Saturday, December 12, 2009

Science wisdom

The Wikipedia entry says that Nicholas Maxwell " a philosopher who has devoted much of his working life to arguing that there is an urgent need to bring about a revolution in academia so that it seeks and promotes wisdom and does not just acquire knowledge." Okay, that is a noble pursuit...any candidates? Are we bereft of individuals that comprise wisdom and have an effective means to relay to the populace? I can think of a few though some have passed away: Sir David Attenborough , Jacob Bronowski , James Burke .

Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte [Metapsychology Online Reviews] wrote a review of Nicholas Maxwell's reissued What's Wrong With Science?: Towards a People's Rational Science of Delight and Compassion...

When I started writing my graduate dissertation my moderator gave me a good piece of advice. He said: "write clear and if you're capable write in plain language". He added, and this in a very insistent way, "please don't try to be creative; don't write a very long poem or a pseudo platonic dialogue because even if you think it will work, listen to me: it will not!". I didn't write a lay-out innovative piece and I still believe that the advice given was precious. How then to write on this book by Nicholas Maxwell because it is nothing more or less than an invented dialogue between a philosopher -- who is very similar to our author as he himself honestly reveals -- and a scientist?

Let me however start with the basic claims this book sets forward. The essential idea that is presented in this work, an idea that "provides us the methodological key to the salvation of humanity" [vii] and as such "might just save the world" [xii], is that there is something fundamentally wrong with science, or better, there is something fundamentally wrong with the philosophy of science which 'rules' science itself. In fact, the problem is basically that science has committed itself to a "bad ideal for science, a bad idea to what it is to be scientific" [10]. Science has, according to our author, committed itself to a bad philosophy of science; it is the false ideal of a false philosophy of science which is called 'standard empiricism'.

The main problem with this philosophy of science of standard empiricism is that it completely misrepresents the basic aims of science. In fact, according to this (bad) philosophy of science the aims are supposed to be the search for neutral and factual truth as such (knowledge). Furthermore, it ensures, with its obstructive and stultifying methodology and rules, that science has become an issue for the 'elite' -- making it incomprehensible for the masses -- who in turn only help in the process of obstructing real progress. In short, the 'misconceived philosophy of science of standard empiricism' fails to make rational sense of science. It serves to obstruct progress and disrupts the delicate relationship that ought to exist between science and humanity. [Cfr. 24-26]

Against this paradigm of standard empiricism, Maxwell proposes a science which he colorfully describes as bubble blowing, as pygmy science ("science as the expression of our love for our world at its rational best" [120]). This ideal of science is called 'humane aim-oriented empiricism', and it's a science that is a 'person-centred science'. This form of science does no longer look for factual truth as such but seeks, first of all, valuable truth. [65-66] In fact, this pygmy science doesn't looks for valuable truth as such, but for valuable truth that enables the enhancement of the quality of human life and the realization of human needs -- it is a problem-solving science. In short, it "seeks to be of service to people in their lives" [122]; it looks for truth that relates to life and that has value for humanity.

Not only will this 'new' form of science attract more people to science, according to our author it will also make science more rigorous. In fact, in opening science up for people, it would force scientists to make every 'a-priori' assumption clear. More precise articulation would be demanded, as well as clearer explanation of aims and goals. As such it would compel science to become more rigorous. Scientists would have to lose their 'mask' of incomprehensible and abstract language demonstrating furthermore the inter-connections between the different scientific disciplines (the world, in fact, does not show itself to us in clearly (sub-) divided categories and facets). [Cfr. 155]

All of this then should lead, according to our author, to an 'aim-oriented rationalism'. This more rigorous humane aim-oriented empiricism would (obviously) lead to better -- more humane -- results in and products of science. This is, however, not the true aim of Maxwell (or at least of the philosopher character in this book). Once 'traditional' (bad) science has become this improved form of science the main task will then become not merely to enjoy the products and results of this science in normal life but to make this (new) scientific methodology the basic methodology for life itself. The humane aim-oriented empiricism of science should thus be "generalized to a form of methodology, a conception of rationality, of universal application to life". [168] As such making our lives and our society into a scientific life and rational society.

This rather peculiar and extremely provocative book ends with the description of the bubble blown by Maxwell himself -- the author himself, in fact, enters into the text --. It, however, doesn't even convince one of the characters which he himself invented. Not even the philosopher character is convinced by the pygmy in Maxwell. But how disappointing this might seem for some, this is exactly the point of the philosopher of science that Maxwell is. As a true philosopher, I at least do completely agree with Maxwell here, he is just "throwing open new possibilities, entertainingly indicating Weltanschauung that may not have occurred to people" [43], and what a possibility he's (really entertainingly) opening!

In fact, contrary to what moderator stated years ago, the whole dialogue did work -- the reading was pleasant and seemed almost real (rare events are those when philosophers actually do write in an attractive way -- until it seemed necessary to our author to insert half a dozen characters who only interrupted (presenting cliché versions of some philosophies of life) the almost gentle flow of words between the scientist and the philosopher. [Cfr. 173-191] (Also the rather trivial and highly generalized statements regarding Christianity -- which one? -- could have been avoided.)

In conclusion, it cannot be ignored that science has, at least in an indirect way, brought along not just prosperity but also grave global problems (global warming, arms of mass destruction, etc.). If our author is correct, which he probably is, that they are the "almost inevitable outcome" [xi] of science's failure to get rid of the philosophical idea of standard empiricism then he just might have a very good point. And even though this book, notwithstanding the hopes of our author, will probably not save the world, it will definitely not contribute in destroying it!

What's Wrong With Science?: Towards a People's Rational Science of Delight and Compassion


Nicholas Maxwell

ISBN-10: 0955224012
ISBN-13: 978-0955224010

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