(SCIENCE and PHILOSOPHY – continued)
In the 1600s a Frenchman, René Descartes, advocated disciplined philosophical argumentation integrated with physical science. He believed in doubt. The only thing he could claim that was beyond doubt was the observation of his own existence: I think therefore I am. But in time this came to be accepted as unedifying.
Given the vastness of the world microscopically and its vastness extending out into the universe, and given that our knowledge is built on interconnections, none of us should be confident that we have grasped anything completely.
And we can dismiss the absolutistic skepticism of the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who blabbered on about his knowing that we could not know anything.
Though limited in knowledge we can surely admit that we know something. Science tries to accumulate knowledge. Scientists refine what they perceive as best they can. They hypothesize, waiting for someone to make a more sophisticated approximation. Scientists entertain uncertainty as a condition they must live with. They live with the induction fallacy. For example, one might see nothing but white swans all his life and conclude that all swans are white and then have his theory destroyed: he sees a black swan. Scientists have what they call the "uncertainty principle," a recognition that we live with limitations in measurement. To measure with certainty one needs to know the whole. Scientists don't claim to know the whole, at least scientifically, and to discard measurement entirely would be absurd, so they measure as best they can.
A difference exists between science as method and the philosophy of science – although the scientific method has origins in philosophy. People are free to employ the scientific method who reject the philosophy of science. The science of biology can be taught in a classroom without teaching the philosophy of science. Science as method addresses empirical questions, and one can work at science separate from a belief in the supernatural.
The philosophy of science holds that people should limit their beliefs to that which is empirical, in other words exclude that which is supernatural. The philosophy of science is agnostic about matters beyond the empirical.
Some who include metaphysics in their philosophy accuse science of being weak because it is uncertain. They want science to be what it is not.
Among them are those who accuse the adherents of the philosophy of science as having run from the question of God. Some of those who partake in metaphysics describe agnostics as well as atheists as being as metaphysical as they. They hold to a failure to differentiate: no difference between a claim to know the mysteries of the whole versus merely admitting not knowing.
People who say they do not believe in God have a problem of definition. What do they mean by God? Whose definition of God? God can be defined as nature-as- a-whole (another philosophical problem).
Those who adhere to the philosophy of science are compelled to avoid trying to prove metaphysics erroneous. If they are to remain true to their agnosticism they must be more modest than those who pretend that they know the whole of reality or have unlocked an understanding to the totality of existence.
Some people describe those who believe in knowledge-as-approximation as postmodernists.
Postmodern philosophy has produced at least one aphorism: by Paul Karl Feyerabend (1924-94), an Austrian who was a professor of philosophy at U.C. Berkeley. Said he: "The only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths." In saying this, Feyerabend is going beyond those who believe that their knowledge is limited. How can he know that there are no absolute truths unless he knows the whole of reality?
It would be something else, of course, if he merely said that he knew of no absolute truths.
Copyright © 2010-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.