Dave Pruett has a post up at the Huffington Post looking at a declaration of eight “eminent” scientists and scholars calling for science to move past its materialistic focus. The list of authors in this declaration includes Rupert Sheldrake, whose TED talk was removed from the TED site last year after an outcry from the scientific community pointing out that his presentation was filled with pseudoscientific assertions.
The authors of the declaration are asking that science not judge consciousness and other phenomena on a materialistic basis and be open to paranormal, near death experiences, and similar types of claimed phenomena. They accuse modern science of being beset with the dogma of “scientific materialism”.
I think the authors’ assertion that science has a dogma of materialism is just plain wrong.
Science has only one real axiom, one dogma. That axiom, that dogma, is that more reliable information about reality is better than less reliable information, that truth is better than fantasy. That’s it. Despite what many enemies and advocates of science often say, there are no other axioms.
But what about things like physicalism, naturalism, and empiricism? These philosophies are really operational methodological assumptions, assumptions that exist because they have been shown to be fruitful for obtaining more reliable information. They are products of science, not axioms of it. These assumptions are retained while they continue to be useful, and would eventually be dismissed if they stopped being so.
What about the “scientific method”? This phrase, which many people often assume to be the central axiom of science, usually refers to that simple description we all read about in grade school involving gathering data, forming hypotheses, experimenting, revising hypotheses, repeating, etc. While broadly correct, this is actually a simplified summary that omits mountains of operational details and methods that are involved in real scientific work, and which vary widely by scientific discipline.
There is no one scientific method. The detailed methods that are used have been themselves developed scientifically, and are constantly being refined and updated as new techniques are discovered. The important thing to understand is that any new or proposed methods are judged by the reliability of the information they produce. And old methods that produce less reliable results are discarded.
Reliability, incidentally, only means a low probability of later being overturned. It means results that stand the test of time. Methods don’t last if they produce results that are often quickly overturned.
What often isn’t appreciated is that science, by and large, is a relentlessly pragmatic enterprise. If holding a seance was discovered to produce reliable information, scientists would incorporate it into their procedures (eventually). If taking mind altering drugs produced reliable information, taking those drugs would become a part of science. Of course, seances and mind altering drugs aren’t part of the standard scientific toolkit because any information they produce has generally been shown to be garbage.
What the authors are calling materialism, is historically a working assumption, not because of some deep philosophical commitment to it (although some individual scientists certainly do have that commitment) but because searching for material explanations has been fruitful, while searching for non-material ones hasn’t. This has been true across centuries of scientific endeavor.
Which brings us back to the declaration. The authors are essentially claiming that modern science is blinded by its adherence to materialism, and that this blindness is closing it off to knowledge about the mind, consciousness, and related concepts. What is called for, they claim, is a new scientific revolution, a paradigm shift.
In Pruett’s piece supporting this declaration, he discusses historical scientific revolutions such as the Copernican revolution, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. By implication, the revolution that the declaration writers are asking for is in the same class.
But the historical revolutions Pruett discusses didn’t happen by people calling for a revolution. Those revolutions happened by people doing it, by making discoveries that withstood scrutiny and debate, and that eventually proved to be reliable knowledge about reality.
The problem is that the declaration authors and their ilk haven’t done that, at least not yet. What they need to do is meet the one actual axiom of science, to produce reliable information from their proposed methods of research, information that proves to be accurate, withstands scrutiny and the test of time, and that could not have been obtained under the current paradigm. In other words, they need to do the hard work that drove the historical scientific revolutions Pruett mentions, assuming that there is anything to be gained in their approach.
Of course, some of them will claim that they have already done this, but that modern science is so blinded by adherence to materialism that their results are suppressed. Perhaps, but claiming that the scientific establishment is in collusion against them is a common tactic of scammers, crackpots, and pseudoscientists of all flavors. Perhaps instead, mainstream scientists just don’t want to waste their time with notions that have repeatedly been shown to have no basis in fact across decades and centuries of prior work.