Cognition & Reality

Friday, 21 January 2011

Why Science Brooks No Opposition

Filed under: Propaganda,Science — drtone @ 2:58 pm

Recently, as I have sometimes expressed through my entries here, I have been annoyed at the way science is used to further political ends, such as in the so-called “debate” regarding climate change. It is such an unholy alliance, science and politics, with the latter inevitably polluting the former, which easily becomes a weapon in the hands of anyone with a regulatory, legislative or financial agenda. That said, science itself has an imperialistic cast that it cannot shed, and that should frighten the shit out of anyone attempting to use it to further a political argument.

A central feature of Western science is its claim to universality. Science has, in effect, issued a permanent IOU, promising that it will eventually explain everything, a conception of science that not only has deep roots in the philosophy of science, but also in the public consciousness. Consider the scientific studies of extra-sensory perception or the whole edifice of social science. Although there are competing systems of thought, principally within non-traditional and non-Western religious doctrines, to most people in the industrialized world the operation of explaining a phenomenon means giving it a scientific explanation. Even when what is in dispute is a key scientific construct, the opposition tends to function from a competing conception of science that preserves most of its main characteristics, as has happened with “intelligent design,” a supposedly scientific alternative to evolution by natural selection. Why should this be?

One need look no further for an explanation than to the history of science itself. Western science developed entirely within the walls of institutions controlled by the Catholic Church. Note that “catholic,” a term the Church began applying to itself almost from its beginnings as an establishment, means “universal.” Note, as well, that the institutions where science came into being and in which it remains are called “universities.” The claim to universality, central to Church doctrine, passed directly to science as it developed within the Church and at the centers of learning founded by the Church. Roger Bacon and William of Ockham were both English Franciscan friars, operating  under the discipline of the Pope and his bishops. Even after the Reformation, universities and the activities they housed remained under religious discipline, and were dominated by the study of theology until well into the nineteenth century.

It is not entirely a coincidence that science as we know it today emerged at the time when control of universities began to pass out of the hands of priests and ministers and into the hands of laymen. In Europe and America during the Victorian era, academic professors (a title that, BTW, derives directly from “professing” faith through the taking of religious vows), attained a high degree of autonomy from the religious authorities who, in effect, owned the universities in which they taught. Science was therefore freed from the direct interference of religion, but it was not freed from the forces that formed it, in particular from the claim of the Church to have an infallible hold on the Truth. Through constant exposure, you could say, science picked up the same habit, one so deeply ingrained as to be essential to its existence.

This is one of those self-evident truths that, once heard, cannot be dispelled. Science is a direct descendant of the Church. For that reason, it embodies the critical features of the Church, an imperialistic institution, in every sense of the world, founded upon and defined by its claim to infallible access to the truth. Although “Papal infallibility” as a separate doctrine is a late product of the counter-Reformation, the notion that the Church fathers have an exclusive channel to God and therefore both the right and duty to promulgate God’s Only Truth is as old as the Church, and inseparable from it. Science, which developed within that same Church, inherited those same “genes,” if you will, and therefore has as its central feature a claim to owning the Truth.

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