TRANSLATE THIS ARTICLE
Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher Lane
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical
(New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession
(New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Diem earned her B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego, where she conducted original research in neuroscience on visual perception on behalf of V.S. Ramachandran.
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY DAVID LANE
The Shiva Nature
Exploring the Multiple Forms
of Gathering Knowledge
David Christopher Lane and
“Science is essentially an anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.” --Paul Feyerabend
“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he's one who asks the right questions.”
-- Claude Lévi-Strauss
We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”
-- Richard P. Feynman
Contrary to popular misconceptions, there is nothing holding any would-be scientist back from taking a wholistic or integral approach to his subject.
It is one of the curious oddities of our time that we talk so much about the scientific method as if it is one singular entity when, in point of practice, it is anything but.
The ultimate linchpin in science is decided not by how we go about doing it, but about how well our hunches, observations, and results tally with the universe we observe and, in turn, how such intellectual lurches compare and contrast with other competing stratagems in terms of yielding more, not less, information.
The very word science, derived from the Latin “scire” (see the Oxford English Dictionary for more on its etymology), is rather open ended and simply means “knowledge.” Hence, it is along these lines that the acerbic philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, long argued that science isn’t really a method at all in the strict sense of that term. Rather, it is a label we use to describe the testing and verifying of differing ideas and maps we have about the world and allowing such templates to strenuously compete with one another. How we actually do science is invariably much sloppier than we might at first suspect, but which every scientist worth his or her salt knows too well.
This is why Richard Feynman spoke so frankly when he said that the first thing we do when we try to figure out how something works in terms of physical laws is by “guessing.” We then check to see how well our particular guesses hold up.
Given this modus operandi, we soon realize--along with T.H. Huxley--that we are all scientists at some level, whether it is trying to figure out how to bake a cherry pie for Christmas day or fixing an old pool heater that has seen better days.
Yet, sometimes certain authors in their haste to criticize some reductionistic aspects of science resort to misleading caricatures about such an endeavor, neglecting in the process how truly accessible (and messy) the scientific endeavor can be.
For instance, in a recent article ["In Defence of Ken Wilber's Integral Theory of Everything"] published on Integral World, H.B. Augustine opined that
“Science is destructive in character because it serves to disprove and criticize,”
which, of course, is neither accurate or insightful. Astronomy, to take just one obvious example from the sciences, isn’t so about disproving anything as such, but rather about discovering vast new vistas. There is nothing destructive per se when Edwin Hubble looked through his telescope in the latter part of the 1920s and observed a red shift in the electromagnetic spectrum, whereby light from distant stellar objects appeared to moving away from his point of inquiry. Hubble’s record only served to confirm what the Belgian priest and physicist, Georges Lemaître, had deduced two years prior from Einstein’s general theory of relativity which is that the universe must be expanding.
Yes, it is certainly the case that reductionism is part of science, but so is almost any human endeavor, including the very use of symbols (from Mandarin Chinese to Sanskrit) and vocal sound waves to communicate and explain complex features found in nature. But to suggest as Augustine naively does that “the scientific method is all about ‘divide and conquer’” is to overlook the fantastic panorama of how we go about gathering knowledge.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, there is nothing holding any would-be scientist back from taking a wholistic or integral approach to his subject. Indeed, many great theorists have already done exactly that, ranging from such Nobel laureates as Ilya Prigogine who focused on complexity and dissipative structures to Gerald Edelman whose pioneering work on the brain and consciousness is underlined with a deep appreciation for the emergent properties of qualia and self-reflective consciousness which he refers to as second nature.
Sometimes things can be explained by studying their constituents - sometimes not."
The noted physicist Steven Weinberg points out that a distinction should be made between grand reductionism and petty reductionism, since the latter, he argues, is
“not worth a fierce defense. Sometimes things can be explained by studying their constituents - sometimes not. When Einstein explained Newton's theories of motion and gravitation, he was not committing petty reductionism. His explanation was not based on some theory about the constituents of anything, but rather on a new physical principle, the general principle of relativity, which is embodied in his theory of curved spacetime. In fact, petty reductionism in physics has probably run its course. Just as it doesn't make sense to talk about the hardness or temperature or intelligence of individual "elementary" particles, it is also not possible to give a precise meaning to statements about particles being composed of other particles. We do speak loosely of a proton as being composed of three quarks, but if you look very closely at a quark you will find it surrounded with a cloud of quarks and antiquarks and other particles, occasionally bound into protons; so at least for a brief moment we could say that the quark is made of protons.”
Indeed, the renowned Santa Fe Institute, founded by such luminaries as Murray Gell-Mann (Nobel prize winner for his theoretical work on elementary particles and more popularly known for his naming of “quarks”), supports a whole host of “non” reductionistic scientific studies.
Thus, it is ironic that in prematurely trying to criticize a particular aspect of science (among a host of varying other aspects) one would resort to “reducing” all of science into a cheap and wholly misleading sound bite in order to champion its purported alternative.
No, the truth is that the human drive to gather knowledge and then openly compare and contrast such theoretic and observational templates is an expansive field and one which allows for all sorts of imaginative pathways. In other words, science is a quest with many methods and not just one.
Analogously, science is like the Hindu god Shiva, who is often depicted with multiple arms signifying his illustrious powers to take on different forms and act in manifold ways. While it is certainly true that one aspect of his nature is destructive, it is also true that Shiva is depicted as a transformer. Accordingly, Shiva has numerous aspects ranging from beneficent to frightening. But one of his more popular aspects is as a universal dancer, perhaps best illustrated artistically in bronze casts as Nataraja.
Science like Shiva cannot be confined to only one aspect. To focus on only one feature of science to the exclusion of others in order to misleadingly characterize its multiform nature (so as to elevate another method to a higher ranking) is to perpetuate a falsehood.
Ironically, even though we value science for many of the predictions and technological inventions it makes from time to time, we imprison its potential value when we try to limit its Shiva-like nature. As Lewis Thomas insightfully pointed out in his 1980 tome, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,
“Science is useful, indispensable sometimes, but whenever it moves forward it does so by producing a surprise; you cannot specify the surprise you’d like.”
There are, in sum, innumerable ways to gather knowledge about the cosmos we inhabit. What makes science so powerful is that it allows for such findings to be publicly aired and scrutinized and tested, not only with the world it is trying to understand but with other vying alternative models which differ from each other. Perhaps science’s greatest contribution is that at its best it is open to refutation and is thereby open to change.
Carl Sagan summarized it thusly,
“In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day.”
An often told joke concerning Albert Einstein perhaps reveals best the tentative nature of science and its findings:
Student: “Dr. Einstein, Aren't these the same questions as last year's physics final exam?”
Dr. Einstein: “Yes; But this year the answers are different.”