On the Scientific Methods and Truth
JUNE 01, 1960 by DANIEL STEWART
Dr. Stewart is an instructor in the Department of Natural Science at MichiganStateUniversity.
One of the great idealists of the last century, Bernard Bosanquet, once said that "it is not cleverness or learning that makes the philosopher; it is a certain spirit; openness of mind, thoroughness of work, and hatred of superficiality."¹
His point, of course, was not intended to apply merely to philosophers but to any and all persons who might be interested in truth for its own sake. Thus, his remark would apply equally well to persons engaged in scientific work, in politics, in economics, in religion, or any other activity where the avowed intention is the expansion and acquisition of knowledge that is reflective of reality—be it seen or unseen.
But surely, to speak and act with a view to obtaining the truth in all matters is simultaneously to speak and act from a world view having different norms and values than what prevail in our time.
Indeed, we are told that to be interested in such pursuits is to be most impractical, and that no one is really interested in the truth. We are told to wake up and stop dreaming, that the bald-faced fact is that we are living in an irrational world. We are told that throughout history, different systems of what constitutes truth have existed. Which system, if any, is the valid one for eternity? Is empirical knowledge truth? Is knowledge gained through revelation truth? And by these questions, the implication is that "truth" is relative, depending on how each of us defines the meaning of that word. To think otherwise is to be old-fashioned, somewhat unsophisticated, and at best, just a wee bit naive.
But, for all of this, for my part, if we are to be good judges we must say what we think. And our thought is that to those who are under the false impression that agnosticism, cynicism, or intellectual nihilism is modern, I would suggest that they dust off some of those books they have been indoctrinated against and start reading Plato’s Protagorus and Theaetetus.
In these two dialogues in particular, we meet Protagorus, the original progressive educator. Here, in the fifth century B.C., we meet up with the doctrine that everything has a relative truth only: there are no absolutes, in that "man is the measure of all things."2
An Ancient Fallacy
Thus, even while this doctrine stems from antiquity, we find it passionately embraced as a first article of faith by those very people who would accuse conservatives of trying to turn back the clock, as being "reactionary" in political affairs, and as being comparable to "fundamentalists" in religious matters. (A "fundamentalist" for these people is anyone who fails to grasp the "logic" of construing the spiritual brotherhood of theology in terms of biological brotherhood.)
It would be of little moment, of course, if these views and epithets came from people with limited education. But, on the contrary, these views and epithets come from members of the "intelligentsia," from people who hold Ph. D.’s. They come from university administrators whose primary responsibility, ironically, is to fulfill the trust placed in their hands to carry on the best traditions of our society, to endow their students with moral principles, to instruct them in the ways of becoming more human.
Accordingly, we are awe-stricken when some university presidents find it repugnant for their students to take an oath of loyalty to their country while others boldly disseminate, as progress reports, the moral relativism, "Man is the measure of all things."
The Spirit and Methods of Truth
Thus, Bosanquet’s remark of the nineteenth century sounds exceedingly modern when compared with the type of philosophy enunciated by many within our present-day academies of higher education.
The "certain spirit" that Bosanquet is talking about is, of course, the spirit of truth. And the "thoroughness of work" he mentions refers to the methodological technique employed while seeking this truth. These are but some of the things which go to make the philosopher.
But, also, these are the very things which go to make the scientist, those scientists, at least, who make their mark in history. (We are not talking about those tradesmen whose chief occupation is literally to collect, count, and classify, and whose understanding of reality is restricted to those things which can be kicked and stimulated in some manner.) For my part, good scientists are also good philosophers, and vice versa: even as philosophy begins with wonder, so does science.
Thus, the search for truth and one’s methodological technique are mutually implicative propositions. And it is for this very reason that the critical study of what has come to be known as "the scientific methods" is most important in one’s intellectual upbringing. These methods are not restricted to science, of course, even though some individuals might feel that things not conventionally identified with science are necessarily apart from it. For these individuals, philosophy could never be construed as having to do with "real" science. And, in final analysis this is more a semantic problem than anything else, hinging on what is meant by "science."
Even so, it is an interesting paradox that those people who do the most critical thinking about the scientific methods are not scientists at all, but, in fact, are philosophers—or at least they receive their income under this label. Under less presumptuous occasions they call themselves positivists or logical empiricists. Positivists are to philosophy as the tradesmen mentioned above are to science. Both are skilled technicians. Both excel at operational thinking.
Systems of Explanation
Scientific methodology, therefore, has to do with those techniques which the modern philosopher critically examines and the modern scientist professes to use. They refer to those tools which anyone employs on those occasions that he is searching for truth. They have to do, first of all, with a critical understanding of logic. They include some understanding of what is meant by "systems-of thought" and "systems-of-explanation" insofar as these are embodiments of theories, laws, and descriptions. A critical knowledge of the nature of facts, hypotheses, measurement, probability, and so on, also is included among the scientific methods.
Thus, if we define a "system of-thought" as a coherent, orderly arrangement of ideas or beliefs regarding some given subject, and a "system-of-explanation" as the physical explication of this system-of-thought, then the point of epistemological significance involved here can be graphically presented in the following manner.
From the diagram below, it is necessarily implied that the scientific methods can be thought of as epistemological tools which have as their primary object the production of true systems-of-explanation. These are the entities we can lay hold of, talk about, and hone down to an extremely critical, highly discriminatory edge.
After all, this is what the mind is for—to reason. Not sloppily, and not with dull tools, but with the best and sharpest tools one possesses.
It is my position that knowledge may be viewed as a series of "systems-of-explanation," and that these systems are the product not only of science but of anything that man thinks and talks about. The real issue in anything is, What is the truth? To approach this we, as human beings, most of the time employ signs of some sort, normally words. Therefore, in any discourse which is being presented to us as truth, the primary task is to look for a consistent system-of-explanation, and, secondly, the empirical facts—directly or indirectly obtained—and which would make the propositions in that system true. Thus, ideas and facts go together in that "Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind."3 And this is as true for science as it is for those systems dealing with religion, aesthetics, politics, philosophy, or anything else.
Our Contemptuous Sophistication
Now we are cognizant, of course, that we live in an age and a climate-of-opinion which rebels at this sort of procedure. Any attempt to reach the minds of the young cynics of our time is met only with a kind of contemptuous sophistication. In terms of intellectual growth, they are like the young boy who quit learning because he thought he knew all there was to know. And as the boy grew older, the more sophisticated he became, until finally no one could tell him anything. He knew so little, he knew it all.
Even in science, which boasts of having an open mind, many biologists will at one time say, "We can never know what life is," and, at another time say—with wide-eyed innocence, "There is no life after death."
In one case they admit they do not know what "life" is, yet, are quite willing to assume they do in the next case. That these biologists are materialists is obvious. But it is also true that, through the history of mankind, materialism has always been the enemy of truth.
Yet, it is often said that we live in a materialistic age. And certainly no one would question the truth of this. For no other explanation can better account for the success in this country of such materialistic philosophies as positivism, pragmatism, and their political manifestation—totalitarian liberalism. (Liberalism, as Chodorov so succinctly puts it, is simply socialism without Marx.)
That this type of philosophy has infected our educational and political institutions is also self-evident. One merely has to read various campus newspapers, textbooks, "progress" reports, and look at various showcases to observe the political and philosophical slant which is presented. In many states today genuine political liberty does not, in fact, exist. Calling the same political philosophy by two different party labels does not alter the identity of that philosophy. "Bi-partisanship" is the order of the day.
In short, any alternative philosophy which insists that traditional norms and standards be maintained is described by the materialists as being "old-fashioned," "reactionary," "extreme right wing," or just plain "antiliberal." In fact, to be concerned more about the welfare of one’s own country—as opposed to some other country—is to leave ourselves open to smear and intimidation by the political liberals.
Indeed, materialistic philosophy has been so successful that, as a consequence, patriotism actually has to be taught to young people going into the armed services. This fact, among several possible facts, certifies the extent that we have intellectually alienated ourselves from the teachings of traditional philosophy. It marks the extent that we have divorced ourselves from norms and values—and truth.
So it is for these reasons, and many others, that we have emphasized here the point of getting the truth. As human beings, as communicating individuals, we normally proceed in our search for truth only by the production of some system-of-explanation and the necessary facts to back up this system. For my part, if we are not given both of these, the chances are excellent that we are being propagandized for a given purpose.
Emphasis on the Individual
Thus, it is now clear why we have chosen to emphasize this methodological aspect of science. Our interest has been in terms of its broader implications. Critical thinking applies itself to all areas of human endeavor. We are concerned especially with the task of making human beings more human. This necessarily implies that we are concerned with people not as a group—which is a sheer fiction—but as individuals unique in every way.
Our primary concern has been to explicate a methodological basis of truthful knowledge. Because it is apparently only through this basis that human beings come to acquire some knowledge of norms and values, some knowledge of our duties and responsibilities, and, most important, some knowledge of morality.
For my part, it is as Sigwart says—that the principles of methodology ultimately point to the idea of a moral God: and that this God can only be more definitely apprehended by means of these principles which forever stand before our thought as the purpose for which they exist.4
The form of truth does not vary from discipline to discipline: it is only the subject matter that varies. In final analysis, truth is one, not many. There are not "truths": there is only truth.
In conclusion, we now recognize that the popular phrase known as "the scientific methods" is really a misnomer, and that it might be more significantly called "general methodology for approaching the truth." And we recognize, also, that this methodology does not belong to science alone. Rather, it belongs to any, and all, disciplines where truth is the goal.
At this point, someone may ask somewhat wearily, "Why all this talk about truth? Of course we are interested in the truth, but we have to live, too: we must earn a living and get along with other people (togetherness)," and so on. But these remarks merely reflect that point of view I spoke about earlier, namely, that the pursuit of truth is most impractical—the general idea being that we ought to stop dreaming, wake up to the facts of life, and "live modern," as it were.
The Ideal Is Practical
Again, that this cynicism is the fashionable philosophy of our age we do not deny. But also, that it has failed miserably is an empirical fact. So what may appear practical to some people may not be practical at all. And what may appear most impractical may, in final analysis, be the most practical thing there is. Even so, we might reply with Hegel when he was speaking of the earlier cynics that they are, "generally speaking, nothing more than swinish beggars, who found their satisfaction in the insolence which they showed to others."5
But more than this, it is these very exhortations which mark the stampede away from personal responsibility and a philosophy of life which has some semblance of morality about it. They mark the prevalance of agnosticism, cynicism, and, in general, intellectual nihilism.
The problem, as always, is fundamentally a philosophical one, ergo, our interest in truth and our emphasis upon methodology. For that system by means of which one directs his behavior—that is, one’s very own philosophy of life—ought to be truth-oriented. And the truth-value of any given philosophy of life is measured only in terms of the criticalness of one’s methodology.
For my part, the early period of our life—our youth—is the most important. It is here where we receive our basic notions of what constitutes good and bad moral and ethical judgments. And the point is that no one would want these basic notions of anything less than the purest form. Indeed, they should be of the strongest and most durable fiber obtainable—the most perfect, the ideal.
It is in this sense, therefore, that Plato suggests we should teach our youth to love but one form only—the pure form; and soon they will see that the beauty of one form is analogous to the beauty of another. And then, if beauty of form in general is their pursuit, how foolish they would be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same—the beauty of truth.°
1 Bosanquet, Bernard. The Essentials of Logic. London: Macmillan and Company, reprinted 1948. p. 167.
2 Plato. The Dialogues, tr. by B. Jowett. New York: Random House, 1937. Vol. II, p. 153.
3 Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Berlin: Mayer and Muller, 1889. p. 100. "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind," where intuition means perception, sensibility, or senses. Thus, Kant subsequently states, "the understanding cannot see, the senses cannot think."
4 Sigwart, Christoph. Logic, tr. by H. Dendy. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1895. Vol. II, p. 548.
5 Hegel, Georg W. F. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, tr. by E. S. Haldane. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1955. Vol. I, pp. 486-487.
6 Plato, op. cit. Vol. I, p. 334.
In order to free the fiction of the sovereign State—in other words, the whims of those who manipulate it—from every wholesome restriction, all socio-political movements tending in this direction invariably try to cut the ground from under the religions. For, in order to turn the individual into a function of the State, his dependence on anything beside the State must be taken from him… The individual who is not anchored in God can offer no resistance on his own resources to the physical and moral blandishments of the world… Resistance to the organized mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself.
CARL G. JUNG, The Undiscovered Self