How to do Belief-free Science

Harry Kroto produced a remarkable defence of the sacking of Michael Reiss from his post with the Royal Society. Remarkable in what it assumes about the scientific method. (And thanks to Benjamin Carnys for pointing it out).

Kroto writes:

Science is based solely on doubt-based, disinterested examination of the natural and physical world. It is entirely independent of personal belief. There is a very important, fundamental concomitant – that is to accept absolutely nothing whatsoever, for which there is no evidence, as having any fundamental validity.

A little later he writes that Reiss and all religious people

fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance.

Taking Kroto seriously I offer a couple of suggestions for conducting belief-free science.

First, all conceivable research projects must be available for investigation and must be chosen purely at random. Since personal beliefs are to be independent of science, there can be no a priori assessment of which phenomena are deserving of study, nor any assessment of which viable projects should be chosen over other viable projects.  For instance, becoming a chemist rather than a physicist (or vice versa) would be unreasonable. The task of documenting all possible research projects is clearly enormous and will probably last eternally, but this labour must be completed before a random decision is made about which projects to pursue.

There are a couple of alternatives to this approach which are clearly, on Kroto’s reasoning, unacceptable. One alternative is to do the research that is actually funded by somebody. However, this would involve the forbidden act of taking account of the funders’ personal beliefs about valuable research activity. Another alternative is to commit to promising research, even where it is not yet funded, and seek funds to facilitate the research. However, this would involve the researcher’s own beliefs about what counts as promising.

In short, to make a disinterested examination of the natural and physical world, independent of personal belief, is to examine everything, always, simultaneously, without discrimination, for any discrimination would have to involve some form of a priori belief. The moment we decide what to study we have ceased to be disinterested, and have taken a leap of faith. Pragmatically, one could operate on the basis that any research project might yield results, so the choice is entirely arbitrary – but this is itself an act of faith.

Secondly, scientific research must not be conducted with the involvement of humans. The trouble with humans is that they insist on having a point of view. They have a perspective, formed by the possibilities and limitations of their senses, and this feature clouds their ability to observe and record impartially in a disinterested manner. Having a point of view amounts to the belief (forbidden by Kroto) that one point of view is valid over and against other possible or actual points of view. Self-organising robots would be much better suited to the scientific task, were it not for the fact that they would also have a point of view (or a composite point of view).

It seems humans are fundamentally unqualified to practice Kroto’s scientific method. The ideal scientist, on Kroto’s terms, would, to avoid discriminating between research projects, possess an eternity in which to work and would, to avoid perspectivalism, be everywhere at once. In other words, Kroto’s ideal scientist would have the characteristics of God himself.

If you have read this far you will have noticed I am arguing for a view of science in which science is a social practice as much as any other human activity. We don’t have to be gods to participate – just humans (although the discoverers of C60 may well qualify as gods in some pantheon or other). As such we should not be worried about our human characteristics, including what Kroto calls ‘personal belief’. Positivists (is Kroto one?) seem to hate that kind of claim.  Kroto’s own science video project, Vega, is an excellent example of the embeddedness of science in social, human, belief-laden practices. At base, the belief that science education of this sort is a good idea is a type of ‘unfounded dogma’ in the sense that it can only really be argued for, not finally demonstrated.

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