Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Richard Rorty Exchange Part X

The Philosopher writes:

I'm not "satisfied that working toward agreement with my fellows" is all that science is doing and I'd venture to guess that most scientists don't see their work that way either. Most scientists view their work (at least the biologists and physicists I've read) as a kind of exploration, an adventure of discovery. They almost expect to be surprised by the real. They wonder, ponder and nature often surprises them. It 's not just playing with human models that have no ultimate reference or can't "arrive" at any reference beyond itself. I mean, do you think it makes sense to say that germ theory, gravitational theory, cell theory and any other well verified theory in science has no reference to the way things really are? Of course, scientific theories don't disclose reality in any final, once and for all sense, but surely they are more correct than theories of infection that appeal to demon spirits. If Rorty were right there'd be no more sense in saying that astronomy is preferable to astrology or evolution to creationism so long as we can secure agreement that that's what reality is like from our fellows, or enough of our fellows. But the history of science is and has been a testing of models, falsification of models and re-testing against the benchmark of the real. Often, it has been the individual against the community in this regard. Scientists often don't want to see reality in a certain way, they have their own pet theories of the way things are, but if the theory unifies the disparate data in a powerful and elegant way, they can or often do come around. Scientific theories and their verification are not at all as arbitrary and socially constructed as Rorty makes out. Rorty wants a guarantee and behind his pragmatism there may be this rhetoric of regret, fueled by his Cartesian anxiety. Knowing is taking a look for him and if he can't be supplied with the super look that will bridge the gap between theory and reality, then we're supposed to give up on knowing reality and settle for playing with models and garnering votes from our peers. But knowing is not taking a look, at least not for Aristotle. It may be for Plato. I'm not sure.


Karl Higley said...

The usefulness of a particular idea is not the same as the popularity of that idea -- although there is significant overlap, for purposes wherein the usefulness of an idea is limited by its popularity.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Karl,

Yes, a good thing to remember. We have to debate whether and how useful and idea is, it isn't necessarily useful just because it is popular. Not sure about the meaning of the second part about the usefulness of an idea limited by its popularity.