We live in the ‘scientific’ age but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what science is! Very few of us will be able to say what the philosophy behind science is, or indeed know that there is such a thing as ‘the philosophy of science’. We would probably think that science doesn’t need any philosophy since the general perception of philosophy is of something rather wishy-washy and we all know that science is a very hard-headed kind of thing. Who needs philosophy and philosophizing and all that type of vague, inconclusive stuff when you’ve got science, after all?
But science does have a philosophy behind it and if we don’t know what it is then we also don’t know what science is. There is a spirit behind science and that spirit has to do with a complete detachment from belief, and a healthy distrust of our automatic thinking process. If I know what I’m looking for and I end up ‘proving myself right’ then this is highly suspicious, to say the least. If the results of my so-called ‘research’ fits in with the superficial fashions and ideologies of the age, then this too is deeply suspect – I am merely enacting my cultural template! The scientific spirit is to try to prove ourselves wrong to the very best of our ability and then – if we can’t do this – we grudgingly accept what we have established as being ‘provisionally true’ (which means of course that we are totally prepared to drop it when a better way of looking at things comes along). Science is not the ‘bulwark of certainty’ that we very much take it to be. If science were all about pursuing certainty then it wouldn’t be science – it would be the very same as what humanity has always done, which has nothing to do with ‘seeking the truth’ and everything to do with ‘trying to obtain a sense of ontological security’ by shutting down questioning.
Talking about ‘a scientific age’ is therefore entirely inaccurate – most of us have the same basic orientation in life that humanity has always had, which is to say, it is serviceable belief-structures that we are interested in, not the noble endeavour of ridding ourselves of all comforting delusions. And of course even to say that we are ‘interested’ in our beliefs isn’t the best way to put it since it’s not the belief itself that we are interested in but the fact that there is something there we can believe in. Any belief – held to uncritically enough – will provide us with the ‘sense of security’ that we are looking for, after all. The whole point of the frame of mind in which we are forever seeking security is that we’re not interested – we’re not interested in unravelling any loose ends because, on some level, we know that if we do this then the whole garment will as likely as not come undone! If the ‘garment’ came undone then we’d find ourselves standing there naked and that would be a ‘nightmare come true’ for us.
What ‘being naked’ means in this case is that we are face-to-face with the world in which we live without having any cognitive handle on it, without being able to find any ‘angle’ that we can use to understand or exploit or manipulate it. As soon as we say this we can see a source of big source of confusion; as soon as we think of ‘science’ we think of all the big changes that come about as a result of it. Science – we might say – has (for a significant proportion of us) changed our lives almost beyond recognition, and what this comes down to the exploitation of the insights that we have gained as a result of scientific investigation. What we talking about here therefore is technology, and science and technology are of course two separate things. It could easily happen that we get to the point where – for the most part – science is only valued because of the technologies it can spawn, but that still doesn’t detract from the unprejudiced nature of science itself. We – as a culture that is fixated upon ‘economic growth’ almost to the exclusion of all else – are inescapably prejudiced because our Number One Incentive is always about making money, but science itself isn’t prejudiced – if it was then it wouldn’t be science.
To say this isn’t to say however that what we call ‘science’ and teach as ‘science’ in our colleges, schools and universities isn’t all geared towards the exploitation of insights rather than ‘knowledge for its own sake’ because it clearly is. Governments and big businesses aren’t in the least bit interested in knowledge for the sake of knowledge and this is of course where the funding for our education system comes from. It also doesn’t mean that we as a culture don’t have a very distorted view of what science means and that we haven’ turned it into a belief structure to obtain comfort from, which is what we human beings have been doing since the beginning of recorded history, and doubtless long before that. This false ‘security-producing’ distortion of science is what EF Schumacher calls materialistic scientism. Materialistic scientism is a degenerate variant of science that serves the highly dubious purpose of ‘comforting us rather than challenging us’. This is nothing new of course because we’ve always done exactly the same thing with religion – religion was surely never meant to ‘put us to sleep’ and yet this is exactly what it has done. When Jesus said ‘He who is near to me is near the fire…’‘ he was not trying to comfort us and yet untold millions use the external form of religion to allow themselves to feel that they’re ‘doing the right thing’. We feel that our path is officially sanctified and so we don’t need to question ourselves. The Yiddish proverb tells us ‘God is not nice, God is an earthquake,’ and yet we have turned worshipping the Deity into a bland, insincere act of social conformity.
The meaning of ‘He who is near to me is near the fire…’ is clearly that everything we are holding onto will get burned up if we approach too closely and this is the biggest ‘test’, the biggest ‘challenge’ there is. Challenges don’t come any bigger than this. Religion is almost invariably used to validate ourselves and our way of life however, not rudely strip us of all of our spurious validation (and all validation is spurious). Generally speaking, we have not the slightest interest in examining ourselves in an unprejudiced way – we simply want ‘the seal of approval’ so that we can safely assume that we are on the right track, and carry on as usual. External validation feels good, as we have indicated, because it does away with the need to examine oneself. There is no such thing as ‘right’ however – <right> means that we have successfully adapted ourselves to some external structure and all this means is that we have sold ourselves for the sake of the illusion of security where actually no such thing and never could be. Life isn’t a matter of conforming to some social fiction; the challenge of existence isn’t resolved by finding some convenient rule to follow and then closing our minds to everything else. Religion doesn’t (for most of us) have the power that it used to and it is – without any doubt – science that is responsible for this. Charles Darwin’s death blow against the literal interpretation of the Chapter of Genesis and the theologian’s estimation of the age of the universe, is just one snapshot (albeit a significant one) of this process. The dogmatic utterances of organised religion no longer does the trick – what is needed now are the equally dogmatic utterances of science! The problem here however, as we started off by saying, is that science isn’t some kind of dogmatic authority – that isn’t its job at all. Science isn’t a system of beliefs but rather it is a method of ongoing inquiry. Beliefs tell us absolutely everything we need to know about life – once we have a belief in place then all we need to do is act in accordance with this belief no matter what the circumstances might be. This (and this alone) is the mark of the true believer: the more we are tested, the more we hold firm to what we believe to be true! This is living entirely on the basis of the thinking mind and what the thinking mind has thought and the key thing here is that the ‘evidence’ doesn’t count unless it confirms whatever it is that we want to believe in. Everything is solidly ignored unless it agrees with our pre-existing models and theories about the world, in other words.
Fidelity to our unexamined template is the only virtue here and this is what society always demands of us – just as it is what our master the thinking mind always demands of us. The fact that we are a rational/technological culture rather than a religious one makes not the slightest bit of difference here because, as we have said, we use ‘science’ as a cudgel in order to ensure the uncritical acceptance of whatever it is that science supposedly tells us. ‘Experts say’, ‘the science tells us’, ‘research has shown’, are typical phrases that are thrown at us on a daily basis. In the field of mental health therapies are brought out that are laughable said to be ‘evidence-based’, thereby ensuring that we don’t question them. Not that as workers in the field of mental health – where conformity to the template is particularly highly-valued – we are especially good at questioning our models at the best of times!
Mental health is – we could say – where our misunderstanding of what the word ‘scientific’ becomes particularly obvious. We have tried our best to turn mental healthcare into a technology and we seem to be quite incapable of seeing just how absurd we are being here. Technologies always run off templates – we know whatever it is that we want to obtain and we have a rule-based process that will allow us to do this. We want to make aluminium metal or carbon steel, or polystyrene, or fructose syrup, or whatever and we have tried and tested methodologies that will allow us to do just this. Technology isn’t a process of inquiry therefore, it’s a process of ‘applying known standards and getting specified results’ and what this means is that if we are to have a technology of mental healthcare then we need to know what ‘mental health’ itself means. We need to know the specifications of our product.
We need to be able to specify the desired outcome and we also need to be able to measure whether we have successfully achieved it or not. We have to say what ‘mental health’ is and yet to say this is to say what it means to be human being. We can’t separate the two. This is an intractable philosophical question therefore and not a narrow technical one, so how can we possibly presume to do this? We can make assumptions about what it means to be human (and what it is that life is properly about) and then try to enforce these ideas – that’s not a problem for us because we do that all the time – but trying to enforce our standards without ever properly examining the assumptions that they are based on is hardly a recipe for good mental health! It’s a recipe for nonsense; it’s a recipe for disaster…
As a culture we are ‘mentally unwell’ and so that’s our starting off point. We are mentally unwell because we are heteronomous rather than autonomous (i.e. we’re always looking for security from the outside, from an external authority) and this is the epitome of mental ill-health. We’re operating off ‘an external template’; we’re afraid to take the risk of being ourselves and so we copy everyone else! This been the case, how on earth can we be expected to have anything even remotely meaningful to say on the subject, still less be professional ‘experts’ on it? We even copy everyone else when we try to say what mental health (or the lack of it) is. We go to college to learn what to think about it. Our idea of what it means to be mentally well is that we have to be ‘fitting in to what everyone else thinks being mentally well means’, and that we don’t question what everyone else thinks it is, and tells us it is, and what this shows is that we’ve actually got everything completely upside down! We couldn’t have got it more wrong if we’d tried…