The nature of reality and knowledge

The basis for rationality is acceptance of an external objective reality. Science attempts to produce knowledge that is as universal and objective as possible within the realm of human understanding. Traditionally, such knowledge was expressed thru language, preferably written language. Today, scientific knowledge can be expressed in electronic form: data sets, models and algorithms are increasingly published as results of the scientific process to be shared with other researchers and the general public.

Nature is the name given to the external world and the way it reacts. Science, at least today, assumes that the universe obeys to knoweable principles that don't depend on time or place, nor on subjective parameters such as what we think, know or how we behave. This may very well be false, but it is typical of "western" thinking, a way of thinking I will endorse. However, I am an open-minded person and I will consider other alternatives. Yet I am sufficiently open minded to suspect that, as someone who has been raised in western rationality, there will be many things that do not fit into my cognitive framework and that I will never be able to understand, no matter how hard I try. I assume that I can expand my framework only by a finite amount before getting insane. Hence, some hypotheses will be arbitrarily rejected as being "too far out" - it's not that they cannot be true, it's that they cannot be expressed in my mental framework without destroying it. For instance, I will tend to reject "what if the world was a simulation?"-type thoughts, philosophies with a circular time and philosophies that sport a spiritual "other world".

Most people would agree that the quest for scientific knowledge is the quest to produce accurate and understandable models of often technical aspects of reality, where accuracy is defined as the ability to predict nature's behaviour with the least amount of error. Models are, in essence, algorithms that take map experimental parameters to experimental outcomes. The ideal gas law, PV=nRT, can be seen as a family of algorithms. For instance, one can express pressure as a function of temperature by P=nRT/V, which gives an algorithm P(T) that predicts pressure from temperature when all other parameters are held constant. By running experiments, we can check the accuracy of the algorithm and find its limits.

But how do we decide if an experiment is really a test of a given theory? We must judge if it was technically well-conducted, if it qualifies as a legitimate experiment, and what its reliability is.

Someone may try the experiment by heating a latex balloon and claim that the law does not hold. Of course the balloon expands, so V is not held constant. But someone may also hold V constant and push pressure above the range for the ideal gas law.

So we must be able to discuss models and experiments in a rational way. A process for generating knowledge is rational when it allows opponents of differing views to debate, present evidence and confront theories in a civilized manner, that is, without fear of reprisals or ridicule; a process where arguments are judged on their merit and not on the identity of their proponents; where theories are evaluated on their beauty, explanatory and predictive power and degree of conformance to verifiable, objective facts; where the risk of measurement error, wishful thinking or suppression of alternate theories is acknowledged.

To summarize: there is an objective reality which we try to approximate using models; those models must be objective, that is, they must not depend on the identity or beliefs of the experimenter. They must be amenable to investigation. It is also understood that there are things of a subjective nature not amenable to science, but that knowledge that can be conceptualized within a scientific framework ranks higher than those subjective things.

2008-06-06