Knowing beyond science: what can we know and how can we know?

Author:Korab-Karpowicz, W.J.
 
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According to a perhaps naive, but still dominant positivistic view of science, scientific knowledge is the only reliable knowledge. It is reliable because it is objective. It derives its objectivity from the objectivity of observation made by a detached observer. The way in which empirical scientists look at the world is sometimes described as "scientific attitude." In order to be objective observers, scientists must be indifferent, disinterested, neutral and impartial. (1) Personal opinions or preferences have to be suspended. No subjective elements are allowed to intrude. Science is believed to be reliable if it is based on objective and verifiable observational statements which can be transmitted into laws and theories.

The spectacular achievements of natural science and technology in today's world appear to support the belief in the objectivity, reliability, and even supremacy of scientific knowledge. But is this view truly justified? Does science offer the best possible route to reliable knowledge, not only of natural but also of social phenomena? Should pre-scientific forms of knowledge, such as ethics, be seen as a matter of individual preferences or subjective emotions, and therefore be disregarded as knowledge? Before I attempt to answer these questions, I shall address the issue of objectivity in science. I believe that the understanding of this issue will help us to evaluate rightly the scientific claim to know and to assess the place of science among other forms of knowledge.

Subjectivity in Scientific Objectivity

One of the key characteristics of modern science is objectivity. Objective, scientific knowledge is held to be independent of attitudes, beliefs, values and other subjective states of mind of individual scientists. It is believed to be independent of the human mind that either creates or understands it. While defending objectivity in science, Karl Popper says:

My ... thesis involves the existence of two different senses of knowledge or of thought: (1) knowledge or thought in the subjective sense, consisting of a state of mind or of consciousness or a disposition to behave or to act, and (2) knowledge or thought in an objective sense, consisting of problems, theories, and arguments as such. (2) Popper radically distinguishes "objective" theories, problems and arguments from "subjective" states of mind. However, just as scientific knowledge, derived from observation, presupposes the scientific attitude of being a detached, objective observer, so also its verification and sharing with other members of the scientific community requires the same attitude. Without this attitude, science would neither be objective nor inter-subjective. Objectivity and the scientific attitude are thus interrelated. If this is the case, subjectivity must indeed be taken into account, and objective knowledge is not independent of the human mind as is commonly believed. It is dependent upon the states of mind which constitute scientific attitude: on being indifferent, disinterested, neutral and impartial.

Being a disinterested, objective observer--indifferent, disinterested, neutral and impartial--can be contrasted with being engaged. Once we engage in something, we are no longer indifferent or neutral. We take a personal stand on something. Taking a stand on different issues, holding beliefs, being emotionally and personally involved in many life situations are all characteristic of everyday life. Scientific attitude, which can best be described by the word "indifference," thus lies in direct opposition to the everyday human attitude based on preferences and feelings. But indifference, a lack of feeling, is a state of mind as well. There is subjectivity in scientific objectivity, namely, indifference.

The Objectivist's Claim to Knowledge

Looking at the world impersonally, neutrally and indifferently, which is the view of a detached, objective observer, is a way of relating to it from a certain perspective. The pursuit of objectivity leads to abstraction from the individual scientist's personal position in the world and the preferences and feelings that distinguish him or her from other human beings. Thomas Nagel goes so far as to assert that "objectivity involves not only a departure from one's individual viewpoint, but also as far as possible, departure from specifically human or even mammalian viewpoint." (3) Further, he says:

We must admit that the move toward objectivity reveals what things are like in themselves as opposed to how they appear; not just how they appear to one, relatively austere point of view as opposed to others. (4) Nagel believes that abstraction from an individual and specifically human viewpoint, which allows us to look at the world "not from a place within it, but from nowhere in particular," (5) can lead us to know things as they are in themselves, and not as they appear to be. Objective knowledge, thus obtained, is a true account of the actual world. Is this realistic position justified?

Firstly, we can give an idealistic objection that there is no knowledge without the knower; therefore, we cannot abstract from the actual knower. The "view from nowhere" must always be a "view from somewhere." (6) An individual scientist can abstract from his or her position in the world, his or her preferences and feelings, but he or she cannot abstract from being the subject in which objective knowledge is constituted. The scientist cannot go beyond his or her subjectivity in the form of scientific attitude. A complete abstraction from human personality and a depersonification so as to transcend subjectivity and a specifically human or even mammalian viewpoint cannot be conceived of and hence is impossible.

The form of subjectivity that refers to scientific attitude has been described by the word "indifference." Empirical scientists look at the world "objectively," indifferently, as if it were an object. They do not enter into personal relationships with the objects of their inquiry. But by looking at the world in this way, we can learn about it only from a certain viewpoint. This is not the way to know it as a whole. Therefore, scientific knowledge can give us only a partial and not a complete picture of the actual world. Further, if objective, scientific knowledge is a partial one, it cannot claim to reveal what things are like in themselves. It cannot know things as they are themselves but only as objects. An objective account will omit something. (7) As I will now attempt to show, objective knowledge cannot give us a true account of the actual world, but only of its objective aspect.

The Forms of Subjectivity...

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