Scientific freedom: pure illusion

There are still great truths to say, if we had both the courage to state them and the good disposition to accept them. Freeman Dyson

Mainstream science today is not headed  the same  direction of the flat earth. You could suppose a sort of secret conjuration  took form in the course of the years, contrived with the aim to cover  the evidence. Probably just a handful of influential men, endowed with certain personal charisma, were sufficient to build a framework that can no more be put under discussion. Scientific freedom remains an illusion. Scientists have to stay inside the limits of the  established rules  and only the braves  are daring  to challenge that implicit command.

Nowadays, notwithstanding  the great advancements performed by technology, men of science are often still at a stop within old theoretical concepts and can’t manage to broken the deadlock of an impasse long centuries. Due to the intrinsic weackness of  human reason, scientific fundamentals remain unproven. Science can provide only evidences, it cannot give  absolute proof of its tenets. You can deduce  something from  observation but, since empirical observations are never conclusive , you can never be certain whether you know the truth or you don’t. All this can  lead to an open question: is it reasonable to base your beliefs on models of uncertainty  to unveil the truth?

Bertrand Russell  gives a bloody description of  a turkey, that, in an American nurture, decides to shape its vision of a world scientifically well founded : “The turkey found that, on his first morning at the turkey farm, he was fed at 9 a.m. Being a good inductivist turkey he did not jump to conclusions. He waited until he collected a large number of observations that he was fed at 9 a.m. and made these observations under a wide range of circumstances … Each day he added another observation statement to his list. Finally he was satisfied that he had collected a number of observation statements to inductively infer that “I am always fed at 9 a.m.”. However on the morning of Christmas eve he was not fed but instead had his throat cut”. Of course, when playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next. Notwithstanding, as Jamie Hale puts it: “Scientific knowledge is tentative, and the tentative nature of science is one of its strong points.”

This short anecdote has a moral lesson to teach: one should be cautious about making predictions as many in the past have proven to be off the mark. Take, for example, the prediction made in 1943 about the future of the computer by Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM: “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” In retrospect, this is a remarkable statement given that today we have billions of computers! It is in the nature of science that we  ordinary people as well as men of science search for the truth in the unknown, which is so vast and complex that our predictions will always be constrained by our ignorance of the future.

It is often assumed that science can reveal the truth but science seems incapable of attaining it. Truth is one of the central subjects both in science and philosophy. It has been a topic of discussion for thousands of years and even a huge variety of issues in philosophy of science relate to it. But, surprisingly enough, even if science could lead us to the truth, we would have no way of knowing that it actually is the truth. Why not? Because science cannot provide definitive proof of its tenets. Science provides only evidence. Sometimes the evidence for a scientific theory may seem very strong. But even in this case we cannot tell whether future observations and/or experiments will confirm or contradict the theory.

Scientific fundamentals remain unproven

Thus we can read so often that this or that has been scientifically proven. (Gravity, relativity, the Earth is a Globe…) Many people seem willing to admit that details of science remain unproven, but they insist that the fundamentals have been proven. For example, in mainstream biology, Darwinism  provides its central conceptual framework and many think that it has been proven  even if evolution still continues to be a simple theory. The history of science provides many examples of scientific revolutions where a well-established theory had to be modified or replaced by another one in view of new facts that could not be accommodated by the “established” theory. Newtonian physics is one such example. Ptolemy versus Galileo versus Flat Earth hypothesis again, is another. Science allows scientists to explain and predict. In other words, it has explanatory and predictive power. However, much uncertainty remains. Korzybski and others have pointed out that uncertainty characterizes scientific knowledge in general, and one might add, also non-scientific knowledge and everyday life.

In the Middle Ages people believed that the earth was flat, for which they had at least the evidence of their senses: we believe it to be round, not because as many as one percent of us could give physical reasons for so quaint a belief, but because modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true, and that everything that is magical, improbable, extraordinary, gigantic, microscopic, heartless, or outrageous is scientific.”

– George Bernard Shaw

Another historical illustration of the failure of induction in engineering is the unfortunate case of the Challenger disaster. When Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight on the morning of 28 January 1986, it represented one of the most shocking events in the history of American spaceflight. A Presidential Commission was immediately convened to explore what had gone wrong, but with the vast complexity of the space shuttle and so many vested interests involved in the investigation, discovering the truth presented an almost impossible challenge. Richard Feynman’s appendix to a report  paper on the event reads it as a thorough condemnation of inductive inferences in engineering: “The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is often accepted as an argument for the safety of accepting it again … There are several references to flights that had gone before. The acceptance and success of these flights is taken as evidence of safety. … The fact that this danger did not lead to a catastrophe before is no guarantee that it will not the next time, unless it is completely understood”.

Usually ad hoc hypotheses are introduced to save theories, paradigms or world views from contradictory evidence. In other words, to explain away the contradiction. It seems that almost any theory, paradigm or worldview can be defended through ad hoc hypotheses. However, as more and more contradictions accumulate, eventually the status quo may be given up. But this may take a long time and may happen only after the death of its defenders.

The theory of relativity is a mass of error and deceptive ideas violently opposed to the teachings of great men of science of the past and even to common sense … The theory, wraps all these errors and fallacies and clothes them in magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors. The theory is like a beggar clothed in purple whom ignorant people take for a king. Its exponents are very brilliant men, but they are metaphysicists rather than scientists. Not a single one of the relativity propositions has been proved.”

– Nikola Tesla

Karl Popper’s point of view

The renowned historian of science Karl Popper described the state of knowledge this way: “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”

Experimental observations, according to Popper, are never conclusive since we cannot attain experience of what is universal. Universality is an a-priori addition that we cast on reality, a concept not relying first on experience but originating  inside our human intellectual faculties. Truth in science is not always determined from observational facts since there are facts that cannot be detected by human senses but by logic and reasoning only. Our senses have to fulfill a biological function that does not consists in simply providing sensations  but also in transmitting knowledge. We couldn’t manage just with sensations. Observations are not the crucial point, but expectations are. Our expectations are thus biologically important.

Generally, of course, we would like to rely on empirical methods but this is not always a practicable strategy. However, we say that an assertion is true when it  clashes with facts and things appear to be such as the statement has presented them. One of the most important results  of modern logic has consisted in recovering this absolute concept of truth. Its full rehabilitation  appears to be one of the most important philosophical achievements of the twentieth century.

Alfred Tarski (1902-1983), an American logician and mathematician of Polish and Jewish descent, is famous for his researches about the concept of truth in formal languages. His correspondence theory is going back to Aristotle’s well known definition of truth (Metaphysics 1011b25): “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”—but virtually identical formulations can be found in Plato. Commonly, truth is viewed as the correspondence of language or thought to an independent reality which is sometimes called the correspondence theory of truth.

Unfortunately a clear understanding of the truth behind science is limited to certain areas and phenomena. Popper compares the reaching of a scientific objective truth to a mountain top that is always surrounded by clouds. A man climbing it can find it hard to reach the summit  and maybe will not be thoroughly  aware of  having attained the top, since he cannot distinguish among the clouds which is the main pick and which is the secondary one.

We have to make a clear distinction between truth and certainty. All of us normally wish to know the truth and sometimes we succeed in it, even if it happens rarely or even never, that we can be fully sure of grasping  it.  As Popper puts it,  certainty is not the main objective worth of science, but truth is.


Science and supernatural explanations

On the contrary, most people are convinced that truth is always relative and that science doesn’t draw conclusions about supernatural explanations. Does God exist? Does he intervene in human affairs? They think that science won’t help in answering these fundamental questions. For many, the large majority, such questions are matters of personal faith and spirituality. But let’s try asking: are these questions really out of the reach of science? In the letter to the Romans1:20-22 we read that “God’s invisibles qualities are evident in all creation”, and in John 17:17 we read Jesus’ words, who in prayer said to the Father : “Your word is truth”, that is a quotation from Psalm 119:160 where you read: “The substance of your word is truth”.

So, considering the uncertainty of every human truth, for this fundamental reason, I am looking inside the Scriptures in search of the truth about the earth, its shape and measures. According to Karl Popper and  a large number of ordinary, level-headed people, there are not knowledge sources  that are better or worse than others.  It does not matter where an idea comes from; what matters is how we deal with it by attempting to expose its shortcomings. But, of course, and not only from my point of view, the Bible is the best of all sources. As Augustine declares :”God is the author of the Book of nature and  the Book of Scriptures” and they match perfectly.

Intuition , imagination, a-priori knowledge, that is to say a knowledge that comes from the power of reasoning based on self-evident, universal insight, preconceived ideas, and, especially, the most provoking and daring  of them, are often at the origin of  new scientific theories, since in science the simple observation is not sufficient but you need first to know which is your goal, the final result you wish to find. Meaning: you need hypothesis to start. As Popper puts it: expectations come first, then observations.  Human knowledge  is conjectural and observation is never neutral but mixed up with theory so that sometimes you find it difficult to  establish a clear distinction between “facts” and “opinions.

Even when observation is  proceeding empirically, the human mind is unconsciously induced  to overlap its intellectual layouts and categorizations with the observed reality. You never grasp facts but only opinions and as a direct consequence the nature of science is always fallible and conjectural. From this point of view, the empiric base of the objective sciences is never “absolute”.

Notwithstanding its rich and secular experience, science is not able to furnish clear and exhaustive answers  to fundamental questions, but has sometimes generated further confusion and produced many swindlers that promote themselves as scientists and philosophers but are unable to reach any reasonable answer.

“We all know certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not. Based on their empirical record, they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating—or, worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models. They are also more likely to wear a tie”. The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  In his best-seller the writer notes that:”Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird”.

Keeping in mind this point of view, you will often meet black swans in your personal  and  worldly life and you will even be eager to controvert Wittgenstein when he rejects the assertion “there will be a final day of Judgment”  as  a not scientific statement. Every day is time to get match fit for unintended consequences.

Just think of two recent unpredictable  political situations: last year’s Brexit vote and U.S. presidential election outcome. Did they teach us anything? One thing certainly: that nobody in the world can foretell the future and every living being must brace himself for the unexpected. The Fat Man, the official name for the nuclear bomb that finally persuaded Japan to surrender, ending the Second World War, killed an estimated 40,000 people in an instant, and many more died in the months that followed. Remarkably, however, some very close to it survived – including 19 of the 20 British prisoners of war (POWs) who were being held less than a mile from “ground zero”, the point above which the bomb exploded. › News › UK News

In conclusion, we can deduce  something from  observation but, since empirical observations are never conclusive , we can never be certain whether we know the truth or we don’t. If science and philosophy did not always reach convincing results, that is also due to the intrinsic wickedness of our human reason, that is unable to grasp reality and order it in a fully reliable pattern. All this can only lead to an open question: is it reasonable to base our belief on models of uncertainty in order to unveil the truth? Since man, up to now, has never caught a single  image of the ensemble of the earth,  why shouldn’t we wonder if pictures taken from the outer space are just considered to be fake?

Some managers of science wish to underline only what is essential for the welfare of the society. But that is not the way science works, as scientists themselves in their quest for new knowledge do not always know what is relevant. Scientific research is not manageable in the usual sense of the word. Understandings of this type ultimately can lead to the development of new concepts.

Rolf Sattler in Science: Its Power and Limitations ( Open-endedness and lack of proofs in science)

Nobody wants to compromise exposing an entirely new and maybe shocking scientific paradigm , go against the mainstream or hazard reputation expressing new upsetting ideas. It’s obvious  that scientists may be afraid  their  colleagues might blame them and charge their ideas of not having  an evident scientific base. They don’t want to risk losing their face inside the scientific community, to be discarded among the academic environments, to lose the eventual sponsorship given to researchers…, but all these situations do not favor nor advantage a real scientific progress.


The brilliant visionary  imagination necessary to produce any important scientific revolution seems to be running dry, just to leave space to the scanty ordinary little ideas that appear every day on the markets of the world. The only result is that, by now, science looks like a pitiful form of religion with a series of tenets that cannot be put under discussion. Here also originates the panic fear to state a radically new paradigm and the dread to be pointed as silly, ignorant and thus unfit to any important executive position: to work in a scientific environment you need constancy, abnegation, precision, punctuality and carefulness but not too much independence nor originality. When Einstein could edit five new papers in a year living alone and far away from the multitude, today a number of colleagues sign the papers all together so that their thesis will never be subject to a serious  peer-review examination. Why? Because all the expert that would be able to check it are among the signatory group and  will never  criticize the layout they have just approved.

It is evident thus, as a nineteen century philosopher cunningly observed, that  history must undergo several phases before being able to discard an old social form and eventually grab it. The last period of an historical phase is comedy…and we are just living during that risible bloody time.

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