To be knowledgeable is to have familiarity with some kind of fact or truth about the world – typically acquired by some form of education or experience. Epistemology is the philosophical study of how we can know what we claim to know. However, there are important differences in the methods of attaining knowledge and standards for differentiating ‘opinion’ or ‘belief’ from true knowing. Realism, at its most extreme, claims that the world exists absolutely independent of our perception of it, yet a realist believes we are nonetheless capable of knowing it with adequate precision. Relativism, at its most extreme, evokes a strong skepticism, arguing that the ‘world out there’ can never be known to us, since it is being perceived only through subjective human interpretation. Depending on our epistemological beliefs or positions, we will have very different ideas of what it means to know something, which will influence our faith in our own claims to knowledge.
Knowledge attained through Science
The power of science in being able to illuminate the physical world is indisputable, as can be seen in modern claims to knowledge that so frequently evoke appeals to scientific data or research findings. In fact, we place so much emphasis on science that it may often be used as a rhetorical device within intellectual debates. However, there is large disagreement about what constitutes science and how science is believed to work. In its most basic form, science evokes some kind of empiricism – a theory of knowledge asserting that evidence ought to be derived from observations by the physical senses. However physical observations must be constrained by theory – and theories are fabricated by human minds, not objective facts. As I have said before, “though researchers may claim that a particular finding is ‘supported by research,’ that may only be true if one accepts the assumptions of the theoretical paradigm overseeing the investigation.”
Discussions about the nature of science and its limitations are debated within the Philosophy of Science. I believe that all scientists should familiarize themselves with the works of key individuals in this field – including Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. In fact, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is often heralded as being one of the most important scientific books ever written. A good introductory text in the philosophy of science is Peter Godrey-Smith’s Theory and Reality (2003).
Karl Popper’s work involved an interest in distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. He said that scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable and therefore must involve taking theoretical risks – they must be willing to expose themselves to falsification by having the potential to be refuted by some possible finding or observation. This only makes sense. A theory that does not expose itself to risk of falsification is one that is compatible with every possible observation, and is in Popper’s view, unscientific. Popper also emphasized that we can never be completely sure that a theory is true. He instead endorsed a certain degree of theoretical skepticism, which he considered to be an asset to any good scientist. After all, some of the surest of scientific truths have later been disproven – including aspects of heliocentric theory and classical Newtonian mechanics. History also reminds us of how science at one time appeared to validate racist theories and gender divides. Despite its proven utility, we have every reason to hold at least a small degree of skepticism in the scientific theories we entertain. Popper believed that holding a tentative stance toward our theories keeps one from falling into the territory of theoretical dogma, and from the temptation of treating theory as reality, instead of an imperfect descriptive lens that attempts to approximate reality.
Both Kuhn and Popper suggested that while scientists never claim to be 100% right about anything, there would appear to be an overwhelming temptation to be surer about our scientific theories than evidence or logic would warrant. Kuhn described the notion of a scientific paradigm as a particular way of seeing the world, involving certain theoretical assumptions, methods of collecting and analyzing data, and ways of engaging in scientific conjecture and decision making. Paradigms will often replace one another in time – and this is where major scientific ‘shifts’ are thought to occur. Importantly, Kuhn emphasized that observational data and reason alone do not cause scientists to move from one paradigm to another, since different paradigms often include within them different rules for handling data and assessing theories (Godfrey-Smith, 2003). In the words of Max Plank:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Kuhn thus describes science as a puzzle-solving activity, where the paradigm that organizes the scientific knowledge is taken for granted (it is often treated as true). The tentative theory, which was supposed to offer a construct or heuristic, becomes ‘reality’ for those working within its theoretical borders. The irony here is that the theory ends up ruling over data. This is in stark contrast to the indifferent and objective data-driven picture of science that is often presented.
The Intelligent Fool
A theoretical paradigm involves a scientific community of like-minded individuals whose method of viewing the world is assumed to afford the most accurate reflection of reality. Critical thinking exists primarily within the walls of the conceptual paradigm. We read books, attend lectures, and form dialogues in ways that confirm what we already know and offer support to our favoured worldview. It would seem that we humans love absolutes and loathe uncertainty. Believing in some ‘truth’ allows us to have some kind of relative predictive power in a world of variables that are less certain than we are able to tolerate or willing to admit. Popper’s suggestion to always hold a tentative position in relation to our theoretical beliefs would seem wise indeed but perhaps too much to ask of most of us. Many of us instead abandon reason, adopt our paradigmatic faith, and carry on conducting ‘science’ in this more restricted way. This in essence describes ‘Scientism’ – the belief that empirical science offers the single authoritative claim to knowledge, excluding or minimizing other sources of knowledge, including logic or philosophy, which could otherwise allow us to be more aware of our theoretical assumptions and cause us to question them more honestly. From the scientistic view, anything not supported by science is regarded as opinion or conjecture. Such individuals have an unrelenting faith in an empirical science… and I use the word ‘faith’ here intentionally, since scientism can take on all the qualities of a religion. That is, unknowingly abandoning reason in favour of a dogmatic belief-system that gives a sense of stability and certainty in an otherwise uncertain world. This is all the more common within the kind of science that seeks to investigate human nature. Psychological territory is problematic for an empirical science, as I have argued elsewhere. Psychologists, for example, want to study the human ‘mind,’ but we need psychological heuristics, constructs, and theories in order to define it… it is only after we define it and commit ourselves to certain assumptions within our paradigm, that we begin to engage in empirical research. Again, the science only makes sense if our theory is correct. We unknowingly wall ourselves within our conceptual paradigm. When our favoured theory is challenged, instead of entertaining an alternative, we fight to keep it alive – trying ad hoc workarounds to deal with criticisms. Popper was very critical of this form of science.
Never before have we encountered an age where knowledge was so abundant and accessible to the layperson. With the internet, information is at our fingertips – there are near limitless sources and possibilities for edification. But one can also argue that the quality of the information we are exposed to has never been so poor; perhaps the books we bother to read are the wrong ones. It seems to me that our libraries and bookstores are overstocked with the work of pop-science writers and pseudoscientists – we seem to gobble up their easily digestible books as if they were going out of style (actually most do have a short shelf-life). Many of these authors are indisputably intelligent and gifted writers. But their minds appear to be holed-up within the walls of their preferred theoretical worldview and the assumptions supported by the conceptual community they subscribe to. They subsequently sell these scientistic theories to the masses who do not know any better – they have read too shallowly and not widely enough.
Any disagreements that exist remain safely hidden from the public view and so has less influence on sociocultural trends. I doubt you will hear many philosophers praising Sam Harris for his insights on morality, nor will you hear many historians praising Steven Pinker on his assessment of violence throughout the ages. But the layperson is not a scientist and the masses will believe. The world is not becoming less religious, but rather more so; only the priests have changed. Now they are the pop-science writers of our day – the intelligent fools who seem incapable of recognizing their own assumptions, are close-minded to seriously entertaining alternatives, and who appear more certain of their truth than they have any right to be.
I will often find myself in arguments with people claiming to ‘know’ something that I suspect they do not. The conversations predictably go nowhere – it seems to me that their faith in their theory blinds them to the limitations of their assertions and the underlying assumptions within their arguments. I tend to think of Socrates in these moments:
I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know. (Socrates, in Plato’s Aplology, pg. 21)
In closing I want to add that I am not presenting an argument against science – it is an appeal to the responsible application of science and again to its inseparability from logic and reason. It seems to me that true knowledge involves science and reason knowing its limits.