Category Archive: Realism and the Aim of Science

Routledge: 1985.

The mistaken theory of objectivity

No doubt the idea which inspires the inductive style—the idea of adhering strictly to the observed facts and of excluding bias and prejudice—is laudable. And no doubt those trained to write in this way are unaware that this laudable and apparently safe idea is itself the mistaken result of a prejudice—worse still, of a philosophical prejudice—and of a mistaken theory of objectivity. (Objectivity is not the result of disinterested and unprejudiced observation. Objectivity, and also unbiased observation, are the result of criticism, including the criticism of observational reports. For we cannot avoid or suppress our theories, or prevent them from influencing our observations; yet we can try to recognize them as hypotheses and to formulate them explicitly, so that they may be criticized.) [48]

Repetition is not learning

There are few human skills where constant ‘practising’—that is, not only repetition but also more or less ‘mechanical’ repetition—is as important as in learning to play the piano. Yet we do not find anything new, such as a new fingering, through practising. Only after having discovered the new fingering by trial and error, that is, after comparing it with alternative solutions to the problem and rejecting less suitable solutions, can we begin to ‘practise’ it. Thus the function of mechanical repetition—of ‘practising’, or ‘learning by rote’—is not to discover something new, but to establish familiarity with something previously discovered. Its function is not to make us conscious of a new problem (as is the function of testing repeatedly some tentative solutions) but to eliminate as far as possible the element of consciousness from our performance. [42-3]

No knowledge is above criticism

[I]rrationalists are dangerously mistaken when they suggest that there is any knowledge, of whatever kind, or source, or origin, which is above or exempt from rational criticism. [28]

Aping the physical sciences

Some of the things which put me out of step and which I like to criticize are:

(1) Fashions: I do not believe in fashions, trends, tendencies, or schools, either in science or in philosophy. In fact, I think that the history of mankind could well be described as a history of outbreaks of fashionable philosophical and religious maladies. These fashions can have only one serious function—that of evoking criticism. Nonetheless I do believe in the rationalist tradition of a commonwealth of learning, and in the urgent need to preserve this tradition.

(2) The aping of physical science: I dislike the attempt, made in fields outside the physical sciences, to ape the physical sciences by practising their alleged ‘methods’—measurement and ‘induction from observation’. The doctrine that there is as much science in a subject as there is mathematics in it, or as much as there is measurement or ‘precision’ in it, rests upon a complete misunderstanding. On the contrary, the following maxim holds for all sciences: Never aim at more precision than is required by the problem in hand.  [7]