We are the champions of the world

8 03 2015

Might makes right—that is the basis of morality.

That’s not all there is to morality, but lack the might, and you lack the ability to determine the right.

(And as for God(s) as the basis of morality? What is he/she/they/it but Mighty? the Mightiest of the Mighty?)

Might makes right is also the basis of knowledge. Of course, what counts as “might” varies considerably across time and space: might could mean “ability to summon spirits” or “to discern the secrets of nature” or, of course, to point a sword or an axe or a gun at a person’s head and say “believe” or “recant”; it could also refer to people or resources or the production of results.

Thomas Kuhn referred, famously, to paradigms: scientists operate within a particular paradigm or set of theories of how the world works, and new scientists are inculcated with and succeed according to their ability to produce new knowledge based on elaboration of those theories. Over time, however, those elaborations may run into trouble: the theory leads to x result, but y is what is witnessed. There may be some way to accommodate these anomalies, but eventually the anomalies will overwhelm the paradigm; upon the presentation of a new theory which can account not only for the old knowledge, but also the anomalies, the paradigm will shift.

(Imre Lakatos attempted to meliorate the harshness of this shift (and to mediate between Kuhn and Karl Popper’s strict falsificationism) with a notion of “research programmes” and whether they are “progressive” or “degenerative”, but he, too, allows that new research programs may emerge.)

Older or established members of a field may not accept a new paradigm or research program, but, as Max Planck famously observed, “science advances one funeral at a time”. Einstein, one of the most intelligent men of the 20th century, perhaps ever, just as famously never accepted quantum theory (“God does not play dice with the universe”), but he couldn’t foil it; he is dead, and the theory lives.

What, then, is the paradigm or research program but a form of might? It declares what counts as true and false, what is considered evidence and how to make sense of that evidence, what counts as science—and thus knowledge—at all.

None of this is meant to be argumentative, but axiomatic. This doesn’t mean there is no knowledge or no true knowledge, but that what counts as knowledge and truth is bound up in the conditions of the production of said knowledge and truth. Knowledge depends upon what we say knowledge is (“intersubjective agreement”), and there are a lot of ways to say it.

I’m a fan of science, and consider its methods to be powerful in eliciting knowledge about the natural world. I don’t think it can tell me much about poetry, but if I want to understand how a fertilized egg can turn into a person, then I’ll turn to a biology textbook rather than, say, a book of poetry.

Even the most potent forms of knowledge—the mightiest of the mighty—have their limits (see: embryology won’t teach you much about rhyme and meter), and potency itself is no guarantee against the loss or overthrow of a particular form of knowledge, an insight long known by tyrants, torturers, and con men alike.

Knowledge, for all of its power (Bacon), is also fragile: because there is nothing necessary or autonomous about any one form of knowledge, it can be lost or shattered or tossed away—which means it must be tended, and, when conditions dictate, defended.

All of which is a very long way to saying that the notion of “Let the public decide what’s the truth” with regard to the existence of climate change is a terrible, terrible idea, and as an attack on science itself, deserves to to be driven back to the gaseous bog from whence it came.

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9 03 2015
dmf

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