concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Science (and scientific objectivity)

The objectivity of scientific method is the great gift of Western civilisation to the world. In Middle Way philosophy this objectivity is fully appreciated, but also distinguished from some of the unhelpful metaphysical assumptions that have surrounded science. Scientific objectivity is not distinct from other aspects of objectivity such as moral objectivity (except as a matter of emphasis), but it is only because of widespread unnecessary philosophical assumptions that it is thought to be so.

As Karl Popper first identified, scientific method is basically dialectical in structure. It requires a confident investigation of the evidence so as to find support for provisional theories consistent with that evidence, but it also requires what Popper identifies as falsifiability - which I would see more broadly as negative foundationalism, the recognition that one's theory may be wrong. Scientists manage to make advances by balancing these two requirements, but the precise way they do so, and their degree of success in discovery, depends on the integration both of their own character and of the social traditions of training in scientific method. A scientist, or group of scientists, lacking confidence in their provisional theory, cannot make progress, but neither can one that dogmatically adheres to a fruitless theoretical conception. The conditions for the Middle Way of objectivity have to be understood psychologically - but psychological explanations do not imply relativism, as Popper and other objectivist philosophers of science tend to assume.

Understanding of the way in which science contributes to objectivity has been severely hampered by a number of metaphysical assumptions widespread in both philosophical and popular thought about science, such as the following:

This kind of philosophical abuse of science is broadly what I refer to as scientism (q.v.). It is typical of the attitudes found in analytic philosophy since the early twentieth century - all descended from logical positivists such as A.J.Ayer or their allies Moore and Russell, and largely ignoring the much more interesting investigations of those who started with the practice of scientific method itself, such as Popper and Lakatos. Unfortunately it is the analytic perspective that now dominates most discussion of both scientific and moral issues in the English-speaking world.

Links to related discussion

Science (introductory page)

Lakatos and non-dualistic ethics (prize-winning paper from 2000)

The heuristic process (from thesis)

Analytic philosophy (from thesis)

Verification and falsification (from thesis - scroll down to section c)


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