Charlton, a New Pragmatism, and the Philosophy of Investigation

I was once in a talk with the philosopher of science Susan Haack, and someone asked: “What is your definition of science?” Her reply was something like: “Doing your d***ed best to figure things out.”

Bruce Charlton says many interesting things about epistemology and philosophy of science in his post here. The views he outlines could be called a new pragmatism.


“[T]he failure to answer philosophical questions has led to the arbitrary manufacture of ‘answers’ which are then imposed by diktat. So that a failure to discover scientific methodology led to the arbitrary universal solution of peer review (science by vote), the failure to understand medical discovery led (inter alia) to the arbitrary imposition of irrelevant statistical models (p < 0.05 as a truth machine).”

(Also see here for a specific discussion of Random Controlled Trials.)

He continues:

“Yet, science is not a specific methodology, nor is it a specific set of people, nor is it a special process, nor is it distinctively defined by having an unique aim – so that common sense does lie at the heart of science, as it does of all human endeavor.”

‘Science’ is an instance of investigation, and has much to learn from pursuits such as computer coding, cooking, figuring out what the problem is with a motorbike, or, really, figuring anything out. What’s important about science can be informed from many different pursuits, and people are doing ‘science’ all the time without calling it such. In a way, there’s nothing distinct about science.

Some scientists don’t like this, because it makes what they do sound less rarefied, and less ‘high status’.

Science – when it succeeds – is much more about what one could call ‘common science’ – figuring things out using techniques and tools which are common to and come from a large number of things we do, and not from a refined epistemology.

Charlton continues:

“It is striking that so many writers on science are so focused on how it is decided whether science is true, and whether the process of evaluating truth is itself valid. Yet in ‘life’ we are almost indifferent to these questions – despite that we stake our lives on the outcomes.”

“How do we decide who to marry? How do we decide whether it is safe to walk down the street? How do we decide whether or not something is edible – or perhaps poisonous?

Such questions are – for each of us – more important, much more important, than the truth of any specific scientific paper – yet (if we are functional) we do not obsess on how we know for certain and with no possibility of error that our answers are correct.

[…] The result of detached, isolated, undisciplined philosophical enquiry is usually to undermine without underpinning.”

He concludes with:

“Epistemology currently functions as a weapon which favours the powerful – because only the strong can impose (unanswerable) questions on the weak; and ungrounded and impatient epistemological discourse is terminated not by reaching an answer – but by enforcing an answer.”

The charge that something “isn’t scientific” – to the extent it is a useful phrase – is probably better rephrased as “this doesn’t fit with other things we’re pretty sure about, so how can you square them?” or “have you really tried to figure out if this is true?” or “there’s an obvious competing theory that can explain this, why do you prefer this theory instead of that one?” Phrasing the question this way moves science away from a hallowed – and somewhat inaccessible – realm, and into the chaotic, muddy, life-and-death world of everyday investigation.

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