Beware of Procrustes: Second Metaphor of the Scientific Method

According to Greek mythology, Procrustes offered hospitality to passers-by with the intent to kill them. He had only one bed for all comers. To make them fit the bed, he hammered the short men till they are stretched across the length of the bed, but sawed off the portions of the long men that projected beyond it. He was eventually subdued by the hero Theseus, who forced him to fit his own bed.

David Hume, the Procrustes of philosophy, demands the whole of nature and human intellectual endeavour be fitted into his limited experience and mode of understanding, and rejects everything from the Logic of Aristotle, to abstract notions such as essence, cause and effect, to theological notions of God and miracles. Stripped of all the verbiage, his arguments boil down to this: If I can’t clearly conceive it, don’t experience it, and don’t agree with it, it must be false and not worthy of consideration.

There is a Procrustes in all of us.

Proponents of the so-called scientism demand that all human knowledge be fitted into their materialist mindset, and religious fanatics demand that the whole world be fitted into their interpretations of the sacred texts. The real dogma underlying religious fanaticism, however, is not the religious belief they claim to uphold, but the dogma of self-authority, that is, tyranny, which is the antithesis of the Christian notion of freedom. The real dogma underlying scientism is not exclusive reliance on science, it is the dogma of self-authority, which is the antithesis of the scientific method.

The scientific method presupposes and demands a correspondence or harmony between subjective notion and objective reality. Objective reality is independent of human perspective and opinion. The principle of reproducibility is a type of democracy, for all people have equal access to truth, if they’re willing to pursue it. Peer-review is a type of check and balance, a procedural but not substantive guarantee, for everyone is subject to the scrutiny of others. In short, no one can monopolize truth, and everyone is accountable.

As a human and communal endeavour, science shares many similarities with religion, both the good and the bad, the sublime and the horrifying. Practitioners of science are flawed human beings just like those of religion, susceptible to all sorts of passions, including the lust for unjust power and fame. The good news is there are structures and mechanisms that can encourage accountability in both communities, accountability to the community itself and to the society at large. The bad news is accountability is a two-edged sword. We cannot demand it from others without it being demanded from ourselves.

As a method of inquiry, the scientific method is very effective, because there is a standard of truth against which scientists can measure themselves[1], and correct the errors in their own theories, if they are willing to do so. It doesn’t happen automatically by itself. In other words, science is not self-correcting[2]. Nor is this type of progress unique to science. Any community or institution who are willing to measure themselves against an objective standard, and constantly improve themselves to reach that standard, can make great progress over time, just as science has progressed over time.

Notes:

  • 1^. In the natural sciences, one can test a theory against observations of nature and experimental results. But in the social sciences, the touchstone of truth is harder to discern.
  • 2^. “Self-correcting” is a contradiction in terms. To correct means to conform something to the truth, which is different from it. There is always something other than the thing being corrected in the correcting process. IOW, nothing is self-correcting.

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