Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Science as THE way of knowing

It is common among scientists, as among others, to refer to the scientific method as a way of knowing, but there are other ways as well. I wish to briefly explain that science is not just a way of knowing, but the way.

I am not referring, of course, to the subject matter of science. I refer to the scientific method, about which I wrote my most recent book, Scientifically Thinking.


I have had positive and exciting responses to this book. One email that I received is typical:

“[I am] an astronomy PhD student in UC Riverside. I read your fantastic book (Scientifically Thinking) and all the way during reading the book I was like: This book is really great! I think this book can be and is a life-changer and savior for many of us, regardless of the field of study and career.

I feel I am a better person after reading this book. That's why I recommend it to everyone I know and even don't know: last time I recommended it to a stranger in a playground who was trying to raise
his little son a better person that himself!”

However, one reviewer (who was otherwise rapturous about how much he loved the book) accused me of being a scientific imperialist. How dare I say science is the only way of knowing? He said this was dangerous.

I plead guilty.

Science, as a profession, confines itself to repeatable and measurable data. The scientific method, however, can be applied to other kinds of observations that are not physical. What the scientific method allows you to do is to, as much as possible:

  • Avoid bias. Science allows you to recognize your own biases and at least try to compensate for them.
  • Have appropriate construct validity. Science allows you to, as much as possible, use a source of information that really tells you what you want to know.

These are characteristics that all kinds of thinking, including philosophical and religious, need to have. (Note that many fields of study outside of science—such as history—do in fact use data that are physical. Music is grounded in the physics of sound and in the psychology of the human mind. Psychology, in turn, is based on physiology and evolution. Literature is also based on psychology and evolution. As I use the term, science may include all of these fields of experience.)

If a religious person makes a claim, there must be something other than his own craziness that can support it. At least, find it in the Bible before blurting it out. While finding a Bible proof-text does not count as scientific thinking, it is better than the kind of craziness that we see around us today. Christian fundamentalists wave their Bibles in the air without reading them.

While I consider science to be the way of knowing, it is clearly not the only way of experiencing. I have had numerous and powerful religious experiences, both when I was a fundamentalist Christian, and now when my views are less defined. When I listen to music, I do not think about music theory; I am swept away by a rapture that is not unlike religious experiences that I have had. Earlier, I reviewed The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell. He studied his little patch of forest floor scientifically, but his experience was strongly influenced by Buddhism (he kept referring to the spot of land as a mandala).

And while I now question the historical reliability of the “stories of Jesus,” I am irresistibly drawn to them; I continue to write about them in my fiction and use Bible quotes even in my science classes. To me, Jesus is real, even though it may all be inside my head. I love this guy. I just don’t claim this to be knowledge; it is experience.

As I close, I must mention a source of bias in my views. I have, on several occasions, been duped by religious cult leaders. One was Garner Ted Armstrong. I was also swept into a Church of Christ cult for many years. My faith was more powerful than any experience I have had before or since. It was strong enough that I ignored contrary evidence, such as the verified news that Garner Ted was having illicit affairs with undergrad women at his college. With a history of such vulnerability to cult-thinking, how can I trust anything that is generated solely within my brain? I’m just speaking for myself, but I’ll bet you have similar vulnerabilities. I need to test my beliefs against evidence.

The distinction between knowledge and experience is particularly crucial today, when millions (not many millions, I hope) of people believe that everything Donald Trump says is as infallible as if God Himself had said them, and that there is a totally secret conspiracy that stole the election from Him. Few of them will go as far as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who claimed that mass shootings were all fake, and that the California wildfires were started by a satellitefinanced by Jewish money, but many of them use their religious delusion to claim that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax and that we should neither wear masks nor get vaccinated. At this point, treating religious experience as if it is knowledge has become a public threat.

That is, I get upset when I see people using religion as a basis for believing and doing terrible things, which is something that I almost did as well. I am reacting in horror to what I might have been, as well as to what they are. That is my bias but, I think, a reasonable one.

Scientific thinking, not necessarily science, is THE way of knowing.


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