Monday, November 14, 2011
The attitude towards science
There is no fixed amount of knowledge, even not at a certain moment. I have asserted this in my last blog and I have explained it in previous blogs. But besides that, I think that the idea there is shows a wrong attitude towards knowledge. It’s a bit like: that’s what we have already. Although it is true that today we “know” a lot more than in the past and that there are good reasons to value it, I think that for a scientist it is the wrong attitude. This becomes clear when we consider what knowledge is: justified true belief, as a standard definition runs. But already this rough definition, which goes back to Plato and which since then has been the starting point for any discussion on what knowledge is (albeit often in the background), raises a lot of questions, such as: When is a belief justified? What is true? What is a belief? For whom does this belief exist? And for each answer, many new questions can be raised. It is not without reason that Karl R. Popper came to the conclusion that “we can never rationally justify a theory … but we can, if we are lucky, rationally justify a preference for one theory out of a set of competing theories, for the time being”. The presently accepted theory is nothing more than the best approximation to the truth we have. (Popper, Objective Knowledge, p. 82) In other words, the right attitude towards knowledge is not: that’s what we have but, as once a Dutch electronics company said, “Let’s make things better”. This can be reached only by not taking the “facts”, the knowledge we have gathered, as a starting point but by starting from the method to come to the facts: Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, or rather any method that leads to a critical attitude towards the facts. It is the scientific skepticism of Descartes (and before him already Montaigne). That’s one pillar of knowledge. The other pillar or at least another pillar is, of course, man, the one who makes knowledge and for whom knowledge is made. But man as such does not exist; only individual men and women do, and this is the other reason that there is no knowledge as such but only knowledge for someone (or for a community of kindred spirits at most), as Karl-Otto Apel explained. Therefore a characterization of knowledge as methodically justified interpreted belief would better fit with what scientists actually do.