Can Empirical Science Give Us Peace?

Human Wrongs Watch

By Johan Galtung*

10 April 2017 – TRANSCEND Media Service – For some insights in science at its best see Peter Atkins, Galileo’s Finger-The Ten Great Ideas of Science: evolution, DNA, energy, entropy, atoms, symmetry, quanta, cosmology, spacetime, arithmetics (Oxford University Press, 2003). 


Johan Galtung

All Western in space, and most of them fairly recent in time. There could be some spatial and temporal myopia at work here.  But the book is highly recommended.

Galileo’s finger points to two pillars for science: scientific knowledge must be based on empirical facts observed or by experiments; and the language to express scientific knowledge is mathematics.

First objection: only the past can produce empirical facts; that limits what might or ought to be to what already have been facts. But humans are capable of transcending the past, and create new facts.

Second objection: mathematical sentences are “either true or false” and cannot accommodate the contradictions of “neither-nor” or “both-and”. But contradictions-ambiguities may stimulate solutions-clarity, and may also be positive facts in themselves, bene per se.

There is beauty in the simplicity of many mathematical formulas. However, they often reflect not real but ideal, simplified nature (no friction, &c) projected into real, complex, chaotic nature. This, and mathematical simplicity, are adjusted to each other as “laws”; even only two-dimensional, one “independent” and one “dependent”, X, Y.

Humans have to simplify for survival, but that is pragmatism. Benoit Mandelbrot’s mathematics of iteration, wrongly called “chaos theory”, brought order to complex, chaotic nature, with no theory.

A more basic query is the inattention to parameter variation.  The CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerators and aerosol sprays are harmless on earth but, split in the stratosphere by higher sun energy, they destroy the ozone layer.  Hence, physicians explore beforehand the effects of weightlessness (parameter g=0) on human bodies.

A law is generally valid only in a subset of the parameter-space, like “0C, 760mm”. Does parameter variation make laws many-dimensional? Yes, but do we know how nature reacts to being in a law straitjacket?  If we knew, that would be one more law.  Better be agnostic about it.

How does human nature react to being predictable? Some accept, “I’m like that”. Others say “I’ll show’em” and disconfirm the “laws”. A key parameter is consciousness about “laws”; they must be known to be counteracted.  A reason that spy agencies keep most findings secret and why those spied upon want to see their files (Norway: “mappa mi“).

How do human groups, categories, react to being made predictable?  Negative laws are seen as prejudice, pre-judgment; positive as facts. If no new facts disconfirm the prejudice it becomes a confirmed law, a judgment.  Groups confirm prejudices at their own considerable risk.

How does this work in social science generally, and in humaniora?

The social sciences record huge amounts of facts at the micro-meso-macro-mega levels. The more ideographic social sciences, history and anthropology, work with “much about little”; the more nomothetic (economics, sociology, politology, IR) with “little about much”, laws.

Take the essay title.  Identify conditions {C}–variables and parameter values–a set of peace attributes {P}, and try {C}–>{P}.  But parameters are many and change. 20 Km/h maxi-speed fitted small states and big federations; present speeds fit regions-superstates-communities.  With different logics, former laws may be meaningless.

The more a stronger {P} is wanted, the more search for {C}. Keep {P} and create an open {C*}, with {P}–>{C*}, “–>” meaning “implies as hypothesis to be confirmed”, not law. {P} directs the search so that {C*} may contain new facts till “given {C*} pursued {P} is observed”, and its negation is unobserved.  The coincidence makes it scientific.

The basic point is whether we want {P} strongly enough, as much as we wanted material comfort and health, and got it for very, very many.

The humaniora record huge amounts of norms at the micro-meso-macro-mega levels, such as statements about correct use of language, about how to make prose, poetry, books, arts in general: “criticism”. 

Philosophy belongs here as statements about how to think correctly; but history is a social science and geography social and natural. Jurisprudence actually belongs here as a branch bigger than the tree.

The human quest to make things hang together knows no limits, and the Genius 17th Century shaped the coming four centuries.  Examples:

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): I due massimi sistemi del mondo, 1630

René Descartes (1596-1650): Discours de la Méthode, 1637

Isaac Newton (1642-1729): Principia: Mathematics-Natural Philosophy, 1687

Descartes’ method was “facts by subdividing reality in smaller parts”; Newton’s was “mathematical equilibria covering very different facts”. Desouling nature and besouling humans to understand nature as things; daoist epistemology denying equilibria was unknown to them.

The praise West heaps on itself for this also knows no limits[i]; but there are whispers that not all is well in the House of Science[ii].

The prescriptive-normative grows, with the predictive-descriptive as a tool. Engineering is about that, so is architecture. We are in an uneasy, challenging, ambiguity. High time to go beyond 17th AD.

Is there a basic underlying parameter? If so, technology.  Marx rightly saw means of production as shaping modes, social organization; but wrongly assumed one-way relations.  Buddhist epistemology insists on symmetry.

Start with the more horizontal, peaceful mode we want, and develop means like call-in radio run by civil society rather than vertical one-way TV run by state-capital. Start solving conflicts and healing traumas by direct micro-meso links across borders rather than vertical “peace” by macro states willing to sacrifice their citizens.

And the economy we want rather than bookkeepers aping Galileo. Masters in our own House, ever improving democracy and human rights.


[i].  Examples: A.C Grayling, The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind, Bloomsbury 2016, identifying many more geniuses than the three mentioned; Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, Harper 2016; Anthony Gottlieb The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy, Liveright 2016.

[ii]. Examples: Eugene P. Wigner, “On Some of Physics’ Problems”, Main Currents in Modern Thought Jan-Feb 1972, mentions four. Two are social, the problem of communication between a branch of physics and another, and “what is the purpose of the study of physics or of the natural sciences?” For the fun of it? To improve human life, with nuclear energy maybe, but with bombs?

Two are internal to physics: Cosmology, The Problem of the Beginning, like “what was the state of the universe before the big bang”, and Epistemology, The Role of the Observer, “on the system can yield several results and only the probabilities of the various results can be predicted (the author’s specialty).          

A less basic problem, “how are we to determine whether a theory is true if it cannot be validated experimentally”, was reported by two astrophysicists, Adam Frank and Marcelo Geiser in “A Crisis at the Edge of Physics”, NYT 9 Jun 2015. Why should it?  Why not observation only?  Or by simulation?


*AUTHOR: Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU.

Prof. Galtung has published 1670 articles and book chapters, over 470 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service, and 167 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 April 2017:  TMS: Can Empirical Science Give Us Peace?

2017 Human Wrongs Watch

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