Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Science is the only way of knowing

Science is the only way of knowing.

Science is, briefly, the process of finding the simplest explanation which accounts for experience. Phenomenological, personal science accounts for individual experience; public science accounts for public, shared experience.

This is not to say that you have to conduct a peer-reviewed double-blind study with sound statistical methods to know your keys are always where you left them. All of the techniques and protocols of the sort of Big Science conducted by people in white lab coats doing uncomfortable things to mice are all peripheral to the fundamental scientific method. These techniques exist to investigate subtle questions where it's important that everyone is talking precisely about exactly the same shared experiences. The fundamental methodology: the simplest account of experience, remains unchanged.

Margaret Somerville gives us some woo-woo bullshit about "other ways of knowing"*. Unlike other commentators, she actually gives us a list of these supposed other ways:
  1. human memory**
  2. imagination and creativity
  3. looking forward***
  4. intuition -- especially moral intuition
  5. experiential knowledge
  6. "examined" emotions.
It's important to note that except for imagination, creativity and foresight, all of these items, memory, intuition, experiential knowledge, and emotions are themselves experiences, the foundation of science.

*h/t to Black Sun Journal
** I have no idea what she's on about with her "seven generations" nonsense
*** She includes foresight under imagination and creativity, but it deserves a separate entry.

Imagination is an essential component of the scientific method. We must creatively invent explanations to apply the scientific method. It's crucial to note that the scientific method does not establish accounts which follow from experience in a deductive sense; the scientific method privileges accounts from which experience deductively follows. It's very important that imagination and creativity by themselves—and indeed experience by itself—are not epistemic. It is only by conjoining the two in a logical manner that we are able to get an epistemology that does the job we expect.

Imagination by itself does not, as Somerville implies, give us foresight. I can imagine all sorts of things that will not—indeed in many cases cannot—come to pass. It is only by logically combining imagination with experience in the scientific manner that I can gain useful foresight.

Somerville gets all the elements of the scientific method; it is on their conjunction that she goes wrong. You cannot pick apart the individual elements—especially imagination and creativity—of the scientific method and still get an epistemic system. (In a trivial sense, you can isolate experience, but without logically connecting imaginative hypotheses to experience, your knowledge is merely an enumeration of statements of experience.)

(Somerville is simply wrong about metaphysics, and I'll discuss her position on ethics in a separate post.)

But what about art? Literature? Music? Sports? Sex? Aren't these worthwhile pursuits? Of course they are, and there's nothing at all irrational about any of them. Acquiring knowledge is not the only worthwhile pursuit, but to the extent that knowledge is worthwhile, science is the only way to get it.


  1. whiskeyjack8/1/07, 1:51 PM

    Thanks for this. I caught some of Margaret Somverville's Massey lectures on 'the ethical imagination' on CBC radio a few months ago, and was appalled by her vapidity. Her argument for preventing homosexual marriages was a specious exercise in circular reasoning, where she started with her conclusion and then proceeded to manipulate her premises to agree with her conclusion.

    Oh. my. god. (irony intended). If this is what passes for public intellectual discourse, our society is in sad shape.

  2. Whiskeyjack, is your moniker taken from the character from Steven Erikson's marvelous Malazan Book of the Fallen series?

  3. Whiskeyjack8/2/07, 1:30 PM

    No. Since I'm Canadian, it refers to the Grey Jay, or Canada Jay.

  4. Steven Erikson being Canadian, I guess I now know where he got that name for the character.


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