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Archive for August 23rd, 2008

Observation. Also referred to as the Scientific Method. At the heart of science lies the scientific experiment. The method of science is rather straightfoward. By some means, usually be reasoning deductively from existing theory or inductively from existing facts or through intuition, the scientist arrives at a hypothesis about some feature of reality. He then designs an experiment to objectively test the hypothesis. The data from the experiment are then analyzed statistically, and the hypothesis is either supported or rejected.

The feature of overriding importance in this methodology is that no matter what the scientist believes is true regarding the hypothesis under study, the experiment provides the basis for an objective evaluation of the hypothesis. The data from the experiment force a conclusion which is consonant with reality. Thus, science has a built-in safeguard for assuring that truth assertions of any sort about reality must conform to what is demonstrated to be objectively true about the phenomena before the assertions are given the status of scientific truth.

An important aspect of this method is that the experimenter can be wrong in his hunches and the data will tell him so. He can then alter his hypothesis in light of the data and test the new hypothesis. This method, however, can be painstakingly slow, but has a self-correcting feature which, over the long run, has a high probability of yielding truth.

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Intuition. Knowledge is also acquired through intuition. By intution we mean sudden insight, that clarifying idea which springs into consciousness all at once as a whole. It is not arrived at without reason. On the contrary, the idea often seems ot occur after conscious reasoning has failed. In The Art Of Scientific Investigation, W. I. B. Beveridge gives numerous occurrences taken from prominent individuals. Here is an interesting quote:

Here is Metchnikoff’s own account of the origin of the idea of phagocytosis: “One day when the whole family had gone to the circus to see some extraordinary performing apes, I remained alone with my microscope, observing the life in the mobile cells of a transparent starfish larva, when a new thought suddenly flashed across my brain. It struck me that similar cells might serve in the defense of the organism against intruders. Feeling that there was in this something of surpassing interest, I felt so excited that I began striding up and down the room and even went to the seashore to collect my thoughts.”

Hadamand cites an experience of the mathematician Gauss, who wrote concerning a problem he had tried unsuccessfully to prove for years: “Finally two days ago I succeeded… like a sudden flash of lightning the riddle happened to be solved. I cannot myself say what was the conducting thread which connected what I previously knew with what made my success possible.”

It is interesting to note that the intuitive idea often occurs after conscious reasoning has failed and the individual has put the problem aside for a while. More Beveridge:

“Freeing my mind of all thoughts of the problem I walked briskly down the street, when suddenly at a definite spot which I could locate today–as if from the clear sky above me–an idea popped into my head as emphatically as if a voice had shouted it.”

“I decided to abandon the work and all thoughts relative to it, and then, on the following day, when occupied in work of an entirely different type, an idea came to my mind as suddenly as a flash of lightning and it was the solution… the utter simplicity made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of it before.”

Despite the fact that intuition has probably been used as a source of knowledge for as along as a man has existed, it is still very mysterious process about which we only have a rudimentary understanding.

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Rationalism. The method of rationalism uses reasoning alone to arrive at knowledge. It assumes that if the premises are sound and the reasoning is carried out correctly according to the rules of logic, then the conclusions will yield truth. We are very familiar with reason because we us it so much. As an example, consider a syllogism:

  • All statistics professors are interesting people.
  • Mr. X is a statistics professor.
  • Therefore, Mr. X is an interesting person.

Assuming the first statement is true, then it follows that if the second statement is true, the conclusion must be true. Hardly anyone would question the importance of reasoning process in yielding truth. However, there are a great number of situations in which reason alone is inadequate for determining truth.

John, a friend of yours has been depressed for a couple of months. Let’s say that you know that psychological problems can produce depression. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that John may have psychological problems which are producing his depression. On the other hand, let’s say you also know that inadequate diet and exercise can result in depression. It is also reasonable to believe that this may be at the root of his depression. In this situation, there are two reasonable explanations of the phenomenon. Hence, reason alone is inadequate in distinguishing between them. Recourse must be had to experience. Are John’s diet and exercise in fact deficient? Will better eating and more exercise correct the situation? Or does John have serious psychological problems which when resolved will lift the depression? Reason alone may be sufficient to yield truth in some situations, but is inadequate in others.

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