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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Science, and those pesky "other ways of knowing"

Now and then - much more often than I'd like - I come across a claim to the effect that science is merely "a way of describing the world, among other ways." This bold claim is usually made by an academic in literary or cultural studies, but sometimes by somebody from sociology of science or "science studies", sometimes by a person based elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences. The particular formulation that I've quoted above is due to literary academic Peter Brigg, but he is far from being the only offender, or the worst.

Science, we are so often told, is just one way to understand the world - and the same applies to rational thought in general. There are, so the thesis goes, "other ways of knowing", all equally legitimate, even when they are inconsistent with well-corroborated scientific findings or other products of reason. I suppose that this is attractive because it fits in with a kind of post-colonial angst about reason and the Enlightenment.

Too often, such assertions about the nature of science are supported by vague references to Thomas Kuhn's early book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). There is seldom any analysis of Kuhn's arguments in that book, or of those elaborated by Kuhn's many critics. There is usually little sense that the writer knows that the position asserted assumes a highly controversial epistemological theory. It's a theory that many philosophers of science reject, while real working scientists generally seem to have little patience with it.

A more plausible account of science is as follows.

Science is continuous and consistent with other means of rational investigation of ourselves and the larger reality in which we find ourselves. There is no sharp dividing line between science and philosophy, or between science and everyday reasoning. The philosophical investigation of ourselves, and our world, segues into science as and when it becomes possible to make cognitive progress in certain fields of inquiry through the use of what are known as "scientific" means. These include hypothetico-deductive reasoning, controlled experiments, mathematical modeling, and observations with instruments that extend the human senses.

The boundaries of science are blurred, but that is not a terrible problem because science is part - though an increasingly large part - of the general endeavour that we could call "rational inquiry". It does not stand in opposition to, or in competition with, other components of that wider endeavour. If reality is self-consistent and regular, as it appears to be so far, the methods of rational inquiry will produce convergent conclusions. The ideal is an eventual unification of knowledge.

On this understanding of science, its answers to our questions are provisional, but they are far more than interpretations, or optional descriptions, of reality. Well-supported scientific theories provide our best conjectures about many aspects of ourselves and the Universe. At this stage of human understanding, it would simply be irrational to reject such scientific fndings as that certain diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, that the Earth revolves around the Sun (not vice versa), that our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved from earlier life forms, that DNA encodes for proteins in a way that provides a mechanism for biological heredity - and many others. There is no rational alternative to accepting these theoretical claims that emanate from the practice of science.

I am troubled by the propensity of many academics in the humanities and social sciences (but usually not in the field of analytic philosophy) to pass on wild, highly-contestable claims about the nature of science to new generations of undergraduates, as if these claims were uncontroversial. That is not the case at all.

Well-corroborated scientific findings, such as the proposition that we live within a Solar System (our planet and others revolving in orbit around a star), are not merely descriptions, or interpretations, of the world that can co-exist with equally acceptable non-scientific alternatives. Such propositions make substantial assertions about an objectively-existing reality ... and they are almost certainly true. Propositions that are inconsistent with them are almost certainly false.

None of those pesky other ways of knowing can tell us, with the same authority as science, that our beloved Earth is (after all!) at the centre of the Universe, or that it's the centrepoint (after all!) of our local system of a sun, planets, moons, and other astronomical objects. It simply isn't either of those things. Nor was it created ex nihilo in the last six or ten thousand years. Rather, it has an origin in deep time, over four billion years ago.

AIDS is a viral infection, the moon is not a hollow spaceship, and Tyrannosaurus rex did not live by using its long, curved teeth to crack open coconuts.

There's nothing relative about this. There's no genuine competition.


Brian English said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my aunts the other day. I was having a bit of fun poking at religions contradictions and she remarked "Oh you're confusing facts with truth." She's not a bad old chook and doesn't believe in christianity (lapsed catholic who hated the guilt) but she has some very woo ideas.
Like religion/myth/ghosts violates natural facts but somehow is still true. Weird.
Anyway, this is a common ploy by religious types. If you ask for evidence of their god, or properties of their god, or how we can judge their holy book better etc than another they say science/evidentialism isn't the only way to knowledge. If you ask for some rational philosophy they equivocate and just blurt out fatuous theological disentry and accuse the person asking for evidence of being a follower of scientism. Like theology has helped us understand the world we live in in a manner similar to science?
Which brings to mind an example I read, I think in Daniel Dennett's book, where the people of New Guinea believe there are many gods whilst people in Iran believe there is only one at the same moment. A relativist would say that they are both believing something true. What about the fact that the statements are mutually exclusive? Anyway, end rant.

Brian English said...

Rant reactivated.
Russell, I've a question for your learned self. I've seen certain religious types forward the proposition that science can tell us nothing of feelings or emotions (qualia?), etc. A fMRI scan may show areas of the brain activated when a person has an emotion experience or listens to a favoured piece of music but this tells us nothing of the experience that person has. It seems that they are sort of saying the mind isn't the functioning of the brain. Thus science can only tell us what the brain is doing, not what the thought is. This is used as a crack to let other forms of knowledge in like religious experience.
I'd take a materialist approach, but don't have much knowledge and could easily be pressed into a position that's untenable for me; that emotions don't exist. I'm sure they do, but how and what they are in relation to the brain I'm not sure. Except that it's not some form of Cartesian dualism.
What are your thoughts on this?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, off-hand, there seem to be a couple of issues. If they are saying that science cannot tell us what experience some other person has when she is listening to music or whatever, no matter how much it shows the functioning of her brain, I think there's a sense in which that's true and a sense in which it's false. I think it's false if the claim is that we can never have reliable knowledge of what sorts of music produce calm feelings (say). Our knowledge of that may rely on testimony, but there's no reason to think of testimony as thoroughly unreliable.

What's true is simply that we don't have a telepathic sense, and there's no prospect of this changing, so we can't directly perceive other people's feelings. We have to rely on testimony and various sorts of circumstantial evidence. The only feelings we can observe directly are our own. That just does seem to be a fact about the world, but it's not controversial, and I don't think anything follows from it. It's also true that science can't tell a blind man what it's like to see, or a deaf woman what it's like to hear. Science doesn't suddenly give us entirely new senses that we'd otherwise lack ... though it's true that it can greatly extend the observations we can make with the existing ones.

Alternatively, if the claim is just that metaphysical dualism is true, that opens up the whole field of philosophy of mind. I actually agree that we don't have a really convincing philosophical account of the mind. However, substance dualism is one of the theories with a lot of problems. I suppose that if substance dualism were true it would be useful for debates about whether there are non-human, disembodied spiritual beings - claims about such beings would appear less ad hoc - but it looks as if substance dualism is not true. Some kind of property dualism may be true, but I don't immediately see how that is of any comfort to anyone with supernaturalist views.

Brian English. said...

but I don't immediately see how that is of any comfort to anyone with supernaturalist views
You've never encountered if science can't explain it then it must be god before?
I guess the problem for me is that when I've had these debates, I get easily lost due to lack of knowledge and inability to see threw well rehearsed rhetorical tricks and failings in informal logic.
I mean, it seems painfully obvious that science, in team with rational thought, mathematics and logic are the only things that add to our knowledge. Not religion, spirituality or wishfull thinking. It should be simple to debunk arguments that try to put other ways of "knowing" on a par with science. When I have these discussions, I get the feeling that something is fishy, but can't quite put my finger on it. You know you're being led up the garden path.

Stephen said...

This issue is one that Dale Carrico over at Amor Mundi talked about lately, in a post called Is Rationality Always Instrumental?, which is well worth reading.

As for my own take on this, I think you're wrong. Knowledge is justified belief, which we all possess through a variety of methods, many of which don't fall into the mold of science at all. For example: I hold a fairly well developed ethical system, which I've built through rational analysis and synthesis of various ethical philosophies. I believe in it, and I find it to be justified rationally. It constitutes, therefore, a form of knowledge, one which is completely and utterly outside the scope of scientific inquiry. The scope of scientific inquiry is likewise completely outside of it's scope. They are two completely rational, complementary, and exclusive forms of knowledge, or 'ways of knowing'.

You're disputing the wrong claim. There are plainly non-scientific ways of rationality and knowing. It's just that they don't impinge on scientific knowledge because they pertain to different forms of knowledge.

I think you're also misreading the humanities-based, academic criticism of scientific inquiry, and doing it a gross disservice by equating it with religiously motivated claims of suppression over science. Most often, what is being communicated is not a truly relativistic position, but rather one which attempts to critique and establish the way in which scientific inquiry is influenced and shaped by factors which are beyond the scope of scientific inquiry proper, which is fundamentally a difference between Science as an institution and science as a way of inquiry and knowing. They're concerned with the former. Religiously motivated claims attack the latter.

Russell Blackford said...

This is just a test. I've been having trouble making comments - getting error messages.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, comments seem to be working again. Brian, I do understand what you say about people arguing, "If science can't explain it, then Goddidit."

I can even see why it is tempting for them to believe that way. It's tempting to want an explanation for everything, some things that we want to explain seem very difficult to explain in any precise way, and "Goddidit" is such a nice all purpose explanation. Anything at all can be explained by saying, "It was the will of a being with power to bring it about", as long as not too much content is given to the nature of that being, such as to make its existence falsifiable.

But while all that may be psychologically attractive, it also provides us with a reason to be suspicious of explanation in such all-purpose and unfalsifiable terms.

Brian English said...

This is just a test. I've been having trouble making comments - getting error messages.
That's just an excuse to allow you time to think up an answer to my incredibly profound and difficult and insightful post. Oh wait. My post possessed none of those qualities. Dang! Must've been a problem with comments. :)

Russell Blackford said...

Stephen, I'm not sure what you're actually objecting to. Anyone who is at all sophisticated about science knows that the kinds of problems that get studied, the kinds of hypotheses that get formulated, and so on, at any particular point of history will be selected in various ways, often by cultural bias.

One can acknowledge that while also insisting that science creates real knowledge - not "knowledge" in some watered down sense, but beliefs that are well-justified by evidence. There is no contradiction between the two points.

Well-corroborated scientific findings are not merely descriptions or interpretations of a reality that is open to many such descriptions or interpretations (like, arguably, a literary text such as Hamlet). It's not true that reality could be just as legitimately be interpreted or described in other, perhaps contradictory, ways. Science produces beliefs that it would be irrational to reject, once the evidence is examined, and which are frequently inconsistent with claims that come from elsewhere, such as tradition, myth, personal inspiration hunch or mystical insight, and even common sense.

Thus it is quite misleading to describe science as if its findings add up to just one optional description or interpretation of the world - and that claim is routinely made, even if its proponents might fall back to something more moderate and defensible if pressed on the point. If the proponents mean something else, they should spell it out, as their words are read by others who may take them at face value and accord them authority.

As I said in my post, that does not mean that all knowledge is obtained through science. The alternative picture that I offered isn't of science covering the whole field of what we know. Rather, science is continuous with other ways of (genuinely) obtaining knowledge. It draws on them all, but adds particular techniques of its own that are successful in solving some problems.

Thus, science is part of the whole field of rational inquiry. Other methods that sometimes work - such as ordinary, everyday observation and reasoning, are continuous with it. In some cases, beliefs obtained by ordinary observation, educated hunches, or whatever, can be corrected by science, if it is in a position to address some claim more rigorously. However, its techniques are not radically different from the ways in which ordinary observation and reasoning can correct themselves, such as getting better evidence.

The point is that other methods of rational inquiry are continuous with science and science draws on all of them where it can. That is a better picture than one where there are various methods of obtaining knowledge that provide equally valid "descriptions" or "interpretations" of the world, even where these descriptions are actually in conflict with well-corroborated scientific findings.

To harp on the point for a moment we do indeed see lots of humanities and social science scholars making claims that sound awfully like this when they opine about science. If they all just want to make a moderate claim about the uncertain and contingent path of science, rather than a radical claim about the status of scientific knowledge, then they should all use the appropriate language.

Coathangrrr said...

To harp on the point for a moment we do indeed see lots of humanities and social science scholars making claims that sound awfully like this when they opine about science. If they all just want to make a moderate claim about the uncertain and contingent path of science, rather than a radical claim about the status of scientific knowledge, then they should all use the appropriate language.

The problem is that the path of science as contingent on language, culture and whatever other things might be in play, will give rise to possible descriptions, based on the exact same evidence, that are contradictory. Look for example at Feminist work on reproductive science and the descriptions of the processes. You get descriptions which are contrary to traditional accounts, and yet fit the observations.

One can acknowledge that while also insisting that science creates real knowledge - not "knowledge" in some watered down sense, but beliefs that are well-justified by evidence.

See what you did there? You switched "justified" to "well-justified by evidence," which is a completely different thing. Or are you claiming that moral knowledge is really "knowledge?"

Brian English said...

Or are you claiming that moral knowledge is really "knowledge?
Way out of my depth here. But I don't think moral knowledge is knowledge of the same form as knowledge gained via scientific discovery.
I may say I know that it's wrong to torture people. But that is because of biological impulses and socialization lead me to feel gratuitous harm to a sentient being is wrong. Not because it's a reflection of some demonstrable physical phenomena.
Similarly, sociologists view science as a "view" of reality, with equal truth standing as other views. This is wrong. It's not correct to say the phenomena can be viewed in contradictory ways. Either the Earth orbits the sun or it doesn't. A person can say that gravity is just a paradigm, not a fact. But gravity will still do "its" stuff whether this person likes it or not. Just as the Earth will orbit the sun even if it contradicts someones belief system.

clodhopper said...

Science deals in facts/evidence and it is up to others to distort that information to their own ends (including scientists of course).

Science and moral 'knowledge' as coathangrrr terms it are not in the same arena although some techniques of science could be called on to investigate the issue.

clodhopper said...

.....and the last time an engineer predicted the base load on the uk national grid by claiming 'other ways of knowing', shit happened :-(

Coathangrrr said...

Science deals in facts/evidence and it is up to others to distort that information to their own ends (including scientists of course).

Science is done by scientists, and if scientists are free to distort the information from science then how does science even count as knowledge? And who gets to decide what counts as distorted and what as undistorted? Scientists, even though they are one of the groups doing the distorting?

Brian English said...

Science is done by scientists, and if scientists are free to distort the information from science then how does science even count as knowledge?
Peer review can correct personal biases. Other scientists are eager to overturn accepted results. Some scientists are dogdy. The scientific method does have self correcting mechanisms. It's not set in stone once and for all. It's contingent.

Brian English said...

I should have added that all science has to be repeatable. So any scientist, in theory at least (or ordinary person), can repeat a test under the same conditions and see if the scientists didn't just pull a rabbit out of his derriere.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not sure what is so terribly wrong about using the word "justified" and the phrase "well-justified" by evidence more or less interchangeably. I suppose there could be situations where "justified" has a broader meaning (depending on the meaning assigned to "evidence"), but what's the relevance of that to my point? My point is that science frequently comes up with findings that really are well-justified by evidence. When it does so, it is not some optional description or interpretation of the world; it is providing us with claims about the world that it would be irrational to reject in current circumstances.

If we all accept this, then there are certain ways of talking about science (as providing merely one description or interpretation of the world among others, etc.) that we should avoid - popular though they are.

I don't believe that there is any linguistic trickery in my argument.

Coathangrrr said...

Peer review can correct personal biases. Other scientists are eager to overturn accepted results.

That's assuming that there isn't a bias built into the education of scientists or other aspects, like language.

I'm not sure what is so terribly wrong about using the word "justified" and the phrase "well-justified" by evidence more or less interchangeably.

It wasn't that so much as the adding "evidence" that I was pointing out.

Look, I'm not trying to argue here that we can give the bible as much validity as science insofar as say, biology is concerned, just that there are forms of knowledge other than those based on science, and moral knowledge is one of the

clodhopper said...

coathangrr: What Brian said + you have to be as skeptical of what scientists say just as much as any other group. Two questions are important. Who's signing the cheques? and - In who's interest is this?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, no one here really seems to be arguing that science is just some sort of optional "description" or "intepretation" of reality. We seem to agree that science can produce knowledge, not just "knowledge" (in some deflated sociological sense).

Is that right? That's the main thing I'm arguing.

If we agree on that much, I'd like (in a later comment) to ask some questions about this "moral knowledge" that a couple of you have referred to.

To foreshadow, I don't deny that there is moral knowledge of a kind, or perhaps of a number of kinds ... but I do think that "moral knowledge" is a rather problematic concept.

Remember - or be warned if you haven't encountered my views on this before - I'm an error theorist about morality.

... said...

Remember - or be warned if you haven't encountered my views on this before - I'm an error theorist about morality.

Aah. Well, no one is perfect ;)

On the socialogical view of knowledge, I'm skeptical, but I think there's some good points in there, though I haven't read as much as I should. I come at it from more of a philosophy of language point of view. Think Quine in "Ontological Relativity"

Coathangrrr said...

Oops, that last post was really me, forgot to log in.

Russell Blackford said...

... and it strikes me that I need to write a book about what kinds of moral knowledge it is possible to have, and where our commonsense and our philosophical traditions go wrong - pervasively I think - in what kinds of moral knowledge they imagine we can have.

I probably will write that book one day, unless other projects keep overtaking it.

Meanwhile, I obviously think that there's a real phenomenon of morality (or maybe a cluster of related phenomena), and I think that this phenomenon (these phenomena) can be investigated in various ways and knowledge about it can be brought back.

E.g., anthropologists may be able to form appopriately justified true beliefs about, say, the moral norms of the Yanomamo. I don't see the idea of a moral norm as terribly problematic and I see anthropological investigation as either part of science or continuous with it. If we have reason to trust the anthropologists, then we will have gained some knowledge about the phenomenon of morality, namely that it takes such and such a form among the Yanomamo.

The question is, what other kinds of moral knowledge can we have? I think that we can have knowledge of what reasons various people (including we, ourselves) have for conforming to certain moral norms (perhaps those of their own society, or a relevant component of it such as a culture or sub-culture), refusing to conform to certain moral norms, seeking to overturn or revise certain moral norms, socialising children in certain moral norms rather than others, and so on. This is all fruitful stuff for moral philosophers to investigate.

There's a lot of knowledge to be gained about all this, and while I don't really see the inquiry as part of science I do think that it's continuous with science ... or that science is continuous with it.

Part of what I'm arguing overall is that there's no sharp discontinuity between science and other forms of rational inquiry, whether commonsensical or academic.

Quine would have agreed, wouldn't he?

Anonymous said...

If you define science and knowledge narrowly enough it fairly easy to come to the conclusion that much 'science' doesn't produce 'knowledge', I like using narrow definitions so I have no problem with people making statements like 'science doesn't producs knowledge' so long as they are clear what they are saying. This sort of thing does not lead to anything like the statement 'science is one way of describing the world among others', although perhaps you could understand this statement in a way that it might make sense but it would lose any implications which should trouble scientists or anyone who hopes that taking a particular medicine will work because of scientific testing. In fact even when humanities academics make stronger claims against science I have this (vain?) hope that it might cause an increase in profile for the philosophy of science and it might be recognised that teaching philosophy is at least as important as the subjects which are currently taught as part of school curriculums. For example studying 1st year psychology the following statements were taught like cannon law 'you can never be certain of anythin', 'it is unethical to change your hypothesis after conducting an experiment', 'experiments with a control can establish causation'. The first is just silly; I understand the second but can the fact that we wrote some arbitrary numbers before conducting an experiment really change what the observations tell us after the event? The third I suppose is true in some sense but if scientists are expected to understand the principles of inferential statistics shouldn't they also be aware of issues such as Simpson's paradox and Hume's argument against induction?

What does trouble me is when academics talk of reason and rationality as just one way of thinking or knowing or whatever it is they say. For example I wrote an essay on whether gender equality was just on imposition of western values on traditional culture spending much of the essay on liberal political theory. It wasn't a particularly good essay and some critical comments of it were made that were quite fair however my tutor also took issue with the fact that I had focused on liberalism, OK I wonder whether concepts needed for the discussion make sense if liberalism is denied but maybe there is room for debate however this was the actual comment made: "Indeed even the notion of gender equality (...) is a problem for much liberal thinking precisely because the apparently rational perspective that apparently grounds liberal thought is premised on the exclusion of a set of values defined as feminine." Some students have suggested that subjects like politics are much better than the 'inter-disciplanary' course I am doing, I very much hope this is true.

Thomas Hendrey

Russell Blackford said...

Hi Thomas! What was the subject or the discipline that you wrote that essay for, if you don't mind me asking? I'm just curious. I could imagine us setting a similar topic in our philosophy of sex component of PHL1020, but of course I know we didn't this year, and I doubt that you'd ever get a comment quite like that from me or any of my colleagues. While I think reason has certain limits - for roughly Humean reasons - I hate the sort of lingo that you quoted.

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell, that essay was for international studies, I lost interest in it very early on, but provided I passed there are a couple of subjects run by the philosophy department which I can use to complete my minor which will hopefully be more to my liking :)

Russell Blackford said...

If anyone's still reading this thread, here's a post at "Philosoraptor" that may have some relevance:


Russell Blackford said...

And see this new thread at Pharygula, where I found the Philosoraptor post:


Russell Blackford said...

er, Pharyngula.

Anonymous said...

I would second brian's points about peer review and repeatability. The former actually happens; the latter is the more important aspect of scientific "knowledge", which (though it happens too rarely) takes the "knowing" out of the hands of the individual.