong track now.

The problem is that science with empirical evidence cannot fully explain truths. It can show and demonstrate what is true under certain circumstances in a certain environment. Science has been able to reproduce results; it can predict what will happen in a given situation, yet, for better or worse, it lacks the absolutes of religion and is focused on the particulars.

From there we derive theories but theories are not necessarily true. Evolution theory for the time being is one among many until perhaps we may find another, a better explanation. We definitely have more knowledge, but it seems that it is a gamble. We can say that the empirical world of facts is the real deal and dismiss all religion and spirituality as cheap diversion or mere speculation and wishful thinking. Or we may have been fooled all this time and it is the other way around; then we have been blinded by a world of appearances and make believe and are living in Plato's dimly-lit Cave.

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