Monday, December 01, 2008

Objectivity and Consensus

Tibor R, Machan

The radical skeptic regarding gaining knowledge about the world will tend to trust the empirical sciences above other means of investigation. Several issues arise, though, Scientist do not all deploy identical methods across the sciences. Botany and physiology study differently as do astrophysics and subatomic physics. That’s because the method of study needs to be fitted to the object of study. This is one reason that subatomic physicists, find it difficult to reconcile their work with astrophysicists--Stanford University’s Leonard Susskind versus Cambridge University’s Stephen Hawking.

Because the human form of consciousness a quite complex, its study, too, will involve comparably subtle tools and approaches. And, of course, the tools of study, instruments of measurement, medication, etc., will vary from field to field.

The diversity of rational approaches is evident also in how readily scholar argue. Even among ordinary folks there is less argument about, say, where the line divides a road, one side going there, another here. Other than for those whose faculties are impaired, disputation in these simple regions are rare.

Consider, for illustrative purposes, that the same people who drove to work on some express highway at 75 mph and had no trouble agreeing on where the curbs, lines, and signs stood and what they meant will enter their work and begin to argue about various issues related to their subject matters, often bearing on the making of public policy,

Is reality suffering from innate instability, as some physicists have been claiming, so measurements are in principle and practice not possible to undertake and agree about? Are the instruments badly designed? Are the students themselves impeded by differences in the way their faculties operate? Or are the individuals themselves exercising their cognitive capacities differentially--plainly put, are some slower than others, more distracted, less attentive, etc.?

Or perhaps when tasks turn out to be surrounded with many contingencies, lots of variables, and are undertaken by scholars with varied capacities, willingness, interests, and influences on their thinking--including that neglected influence of their own varied levels of attentiveness and focus--disagreements multiply. At that point it becomes tempting to ascribe responsibility to the way the world itself works, not to human shortcomings, to alleged innate irrationalities about the world, much vagueness or many ambiguities. This is suggested by those who take some epistemological challenges passed to human knowledge at the subatomic level and generalize or extrapolate it to all cases of our knowing the world.

Take, for example, that the future president’s economists drive to their offices in considerable harmony, with no intransigencies plaguing their trip but once they sit down at the round table and begin to discuss the country’s economic wows, varied opinion become routine. Why? Is it because the world is so messy that no rhyme or reason can be attained from studying it? Or is it that such coordinated study requires enormous unity of purpose and similarity of approach, otherwise the results will be mixed and that can lead skeptics to declare the effort hopeless.

If there is anything that shows that human beings are free agents, not determined to act as they do, their ubiquitous disagreements certainly suggest it. The varied beliefs people hold about God, free will, democracy, child raising and zillions of other topics shows that they need to be very much in self-control, very focused, very skilled so as to reach similar conclusions. And they need to keep in mind the philosophical issue, the one that emerges out of the study of metaphysics, that at bottom the world is and can be nothing else but internally consistent. This is implicitly acknowledge by most scholars and scientists when they do not rest until they come up with a theory that excludes contradictions. Just as at a criminal trial, if a witness makes a contradictory claim that claim is discredited, the same is true in science and everywhere else where we want to know about the world.

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