Scientific Knowledge



Scientific Knowledge


No doubt scientific knowledge is impressive and enchanting: science has learned so much of interest about the world, with many practical applications. The human brain is lucky to be able to obtain and contain such knowledge. It looks like the best knowledge on planet Earth; if there were a competition for Best In Know, it would be declared the winner. Cognitively, it is our pride and joy. And yet it has come in for criticism, especially by philosophers of science, not all of it motivated by epistemic envy. It postulates unobservable entities, which by definition can’t be detected by the senses; it uses inductive reasoning, which is not (allegedly) a valid form of inference; it has a disturbing tendency to get refuted as time goes by; it is often hard to understand, which renders it undemocratic; it takes years to learn, which makes it expensive and elitist; it is unnatural, like ballet or speaking a foreign language; and it is vulnerable to political influence and corruption. Epistemologically, it is not as fine, upstanding, and humanly accessible as one could wish, despite its undeniable interest and utility. Some have even supposed that scientific knowledge is strictly impossible: Popper maintained that we can never know a scientific proposition to be true, only that it has not so far been falsified. Our attitude to a scientific theory can only be that it has hitherto withstood attempts to prove it false, not that it is actually true. Induction is fallacious, according to Popper, so we can only justify the belief that so far we have not found a counter instance (Popper tends to be popular with practicing scientists). Others have used the speculative nature of science to insinuate that scientists are not always rationally motivated. Paradigms hold them in thrall, status matters, and scientific revolutions are suspiciously like political revolutions. Still others have declared science to be largely fictional on account of its dealings with the unobservable—all such things being on a par with fictional entities. Science is not all it is cracked up to be, according to these critics.

What has not generally been pointed out is that scientific knowledge compares unfavorably with other forms of human knowledge. Here we could mention knowledge of language, psychological knowledge, and knowledge of one’s own history and local geography.[1] We learn all aspects of our native language easily and equally (no difficulty and elitism), producing a smooth and shared linguistic competence, encompassing semantics, syntax, and phonetics, with no reliance on elaborate experiments or expensive equipment, and not subject to refutation by later research. Popper would be proud of it. We are natural knowers as far as language is concerned. Likewise, we learn our psychological ABC with ease and success, enabling us to understand and predict human behavior, with no danger of later refutation (no beliefs and desires after all!). We even have the advantage of direct acquaintance with the subject matter of this type of knowledge in the form of introspection. There is no laborious training, no nerve-wracking examinations, no inability to get it right, etc. We take to it like a fish to water (fish are very knowledgeable about water). And in the case of history and geography we have solid knowledge of the facts in question: memory tells us what we did when, and perception informs us of the local terrain. I remember what I did yesterday and I know my way home. True, this kind of common sense knowledge is fallible, but it is not the faltering and conjectural affair that science is:  it didn’t take centuries to get started, isn’t rife with controversy, and won’t get refuted tomorrow. Everyone has it, it works beautifully, and it is clear what is being said. It is nothing like quantum theory, or relativity theory, or even Darwinian evolution; in took no Newton or Einstein or Darwin to discover it, genius not being required. Thus there are areas of human knowledge that outclass scientific knowledge by objective criteria of epistemic soundness. So it isn’t that humans are generally bad at knowledge and science is the best they can manage in the circumstances; rather, science is the odd man out, being markedly inferior to other forms of human knowledge. This is not to knock science or disrespect it; it is merely to point out that among our other cognitive achievements it is not exactly stellar. We can easily imagine beings that are much better at scientific knowledge than we are, acquiring it with the ease and naturalness that we bring to language—born scientists. They might possess an innate science faculty that generates knowledge of science as our language faculty generates knowledge of language. Just as we learn a specific dialect without even thinking, they develop a specific scientific expertise without any effort or special training—grasping the far reaches of physics by the age of five and molecular biology by seven. We, on the other hand, are just not naturally equipped to master science, which is why it took so long for humans to get even a rudimentary hang of it. There had to be a concerted Scientific Revolution to get science off the ground (after a promising start centuries before), but there was never a Linguistic Revolution in which humans finally got round to speaking grammatically. We weren’t linguistic illiterates till the seventeenth century, needing the leadership of Great Thinkers before we learned how to speak properly. To put it bluntly, we are bad at science but good at language—we are to science what chimps are to language, i.e. not cut out for it. Not that science isn’t worthwhile or is impossible to achieve, but from an epistemological point of view it isn’t exactly the cat’s whiskers. Frankly, we suck at science. By all means do it, but recognize that you are in alien territory, hobbling along, ill equipped for the journey.[2]

Imagine if common sense knowledge were in the state that quantum theory is in. We don’t even know what quantum theory means, what in the world corresponds to it, whether it even makes sense. Imagine if that was our condition in folk psychology: we don’t even know whether our postulated entities exist independently of our observations, and whether mental states are particulate or wavelike, and we can only know someone’s desire if we can’t know his belief and vice versa. Maybe our folk psychology is predictively close to perfect, but we don’t know what could make it true, and it is full of paradox and perplexity. Moreover, it was only developed a century ago, so that for most of our history we had no folk psychology.[3] What then? Presumably social life would have been impossible, human behavior totally baffling, and life generally meaningless (we wouldn’t even know what happiness is). Maybe our ignorance would have led to species extinction. At least our ignorance of the true nature of the microscopic world has no such dire consequence, since it is not crucial to survival; but if it were, we would be in big trouble. If not knowing the correct interpretation of the equations of quantum theory were crucial to survival, we would have perished long ago. So biologically our scientific “knowledge” in this area is lamentably inadequate compared to our ordinary knowledge of human psychology. We really suck at quantum theory, but luckily it doesn’t matter from a biological point of view. Still, this shouldn’t blind us to the limits of our scientific knowledge. And it is not so different elsewhere in science: there are many areas of ignorance, much controversy, numerous dead ends, and lots of hesitancy. It is not so in the other areas of human knowledge I have mentioned: I know how to speak English extremely well, I have a good grasp of human psychology, and I am intimately acquainted with my past and my surroundings. I am a genius about these things compared to my struggles with science (and let’s not even talk about philosophy!). I am epistemologically rich in some areas but a pauper in this area, despite all my strivings and aspirations. My brain just isn’t cut out for it, though I salute its valiant efforts (I wouldn’t want my brain to get an inferiority complex).

Moral knowledge is interesting in this connection. You will find people unfavorably comparing moral knowledge to scientific knowledge, even supposing that appellation unsuitable for describing our moral understanding. But isn’t the opposite the case? In ethics we are not inferring entities that are too small or distant to observe, we are not hostage to inductive reasoning, and we are not struggling to overcome our natural cognitive weaknesses; we are operating with a supple and comprehensive system for evaluating conduct. Ethics is not something we invented a few hundred years ago when the time was finally ripe, having languished without it for millennia; it is a natural human accomplishment requiring only experience and a little instruction to grasp.[4]There is no need to understand calculus, for instance, or even Euclidian geometry. Moral knowledge is actually solidly based, universal, not subject to overnight refutation (I am talking about general principles not specific applications), and relatively easy to acquire. It even admits of certainty in some respects (e.g. happiness is good, misery is bad). It is quite intricate, but spontaneously acquired. It is nothing like quantum theory. You don’t need a high IQ to get the hang of it. So moral knowledge is not the ugly duckling of epistemology, outshone by the paragon Science; actually it is quietly impressive from an epistemological point of view (a bit Jane Austen-ish). Knowledge of what one ought to do is certainly a lot more robust than knowledge of whether Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead (or the propositions of relativity theory, I would say). It is comparable to knowledge of language, as has been pointed out (Rawls, Chomsky). We know morality as we know our mother tongue.

Don’t get me wrong: I love science; I seek scientific knowledge; and I even have some of it. But from an impartial perspective it is not the glittering epistemic paradigm it is sometimes supposed to be in our scientific age. If we compare it to our motor abilities, it is somewhere between ballet dancing and mountaineering: humans can do it, some better than others, but it isn’t part of our natural endowment, what we can do in our sleep. Baboons swing in trees better than we do science, only seldom coming crashing down. Science, for humans, is an admirable attempt to do the impossible, or at least the biologically contraindicated. It isn’t what we were born to do.[5]


[1] Another example would be our knowledge of faces: we have an extensive and remarkably reliable knowledge of people’s faces, enabling us to recognize people at a glance. It is not a matter of theory or calculation but is automatic and instinctual. Face recognition is probably an innately given module enabling us to possess vast stores of useful knowledge. It is superior to scientific knowledge in many ways.

[2] None of this should be a surprise for a biologist: scientific knowledge is hardly a prerequisite for evolutionary success, which is why no other animal bothers with it. We are able to do science only because it is an accidental side effect of abilities designed for other tasks. This is why it is unnatural toil that only some humans engage in not a universal human ability programmed by the genes.

[3] Medicine is a good point of comparison: it is still at a rudimentary stage (we hope!) and was a disaster until quite recently. If our knowledge of language or folk psychology were like our knowledge of medicine, we would be in pretty bad shape. We do have medical knowledge, but it is hardly a shining exemplar of knowledge, though undeniably useful. Our ignorance of what causes cancer, for example, is actually quite shocking, given the effort that has gone into it. Medical knowledge compares poorly to other areas of human knowledge, which require no huge injection of funds.

[4] Imagine if ethics conformed to Popper’s view of science: we don’t know that cruelty is wrong only that the proposition that it is has not yet been refuted. That would undermine our ethical confidence horribly—we can only act as if this moral proposition has so far resisted our efforts to falsify it! Can we not even believe it? This degree of agnosticism is not compatible with a robust moral outlook.

[5] It is noteworthy that animals get by without scientific knowledge and seem none the worse for it. Yet they have plenty of other knowledge, some exceeding the human ability to know. They might regard our scientific knowledge as a waste of time, and epistemologically shoddy to boot. Perhaps God is tickled at our troubles, having mischievously given us a thirst for scientific knowledge combined with ineptness at acquiring it. Oh, how he chortles at our quantum quandaries!

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