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The Decline of Scientific Rationalism

By John Artz



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During the later half of the 20th century, scholars worshipped at the altar of scientific rationalism, the belief that knowledge is obtained through objective empirical observation of physical phenomenon. This prevailing view held that the world is out there to study independent of our perception and understanding -- our goal was to understand reality as it exists. Things like emotions and social relations were meaningless because they cannot be studied objectively as independent empirical phenomenon.

Indeed, most lay people in the 20th century would agree that scientific realism yields reliable truth. It is our dominant epistemology because we value its findings and ignore its vast deficiencies. Science has been an enormously productive epistemology. The advances in knowledge provided by the scientific method are unparalleled in history, not even on the same scale as previous attempts to understand the world.

The problem is that the success of science has led to the erroneous belief that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge. Whereas, the fact is that science is only good at physical and natural kinds of truth, while failing miserably at other kinds of truth. Although we have gained enormous power to control our environment in ways that would be inconceivable to previous generations, we have no idea what to do with this power. Knowledge for its own sake has always been the battle cry of the scientific rationalism, but nothing in the scientific method will provide the slightest hint regarding what to do with this knowledge. Science does not tell us how to prevent wars. It does not tell us how to live. It does not tell us what to strive for.

In short, science has improved the physical aspects of the human condition, but this very progress has caused a great epistemological disequilibrium as these more subtle human questions are pushed to fore, demanding some type of correction during the next century. And once we begin to value other kinds of knowledge, scientific realism will gracefully recede to its rightful place in our worldview.

Recent trends have undermined our belief in scientific rationalism and opened the way for new epistemologies in the 21st century. When historians look back on the 20th century, three events are likely to stand out in explaining the decline of scientific rationalism.

• The first is the development of quantum physics, which destroyed the belief that science leads to truth. Quantum physics showed that the very act of studying some phenomenon changes the behavior of the phenomenon, making it impossible to reach truth.

• The second event is the defeat of the chess master, Kasperov, by the chess-playing machine, Big Blue. Big Blue demonstrated that computers can outperform humans in rational thought, raising the question of what human talents, if any, can excel over computers.

• The third is the development of the World Wide Web, a dramatically different medium that encourages multilevel, associative forms of thought. Because the Web opens up a limitless world of information, knowledge is now seen as so vast that it becomes relative and arbitrary, depending on the views of the observer.

These three events converged at the end of the 20th century to challenge fundamental beliefs that dominated western thinking for nearly five hundred years. The discovery of quantum physics forced scientists to the difficult realization that they cannot fully understand nature. Big Blue’s triumph over our best human minds drives home the limits of human rationality. And the emergence of the World Wide Web presents a different form of thought that cannot be grasped using rational logic. It is useful to put this issue in historic perspective.

Marshall McLuhan observed that the modern age of rationalism began with the invention of the printing press. The printed medium forced us to create disembodied arguments. Logic must be clearly articulated according to agreed upon rules. Because the reader cannot see the writer, body language, facial expressions, and contextual or culturally data are lost. This abstract, formal reasoning was further reinforced by the physical layout of the book. Words flowed from right to left, top to bottom, and start to finish in a linear fashion. Thus, printed media inevitably led to reasoning that was more rational, linear and abstract.

But the full flowering of science undermined this rational foundation. Let’s illustrate this crucial point by examining the impact of the camera on art. The invention of the camera made it possible to take very good pictures, creating an unexpected impact on the world of art. No painter could create a picture as realistic as a photograph. So the world of art said that realism wasn't important anymore. As this century began, a host of non-realistic art forms emerged -- cubism, dadaism, and surrealism - to name a few. The art world simply refocused its attention on things that a camera could not possibly do.

In a similar manner, the defeat of Kasperov by Big Blue marks the point at which computers became better at logical reasoning than humans. We are likely to respond by devaluing purely rational reasoning to focus instead on the type of reasoning that machines cannot do. It is anybody's guess as to how this will manifest itself, but my guess is that narratives and emotions will be two of the responses.

This conclusion is reinforced by observing the new view of reality emerging in electronic media. The Internet’s hyperlinks allow readers to follow their interests randomly from one idea to the next rather than the linear logic of written media. Many people even have trouble reading a book from start to finish without hopping around. Children today increasingly obtain their information on the World Wide Web, so they unknowingly adopt this new form of knowledge.

As the second millennium comes to an end, therefore, many familiar aspects of our lives will also come to and end. Just as the printing press ushered in the age of rationalism by presenting knowledge in a linear format, so too the World Wide Web is ushering in a new age of associative, infinite knowledge that will dominate epistemology for the foreseeable future.



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