The Danger of Absolute Empiricism

As we have moved along the timeline of history, humans have come to rely more and more on science to explain our world. There has been a gradual shift away from the metaphysical sciences towards the pure and “objective” physical sciences. A lot of people nowadays would say that a scientist is most likely smarter than an economist or a psychologist. Of course, this is not necessarily true, but modern American culture portrays science or engineering as being a much more desirable profession than philosopher or writer. So, I would like to discuss the issue of modern science and the impact it has had on modern culture.

Let me start with a rather controversial statement. Science has taken over the job that Religion used to hold in our society. Roger S. Jones, an author and former Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota, in his book Physics for the Rest of Us, writes, “In a sense, science has taken over the role of state religion in modern culture, and it has become a very influential religion at that.”(112).We now base a lot of our laws and ways of thinking around science. For example, when we have a problem in society, like pollution or racism, we don’t necessarily look at how religion or philosophy would deal with that problem; but instead, we look at straight, empirical evidence from environmental scientists and psychologists to find solutions. There are even some people who believe that our laws and ways of life should be grounded only in scientific empiricism. This sounds well and good, though, so why shouldn’t we do that? Well, there’s an inherent problem with that. There’s no empirical way to prove the following statement: everything should be proven empirically. We have a problem with circular logic.

This problem leads to a lot of conflict and argumentation regarding the values of our society as a whole. Think about it for a second. Science can give us a lot of facts, and these facts can be exceedingly useful, but science doesn’t have any way of interpreting the laws it gives us. Science gave us E=mc^2, an equation that tells us that there is a lot of energy in an atom, but science couldn’t tell us how we should harness this power.  Should we build nuclear bombs, or should we develop nuclear medicine? Science has no way of answering those questions. Science can only tell us that both bombs and medicine are possible. Therefore, we have a lot of conflict in our society because we are dependent on a system that has no way of interpreting itself. Here’s a rather pertinent example to our modern society: science can tell us all about the human pregnancy cycle, but can it tell us when that baby is to be considered “alive” or “human?” It can’t.

There’s no reason to put as much faith as we do in this rather limited system, and here’s a reason why. Physics is considered to be one of the most objective of all the sciences, but even the objective laws of Physics aren’t that objective. Almost all of the calculations in physics make use of some sort of “length.” Jones proves in his aforementioned book that you can’t measure a length objectively. Let me briefly paraphrase his argument. You can’t objectively measure an object because you have to compare it to a standard and guess how long it is using a yardstick or ruler.(168-171, paraphrase) Length is one of the most basic components of physics, so if it iss subjective, the rest of physics necessarily has to be. Even though it might be highly accurate, it is not purely objective. There is subjectivity in science.

This is all well and good, but does it have any impact on us? Yes, it has had a rather large influence on our culture. We are a very split country in a lot of ways; Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, Believers and Non-believers, and I believe this is because some of us just accept empirical facts, while others look beyond those facts. Basing all our decisions on science and empiricism might seem logical, but we have seen that it really isn’t, and the impact is that it leads to a society as a whole that doesn’t really look for the answer. We just let the “smart people” or experts tell us what we should think.

How often do we let the politicians, the op-ed writers, and all the professors tell us how it is? We hear all the time that we can’t argue with science, and furthermore, who tells us that? Very often, it’s the scientists, or someone who heard a scientist say so. We tend to accept the opinions of these “unquestioned authorities” and preach those same opinions without ever looking into the issues at hand or even formulating our own opinion. Jones gives his own opinion on experts in his book, writing, “The accomplished professional in each field commands a deep respect from the lay public and is treated as an unquestioned authority on matters of…natural law.”(112) Albert Einstein became famous because he told Isaac Newton that he was wrong. In fact, if we think about it, almost all of the people we consider famous were people who challenged the system and told it that it was wrong; Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Teresa are all good examples. Even if we don’t necessarily agree with those activists, we can’t disagree that they made a huge impact on our world.

I am not suggesting that science is bad thing. Science has been an incredible tool for mankind, and I confess to being a lover of science. We humans have a deep desire for understanding, and that desire seems to drive us in all that we do.  All I want to get across to the reader is an awareness of the dangers of absolute empiricism. While it is good to respect the opinions of experts when they are talking about their field of expertise, we need to keep in mind that science has been wrong many, many times before, and will be wrong again in the future. That’s the nature of science. We need to stay independent thinkers.  Let’s keep analyzing things and forming our own opinions. With that said, don’t just accept what I’m writing. Think about this yourself, and analyze what I have written. You have the ability and the right to argue with me.


Works Cited:

1. Jones, Roger S. Physics for the Rest of Us: Ten Basic Ideas of 20th Century Physics. New          York: Barnes & Noble, 2009. Print.





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