Tuesday, June 12, 2012

John Wilkins on Pluralism

It's been awhile since I've visited John Wilkins' Evolving Thoughts. So I popped over there last evening and found this long and most interesting post: Knight’s Song, or What is a [scientific] theory? Indeed, what IS a theory? It's a perplexing question–right next to What's an idea?–and John has some worthwhile thoughts, with no less than six "senses" for what a theory might be.

But what caught me especial attention was three paragraphs near the end, in a discussion of scientific domains, what are they? They play to my interest in ontological pluralism (cf. my remarks on Kuhn and Harman):
Attempts to formulate ontologies of domains also typically derive from the theoretical commitments of the domain (atoms are part of the domain of physics, while pain sensations aren’t); so if the theoretical commitments are sui generis to the domain because the nature of “theory” in that domain is unique also, we have a problem of ontological relativity, which may or may not be a problem, depending on how you think ontologies should be handled.

This is, in effect, an argument for a descriptive pluralism. Pluralisms are often thought of as some kind of failure or postmodern relativism, but I see them rather differently. We start our investigations of things based on the phenomena that present themselves to our inspection. Since we have prior sensory, social and conceptual commitments which may or may not be reliable guides to the structure of the world, we very often have to revise our concepts to fit what we learn by investigation. So, “fish” no longer means any thing that lives in water and moves of its own accord, and humans are now apes. Pluralism is a necessary aspect of discovering that the world wasn’t structured the way we naively thought it was. It is a recognition that words matter less than the world they describe.

But this indicates something about science that is so obvious as to almost not need saying: evidence – observation, measurement and experiment – takes priority over theory. That is perhaps a dumb thing to say, or perhaps it is so dangerous as to be obviously false, depending on what you think about our ways of knowing and explaining (theoretical constructionists would take the latter tack). But I think that theories, and domains demarcated by theories, are definable solely in terms of their being something other than evidence. In short, a theory is what evidence isn’t.

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