The Limits of Science

David: You were just talking about these, sort of, objective truths. Are you on the side of those who say, ‘Well, the objective is always going to be superior to the subjective’? Because I always saw that as one of those things which the reductionists and the materialists would say: ‘The only truths are those which can be objectively proved.’ And here I am thinking, well, I can’t prove that my children love me, but I’m pretty sure they do.

JC: Yes, it’s a very interesting question, this whole objective/subjective distinction, because it’s often thought that science deals with hard objective fact and this other stuff we’re talking about is ultimately pretty fuzzy: sort of matter of opinion or subjective conviction. But I don’t think that is the right way of putting it. I think, in a way, that this hinges on what sort of theory of knowledge you have. In many ways I think we privilege, wrongly, an epistemology of detachment.

David: What does that mean? Sorry.

JC: A theory of knowledge which says that knowledge can only be gained by a kind of distancing from the data. Where, as it were, we put it on the table, we examine it, and any rational observer, if they use the right methods and procedures, is compelled to draw a certain conclusion. It’s, if you like, ‘spectator evidence’, to use the term of the American philosopher, Paul Moser.

Now, I think there are many perfectly objective and genuine parts of reality which aren’t accessible via spectator evidence.

David: Yes, they’re private: they’re mine.

JC: No, no, that’s what I’m denying. I’m saying they’re genuine, real: they’re not just personal. For example, the properties of a great piece of music. These aren’t just my reactions.

David: Ah.

JC: Anyone, I think, has to recognise that there are genuine properties in, say, the Bach Matthew Passion, which are not just the applause or otherwise of the audience, but are the properties of the music. But they are not, as it were, just accessible in pure spectator terms. Many spectators could sit through and say, ‘It doesn’t do anything for me’. But it doesn’t mean it’s subjective. It may take many years of training, or of careful listening to start to discern these properties. So there are some genuine realities which can only be accessed if you have the right kind of receptivity.

So instead of an epistemology, a theory of knowledge based on detachment and distance, I think we have to acknowledge there are truths that are only accessible if we adopt an epistemology of receptivity. If we are, to use a word that Martha Nussbaum uses, if we’re prepared to be porous, open, receptive.

Ard: So what kind of truths have that nature, that we’ll only really understand them if we’re open to them, in some sense?

JC: Well another analogy, apart from the musical one, is truths about personal relationships. I take it personal relationships aren’t just a matter of subjective feelings. There are genuine facts about whether a relationship is flourishing, about certain goals that people undertake together. But if you always remain hard, detached – the spectator – that very insistence of adopting the scientific, detached attitude will cut you off from being receptive to the properties of the other person.

David: You mean you won’t even see them?

JC: You might not see them, or see them in the right way.

Ard: Let me try a layman’s analogy on you and see if I’m getting this about right. So, I love my wife and I believe my wife loves me. I do have evidence from that, but there’s a sense in which, if I stay on the side as a spectator and just wait for that evidence to come, then there’s lots of evidence that I will in fact never see.

JC: Yes.

Ard: I have to take a step of commitment to her, and from that step of commitment actually will come evidence.

JC: Yes, yes.

Ard: You’re saying some evidence is not visible to you, or you can’t see it until you take, almost, like a step of faith? That’s my layman’s…

JC: Yes, I think that’s very nicely put. I’d agree with that. I mean, it’s rather like a spiral of change, where you give ground a little bit and then something becomes visible which was before occluded. Then, as it becomes visible, it has a further effect on you. You undergo further change. And so, if things go well, this is what happens in relationships, there’s a kind of upward spiral of change where people are prepared to put down their guard, increasingly, and, as a result, there appear properties of the other person which they might not have seen before.

David: When you mentioned this spiral, where you see something and then you’re open to it, so you see it more, has the opposite happened in Western society? Where we’ve been tempted, largely, I think, through science, to say, ‘Look, certain things aren’t important or they don’t exist’, so we’ve seen them less. Is that part of the feeling that there is an alienation in the West?

JC: Yes, I think for all its wonderful achievements, and to which we all owe so much, science has, in some people’s minds, led to a sort of downward spiral: that something’s only valid if we can produce experimental data or graphs. I mean, I have been to philosophy conferences where people have put up slides of the brain lighting up and say, ‘Look, there you are. You see. That bit of the brain’s lighting up.’

Now, that’s very interesting. Of course, we are physical creatures, and it’s very interesting that parts of our brain work at different times, in different ways. But if you’re trying to understand someone listening to a Beethoven symphony, or someone discussing a problem with their wife, or whatever, both those things have meaning, and the data going on in the brain doesn’t capture that. And it’s absurd, when we start to think that some computer printout or diagram of what’s going on in the brain could capture the meaning of what’s happening in a relationship or in a musical enterprise.

Nonetheless it exerts a seductive pull on people. They think, ‘If only we can get the data, we’ve got to the essence of the phenomenon.’ And so that’s, in a way, what scientism, as opposed to science, is saying: trying to reduce things down to whatever can be quantified, measured or put up on an overhead projector.