What is it that separates scientific discourse from our ordinary, everyday discourse? Do the two represent separate, independent languages? Or are they fundamentally the same? Are we all scientists?I first became aware of this question – not that it was new then – when I witnessed a boatsman surfing a reef at high tide. The timing was a special skill that depended on an intimate knowledge of the regularity of the waves which bombarded the reef. Basically, said the boatsman, the waves came in threes – although it was more complex than that. Was this science? In fact, where did science begin and where did it end?
Many thinkers suppose that there are two kinds of discourse in this world: the language of science, and the language of mind. The fundamental difference, writes philosophy professor Michael Luntley, is that the language of science allows only for the physical properties of things, while the language of mind has to do with perspective.
This distinction may not in fact be necessary. Is it not a matter of perspective as to how we arrange the physical properties of things?
The novelist and critic Samuel Butler considered (to put it too simply) that science merely has to do with the conventions on which people act, and these conventions vary. This merely needs to be noted, however. It is not of great importance to this post, other than to show that it has been considered. More important is individuation:
Our reality – if we try to imagine it before our minds make any sense of it – has been variously described as an undifferentiated stream of experience, a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions, or a swirling cloud without any determinate shape. William James famously wrote of ‘one great blooming, buzzing confusion’.
To make sense of this confusion, then, we need to break up the undifferentiated stream of experience – sounds and sights, surfaces and motions – into individual units. And while the process of doing so may seem to be quite natural and simple to us, what actually happens is extraordinarily complex.
From our earliest childhood, we begin to individuate people, playthings, animals, and a great many things besides. Before long, we begin to look at picture books in which individuated things are represented in pictures, with their names printed underneath: dog, cat, apple, orange, sun, moon – and so on.
Importantly, during this process, we strip off many of the relations which are associated with a thing, and seek instead to create something which is self-contained. In Hegelian-style philosophy, such individuated ‘things’ are said to be abstract, insofar as they are thought of in isolaton from the whole to which they belong.
Take the example of a ‘horse’. When we speak of a horse as an individuated thing, we have little interest in what it eats, or if it sleeps, or even whether it has four legs or three. It is something else that makes it a ‘horse’. To put it another way, when we individuate something, it loses some of its informational content. While in reality, it is impossible to imagine a horse without air, or food, or something to stand on – and innumerable things besides – the individuated ‘horse’ needs none of this.
Even at the same time, however, we carry all of the associations of individuated things in the back of our minds. They are present with us even as we exclude them. That is, we do not completely forget what these things are in their totality, even though we individuate them.
Consider the statement, ‘The horse fell from the top of the cliff.’ While we all know that it is likely that the horse is now dead or seriously injured, the individuated unit ‘horse’ does not obviously contain such information. To put it another way, to individuate something does not mean that we truly and completely individuate it. It may be more accurate to say that we allow some aspects of it to recede yet not to leave the picture.
In fact, this is very much what we do with scientific research. In our experiments, in order to make any progress, we screen out unwanted influences on independent variables. Physics, wrote the 20th century linguists Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen, investigates processes by progressively screening things out. That is, we ignore unwanted relations.
Whether we say, “This cake needs thirty minutes in a hot oven” (a highly abstracted statement), or “I wonder whether it will rain today,” we are doing what the scientist does. We are removing informational content, to relate abstract things, one to the other.
With this in mind, we ‘do science’ all day long. There is little difference, in the most fundamental way, between the Hegelian-style abstraction of our everyday thinking and our scientific pursuits – except that, with science, we make a more rigorous effort to put out of our minds the relations which are unwanted.
Our scientific discourse, therefore, is closely related our ordinary, everyday discourse. We are all ‘scientists’.
and less vague than those adopted in everyday affairs.”
—W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian.