Empirical Non-Foundationalism

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 From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide to Inquiry.
Paul Grobstein's picture

empirical non-foundationalism: a basis for science (and ...) ?

Very interesting/useful conversation, with paper well-laid out by Ian, and a number of significant issues raised by him, MK, and others. Against a background of Kuhn's suggestion of a science "without benefit of a set goal, a permanent fixed scientific truth" and several questions form last week ...

  • Can science be understood without "logical refutability"?
  • Is science simply "fashion"?
  • Can we reinstate "goals" (intentionality) in science? in human affairs generally?
  • Is there/do we need a demarcation between science and art?

Empirical non-foundationalism would have it that there are only observations, and the stories we make of them, that much of what we observe and much of how we make stories about that has an "emergent" character (ie involve patterns for which there is neither an architect or a conductor), that that process of emergence is continuing but has also given rise to inquirers who do have both architectual and conducting capabilities, and hence that neither "Truth" nor "Reality" (as concepts independent of the process of inquiry) are useful criteria by which to evaluate our understandings. What we should focus on instead is our own influence on the process of emergence and are capability to take it in directions it might not otherwise go, by conceiving new possibilities and altering existing "realities" to bring them into existence. The point of science is not to understand or predict "reality" but rather to create new forms of it. It seeks not "truth" but novelty. And can make good use of multiple "incomensurate" understandings to generate such novelty.

One expressed concern had to do with whether we in fact can change the world, not only the world we obviously make (our own understandings and the social world) but the non-human world as well. "Top-down" causation is an important element of "empirical non-foundationalism", an acknowledgement that we are indeed agents of change in other biological systems and in physical ones as well. It is most apparent in thinking about research on the brain, where changes in our understanding of the object of inquiry change the object itself but we also clearly influence the biological world by our studies of it and, in many ways the chemical and physical worlds as well. A reliance on top-down causation is also essential for a "non-foundationalist" posture in inquiry, since that requires the ability to challenge any and all "first principles" of inquiry itself.

A second set of concerns had to do with the meaning of "intentionality". MK pointed out the use of this term by phenomonologists to signal that something has "meaning" within a social community, rather than that it results from an architectual intent or plan. Interestingly, the two senses of "intentionality" are blended in the empirical non-foundationalism perspective. That which has meaning in a social community has it because the community consists of entities that give meaning to things through their conductor/architect capabilities. A lily has "intentionality" to humans, but not to other lilies.

A third set of concerns had to do with whether "non-foundationalism" is equivilent to "fallibilism", in which case it is, despite appearances?, a return to Popper. Related to this was the question of whether "getting it less wrong" is or is not the same as "getting more right." One can generate multiple "stories" to account for any given sequence of numbers (set of observations) and establish the wrongness of any particular story with an additional observation. There remain however an infinite number of stories by which to predict the next observation and therefore one isn't in any sense getting more "right". This, though, raises the question of whether there is a hidden "success condition" in empirical inquiry, and the issue of whether one starts with foundational "observations" or uses some criteria for selecting those that itself creates a "more right" condition. Perhaps one should speak in terms of achieving less transient (more "persistant") understandings rather than less wrong ones.

I also realized that there is a need to make clearer the relation between "less wrong" (or less transient) and "generative". The former is in fact very Popperian/empiricist. The latter is the additional feature that makes inquiry "hybrid" and involves the deliberate ("intentional" in both senses) questioning of foundations and contrasting incomensurables from which the creation of new things occurs.

The issue of the relation between science and art and whether there needs to be a demarcation between them got less attention in this discussion than in previous ones, but turned up as a main theme in several student papers. Maybe we'll return to that as we look this coming week at other paths by which one might come to an understanding of science (and inquiry in general) as less dependent on concepts of objectivity, truth, and reality.