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I’m going to put forth some of my thoughts over the past weekend while the winds and storm surge of Irene kept me indoors and network disruptions away from the interbuttz…
Why must we be precise in discussions of matters of science, mathematics, and philosophy? Why must we attempt to be as clear as we can? Who gives a crap about precision, and why should they?
Science in particular is criticized for many things, and one of those is its need for precision in argumentation, in measurement, in its jargon, and its reductionist methods. This last is often compared, unfairly in my view, with ‘not seeing the lawn for the blades of grass’ to paraphrase Neil Tyson in one of his lectures.
To my understanding, reductionism is necessary for achieving holistic ends in science.
Science is best understood from both holistic and reductionist perspectives, using reductionist methods to examine smaller sets of data, and through that examination integrating them to generate such fundamentally unifying principles as biological evolution, quantum mechanics, general and special relativity, laws of motion, conservation, and thermodynamics, these among the most well-tested and comprehensive ideas in science to date, and which through their attendant sub-concepts let us see the proverbial ‘coup for the chickens,’ regardless of what any researcher(s) in a given sub-field sees or knows at a given time.
An unwillingness to be precise in our meaning and measurement often produces what I call fuzzy holism, ‘not seeing the blades of grass for the lawn,’ and this limitation on the ability to note fine detail, clarity of vision, so to speak, on not just things, but less tangible matters that interest us, restricts too our ability to fully understand and so usefully theorize our way to explaining things we see.
You cannot truly understand the solar system without understanding the sun, the planets, asteroids, dwarf-planets, comets and other assorted objects that make it the entity that it is, just as you cannot fully understand the galaxy without considering the behavior of the gas clouds, stellar systems and any other miscellaneous bodies and phenomena that make up its entirety.
It is a mistake to dismiss the parts in favor of the whole, just as much as its opposite, and I do not see science as being guilty of either — in part or in whole.
My concern for this stems from a tendency increasingly obvious in our culture to casually dismiss the great intellectual accomplishments of our species as being mere opinion, no better than any other, or even less valid, when the facts these achievements concern conflict with closely held beliefs and strong ideological views contrary to acceptance of objective knowledge and sometimes even reality itself.
I confess to even finding it a bit frustrating at times, hearing people make the same specious arguments time and again, but it is illuminating to say the least.
We cannot achieve infinite precision in any endeavor to seek knowledge, but we must be as rigorous, as systematic as our means allow to reach as useful an understanding as we can.
While we can’t with absolute precision describe anything, to conclude that we know nothing doesn’t follow. Finally, while reductionist methods are certainly not the whole ballgame of science, they are a useful, powerful step in the right direction, and do have one major strong point in my view:
They are not wrong.