Peirce And A Defense Of Scientific Method


Peirce, And A Defense Of Scientific Method Essay, Research Paper

We think that we are all logical creatures, that we can attain truth by our logical reasoning, but historically, this has not been the case. Every scientific advance somehow exemplifies the defective state of the art of reasoning of the time it was written. (pg.62) Thus, we are not perfectly logical creatures, in fact, most of us are content with our beliefs without logical facts; and since we gain logical facts through experience, experience only serves to continuously frustrate our beliefs, hopes, and aspirations. This is our primary source of doubt. However, as human beings, we like to have encouraging and pleasing beliefs, so we undertake inquiry to eradicate this doubt. Peirce thinks that there are four essential methods for fixing our beliefs, and they are: 1. Method of TenacityIf all we need is a settled opinion, then why don’t we just pick an answer that we like and just stick with it?This way of fixating belief is impossible, as we would have to live like hermits. Living in a social setting, our beliefs would be challenged by those that we interact with in our daily lives. 2. Method of AuthorityOnce the state/church reaches a settled opinion, then let them teach that belief and have those who reject it be terrified into silence. This method has been much more successful than the method of tenacity historically. For most people, this is the method that they use to fix their beliefs, so long as they don’t mind being intellectual slaves. However, the state/church cannot regulate every opinion, and of course people from other countries/cultures/religions who hold contrary beliefs may influence public opinion. 3. A Priori MethodSince the two above methods are inadequate, why not have reason determine our beliefs? This method fails for several reasons. It fails because what our reason tells us to believe is not necessarily consistent with our experiences; in fact, experience only serves to defeat our beliefs at every turn. It also fails because not everybody reasons the same way, and so it suffers the same problem as that posed against the method of tenacity in that people will disagree. Finally, “It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste, but taste unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion.” (Pg. 73) 4. Method of Science To satisfy our doubts, we need a method dependent on an external permanency, some method that is mind-independent. According to this method, everybody will hold the same belief, or will eventually if we persist in our inquiry. This rests on the assumption that there are real things in the external world, and we can ascertain the one true conclusion through reason and experience. According to this model, the truth is mind-independent. Thus, Peirce thinks that science will eventually provide those mind-independent (objective) truths, and so he holds it in the highest regard. However, this approach is fraught with controversy, as it has been the traditional place of philosophy to answer our most compelling questions. Some philosophers may feel slighted at this and construct attacks against those who would hold science as their one source of truth. Peirce’s conception of the nature of scientific practice and of what differentiates it from other forms of human activity (a matter upon which he could speak expertly as a contributor to a number of scientific fields) can be of real help in this controversy; not by providing scientists with arguments that will counter the arguments of those who would attack the sciences but by reminding scientists of what is essential to them as such and what is not. The sort of case which academic politicians make usually uses the same general line of reasoning. It starts by claiming that scientists make pretense to being something they cannot possibly be, namely, infallible knowers of the truth about something in virtue of being equipped with methods which guarantee that whatever conclusions they come to with use of them will be the truth. This depiction of the scientists’ supposed egocentrism is ridiculous, and it should surely give scientists pause that they apparently present themselves so poorly both to students in general and to their nonscientific faculty colleagues that such a travesty of their self-conception is actually found plausible by large numbers of students and faculty alike. Public presentations of science should never encourage this false image, either directly or indirectly, in the mistaken belief that science can be “sold” to the public on that basis. Society supports science as much as it does because of its perceived results, but not because of any misguided belief they might have that it is an infallible procedure, even if they do in fact have that belief: the results of theoretical science are now so obvious and important to the public and its representatives that those who speak for the sciences should be doing what they can to dissuade people from their natural tendency to think that science must be something with magical potency and even infallibility precisely because it is so powerful. This is not only a false image but also one which runs directly counter to the perception of science as adventure and exploration, which is what must be conveyed if it is to continue to attract the kind of people to it who are wanted. To present science as an infallible machine-like activity or to present scientists as authority figures pronouncing definitively on this or that functions only to dehumanize it and generate deep fears and resentments of it. In any case, the next move in the usual attack on the sciences is to claim that empirical study of the actual behavior of scientists shows that they have no such method of acquiring truth after all. That they actually come to their conclusions simply by communicating with one another until they are in agreement and they call that agreement the “truth” of the matter (negotiation); and the conclusion is drawn that, in practice, scientific truth is just negotiated agreement among people who call themselves “scientists,” and truth and knowledge claims are really just rhetorical devices used by scientists when speaking to the general public to support their institutional status as authoritarians. This is the image of science as the High Church of Reason, with scientists as priests practising their arcane craft, which occurs frequently in anti-science argument. The reason this kind of attack can be effective despite its intellectual crudeness is that scientists have helped to lay the groundwork for it themselves by allowing such a gross misrepresentation of the nature of scientific inquiry to develop and to stand unchallenged in their own day-to-day academic activities, including their teaching and their relationships with their colleagues in the humanities. Scientists are not, after all, without voice or effective presence in academia, and there is surely something to be explained in the fact that this sort of thing is not simply dismissed as a bad joke but actually taken seriously by what seem to be increasingly large numbers of nonscientific students and academics. One need only to see the T-shirts sold by the Science Students’ Council on this campus to see this. Slogans such as “Friends don t let friends take Arts” and “Go hard or go Social Science” only serve to reinforce this sense of resentment. A further reason for its effectiveness is the fact that there is of course no routine method for finding out the truth about things or knowing for sure when you have it. Since truth and knowledge in the core sciences is essentially located at the level of the scientific community rather than the individual inquirer, matters are indeed settled by collegial communication ending in common acceptance. By labeling the communicational process overall as negotiational and the introduction of a political model of discussion, we raise doubt about the overall infallibility of the sciences. In general, what scientists need to focus attention on if we are to understand what we are doing, using the kind of self-critical awareness we supposedly represent, is the nature of the communicational process itself and of our professional communicational practices. All communication among scientists that occurs in scientific method as an essential part of the process is governed by norms that are usually understood well enough in practice to be generally effective, but which are still too poorly understood in critical reflection, both within and outside of the sciences, to provide the sort of understanding which is needed if these attacks on the sciences are to countered as effectively as they should be. It is the recognition in practice of these norms that constitutes the commitment to truth and objectivity. But they are so familiar in everyday practice that their significance goes unnoticed and critical reflective discussion of them with the aim of understanding why they are so commonly recognized and how they carry the burden of the commitment to truth and objectivity rarely occurs. What are these norms and what justifies them as norms? They are the norms that govern professional publication in academia in general, and not simply in the sciences, and their justification consists in the fact that a research community that honors them in the spirit as well as the letter will flourish whereas a research community which conforms to them only in the letter without a real understanding of what their purpose or rationale actually is, or which does not conform to them at all, will waste its intellectual energies in endless dispute about methodology and in the politics of academic empire building and turf protection. I am referring to publication as the process of communication of and about results as these results are being fed back into the process that produced them in such a way as to modify that process itself by altering its content in some way. Results that do not have that immediate effect may, to be sure, have such an effect at a later time. Indeed, it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of a sophisticated understanding of this for the health of a tradition of inquiry, notwithstanding the fact that it is something hardly understood at all at present and typically discussed only in connection with the economics and politics of publication rather than in connection with its underlying logic or rationale. The question is, what do we have to understand about this to understand what the most fundamental norms of inquiry are? These things can be understood and the norms can even be specified in some detail if it is understood that scientific publication proper, like professional academic publication in general, is communication that occurs within an esoteric group which consists of all persons with a common interest in a certain subject-matter, the common interest being to come to a better understanding of that subject-matter than exists at any given moment, and who understand that what binds them together in a communicational community is their common concern that that the topic should be increasingly well understood by all who are similarly concerned.

Given the above formulation, we can see that the “hard” sciences have been so successful as to warrant that appellation lies in their adoption of the general conception of controlled observation (experiment is the special case) as the stabilizing element at the basis of all professional communication, which functions primarily to insure that it is finally the subject-matter or object of scientific study — not the scientists — that controls science by determining in interaction with the inquiring scientist what is and is not accepted and taken for granted in the science. An outsider to the inquiry being observed, cannot relate to the subject-matter as the scientist-participants do and indeed cannot locate the subject-matter in its essential internal relationships within inquiry at all, and thus must leave out of account that factor in the process the reference to which constitutes the basis of its objectivity and makes pertinent the concept of truth. If the basic conception of scientific publication as communication that I articulated above in a crude but basic form is thought through consistently, it will be seen that this entails first of all that everything said about the subject-matter should be said responsibly and sincerely, which is to say that any and all other forms of deliberate or tolerated misrepresentation are the most fundamental of all violations of scientific method. Secrecy is a limitation on science: where secrecy begins science ends, strictly speaking; but that is a limitation on the scope of inclusion of a scientific community, and although necessarily crippling to whatever extent it is practiced, it is not secrecy but rather insincerity that kills science immediately insofar as it enters into it effectively. Why? Because no real subject-matter can be understood from the perspective of a single person but is essentially a matter of the coordination of multiple perspectives on the same thing, and lying introduces pseudo-perspectives that tend toward defeating attempts within a scientific community to establish a coherent coordination of the perspectives available at a given time, thus corrupting inquiry by destroying the integrity of its connection with its subject-matter as its ultimate source of control. The coordination of the diverse perspectives of the individual members of the community, which is a primary function of the publication process, assumes that the subject-matter which concerns its members is unitary and real, since if it were unreal this would be shown by a continuing inability to establish such a coordination. And what is meant by objectivity in inquiry, considered as an attitude of the inquirer, is the commitment to establishing such a coordination by reference to a common object, and by the cultivation of communicational practices designed to maximize the kind of collaboration that can have such a result. Objectivity considered as a formal feature of the inquiry process, rather than as a stance taken by the inquirer, is that referential structure in the communicational process regarded logically. Where such communicational practices exist, authentic publication policies are in effect and are working effectively; where there is no attempt at such a coordination there is no objectivity in the field, and the publication practices are more likely to be conducive to chaos than to growth. Though it may not be readily apparent, this also implies that every individual in such a community is to be regarded as presumptively equal with every other as a provider of content to be assimilated into the coherent coordination of perspectives sought for, and although it is true that some people’s opinions will inevitably be weighted more heavily in practice than others this must remain at the level of individual judgment and not be confused with the shared public understanding of a given scientific community, which is always concerned only with characteristics of the subject-matter since it is that and that only which constitutes the concern constitutive of the particular community of inquirers as such. In other words, no community of scientific inquiry as such can legitimately concern itself with ranking its own members in terms of their status and worth in the community because to do so is to lose sight of its subject-matter by lapsing into group introspection instead. We see here the typical point of attempted entry of authoritarianism into inquiry, and can see why its effective entry always corrupts our search for truth. This is why it is of the first importance not to confuse what it means to be a scientist of this type or that with being a professor of this rank or that in a local hierarchical university system. Such confusions do in fact plague the sciences like they plague every other academic field, causing a falling away from science into politics, and that the essential egalitarianism of science is betrayed in many ways as it actually exists in practice; but these compromises and betrayals are academic diseases, inherited from the origins of academia as a medieval hierarchical institution, not a norm of the scientific life proper, which is fundamentally at odds with this hierarchical heritage. The point is not to adopt an unrealistic view of the importance of prestige and accomplishment, but rather to recognize that pains should be taken not to allow this to subvert in practice the principle of presumptive equality that is the essential element of the idea of a peer. The reason is essentially the same as in the case of lying: a peer is equivalent to a respected perspective on the subject-matter, and to treat a peer either as superior or inferior is to damage the coordination of perspectives which is the constant task of the ongoing science. But what about truth? Charles Peirce was perhaps the first to recognize that the force of the truth predicate “is true” is that of an assertion indicator, adding nothing to content but functioning instead to signal the way in which what is being said is to be taken. Taken by whom? By whomever it may concern, i.e. by any given member of the communicational community addressed, which exists distributively not collectively, and includes any who share the same sort of interest in that subject-matter as the person making the assertion or claim. The analysis of truth is the analysis of assertion of this special type, which is ineffable in a speech-act conception of assertion but has to be explained in terms of a communicational act instead. The effect of an assertion of this sort is to invoke the norms of communication of this community as relevant to critical response in respect to what is put forth in the claim, both as regards its form and its content. The act of publication signifies a commitment on the part of the person publishing to an essentially interminable responsibility to being appropriately responsive to anybody else who is appropriately responsive to what is asserted in the publication. This is not the place to spell out what is appropriate, but common sense and some acquaintance with publishing practices in the sciences or in professional intellectual life generally is all that is required to understand much of what that entails.In brief, then, if we ask whether something is true we are asking about a subject-specific property, not about something called “truth”, and the answer will always take a subject-specific form. The person who seeks the truth about the constituents of matter wants to know about matter not about truth. But if we are asking the very different question “What is truth?” the answer is that it is the overall form of life of the scientific inquirer as such. I have only attempted to describe it in one respect here, but I believe it is a fundamental one. Although there is certainly a need to make clear to the general public that commitment to finding out the truth, in the sense of what is true, is what science is all about, the most effective response to the encroachment of the academic politicians into scientific fields is not to debate the topic with them but rather to focus attention on the communicational practices in one’s own field and attempt to understand what in these practices is truly conducive to the health of the field considered as a tradition of inquiry and distinguish that from what may originate instead from considerations of institutional expediency only. With a clear understanding of this, which may not be easy, since there are many factors in academia that mitigate against the health of any communicational community–the sciences need not worry about the attempts of the academic politicians to politicize science; for this will typically take the form of attempting entry into the professional communicational loop and interrupting the normal flow of communication by diverting it to preoccupation with matters with which it has no proper concern, and the interlopers cannot do this without the unwitting concurrence of the scientific community itself. As regards the principles underlying public relations activities, both within and outside of the university, the approach taken should never be based on strategies of persuasion developed by people whose mode of professional life is radically different from that of the working scientist but should proceed rather from scientific self-reflection and be authentically expressive of what science actually is as a form of life devoted to inquiry. Scientific life is highly and essentially idealistic, and its attractiveness as a human activity is due at least as much to this as to its technological productivity. People outside of the sciences already understand quite well that science is highly profitable on the technological side, which is why they support it even when they understand little of what it is really like. What they do not understand is that its success is not due to magically powerful but essentially mechanical techniques of grinding out results (this is, unfortunately the common view) but rather to devotion to the adventurous and chance-taking spirit, informed by commitment to turning failure to success by treating mistakes as opportunities to correct one’s course rather than as signs of defeat or incompetence. Bibliography Peirce, Charles S., “The Fixation of Belief” in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, Thayer, H.S. ed., Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis: 1982, pp. 61-78 Peirce, Charles S., “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, Thayer, H.S. ed., Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis: 1982, pp. 79-100 Peirce, Charles S., Essays in the Philosophy of Science, Tomas, V., ed., Liberal Arts Press, New York: 1957

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