Monday, November 29, 2010

Other ways of knowing...

The whole science is not the only way of knowing gambit is something that has bugged me for ages. I've even had it pulled on me before, it seems to be related to the ye olde science doesn't know everything and it's all just a theory gambits that are often used in an attempt to knock science. I find it pleasing therefore to see that a few deconstruction of it have started appearing in the blogosphere.

The best one so far I found is by Russel Blackford at metamagician. The core of the argument is that it is a straw man. There are a variety of tools that people use. Specialized tasks require specialized tools. This is what scientists have, an assortment of methods that are used to figure out what is going in the world around us. Then again, it is also what historians have, a different set of tools, but a set of tools none the less, which are designed for figuring out something about the world.

So there is no problem when science readily admits that its not the only way of knowing things. Pretty much any scientist will admit this, it's only people who are trying to discredit science (usually when a study comes out that completely debunks whatever it is they are doing) who raise this objection. Science is one of the ways of knowing things which falls under the heading of rational discourse. Historians have valid ways of finding out things about history after all. The point that most who advance this argument miss though, is that Just because there is more than one way of knowing things, does not mean that all potential ways of knowing things are. Knowledge gained by revelation is not knowledge. There is nothing to back it up. Whereas the historian will be able to point to the structure of their body of knowledge, demonstrate how their view was arrived at and provide evidence. The can only say "God says so". Halfway between the two (or probably, mostly towards the divine revelation side of the equation) is homeopathy, which can only point to a completely implausible (i.e not rational) and discredited body of work to justify their supposed knowledge.

This definitely goes in the category of responses that I have to remember.


  1. At the heart of that straw man also is a hidden premise: that knowledge can only be a justified true belief,and that truth is an absolute that cannot be defined by science, therefore knowledge cannot be provided by science.

    So, the anti-scientist's (let's call them Luddites) argument would go: You can know that the statement "Snow is white" is true, if and only if snow is actually white AND you can be justified in believing that snow is white. All the scientific method can tell us is that all observed snow has been white, and if some non-white snow were to fall then we would be able to show that 'snow is white' is false. But inductive reasoning isn't justifiable - think of the swans! Science can't tell us whether "snow is white" is REALLY true, it can only tell us about what we have observed in the context of the theory - 'snow is white' and how to prove that theory false. So therefore science can't give us real knowledge about snow colour. Or anything.

    It's not just a straw man - it's a circular argument: scientific reasoning can't give us any knowledge, because you can't use scientific reasoning to get knowledge. We're really piling up the fallacies here.

    The crux of the argument is not about science. All parties are agreed on the nature of science, and on what scientific reasoning can provide: ie, hypothesis, theory, observation and experimentation, falsification. The argument is about knowledge - how do we know things?

    The burden, I think, is on the Luddite to show how science does not actually contribute to knowledge. The scientist is not in disagreement with the Luddite about the limitations of science. The scientist is simply saying: so what? Yes, evolution is a theory. It's a bloody good theory. And it makes sense to believe it because of all of these great many observations that seem to conform with it. Surely, you Luddite, you aren't suggesting that we STOP believing good theories that seem to produce consistent results? You aren't really suggesting that I should start to eat the plate instead of the sandwich on the off-chance that my theory of food might be wrong?

  2. Yay! my first comment :)

    There was someone on BBC's Radio4 Thinking Allowed podcast a few weeks ago who was suggesting that science is not best way of finding things out as well. His argument was that most of what science has discovered has been proven wrong and therefore what we currently know will probably be proven wrong.

    Which fails in two parts, firstly, we very rarely prove something wrong, we refine our knowledge of it. i.e. Flat earth-> round earth -> oblate spheroid. It's not entirely correct to say the earth is round, but it's a useful approximation sometimes and is less wrong than saying it is flat.

    The second part is the assumption that if science is wrong, their proposed other way of knowing is right. Which is a spectacular logcical fallacy. i.e. we don't know everything about food, therefore we should eat the plate.