Back Off Science

What’s science ever done to you?

Posted in Starting up by backoffscience on September 8, 2009

A space in the middleWell I guess I’d better start trying to explain myself.

It’s not that science is bad, far from it. Scientific investigation has conquered many forms of death, explained the world and the universe and almost everything in it, and has given us powers unimaginable to our ancestors.

But scientists’ success has gone to their head. They have forgotten that there are some things that cannot be explained. And I’m not talking about anything mystical or supernatural here.

You see, science can’t explain the content of language as it is used by humans. It can’t explain narratives and stories and beliefs. Why? Because the content is not the sort of thing that yields to scientific investigation.

There’s a long long way to go before I get my argument clear, and this blog is how I’m going to try and do it, but perhaps we could start with a basic picture. This isn’t theory, by the way, its just abstract talk, so don’t be offended that I mangle things completely.

So science works by looking at something and, roughly speaking, explaining how simple parts of it work in conjunction. You explain how a cell works by knowing how mitochondria and membrane and protein and, in the end, different types of atoms, work together. Same for stars and planets and slugs and radio waves and tides.

But not the same for everything. Because language, as it is used by humans to make the stories within which they live, cannot be understood at all by looking at it in that way. Novels can’t be understood by separating out the letters and doing an analysis on the ink. Science can’t predict the end of a story.

This is a huge leap, and I’m not even going to try and bridge it now.

The reason why I’m going to plug on, is that when you apply scientific investigation to the use of language you go looking for something that doesn’t exist.

A cellLanguage doesn’t work because it is somehow supported by laws or physics or neurobiology. Language works because people accept things as certain. In order to investigate a certainty you have to question it, which means that it is not certain anymore.

This means that scientific investigation undermines the narratives by which our lives get all their meaning. When scientists think they can explain religious belief, or why life is meaningful, or choice, or relationships, or human history, or art, they don’t do something neutral. They do something¬† which either forces the people who want to hold on to meaningful things onto the defensive, or they kill the meaningful thing dead.

We live in language, so we had better persuade science to back off.