by Rolf Sattler
I felt compelled to write this article for two reasons: 1. Having carried out research in science (plant morphology) and having taught science and philosophy of science for nearly forty years, I wanted to communicate my (limited) insights into the power and limitations of science. Since these insights are very much part of me, I included this article in the section “About Me” of my website, and 2. I wanted to point out some widespread distortions and misconceptions of science - distortions and misconceptions that can have rather disastrous consequences for individuals, society, and our planet.
The Power of Science
Open-endedness and Lack of Proof in Science
Explanatory and Predictive Power
Replicability in Science
Language and Mathematics
Theory-ladenness of Facts
Ad Hoc Hypotheses in Science
Values and Morals
Dualistic and Nondual Modes of Knowing
Unnecessary Limitations of Science
Selection Bias in Science
The Feminine Side of Science
The Science of Enlightenment
The Big Three of Ken Wilber's AQAL Map
A Radical View of Science
The Semantic View of Scientific Theories and Laws
Science and the Arts
Note: The jokes are in smaller print (see also Ken Wilber, Humor, and Laughter).
The Power of Science
Science appears powerful in at least two ways: 1. It provides powerful insights into reality, and 2. It exerts a powerful influence on individuals and society, as powerful or even more powerful than religions that have dominated our societies for so long.
One major problem with science is that laypersons and even scientists often misunderstand it. Many scientists and laypersons think that science can be defined by what has been called “the scientific method.” However, it is not clear what this method is, and it is controversial whether there is any such method that sets science apart from other human activities such as art or religion. I therefore prefer to discuss first major aspects of science with regard to its power and limitations, and then at the end of this article I shall turn to the controversy over the so-called scientific method.
Open-endedness and Lack of Proof in Science
The power of science seems rather obvious, but its limitations are often not sufficiently recognized. It is often assumed that science can reveal the truth. But as I will show below, science seems incapable of attaining the truth. Even if science could lead us to the truth, we would have no way of knowing that it actually is the truth. Why not? Because science cannot provide definitive proof of its tenets. Science provides only evidence. Sometimes the evidence for a scientific theory may be very strong. But even in this case we cannot tell whether future observations and/or experiments will confirm or contradict the theory. The history of science provides many examples of scientific revolutions where a well-established theory had to be modified or replaced by another one in view of new facts that could not be accommodated by the “established” theory. Newtonian physics is one such example. Some of its most fundamental assumptions such as the absoluteness of time and space had to give way to Einstein’s relativity. Nonetheless, Newtonian physics still works as a special case, but it can no longer be regarded as the truth of the physical universe. Similarly, we cannot know whether all future observations and experiments will confirm Einstein’s relativity theories. Therefore, scientific knowledge remains open-ended, unproven. As Jamie Hale put it: “Scientific knowledge is tentative, and the tentative nature of science is one of its strong points.”And yet we can read so often that this or that has been scientifically proven. Even scientists make such statements. In society this misconception seems so prevalent that it appears even in advertisements: so often we can read for a product or procedure “scientifically proven,” which boosts sales to an uneducated public that is deceived by the illusory claim of scientific proof. On the other hand, products and procedures are devaluated by the label “not scientifically proven” (which would be the appropriate label for all products and procedures). For example, the conservative medical establishment insists that alternative medicines are “not scientifically proven,” and assumes that its products are often “scientifically proven.”As a result, many people may prefer to use conventional medicine with its potentially harmful or even fatal side effects, when they could have been helped or cured by alternative medicines.
I came across the following sobering note in the Guardian:
“How much do you and your doctor know about the drugs you take? This account suggests not enough. Says Goldacre: "Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don't like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug's true effects." " (From the Guardian, September 21, 2012) (see also Goldacre 2012).
Although as a generalization the above statement seems exaggerated, it cannot be completely discounted in all instances. Many shortcomings of conventional medicine that can be very harmful to our health and well being have been documented (see, for example, Dr. Ian Tannock's investigation and Dr. Peter R. Breggin’s (1998) critique of the harmful ritalin myth). More recently, in his book Rigor Mortis, Harris (2017) has highlighted many shortcomings of biomedical research (see, for example, the review by Freedman 2017).
In her book The Medical Mafia (1995), Guylaine Lanctôt showed to what extent the powerful conservative medical establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, and governments conspire and – consciously or unconsciously - hide information on drugs and medical practices that seem detrimental to our health, while suppressing or devaluating information on alternative treatments that could be supportive and healing. Considerable scientific evidence has been obtained that alternative medicines work (see, for example, Mowrey 1998, Sattler 2001). Of course, they do not always work, but neither do conventional medicines. One has to know or have an intuition when to opt for alternative medicines and when for conventional medicine. Integrative medicine tries to integrate conventional and alternative medicine by taking the best from both approaches (see also Toward better health and more sanity in our lives and society).
Teddy Bearson is making his first visit to Doctor Bones.
“And whom did you consult about your illness before you came to me?” Bones enquires.
“Only the druggist down at the corner,” replies Teddy.
“And what sort of ridiculous advice did that fool give you?” demands Bones.
“He told me,” replies Teddy innocently, “to see you.” (Osho. 1998. Take it Really Seriouly. Osho International Foundation p. 343).
Many people seem willing to admit that details of science remain unproven, but they insist that the fundamentals have been proven. For example, in mainstream biology, Darwinism in its modern form (neo-Darwinism) provides the central conceptual framework and many think that it has been proven. However, the debate about its validity and significance continues within science and philosophy of science. Daniel Dennett, a well-known philosopher of science, called Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection “the single best idea anyone has ever had” (Dennett 1995:21), whereas Lynn Margulis, a famous biologist, thought that history will ultimately judge neo-Darwinism as “a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon biology” (Margulis, quoted by Mann 1991).
“An often told joke concerning Albert Einstein perhaps reveals best the tentative nature of science and it findings:
Student: Dr Einstein, Aren’t these the same questions as last year’s physics final exam?”
Dr. Einstein: Yes; But this year the answers are different.” (David Christopher Lane and Andrea Diem Lane: The Shiva Nature of Science)
Science allows us to explain and predict. In other words, it has explanatory and predictive power. However, much uncertainty remains. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle applies to quantum physics. Korzybski and others have pointed out that uncertainty characterizes scientific knowledge in general, and one might add, also non-scientific knowledge and everyday life. Prigogine (1997) proclaimed the end of certainty.
“The Heineken Uncertainty Principle says “You can never be sure how many beers you had last night” (Jupiter Scientific, physics jokes, # 24).
Many laws are probabilistic: instead of specifying specific outcomes, they provide only probabilities of outcomes. And even the deterministic equations of chaos theory fail to make exact predictions of future events. One may debate whether these shortcomings are due to our insufficient knowledge, or whether, at least to some extent, capriciousness constitutes a characteristic feature of the universe.
Uncertainty is often seen as negative and threatening. However, some of the greatest scientists have underlined positive sides of uncertainty. For example, Richard Feynman wrote: “ I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing...In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” (quoted by David Christopher Lane: The Feynman Imperative: Why Science Works)
Explanatory and Predictive Power
In spite of uncertainty science can provide explanations for many phenomena, and it makes predictions. In some branches of science, predictions may often be accurate, whereas in other branches, they may be more or less unreliable. Thus, we have the whole range from precise to rather imprecise and unreliable predictions. Chaos theory provides an explanation for failures of precise prediction.
Replicability of results such as the replicability of experiments is considered the gold standard of scientific research. Replication supports the results. However, it does not constitute proof because one cannot know whether future replication will be possible.
Failure of replication is usually taken as an indication that the results are untenable. Harris (2017) points out how sloppy science leads to a lack of replicability. However, a lack of replicability need not always be due to sloppy scientific procedures. One has to keep in mind that each time an experiment is repeated some aspects of the context have changed. These aspects might be responsible for the lack of replication. For example, when an experiment is repeated, the moon phase may be different, and this might explain the failure of replication. Therefore, one cannot conclude in this case that the hypothesis under consideration has been falsified by the lack of replication.
It is important to be aware of the uniqueness of each context in which experiments are performed. One may be able to keep some variables constant, but others are beyond our control. The observer or experimenter is also part of the context. In each new experiment, the experimenter is different, even if it is the “same” person. During one experiment this person may be in a good mood, and when she repeats the experiment she may be in a bad mood. If the experiment could not be replicated, was that failure due to her change in mood? How can we know?
I heard that a researcher, after many successful replications of an experiment with rats, one day suddenly could no longer replicate it. He was very puzzled. But then he found out that the technician who looked after the rats had been replaced by a new person. In contrast to the previous technician, the new person loved the rats and caressed them when he took them out of the cages for the experiments. This change in care explained why the outcome of the experiments could no longer be repeated. Harris (2017) pointed out that the gender of the mice handler in experiments with mice may also influence the outcome of an experiment. A woman handling the mice may affect the experiment differently from a man handling the mice.
Hymie Goldberg goes to see Doctor Feelgood in a terrible state. “You must help me, doctor,” pleads Hymie. “I can’t remember anything for more than a few minutes. It is driving me crazy.”
“I see,” says the shrink. “And how long have you had the problem?”
Hymie pauses, then says thoughtfully, “What problem?” (Osho. 1998. Take it Really Seriouly. Osho International Foundation p. 646).
Although scientists may recognize the uniqueness of each object such as each flower or each human being, they do not deal with and celebrate this uniqueness. They abstract from the uniqueness properties that are shared by a class of objects such as a species or a class of events such as respiration. In doing so, they may arrive at interesting generalizations, one of the principal aims of science, but they lose the uniqueness of each individual object.
“According to Whitehead, the process of abstraction, useful as it may be..., is ultimately “false,” in the sense that it operates by noting the salient features of an object and ignoring all else, and therefore “abstraction is nothing else than omission of part of the truth”... [often] “we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities,” a mistake that Whitehead termed the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (which we earlier referred to as confusing the map with the territory)” (Wilber, 1999, p. 80).
Another limitation of science: simplification. As Bart Kosko put it: “Scientific claims or statements are inexact and provisional. They depend on dozens of simplifying assumptions and on a particular choice of words and symbols and on “all other things being equal”... When you speak, you simplify. And when you simplify, you lie” (Kosko 1993, p. 86). (see also Science’s First Mistake by Angell & Demetis).
"Never "assume," or you'll make an "ass" of "u" and "me." "(Rovin, J. 1989. 1001 Great One-Liners. New York: Penguin,
For many people objectivity means reality or truth, but in scientific methodology objectivity means inter-subjectivity: data that are shared between subjects are considered objective. For example, sharing the perception that humans have two legs makes it an objective datum. In contrast, seeing auras is usually considered subjective because this perception is not shared by many people. However, if the majority of people would learn to see auras, auras would become objective data that would provide a basis for scientific investigation. Since the ability of seeing auras depends on one’s state of consciousness, the scientists’ limited state of consciousness that influences their perception limits objectivity in science. Sheldrake (2012, Chapter 11: Illusions of Objectivity) points out yet other limitations of objectivity.
Language and Mathematics
Science using language and mathematics implies a strength and limitation. As Korzybski has brilliantly demonstrated through his Structural Differential, perception and language remove us from reality. Perception through our senses cannot include the fullness and richness of reality because our senses combined with our nervous system reveal only an aspect of reality. For example, we can smell only relatively little compared to dogs. Hence, in this respect our perception is rather limited. Then, when we describe our perception, we lose again because our language or mathematics can capture only part of our perception. Imagine how much you lose when you describe a flower or any other object. Thus, the facts, the raw data of science, as they are perceived and described, are removed from reality. We cannot say how far they are removed because we don’t know reality. Reality remains a mystery beyond sensual perceptions, words, concepts, numbers, logic, etc. Scientists sometimes say that they take the mystery out of things. In fact, they cannot even touch the mystery as long as they use language and mathematics. But occasionally they may be inspired by the non-verbal experience of the mysterious. Albert Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science” (quoted by Ravindra 1991, p. 322).
Someone said: A mathematician is like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there. [The same has ben said about philosophers]
Scientists aim at a rational understanding of reality. Consequently, non-rational or irrational aspects of reality are beyond the grasp of the scientific approach. They may be ignored or forced into a rational mold, but then omissions and distortions seem inevitable.
However, although the professed aim in science includes rational understanding, scientists do have feelings, emotions, intuitions, and other non-rational or irrational experiences and beliefs that may play a role in the scientific process (see, e.g., Modern Man’s Religion). Even dreams may influence the work of scientists. For example, it has been reported that Kekulé discovered the structure of benzene through a dream that led him in the right direction.
Different ways of thinking, different kinds of logic can be used in science. Aristotelian either/or logic is still very common, but fuzzy logic and both/and logic are also used. In contrast to either/or logic that, if used exclusively, may lead to harmful conflicts, violence and war, fuzzy logic and both/and logic may prevent or heal the harm inflicted by the exclusive use of either/or logic. I therefore refer to these kinds of logic as well as Buddhist logic and Jain logic as healing logic or healing ways of thinking. Buddhist logic has four values: either, or, both/and, and neither/nor. Neither/nor (such as neither true nor false) can point beyond the thinking mind and open the way to the mysterious ground of being, which cannot be reached by science. But as I pointed out above, the process of scientific discovery may at least sometimes have roots in the non-verbal experience of the mysterious.
Someone said: I am a nobody, and nobody is perfect, therefore I am perfect.
The empirical approach of science constitutes another strength and limitation. It provides objective data through our senses, especially vision and hearing. Subjective inner experience is normally excluded from the realm of science. However, this exclusion may be an unnecessary limitation. According to radical empiricism, which mainstream scientists do not accept, outer as well as inner experience can provide the raw data of science (see below). This enlarges enormously the scope of science but may challenge notions of objectivity.
Testability of scientific hypotheses and theories constitutes strength of science. Through tests scientific tenets can be confirmed or disconfirmed. What is not testable is often excluded from science. However, what may be untestable at a given time may become testable later on. Therefore excluding it from science, would have hindered scientific progress. An example is string theory and M-theory that have not yet been testable and therefore are considered unscientific by many physicists, although they provide the long sought unification of the four fundamental forces. Maybe they will become testable in the future (or maybe they have already become testable at the time this web page was be published).
Theories are tested through facts. Therefore, facts are of utmost importance. If the facts do not support a theory, the theory should be discarded or modified so that they can accommodate the contradictory facts. However, as has been pointed out by Thomas Kuhn (1962) and others, science does not always work this way. Contradictory facts are often ignored or "explained away" by ad hoc assumptions so that scientists can continue to hold on to their preferred theories (see below under Ad hoc Hypotheses and Selections Bias).
We also have to keep in mind that not only theories but also observations may be faulty, and therefore in a clash of theory and facts, either the theory or the facts or both theory and facts may be faulty and it may be difficult or impossible to decide which is the case.
What applies to theories also applies to hypotheses and laws.
Theory-Ladenness of Facts
In spite of what I just pointed out, in the empirical approach facts remain important. In contrast to theories that are unproven, facts (unless erroneous) are viewed as given, as having actual existence independent of our theorizing. However, it has become increasingly obvious that facts appear theory-laden. "That is, facts can only be observed from within a theoretical framework; we cannot make theory-neutral observations. Thus, what counts as a fact for us is, at least in part, determined by which theoretical framework we are committed to" (Stephen Scales, January 15, 2013).
Let's look at an example that demonstrates the theory-ladenness of a fact. The fact is: "The stem of this plant (that I observe) is green." How can this observation, this fact, be theory-laden? It depends on the theory of classical plant morphology, which claims that plants such as flowering plants are composed of three kinds of organs: root, stem, and leaf. Without this theory, we could not refer to a stem. In other theories of plant morphology, we would refer, for example to a phyton, which is a stem with its associated leaf (see, for example, Cusset 1982).
The recognition of the theory-ladenness of facts has rather far-reaching consequences. Since we cannot prove scientific theories, it has been claimed that we can at least refute them. Thus scientific progress would be possible not through verification of theories but through refutation of theories that are wrong (Popper 1962). Theories would be refuted through facts that contradict them. However, since facts also imply theory to some extent, they do no longer have the independence, the force or "hardness" to refute theories in a definite and final way. Whenever we find a clash between a theory and a fact, we can no longer have an absolute assurance that the theory is faulty; maybe it is the fact. And thus a final resolutions of the problem seems difficult or impossible.
I turns out that facts are not only theory-laden, they may also be value-laden, which means that we project values into them. As a result the whole scientific enterprise may at least to some extent reflect values that we take for granted (see below). Hence, "the image of science as pure value-free inquiry must be abandoned; there is no understanding nature independently of values." (Stephen Scales, January 15, 2013). Laszlo (1973) developed "a general systems model of the evolution of science" that includes the role of values in the workings of science (reviewed in Sattler 1986, pp. 31-35).
Ad hoc Hypotheses in Science
Usually ad hoc hypotheses are introduced to save theories, paradigms or world views from contradictory evidence. In other words, to explain away the contradiction. For example, telepathy appears to contradict the materialistic worldview. To retain the materialist worldview, an ad hoc hypothesis that is often used claims that the evidence for telepathy is based on faulty methodology. It seems that almost any theory, paradigm or worldview can be defended through ad hoc hypotheses. However, as more and more contradictions accumulate, eventually the status quo may be given up. But this may take a long time and may happen only after the death of its defenders.
Ad hoc hypotheses are not necessarily incorrect, but their prime purpose is to protect a theory, paradigm or worldview from contradictory evidence so that their defenders who have much invested in that particular theory, paradigm or worldview can continue to hang on to them. For example, one reason why the materialistic and mechanistic worldview still persists today, especially in the life sciences, is that it has been surrounded by a belt of ad hoc hypotheses (see below under Unnecessary Limitations of Science).
Because of the use of ad hoc hypotheses, it has been concluded that “any new evidence can, with sufficient effort, be made to fit a preexisting paradigm [or theory or worldview]” (Eisenstein 2013, p. 3). How much, then, does science differ from an ideology or religion? (see below under A Radical View of Science).
Values and Morals
It is often said that science is limited because it cannot answer questions of values, morals, spirituality, and religion. It is said that science can investigate what is but not what we should do. Ken Wilber and others have drawn attention to this situation. In a somewhat simplified version of his AQAL map, Ken Wilber distinguishes three major dimensions of experience: science, morals, and art (including spirituality and religion). Morals are transmitted through culture.
However, contrary to a widespread belief, science may be influenced by culture and its values. For example, early successes of physical sciences such as mechanics and astronomy led to the “Enlightenment” culture that tended to see reality in physical and rational terms. Eventually organisms were seen as machines, in terms of a mechanistic/materialist worldview that still predominates in modern mainstream culture and the sciences, including medicine, and is called the modern scientific worldview. This worldview cannot be observed in organisms and ecosystems. It is imposed on the scientific study of organisms and ecosystems. If one takes this worldview for granted and looks at life from this point of view, through this lens, then what one sees are mechanisms of matter/energy, whereby energy is understood only as physical energy as postulated by modern physics. Unfortunately, many biologists do not seem to realize that they tacitly - and maybe unconsciously - assume a point of view. They seem to think that the reality of life is just material and mechanical, or that this is the only way we can investigate the living world. This belief or attitude appears very limiting and unnecessarily limiting because less limiting approaches such as holistic approaches are possible (see below). Beauregard (2012a,b) and others use such holistic approaches to gain a better understanding of the brain, the mind, and consciousness.
Another example of how science has been influenced by culture, its values and politics, is Darwinian evolutionary theory. It has been pointed out by a number of authors that Darwin projected into nature political ideas and values of his English society such as competition and the struggle for existence (Sattler 1986, p. 202). Nowadays, neo-Darwinism is still reinforced by capitalist ideology and, as a scientific understanding of nature, it supports capitalism as a "natural" ideology. This creates a vicious circle from which it seems difficult to escape. Hence, neo-Darwinism remains the dominant way of thinking and capitalism continues to flourish.
Although science is linked to and constrained by ideology and values of our culture, it might also be able to provide some ethical guidelines. Kozlovsky, in his book An Ecological and Evolutionary Ethic (1974), emphasized the need for a naturalistic ethic that is guided by the common good for humanity and the environment. Contrary to the values of rampant capitalism that tends to exploit the environment, Kozlovsky favors values that protect the environment because if we do not care for the environment in the end we hurt not only other plant and animal species but also ourselves. Ecological research has shown that human sustenance and survival is intimately linked to that of our environment. Hence, our values have to be informed by this research.
Harris (2010, p. 1) pointed out that “questions about values... are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.” (see also Churchland 2011 and Diem-Lane 2016)
Jonas (1968, p. 283) referred to "a principle of ethics which is ultimately grounded neither in the autonomy of the self nor in the needs of the community, but in an objective assignment by the nature of things (what theology used to call the ordo creationis). Thus ethics is derived from the study of life and reality (see also Science of Morality).
In a Paris hotel elevator was written: Please leave your values at the front desk.
Dualistic and Nondual Modes of Knowing
Ken Wilber (1999, pp. 63- 81) distinguished dualistic and nondual modes of knowing. Most of modern science still follows the dualistic mode. However, quantum physics and mathematical logic have come close to the nondual mode (see Wilber 1999, Chapter 2).
In the common dualistic mode a split occurs between the knower and the known, the observer and the observed, the subject and the object of investigation. Thus the subject, the knower or investigator “ultimately escapes its own grasp and remains as the Unknown, Unshown, and Ungraspable, much as your hand can grasp numerous objects but never itself, or as your eye can see the world but not itself” (Wilber 1999, p. 63).
In quantum physics it has become obvious that the observer cannot be clearly separated from the observed: the observer and the observed form a unity. Quantum physicists have tried to convey this unity conceptually through language. However, as Ken Wilber and others have pointed out, ultimately language appears inadequate to represent this unity because language by its very nature dissects and fragments (see, for example, the third chapter of Ken Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977) that was republished in The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Volume 1, 1999).
"The most common unexpected injury most people suffer nowadays is being struck by an idea."(Rovin, J. 1989. 1001 Great One-Liners. New York: Penguin, p. 80).
Unnecessary Limitations of Science
Rupert Sheldrake (2012), Mario Beauregard et al. (2014), Etzel Cardena (2014) and many other authors have pointed out that the materialistic/mechanistic worldview has become dogmatic. According to this dogmatism that seems especially pernicious in biology and medicine, it is taken for granted that an organism is a physical mechanism. In other words, it should be reduced to physics and chemistry. In contrast, holistic approaches recognize that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Thus, an organism is more than the sum of its molecules. It has emergent properties. For example, a bird can fly, but its molecules cannot. A human being can think, but its DNA cannot. Thinking is an emergent property that is not found in the constituent parts. In general, holism emphasizes wholes and wholeness as the name indicates. However, wholes may be seen differently. They may be seen just as material wholes or as wholes that transcend matter (and its energy equivalent). To avoid the dualism of matter/energy and the non-material beyond matter/energy, Ken Wilber distinguishes three (or more) levels of “matter”(energy): the gross, subtle, and very subtle (causal) (Wilber 2006, pp. 24 and 219-220). The gross level corresponds to the physical (matter/energy) as usually conceived in mainstream science. The subtle and very subtle (causal) levels represent subtle and very subtle energies. Holism in a more profound sense includes the subtle and very subtle energies. As long as theories couched in terms of subtle and very subtle energies are testable, they can be seen as scientific theories (see, for example, What are subtle energies?, Tiller 1997, 2007, and the Tiller model at www.Tiller.org) (see also Radin 1997, 2006, and Carter 2012 on psychic phenomena). Nonetheless, mainstream scientists who seem imprisoned in the materialistic worldview usually reject them. This shows how scientific progress can be obstructed by dogma that is perpetuated by our mainstream culture and mainstream science.
In his book The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Inquiry (2012), Rupert Sheldrake shows how science has been unnecessarily limited by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. Should science be a belief system, or a process of open-ended enquiry? Sheldrake shows that the worldview of materialistic/mechanistic mainstream science has become a belief system that has severe limitations. For example, trillions of dollars have been spent for cancer research, and besides some very limited progress no general cure has been found. In the skeptical spirit of open-minded scientific enquiry, Sheldrake turns ten fundamental dogmas of mainstream science into questions for open-ended research and provides evidence that supports the following alternatives to the mainstream dogmas: 1. Organisms cannot be fully understood in terms of the prevailing materialistic/mechanistic worldview. 2. Consciousness may be all-pervasive. 3. The total amount of matter and energy may change even after the Big Bang. 4. The so-called laws of nature may just be habits that can change and evolve. 5. Nature may be endowed with purpose. 6. Children may inherit characteristics acquired by their parents 7. Minds may extend far beyond brains. 8. Memories may not be stored as traces in our brains and therefore may not be wiped out at death. 9. Psychic phenomena such as telepathy need not be discounted. 10. Mechanistic mainstream medicine can be complemented by alternative holistic approaches.
Sheldrake's The Science Delusion has also been published as Science Set Free. 10 Paths to New Discovery. Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Reinventing Medicine and many other books, wrote the following about Sheldrake's book: "Rupert Sheldrake may be to the twenty-first century what Charles Darwin was to the nineteenth: someone who sent science spinning in wonderfully new and fertile directions." And Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Health and Healing: The Philosophy of Integrative Medicine and many other books, wrote: "This provocative and engaging book will make you question basic assumptions of Western science." And specifically with regard to medicine he added: "I agree with Rupert Sheldrake that, among other problems, those assumptions hinder medical progress because they severely limit our understanding of health and illness."
“Sally Goldberg goes to the Doctor to ask for some help in losing weight before her wedding day. He prescribes a course of slimming pills for her.
A few days later she returns to his office.
“These pills have awful side effects,” she says worriedly. “They make me feel terribly passionate and I get carried away. Last night I actually bit off my boyfriends ear.”
“Don’t worry,” says the doctor, “an ear is only about sixty calories.” (Osho. 1998. Take it Really Seriouly. Osho International Foundation, p.344).
Selection Bias in Science - It occurs when we select data that support our preferred hypothesis, theory, or worldview and neglect or ignore contradictory data. The selection may be conscious or subconscious or both. It happens when we become overly attached to our preferred views, which seems widespread among scientists as well as non-scientists. Although in principle conscious selection bias might be avoided, “a large number of psychological studies have shown that people [including scientists] respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs” (Teicholz 2015, p. 56). Most scientists do not try to refute their hypotheses, theories, and world views. As far as their own preferences are concerned, they do not follow Popper (1962) who thought that refutation is the engine of science progress (see Sattler (1986) for a critique of Popper’s view). Apart from some exceptions, most scientists seem to be happy when they can refute the views of their opponents, but they don’t like to refute their own ideas. Referring to T. C. Chamberlin, Teicholz wrote that “the moment you affix yourself to an idea an “intellectual child springs into existence,” and it is difficult [although not impossible] to remain neutral. The mind lingers “with pleasure” on the facts that support the theory” (Teichholz 20015, p. 57). Nonetheless, there are probably some scientists who are not the victims of selection bias. However, even those who remain open-minded may not be aware of all the evidence that contradicts their views. The scientific literature has become too enormous to be known in its entirety by any one scientist. For example, who would be aware of a paper that was published long ago in an obscure French journal but that may be relevant to present day research? Teicholz (2015) presents examples of relevant studies in nutrition science that were published long ago and have been forgotten or ignored by mainstream scientists.
The Feminine Side of Science - A common masculinist bias also limits science unnecessarily, whereas the recognition of the feminine side of science extends its scope. The masculinist approach to science emphasizes cold analysis, competition, and often uses a language and metaphors of attack, war, destruction, etc. In contrast, a more feminine approach to science emphasizes intuition, feeling, love, respect, nurture, interconnection, cooperation, etc. This emphasis changes not only the way science is done but also its results. For example, in her study of the genetics of corn, Barbara McClintock developed a “feeling for the organism” (Keller 1983) and “embodied values of the Feminine. As a geneticist McClintock approached her object of study with reverence and humility. Rather than separate herself emotionally from her object of study, she became intimately involved with her corn plants. In describing her work, her vocabulary is one of affection, kinship and empathy, rather than that of battles, struggles, or a sense of opposition... For McCintock, science is not based on a division between subject and object, but rather on attentiveness as a form of love.”(Shepherd 1993, p. 70). Such a loving relationship changes the interaction of the observer and the observed and therefore may reveal aspects that cannot be seen in an unloving interaction. This is especially evident in investigations of humans and animals.
Based on his doctrine of sociobiology in which passing on of genes and competition plays a very important role, E. O. Wilson concluded: “It pays males to be aggressive, hasty, fickle, and undiscriminating. In theory it is more profitable for females to be coy, to hold back until they can identify males with the best genes...Human beings obey this principle faithfully.”(quoted by Shepherd 1993, p. 48). However, feminist researchers are dispelling the myth of the active, courting, promiscuous male and the passive, coy, faithful female. Their research reveals ways in which females play an active role in sexual courtship. For example, Jane Goodall describes the prodigious activity of the chimpanzee Flo, who presented herself multiple times to all the males in the vicinity during estrus.”(Shepherd 1993, p. 48). In general, Jane Goodall’s non-intrusive and loving approach towards the chimpanzees she studied in their natural environment revealed aspects that could not be seen in caged chimpanzees, especially when they were treated unlovingly as mere research objects.
One should, of course, not conclude that “male science” is carried out only by male researchers and “feminine science” only by female scientists. At least some scientists, both male and female, may be able to balance more or less masculine and feminine approaches to science, which seems natural since according to Daoism, Yang contains Yin and vice versa, and furthermore Yin and Yang form a continuum.
In her book Lifting the Veil. The Feminine Face of Science,” Shepherd (1993) explores the values, objectives, and results of science that includes the feminine and honours “the voices of women and men scientists as they reveal to us how the Feminine can make science more creative, more productive, more relevant, and more humane.”(Shepherd 1993, p. 50).
Radical Empiricism - In general, the scope and power of science can be fundamentally extended through radical empiricism, a view championed by William James (1912, 1976). Radical empiricism enlarges the scope of data that are admitted in science. Whereas according to the common view only sense data of the external world count as scientific data, according to radical empiricism also data of our internal experience (such as feelings, emotions, thoughts, intuitions, etc.) are acceptable. On the basis of all of these data, external and internal (that ultimately are not separate), one can practice what has been called broad science.
In his Theory of Everything (2001a) and his earlier book The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1998), Ken Wilber contrasts narrow and broad science. Narrow science is based on sense data of the exterior world, whereas broad science includes data of both the exterior and interior world. Whether narrow or broad, Wilber suggests that science operates through the following three steps:
1. A practical injunction: “If you want to know this, you must do this – an experiment, an injunction, a pragmatic series of engagements, a social practice” (Wilber 2001a, p. 75). For example, if you want to know whether Jupiter has moons, you must look through a telescope. Or if you want to know the effects of meditation, you must practice meditation. You cannot just rationally argue about it. You must practice it, if you want to know it. Otherwise, refusing to practice it would be like refusing to look through the telescope.
2. Experience: “Once you perform the experiment or follow the injunction – once you pragmatically engage the world – then you will be introduced to a series of experiences or apprehensions that are brought forth by the injunction...you can have physical experiences (or physical data), mental experiences (or mental data), and spiritual experiences (or spiritual data)” (ibid. p. 75). In the above examples you will experience the presence of moons around Jupiter (a physical experience) and you will experience the effects of practicing meditation (spiritual experiences).
3. Communal checking: “it helps if we can check these experiences with others who have also completed the injunction and seen the evidence” (ibid. p. 75). In this way we obtain additional confirmation or disconfirmation of our insights, which, however, may not always be as straightforward as imagined by Wilber (see, for example, Lancaster 2004, p. 38).
An "extended science" that transcends the unnecessary limitations of ordinary mainstream science has also been proposed by other authors (see, for example, the conclusions of an article on The Challenge of Consciousness Research by Brian D. Josephson and Beverly A. Rubik)
The general limitations of science (not the unnecessary limitations) that I discussed above apply also to extended science and broad science.
The Science of Enlightenment
Following the principles of broad science, spiritual investigations can become at least in part scientific. “They rely on specific social practices or injunctions (such as contemplation); they rest their claims on data and experiential evidence; and they constantly refine and check these data in a community of the adequate [that is, those who have practiced the injunction(s)] – which is why they are correctly referred to as the contemplative sciences” (Wilber 2001a, p. 77). In his recordings The Science of Enlightenment, Shinzen Young (1997, session 9; 2016) explains how the practice of mindfulness (focus and presence) and equanimity (non-interference) lead to insight and purification, which eventually may lead to enlightenment (see also Five Ways to Know Yourself. An Introduction to Basic Mindfulness). As is often the case even in the physical sciences, this prediction can be made only in terms of probabilities, not certainty. And it seems that the chances of reaching full enlightenment are rather low. But one may at least deepen one's insight and progress towards enlightenment.
In addition to showing the path towards enlightenment, science can reveal objective correlations between subjective meditative experience and enlightenment on the one hand and physiology on the other; in other words, correlations between subjective inner experience and objective scientific observation. For example, it has been shown that meditative states are correlated not with beta brainwaves but with alpha, theta and/or delta brainwaves or no brainwaves at all (for an illustration see Ken Wilber stops his brainwaves). However, we have to keep in mind that science constitutes only one of the big three dimensions of existence (see below) and therefore cannot be all encompassing. In other words, it has limitations.
There is to be a christening party for Paddy and Maureen’s new baby, but before the ceremony the priest takes Paddy aside and asks, “Are you prepared for this solemn event?”
“I think so,” replies the nervous Paddy. I’ve got cheese rolls, salad, and cake.”
“No, no,” interrupts the priest, “I mean spiritually prepared?”
“Well, I don’t know, says Paddy thoughtfully, “Do you think two cases of whisky are enough?” (Osho. 1998. Take it Really Seriouly. Osho International Foundation, p.228).
The Big Three of Ken Wilber’s AQAL Map
Ken Wilber’s AQAL map has four quadrants or dimensions. When two of them are combined, we obtain the Big Three: Science, Art, and Culture, or Nature, Self, and Morals. Therefore, even if broad science includes higher realms of meditative experience, “science and its methods are still only “one third” of the total story, because the higher levels also have art and morals, which follow their own quite different methodologies” (Wilber 2001a, p. 157). Thus, in terms of the Big Three, it is not only science but also art and culture (morals) that may lead us toward enlightenment.
A Radical View of Science
Paul Feyerabend (1975, 1978, 1987, 2011) found that the separation of science, art, and culture (Wilber’s Big Three) is not necessarily very clear-cut. Consequently, he developed a view of science that is radical according to two meanings of the word ‘radical’: 1. It appears extreme and shocking to most scientists, philosophers of science, and laypersons, and 2. It leads to the root meaning of science, which is knowledge. And knowledge can be obtained in many different ways: through observation, experiment, reasoning, feeling, emotion, intuition, and even magic and myth. Feyerabend excluded none of all that and demonstrated that practicing scientists may have recourse to all that and that the progress of science would not have been possible if all scientists would have followed a rigidly defined scientific method. Therefore he concluded that science cannot be defined by a so-called scientific method. Since no single methodological rule has been followed by all scientists (see Against Method), he coined the slogan: “anything goes” (as far as scientific methodology is concerned). I would prefer to say, “many things go” (Sattler 1986, pp.34/35 and 69).
In an article on the Shiva Nature of Science, Lane & Diem-Lane (2012) pointed out that like Shiva with his many arms, "science is a quest with many methods and not just one," and therefore "science like Shiva cannot be confined to only one aspect… There are, in sum, innumerable ways to gather knowledge about the cosmos…Perhaps science's greatest contribution is that at its best it is open to refutation and is thereby o[en to change.
However, Feyerabend noted that scientists often can be as dogmatic as people who subscribe to religious dogmas, myths, or ideologies (see also Lewontin 1991). For this reason he considered science a form of religion or ideology that has become repressive, although it started as a liberating movement. As I pointed out above, today the materialistic/mechanistic worldview of mainstream science has enslaved us. People who question it on the basis of good empirical evidence are no longer burned at the stake, but they are often ridiculed or threatened, and they may lose their research grants and even their positions.
To protect citizens from the dogmas of science Feyerabend thought that there should be a separation of science and the state just as there is a separation of the church and the state. He said: “ I want to defend society from all ideologies, science included. All ideologies must be seen in perspective. One must not take them too seriously. One must read them like fairy-tales which have lots of interesting things to say but which ... are deadly when followed to the letter”(How to defend society against science).
Although I can see merits of Feyerabend’s radical views, I would not say that science is a dogmatic religion. I would prefer to say that science and dogmatic religion overlap in many instances. But I would think that it might be possible to be non-dogmatic in both science and religion. The problem is that most scientists do not even seem to be aware of their dogmatism because they have been deeply indoctrinated and brainwashed during their university education. So the first task is to create awareness of the dogmatism. Then one may proceed in an open-minded and open-ended manner...
Someone said: The mind is like a parachute: it works much better when it's open.
Although today mainstream science still remains predominantly materialistic and mechanistic, one can see in some instances that this dogmatism is giving way to a more inclusive holistic approach. For example, a new discipline called psycho-neuro-immunology is integrating aspects of the mind and body. Neuroplasticity shows that we need not be caught forever in rigid behaviours and views (Doidge 2015). And some medical doctors are now prescribing meditation in addition or instead of drugs (see Toward better health and more sanity in our lives and society).
The Semantic View of Scientific Theories and Laws
An important innovation in the understanding of science is the semantic view of scientific theories and laws. According to this view as understood by R.N. Giere, theories and laws are considered definitions. Thus, we no longer ask whether they are true or false. We ask whether they apply to particular situations. If more than one theory or law applies, they are considered complementary.
For example, Newtonian physics or Mendelian genetics apply to many situations and therefore constitute useful theories and laws. We know that they don’t apply to all situations and therefore they are not generally true. In any case, whether they are true is no longer the question. The question is whether they can be applied. And as they can be applied, they have explanatory and/or predictive power.
The tenets of classical plant morphology can also be applied in many situations and therefore are useful. The tenets of continuum morphology in addition can be applied in situations where those of classical plant morphology do not apply. Therefore, we can say that the tenets of continuum morphology have a still wider range of applicability.
The semantic view has many advantages. It recognizes that truth remains elusive in scientific theories and laws. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, proof appears unattainable in science, whose strength resides in its open-endedness, which means: no final word, no assurance of the ultimate truth. We have to become more humble, which can have many beneficial consequences.
Another reason why science and the scientific approach, be it narrow or broad, cannot attain ultimate truth is the following. As Korzybski demonstrated elegantly through his Structural Differential, language is limiting. Hence, “whatever you might say something “is”, it is not [because] whatever we might say belongs to the verbal level and not to the un-speakable objective levels” (Korzybski 1958, p. 409). Thus, science - using language and mathematics - cannot disclose the unnamable mystery of existence (see, for example, Wilber 2000, p. 732). It can provide maps that correspond to some extent to the territory of reality. But, as Korzybski emphasized, "a map is not the territory" (ibid., p. 750). This seems obvious, and yet we often confuse our maps with the territory, thinking that they are the territory, that they represent reality. But reality vastly surpasses any map; and since science is limited to providing maps, it follows that reality cannot be fully grasped and understood by science.
So how can we come closer to the unnamable mystery of reality? Meditation (including laughing meditation such as, for example, laughter yoga) can help us further awareness that we are the unnamable mystery in as much as we are one with the whole Kosmos. (Like Ken Wilber (2000, p. 45), I write cosmos with a K to indicate that I refer not only to the physical cosmos but the all-inclusive Kosmos, that is, ultimate reality). It seems a joke, a kosmic joke, that we are seeking what we are already, which seems like looking for our glasses that we are already wearing (see, for example, Hillig 2004, p. 164; Wilber, 1999: The Spectrum of Consciousness, and Wilber 2001b, Chapter 13: Always Already: The Brilliant Clarity of Ever-Present Awareness).
Science and the Arts
Because of its limitations, science can reveal only an aspect (or aspects) of reality. The arts disclose other aspects. Thus science and the arts complement one another (see Complementarity). Arthur Koestler put it this way: "Einstein's space is no closer to reality than van Gogh's sky. The glory of science lies not in a truth more absolute than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy, but in the act of creation itself. The scientist's discoveries impose its own order on chaos, as the composer or painter imposes his, an order that always refers to limited aspects of reality, and is based on the observer's frame of reference, which differs from period to period as a Rembrandt nude differs from a nude by Manet" (Koestler 1964).
The strength and power of science resides in its empirical (evidence-based) approach, testability, (limited) replication of results, open-endedness, (limited) rationality, objectivity, (limited) explanatory and predictive power.
Limitations are due to uncertainty, the impossibility of proof, theory-ladenness and value-ladenness of facts, abstraction in perception, description (language), and inferences, the exclusion of uniqueness, unavoidable simplifications, the difficulty of answering questions of values and morals, and the impossibility of reaching the mystery of existence (which is beyond sensual perception, language, and mathematics), although the experience of the mysterious may at least at times contribute to the process of scientific discovery.
Mainstream science appears even more limited than necessary because it usually excludes holistic approaches, subtle energies, inner subjective experiences, and everything else that contradicts the fundamental tenets of the materialistic/mechanistic worldview. Thus, mainstream science deprives itself of the possibility of testing its most basic assumptions. On the other hand, holistic science provides evidence for phenomena beyond the scope of materialistic/mechanistic science. For example, holistic science provides evidence for the existence of psychic (psi) phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, etc.
(Radin 1997, Carter 2012).
I want to emphasize that materialistic/mechanistic science and holistic science should not be seen as mutually exclusive opposites. They may more or less overlap. Nonetheless, so far mainstream science remains predominantly materialistic and mechanistic, although it may incorporate here and there some elements of holistic methodology.
According to radical empiricism, external as well as internal (inner) experience is accepted, which leads to a broad science that may be able to investigate even spiritual growth and, according to Shinzen Young, even enlightenment.
According to Paul Feyerabend, science is a form of religion, ideology, or mythology because scientists can be as dogmatic as the practitioners of dogmatic religions, ideologies, and mythologies. I would prefer to say that science often or most of the time overlaps more or less with dogmatic religion, ideology, or mythology. Nonetheless, I think that science has at least the potential to transcend dogmatism. So far there may be only few scientists who are able to do this. But if we could improve science education, there may be more future scientists who will be able to free themselves of dogmatism, if not totally, at least to some degree.
According to the semantic view of theories and laws, theories and laws are considered definitions. Thus, we no longer ask whether they are true or false. We ask whether they apply to particular situations. As a result, we need no longer engage in futile and hostile discussion about whose theory is true. Science and society could greatly benefit from this more humble view of theories and laws.
A basic reason why science and the scientific approach, be it narrow or broad, cannot attain ultimate truth is the following. As Korzybski demonstrated elegantly through his Structural Differential, language is limiting. Hence, “whatever you might say something “is”, it is not [because] whatever we might say belongs to the verbal level and not to the un-speakable objective levels” (Korzybski 1958, p. 409). Thus, science cannot disclose the unnamable mystery of existence. Science can provide only maps of the unnamable. And as Korzybski has pointed out, "a map is not the territory [of unnamable reality]" (Korzybski 1958, p. 750).
Meditation (including laughing meditation such as, for example, laughter yoga) can help us further the awareness that - in as much as we are one with the universe - we are already the unnamable mystery. Thus, seeking the unnamable mystery seems like looking for our glasses that we are already wearing.
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Latest update of this webpage on May 25, 2017.