In a nice piece at Talking Philosophy called “Is science so limited?”, Russell Blackford takes up the perennial question of whether there are “other ways of knowing” beyond those involving science.
I’ve always maintained that there are no other reliable ways of knowing beyond science if one construes science broadly—as meaning “a combination of reason and empirical observation.” Some people don’t like definition, and prefer to take science as “the practices of working scientists.” I don’t have any great objection to that, as it’s largely a semantic question. The real question is whether there’s any way beyond empirical observation and reason to establish what is true about the world. I don’t think so, and I believe Russell agrees with me. And we both agree that religion, insofar as it doesn’t rely on empiricism and reason but on revelation and self-confirming dogma, doesn’t produce truth.
Russell sees, as do I, science not as something absolutely distinct from traditional empiricism, but simply as a new and more refined “way of knowing” that is not discontinuous with how people found out stuff before science came along:
Consider the rise of science in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and beyond. This produced a new breed of empirical investigators – the breed who eventually came to be known as “scientists” – and they developed a range of techniques to high levels of precision and sophistication. These “scientists” used, for example, increasingly sophisticated mathematical models, rigorously controlled experimental design and apparatus, and new instruments that extended the human senses. They were able to engage in unprecedentedly precise and systematic study of various phenomena that had previously resisted human efforts, particularly very distant or vastly out-of-scale phenomena, very small phenomena, and phenomena from very deep in time – before human beings and written records. This enabled them to develop a radically new image of the cosmos and our place in it. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was starting to come together in a way that is still broadly recognisable, though far more has been discovered since, and it’s clear enough that far more remains to be discovered in the future.
What is often forgotten is that the distinctively scientific techniques that were refined and extended so much over the last four to five centuries were continuous with what had gone before and that, to the extent that they were new they added something. Nothing was subtracted from the tools of rational inquiry available to scholars (or to ordinary people).
We part company only in one respect: Russell seems to consider science itself unable to answer some questions that do have real answers. As he says:
It’s not a matter, then, of science being limited. Science enables some questions to be given reliable answers for the first time (the age of the Earth, for example, and composition of our solar system), but it in no way prevents answers to other questions, such as what is outside my window; how to translate Tasso into English; or what might be a “thick”, coherent, and convincing interpretation of Bleak House. Science did not render us helpless to answer these questions, though it certainly added to what we know about, say, very distant, small, or ancient phenomena.
What is outside his window can indeed be answered by empirical observation (especially if it’s verified by Jenny and others), but I’m not sure there is one definitive answer for “how to translate Tasso into English?”, or “what is the most convincing interpretation of Bleak House?” (Convincing to whom?)
Those questions, unlike factual questions about the world that can be answered by science or observation, have a multiplicity of answers that will never be agreed on by everyone. Therefore they are not questions that have a definitive empirical answer; their answers are not “facts.”
When I regard the issue of “ways of knowing,” then, I look at it as “ways of knowing that are agreed on by everyone who is not perverse” (that’s Gould’s definition of “fact”). That’s a scientist’s definition of fact, of course. If ways of knowing vary from person to person, as would the best translation of Tasso, then we elide into the realm of religion, where each faith swears that it knows what is true, but those ways differ among religions.
Russell and I also have some differences in what we regard as “facts”; see our exchange of comments here and here. But for those of you who have accused me of dissing philosophy, let me affirm that I think Russell’s brand of philosophy is very useful in helping superstition and separating what we can know from what we can’t. And I also see much value in ethical philosophy, such as that of Peter Singer.