He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Benefit of Doubt: The Question of Science

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to articulate two popular views of science and ask which might make more sense.  I also began to address the two major threads of thought about science which are present among scientists and philosophers and science.

These threads of thought are answers to the question, "What is science?"  This question has multiple possible answers existing along a complicated spectrum, unsurprisingly.  The first is that which I previously mentioned was articulated by Neil Tyson, along with many other scientists and philosophers of science.

1.  Scientific realism is the view being put forth here, specifically that whatever is described by contemporary scientific theories is real, that they constitute a correct ontology (or metaphysical scheme).  Underlying this view is often the idea that the terms used in scientific theories genuinely refer to something that exists and/or that those terms correctly describe the things that exist.  The usual implication of this view is that scientific theories are genuine instances of knowledge about our world.  

These are views that will perhaps make some intuitive sense for the average person who holds to one of the popular views of science.  Of course we know that quarks and gravity are real, right?  Keep in mind that knowledge means something different in philosophy than it does in common parlance; knowledge is a much higher standard for the philosopher than for the average person.  Depending on the philosopher, knowledge might entail infallibility, which would require at least localized omniscience with regard to phenomena.  Most scientific realists in the philosophy of science community don't go quite so far as to expect the absolute certainty of infallible views, instead taking the fallibilist position that knowledge does not require absolute certainty, but instead the best available evidence.

2.  Scientific instrumentalism is the opposing view, specifically that scientific theories are instruments for predicting the events we can observe and/or a conceptual framework we use to systematize the events we observe into a coherent narrative.  Underlying this view is often the idea that the terms used in scientific theories do not genuinely refer to something that exists, that scientific theories do not constitute a correct ontology (or metaphysical scheme).  But not always; there are instrumentalists who concede that scientific theories are ontologically and semantically correct, but are doubtful that they are genuine instances of knowledge about the world.

The first part of this view will perhaps make some intuitive sense for the average person, but the latter two parts probably won't.  The idea that the term "quark" does not refer to some thing out there in reality, but is instead a conceptual tool we use for systematizing and communicating a body of observations about certain kinds of sub-atomic physical interactions, is not an idea that's likely to have popular appeal.  But in the end, how different is the instrumentalist position from the position of the scientific realist who is also a fallibilist?  Both reject the idea that scientific theories provide us with absolute certainty about what things exist.  Both generally accept the idea that scientific theories are highly useful and valuable to our technological progress.

They do disagree on some of the philosophical implications of scientific theory, and in particular the instrumentalist is more doubtful than the realist about the epistemic status of scientific theories.  Is it more scientific or more rational for the instrumentalist to retain these doubts?  What is the benefit of doubting that science makes correct ontological claims, or that it can in principle do so?  What is the benefit of doubting that scientific theories meet the criteria for knowledge?

The difference between the realist and the instrumentalist is that the former sees the limits of science as being farther out than the latter; they differ not on the subject of whether or not scientific theory is useful or true, but rather on the subject of the extent to which scientific theories are true, the topic for the next piece in this series.

The Gospel of Science - The Question of Science - The Limits of Science

Note: The above is a picture of the top of one of my science fair trophies.

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