Science as story telling

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the public on-line forum area for Phil 310 = Bio 310 at Bryn Mawr College. This is not a required part of the course. It is, though, a way to keep course conversations going between meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our course conversations available to others who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. I'll be posting my thoughts in progress here throughout the course, and would be delighted to have others join in. 

Feel free to write about whatever has been on your mind this week.  The focus of class discussion was on science as "story telling", and "generativity" as an alternative to correspondence theories as a criterion for scientific progress.  

Paul Grobstein's picture

Science: a story telling/revising process? ... itself evolving?

A rich conversation, as always, starting with the theme of last week: alternatives to realism and constructivism. MK noted that one such is "regulative" realism/constructivism, ie taking either realism or constructivism as a working position but without a metaphysical commitment (and with the possibility of switching between them depending on circumstances). Along this line, he added that his early remark about death as a story being "disingenuous" warranted some reconsideration. Death is viewed differently in different cultures, should be accepted as a "datum" but can be viewed in different ways, as per Goodman. MK also briefly mentioned recent work by Harrison and Hanna, deconstructing the realist/constructivist distinction as itself an outcome of category construction from a distinct perspective (and hence not itself the only possible way to see things). Harrison and Hanna offer the alternatives of "constructive realism" and "Wittgensteinian realism," preserving some of our intuitive sense of a distinction between what is out there and what we in turn make of it.

From there the conversation turned to a consideration of "pragmatic multiplism" in the specific case of scientific practice, based on a description and critique of science as story telling/revising ably provided by Ashton and strongly built on by MK. The practice of science could in principle be seen as nothing more (and nothing less) than an ongoing process of collecting observations and creating "stories" to account for them, with the stories always subject to revision based on new observations. There is, on this view, no need for any appeal to a "reality" independent of the process of observation and story telling/revision to account for the process of science nor for its motivation or its progressive character. All that is involved is a repeating process of empirical inquiry (of a sort that humans and other entities do naturally and spontaneously), of "getting it less wrong" (which is not the same as "getting it more right" since there is no assurance of (nor need for) movement toward any particular end state). This process is a fundamentally social one, in which both observations and stories are shared and stories are tested against one another to see which ones achieve at any given time preferred status as reflective of the widest array of perspectives (approximating a "view from everywhere" rather than a "view from nowhere").

How well does the "pragmatic multiplist" story of science achieve that? Where does it rub (productively?) against other stories of science? of life? Could one accept science simply as the "dynamic combination of curiosity and skepticism that fuels all inquiry"? Some important elements of the story that caught peoples' attention is that it replaces "objectivity" with an acceptance of fundamental subjectivity, and a valuing of that, that it challenges both "predictability" and "coherence" as the primary test of science, that is substantially blurs the borders between science and art, and life, and that it uses as a major test at any given time the achievement of new "jumping off points", understandings that in turn motivate new understandings ("generativity").

Some people were comfortable with these. Others weren't, suggesting that science, like ambiguous figures, can be seen in different ways and that things outside of the actual doing of science itself incline one to prefer one story of science over another. Some people want something more firm/reliable than "stories", some assurance that one is building on a solid foundation that provides a way to adjudicate between contradictions. Some wanted a clearer "goal" for science, something that justifies the process beyond the process itself (to distinguish it from the playing one does as a child). Some wanted a clearer demarcation of science from art (science revises while art doesn't?, science "explains" while art doesn't?, scientists wouldn't say something they do is "self-expression" while artists would?). And some wanted a clearer border between science and not only play but life in general (is the act of mourining, or commiserating science?).

A major issue that arose toward the end of the conversation was a concern about seeing science in terms of "generativity", ie in terms of creating new things. Is science appropriately thought of as akin to the fashion industry?, having novelty as a primary drive? Is "newness" an adequate criterion for adjudication between stories? Does this conflict with "getting it less wrong"? Or is there a way to see both the pragmatic and the novelty generation as significant and reciprocally significant characteristics?

One might suggest that a common theme uniting those comfortable with the story telling/revising story of science is a willingness to accept, perhaps even enjoy, the idea that science is not a fixed entity but rather one that continually and somewhat unpredictably evolves. And that a common theme among those uncomfortable with it is ... a preference, for one reason or another, to see science as something to be constrained within pre-existing and well-defined borders?

It will be interesting indeed to see whether this or any other story of science succeeds, by the end of the course, in better approximating a "view from everywhere" or whether, instead, we continue to have/evolve different perspectives that in turn yield different stories of science.