Science and Society

Science is one of the most dominant forces in our global society, for better or worse.  Steven Goldman gave this assessment of the relation between science and society in his lecture Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How they Know It.  The following is paraphrased from a portion of this lecture:

We especially who do not understand the theory, how shall we accept the claim by the scientific community that these theories are true?  This is very important to us, the general public, for a number of reasons, not least because science matters in our society.  Scientific knowledge matters in our society.  Because science works in some quite obvious and practical way.  Because over the last 200 years especially, science and science-based technologies and also the technologies that became entangled with science…became the source of the wealth and power.  This includes commercial power, military power, social power, and political power.  Science has become deeply entrenched in government institutions, commercial institutions, and social institutions.  There is a public perception that science is very important.  Science is deeply entrenched in our society and therefore it matters how we act toward scientific knowledge and how we assess scientific knowledge.

We can summarize this by saying that science is really powerful in our world and our society gives a lot of social prestige to science, but it’s important that we understand some broad outlines of how science works.  It is better that we understand what science is and how it is practiced rather than just uncritically assuming that science is exactly as it ought to be and does not need any further scrutiny on the part of the layman.

We should scrutinize science, but we should be educated enough to do so with appropriate precision, so that we avoid indiscriminate and unreasonable attacks on the practice of legitimate and reasonable scientific studies. Some people have broad suspicion and hostility to science because they do not understand how it works.  In some cases, these sentiments are motivated by people not liking the findings and conclusions that have come out of scientific studies, often for political and/or economic reasons.  The motivation to dismiss scientific theories and conclusions is therefore not driven by evidence nor reason, but by prejudice.  We see this happen even in situations where there is an abundance of evidence in favor of scientific conclusions that some people find inconvenient.  We see scientific theories being viciously attacked, even when the evidence in favor of them is overabundant to the point where they are essentially proven to be accurate, for all intents and purposes.  Those who attack science are often successful in propagating this overarching sense of suspicion because not enough people actually understand the processes of science, scientific discovery, and scientific reasoning.

There is also a separate phenomenon, rivaling the aforementioned in irrationality, wherein a lot of people just uncritically assume that science is always correct and accurate and that scientists are infallible experts in their field.  Indeed, some people have these sorts of beliefs, almost dogmatically, even though this is not always the case.  Scientists are human and are sometimes wrong.  We might even say that most scientific findings are not fully conclusive and are subject to possible future revisions.  Even the most solid scientific conclusions are sometimes found to be inaccurate as the result of subsequent studies.

Some philosophers of science have even argued that all scientific conclusions and theories are in a certain amount of flux and will inevitably change given the passage of a sufficient amount of time as scientists rethink their prior approaches and underlying assumptions.  With this in mind, it does not make sense to think of consensus scientific views as infallible.  But the usefulness and explanatory power of broadly accepted scientific conclusions cannot be denied.  It makes sense that theories that enjoy popular support among experts would be mostly accurate representations of the truth that we should take to heart and accept even if it they might be inconvenient for our political or economic ideology.  Human induced climate change, for example, is broadly accepted by accredited experts in all relevant fields.  The future of our planet and our own livelihoods depend on our accepting the work of such experts and acting accordingly.

Scientific knowledge often endows people with certain forms of power and prestige.  There are people who are specialized in certain fields and who are qualified to produce scientific knowledge or to carefully scrutinize the results of scientific research.  Such functions are important to the scientific process, and most of us do not have the requisite experience or training to perform them.  This does not entail that scientific knowledge is should only be accessible to a small elite group.  Since our lives depend so much on science in our contemporary world, we can’t rely on gatekeepers for this knowledge.

In earlier times, information technology and personal computing power were very limited and consequently there was little expectation or hope among most people to be able to penetrate the work produced by the scientific literati.  Perhaps it used to be the case that laymen could not expect to understand very much about science and could simply sit back and trust scientific experts, but that no longer really works.   Of course, we do need to trust those with more specialization than us, but it no longer works to uncritically accept that scientists have that domain and that we, the laymen, are only consumers of their conclusions.  The biggest problem with this approach is it actually has the indirect effect of breeding skepticism of science in general in society.  This sort of sentiment can erode belief in science among the population at the time when we need it most.

We need to more actively understand the processes, core evidence, and lines of reasoning behind scientific conclusions and we need to try to encourage our friends and family and fellow community members to do likewise.  Science shouldn’t be incomprehensible to the uninitiated.  We shouldn’t condescend to people who don’t understand certain scientific knowledge.  Instead, we should try to help other people understand and appreciate science.  We need to find a reasonable midpoint between uncritical acceptance of what experts might say on one hand and cynical skepticism on the other.  People are better able to develop this skill when there is transparency into scientific processes.

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How Can We Understand Emotions and Other Inner Experiences?

There is a multitude of emotions that one can experience. One’s experience of emotion is determined by the innate functions of the brain that are triggered by one’s senses, reasoning, and memories. One can in some situations gain knowledge from the experience of emotions that they could not gain from any other experiential element, including any sensory experience. For example, if one becomes angry then this experience allows them to understand what it feels like to be angry. Since a person can only have knowledge of being in an emotional state from experience, this kind of knowledge must be empirical.

The inclusion of such knowledge as empirical is a controversial matter among philosophers. Admittedly, this would be different from the conventional notion of empirical knowledge because it is not about something in the external world. Since one’s emotions could never be experienced by anyone else, the feeling of fear, exhilaration, surprise, etc. could probably never be understood objectively. But we know that we have these experiences, and so we will need to expand the definition of empirical to include forms of self-knowledge such as this.

Some people also report having experiences that are mysterious and difficult to objectively assess. Perhaps such experiences could be reduced to the emotions, but it is not that simple. At the most basic level, everyone has experiences and gains knowledge from these experiences. Modern science seems to explain the nature of experience as merely a function of sensory data along with reasoning and emotions. If one is able to gain knowledge from an experience that is not reducible to any known sense or emotion, in other words none of the aforementioned knowledge-forming phenomena, then this could potentially be considered a distinct sense.

Utter certainty is possible for someone who has direct and immediate sensory experience, but what any of it means or represents is much less certain. It might not be very easy to figure out what one’s sensory data means or refers to, but the raw sensory data itself does not need any justification beyond the fact that it is directly experienced. The same goes for any experiences that one might have that do not fall into the standard list of senses. If one experiences emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, hunger, despair, etc. then they know perfectly well that this is the case. Likewise, if one has any other clear and unambiguous experiences that are quite different from any objectively known sense, then these cannot be dismissed out of hand. Such experiences would probably deserve to be studied further.

For example, sometimes people will attribute some of their beliefs to spiritual experiences of some sort. Such people might insist that such experiences are distinct from other senses that they are not the product of reasoning, emotions, or claims. This type of phenomenon might prove to be reducible to the emotions and/or to hallucinations, but it might be worth a more thorough analysis to determine if there is something else to it. This would require phenomenology, which is a disciplined approach to the development of self-knowledge, and will be the subject of future posts.

For now, it is worth explaining how self-knowledge is possible by expanding on the computer vs. mind analogy from an earlier post. There are some computers that can monitor their own internal components and their own internal operations to some extent. Such features are actually common in modern computers, since this provides visibility into how well the machine is performing and whether the components are functioning properly. Humans also have the ability to observe certain aspects of their own selves, which can include reflecting on what seems to be going on within any part of the body. This can even involve one reflecting on what they are thinking and taking special consideration for how they are feeling at any given moment. This would all be considered empirical knowledge, but based on a more expansive “radical” notion of empiricism. Radical empiricism will also be covered in a forthcoming post.

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How Reasonable is David Hume’s Skepticism about Induction?

Some philosophers, notably David Hume, have argued that one cannot gain knowledge through inductive reasoning that they didn’t already know from plain observation. Hume rightly points out that we can only directly know states of affairs in our experience and that when we see several things happen that seem to be correlated, we think we know the cause. Hume says that, for example, one may see the sun come up every day, and from this to try to reason that the sun indeed comes up every day, but he says the only thing anyone can know is that the sun has come up every day so far, not that it is a law of nature that the sun comes up every day. Hume argues that we actually have no knowledge of the factors that caused the sun to come up before and hence we cannot know for certain what will happen in the future. Hume says that there is no way of being justified in a conclusion about the cause of actions because we only actually perceive the objects and never causes or laws of nature. Those opposed to inductive reasoning say that when we see successive events where one event appears to cause another, the only thing we actually know is that one event happened and that another event followed, and that no amount of logical reasoning can justifiably lead one to conclude that the earlier event caused the proceeding event to occur.

Arguments against the possibility of gaining knowledge from inductive reasoning are self-defeating in a similar way as those in favor of extreme skepticism, solipsism, and absolute idealism. This is because those who go with a similar line of reasoning as Hume would say that we cannot know laws of nature, but they are still assuming that we can know about some objects and some events, as isolated points of knowledge. It is a part of this line of reasoning that we can know certain isolated points of knowledge, as a general rule. The implication is that this rule is itself a fact that must be a law of nature (or perhaps derived from laws of nature) that the speaker must have come to know somehow. And how else could Hume, or anyone else, know about this other than from observing the world and using inductive reasoning? Also, anyone who denies inductive reasoning leads to genuine knowledge also assumes that people can hear them or read what they say, which are facts that they also must have come to know from induction. A similar problem with Hume’s argument is that any statement that can be approximately paraphrased as “Inductive arguments never give guarantees for how things are” is self-contradictory in a way similar to other constrain-skeptical arguments including transcendental idealism. This is because, even if one assumes that this is true, it is also true that one could only know this fact through the use of inductive reasoning.

Indeed, Hume himself makes many statements in the form of a law of nature, for example “When a child has felt the sensation of pain from touching the flame of a candle, he will be careful not to put his hand near any candle; but will expect a similar effect from a cause which is similar in its sensible qualities and appearance.” In this statement, Hume appears to be saying, among other things, that the laws of nature determine that children who come in contact with fire will experience pain. How could Hume have come to know this other than through inductive reasoning?

The only reasonable conclusion that one can come to from Hume’s line of reasoning is that one might or might not be able to gain certain knowledge from induction, but it is difficult to see how certainty could be possible, which would be an example of doubt-skepticism. We don’t have evidence for any method of induction that could produce a certain conclusion and so it makes sense to not believe that there is any such method, but it also does not make sense to think that one can disprove this possibility altogether.

There are several reasons why skepticism about inductive reasoning is irrational and unworkable. Perhaps the biggest problem with Hume’s argument is that he argued that one can never even be justified to accept a conclusion from inductive reasoning. It is impossible for anyone to truly believe this and to live as if it were true. We all act as if causes and effects are real and we all acknowledge lawlike orderliness in our world. Also, science would be largely impossible within this strict assumption, since science so often involves searching for causes and effects and laws of nature. Additionally, if this were assumed, one would never have any rational basis to go with a tested hypothesis over an untested one. While it makes sense to doubt that utter certainty could be possible from induction, this does not mean that knowledge cannot be gained from induction because justified conclusions do not always have to be utterly certain.

Anyone looking for the truth should be able to easily conclude that they can, perhaps with much effort, come to know at least some laws of nature through inductive reasoning. From this it should be accepted as truth that we are, in fact, perceiving causes and effects (albeit quite indirectly) along with the objects that we perceive.

What are your thoughts? Use the comments feature to join the conversation.

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How Accurate are Our Memories?

If the brain is functioning well, one can often recall some of the details of their past experiences so as to produce new experiences that are similar to the original. When one remembers an idea that was previously stored in memory, it usually has a purported truth value associated with it. For example, memory of an experience that one had when they were young is stored in memory as a purported experience while memory of a fictional idea or one that was made up, such as a fantasy, is not stored as purported truth. The problem is that the brain is not perfect, so even if one’s brain is working properly then they would probably only be able to accurately remember past experiences and accurately tell what memories are true or false most of the time. Remembering information stored in one’s memory does not produce new knowledge by itself because the only product of this is something that is already known, but the mind can use reason to infer new knowledge from existing memories.

Knowledge consists of one’s beliefs, including one’s memories that are stored in the mind as purported truth and the ideas that one is currently thinking about that are purported to be true and that might not be stored in one’s memory just yet. The ideas that one has in mind that are the product of very recent perception are more likely to be true than most memories that one has. Memories do have a tendency to be unreliable in many situations. Despite this, the most basic and general facts that one knows from memory can be just as certain as if one were currently perceiving them. This includes basic things such as one’s name and where one lived as a child and where one went to school, for example. These facts are not certain for everyone, but for most people they are because it just would not make sense to think that one could be completely wrong about these basic facts of their life. If one begins to doubt these basic facts that are so obvious to them and so central to their very identity, then this would seem to imply that they don’t even have the ability to have reasonable and intelligent thoughts, which is absurd.

While the basic and general facts in one’s memory can be utterly certain if they are recalled into one’s active thoughts, this is not true for the details in one’s memory. If any living person were to write down every detail that they can remember from their own past, including what they said and whom they said it to, what they did and why, what they saw and what they heard and when, the chance is near zero that this person would be 100% accurate in their recollection of these details. Human memory is not perfect, so most memories inevitably come with some level of uncertainty. Despite this, any memory that one recalls that seems clear and unambiguous is epistemically justified. Recalling a belief from memory and continuing to believe in it with active thoughts is never an act of blind faith because the memory itself is immediately accessible evidence. As will be explained in more detail later, blind faith is the act of believing in a baseless claim despite the complete lack of evidence. When one recalls a memory, this is never a baseless claim, hence it is not an act of blind faith for one to accept that this memory is accurate.

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What is the Connection between Our Reasoning Abilities and Our Psychology?

Our minds have an innate capacity for logic, which allows us to come to reasoned conclusions on the basis of information that is already given.  The logical conclusions that we come to are not mere guesses nor are they feelings nor creative inventions.  If one’s reasoning process is sound, then any conclusions would be logically entailed from that which was given at the start.

This includes logical operations that we can call “or”, “and”, “not”, “all”, “exists”, etc.  A very common example begins which the two given statements: “All men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man”, from which we can derive the logical conclusion “Socrates is moral”.  Ideally, the vast majority of philosophical and scientific conclusions should be logically entailed from the raw data and any fundamental assumptions that were known at the start of any research project.  All mathematics can also be understood in terms of complex logical operations.  This makes logic very powerful and very important to knowledge formation since we don’t often directly observe profound facts about the world directly.  Instead, we rely on our reasoning capacity to develop a broader and deeper understanding of reality.

But how do we know that our logic is sound?  How do we know that logic, as we know it, is true?  How do we know that are reasoning capacity is entirely logical?  This leads to the larger question of what is the ultimate basis of logic itself.  Is logic an inherent feature of reality that we are capable of mentally understanding?  Or is it just another arbitrary way in which we happen to think about things that is determined by how our brains are wired?

If our brains have an innate capacity for logic, then perhaps this means that our conception of logic is entirely based on our psychology, and is not necessarily a representation of anything in reality.  This theory, known as psychologism, says that logic is essentially derived from our psychology.  If logic ultimately comes from within our brains, and our brains are nothing more than neurons and chemical processes, then the product of this is entirely bound by the brain’s limited computational capacity.  Psychologism says that the brain has limited thinking abilities and that, therefore, our logical conclusions are not necessarily mind-independently true.  Rather, we have a conception of there being sound logic because our brains are wired to think that way as result of our evolutionary history, our genes, our education, and perhaps even our culture.

For example, we can consider “1 + 1 = 2”.  Like all mathematical equations, this is ultimately based on logic.  We know that “1 + 1 = 3” is wrong, but are we so sure?  Is “1 + 1 = 2” a reflection of reality, or do we think that because of how our brains are wired?  Could there be someone with a different perspective on the question of one plus one, perhaps because of their different genes or their different culture?  If anyone in the world’s brain is wired to make them innately believe that “1 + 1 = 3” is sound reasoning, would that be equally valid to our contention that “1 + 1 = 2”?  Any such person would seem illogical to us, but if we go with psychologism, then it would seem to imply that there is nothing inherently accurate about our supposed ability to tell the difference between sound logic and illogic.

Is the psychology of the mental processes of logic the ultimate basis for our secure belief in our logical reasoning capacity and any conclusions that we might come to through such reasoning?  Twentieth Century philosopher Edmund Husserl argued that psychologism makes knowledge impossible because it is hopelessly relativistic and skeptical.  As one commentator summarized:

Psychologism yields relativism, since logical validity is taken to depend on the contingent psychic make-up of the human being, since that a different make-up would produce different laws.  And it yields skepticism since, by denying logic unconditional validity, it renders every truth-claim undecidable.

We need a more solid foundation for logic than what psychologism would provide, otherwise we won’t be able to believe anything that we think could have universal validity.  If we doubt our ability to reason soundly, if we are unsure whether we are actually understanding reality when we reason, then our very rational existence is questioned.  There might be some innate irrationality in our nature and our ability to reason might not be perfect, but it is senseless to accept psychologism and the relativism and broad skepticism that it would bring.  As Husserl said, “The correctness of the theory presupposes the irrationality of its premises, the correctness of its premises the irrationality of the theory”.

As an alternative, Husserl offered that logical laws have ideal validity.  In a sense, we are understanding certain fundamental aspects of reality and of truth when we reason soundly, and this is made possible because of our ability to mentally grasp the universally valid ideas of pure logic.  This ability is foundational for the construction of objective knowledge and for any sciences based on objectivity, such as physics, biology, and psychology.  Whereas any objectivity-based science must have presuppositions about certain basic features of the universe and what constitutes evidence and how to gather data, logic must not be based on any presuppositions.  Logic that makes sense needs no further basis for its justification, and it serves as an important basis for science itself. 

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