Monday, 16 January 2017

Are We All Scientists?

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
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’.

‘Ordinarily, hypotheses used in science are more precise
and less vague than those adopted in everyday affairs.”
—W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian.


Keith said...

The closing sentence to this post, that “We are all 'scientists',” raises questions. Does the post really get us from a ‘boatsman observing the regularity of waves’ to ‘everyone being a scientist’?

Would, in fact, the claim about our all being scientists survive closer scrutiny? I know quite a lot about science—but I wouldn’t presume to label myself a scientist. I know quite a lot about history—but I wouldn’t presume to label myself a historian. I know quite a lot about economics—but I wouldn’t presume to label myself an economist. I know quite a lot about . . . well, you get the picture.

The point is, doesn’t there have to be some kind of threshold—tipping point—between, on the one hand, making observations and decisions while simply going about one’s everyday life, and on the other hand, doing rigorous, formal science requiring a deep knowledge of either physics, or chemistry, or biology, or astronomy, or some other? Aren’t they two very distinct—qualitatively different—categories of activity?

Does muddling the two categories risk undeservedly ‘elevating’ our everyday engagement with the world . . . while undeservedly ‘diminishing’ the world of true science? On a case-by-case basis, making that categorical distinction seems easy, perhaps: my knowing how long to boil my eggs to suit my taste is not science, surely; someone doing formal biogenetic research to help prevent or cure illness is science, surely. Aren’t such examples easy and endless?

Besides, in the modern age, when scientific disciplines have long since become super-dense with information, methods, and nuanced complexity, aren’t specialization and educational credentialing essential to being able to really say one’s engaged in true science?

I might further ask, isn’t the post’s detailed slicing and dicing of ‘individuation’—and getting at the ‘signal-to-noise’ ratio—really more an intriguing sidebar than deeply germane to the hard-to-reconcile notion that everyone is a scientist? Does the discussion of individuation substantially contribute to proving the validity of the everyone-is-a-scientist assertion? Arguably, it doesn’t.

All that said, let’s briefly return to the post’s boatsman: From another angle, when the boatsman observes how often the waves come in, isn’t that ‘instinctual’—not ‘hard’ science? Wasn’t the boatsman engaging in the kind of (comparatively mundane?) interactions lay people routinely have with their surroundings in the course of every day? Do such routine interactions really qualify the boatsman as a scientist—any more than my tracking my home country’s ‘productivity’ qualify me as an economist?

In that same vein, I might immediately and instinctively conclude I have to lean into a strong headwind while walking. Is ‘science’ really going on when I lean at an undetermined angle into the wind, and walk with a certain gait, in order to make best headway? I’d be the first to humbly concede that doesn’t qualify me as a scientist. Doesn’t it come down to that ‘threshold’ (tipping point) mentioned above regarding the two qualitatively different categories of activity—the threshold between simply going about one’s everyday life and engaging in true science?

In short, I wonder if the discussion really gets us from the ‘boatsman being aware of wave activity’ to ‘everyone being a scientist’, no matter how loose the definition. The post’s own closing quote from W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullman informs us with at least a partial answer to that query: “[H]ypotheses used in science are more precise and less vague than those adopted in everyday affairs.”

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I am reposting this comment, Keith, on advice inside Pi.

Long has there been the question as to whether scientific language has anything to do with our natural language. The answer usually is no: there is the language of mind, and there is the language of science – it is a two-language view which replaces Descartes’ two-worlds view. I do not think it is a clever substitution.

I have said that we are all ‘scientists’, in inverted commas. There is, I think, an ‘overweening pride’ (Franklin Baumer) in the notion that only some are scientists, while others are not. Kamlah and Lorenzen state that ‘we pay a heavy price’ in fact for what the real scientists do. One doesn’t have to look far. Yet those whom we call non-scientists may bring wisdom which heals the world.

Kamlah and Lorenzen say that ‘physics investigates processes … by progressively screening things out.’ What my post does is to point out that this, which is Hegelian-style abstraction, we use both in the language of science and in the language of mind. It is fundamental to both, and promises to reconcile both. This makes individuation central, not a mere ‘sidebar’.

You write about us undeservedly ‘elevating’ our everyday engagement with the world, undeservedly ‘diminishing’ the world of true science. I worry that this may diminish what humble people do. If we view science as something that all people do, then we have a more healthful and holistic view of life.

Yes, we have better scientists than non-scientists. We also have better non-scientists than scientists. We have better scientists than others, and better non-scientists than others. The core point is that in principle we are all doing the same. Or there is, I should say, a strong correspondence between the two.

docmartincohen said...

SOme ineresting thoughts and ideas, as ever, thank you, Thomas. Bu I wondered why your horse idea did not include 'what it eats' and so on... mine certainly does - and many other subjective impressions and associations

Tessa den Uyl said...

Maybe Thomas means that the outline of the horse, as image, or the click-clack, as sound, makes more of a horse than the horses' reality itself, for most people.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Though I become confused with the horse example as well! Scientists tend to watch inside outlines (where they 'dissect' ) and most people read outlines. Which makes me think that your essay moves to an idea that first we are, afterwards what we are is constructuction and within that process of constructuction we are creating similarities whether consciously or not, and within this view a mind focused on fragmentation, specialities, is 'abolished' to give space for a more holistic view on life? Then we can say: ' we are all scientists' for the surface from where we depart to envision has taken another meaning in how we build up relations between things. But to understand this one should first let go of all the believe in ego-building structures!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Tessa and Martin. A critical thought here is that, during the process of individuation, we strip off many of the relations which are associated with a thing, and we seek instead to create something which is self-contained. Say, ‘The train arrives at 2:00.” We care not about what its seats feel like or how many carriages it has, or how much air it displaced en route, and so on, even though these are things we can associate with a train.

This is the goal of science, too: to get rid of everything in our minds which is not relevant to the problem at hand. To isolate individual mechanisms in the artificial circumstances of a carefully controlled experiment (called scientific control). In fact, take abstraction one step further, and we have mathematics – but that is beyond the scope of a mere comment I think. I hope this helps.

docmartincohen said...

Mmmm... *Thank you Tessa and Thomas* I think what I meant was "When we speak of a horse as an individuated thing" it includes lots of possible content. What Thomas seems to be saying is when we DEFINE the world horse we lose content. I suppose we do, but then it seems definitions are tautological anyway.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It seems to me that we are continually defining and redefining the words we use, as we use them. But when it comes to words in a strictly scientific context, this is not permitted. So if I say, 'The train was comfortable,' or 'The train was fast,' I may in fact be using different concepts for 'train' under the same 'label' or form. We certainly do use pronouns in that way.

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