Science and Simulacra

One of the problems with Science for many people is that it keeps changing its mind. We are in an era when to say that an idea is scientifically proven is to imply that something profound has been uncovered: a truth has been revealed that is forever irrefutable. It is a time of global angst, when religions and cultures appear to be at odds with each other; only science seems to have anything to say that can transcend boundaries: something reliable to believe in.

Now we learn that yet another theory –i.e. that mammography would reduce deaths from cancer by detecting them sooner and at an earlier stage- doesn’t seem to be valid : or perhaps a more readable summary:  Maybe this might have been better described as a scientific hope than a fully fledged theory; nonetheless it does not inspire confidence that we are on the right track…

But it is in the very nature of science to be open to refutation and revision. Paradigms shift and new theories replace older ones… So what can we believe? Is science wrong?

Philosophy offers some insights, and how we view reality lies at the heart of it. There are many ways of apprehending reality. Realism is perhaps the most pervasive nowadays: the common sense view that scientific theories say verifiable things about the world –stuff out there exists and even if we aren’t able to see it (a quark, or a lepton, say) we can measure it. But there are other ways people have viewed reality –everything from Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (there is something out there but we only know about it through our senses, and they –as in the case of, say, hallucinations- may be deceiving us), to what has come to be called instrumentalism –Science just measures things and theorizes about them (somebody else can worry about whether or not they are real).

As I suggested earlier, since theories and paradigms change –and always have- why should we believe that the ones currently in vogue are correct? And if they’re constantly subject to revision, then how then can we believe they are telling us anything about reality? Well for one thing, the scientists say, the technology engendered by them works doesn’t it? That’s surely a testament that we’re on the right path. And yet how can we balance the discrepancies? It’s a terrible pickle we’re in if we try…

But theories don’t talk about real things, only our interpretations of theories do. Science is usually couched in mathematics, hidden in numbers, but meaning –interpretation- requires metaphor.  We are creatures of stories, myths, legends… It’s only through these that we make sense of our world. Numbers almost have a separate reality –they describe our world, but they don’t really live where we live. To an extent, they are contingent on metaphor to have any descriptive function.

So, what does all this obfuscation have to do with the value of mammography? The problem of being told one thing today, only to have it rescinded –no, revised– the next? Well, as I see it, reality is still obscure: we think we understand it, think we are wearing it –and yet, like an onion, it has many other layers, deeper layers…

I’m struck by the prescience of that allegory told by Plato so many years ago. You know it: the one about the Cave. Prisoners are chained in a cave and only able to see the shadows of objects cast on a wall from a fire behind them. These shadows, they think, are real –indeed, it’s all they’ve ever known. But a prisoner escapes the cave and sees the world outside where he can finally appreciate what is truly real… Maybe the shadows have prepared him somewhat, but only when he is outside can he understand that what he had been calling real were, at best, approximations. Some were no doubt better than others, but simulacra nonetheless.

Although perhaps closer to the entrance to the cave, we are still imprisoned, still mistaking shadows for what they represent. For reality. For now…


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