PROLEGOMENA TO THE PROLEGOMENA (7): science is disunified and heterogeneous

Context: I am continuing my thought experiment where I reply to a generic scientistic questioner who asks about the interest and value of a generic “ontological approach”. While the thought experiment itself is generic, I am using R.Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory and Adrian Johnston’s transcendental materialism as specific examples.

Bakker says he agrees with the idea that cognitive bias (or more neutrally, speculation) often comes before the observational evidence and that these biases need not only be sources of error and of failed cognition, but can often be heuristically fruitful, that is they can give rise to new cognition. And he includes science explicitly, declaring “I appreciate that experiment without theory is blind”.

To combine the two insights together: a general theory often precedes the auxiliary theories that make possible an experiment that is capable of testing the general theory. So we don’t just have experiment interpreted by theory, but theories of different levels of generality, maturity, and confirmation, each with their own experience and experiment, vying for acceptance and implementation.

Bakker agrees, but his previous objection to Johnston is in contradiction with this insight. In my last post I quoted Bakker’s claim that Johnston was “getting it backwards”, i.e. that he was illegitimately beginning with ontological speculation and on the basis of that drawing empirical conclusions. Bakker stipulates that “the problem is one of drawing, as Johnston plainly does, empirical conclusions from ontological claims”. One must note that this is an objection about empirical conclusions, not experiments (in the case of Johnston) and that it contains the presupposition that science proceeds in the inverse order, passing always from empirical findings to ontological conclusions.

My example of Galileo (in the previous post) is not meant to hold for all of science, but for paradigm change. In some cases, e.g. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the evidence does not exist before. And in other cases the observational evidence already exists but it needs to be reinterpreted, or even temporarily set aside, by an ontological hypothesis which is given primacy over the senses (at least for a certain time). You wouldn’t get science as we know it if you didn’t have this provisional primacy of ontology some of the time (during paradigm change, ontological events). And one must not forget that the observations are fabricated and interpreted by other lower level auxiliary theories, which are sometimes enrolled in quite different ontologies. Some telescopic evidence contradicted Galileo and he had to set it aside or bluff his way around it, as the relevant auxiliary theories, in this case optics, had yet to come into being. This is the problem of the disunity of science and of the multiple phase lags between the different theories that belong to or are relevant to a particular paradigm.

When Bakker asks “Are you saying that Galileo needed to have his interpretation of the evidence before he had his evidence?”, the answer is a resounding yes! for at least some of that evidence. Bakker add “My guess is no”, well his guess is wrong, and his own theory of cognitive bias should have told him otherwise.

This is an important idea and it already contains the answer to Bakker’s second question (“Are you saying … that commitment to “heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension” is something necessary for the sciences of the brain?”).  This is lucky, as I want to proceed one question at a time to make the argumentative structure clearer. But this is a recurrent phenomenon in philosophical argument, two questions that seem to be about very diffferent things on closer examination are seen to turn around the same idea.

To answer this second question: what we have in the case of Galileo’s theoretical practice (and this is by no means an isolated case) is an assembly of inversions, conflicts and contradictions, phase lags and speculative leaps, of re-categorisations of experience as theory and vice versa, etc. We have here at the general methodological level, i.e. at the heuristic participative level of science in the making and not of its post hoc rationalisations, very much the same picture of science as Johnston’s picture of Nature as a heterogeneous ensemble, an internally conflicted non-unified jumble of elements in tension. That is not an attempt to state the essence of science, it is just the best description of science we’ve got, and Johnston is saying that it is the best description of Nature too, and to blow the suspense, I’m with him on that.

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