Friday, January 09, 2009

On Epistemology

In blog entries here here and here biochemist Professor Larry Moran raises the important question of whether there are ways of knowing other than science. The professor is responding in part to Michael Egnor of the Discovery Institute who concludes that the qualia of consciousness are unknown to science. Egnor consequently defaults to a dualist mind vs. matter paradigm. In handling the question of qualia Egnor shows not the least sign of giving cognizance to the truism that all our experiential protocols and the theoretical frameworks with which we attempt to interpret them are not in a separate ‘materialist’ category but are themselves qualia, albeit highly differentiated and sharable qualia. But that is by the by.

Although I have some sympathy with the good Professor Moran’s opinion, I’m unable share his bullish and sanguine attitude toward the status of science. But then I know he has his own reasons for adopting a hard sell confident scientism which avoids a reflexive engagement with the philosophical small print. Hence my support for his position must be qualified. In this connection consider these questions:

Q1. Is science epistemologically replete? That is, are the methods of science sufficient to meet all the problems of acquiring knowledge of cosmic ontology and beyond?

Q2. Even if science isn’t epistemologically replete, we can still ask: Is science the only genuine epistemological method available to humans?

My answer to the first question is: Almost certainly no! To the second question I would give a very cautious and qualified ‘yes’. Science is a formalization of a very general but far more informal notion of rationality involving a kind of bartering dialogue between ideas, theory and experience (see my side bar). Our theoretical notions, if not tested by experience, at the very least engage that experience by acting as structures that attempt to make sense of that experience and this they achieve with varying degrees of effectiveness. Yes, as with so much else in our world rationality comes in degrees depending how close we can get to some optimum in the tradeoff between theory and experience. Science, as a formalization and institutionalization of a more general and informal rational process, classifies as a subset of rationality rather than the sum total of it: science is to knowledge as the law courts are to justice and truth.

Karl Popper was very clear that his relatively useful criterion of falsifiability (a criterion which, incidentally, doesn’t cover the whole of science) was a line to be drawn within rationality and not a circle drawn around the whole of it. The more general rational process of which science is a subset is, in my opinion, the only genuine epistemological method available to humans. However, in taking on board this view of rationalism we must be wary of the following:

The rational process is self referencing; it is itself a theoretical idea that can be submitted to the scrutiny of its own dialectic, namely the ideas verses experience contention. (Self reference is OK provided it proves to be self-affirming).

The distinction between experience and theory is not clear cut. As Popper said, our most basic language and thoughts are riddled with theoretical assumptions and therefore any act of observation is also an act of interpretation which in turn cannot be achieved without theoretical constructs being used as a resource of interpretation.

The man in the street does not base his knowledge directly on formal and institutionalized experimental science but rather on a complex interaction with the social texts of society. Of course, many of these texts are the products of formal science, but many have the status of legend, myth and rumor of varying degrees of quality.

Epistemology and ontology are coupled: the success of formal science and rationality depends on an a-priori science friendly and accessible ontology. However, there may be objects out there that science and human rationality in general cannot easily cope with or access and some questions will have indeterminate answers. We can thank God however, that much of the cosmos seems to be science friendly.

The explanatory activity of the physical sciences uses two types of mathematical object:
1. Highly ordered objects expressed as simple rules or ‘laws’ that act as pattern generators.
2. The given ‘brute fact’ patterns of maximum disorder referred to as ‘randomness’.
The exclusive use of these two objects begs the question of whether other mathematical objects intermediate between order and disorder like, say, a-prior intelligence, can be used as explanatory objects. Such exotic objects may be scientifically and intellectually intractable

The complex objects of historical (and prehistorical) ontology are a border line case of scientific intractability. Many historical questions will never be settled with anything like the precision and standard that can be applied to the test-at-will objects of the physical science. Theorising about human history is like interpreting the Bible: it is an open-ended activity with many impinging inter-disciplinary factors, with the result that some issues will be undecidable. This is one reason why I reply in the negative to the first question above.

All the above points are philosophical in nature and require one to stand back and look not at the objects with which science deals but at science itself. The science of science, (or meta-science, or the philosophy of science, call it what you like) shows that science itself is a very complex social object, far more complex than the relatively simple physical objects with which it deals. How it works and why it works is a matter of ongoing research. However, to the unreflexive follower of scientism the questions of meta-science do not register as issues simply because (s)he looks through science, and can no more see science as an object than one can see the eyes with which one habitually views the world beyond.

A Postscript for Religious Readers.
The above expressed views would very likely result in me being impugned by a variety of fideists, Gnostics and religious codifiers who would object on the basis that the rational process must be set over and against revelation. Revelation in their view makes itself known as sublime states of mind and/or uncritical assent to reams of religious articles and shibboleths. Hence they see themselves as transcending the rational process in favour of a superior epistemology of revelation.

But alleged sublime states of mind simply have the effect of introducing new kinds of experiential protocol into the rational process and religious articles based on scripture are inextricable from the inevitable knowledge resources one brings to scripture in order to interpret it and understand it. Hence in as much as revelation of any kind must ultimately impinge upon the stuff of our humanity for it to be known and interpreted and understood, then any claimed special revelations are organically joined to the rational process. In short it is not possible to opt out of the rational process except via denial. Thus I don’t accept the rational process is a category of epistemology distinct from revelation. To my mind all valid knowledge, however ever gained, is a form of revelation but I do recognize that there is a difference between Common Grace Revelation and Special Grace Revelation.

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