Unscientific Method

People tend to build up a special language.  You know the kind of thing I mean.  Whenever the father of a friend of mine begins to tell me a little bit of family history, the whole brood will groan and say, “Oh, No!  Dad’s going to tell one of his Old-Family-Stories!”  You can almost see the italics.  These catch-phrases are a neat shorthand to point out the follies of our loved ones.

Case in point.  It seems to be a matter of near-unanimous consensus that I have a tendency to over-explain (like you ask how a toaster works and I might start out, “First there was this rock…”).  In our circle, this became referred to as More-Than-You-Ever-Wanted-To-Know-About-__________.  My Ex found a neat way to handle this.  After I had run on and on about some boring piece of technical wonderment, she would respond with, “Oh, sure.  I understand.  It’s Magic!”

Devastating effective as a criticism (as well, in my opinion, as justifying homicide) her response was not all that inaccurate.  For it is the dirty little secret of Western science that at the heart of all of it lies a complete mystery for which Magic is as good as any other word.

Western science is based totally on describing the What of reality while ignoring the Why.  Like any good sleight of hand artist, it hides the elision behind rhetoric.

I remember first encountering this in school when we looked at the famous Action-At-A-Distance problem.

It is pretty obvious how objects in physical contact influence each other.  We all understand it intuitively enough not to ask too many probing questions.  However, the ability of some things to influence other things far away struck the pioneers of science as reaching dangerously towards theology.  This is the Action-At-A-Distance problem.

Just how, one might ask, do a pair of charged items repel or attract one another?  If there is nothing between them, how can they possibly affect one another?  The grand solution they developed to the question, I was told in high school, was that there was an Electric Field present.  It was the Field that affected the two objects, not either upon the other.

Now the Electric Field (and, later, the Magnetic Field) was a great eighteenth century invention.  Describable by equations, the strengths of the Fields could be measured and the effects predicted.  Wonderful!

Until, that is, you ask your teacher(s) exactly what a Field is.  In answer you will get obscure jargon, more equations, or a brush-off.  The reason, it turns out, is because a Field is not what it seems to be.  It sounds like a term to describe a concrete Something in a region.  Not true.  Instead, it is just another term for a region where something happens.  In other words, it is simply a convenient way of saying, “I haven’t the vaguest idea WHY something is happening, but I can tell you WHERE it is going to happen and predict WHAT will happen.

The introduction of the Field was one of the great defining moments of Western thought.  Natural Philosophy, as it was called, was being split.  When the split was complete, it would be the job of the scientists to tell WHERE and What would happen.  They would leave it to the philosophers to speculate on the WHY.

All the years since have not changed that.  The growing complexity and (apparent) completeness of our models have made the truth more obscure, but the fact remains:  Western Science is Descriptive and Predictive.  Period.  At its core lies an unanswered Why that might as well go by Magic as any other name.

Liberated from the question of WHY, Western science was freed to pursue the WHEREs and WHATs of the world.  To help, it developed its most powerful tool, the Scientific Method.

One can write a great deal about various aspects of the Scientific Method, but the most fundamental characteristic of it is that it is empirical.  That is, it is based upon confirming our ideas with valid, real world experimentation.

But just what do we mean by valid experimentation?  Western science uses its definition of experimentation, circuitously, to define what it means by scientific fact.  To confirm something as scientific fact, your experiment must be so defined that another person, working on their own, can repeat the experiment with the same result.  If any experiment fails that test, it is condemned to the special hell of falsehood called “Non-reproducible results.”

Although this appears obviously valid to all of us trained in the method, the development of this criterion was another defining event that divided the world again.  Because buried in this standard of empiricism is a couple of critical assumptions about scientific truth.  First, the skill or knowledge of the experimenter, beyond that needed to conduct the test, is irrelevant.  In fact, just about every possible aspect of the experimenter (not to mention any observers), such as height, sex, mood, character, etc., must be outside the scope of the experiment for it to qualify as a valid test of scientific fact.  Second, Western empiricism excludes outside interference from any powers like the observers, God, spirits or what have you.

These have certainly been useful criteria.  Our entire technological culture and it world-wide dominance, has been based upon them.  But let me suggest that they unintentionally relegate some phenomena to “scientifically false” that may be as real as any “scientific truth.”

One of the oft retold stories of scientific discovery relates how some “old wives tale” of folk wisdom was at first dismissed and later found to be scientifically valid.  Probably the best known example is those primitive native of South American who believed that some stupid tree bark was good for fevers.  Later, we discovered that the bark of the cinchona tree contained an alkaloid we call quinine.  There are hundreds of other examples, from “Red sky at dawning, sailors take warning…” to the adage about swallows dipping in flight before a storm.

This has become such a well recognized phenomenon that there are actually scientific professionals who make their careers tracing down the truths embedded in folk wisdom.  What we have learned is that human observation, accumulated over the millennia, performs a sifting process, depositing observed realities into the cultural matrix.

Problem is, in our superior wisdom, we choose to take one set of such observations to our collective bosom as folk wisdom (the aperture that has opened to allow passage for acupuncture and similar “Eastern” practices) while we dismiss other aspects as “superstitions.”  I think it can be argued that some of those superstitions are, in fact, real events that simply do not conform to the scientific method.

For instance, one of the most devastating criticisms of magic, ESP, shamanism, etc., is that demonstrations fail in the light of science.  Let some good, skeptical, scientific observer control the conditions or even merely observe, and the tests fail.  Since the mere presence of observers (even ones with blatantly disbelieving attitudes) cannot affect a scientific result, the subject under study is automatically relegated to the sphere of superstition.

Yeah…..But.

Since there are literally thousands of reports by observers that some of these phenomena are real, another alternative description might be better.  Suppose we use Ockham’s razor and look for an explanation that can cover both the overwhelming consensus and the failure of “scientific” verification.

Imagine, for a moment, that there is a whole realm of phenomena that have a subjective component.  That is, suppose there are capabilities in the world that either depend or are strongly influenced by the experimenter’s (and observers’) Attitude.

There might be a whole range of powers that could be used, but only if you have the right mind set.  This may seem far-fetched, but consider:  All of us are familiar with the experience that when we are in a certain negative frame of mind, bad things happen to us, even ones that seem accidental.  Equally, we all know that there are times when we are in tune with the world and good things seem to shower down upon us.

Instead of just writing them off as serendipity, we could take them as proof that we have, in this world, some capacity to sway our environment by our attitudes.

Taking it another route, we all know of stories of those who have attained a certain inner discipline being able to perform acts that are “super-human.”  Then, too, there are the stories of those with sufficient faith being able to perform acts beyond the physical bonds we know.  Assuming there is a core of truth to those stories, it would seem that a person’s knowledge, beliefs and growth can affect one’s ability to tap into a whole family of subjectively influenced physical powers of our world.

What I am suggesting is that by defining our Western science as being based solely on phenomena that can be experimentally repeated by others no matter what their knowledge, skill, faith, discipline or attitude, we might have accidentally excluded ourselves from a whole range of forces that are equally valid and might equally be used by human beings to shape and mold the world they live in.

Fortunately, folk wisdom has already given us a name for this subjective side of the world.  They call it Magic.

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