Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

18: Philosophy of Science:
The Nature of Scientific Knowledge

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         How does scientific knowledge claim credibility? Broadly, there have been two answers the explanatory and the descriptive approaches and both have many problems. The first answer: The nature of scientific knowledge is that it is a TRUE representation and EXPLANATION of the physical world. The second answer: The nature of scientific knowledge is that it is a FACTUAL representation and DESCRIPTION of the physical world.
         The first answer is associated with most pre-modern systems of thought the second with most modern systems of thought. To see the difference, consider the answers to several scientific problems: 1) the problem of causation; 2) the problem of categorization; 3) the problem of paradigm shifts.
         1) The problem of causation: When we see a billiard ball moving along a table; come to a sudden stop right beside a second stationary billiard ball; and then see the second billiard ball move away from the first; we say that the first billiard ball caused the second one to move. But how do we know this?
         The first, the explanatory, answer goes like this: it is the nature of billiard balls, the tables and all other relevant entities to act in the way they do when these various natures interact with each other. If we know the nature of two entities then we can know for certain their true causal relationship.
         The second, the descriptive, answer goes like this: after a number of repetitions, we can say that events that are contiguous in time and/or space will have a high likelihood of repeatability and that therefore the first in time caused the second.
         2) The problem of categorization: we give names to entities. But on what do we base the creation of these categories? Is the basis of categorization in the world or only in our minds? Most everyday cases are easy but at the limits of our knowledge most of our categories break down. For example most people can tell the difference between a man and a woman but for the International Olympic Committee there seems to always be some controversy after every Olympics. How do we determine categories?
         The first, the explanatory, answer goes like this: every entity in nature has a natural, objective and certain category which we need to discover. The Periodic Table of Elements is a model with natural, objective and certain categories. The fact that we do not have such categories for everything shows our lack of knowledge. Eventually everything will fall into such categories when we discover all the truths of nature.
         The second, the descriptive, answer goes like this: we categorize entities based on a value we have such as usefulness, beauty or doctrinal orthodoxy. When our values change we can change or expand our categories. Biological categorization is the model: some taxonomic categories (such as domain, kingdom, phylum, class) are either historical or arbitrary (and therefore based on our values) and other taxonomic categories (such as genus and species) are more objectively based on observation.
         3) The problem of paradigm shifts. How do we make sense of a paradigm shift. What do we do with the Ptolemaic earth centered cosmology after the Copernican revolution? What do we say about something once considered science that has been discarded.
         The first, the explanatory, answer goes like this: a paradigm shift reveals a fundamental error that needed to be corrected. The correction brings us closer to the truth.
         The second, the descriptive, answer goes like this: a paradigm shift is very likely a more accurate description that will itself be made more accurate over time.
         1) Which warrant for science's legitimacy is better: A 'true explanation' or a 'factual description' or is there a third warrant.
         2) Most science theories commit the logical fallacy known as 'Affirming the Consequent.' For example: “If theory 'T1' is accurate then prediction 'P' must be. 'P' is observed to be, therefore 'T1' is an accurate theory.” But logically all this shows is that prediction/observation 'P' is consistent with theory 'T1.' Logically 'P' could be consistent with any other 'T#'
         How we claim that science deals with this fallacy reveals our preferred warrant. How would you deal with this fallacy?
         3) Science puts a high value on objectivity, repeatability and other values. However sometimes it jettisons these values (objectivity is hard to maintain in a chancy quantum mechanical universe and repeatability is hard to maintain in one time events like the Big Bang). Are these values arbitrary? Is science just as arbitrary in its chosen values as other human enterprises such as art, religion, philosophy or ethics? What is at stake?
         4) Scientists are human and as such often see what they want to see. But science often uses equipment designed with a theory in mind and that interprets experimental data in terms of the same theory. For example a scanning-tunneling microscope can “see” atoms using magnetic fields but the digital data of a water molecule is interpreted to look like a Micky Mouse head because the theory says it should look that way. Should circular argument of this kind be legitimate in science?
         5) It has been suggested that modern science is valued so highly today because it is practical and useful. Science seems to have “Utility” as its most fundamental value. This value is supported by our capitalist mode of production in which the vast majority of funding is directed at “useful” research which can be expected to be profitable (in the sense of money and/or military power). What would the world be like if we change the fundamental value of science from utility to:
         1. Beauty (Kepler believed in the beauty of God's creation and this drove him.)
         2. Goodness
         3. Power
         4. Production (Socialist science claimed 'production' to be the highest aim of science.)
         5. Sentimentality
         6. Curiosity
         7. Progress
         8. other __________________
         6) Which fundamental value for science would best serve your well-being and that of the world?
         7) Which fundamental value for science would most damage your well-being and that of the world?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren