From owner-bhaskar Wed Jul 31 12:18:21 1996 Date: Wed, 31 Jul 1996 10:13:56 -0600 Message-Id: <> From: Hans Ehrbar <> Subject: rts2-11 ============================================ Chapter 1. Philosophy and Scientific Realism ============================================ 1. TWO SIDES OF KNOWLEDGE Any adequate philosophy of science must find a way of grappling with this central paradox of science: that men in their social activity produce knowledge which is a social product much like any other, which is no more independent of its production and the men who produce it than motor cars, armchairs or books, which has its own craftsmen, technicians, publicists, standards and skills and which is no less subject to change than any other commodity. This is one side of `knowledge'. The other is that knowledge is `of' things which are not produced by men at all: the specific gravity of mercury, the process of electrolysis, the mechanism of light propagation. None of these `objects of knowledge' depend upon human activity. If men ceased to exist sound would continue to travel and heavy bodies fall to the earth in exactly the same way, though ex hypothesi there would be no-one to know it. Let us call these, in an unavoidable technical neologism, the intransitive objects of knowledge. The transitive objects of knowledge are Aristotelian material causes.1 They are the raw materials of science - the artificial objects fashioned into items of knowledge by the science of the day.2 They include the antecedently established facts and theories, paradigms and models, methods and techniques of inquiry available to a particular scientific school or worker. The material cause, in this sense, of Darwin's theory of natural selection consisted of the ingredients out of which he fashioned his theory. Among these were the facts of natural variation, the theory of domestic selection and Malthus' theory of population.3 Darwin worked these into a knowledge of a process, too slow and 1 See Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.3. 2 See J. R. Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, pp. 116-19. 3 Cf. R. Harre, Philosophies of Science, pp. 176-7. 22 Realist Theory of Science complex to be perceived, which had been going on for millions of years before him. But he could not, at least if his theory is correct, have produced the process he described, the intransitive object of the knowledge he had produced: the mechanism of natural selection. We can easily imagine a world similar to ours, containing the same intransitive objects of scientific knowledge, but without any science to produce knowledge of them. In such a world, which has occurred and may come again, reality would be unspoken for and yet things would not cease to act and interact in all kinds of ways. In such a world the causal laws that science has now, as a matter of fact, discovered would presumably still prevail, and the kinds of things that science has identified endure. The tides would still turn and metals conduct electricity in the way that they do, without a Newton or a Drude to produce our knowledge of them. The Wiedemann-Franz law would continue to hold although there would be no-one to formulate, experimentally establish or deduce it. Two atoms of hydrogen would continue to combine with one atom of oxygen and in favourable circumstances osmosis would continue to occur. In short, the intransitive objects of knowledge are in general invariant to our knowledge of them: they are the real things and structures, mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world; and for the most part they are quite independent of us. They are not unknowable, because as a matter of fact quite a bit is known about them. (Remember they were introduced as objects of scientific knowledge.) But neither are they in any way dependent upon our knowledge, let alone perception, of them. They are the intransitive, science-independent, objects of scientific discovery and investigation. If we can imagine a world of intransitive objects without science, we cannot imagine a science without transitive objects, i.e. without scientific or pre-scientific antecedents. That is, we cannot imagine the production of knowledge save from, and by means of, knowledge-like materials. Knowledge depends upon knowledge-like antecedents. Harvey thought of blood circulation in terms of an hydraulic model. Spencer, less successfully perhaps, used an organic metaphor to express his idea of society. W. Thomson (Lord Kelvin) declared in 1884 that it seemed to him that `the test of "do we understand a particular Philosophy and Scientific Realism 23 topic in physics [e.g. heat, magnetism]?" is "can we make a mechanical model of it?".'4 And as is well known this was the guiding maxim of physical research until the gradual disintegration of the Newtonian world-view in the first decades of this century. Similarly economists sought explanations of phenomena which would conform to the paradigm of a decision-making unit maximizing an objective function with given resources until marginalism became discredited in the 1930's. No doubt at the back of economists' minds during the period of the paradigm's hegemony was the cosy picture of a housewife doing her weekly shopping subject to a budget constraint; just as Rutherford disarmingly confessed in 1934, long after the paradigm was hopelessly out of date, to a predilection for corpuscularian models of atoms and fundamental particles as `little hard billiard balls, preferably red or black'.5 Von Helmont's concept of an arche was the intellectual ancestor of the concept of a bacterium, which furnished the model for the concept of a virus. The biochemical structure of genes, which were initially introduced as the unknown bearers of acquired characteristics, has been explored under the metaphor of a linguistic code. In this way social products, antecedently established knowledges capable of functioning as the transitive objects of new knowledges, are used to explore the unknown (but knowable) intransitive structure of the world. Knowledge of B is produced by means of knowledge of A, but both items of knowledge exist only in thought. If we cannot imagine a science without transitive objects, can we imagine a science without intransitive ones ? If the answer to this question is `no', then a philosophical study of the intransitive objects of science becomes possible. The answer to the transcendental question `what must the world be like for science to be possible ?' deserves the name of ontology. And in showing that the objects of science are intransitive (in this sense) and of a certain kind, viz. structures not events, it is my intention to furnish the new philosophy of science with an ontology. The parallel question `what must science be like to give us knowledge of intransitive objects (of this kind)?' is not a petitio principii of the ontological question, because the intelligibility of the 4 W. Thomson, Notes of Lectures on Molecular Dynamics p. 132. 6 See A. S. Eve, Rutherford. 24 A Realist Theory of Science scientific activities of perception and experimentation already entails the intransitivity of the objects to which, in the course of these activities, access is obtained. That is to say, the philosophical position developed in this study does not depend upon an arbitrary definition of science, but rather upon the intelligibility of certain universally recognized, if inadequately analysed, scientific activities. In this respect I am taking it to be the function of philosophy to analyse concepts which are `already given' but `as confused'.6 Any adequate philosophy of science must be capable of sustaining and reconciling both aspects of science; that is, of showing how science which is a transitive process, dependent upon antecedent knowledge and the efficient activity of men, has intransitive objects which depend upon neither. `That is, it must be capable of sustaining both (1) the social character of science and (2) the independence from science of the objects of scientific thought. More specifically, it must satisfy both: (1)' a criterion of the non-spontaneous production of knowledge, viz. the production of knowledge from and by means of knowledge (in the transitive dimension), and (2)' a criterion of structural and essential realism, viz. the independent existence and activity of causal structures and things (in the intransitive dimension). For science, I will argue, is a social activity whose aim is the production of the knowledge of the kinds and ways of acting of independently existing and active things. 6 Cf. I. Kant, On the Distinctiveness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morals. .