May contain nuts.
Did life on Earth commence with the arrival of a biological material on a meteor (as in Spore), or around deep sea vents, or in “primordial soup”? Does the answer for the ‘missing’ matter in the universe point to dark matter, dark energy, or errors in our theories of gravitation? Did humanity develop upright posture to better dissipate heat, to free the arms for gathering food, to better wade through water, or simply because we’re lazy, and it uses less energy to walk upright? Does the Higgs boson really exist, or is it (as I contend) an awful kludge – and will the Large Hadron Collidor settle this dispute, or bring about one of a handful of exciting doomsday scenarios?
Science is packed full of such energetic
debates between rival epistemic positions. (‘Epistemic’ is philosopher-speak
for ‘stuff about knowledge’). Wouldn’t it be great if we could resolve all of
these issues and know what is really true? We could appoint a board of
scientists to weigh all the evidence and decide the real epistemology. Hey,
why stop at a committee – they’ll just waste all that time arguing about it. We
could appoint one individual to decide what’s true and what’s not true. We
could appoint a Science Pope – an epistemic action hero to tell us
what’s True and what’s False. An end to scientific argument! Scientific Truth
Cue the victory parade!
Now hang about, those of you who have not
detected the scent of my sarcasm, isn’t one of the complaints that militant
atheists like to level against the historical Catholic Church precisely
that it tried to act as an epistemic legislator, thus blocking the True and
Just advancement of the scientific method – the story of Galileo proves
it! The Church was wrong and Galileo was right, yeah? Scientific Truth forever!
Actually, as the maverick philosopher Paul Feyerabend demonstrated – Galileo was right, but for the wrong reasons (his conclusion would accord with future theory, but his method was flawed and insufficient as evidence), while the Church was wrong for various reasons, some absurd (Biblical inerrancy), but some bang on the money (observing the very pertinent flaws in Galileo’s research.) Not to mention Galileo shot himself in the foot by turning his staunchest ally, Pope Urban VIII, into his enemy by writing a book intended to examine both sides of the argument into a book that bigged up his own position (which, remembering that his evidence was insufficient, he was drawing solely from intuition), while implying that the Pope was a simpleton. In this regard, Galileo was a politically naïve fool.
None of this denies Galileo’s
brilliance – his later works were indeed the foundation of future scientific
thinking, and he did correctly intuit that heliocentric models were accurate.
But in the matter of his dispute with the Catholic Church, Galileo was a brash
upstart, whose arrogance was as great a factor in his fate as the Vatican’s
epistemic totalitarianism. None of which is to deny that there was an
epistemic autocracy in sixteenth century
A Science Pope would mirror this old
fashioned epistemic dictatorship, exhuming the corpse of a nasty practice the
Catholic Church has gradually (and somewhat reluctantly) been giving up for
more than a hundred years now. Contrary to popular perception, evolution has
been on the Catholic syllabus for quite a while now, and let’s not forget that
it was a Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who fathered modern genetics, and a Catholic
priest, George Lemaître, who proposed the Big Bang theory in 1931.
Representatives of Catholicism have actually contributed rather positively to
the scientific endeavour.
It’s not Christianity versus Science, much
less Religion versus Science (has the Dalai Lama ever made an epistemic
prescription?), the religious cold war, as I have dubbed it, is between
militant atheists and militant Young Earth Creationists – whoops, sorry, I’m
told they now prefer to be referenced as Biblical Authoritists, which
should surely help weaken their position far more effectively than any argument
their opponents might try to advance. By the way, while I’m here, the
I suppose a few scientistic fanatics
waiting in the wings might still want to mount a Science Pope defence
(although undoubtedly not under that title!) on the grounds that Papal
epistemology drew from the Bible (well, in part, yes, but in part, no) but the
Science Pope would draw their epistemology from the pure white light of Reason
and Science and thus would be able to synthesise Pure Scientific Truth. Never
mind Kuhn’s widely accepted philosophy of science concerning the temporary
stability of scientific paradigms, this kind of reasoning falls into the
mistake so nicely captured by Mathew Cromer’s twist on Michael Shermer’s theme: science
is a method, not a position. There is no permanent Scientific Truth – to
believe there is would be to adopt a position of epistemic authority as
bizarrely inconsistent with the scientific method as anything the Young Earth
Creationists propose. (And they, at least, are upfront about the foundation –
and thus limitation – of their epistemological position).
I doubt there is anyone who would want to propose a Science Pope - although there seems to be a few people who think they have appointed themselves to the role.
I doubt there is anyone who would want to propose a Science Pope - although there seems to be a few people who think they have appointed themselves to the role.The thing about proposing a Science Pope is that this is a magnificent lightning rod for all sorts of absurd nonsense. I hope at this point it’s clear that a Science Pope – or any more innocently worded variation on the same theme (“Council of Scientific Truth”, “League of Accurate Scientific Pronouncement” etc.) would be a truly atrocious monstrosity. The very strength of our modern scientific method is that it supports many competing viewpoints, which engage in a kind of epistemic natural selection between all individuals – everyone is free to interpret scientific research through their own lens.
This is precisely the underpinning for
science that Feyerabend felt was the only consistent position, something
further pursued by John Dupré’s pluralistic metaphysics. Dupré denies the
assumption of reductionism that all science is explicable in terms of the
science “underneath” – thus everything will ultimately be explicable by physics
– and justifiably so. It takes a gigantic leap of faith to jump over the fact
that nothing of this kind has actually been demonstrated thus far, and it’s
very unlikely (for instance) that psychology can be fully explicated by physics, nor even
chemistry. I notice Dupré has his supporters, which is a very encouraging
Yet perhaps I have been too cavalier in dismissing the possibility of a Science Pope.
But of course, few if any scientists would accept an external source of authority, and indeed many seem to believe that the pursuit of knowledge is a perfectly reasonable higher moral authority to cleave to, while readily pursuing research that is dehumanising, threatening to the future survival of all species, or otherwise ethically questionable by the varying standards that most of humanity upholds. In this regard, I sometimes wish there was a Science Pope that the wider scientific community might listen to when considering the impact of their research, rather than just the commercial benefits.
Would it be so bad to have someone who could say every once in a while: please don’t research that, some of us are trying to live on this planet!