Saturday, 31 October 2015

What is Empircism? Back to Hume...

The distinction between a-priori and a-posteriori is one of those polar distinctions which philosophy teachers love as they lead students into the murky depths of thought. Despite the terrible brain-aching tangles that philosophy presents, at least we can rely on the difference between proposition that derives from experience, and propositions whose truth might be determined analytically or intuitively. Aposteriori justifications of truth are empirical. But what, exactly, does that mean?

Where is the boundary between empirical experience and intuitive understanding? This is why the philosophy of science occupies such a critical place in philosophy more generally - because unless we can grasp the relationship between experience and knowledge, the grounds for further philosophical judgement are fragile. David Hume's work - which focused directly on this issue - occupies the central turning point in modern enlightenment thought. It is through the critique of Hume that modern-day realists have established their own new philosophies of science; it is through Hume's insights that Kant revolutionised philosophy by being half as sceptical as Hume in arguing for a 'natural necessity', or the supposition that there are causal regularities in nature, which Hume rejected; it is Hume who inadvertently codified scientific empirical practice which gradually withdrew from his social-constructivist, reality-sceptical stance, and moved towards objectivism and positivism; it is still Hume to whom others, including 'speculative realists', turn and wonder if he was right all along; and it is Hume who ought to be more widely known among cyberneticians in their efforts to establish a coherent sceptical scientific approach.

As far as Hume was concerned, an experiment was a practice of acquiring knowledge through establishing the material conditions for the production of regular successions of events which could then be discussed amongst scientists. Scientific knowledge was discursively produced, but it required some material grounding so as to coordinate the discussion. Hume did not consider the material grounding of scientist's bodies, or the factors bearing upon their material practices inherent in their pre-established ideas, or custom and practice in the construction of apparatus. All of these questions have been raised more recently by science studies scholars like Karen Barad. But what Hume did believe was that the actual nature of the world was essentially unknowable; that there was no reason why there were actual regularities in nature (his famous scepticism about the movement of billiard balls), whatever scientists might agree on through their experiments: what mattered was the discussion, and in order for the discussion to give rise to scientific judgement, it had to be coherently grounded.

The engagement with the problem of bodies, matter and ideas now throws open this fundamental problem of coherence of discourse. Modern science risks intoxication with the results of instruments, where the impact of technological instrumental results frames society. Technologies change society, and if there is a lack of critical engagement with the computer technologies that perform our analyses, we will enslave ourselves to technology. This is the warning to neuroscientists believing the coloured lights in brain-maps as much as it is to the big-data scientists staring at node-clusters, or the genetic engineers putting too much faith in the genome. Too much science has become instrumental rather than intelligent. There is of course a critical discourse which points these things out - but crucially, there is no connection between the scientists working with their instruments, and the critics warning of the dangers. There urgently needs to be this connection if knowledge is not to be lost.

The problem is that we have not yet found a way of coordinating a critical debate about science, instruments, technology and experiments alongside a sociological and psychological debate. The discourse gets fragmented, people talk at cross-purposes, identities are challenged and egos do their worst. This is where Hume's attempts to ground scientific discourse in the 18th century may help us as we try to ground the scientific discourse which our science needs today. We need to find a new way of grounding the way we talk about knowledge. In fact, in the world of neuro-imaging, big-data and genetics, there is an opportunity to bring a deeper coherence. At the root of it is the study of information.

The astonishing thing is that Hume was almost there. Today's talk of information he would have recognised as the 18th century talk about probability. Hume's critique of probability is important, just as those later critics like Keynes who engaged with it can help us to make sense of today's information science.

Perhaps more importantly, the fundamental empirical domain where all these issues collide is in education.

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