[Editor’s Note: Thanks to new contributor Rob Graumans for this one!]
Scientific realists are known to have a positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best scientific theories and models. The exact interpretation of this philosophical tenet can, however, differ dramatically between each of its proponents. Some of these base their idea of the truthfulness of scientific realism upon the seeming success of the reference of its theoretical terms to the things in the world. Others refer to the scientific method of inquiry as making science an adequate system for capturing reality. Here, I’ll interpret scientific realism not so much in terms of the truthfulness of its terms or a method of inquiry, but in terms of the faith one puts in the ontology of scientific theories. …Or, as the objective interpretation of scientific realism goes, in scientific theories as giving an adequate representation of a mind-independent world. However, isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with this representation of a “mind-independent” world? To see this, we first of all have to understand what science and its purpose within our society is.
Science is involved in the production of knowledge. It does this by gathering large lumps of data and extracting what are the seemingly underlying structures responsible for the phenomena being detected. Usually, on an “objective” interpretation of science, we think of science discovering the way the world works. Science is involved in writing down whatever kinds of regularities are being detected in the world. However, is this truly the manner in which knowledge is being created?
I believe that one crucial element is being left out of this picture, and it is this element that is responsible for the progression and the advancement in science as we experience it on a daily basis, and the seemingly never-ending accumulation of facts in which it results. I am talking, of course, about the element of inference. The notion of inference has been well discussed by philosophers ever since Hume pointed out the incomprehensible problems associated with it. However, apart from Hume’s ideas about the indeterminacy of scientific theories and the problems it causes, in what way does the inferential relationship – which is present in every logical system consisting of premises and conclusions – manifest itself in the daily life of a scientist? And what is its role with regard to the production of facts?
Let’s take a look at an example. Imagine a scientist who has made the following observation: (A) human skin gets agitated when it gets in touch with a deadly nightshade (which – apparently – is a type of plant). Furthermore, the scientist believes to know that (B) a poisonous plant makes one’s skin agitated. Therefore – and let’s assume that this was unknown up till that point in time – the scientist claims that (C) deadly nightshade must be poisonous. Or, to put it more formally, (A^B) –> C. Given that the scientist has enough data to back up this claim, he or she has just created what we consider to be a fact.
But what would have happened if the scientist would have went home after making the observation responsible for premise A? Then no fact, and thus no new knowledge, would have been produced. That is, the scientist would have remained stuck at the level of observation, a level that can be reached by each and every one of us and therefore would not create any scientific value, a.k.a. knowledge. It is only because of the scientist being a person who has studied botany for years, who has confidence in her or her own capabilities and who has a basic sense of logic, that the step from mere observation to fact can be made. And it is by making this step, the step represented by the “–>” symbol in the logical formulation, that the scientist adds value to the “knowledge-producing factory” called science.
Two noteworthy implications follow from this observation. The first is that facts about the world around us are, whether we like it or not, constructed on a very fundamental level. There is always a human being needed in order to take the last step and create the knowledge: to take the observation and the knowledge at hand, and make an inference leading to the creation of new facts. And it is because of this inference, which is an activity that has to be performed by us human beings with our minds and our souls, that objectivism, with its proclaimed access to mind-independent knowledge, is untenable.
But watch it: It is explicitly not being said that the observed regularities in the world did not occur before the scientist came along and used the data about these regularities in producing our so-called facts. No claims are being made about any causal relationship between the domain of knowing (epistemology) and the domain of beings (ontology). What is being said is that what happens within the domain of beings is completely irrelevant to us human beings, since we will never be able to access the domain of beings – from a mind-independent point of view – in order to know what would be happening there. All that we know is that, after the scientist has finished its research, the fact is there.
A second implication of this plea for constructivism is that, on the most fundamental level, science does not seem to differ from religion – or from any other system of beliefs for that matter – in any fundamental manner. Both of these domains are dominated by people who believe in the truths of the ideas brought forth within these domains. None of the ideas produced within these domains will be true – at least not in a sense of being true independently on the human mind – unless they are believed to be true. And it is this believing that is an inherently human, and thus mind-dependent, ability which provides us access to the only realm of truth we will ever know: the realm of beliefs.
So the question is: is knowledge being constructed by scientists as an outcome of a fact-seeking process? Or are facts existing somewhere out there in the world, true whether they are discovered or not? And, if so, true in what sense?
-Rob Graumans (author of www.theyoungsocrates.com)