Google and the End of Science
Bringing it all back Hume
Between a metaphysical horned entity and an undulating patch of blue
The historically influential ideas in science I've described are all consonant with Empiricism. This notion has been a philosophical constant, even as different theories and justifications of science and scientific method arose, revolved around it, and fell away with new turns of history. The connection between science and empiricism has become identification - empiricism is spoken of as the methodology of science.
But from Hume's quite specific (and contingent) difficulty with causation, through to logical positivism's broad (and necessary?) demarcation of science, it's possible to separate the preoccupations of philosophers and those of scientists. The former have managed, despite the success of the latter, to put into doubt one or other part of the narrative (for want of a better word) of what constitutes science and its method. The difficulties have been negotiated rather than resolved. Which leaves the state of play where?
At a time when reinterpreting concepts like "causation" is seen as methodologically viable, then abolishing referents in favour of interpretations obtains legitimacy as a means of justification. But it also sets the stage for interpreting observational evidence, the basic raw material of science, with the focus on consistency with extant interpretations. The logic of some contemporary scientific explanations would not particularly disconcert ancient Greeks, who explained events in terms of the action of divers gods on obdurate matter.
If being seen to dabble with occult agencies is unacceptable to scientists, it may be thought that Anderson's option is viable - is it such a big deal for a scientist to hack up a bit of code? An ontology-free science would still be able to distinguishing itself from myths of sundry sorts, while demonstrating superior efficacy in practise.
Anderson's thesis of the "end of theory" is the logical consequence of letting philosophical Empiricism set the agenda for the "reflective practise" (to use a current buzz-word) of scientists. In effect it is not very different from the conclusion reached by Bishop Berkeley, Hume's philosophical predecessor, in regard to knowledge - things exist only as long as I am perceiving them.
Anderson has recognized that when instruments take the measurements for science, human perception is no longer relevant within the Berkelian epistemology. Cue Occam's razor. The novelty in Anderson's thesis is the assertion that technology has advanced to the point where the empiricist theory of knowledge can be executed as a practical program. Concerns about job security are the least of it. But then Anderson is not doing science, but metaphysics.
However, Anderson's identification of Google, everyone's favourite internet research tool, as his engine of choice for the destruction of science is not the only way forward. The alternative suggested here is to revisit the premises of the historical arguments - and reject empiricism as a metaphysical basis for science. Its disjunction of logic and experience as accounting fully for the sources of knowledge remains an open invitation to all-comers. Hume effectively knew it, and there is no stigma attached to citing Hume, as his rigour and subtlety as a philosopher continues to inspire even today.
So the irony is that science, having made its tribal lay with the philosophical school of empiricism over three centuries ago, and seemingly having derived sustenance from it, now has to kill it to go forward. The alternative for scientific theorising, if Anderson is correct, is to be killed by it - by it and Google.
Never has hard thinking been more required.®
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