People are generally trusting of science. Since the scientific revolution began at the end of the Renaissance era, the status of science (at least in western culture) has arguably been elevated above that of any other philosophy or religious doctrine. I guess people became a little suspicious once science proved that Earth was in fact not at the center of our solar system.
Humans are naturally inquisitive and want answers that are accurate. Our praise for science reflects appreciation for a method that promises to provide answers to our most profound questions: What can an x-ray tell us about our body? How can we cure or better manage sexually transmitted infections? Why do cats love playing inside of boxes so much?
(Hang in there, little buddy. Science is working on it.)
Unfortunately, science cannot answer every area of thought that there is for consideration, even though many of us regard science in this way. Our tendency to use scientific support in arguments or in developing ideas doesn’t always make us smarter. In fact, it may deter us from fully using our emotions to guide how we make sense out of our world experiences.
Consider a family where one or both parents were alcoholic. Let’s say they have a child who now has a “genetic predisposition” toward alcoholism (a genetic predisposition meaning that the child’s genes inherited a vulnerability to alcoholism). If the child develops alcohol dependency as an adult, how much of this can be proven as biologically inherited and how much can be said to be influenced by having grown up in an environment where alcohol was modeled as a way to cope? And why do some people with a “genetic predisposition” to addiction never develop one while others who do not come from families with a history of substance abuse develop an addiction?
These questions are an example of the classic nature versus nurture debate: how much of who we are is influenced by biology and how much of who we are is influenced by the environment? Most of us believe these are good questions, yet many of us who value science may stop short of asking questions about some phenomena after we hear there is a ‘scientific’ answer out there. This is because many of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, have come to worship science above any other way of making sense out of something.
Of course, in the example above about alcoholism, this doesn’t suggest that genetics don’t play a role; it does mean however that saying some phenomena can be reduced scientifically can prevent us from making sense out of the other influences that hold a lot of meaning in shaping a person’s life. In therapy, education on the biological substrates of mental health can often be useful, and most practitioners make use of such interventions. For example, when working with trauma survivors, I often talk about the fight-or-flight response and how traumatic stress can produce overactivity in certain regions of the brain.
But also in the example about alcoholism, one might see how alternative ways to make meaning out of alcoholism could lead a client to further exploring how they made meaning of their parent’s addiction. Maybe addiction was an unconscious strategy used by the family to deny feelings. Maybe there are generations of family trauma that weren’t allowed to be discussed. Maybe in the absence of someone to depend on, people had to find some thing to depend on. Maybe none of these ideas ‘fit’, but something will, and working through whatever that something is could set in motion a healing process that would otherwise remain untouched if the therapist only offered a scientific idea.
Only in numerical mathematics is there ever one sure answer. Even when science has an answer, there are other answers to be discovered if you ask the right questions.
A few years ago I was training a large group of therapists on how to analyze dreams in psychotherapy. One therapist volunteered to participate in a live demonstration of a dream analysis with me. As our conversation about her dream unfolded, we began to explore the possible hidden meanings in the dream and how things happening in the therapist’s waking life could be related. The conversation was interesting. During the discussion portion of the training, a therapist in the audience who believed in using a more exclusively scientific way to approach counseling spoke up.
“Science doesn’t know why we dream or what dreams really mean. How do you know what you two are discussing with her is what the dream really means?”
“I don’t. I have no clue what the scientific truth of her dream is.”
“Then what’s the use of interpreting the dream if you don’t know the meaning of it is absolutely true?”
“It actually doesn’t need to be scientifically true at all; it only needs to be true for the client. If it’s useful for her, if it gets her to connect aspects of her dream with various issues in her life and make meaning from it that will help her resolve a conflict in her life, then it worked.”
(I think I saw an expression that went something like this.)
I offered one last thought that rang true for all of the therapists in the room. “Religion isn’t scientifically verified, but wouldn’t we work with a person’s religious beliefs if it helped to make meaning in therapy? Wouldn’t we work with religious doctrines which differ from our own? Should we deny what’s emotionally useful for the sake of being objectively rational?” Information alone, no matter how scientifically supported it is, is often not enough to influence people. People are motivated by emotions, not by logic.
Science is useful, and it may be precisely because it is so useful that we have come to rely so much on science and rely less on subjective emotional experience. According to Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience and author of Descarte’s Error (1995), emotional process cannot be separated from rational objectivity. In fact, Damasio asserts that emotional subjectivity is necessary to making the best decisions available. In other words, what is rational needs what is emotional.
Science is a system for making predictions based on things that can be perceived, measured, and subjected to methodological testing, but only a sliver of the vast spectrum which we call human experience can meet the criteria required for a scientific study. There is so much more that we don’t know than we do know.
Indeed, humans have a propensity for knowing, but when we overvalue science and devalue other ways of making meaning, how much can we know after all?