Theory-Ladenness, the Given, Intellectual Passion and Theory Development

Over the last half-century or so, a particular story about philosophy has come under fire. Typically called ‘the myth of the given’, it’s the idea that there is ‘given’ in experience come content upon which we can build our structures of knowledge. Prominent modern criticis include Sellars and Rorty, though criticisms of this story aren’t new to the modern era – Thomas Reid, a contemporary of Hume, directed some pretty serious arguments against ‘the way of ideas’ – the theory that what we perceive directly are ideas, or representations, of the world. Another term common in the early 20th century was ‘sense’datum’, found in the work of Russell and Moore.

The main critiques of this family of ideas, as I see it, come from Sellars, Rorty and Reid. Sellars argues along epistemic lines – our immediately perceived ‘given’ doesn’t justify any other beliefs, contra classical foundationalism, which states (broadly) that a properly functioning noetic structure will, once you trace it all out, have its foundation in a set of immediately justified/perceived beliefs, on the basis of which other beliefs can be formed. Sellars, as stated above, basically says that our apprehension of the given, that is, our immediate perception of the given and the consequent immediate justification, doesn’t justify any further beliefs. Hence, the given cannot serve as a foundation.

Reid, characteristically enough, takes a more common-sense approach, and notes that if we take the way of ideas to be the case, three big problems present themselves: (1) that ideas/given don’t have any explanatory power – he doesn’t see how it’s the case that the perception of ideas does any more explanatory lifting than direct perception of objects – (2) representationalism leads to infinite regress (which has some similarities to Plato’s third-man argument) – and (3) the great skeptical problems of the early moderns – how do I know that my mental representations represent reality accurately? Rorty takes roughly similar lines to Reid’s third point, and from there develops some of his more (in)famous dissolution schemes for the mind. For further reference, the SEP article on Reid is fantastic.

The takeaway from this brief genealogy is this: the idea (haw haw) that we construct our structures of knowledge out of ‘given’ sense-data or ideas (read: empiricism) is, if not untenable, pretty shaky.

A further development of the critique of this philosophical story comes from the philosophy of science: the theory-ladenness of science. This idea states, more or less, that all observation is ‘theory-laden’ or conditioned by prior knowledge – what we see depends on our ‘theories’. The classical example is that of Aristotle and Copernicus looking at the sun – both are looking at the same star, but both see two completely different objects because of their theories. This is a fairly radical idea – this isn’t simply the fact that people interpret data different, but rather the theory-ladenness of science states that there is no neutrel data given. While Sellars’ critique is more epistemic (one could hold to his idea while affirming the existence of the given) theory-ladenness allows no such luxury. Two different observers with two different theories literally see two different objects. For a much fuller and substantially more technical discussion, head here.

Another interesting idea to come ffrom the philosophy of science (which I’ll only mention briefly to save time) is the idea of incommensurability – two different theories cannot map onto each other point-for-point. This thesis is tied to Kuhn and Feyerabend, and generally cashes out to saying that there is no neutral language which different theories can be translted into without some loss of information or meaning.

What’s the payoff here, then? Where does all this leaves us? In a way, I’m not quite sure. We can clearly see that, with the above ideas in hand, that science and theory-development is far from a cold, value-free logical enterprise, a mere accumulation and manipulation of the facts – science and theory-development is a thoroughly human undertaking.

All our scientific research and theory-development takes place within a framework of prior knowledge – this is the theory-ladenness of science. This framework is what enables us to ‘see’, as it were – let’s call this frameowork our ‘eyes’. As we continue to research and develop – less by shutting up and calculating and more by way of instinct-led groping – we make discoveries. Things are discovered which change the framework – which changes our eyes, so to speak. Thus Polanyi:

‘Major discoveries change our interpretive frameowork. Hence it is logically impossible to arrive at these by the continued application of our previous interpretive framework. So we see once more that discovery is creative, in the sense that it is not to be achieved by the diligent performance of any previously known and specifiable procedure. This strengthens our conception of originality.. The application of existing rules can produce valuable surveys, but does not advance the principles of science. We have to cross the logical gap between a problem and its solution by relying on the unspecifiable  impulse of our heuristic passion, and must undergo as we do so a change  of our intellectual personality. Like all ventures  in which we comprehensively dispose of ourselves, such an intentional change of our personality requires a passionate motive to accomplish it. Originality must be passionate.’ (‘Personal Knowledge’, p. 143)

‘From the start of this book [Personal Knowledge] I have had occasion, in various contexts to refer to the overwhelming elation felt by scientists at the moment of discovery, an elation of a kind which only a scientist can feel and which science alone can evoke in him. In the very first chapter I quoted the famous passage in which Kepler announced the discovery of his Third Law: “nothing holds me; I will indulge my sacred fury.” The outbreak of such emotions in the course of discovery is well known, but they are not thought to affect the outcome of discovery. Science is regarded as objectively established in spite of its passionate origins. It should be clear by this time that I dissent from that belief; and I have now come to the point at which I want to deal explicitly with passions in science. I want to show that scientific passions are no mere psychological by-product, but have a logical function which contributes an indispensable element to science. They responded to an essential quality in a scientific statement and may accordingly be said to be right or wrong, depending on whether we acknowledge or deny the presence of that quality in it.

What is this quality? Passions charge objects with emotions, making them repulsive or attractive; positive passions affirm that something is precious. The excitement of the scientist making a discovery is an intellectual passion, telling that something is intellectually precious and, more particularly, that it is precious to science . And this affirmation forms part of science. The words of Kepler which I quoted were not a statement of fact, but neither were they merely a report of Kepler’s personal feelings. They asserted as a valid affirmation of science something else than a fact: namely the scientific interest of certain facts, the facts just discovered by Kepler. They affirmed, indeed, that these facts are immense scientific interest and will be so regarded as long as knowledge lasts. Nor was Kepler deceived in this majestic sentiment. The passing centuries have paid their cumulative tribute to his vision, and so, I believe, will the centuries yet to come.

The function which I attribute here to scientific passion is that of distinguishing between demonstrable facts which are of scientific interest, and those which are not. Only a tiny fraction of all knowable facts are of interest to scientists, and scientific passion serves also as a guide in the assessment of what is of higher and what of lesser interest; what is great in science, and what relatively slight. I want to show that this appreciation depends ultimately on a sense of intellectual beauty; that it is an emotional response which can never be dispassionately defined, any more than we can dispassionately define the beauty of a work of art or the excellence of a noble action.

Scientific discovery reveals new knowledge, but the new vision which accompanies it is not knowledge. It is less than knowledge, for it is a guess; but is more than knowledge, for it is a foreknowledge of things yet unknown and at present perhaps inconceivable. Our vision of the general nature of things is our guide for the interpretation of all future experience. Such guidance is indispensable. Theories of the scientific method which try to explain the establishment of scientific truth by any purely objective formal procedure are doomed to failure. Any process of enquiry unguided by intellectual passions would inevitably spread out into a desert of trivialities. Our vision of reality, to which our sense of scientific beauty responds, must suggest to use the kind of questions that it should be reasonable and interesting to explore. It should recommend the kind of conceptions and empirical relations that are intrinsically plausible and which should therefore be upheld, even when some evidence seems to contradict them, and tell us also, on the other hand, what empirical connections to reject as specious, even though there is evidence for them – evidence that we may as yet be unable to account for on any other assumptions. In fact, without a scale of interest and plausibility based on a vision of reality, nothing can be discovered that is of value to science; and only our grasp of scientific beauty, responding to the evidence of our senses, can evoke this vision.’ (p. 133-135)

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