Book Discussion of Christopher Norris’ “Epistemology: Key Concepts in Philosophy”
Concluding Scientific-Realist Postscript –
After restating some things said in section I, Norris states that he has tried to represent opposing positions fairly, without caricature. The issue has been around so long, that everyone has a legitimate point to make, although not all of their points are legitimate—but the legitimate points make unlikely any philosophical knock-down argument (last section).
No matter how many examples of progress piled up by the realist; despite the reality that such progress would be a miracle “if not the assumption that most of its theories were true and that most of its referring (e.g., natural-kind) terms picked out real-world objects, structures and properties thereof”—the anti-realist can always retort with the argument from error (last section), and the realist can (again, last section) point out this thesis as self-refuting, relying on realist cardinal distinctions between truth and falsehood or scientifically justified and unjustified belief. So, realism wins on metaphysical (or logico-semantic) grounds, as well as on epistemological grounds, as “best providing both a generalized account of the relationship between truth, knowledge and belief and a means of explaining just how that relationship is exemplified by various well-documented episodes of scientific theory-change.”
The resolution to the science wars (between science and some in the ‘cultural left’) is 1) “encouraging respect for the real achievements of the natural sciences—the fact that they have discovered (not ‘constructed’ or ‘invented’) a great many truths about the physical world” and 2) “offering a sense of the historical or socio-cultural contexts in which scientific work actually gets done”. 1 is referring to the context of justification (and reminds me of my thinking on moral truth—that it is either created/constructed, discovered, or nonexistent), 2 is referring to the context of discovery.
The strong sociologist is inconsistently and unnecessarily suspicious of every other science but sociology (despite “building in a principle of ‘reflexivity’, which treats their own claims as equally subject to socio-cultural analysis”). The ‘science-studies’ or ‘strong’-sociological rubric does not distinguish between those two contexts, replacing them with the notion of ‘parity of esteem’, requiring that “we treat all theories…as products of socio-cultural class-interest or some clearly marked ideological parti pris” (whatever parti pris means…I think I catch the meaning of the sentence, though). This is seen in Shapin and Schaffer (Leviathan and the Air-Pump) urging us to see that both Hobbes and Boyle were subject to class-based interests and pressures. But this fails to explain “why so much of modern science—including technological applications—should have turned out to vindicate the truth of Boyle’s theory and to make no sense on the Hobbesian account. This is the idea of inference to the best, most adequate or rational explanation, an approach that is mostly rejected or ignored by the ‘strong’ sociologist but which has a fair claim to account most convincingly (i.e., with least need of miracles or ‘cosmic coincidence’) for our knowledge of the growth of scientific knowledge.” Shapin and Schaffer also work on a kind of ‘reverse-prejudice’ principle—agreeing with Hobbes’ “proto-Foucauldian conception of knowledge as produced in and through the operations of social power”—rather than treating Hobbes and Boyle both with impartial parity—disagreeing with Boyle’s more realist leanings. They are not really being impartial, just as sceptics are not really not deciding—they are deciding not to decide.
The concept of impartial parity, erasing the distinction between context of discovery and context of justification, of social explanations going all the way down, can be seen in:
–post-structuralist ideas about language and representation
–Foucault’s ‘genealogies’ of power/knowledge
–postmodernist sceptical take on outmoded truth, progress and critique
Why was Lavoisier right “about the role of oxygen in the process of combustion while Priestley was wrong about the role of ‘phlogiston’ or ‘dephlogistated air’”? Impartial parity won’t even admit one was right and one was wrong. Impartial parity won’t admit this was a discovery—not a “random paradigm change, cultural mutation, or Foucauldian ‘epistemological break’.” “For to seriously doubt that Boyle was justified (as against Hobbes) when he affirmed the possibility of a vacuum is to undercut the grounds for rational belief in a whole vast range of subsequent developments and causal-explanatory theories.” For example:
–the entire science of modern aerodynamics and also subatomic particle physics
–“the latter received its first impetus from the observation of cathode-ray (electron) emission in a vacuum tube”
And (again) if the strong sociologist counters with the argument from error, they are (again) affirming a realist premise, since “they rely on the assumption that some past theories were true (or scientifically warranted) despite the weight of received opinion at the time.”
The right way to approach this is to explain “what it was about the orthodox science of the day that made it perfectly possible for Priestley, an intelligent scientist-philosopher, to credit the existence of phlogiston…in a way that preserves the distinction between scientific truth and falsehood.”
Norris uses the dubious and perhaps benign example of Paul Feyerabend’s recommendation to Catholics against recanting their original position against Galileo—to talk about how epistemology and philosophy of science “have a useful role in science education” as concerns debates about science remaining value-neutral or, on the other hand, socially responsible. There are less benign examples, but Norris doesn’t mention them. He just ends on the note that a critical realist conception is “the discipline whose range of normative, explanatory and critical resources render it best equipped to address those issues.” This is a conclusion without any premises. Until using something like my moral truth litmus, critical realism is flying blind—nothing ‘unethical’.
Next step: review all previous section summaries and see where I stand.