Famous philosopher Bertrand Russel once remarked,
“What science cannot discover man cannot know”
This echoes an oft-held perspective that “hard science” should be relied upon absolutely as it is inherently objective in its claims to truth. Science is a bit more nuanced than this naïve view. I will discuss firstly what is meant by “hard science” and the philosophical presuppositions of science. I will then explore the motives and arguments underlying this perspective. Namely that science is a value-free and objective process and show why they fail to give an accurate account of how science in reality proceeds.
The first question we must understand is what is hard science specifically? Broadly speaking hard sciences refers to systematic knowledge obtained by a particular method in the area of chemistry and physics. There are philosophical assumptions which are assumed to be true in order for science to be meaningful. Firstly, nature is uniform: we infer what will happen tomorrow on the basis of what has happened yesterday, the assumption being nature is uniform and what is true of yesterday is true of tomorrow (Scott & Mungwini 2013:66). Without this assumption we could not rely on our experience, memory and past experiments as valid and reliable. Secondly we assume perceptual knowledge (how things appear to us) is reliable, which is an epistemological issue. We assume as human beings our perceptions give us true beliefs and are produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly in an environment that is correct for them (Plantinga 1993:89). These two presuppositions undermines the view that hard sciences should be relied upon absolutely when there are basic non-scientific presuppositions that science of any kind relies on itself.
The view that hard sciences should be relied upon absolutely hinges on the claim that science is derived from just the facts and is therefore objective and value free. This leads to seeing scientists as neutral recorders of observations. This view has historical roots from the Vienna circle which was formed by a group of scientists and philosophers in the 1920s who called themselves logical positivists. Their philosophy was the verifiability principle. Which meant that in order for a statement or proposition to be meaningful it has to be capable of being empirically verified otherwise it is meaningless, it cannot give us facts and information (Passmore 2006:525).
There are three erroneous assumptions about facts underlying the positivist’s claim: they are given to neutral observes via the senses; do not rely on theory; and give a reliable basis for scientific knowledge (Chalmers 2013:4). Firstly observers are not neutral: a junior and principal engineer observing the same complex phenomena on a chemical plant will conclude different “facts”. Facts are descriptions of observations, observation statements, which are influenced by the knowledge, expectations and experiences of the observer (Chalmers 2013:7). Secondly observations are interpreted through the lens of an existing theory, theory precedes observations. Thirdly what makes science unique is experiments, not just observing. Experiments allow scientist to focus on a particular fact while neglecting others. To observe the relevant facts, the scientist must set up the apparatus, know which factors to neglect and measure, all this presupposes some existing theory to make the experiment meaningful. Lastly as well the verifiability principle fails its own test and therefore is self-refuting. It claims if a statement cannot be verified empirically then it is meaningless – however that statement itself cannot be verified empirically and therefore must be false.
Science is viewed as an objective process whereby it attains knowledge through a rational and logical way, that does not allow biasing and distorting factors to influence it away from the truth (Nozick 2001:287). The claim is one where science is viewed as advancing in small increments, where data is gathered, experiments and laws about the data are inferred and eventually general laws are discovered. It assumes scientist do not make claims beyond the available data. However the historical progress of science has shown that scientists are often creative and imaginative in trying to find explanations for phenomena. They go beyond the evidence to come up with hypotheses. Imagination and creativity are highly subjective features of human beings, we tend to value those traits more in artists – however the greatest scientists have been those who have been imaginative and creative. So objectivity does not imply eliminating all human factors, but recognising which ones are harmful to achieving the goals of science. Science is objective because scientists allow their findings and methodology to be critically analysed. Other Scientists can set-up the same experiment and test whether they come to the same findings. This process allows science to remain as objective as possible.
Scientists are not value-less people, they require the correct conceptual framework to make descriptions of observations. Descriptions are made in a language which is always tied to their culture. The scientist is a human being first influenced by the socio-cultural context they find themselves in. As Okere, Nkoru and Devisch put it,
“All knowledge is first of all local knowledge” (Okere et al 2005:3).
Scientists are driven by particular problems that are found in their local social context. Today scientists are very much climate conscious, whereas 200 years ago they were not concerned with it. Scientists choose what problems to focus and pursue based on societal pressures, which are governed by a particular set of values and ideals. Science is clearly not just based on facts. And this undermines the view that science is value-free. Ramose highlights how science had been used to justify particular ideas
In conclusion the oft-held perspective that hard sciences should be relied upon absolutely because it is inherently objective is simply false. It assumes a view of science influenced by logical positivists who thought scientists are neutral observers of facts. However facts require pre-existing theories and the relevant facts are discovered in experiments which requires assumptions not being tested by the theory. Science is objective not because it eliminates all human factors, but because it is done in a way that allows the scientific community to critically analyse one another and keep each in check. The perspective assumes for science to be objective it must be value-free, however scientists are part of societies which shape what they value and pursue – no scientist is a neutral machine, we are human beings first.
- Chalmers, A. 2013. What is this thing called science? New York: Open University Press
- Notable Quotes. (2015) Bertrand Russel. [Online] Available from: http://www.notable-quotes.com/r/russell_bertrand_ii.html [Accessed: 09 September 2015].
- Nozick, R. 2001. The objectivity and rationality of science, in Science, Explanation, and Rationality: Aspects of the philosophy of Carl G. Hempel. Edited by J. Fetzer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 287-307.
- Okere, T., Njoku, A.C., & Devisch, R. 2005. All Knowledge is first of all local knowledge: An introduction. Africa Development, 30(3): 1-19
- Passmore, J. 2006. “Logical Positivism” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by D.M. Borchet. Farmington Hills: Thomas Gale
- Plantinga, A. 1993. Warrant and Proper Function. New York: Oxford University Press
- Scott, C. D. & Mungwini, P. 2013. PLS2607/501. City of Tshwane: University of South Africa