Philosophy and History of Science in the Age of COVID

Science vs. Pseudo-Science.

“The science is settled.”

To be sure, those who say such a thing are either illiterate when it comes to science and/or shameless partisan opportunists who are trying to score political points. If they accuse those who challenge their account of “science says” with “denialism” of one sort or another, or if they demand “a quick and devastating take down” of scientists with competing theories and express satisfaction that the demand has been met by such prestigious scientific journals as The Nation and Wired, you can take it to the bank that it is their political agenda that they prize above all.

Just the slightest familiarity with the history of science readily reveals that the science is never settled. Quite the contrary, it is emphatically unsettled as “the science” proves itself to be no less susceptible to flux than the world that it purports to disclose.

In the popular Western consciousness, science is the pinnacle of human cognition. Yet the average person, and, particularly, those who spare no occasion to adorn their property with signs revealing their “belief in science” and portraits of Anthony Fauci, have a profoundly impoverished view of science. Science, for them, begins and ends with the declarations of only those scientists who have received the stamp of approval by the government and the media. And these declarations are treated as dogma.   

Scientists are impartial conduits of objective reality, always and only just calling things for what they are. Thus, anyone who so much as remotely questions the assertions of (government-media approved) scientists are guilty of trying to discredit science itself (as Fauci recently said not so long ago when he charged his critics for challenging, not himself, but science).  

The truth of the matter, though, is that there is no science without a philosophy of science, and science is not an activity that springs from the ether, an abstraction devoid of all cultural and temporal contingencies, but a concrete enterprise with a history. This history reveals that what we now call “science” was, until as recently as the 19th century, known as “natural philosophy.”

The history of science also shows beyond a doubt that the popular notion of science is a fiction, a mythology. As no less a scientist than Einstein said: “Science without epistemology [the philosophy of knowledge] is—so far as it is thinkable at all—primitive and muddled.”

In what follows, we will look at some prominent, representative views in the history and philosophy of science (developed, often, by scientists, or at least those who have been educated in the sciences but who are also philosophers). The objective is not necessarily to determine which, if any of these views, is correct. The purpose is to recognize that “science” is not what most of us have been led to think it is. Not by a long shot. We will see that for all of their disagreements, those who make it their business to think about these matters are in emphatic agreement that not only are the conclusions of scientific inquiry never settled; the jury is still out regarding the very nature of science itself.

Inductivism

The classical view of science is what is known as “inductivism.” Scientists, from this vantage, observe patterns in individual things and, on the basis of these patterns, determine universal laws. Francis Bacon is widely regarded as a prominent representative of this position, a position that he advanced in the first quarter of the 17th century as an alternative to the deductive reasoning characteristic of the scholasticism of the medieval age. The scientific method, as Bacon saw it, “gathers information” “by slow and faithful toil…from things and brings it into understanding.”

In his Nova Organum, Bacon writes that “the true way” of “searching into and discovering truth” “derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all.”

In the 18th century, though, David Hume, while ultimately accepting it, challenged the principle of induction. Hume subscribed to empiricism, the same epistemology that Bacon endorsed. Empiricism is the philosophy of knowledge according to which knowledge is gotten primarily from experience, i.e. via the senses, observation. Yet on Hume’s reading of it, empiricism leads to skepticism (the theory that we can actually know relatively little).

For example, while his predecessors (as well as several of his successors) supposed that causality consisted in an inescapable relationship between cause and effect, Hume argued that experience discloses no such relationship. The most that experience reveals is that, in the past, whenever an event of one sort has occurred, it has been immediately followed by an event of another type. Because of the “constant conjunction” of these two type of events, we assume that there is a “necessary connection” between them. This assumption, however, is the product of habit or custom.

So, because every time in the past whenever we’ve had a perception of one billiard ball striking another it has been constantly conjoined with an immediate, subsequent perception of the second billiard ball moving, we assume that whenever we have any perceptions of billiard balls colliding with other billiard balls, these perceptions will necessarily be followed by perceptions of other billiard balls moving.   

Based on experience alone, however, we have no grounds for our certitude that the one event will cause the second.

Rather, our causal reasoning, the reasoning of science (as Bacon and Hume himself understood science), is rooted in the principle of induction, the principle that the future will be continuous with the past. But here’s the rub: Experience—which, again, is the fundamental source of knowledge for empiricists like Bacon and Hume—can never prove the truth of this principle. The only argument, if we can even call it that, on behalf of the principle of induction is glaringly circular: The future will resemble the past because in the past the future resembled the past. Obviously, this is question-begging, for it still assumes precisely that which needs to be proven, the proposition that the future will indeed always resemble the past.

Hume’s point: The very foundations of science aren’t nearly as certain—or as “settled”—as has been thought.

In the 18th century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant admitted to having been awaken from his “dogmatic slumbers” by Hume’s radical skepticism. In order to secure the possibility of knowledge, Kant achieved his own “Copernican revolution” as he proposed that his predecessors had it entirely backwards: Knowledge does not consist in the mind’s conforming to the world but, rather, the world conforming to the mind!

In other words, the mind is not some passive instrument that objectively gauges happenings in the world. Quite the contrary: It is active, perpetually filtering and organizing the raw inputs of the senses in terms of its own intrinsic structures, i.e. its “pure intuitions” (of space and time) and such “categories” as causality, substance, and several others. The only world that the mind knows is the world that it constructs. As Kant said, we never know the thing-in-itself, but only ever the thing as it appears to us

If humans were born with purple lensed glasses embedded into their faces, everything that they ever perceived would appear in shades of purple. This, of course, wouldn’t mean that things actually were purple. We just couldn’t know one way or the other. As far as we were concerned, though, the only world that we could ever ascertain would be a world that appears and, given the character of our perceptual apparatus, could only appear purple.

In making the move that he made, Kant did indeed seem to secure the possibility of knowledge against Hume’s critique. Knowledge—absolute and certain knowledge—is attainable after all! Kant contended that while Hume was in fact correct that experience and observation could never ground those ideas, like universal and necessary causation, toward which Hume expressed skepticism, this is only because such notions are not the substantive conclusions of scientific inquiry but, rather, the formal conditions, the presuppositions, for the very possibility of knowledge.  They are a priori, supplied by the mind in advance of all experience. They are what make experience intelligible at all.

Kant’s thought marks a significant turning point in the history and philosophy of science inasmuch as he dramatically underscored the role that the human mind plays in the construction of knowledge. Others, as we will see, seized hold of this chain of reasoning in the 20th century and pursued it far beyond anything that Kant could’ve envisioned.

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