December 12, 2004

Jumbled thoughts (produced without caffeine!)

Posted by Curt at 10:38 AM in Science | TrackBack

Just two quick thoughts about science. I would expand on them more if I had the time, but I don’t:

  1. It annoys me when people, in my philosophy of science class and elsewhere, talk about science as a method rather than as a set of beliefs. Of course there is a method to science, but that’s not what makes it distinct from other areas of knowledge. It is especially galling when someone asserts that science is uniquely given to skepticism, to methodical investigation, to revision of its foundational beliefs, etc., in other words that it is the only truly “progressive” body of knowledge. But all of that only seems to be the case because, as Kuhn might say, we’re inside the scientific paradigm. When you really get down to it, science boils down to some materialistic beliefs that are essentially taken as datum, such as that everything is essentially physical, inanimate, material, and in motion. These have stayed more or less constant since the emergence of these beliefs, i.e. the mechanical philosophy, in the 17th century, and how can anyone think it a coincidence that this was also the start of the scientific revolution? I would defy anyone to find some purely methodological difference between science and all other forms of knowledge. They all come back to the founding materialistic beliefs. Empirical investigation? It doesn’t even make sense as a distinct form of investigation except in the context of scientific principles. It’s not just a matter of “basing beliefs on experience,” but a particular type of experience, i.e. observation of external physical phenomena. Abstract ideas are thrown out a priori as a source of experience, even though they are undoubtedly that, because thought as distinct from matter obviously doesn’t fit into the mechanical philosophy. That doesn’t mean that believers in scientific principles can’t believe in non material-things, like God, or love, or whatever else, but only when they are considered to be outside of the domain of science. The point is that all of that scrutiny and investigation occurs entirely within the fundamental mechanical beliefs, which must remain unquestioned. Science is simply the belief that everything within its purvew is purely material.

  2. Speaking of Kuhn, his idea of paradigms and scientific revolutions is very nice, but it seems somewhat, uh, less than rigorous in explaining, or really just describing how a “paradigm shift” comes about. He talks about scientific traditions as being wholly enclosed in paradigmatic assumptions, which is useful in opposing the weird metaphysical scientific dogma about direct experience with nature, but it’s too monolothic. In Kuhn’s view a paradigm encloses everyone in the time and place in which it is accepted, so that it is quite impossible to see outside its underlying assumptions. Again, it’s good for ridding us of the notion of objective criteria of observation, but overstated. I agree that one’s interpretation of perceptions are conditioned entirely by the ideas which we have been taught to associate with them, but I find it unlikely that any particular individual or scientist’s views coincide entirely with the so-called scientific paradigm of the day. Kuhn, for example, says that it’s impossible for us to regard a pendulum as anything other than a pendulum since the time of Galileo, whereas those in the Aristotelian tradition would have simply seen a swinging stone. But that just seems like nonsense. If everyone’s perceptions were totally circumscribed by the scientific paradigm current in their time, paradigm shifts would be impossible. I’m not disputing that all of the beliefs which condition are perceptions are not instantiated in something like some paradigm or another, just that this paradigm, even for scientists, is not necessarily equivalent to the current scientific dogma. Einstein, for example, must have had some beliefs in physical properties that superseded Newtonian physics, or he could never have questioned the latter, let alone provided an alternative to it. And this must have also been true of those who were led to doubt Newtonian physics but did not formulate a widely accepted alternative. In short, I would say that Kuhn is applying the idea of paradigm too broadly, except that I think the whole idea of a paradigm is too monolithic. Paradigms never seem to be universally accepted, nor does a revolution seem different in kind from “normal” scientific activity in kind, just in scale. All scientists are trying to solve problems and provide more satisfactory solutions, not just defend accepted dogma, but most of them are only successful in solving problems on a relatively small-scale, rather than on the massive scale required for a so-called revolution. Again, Kuhn says that normal science is fundamentally different from the activity that surrounds revolutions, but then he says that normal science itself produces the crises that lead to revolutions, which, if one throws out the unmediated-contact-with-nature model and assume that scientists existing within paradigms in times of normal science are both entirely circumscribed by paradigms and primarily concerned with defending them, seems basically impossible, except for some provident intervention of God, which actually seems to be how he essentially describes the inspiration that leads to the formulation of a new paradigm.