KARL JASPERS FORUM
Commentary 65 (Reply to C62 Patlavskiy)
WHAT ARE THE FACTS?
by William A. Adams
4 October 2009, posted 17 October 2009
Serge Patlavskiy wants to take sensory observation for granted and focus exclusively on socially generated explanations. This attitude is at the heart of many problems in science today. Scientists are blind to the mechanism of basic observation, preferring simply to assume that veridical observations appear in the mind by magic, are objective, and equally available to any properly trained and equipped observer. Actually, simple observations are, as far as we can tell, apparent in about the same quality to comparable observers. We gather around, we look at the thing, and we tacitly agree that we all see about the same thing, and that is the observational fact.
But self-blindness to the mechanics of collective observation becomes a serious problem when we attempt to apply science to phenomena that are NOT apparent to comparable observers, such as mental phenomena. As the early introspectionists of the late 19th and early 20th century in Germany and America quickly discovered, there was no consensus about what the basic observations were, not even among observers in the same laboratory. That lack of agreement about what the observation is heralded the end of the introspectionist movement.
Why is there virtually automatic agreement about basic scientific observations in the natural sciences, but virtually no agreement about mental observations in introspection, cognitive psychology, psychometrics, consciousness studies, and much of experimental psychology today? My thesis is that the difference is that the sensory biology of observers, being so similar across individuals, from eyeballs to cortex, essentially guarantees consensus on what the basic sensory observation was. By contrast, with mental observations, similar biology is apparently no guarantee of consensus about the nature of the basic observations. That difference points out the importance of the role of biology as the common denominator in empirical science.
Even the apparent consensus about basic observations generated by sensory biology is not as robust as it may seem. Especially where radically novel phenomena are concerned, scientists may not be able to agree on what the basic observation is, despite common sensory biology. For example, early astronomers saw “ears” on the sides of Saturn, because nobody expected there would be rings around the planet. The history of science is replete with such examples. So it is better for a robust philosophy of science to NOT presuppose that sensory observations are automatically present to the mind, but instead to analyze exactly what determines the remarkable fact that individuals from all parts of the world will immediately agree whether a litmus paper is blue or pink. That is not something one would expect by default, and in fact it does not occur for mental observations. Why does it occur for sensory observations?
Serge apparently uses a much broader definition of “empirical” than I do. He includes as “empirical observations” the fact of human conscience, premonitions, and the phenomenon of the “evil eye” (C45 <4>). These do NOT count as empirical observations for me, but mere beliefs, opinions, hypotheses, or theory-statements. “Empirical” is widely understood in philosophy of science to mean derived from observation. Observation is commonly understood as “an activity of a living being, consisting of receiving knowledge of the outside world through the senses, or the recording of data using scientific instruments.” (e.g., Wikipedia). That definition is important because it specifies that scientific explanations must NOT be founded entirely upon theoretical explanations, but upon empirical (sensory) observations. That stipulation is why Freud’s theory is generally not accepted as a scientific theory, and why the “science of introspection” was abandoned in 1927, why there is no “science of consciousness” today.
I agree with Serge that scientists must use social, logical, and linguistic interactions to develop consensus explanations of observations. But there is nothing to explain until there is agreement on what the basic observation was. For science, the basic observations are empirical, and agreement about empirical observations depends, I submit, on biological commonality. I am open to alternative explanation of how agreement among individuals occurs on empirical observations.
So, circling back to the origins of this discussion, my thesis was and is that science differs from religion most basically in that religious explanations are not founded on sensory observation, whereas scientific ones are. That is, religion is not empirical, but science is. Granted, within both domains, once the basic facts are agreed upon, the elaboration of explanation proceeds in similar fashion. The difference is in that very first step: what ARE the basic facts? The scientific answer can appeal to empiricism. The religious answer must appeal to tradition and authority, about which there is much less widespread agreement.
As for Serge’s perception of an ad hominem attack in my last post, I am mystified, but I apologize for any unintended offense. I am unable to identify the offending passage in my message. I agree that such arguments are inappropriate.