(continued from yesterday)
What vindicates science? What makes its descriptions of the world valid?
Philosophers of science debate this question in essentializing terms. Whether it’s correspondence with an objective reality, or Bayesian confirmation, or something else, to a philosopher the idea of what validates science usually is equivalent to the question of what makes science true, as in, essentially true, and goes hand in glove with the question of what truth essentially is.
Myself, I try to turn away from essentialisms whenever I recognize them. To me, the question “what validates science?” means “what motivates people to accept the validity of science?”. That’s an empirical question; it’s a good scientific question. We could answer it with a survey. No doubt many kinds of factors would get cited: institutional prestige, the fact that we all learn it in school, Carl Sagan. But for the number one answer, both in terms of general public opinion and in terms of the people who actually pay for science, is: it gets stuff done.
I suspect that, in practice, what validates science is its contribution to practice. The natural sciences allow human beings to manipulate and control various bits of the nonhuman universe more effectively, predictably, and efficiently than otherwise. The radical praxis of science is that it makes the impossible, possible.
Social science has yet to achieve even one instance of this that I can think of. The theory I dream of would do precisely this. It would do more than just consolidate the knowledge we already have and make it easier for us to spot patterns, think of new experiments to try. It would tell us how to do something we’ve never done before.
But which something?
(Part 3 tomorrow)