Is it scientific?

Louis XIV visiting the Académie des sciences in 1671. Public domain image.

“You can believe this, because this is very scientific.” We often hear similar statements from people or organizations eager to convince us of certain theories or points of view. According to the standards of our materialistic society, whose origins go back to the European Enlightenment, a statement or position is only respectable and deserving of belief if its derivation has been grounded on the scientific method. Because of that, many people who attempt to promote something, be it a product, a technique, or a theory, seek to associate that something to science. As a result, today we are witnesses to a deluge of attempts to hijack science in all sorts of manners: dubious products whose efficacy has been demonstrated by “scientific studies;” self-help or spiritual techniques grounded on supposedly scientific principles; even a re-dressing of positions that were originally purely religious under the clothing of science.

The European enlightenment embodied a reaction to the superstition and arbitrary morals that had ruled European society for centuries. It attempted to dispel nonsensical assertions about reality by the simple use of reason and observation. Overtime, that led to the formalization of what has become a very strict method: the scientific method. The reliance of societies worldwide today on the scientific method is explainable by science’s spectacular success in modeling nature for engineering purposes; that is, by science’s efficacy in leveraging the materials and forces of nature in the service of men. It is, after all, undeniable how the application of the scientific method has improved the length and quality of our lives over the centuries.

The effectiveness of the scientific method rests on its clear and strict application. Saying that something is “scientific” must, therefore, entail strict compliance to that method. This is not an easy constraint to meet! Perhaps more often than not, things popularly purported today to be “scientific” are not scientific at all. As physicist Richard Feynman once pungently asserted, following merely the forms of science does not entail compliance to the scientific method any more than the “cargo cults” of pacific islanders after the Second World War. True science requires much more than white coats and the use of scientific jargon: it requires staunch and systematic skepticism about one’s own hypothesis until the only reasonable alternative left, in the framework of the reigning paradigm of the time, is that such a hypothesis is true.

So does that mean that assertions about nature that are not strictly grounded on the scientific method are valueless? To answer "yes" to this question logically requires at least two things: first, that the scientific method be effective; and second, that the scientific method be sufficient to explore all aspects of nature. There is no doubt about the correctness of the first statement, but there are at least two ways in which the second statement is false.

Indeed, the scientific method is eminently a third-person method. In other words, according to the scientific method an observation is only ontologically acceptable as true if first objectified (that is, quantified) and, thereafter, confirmed by independent observation. Largely due to its roots as a reaction to superstition, the scientific method is fundamentally skeptical of one’s own perceptions, placing all ontological value on external, or objective, reality. Yet, the existence of an objective external reality cannot be proven beyond doubt, for we are all confined to our own individual perceptions and private inner worlds. Even the observations of nature reported by other people are themselves but elements of our own captive inner worlds. Therefore, science seems to leave out a legitimate avenue for exploring nature: that of a first-person method. Many aspects of our private inner worlds are ineffable and cannot be objectified. It is conceivable that such inner worlds, through subjective perception mechanisms not yet understood, may give us access to aspects of nature no less valid than anything objectively verifiable, but which are inherently beyond the scope of a third-person approach. Since our inner worlds are, beyond any doubt, a part of nature, this is one way in which science is an insufficient method for exploring nature.

Another way in which science is insufficient is its inability to capture the underlying ontological qualities of things and processes as we perceive them. Indeed, the scientific method allows one to make models of nature, but is fundamentally limited when it comes to establishing what nature really is. After all, a model is merely an abstract mechanism whose elements and dynamics merely correspond to elements and dynamics of nature in an isomorphic manner, but are not nature. The making of an accurate model allows us to predict and explain natural phenomena in an abstract framework, but not to make assertions about their underlying reality. Indeed, a scientific model is as far removed from reality as a computer-based flight simulator is removed from real flight: one would hardly claim that a flight simulation is flight. Think of String Theory, for example: it models nature according to imaginary, abstract, mathematically-described “filaments” that oscillate in certain ways, such oscillations corresponding to observed phenomena of nature in an isomorphic manner. But it leaves out the obvious ontological question: just what are those filaments?

Philosopher Ray Tallis captured both these limitations of the scientific method in a brilliant recent article:
Science begins when we escape our subjective, first-person experiences into objective measurement […] You think the table over there is large, I may think it is small. We measure it and find that it is 0.66 metres square. We now characterise the table in a way that is less beholden to personal experience. Thus measurement takes us further from experience and the phenomena of subjective consciousness to a realm where things are described in abstract but quantitative terms. To do its work, physical science has to discard "secondary qualities", such as colour, warmth or cold, taste - in short, the basic contents of consciousness. For the physicist then, light is not in itself bright or colourful, it is a mixture of vibrations in an electromagnetic field of different frequencies. The material world, far from being the noisy, colourful, smelly place we live in, is colourless, silent, full of odourless molecules, atoms, particles, whose nature and behaviour is best described mathematically. In short, physical science is about the marginalisation, or even the disappearance, of phenomenal appearance. (Ray Tallis, “You won't find consciousness in the brain”, NewScientist 2742, 7 January 2010)
Yet the world we live in is a world of color, warmth, cold, taste, etc. By abstracting away from this first-person perspective, science restricts itself to a utilitarian role as enabler of engineering, but has nothing to say about the true nature of what we actually perceive as conscious entities. Therefore, while science has a fundamental and incalculably valuable role to play in our society, to truly understand the nature of our condition we need more than science.

Attempts to hijack the hard-earned trustworthiness of science, by illegitimately associating to it things or ideas that do not have a scientific basis, are unfortunate and potentially dangerous. The scientific method is very strictly defined, so the term “scientific” cannot be used lightly. Yet, it is that very strict definition of the scientific method that severely limits its ability to inform us about the true nature of reality. The scientific method, while invaluable as the enabler of engineering and technology development, has very little to tell us about the nature of the only world we live in: the world of colors, sounds, and feelings.


  1. Absolutely. This, too, should go right into the book!!

  2. Your ideas remind me of some statements of the philosopher Bertrand Russell: according to Russell, the physical science knows only the structural properties, extrinsic, of the world, ie the quantitative properties, defined by their relationships with other properties, but the physical science are says nothing about what these structural properties, what are its intrinsic properties or qualitative. Russell speculated that the intrinsic properties of the world could be what we experience as consciousness, which would be an idealistic monism.

  3. Excellent article!

    "The making of an accurate model allows us to predict and explain natural phenomena in an abstract framework, but not to make assertions about their underlying reality."

    Does not the fact that nature seems to "operate", in such a way, which allows us to create models that accurately predict her behavior, say at least something about nature's underlying reality? Why can mathematics be used to predcit outcomes in nature in the fisrt place?

    (In addition, an enduring mystery is why is it only a small subset of mathematics that seems to apply to nature?)

  4. The problem is that there are many, and radically different, models that could equally well "explain" reality as we observe it with our five senses. In other words, they underdetermined reality. So even though they all may work for practical purposes, we cannot make ontological assumptions about the true nature of reality from them, since that would imply an arbitrary choice.

    Thanks for the kind words, by the way!