Writing in The New Atlantis, Daniel Sarewitz has a lengthy essay on why science, “pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble.” He argues that science, rather than being disconnected from practical purposes, is most effective when it has a goal. Sarewitz cites Department of Defense projects as examples, and notes the recent reproducibility crisis as a sign of failure.
These are important points, but one of his overarching themes jumped out at me as another reason to reject scientism. The theme is this: Science when considered as the final authority on all matters simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as science.
In contrast to the idea that we can simply unleash science and it will bring us progress, Sarewitz notes:
Advancing according to its own logic, much of science has lost sight of the better world it is supposed to help create. Shielded from accountability to anything outside of itself, the “free play of free intellects” begins to seem like little more than a cover for indifference and irresponsibility. The tragic irony here is that the stunted imagination of mainstream science is a consequence of the very autonomy that scientists insist is the key to their success. Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to rediscover the path toward truth.
It is time to realize that science doesn’t belong on a pedestal — it is a humanendeavor. Respecting science is one thing, and all to the good. Kowtowing to it is a different matter, as we see clearly in the area of origins science, where the neo-Darwinist view is typically treated as the only option. As noted by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, two researchers who (while critical of ID) buck the dominant natural-selection paradigm:
Much of the vast neo-Darwinian literature is distressingly uncritical. The possibility that anything is seriously amiss with Darwin’s account of evolution is hardly considered. Such dissent as there is often relies on theistic premises which Darwinists rightly say have no place in the evaluation of scientific theories. So onlookers are left with the impression that there is little or nothing about Darwin’s theory to which a scientific naturalist could reasonably object. The methodological scepticism that characterises most areas of scientific discourse seems strikingly absent when Darwinism is the topic.
Case in point: the discovery of a complex eye in a single-celled organism. AnEvolution News & Views article quotes Nature, noting that the eye is seen ashelping to “demonstrate how evolutionary plasticity of mitochondria and plastids can generate an extreme level of subcellular complexity.” ENVcontinues:
The authors did not think this is a clear evolutionary story. “Theocelloid is among the most complex subcellular structures known, but its function and evolutionary relationship to other organelles remain unclear,” they say. Never in the paper do they explain how organelles with different histories came together into a functioning eye. Most of the paper is descriptive of the parts and how they function individually, or where they might have been derived by endosymbiosis. To explain the eye’s origin as a functioning whole, they make up a phrase, “evolutionary plasticity” —
Nevertheless, the genomic and detailed ultrastructuraldata presented here have resolved the basic componentsof the ocelloid and their origins, and demonstrate howevolutionary plasticity of mitochondria and plastids can generate an extreme level of subcellular complexity.
Other than that, they have very little to say about evolution, and nothing about natural selection.
In the same issue of Nature, Richards and Gomes review the paper.
The work sheds new light on how very different organisms can evolve similar traits in response to their environments, a process known as convergent evolution. Eye-like structures have evolved independently many times in different kinds of animals and algae with varying abilities to detect the intensity of light, its direction, or objects.
“When we see such similar structural complexity at fundamentally different levels of organization inlineages that are very distantly related to each other, in this case warnowiids and animals, then you get a much deeper understanding of convergence,” Leander says.
We’ve discussed before the idea that sight is irreducibly complex — it could not have been built up by a step-by-step process. Neo-Darwinism is treated as if it were exempt from critical consideration.
Under scientism, methodological naturalism excludes the consideration of rational alternatives. But a different orientation may move science forward — as Douglas Axe points out.
“Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex,” Sarewitz observes. “[T]o escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.”
He’s right. Ironically, perhaps, it is by defining the limitations of science that we spur its advancement.