Facts and Meanings

Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic.

Post 6.  Facts and Meanings

Most of the humanists I know are contemptuous of religion because they think that science, and only science, can tell us truth.  Only the intellectual rigour of the scientific method – unbiased gathering of data, hypothesis, experiment and peer review – avoids the mythical obfuscations that, to greater and lesser extents, attend everything else.  Art and literature please and cultivate our emotions, but they do not penetrate the truth in the way science does.  Worst of all is religion, for it is a thickly woven quilt of mystical nonsenses that have consistently fooled mankind.  I have come to think that this view of science is quite wrong and profoundly misleading, because it fails to distinguish between facts and meanings in science.  The facts discovered by science are irrefutably true.  But the meanings scientists bestow upon them, and in their wake pretty much everybody else for we are all metaphor making creatures, are not.  Not only that, but the history of science shows us that in every age scientists have taken the meanings with which they embellish the facts to be as true as the facts themselves, and in every age these webs of imagined meanings have not only been misleading but profoundly wrong.


Even the greatest scientists have completely misunderstood their own great discoveries.  Galileo thought that the sun, or more precisely a mathematical point close to the sun, was the centre of the universe.  Newton thought that his laws of motion explained all forms of movement, but we know now that they only apply to objects moving at relatively slow speeds.  The closer you get to the speed of light the less they explain.  Einstein, even though his own discoveries had been crucial in the development of quantum physics, never accepted quantum physics until his dying breath.  There is no scientist in the world today who thinks Einstein was right.  Lord Kelvin, commonly regarded at least in England as the greatest scientist of the nineteenth century, thought that once the problem of black box radiation had been solved, physics would be complete. But even as he spoke Max Planck’s enquiries into black box radiation were leading to quantum physics, and the complete undoing of Lord Kelvin’s whole view of the world.


Lord Kelvin courtesy of Adobe Free Images

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn puts forward the view that scientists conduct their enquiries within what he calls paradigms, views of the world that are always based on an outdated science that will soon be completely overtaken by new discoveries, but ways of thinking that have become so ingrained they are hard to escape.  Priestley’s experiments were crucial to Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen.  But Priestley went on believing in phlogiston for all his life.  Who believes in phlogiston today?   Reprehensible as the trial of Galileo was, you can understand that the hierarchical, harmonious universe of Medieval cosmological myth was so splendid and all-encompassing it was extremely difficult to begin to think in any other way.  The celestial bodies moved round in eight perfect circles within the ninth unmoving circle of the outer primum mobile.  Far from disturbing this view, the discovery that some heavenly bodies moved erratically backwards only confirmed it.  Small circular movements called epicycles, it was now thought – the ones we can actually see in the heavens – do indeed sometimes move backwards because of their erratic circular motion, but within bigger circles that we can’t see that are perfectly harmonious.  So in the big picture they are still part of the perfect heavenly harmony.  If the theory could even accommodate a fact so apparently inimical to it, how true it must be.

The medieval cosmos. Courtesy of Adobe Free Images

Newton’s mathematical discoveries were so theoretically cogent and so constantly confirmed in practice, it was almost impossible in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries not to think within the paradigm of the mechanical universe, in which everything had a material cause and an inevitable effect.  Pierre Simone Laplace, the great French cosmologist, thought that this was so much so that if we knew all the facts pertaining to the throw of a dice – the air pressures in the smokey gambling den, the force with which the dice was thrown, the trembling of the hand, we would be able to predict with absolute accuracy, the way the dice would fall every time.  But now quantum physics tells us that in its remoter depths nature is inherently unpredictable.  Hence why Einstein could never accept it.

The whole history of science shows us that its great discoveries have been so sweeping and all-encompassing  they have for a time dominated the attitudes of scientists in every branch of science.  But it also shows us that scientists have woven webs of meaning round them that have always been wrong and have always been overtaken by completely new ways of seeing the world initiated by later great discoveries.  You can bet your life savings that the facts of genetics that Dawkins explains so brilliantly in The Selfish Gene will be as true in a hundred years’ time as they are now.  But the selfish gene myth – that genes compete ruthlessly with each other, that their actions are wholly mechanical, that they appear to be acting intentionally but it is without intention, that although we can only describe nature in what Dawkins calls the language of purpose it is in fact purposeless, that we are mere lumbering robots without free will carrying out the purposes of the genes – all this only makes sense within a particular way of looking at the world.  Almost certainly it will have been overtaken by a new world picture we cannot now even imagine.  But most humanists accept these theoretical musings as if they are the facts themselves.  Yet all genetic biology actually tells us is that genes code for proteins, although in a very complex way of course.  It is precisely because the facts discovered by science are so astonishing and so unimpeachably verified, that we so easily confuse these facts with the meanings we bestow upon them.  Nothing misleads us so easily and so completely as science.  And there is no belief box so misleading as that within which Anglo-Saxon science has been for so long entombed.  But to understand that we have to begin with the story of the trial of Galileo.







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