Science is all you need – or it is?

The workshop aims to question reductionist approaches to explanation by exploring several related issues: What is the difference between a necessary and a sufficient answer to a question? Are knowledge domains from the humanities, social sciences and sciences rivals, or complementary? How might these domains fit together, and what different kinds of information might they give us access to?

 Workshop summary  by presenter, Revd  Mark Laynesmith

The facilitator writes the question ‘why is my hair the colour it is?’ on a board. Students are asked to notice that this question can be asked in each of a number of disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology, theology, history, psychology and philosophy. Students then suggest how a scholar in each of these disciplines might investigate and address the question. As they give their responses, each discipline is written on the board, so that altogether they form a rainbow  around the question – These start with physics (light-waves), and proceed through chemistry (chemical composition of hair), biology (genetics), and geography (exposure to sunlight). The exploration continues through to social-scientific, historical and cultural answers, including economics (wealth/poverty), historical (cultural norms), and philosophical and theological (e.g. dying one’s hair for charity, or shaving it off to be in solidarity with a class-mate undergoing chemotherapy, i.e. for reasons of compassion).. Students are asked to indicate which type of answer they prefer and why. They are also asked whether someone could accept answers from more than one discipline at a time.

b) The facilitator then removes the original question and replaces it with a new question: ‘Who am I?’. Students are again asked to suggest how a physicist, a chemist, a historian, a philosopher, a theologian and so on might answer this question.  Once more students are asked to indicate their most and least preferred answers, and asked why.

c) This stage of the exercise concludes by drawing the students’ attention to the way the spectrum of disciplines maps on to a school curriculum or the breadth of university departments: the variety of academic disciplines contribute separately to a common endeavour of investing life with meaning. (In passing students are invited to reflect on whether their personal preferences to different kinds of answers might have an impact upon their future choice of studies.)

2a) The last stage of the exercise is initially more didactic. The facilitator points out that the spectrum of disciplines also maps on to the unfolding of the universe, starting with the very small – energy (physics) – and passing ‘up’ through larger and more complex forms of matter (chemistry and biology), on to the most complex form of life so far known: human consciousness (enabling ideas and beliefs: i.e. philosophy/theology). In this brief panoramic sweep of the life of the university, students are introduced to the idea of ’emergence’ (i.e. that each developmental ‘stage’ both requires and exceeds the previous one).

b) Finally the suggestion is put to the students that human consciousness initiates a radical developmental ‘turn’ in emergence by means of the question: “does my biology (or chemistry etc.) control me, or am I in control of my biology?”. The question is explored in terms of the possibility of both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to the meaning of human life – for example, biological imperatives to reproduction are met by cultural, philosophical and theological replies.

3) The workshop concludes with a simple question about whether students’ views have changed at all during the workshop with reference to their initial thoughts at the start of the exercise. 

Jacob’s summary

Workshop summary by  participant, Jacob, aged 15.

“I love my children, but that’s just my genes”, could be one way of looking at and answering the question, “Why do you love your children?”. In fact, there is an entire spectrum of perspectives.

We then considered how these disciplines can be fitted into a story of the universe: Physics represents the big bang, where energy was rapidly created and spread out across the cosmos, eventually clumping together to form chemicals (Chemistry) and later on simple life form (Biology). Then our ancestors developed consciousness – and the ability to have goals and change what is around us to try to achieve those goals  (Psychology). This led to the formation of civilisations with intricate monetary systems (Economics) and rich cultures (History). With our cities founded, we began looking towards the sky in wonder, expressing our findings in poetry and song (Literature) and forcing us to look inwards to discover more about our own minds and souls (Philosophy). Upon discovering more about ourselves, we started thinking about the cause of it all, about a creator, gods and spirits (Theology) together with scientific explanations. In this ways we have reached where we are now, the zenith of spiritual and scientific discovery

Teacher Background

To disentangle the ideas and so purvey the choices available to us when we think about a Big Question like ‘who am I’, it is useful to make distinctions between naturalism, physical reductionism and scientific determinism.

Naturalism is the belief that there are only natural materials and forces in the universe – so no supernatural entities such as God.

Reductionism is a useful tool used widely in science. Physical reductionism is a philosophical stance that everything can eventually be explained in the language of physics – including everything about being human. Philosophical reductionism is not a necessary position for a scientist although it is a valid position for a scientist to hold. In physics the practice is to narrow the frame to focus on understanding a small mechanism in a narrow context. Uncritical physical reductionism is the mistake of assuming that what happened in the small frame is also what happens in the real world. To illustrate this with a question from another area of research, suppose the aim of a study is to understand the factors that influence the bee population. One approach would be to limit the study to the relationships between bees and flowers; a wider frame would include the impact of bee farms, wider still – the behaviour of famers and the impact of offering them a subsidy to protect bee habitats and a wider frame again would include the factors that influence whether a species is protected in legislation (Byrne & Fitzpatrick, 2009). The first point here is that the methods that are selected will depend on the framing of the question; the second point is that the extent to which the question can be fully addressed using scientific methods such as controlled experiments and empirical measurements that are precise and repeatable reduces as the frame widens. The narrowest types of study are those that concern the behaviours of seemingly identical, accessible inanimate objects, studied in laboratory conditions. The third point is that in reality we are working in a world that has not only bees and flowers but also farms, farmers and legislation and so the initial investigation explored an artificial reality which set up the notion that we can hold the rest of the world still to investigate this mechanistic relationship.