Science, philosophy, and depression

Growing up, I was endlessly fascinated with understanding how the world worked. Discovering the neat, interlocking processes by which the landscape and ecosystems around us are governed filled me with joy, and it should come as no surprise that I followed these interests to become a scientist. Science, for me, became fundamentally about understanding the truth of the physical world; using evidence to confirm our theories of nature, and uncovering facts that could replace our guesswork and idealised notions as a way to comprehend the world around us. It seems to me that for many scientists, this passion for truth is a key reason for their choice of career; few scientists would say they’re in it for the money, after all.

In my schooling, it was rare to conflate science with philosophy to a great degree. Facts could remain facts, and objectivity was permitted. But as someone interested in the nature of things, I have over time been drawn to philosophy to help make sense of exactly what objectivity means, and what we can really mean by a fact. Perhaps some of this philosophical inclination comes from a scientists urge to ‘question all assumptions’. Why not ground my scientific understanding on the most secure base I could find; the fewer axiomatic assumptions I needed to accept to build a coherent world-view, the closer I could be to truly objective knowledge, I reasoned.

For those of a similar mindset, scientific philosophy holds little solace. The possibility of ‘a provable theory’ disappears rather quickly; Karl Popper famously discussed the ‘black swan’ concept to demonstrate that inductive proof falls apart. In short, let’s say I have a theory that ‘all swans are white’; based on my experience, this is the case, but there’s always the possibility of a ‘black swan’ that I’m yet to encounter. Dig further back into philosophy and one can find a litany of thinkers who wrestled with the question of whether knowledge is genuinely possible at all. Hume, Kant, Hegel and others since have argued over whether we as subjective observers can ever really perceive the objective truth of the world around us. Perhaps I lack the faculty to truly understand the counter-arguments, but I find it hard to see beyond the sceptical position offered by Hume; genuine objective knowledge of the world as it truly is remains forever outside our reach.

This philosophical perspective does not coexist easily with my self-image of a scientist seeking the underlying truth of the world. The realisation of this internal conflict did not happen all at once; but over the course of my PhD it dragged at my psyche. When one always has the nagging doubt that what one is working on is merely observational, and not necessarily true, motivation becomes problematic. Having struggled to accept compromise in any internal viewpoints from a young age, I found it even more difficult to accommodate this kind of scepticism alongside more everyday notions; politics, religion, social mores; all are based on axiomatic propositions, with roots in history and human psychology. I had been reading Foucault and Barthes at the time, and the nihilist, postmodern interpretation of the world they presented certainly fell in line with my thinking at the time. How could one believe in anything at a deep level, if it required accepting an unprovable axiom at its core? This is my interpretation of Nietzsche’s void; I had sought to be sceptical of the world to understand it, but it had left me unable to view anything sincerely.

As someone with an inclination to dwell on a train-of-thought, I struggled with this for some time. For a while it led to what I now recognise as depression, although I refused to label it as such at the time. Waking up in the mornings often came with a question of ‘what is it all for?’ on too many occasions. Gradually aware that I was bereft of a higher meaning to my existence, and aware that my own pathway to this viewpoint was so acutely pseudo-intellectual as to alienate anyone I spoke to about it, I found it difficult to address or seek help.

Fortunately for anyone who spent any time with me, and particularly my family who had to listen to my attempted philosophical meanderings, I found some measure of solution. While sat on a train staring out the window into the rain during a long winter in Berlin, I asked the question that we should all ask ourselves now and again:

“So what?”

“So what if you can’t access the objective truth? You are, by nature, a subjective human living in a subjective world – subjective knowledge has to suffice.” Bertrand Russell, whose writing I discovered shortly after, put it much more eruditely: “Scepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it.”
The psychological aspect is perhaps the most important point here. No matter how sceptical one is of social constructs, human biology necessitates certain inputs; we would perish pretty quickly if we decided to skip food and sleep because there “isn’t an objective need to eat”. Diogenes the Cynic, the ancient Greek sceptic, who according to apocryphal tales lived in a barrel to point out the folly of some human conducts, probably didn’t fulfil a great many of the psychological needs we commonly discuss today, for example Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs”. In my case, trying to achieve deeper perspective was pushing me to depression – and offering no help to actually living as a functioning adult.

I knew that for me, to be satisfied, life needed to have a purpose and direction, and now I was at liberty to choose that direction for myself. I knew that I had to make the conscious decision to attribute meaning to whichever direction I chose, despite my underlying scepticism that objective meaning is possible. Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, suggested that in the face of this absurdity, the choice we must make is to live in spite of it. With this realisation came some level of freedom; the choice of meaning was mine alone, and not defined by any other authority. It’s not a complete answer, and it never can be – at a philosophical level, one is still obliged to lie to ones-self, but it has to suffice.

It’s easier to wake up in the morning with a specific goal and objective, even if I know that it only matters to me on a subjective level. Perhaps if I had never spent time delving into philosophy and overanalysing the world in which we live I may never have asked such nihilistic questions; hindsight is overrated, though. This is not a story that has a satisfactory ending, as I’m still working to answer these questions for myself. More than anything, I’m writing to share my experience. It seems to me that numerous aspects of society are moving toward this kind of ‘objective’ thinking; the decline in organised religion and rise of postmodern cultural tropes are examples, although some may disagree. Some, however, may be thinking along the same lines as me, and I hope they might find some common ground here.

 

One comment

  1. Dear Robert,
    thank you so much for this post. It is both really comforting and also somewhat encouraging to read that other young geoscientists are thinking about (and struggeling with) these philosophical issues as well. I remember very well my first encounters with ideas developed by Popper, Kuhn and other philosophers of science – and how these pulled the rug out under my feet every time, again and again. Yet there is something strangely fascinating in these philosophical perspectives, in being forced to change your point of view, in this feeling of your believes about science falling apart. Don’t get me wrong – I know from experience how unpleasant, even devastating it can feel if fundamental doubts about the principles you believe in arise. However, even though it shakes our beliefs to the very foundations, I believe it’s essential (especially for scientists) to be aware of these limitations to aiming for truth. It can possibly help us to become more reflective and humble scientists, and I dearly wish there were more conversations about this among geoscientists. We study the Earth because it’s absolutely fascinating, but we try to increase our understanding about it with a scientific approach that often neglects the philosophical side of the related questions – something that goes widely beyond the scope of discussing uncertainties resulting from applying a certain scientific method. Adressing philosophical questions deeply moves us as human beings, not only as scientists. And I do kind of believe that both scientific and philosophical questions essentially stem from the same urgent desire to understand this astonishing world. In this sense, I think the time you spent delving into philosophy and overanalysing the world is very precious.
    I want to conclude with a simple, yet beautiful quote by Brian Cox which nicely sums up this feeling: “Science is an emotional response to the universe.”
    Thanks again Robert for this contribution, as I can relate so much to what you’ve said.
    All the best, Ramona

    Like

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