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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Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.

This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.

Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:

‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue  from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)

This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:

‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)

 

T.F.Torrance, Michael Polanyi and Ultimate Beliefs

In his book ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge’, T.F. Torrance devotes an essay to examining what he calls ‘ultimate beliefs’ and their effect on the natural sciences. Here’s a few relevant sections with some of my comments:

‘…the controlling statements with which we operate in science are both unfalsifiable and unverifiable. They are statements which express what we have called ultimate beliefs, beliefs without which there would be no science at all, beliefs which play a normative role in the gaining and developing of knowledge. Yet these ultimate beliefs are by their very nature irrefutable and unprovable. They are irrefutable and unprovable on two grounds: (1) because they have to be assumed in any attempt at rational proof or disproof; and (2) because they involve a relation of thought to being which cannot be put into logical or demonstrable form. Ultimate beliefs, then, are to be understood as expressing the fundamental commitment of the mind to reality, which rational knowledge presupposes and on which the reason relies in any authentic thrust towards truth.’ (p. 194) 

The fundamental commitment is important here – Torrance took from Polanyi the idea that trust, commitment and obligation are key aspects of our knowledge in the natural sciences, and I’ll come back to it here. The basic point to be taken here is that ultimate beliefs operate at a level which formal logic and proofs don’t apply because of their tacit nature. Continuing on:

‘Far from being irrational or non-rational, these beliefs have to do with the ontological reference of the reason to the nature and structure of things, which all explicit forms of reasoning are intended to serve, and without which they are blind and impotent. It is indeed not finally through formal reasoning that knowledge is advanced, but through the responsible commitment to reality in which are minds fall under the normative insights or ultimate beliefs which prompt and guide our inquiries, which enable us to interpret our experiences and observations, and which direct the reasoning operations of our inquiries to their true ends.’ (p. 194)

This goes back to the fundamental commitment – the commitment is essential for knowledge to be  and for reasoning itself to function. This commitment, where the mind falls under the ultimate beliefs, is what Polanyi called the ‘fiduciary framework’, which also includes a rational obligation for us to think in accordance with the revealed structures of reality – thinkng after the nature of things, to use Torrance’s maxim. This, for Torrance as well as the classical Christian tradition, is more or less the definition of faith. Continuing:

‘Since this is the case, it is irrational to contrast faith and reason, for faith is the very mode of rationality adopted by the reason in its fidelity to what it seeks to understand, and as such faith constitutes the most basic form of knowledge upon which all subsequent rational inquiry proceeds. There could be no rational inquiry, no reflective thought without prior, informal knowledge grounded in experience and formed through the adaption of our minds faithfully to the nature of things, in the course of which our basic beliefs arise.’ (194)

We could map out Torrance’s idea out roughly like this thus far:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs

The act of fundamental commitment arises when our mind falls under the normative ultimate beliefs – there is an obligation to think after the nature of things which one has to personally commit to so as to not fall into irrationality:

‘The ultimate beliefs…are objectively grounded in, and ontologically derived from, the intelligibility of the real world so independent of our understanding that it reaches out in an objective depth far beyond what we can bring within the range of any masterful comprehending on our part. Beliefs of this kind, calling us to personal commitment, differ from the natural beliefs of David Hume, which he spoke of as causally induced determinations of the mind, and not as free acts resting on grounds or reason. According to Polanyi,’Every belief is both a free gift and a payment of a tribute exacted from us. It is held on the personal responsibility of the believer, yet in the clear assumption that he cannot do otherwise.’ In other words, belif is at once a free and obligatory act, an act which we cannot rationally resist: it is thrust upon us from the given.’ (p. 197)

Here our map can be extended:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs —–> rational obligation —–> personal commitment 

What both Torrance and Polanyi both stress, as can be seen here, is the element of trust, commitment and obligation in the gaining of scientific knowledge. Ultimate beliefs forms the fiduciary framework within which we can commit to reality and so inquire more deeply into reality.

 

Polanyi on Intellectual Passions

‘Intellectual passions do not merely affirm the existence of harmonies which foreshadow an indeterminate range of future discoveries, but can also evoke intimations of specific discoveries and sustain their persistent pursuit throughout years of labour. The appreciate of scientific value merges here into the capacity for discovering it; even as the artist’s sensibility merges into his creative powers. Such is the heuristic function of scientific passion.

Scientists – that is, creative scientists – spend their lives in trying to guess right. They are sustained and guided therein by their heuristic passion. We call their work creative because it changes the world as we see it, by deepening our understanding of it. The change is irrevocable. A problem that I have once solved can no longer puzzle me; I cannot guess what I already know. Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world again as before. My eyes have become different; I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently. I have crossed a gap, the heuristic gap which lies between problem and discovery.

Major discoveries change our interpretive framework. Hence it is logically impossible to arrive at these by the continued application of our previous 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.’ (Michael Polanyi ,’Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy’, p. 143)