Finding Reality: Science, Knowledge, and the “World Out There”

October 3rd, 2009

Descartes began his metaphysical analysis from a standpoint of universal doubt, and this starting point is as far as pure logic can take us. There is no a priori way of knowing anything beyond the first clause of his famous statement: “I think.” The continuation, “…therefore I am,” is a conclusion drawn from the experience of thinking. All knowledge, including metaphysical beliefs, must be the product of some knowledge-making paradigm. Logic, the simplest such paradigm, can produce endless tautologies filled with “if” statements,[1] but more interesting concepts cannot be known without a more complex epistemology.

One metaphysical axiom which can be discussed using a variety of epistemological approaches is that there exists a reality independent of consciousness. This claim does not imply any stance on what that reality is like, or whether human perception is particularly adept at representing it. It is simply the claim that there is a “world out there,” and I posit three justifications for it, each based on a different route to knowledge.

First, if I accept that I exist given that I think, it simply seems most reasonable that I would not be the only thing that exists. If there were no external reality, “meaning” would be meaningless: there would only be my own thoughts. But I can only understand many of my internal experiences—such as the words I hear when someone else speaks—in terms of some agent outside of my own mind.

Second, if I assume that there is no reality outside of consciousness, then I cannot accept that other people exist. My mind and yours, and the minds of all people, are fundamentally isolated from each other. I am the only consciousness which I can know directly—the only one for which I can say “it thinks, therefore it is.” Other people, interpreted from inside my mind, are part of the outside world: I must know that they are before I can say that they think. If there is no world out there, then there can be no people out there. But they must exist: my belief that others are real, conscious entities like me is a necessary prerequisite to my sanity. I am not emotionally capable of dealing with a universe in which everybody else is a figment of my own imagination. And if I accept that other people exist as consciousnesses independent of my own, then I have no reason to preclude the existence of other, non-conscious objects in the external world—especially since people seem to have enough common ground to communicate meaningfully (at least sometimes) about “the world,” implying that our experiences are linked through a reality in which we all exist together.

My third justification is ethical rather than psychological. If others are not conscious beings, then ethics are meaningless. It does not make sense to discuss the rightness or wrongness of particular ways of treating constructions of one’s mind. As long as the ontological status of the outside world is ambiguous, any ethical claim must appeal to the possibility that the object of an act is real. Also, it would simply be disrespectful to assume in the face of ambiguity that a(n other) person lacks independent existence.

Although my explanations favor certain descriptions of the world over others, the basic claim that an independent world exists is distinct from the claim that conscious entities can perceive it with any degree of clarity. The popular film The Matrix depicts a hypothetical case in which conscious perception is entirely divorced from reality—but, even when none of the characters know about it, there is a real world (the world of the computers) independent of the images in their minds. Even outside of such an arbitrary illustration, it seems obvious that each individual’s perceptual experience is different, and so no one person can experience “reality” directly, or even “reality as the ideal human sensory apparatus would parse it,” because there is no such ideal apparatus. The simple fact that people can genuinely disagree about concrete objects is clear evidence that nobody’s experiences are objective. Implicit in any description of the world is the knowledge that the description reflects the speaker’s particular experience of it.

The mere existence of an independent reality tells us nothing about the nature of that reality. It does not demand a “clockwork universe” based entirely on physical cause and effect; it does not even demand any natural laws. It is conceivable for things to exist without following any patterns at all. Therefore, even very concrete knowledge about the world must be built on additional epistemological justifications.

The prevailing route to knowledge for most of human thought is empiricism. We rely heavily on our past experiences for most of our everyday thoughts and actions: empiricism informs not just science but also intuition and “common sense.” But there are many other ways of knowing: in my discussion of metaphysics I referenced pure logic (which I found insufficient to prove existence), “reasonability” (a form of intuition), psychological need, and ethics. Some people know through “faith,” which in its purest form is similar to knowledge through preference, usually for a particular metaphysical system. These and other epistemological frameworks are all meaningful, although each has some domains to which it is especially applicable and other domains to which it is inapplicable.[2]

For most areas of knowledge regarding which people can be said to have experiences, empiricism is the most meaningful epistemological category. Our bodies must exist in the world, so it seems reasonable that we are able to interact with it and therefore that our senses are affected by it. It also seems reasonable that we can identify real patterns in the universe through our senses, because so many such patterns have been found to continue for improbably long periods of time, both in my own direct experiences and according to communications from others about their experiences.

For most of those areas of knowledge to which empiricism is applicable, science is the most credible form of empiricism. Here, “science” refers to a particular way of arriving at conclusions—the application of the scientific method to testable phenomena. It is not limited to particular academic disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics), but it specifically excludes claims which merely adopt the label of “science.” Science, as I define it, is the most credible form of empiricism—but it is not the only credible form of empiricism. In areas of empirical knowledge to which science is not applicable, such as most of history as a discipline, or to which it has not been successfully applied, other means of knowing like intuition based on experience remain meaningful.

However, when methodologically sound scientific evidence contradicts these other means of knowing, it should be preferred because it has access to more types of information, it is more systematic and transparent, and it leaves less room for bias and error. In all of these respects, science is imperfect. Scientists cannot gather every conceivable piece of data, they cannot record every minute methodological step, and they are almost always biased and imperfect observers. But intuition is even less rigorous, even less comprehensive, and even more biased. This comparison can be reduced to a simple logical claim: given the premise that humans are always biased, any unbiased method which constrains the conclusions one can derive from the inputs will yield conclusions which have less room for bias than intuition alone. Similarly, any system which gathers extra information beyond everyday experience will produce more informed conclusions than intuition will produce, and any system which calculates numeric values rather than guessing at them will be more precise than intuition will be.

Critically, science is a theoretically unbiased method. Nothing in the scientific method itself predisposes the scientist to arrive at particular types of conclusions; in fact, the method is designed to err on the side of no conclusion at all. Science does favor a particular way of framing problems: it tends to break them down into component parts. Sometimes this results in conclusions which are relatively narrow, in that they only apply to some parts of the larger problem in question. This tendency to reduce problems into their components is not an inherent bias in the method, though; it is simply a bias toward choosing particular subjects to study. When scientists use isolated narrow findings to draw conclusions about whole problems, the error lies in their own reasoning, not in the fundamental method. Science can be applied to very broad questions, even if it is most often applied to narrow questions for convenience. In fact, the burgeoning field of complex systems illustrates an example of a scientific practice—the study of relationships between huge numbers of highly interdependent parts of systems—which is antithetical to reductionism.[3]

Furthermore, science makes its methods especially clear. This openness makes it possible to distinguish between well-supported and poorly-supported science, and thereby to defend credible conclusions even when various scientific projects disagree. Such distinctions are impossible with intuition, which is internal and personal.

There are problems with the ways in which science is funded, conducted, and interpreted in most modern societies. Vague or limited findings are sometimes treated as broad truths, the need to publish findings encourages scientists to search for interesting conclusions even where there are none, funding favors certain culturally popular projects over others, and scientists seek information which confirms their existing beliefs. But none of these problems are unique to science, and none of them undermine the theoretical epistemological value of the scientific method.

As a method for studying the reality in which humans coexist, science is crucial. It does not somehow transform humans into objective observers, giving them direct access to the “world as it is” rather than the “world as we see it.” Nor does science ever produce perfectly reliable descriptions of reality, even prior to human filtering. No human endeavor can do such a thing. But, at its best, science can provide the most credible information available on a given issue.

[1] E.g. if if A then B and A then B. If thinking implied being and I thought then I would be.

[2] Most people arrive at some of their beliefs in other, less meaningful ways, such as by uncritically accepting the declarations of authority figures, or by assuming things to be true which their peers seem to believe. I am sure that I adhere to those patterns more often than I’d like, but I don’t describe them in the body of the essay because they are not an important part of my explicit epistemological theory.

[3] See Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). She begins her preface with a critique of reductionism.


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One Response to “Finding Reality: Science, Knowledge, and the “World Out There””

  1. Psychology, Science « Analysis of Variance Says:

    […] a recent essay which is very pertinent to this topic, I wrote: “science” refers to a particular way of […]

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