Sunday, June 10, 2018

On the scope and limits of science

Attempts to express a comprehensive personal view of the world are doomed to failure. Each of us has a view of the world; some such views are more developed and plausible than others. But language (even supplemented with other modes of expression) is simply not equipped to articulate the complex and shifting set of values and beliefs which creates and lies behind the way a particular individual sees and interprets the world.

What we can do is to express our views on and reactions to particular topics and particular things. What we can’t do is to tie it all together and articulate the whole, even in general terms.

There are a number of ways of looking at this. You could see it in terms of underlying logical coherence, for example. If a view of things had such coherence, it could be articulated accurately and concisely, at least in general terms. (1) But, given the fact that conscious reasoning constitutes only a minuscule portion of cognitive activity, there is no reason to expect – and every reason not to expect – that a person’s outlook on the world, with all its implicit value assessments, etc., would have anything like the degree of underlying logical coherence which would be necessary for its satisfactory articulation in linguistic terms.

Another way of looking at this is in terms of frameworks. A particular context is always required to provide a foundation for any statement or claim, and there is no general or generic context to which we can appeal. The broader the context, the less we can usefully (or even meaningfully) say. The danger here is that one gets lost in virtually meaningless abstractions and generalizations.

The most powerful forms of self-expression via written language are literary, and good writing in a literary sense is marked by specificity and concreteness and attention to the details of lived experience. Generalized claims and abstractions play only a minor role.

The impulse to express a comprehensive view has traditionally manifested itself in religious and philosophical contexts. But, as ways of understanding the world, modern scientific disciplines (including historical disciplines) have largely replaced religion and traditional metaphysics. You want to know about some specific thing? Go to the experts. Unfortunately, there are no experts to go to if you want answers to substantive questions about values or about the significance of human life, for example.

Individually we need to be committed to a set of values and beliefs in order to live. There is a huge range of possible belief and value systems, but an individual’s social and cultural environment narrows the possibilities somewhat. Beyond embracing the best available cultural elements (as one sees them) and applying principles of practical wisdom and commonsense, there is not a lot more one can do, other than ensuring that – as far as possible – one’s beliefs are compatible with scientific and scholarly knowledge.

It has become clear over time that scientific, empirical, formal and analytical methods represent the only reliable ways we have of building an objective or value-neutral communal knowledge base. Unlike our culturally-driven (and so values-driven) individual perspectives, this knowledge base is not only able to be articulated, it only exists to the extent that it has been articulated. It is necessarily public knowledge. (I use the word knowledge, but all claims are subject to challenge within the context of the disciplinary processes involved.)

Even here, however, the knowledge in question does not constitute a single thing or a unified structure, and so cannot be expressed concisely or in a unified way.

The term “edifice” is sometimes used to describe our communal knowledge base, but this metaphor is very misleading. In fact, it seems to me that one of the most significant things about human knowledge which the history of science and rigorous scholarship clearly demonstrates is its diverse and distributed nature. It is something of an irony therefore that champions of a scientific view of the world so often fall into the trap of seeing knowledge in unified terms.

Otto Neurath, who represented what might be called the radical wing of the logical positivist movement, was for many years the most prominent promoter of the notion of the Unity of Science. He clashed repeatedly with moderate figures in the movement such as Louis Rougier who strenuously rejected the notion, seeing in Neurath’s campaign an attempt to promote a creed, a new orthodoxy. Neurath’s view was an updated version of well-known 19th-century attempts to create a scientific socialism, and it was quite as censorious and illiberal as traditional religious orthodoxies, if not more so.

The attempt to promote a scientific creed continues to this day, of course, driven by a combination of arrogance and ignorance of intellectual history. But there is a difference between having a basically scientific view of the world and making science into some kind of creed or orthodoxy.

Things have changed in the arts and in non-scientific intellectual circles in recent decades, but not so long ago many of the greatest writers and artists and non-scientific thinkers had a very positive view of science, or at least accepted the general findings of mainstream science and rigorous scholarship. This is sometimes forgotten, partly because many of these writers and thinkers are currently out of fashion but partly also because the scientific or science-accepting side of many currently fashionable thinkers (Nietzsche comes to mind) is being downplayed.

As I see it, the fruits of science and scholarship belong to us all even though, as individuals, our actual knowledge is necessarily limited. Strangely enough, practicing scientists and scholars – because of the extreme degree of specialization which is required today – are no more likely to have a satisfactory general understanding than the interested observer, and the amateur will often have more time and energy than the specialist to devote to wide reading and to considering the implications of what is known.

I still have a very high regard for leading thinkers in scientific fields, especially fields (like physics and biology) which deal with fundamental questions of the natural world which have a bearing on how one sees or conceptualizes human life. But the more one reads their popular books or blogs or listens to interviews or to panel discussions, the more obvious it becomes that the special insights of scientific specialists rarely go beyond the scope of their areas of expertise.

For most purposes, of course, specialist expertise is not required, and useful or interesting conclusions can be drawn from very basic kinds of knowledge. Such arguments and elaborations may (and should, in my opinion) still be rooted in a view of the world which respects the findings of mainstream science and other rigorous forms of intellectual inquiry, but any argument involving matters of human significance (and so human values) necessarily goes beyond science and our empirical knowledge base more generally.

Some such elaborations have been developed with a view to expressing in a systematic way a particular view of the world. These (if my thesis is correct) cannot succeed. I have in mind, in particular, the sort of metaphysical systematizing which was in vogue in Europe, especially during 19th century.

Under the influence of thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, more analytic and narrowly focused approaches gradually came to prominence and largely replaced traditional metaphysics. This analytical strand of philosophical thinking was very different in nature to almost all philosophical thinking before it in that it sought to bring academic philosophy more into line with scientific, formal and rigorous empirical disciplines; in other words to separate once and for all philosophy as an intellectual discipline from more traditional notions which saw philosophy as (at least potentially) providing guidance for living. Both Frege and Russell saw themselves as men of science (in the old European sense of the term). Russell was particularly scornful of the idea that academic philosophy should deal in any way with what was (and still is) popularly known as a “philosophy of life.”

In his intellectual autobiography Russell described the sense of freedom and liberation that accompanied his rejection of the idealist metaphysics which dominated the intellectual world in which he grew up for a more empirically-based view of things. The case I am making here is very much in line with a Russellian view. (2)

A great strength of Bertrand Russell as a thinker is that he was always aware of the way our personal values play into our thinking. Much of his published work is journalistic and opinionated. Arguably his views on education and some social questions were quite misguided. His views on power and politics still stand up, I think. But my point is that he drew a clear distinction between his serious philosophical work (from which he sought entirely to exclude his personal values) and the rest.

My focus here, however, is not science or the nature of philosophy, but rather on the relationship between science (broadly interpreted) and human values. Any attempt to articulate a value-driven point of view takes us beyond a purely scientific or rigorously scholarly space, albeit not entirely beyond the reach of scientific and scholarly expertise.

Even in the realm of rhetoric and persuasion, where personal values hold sway, the compatibility of any given position with mainstream science and rigorous scholarship remains an important litmus test. If a position or point of view fails the test, it can be excluded from consideration. But – fortunately or unfortunately – the bar is fairly low here, and the test in question lets through a vast array of mutually incompatible points of view.

The perspective I am putting forward is based in part on a particular interpretation of recent Western intellectual history. Certain thinkers have influenced me more than others, and any elaboration or defense of these ideas would necessarily involve the historical aspect: arguments about particular thinkers and about the relative merits of different ways of identifying and framing the main questions. (3)

Nonetheless, let me try to sum up my key points in purely non-historical terms. As individuals we slowly develop (or allow the ambient culture to develop for us) a general perspective or view of the world. Such a perspective cannot be fully articulated or satisfactorily summarized. It could be seen to express itself (via words and actions) in countless choices. These choices are practical and action-oriented rather than theoretical. They are responses to particular situations. Whereas individual perspectives can never be articulated holistically, values-based points of view on particular issues (which are driven in large part by an individual’s general perspective) can be articulated. They may be falsifiable, but are not amenable to positive scientific or academic validation.


1. There may be a parallel here with the way complexity is conceptualized in algorithmic information theory, i.e. in terms of the compressibility of strings or other kinds of data structure. Data can usually be compressed (to a greater or lesser extent), but arbitrary random data cannot.

2. I am also drawing on Karl Popper’s general views on knowledge and falsifiability. Many of Russell’s and Popper’s specific views have been called into question, of course, and/or developed in various directions. Russell (at least) welcomed this. He saw himself as having made his significant contributions relatively early in his life and looked to others (initially to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and later to the logical empiricists) to move things forward. It is often asserted that the logical positivist movement 1) failed and 2) deserved to fail because the core insights of its main representatives were profoundly misguided. I question both of these judgments. Some of the ideas which drove the logical positivists were misguided. I mentioned Neurath’s ideologically-driven approach, for example. But the basic principles and perspectives on the scope and nature of human knowledge expressed in the writings of more moderate figures within the movement (like Moritz Schlick, Hans Reichenbach and Louis Rougier) are sound, and I am optimistic that they will survive – at least in modified forms which reflect ongoing changes in the scientific and intellectual landscape.

3. Also, it is obvious that the general perspective on knowledge which I have been discussing (and defending) has social implications. Historically speaking, it has, by and large, been associated with anti-totalitarian social philosophies, and this is no accident. I would want to claim (though I am not attempting to make the case here) that such a perspective is naturally compatible with traditional liberal values and – if not strictly incompatible with – at least not supportive of extremist politics, either of the left or the right.

[This essay was first published under the title Self-Expression, Knowledge and Valueat The Electric Agora.]