The Letter and Spirit of the Rules (Updated)
People who don’t like the rules of science because their ideas don’t get a free pass would do well to heed advice we gamers learned long ago: Before you complain that the rules are broken and try to change them, make sure you know and understand them — otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own, and your ideas will come no closer to being accepted.
The rules of science, methods, standards of evidence, process, and so on are the way they are because they work. They’re not perfect, not infallible, and certainly not timeless and absolute, but they’re the best available given the practical realities of gaining knowledge in a changing world, and they’re getting better as science evolves.
Why not perfect?
Because the history of science has shown the futility of the Cartesian quest for certainty in our understanding of nature.
You cannot rule out or eliminate unforeseen data rearing its head and showing a beautiful hypothesis mistaken; you cannot rule out a new discovery calling a long-established idea into question.
You cannot trust nature to abide by human notions of sense and sensibility when the experience of human beings for much of our history has been limited to a tight portion of the visual spectrum, a narrow auditory range, a lifespan of decades at best, and a physical scale limiting our unassisted interaction with things very much smaller and things very much larger than we.
The problem with Cartesian certainty is that it aims too high, aspiring to a standard of knowledge that cannot possibly be met, and so leading to the erroneous conclusion that we cannot know anything for not knowing everything absolutely.
This inevitably leads, as it has, to the sort of nihilistic total skepticism that claims all knowledge is impossible. But if that’s true, how can we know
even that to be the case? After all, the statement “all knowledge is impossible” is itself a claim to knowledge…
Modern science has abandoned the need for total certainty, biting the bullet and aiming lower for more reasonably reliable, and better still, effective knowledge that allows practical applications.
Thus, science operates by the rules it
uses, rules which allow it to work, to make progress in our understanding, however imperfect those rules and their end results may be, no matter how messy and error-ridden, they do what they are meant to do: To tell us when we are wrong so that we may pick up the pieces, put our ideas in better order than before, and move on having learned something new.
No other claimed way of knowing has this trait. No other means of obtaining knowledge has any way of telling its practitioners when they err so that they may correct those errors and come to better conclusions; only the methods and tools of objective empirical inquiry allow this.
And it is the process of science, determined by its rules, by its philosophical underpinnings, its concepts and methods, that make this possible. Science cannot justify itself on any ultimate grounding of first principles, but then, it doesn’t need to. Science aims for what it can reach and no further, though always striving to stretch those limits with each grasp at the boundaries of knowledge.
Like a well-designed role-playing game, science abides by its rules and guidelines, correcting and amending them when these need fixing in a process of evolving methods and concepts working from the bottom up, any changes made by those who understand well the rules and guidelines in spirit as well as letter.
The rules of science are its instructions for getting generally reliable, testable and tested results, not absolute logical proofs. That last has no place in science.
To work, science must be played by whatever the rules are at any time, and its results are measured by those standards, but the rules do not need to abide by themselves.
In science, ultimate justification on first principles is completely unnecessary and in any event, a hopeless chimera.
All we need is a road to our destination, however that road may wind and turn, however uneven the pavement, and a way to travel there.
Posted on Wednesday, 0:37, February 20, 2013, in Logic & Philosophy, Musings & Ponderings and tagged History of science, Knowledge, Philosophy, Science in Society, Understanding. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.