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What Is Science?

Dissident Voice Article

By James Keye

All systems contain an organizing principle, whether it is recognized by some human agency or not; for example, evolution has functioned as the underlying organizing principle of the Living Order for billions of years before an organism evolved a functionality that could recognize it.

The human species has produced a new organizing principle evolved to increase the rate and reach of adaptation using new and unprecedented methods.  For two million years or more, and through several versions of our genus, this forming principle was caged by the immediate biophysical boundaries of environment.  However, its absolute confinement in the ecological space served not so much to limit its capacities as to allow them to develop without inherent limits; the limiting forces were external and immutable and so did not require the evolution of inhibiting designs.

I call this principle the Consciousness System of Order (CSO); everyone is aware of its functioning, but like the air its very ubiquity and transparent presence hides its nature from us.  The natural environment in conjunction with our biological instincts and propensities were the information sources for the CSO, its design is to create causative maps from this information; events can be predicted and behaviors can be tested before they are put to actual practice.  Behaviors that succeed especially well or that prove especially dangerous are stored in Story, forming the essential information storage device of the CSO and allowing its content to be spread through space and time (analogous to DNA/protein information nexus in living systems).

For the last few tens of thousands of years the CSO has gradually been creating its own reality, slipping in small ways through the boundaries of environment and biology.  The capacity to influence the immune system by convincing a person with an illness that she or he will improve or will die is an early example.  In essence, the causative map created in the ‘mind’ and institutionalized in Story can begin to compete with biophysical reality for those periods of time following and prior to forceful environmental action.  It was even possible to model environmental action in the CSO and avoid some of the consequences.  The evolutionary power of such a design cannot be overstated.

Ultimately, the trickle of the CSO’s creation of its own reality became a flood until we find ourselves in the situation of today. Billions of people “believe” that human descriptions of the real are equal to or even more important than biophysical Reality.  Reality itself is treated as negotiable.

The magnitude of earth processes, the degrees of human knowledge and technical capacity and our not insignificant, but relatively small numbers historically, have buffered our impact on the total biosphere until now.  However, our species has always had a major impact on the ecosystems where we have resided; we have steadily spread to all environments and so have powerfully influenced the biological construction of the whole earth.  But now our powers have moved to changing the biophysical structure of the atmosphere, the oceans and even to some extent the near depths of the earth’s crust.  It is becoming abundantly clear that the momentum of our present uninhibited application of CSO principles will end badly: our capacity for staving off forceful environmental action will soon reach its limit.

It is essential that the capacities of the CSO be applied to discovering and instituting inhibitions of its functioning. We have tried religion and politics in this role and they have been uniquely unsuccessful since they are the essence of the created realities that distort our relationship with environmental reality.  The scientific method is the one principle that can give the biophysical the place and value that it had in our origins.

Fundamentally, science is a process for the veridical adaptation of behavior to the immediate universe of our actions; it is one of the processes with this purpose or function, and it has its own unique set of opportunities and consequences.  In the most general sense there is no disagreement from any quarter with the argument that humans must, over the long run, act in the world with correct responses to “reality.”  Argument arises, however, when we try to describe what that Reality is.  Further, most people, most of the time, hold the view that there is but one “really true” Reality, and, therefore, those who hold other views are misinformed, pathological or criminal – even as they might be unaware of their errors.

Science is a process; it is not the various bodies of knowledge generated by that process.  Although we divide up the products of science into areas of study, this is done for pragmatic reasons and has nothing to do with what science is.  But these divisions create a fruitful basis for confusion: the question, “Is physics a better science than biology or biology a better science than psychology?” is but one example.  Certainly, the technical application of science methodology is different for different areas of study (the laboratory skills and equipment of a microbiologist would not serve the needs of a volcanologist or sociologist), but the underlying principles are, and should be, the same.  It is science conceived in this way that needs to be compared and contrasted with other methods of adapting our actions to our world – which is always the ultimate test of our biological suitability: failure to function agreeably within the constraints of biophysical reality is the final measure for any living thing, even humans.

The classical distinction made between primary methods of knowledge acquisition contrasts authority with direct experience.  In the first case, a question is addressed to an existing source of knowledge for an answer.  In the second case, the question is formed into a created experience from which the answer is supposedly obtainable.  It is abundantly clear, with a moment’s reflection, that both methods must be part of the human repertoire, and that the quality of the authority and the adequacy of the created experience would be determinative of the quality of the answer gained.  It is here that science has pitched its tent.

The greatest problems with authority are the origins and quality of the knowledge possessed and spread by that authority.  An imperfect partial solution is to ask the authority to support answers with evidence, the source of that evidence and some measure of the success of their answers in practice.

The greatest problems with creating experiences that might answer questions are that the created experience must be appropriate to the question and that the experience be free of bias that might decide the answer in favor of some preconceived notion, whether intentional or not.  An imperfect and partial solution is to require that the created experience be described in such detail that someone else could try the same thing in exactly the same way.

These two methods of gaining the knowledge needed for living are used by everyone every day.  We ask for directions when lost.  We add a new spice to a recipe.  We might time the drive to work by one route to compare to another route.  And we seek wisdom about those things beyond our experience from those who either have such wisdom or claim to.

What distinguishes science as a special form of the foundational processes by which humans gather the information to act in their daily lives is a nonnegotiable demand for complete transparency; there are no secret ingredients, no special proprietary processes. The gold standard of a scientific report is one that allows another researcher to perform the exact same steps with the exact same materials (or an arguable equivalent – and methods for determining equivalency).  A scientific theory is one that is constructed from the details of many such reports of experimental experience and is utterly dependent on correctly predicting new results of new experimental experience; and thus floats on the fragile buoyancy of the original transparency.

To repeat, science is a process: geology, for example, is a subject that can be “studied” by many methods, of which one is science.  The science “facts” of geology are under constant review by the method. Some details have been so thoroughly and transparently tested that an assumption of final truth can be made, but it is only a shorthand: things like the composition of minerals and the conditions under which they are formed, the sequencing of sedimentary rocks, the origin of various fossils.  But these facts are not science, they are the product of science as a method.  Allegiance to a set of “science facts” is a human fault, not to be confused with science as process.

This last notion can be expanded, must be expanded, as a general principle.  Humans need to be clearly and transparently devoted to some process, not to some set of details that they hold to as final realities. The nature of their process will determine the quality of adaptation to biophysical reality.

It should be noted that rejection of the need to adapt to biophysical reality is a tip-off that a form of mal-adaptation is functioning. This can come from two directions: nihilism/solipsism at one extreme and devotion to supernatural “realities” at the other.  Neither requires intellectual consistency or a transparent statement of beliefs, only an attachment to the simplest of all propositions: “it’s someone else’s problem.”  People with these attachments do not dematerialize; they consume energy, act on the world and are acted upon by all the lawful principles of biophysical reality even as they claim independence of it.  The solipsist integrates with the movements of matter and energy even as he or she rejects the reality of that integration.  The religious zealot is continuous with the material world as its product/participant even as she or he sees only the movement of a supernatural ‘will’ controlling events.  Both of these, when removed from the basic human unit of the heterogeneous community, are a form of madness; within a natural human community they are only expressions of human diversity since it is the community adaptation that is ‘measured’ by Reality.

In the deep and recent past our intellectual and material tools were inadequate for the full flowering of science method as a means for adapting to our world – conveniently, neither was it necessary.  Religious process had long been the method, an evolutionary form of adaptive process mediated by stories given power by their supernatural content created in human imagination and supported by the complexity of Reality.

But times have changed.  The level of detail and power that we bring to acting on the world, reached by the application of science method, now demands that we moderate and inhibit our actions with the same science process-based understandings that led us to this pass.  In other words, we must fully embrace the process of science as a belief system.  We cannot continue supplying our old, slowly responding and woefully distorting belief systems with details of Reality that both allow and force us to act rapidly and with huge effect.  Science-based power simply cannot be effectively mediated with present belief systems.

There are two great obstacles to moving toward science process as a belief system: 1) the present condition of belief – ancient forest and desert beliefs carried forward to this time by the momentum of human Story – to which billions of people are totally devoted; and 2) the different design of process belief as opposed to ‘fact set’ belief systems.  When belief is in a process, then the consequences of that process must be taken as the basis of new action; bases will change with new knowledge and with changes in the world. ‘Fact set’ based beliefs allow and demand adherence to acceptable behaviors.  Process based belief systems demand that details of actions tested by the process be changed when exposed as inaccurate by the process.

This is a higher order way of functioning, and would be a revolution in human cognition, not unlike The Enlightenment when reason became the challenge to tradition.  The Enlightenment was not entirely successful in “enlightening” the world in part because it did not go far enough; today a fully formed science process can be offered as a belief system without its necessarily being seen as intellectually elite.

The various areas of science “fact” are elite and will remain so.  They have their own language, concepts, organizations and “intellectual ethnicities”, but science process is completely available.  It can be taught to 9 and 10 year olds using a wide range of subject areas requiring a minimum of “science fact” detail.  Science process is only a particular formalizing of the way we all gain information.  It is actually easier to believe in a process that, in general, over time, produces “correct” answers than it is to believe in a ‘fact set’, often so inadequate, that only ‘faith’ can sustain. It is a matter of believing that an appropriate process will supply answers rather than believing in answers already fixed in place.

Focus is on the method for arriving at information and not the uses to which the information may be put or which person or collective entity will be advantaged or disadvantaged.  For example, it is obvious that flows of heat energy in the oceans are not influenced by needs of a corporation, a political party or a religion, but changes in such flows can affect them as well as determine the fate of millions of farmers and consequently billions of people.  Belief in a process of discovery that explicitly limits the power of bias has become essential.

Relatively small positive differences in the average importance given to information coming from the methods of science and a noticeable difference in the ability of many people to evaluate, not necessarily all the detail, but the ways in which the information was obtained all supported by a principle-based demand for transparency, could make a great difference in how our present institutions respond to the best available “facts” about our world.

I know that science process can be easily learned and appreciated by children and adults, even when they are encumbered by the distortions of other created realities. I do not know what facts would be generated by science process if it were to be broadly and generally applied to the problems that we confront.  But with an understanding of science process, knowledge of how to evaluate its products and a belief in its value, the changes required by improved knowledge and understanding could become a normal part of life experience.

Humans require a belief system to function; we are not data driven, but operate from general principles that can apply to a wide variety of situations; i.e., beliefs.  It is time that we have a system of belief that is based on how to gather the best information in the most trustworthy way rather than belief systems that prescribe what the “facts” of our truth will be independent of a measurable reality.

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