The Perceptual Problems of Science

na-ledgeA friend recently gave me a copy of Unknowability: An Inquiry into the Limits of Knowledge by Nicholas Rescher, The book is very accessible and interesting in its own right, but also in terms of its rigorous analysis of the kinds of limitations necessarily entailed by perceptual differences between humans and other creatures (e.g, a hypothetical alien race). He writes the following on pages 26-27:

It is a key fact of life that progress in science is a process of ideational innovation that always places certain developments outside the intellectual horizons of earlier workers. The very concepts we think in terms of become available only in the course of scientific discovery itself. Like the science of the remote future, the science of remote aliens must be presumed to be such that we really could not achieve intellectual access to it on the basis of our own position in the cognitive scheme of things. Just as the technology of a more advanced civilization would be bound to strike us as magic, so its science would be bound to strike us as incomprehensible gibberish—until we had learned it “from the ground up.” They might (just barely) be able to teach it to us, but they could not explain it to us by transposing it into our terms.

The most characteristic and significant difference between one conceptual scheme and another arises when the one scheme is committed to something the other does not envisage at all—something that lies outside the conceptual range of the other. A typical case is that of the stance of Cicero’s thought-world with regard to questions of quantum electrodynamics. The Romans of classical antiquity did not hold different views on these issues; they held no view at all about them. This whole set of relevant considerations remained outside their conceptual repertoire. The diversified history of our terrestrial science gives one some minuscule inkling of the vast range of possibilities along these lines.

What Rescher does not seem to notice, ironically, is that his examples demolish

the scientific enterprise altogether. Consider:

On what basis does Rescher think that science progresses?He seems to think that the universe operates according to fixed physical laws.

However, this assumption can only serve as a heuristic principle.

He can only use the assumption as the basis for his speculation;

he cannot use the assumption as a grounding principle for the pursuit of scientific truth.

For if the basis of  all knowledge is empirico-induction, and empirico-induction is delimited by perceptual differences between all perceiving-rational beings, then how can we know that these perceptions coincide at any given point?

How we can know that they can even coincide at the most basic level,

say the existence of a particular object providing the perceivers with perceptual data?

The problem is irresolvable, for the problem is the fallacious method already mentioned

– viz, empirico-induction.

What is worse, furthermore, is that if knowledge is arrived at via empirico-induction, and no empirical induction can be a complete induction, then empirico-induction cannot even provide us with knowledge of an object.

My perceptual data are unique to me; therefore, I cannot even verify whether or not what I perceive to be (e.g. an object, a color, a sound, a taste, etc) is a figment of my imagination.

George Berkeley, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, attempted to solve this problem, but utterly failed (see here). Other treatments have been even worse, e.g. Bertrand Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy, amounting to nothing more than dogmatic dismissals of the questions that expose the fallacious foundations of scientific endeavor.

For a more detailed, and yet very accessible, exploration and analysis of answers to the problems of inductive reasoning see Dr. James N. Anderson’s paper, Secular Responses to the Problem of Induction.


One thought on “The Perceptual Problems of Science

  1. silver price says:

    The problem calls into question all empirical claims made in everyday life or through the scientific method and for that reason the philosopher C. D. Broad said that “induction is the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy”. Although the problem arguably dates back to the Pyrrhonism of ancient philosophy , David Hume introduced it in the mid-18th century, with the most notable response provided by Karl Popper two centuries later.


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