home | more philosophy

Science, Truth and Linguistic Confusion

Scientists know what they are doing. They measure, and they don't measure what can't be seen. They don't measure spirits such as angels. They measure objects, energy fields, heat, a lot of stuff to which humanity has access through their senses. Scientists also deduce, with math, which is a big part of science. And they do what is called abductive reasoning, in other words hypothetical explanation: this morning the grass outside is very wet, therefore it must have rained last night.

Scientists are human, and the language they use has limitations. The word "all" might be used in the form of an assumption. An often used example is "all swans are white." The one using "all" is speaking beyond her experiences. If she goes to Australia and sees black swans she is compelled to remove the word "all" from her statement. This problem with words and limited experience extends to words such as always, forever, eternal, know and maybe some other words I can't think of at the moment. Scientists don't know enough to postulate a forever into the future. Neither can they mark what their limited empirical knowledge tells them is a beginning. Here some religious people jump in with "mystery" to support their way of thinking. Some scientists are religious, but let us stick with scientific methodology and the philosophy of science, whose adherents hold with consistency to scientific methodology associated with empiricism. They see a problem with the word "know" and prefer to take the agnostic position regarding claims about knowing outside the world of scientific empiricism, the existence of angels for example.

Adherents to the philosophy of science have been using words that other people use that are not well understood – truth, for example. Using the word "true" is okay when applied to our everyday lives. One can ask: "Is it true that your mother fell down today?" But it doesn't work well with inquiry such as: "Is it true that reality is essentially matter rather than idea?" Here again we run into human limitations. Claims to be able to answer such a question don't fit with the more modest phrase: "as far as we know," a more appropriate expression for scientists. The word "true" or "truth" in this philosophical context suggests complete knowledge, a grasp of the whole, a claim of tremendous hubris.

Within the philosophy of science the problem of language is recognized and wrestled with, and different schools of thought exist. One school is called Scientific Realism, another is called Constructive Empiricism. I believe science should be agnostic about anything beyond our ability to know. This puts me with the philosopher John Searle, who refuses to put himself on the side of materialism in the debate between materialists and idealists. For me the expression Constructive Empiricism has more appeal. I don't know what all everyone who adheres to the label Constructive Empiricist believes, but to me the label suggests sufficient modesty. I take it to mean a working hypotheses. Science sees connections as far as it can. It ties things together as well as it can. It sees an interconnected and coherent body of empirical data and dynamics.

A physicist, historian and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn (1922-96), described the progress of scientific knowledge as a sort of agreed to coherent hypotheses among scientists that has shifted when new points are introduced, destroying old points and forming what he called a "paradigm shift" – paradigm being a word signifying a model, or pattern. It can also be described as a new coherence. Nigel Warburton in his book A Little History of Philosophy writes,

A paradigm shift is when a whole way of understanding is overturned. This can happen when scientists find things that don't fit in the existing paradigm – such as observations that didn't make sense within the paradigm that the sun goes around the earth.

Thomas Kuhn had a problem with the philosopher Karl Popper's view of what scientists did. Popper believed that scientists should not just work at proving something, they should try to prove it false, and if it can't be proven false the theory should be rejected. That scientists try to prove their theories false is okay. The more work they do the better. Popper's idea elevated to a philosophical law, his Falsification Theory, is grand beyond its limitations. Popper was at odds with Kuhn. I'll stick with Kuhn, as well as John Searle and my own view of knowledge as limited to a coherence among interrelated specific hypotheses and an agnosticism regarding all else.

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.