Thursday, July 08, 2010

Sense Experience and Scientific Knowledge

When I started the blog and picked a name, I was thinking about how it's the case that many of my metaphilosophical commitments come down to a particular conception of the relationship between knowledge and experience. These commitments define, from one perspective, why I think philosophy is an important guide to life. And from another perspective, they distinguish my philosophical style from that of some other philosophers.

Many of my Google hits come from folks searching, e.g., "philosophers suggest knowledge is based on experience." So I think I'll say a little more about the blog's title.

Looking to experience as the basis for knowledge distinguishes a scientific and skeptical worldview from a worldview based on hearsay and tradition. This is pragmatism with a small 'p'. It's the reason that I've written in support of evidence-based medicine (though I think clinical experience can also play an important role), the source of my depression about biology education that confuses religion with science, and why I poke fun at bookstores that specialize in "metaphysics." This modest empiricism (not logical empiricism!) encourages us to question assumptions and gives rise to a faith that data is worth gathering because facts can be the basis of a good argument. For instance, though the data on women in the philosophical profession do not by themselves motivate any changes in practice, they give us a good idea of what the problem is and a reason not to write it off as misperception.

In a philosophical sphere, looking to experience as a basis for knowledge counteracts taking empiricism to an extreme (logical empiricism!). I define experience broadly--it is embodied, it is social, it is personal, and it is physical. Solipsism? Individualism? Philosophical skepticism? How could mere thoughts have led philosophers to doubt the richness of their own experiences? Taking the richness of experience seriously is anti-reductionist, and it supports naturalism and Pragmatism. A view of experience that is too narrow and too exclusive is inadequate to support all that we call knowledge, including knowledge of other people. Sense experience must be interpreted, and we can't do without some conceptual and interpretive frameworks.

These two views of experience--that experience is of an independent world but that it is also personal--are sometimes seen as being at odds. Science at war with humanism. I don't have that view. We can (must!) find humanistic meaning within a scientific worldview.

Here is the physicist Heinz Pagels meditating on the problem, in his book The Cosmic Code (written in 1982, it's still the best book on quantum mechanics for popular audiences).
Goethe was interested in colors as an immediate human experience, and Newton was interested in color as an abstract physical phenomenon. On an experimental, material basis one must side with Newton's conclusions. But Goethe's view speaks to the immediacy of human experience. ...

Goethe was part of the romantic reaction to classical mechanics and modern science--a reaction that continues to this day. This confrontation between Goethe and Newton revealed a modern humanist critique of science that the abstract explanations of science deny the vital core of human experience. The quantum theory and the sciences that emerged from it are prime examples of such abstract explanations.

Science does not deny the reality of our immediate experience of the world; it begins there. But it does not remain there, because the basis for comprehending our experience is not given with sensual experience. Science shows us that supporting the world of sensual experience there is a conceptual order, a cosmic code which can be discovered by experiment and known by the human mind. The unity of our experience, like the unity of science, is conceptual, not sensual. That is the difference between Newton and Goethe--Newton sought universal concepts in the form of physical laws, while Goethe looked for the unity of nature in immediate experience.

Science is a response to the demand that our experience places upon us, and what we are given in return by science is a new human experience--seeing with our mind the internal logic of the cosmos.

1 comment:

Fly said...

Life is a journey
What you have gone through can help others
Please share