Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Peirce and reality

Science is self correcting; that is, people with conflicting views will hammer out theories about some phenomenon or other, and thereby improve their theories. One implication of this is that over the long haul, whatever views are held by the 'scientific community' tend to be correct. (I've put two qualifiers in there; that should be enough.)

So I'm reading 'Talking Heads' by Benjamin Lee, which is not about the band Talking Heads. It's actually a demanding discussion of speech act theory, philosophy, and subjectivity. It contains the following paragraph about the 18th century intellectual luminary Charles Saunders Peirce:
Peirce defines reality as that which an ideal scientific community would come to agree upon as true, at least in part because of his belief that the self-correcting nature of scientific inquiry would weed out competing theories and eventually hit upon what reality was.
This, of course, is exactly the kind of thing that turns amateur New Age metaphysicists turn into puddles of gibberish. "But... but... reality is what I perceive! My reality! How can we turn that over to an idealised band of scientists? After all, science is just another point of view! With its own biases! Just as subjective as any opinion! We create our own reality! I can be in two places at once, like a quantum!" And so on.

There's actually some validity to this view for speaker-internal truths (e.g. 'I hate lasagna.'). If a team of scientists wants to find out this kind of information, they're going to have to ask you because you're the authority on how you feel. Here we can have 'true for me, but not for you'.

This view runs aground on speaker-external truths, however, like the age of the universe or questions about existence of this or that. In this domain, our personal experiences are inadequate and subject to bias and cognitive distortion. Here, the scientific method helps us, and here it is perfectly appropriate to rely provisionally on the consensus of scientists.

I haven't gone back to see what Peirce actually said, but wow! what a brilliant view. Unapologetically scientific, with all the optimism of Peirce's time. We need more of that.

1 comment:

  1. Ya know...one thing that has always bugged me is when people say that scientists always get it wrong because they see an article that has a headline like "such and such theory has been disproved by new research" its like they dont understand that is exactly how science works. and in most cases it isn't that the two theories conflict, usually it is that the newer theory rifines the older one.

    Science reporting in the states sucks!

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