The Scientific Method VS. Rhetoric

For thousands of years, humans have sought to understand the world around them, as well as
1. Humans seek to understand the world.
a. With no prior assumptions, how could they proceed to do so?
b. They tried to “figure out” answers to their questions that seemed satisfactory.
c. This was called reasoning.
d. In the history of reasoning, important advances were made. The syllogism:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
seemed unassailable. This introduced logic, which is a form of definition of truth. The
above syllogism presents truth, according to the notion of truth logic defines.
e. But it was by nature subjective. It depended on the opinion of the reasoner (or listener).
If the reasoner felt it was correct, then it was. But the opinion of the reasoner itself was
imperfect, and subject to being biased. Is Socrates a man? Are all men mortal? Logic
cannot answer these questions. They are the province of opinion.
f. So while reasoning could be compelling, convincing, and powerful, it ultimately was
vulnerable to criticism.
Many smart thinkers have written very compelling arguments that seek to reason their way to answers
about the world. That is, they seek to reason their way to the truth. In all cases, they also critique the
reasoning of other philosophers who have gone before them. Students of philosophy become intimate
with all of these arguments, within some domain of questions about the world, such as, the nature of
matter, or the nature of the self. A big question to Greek philosophers (remember what knowledge they
lacked, that seems simple to us now) was “what is air?”
Has any of them outlined the truth? How would we know? The field of literary
criticism posits that language cannot capture truth. All written word is necessarily
suspect. Kenneth Burke, my favorite literary critic, suggests that there is no truth
in all of the spoken and written words of all of those who claim to describe truth.
Rather, the “cacophony of voices,” all claiming but never capturing truth, is itself
the essential truth of humanity. The ever restless seeking, and resulting chorus of
views and opinions, all missing objective truth because of bias, imperfect
knowledge, and so on. This cacophony also effected social interaction towards
ends. The Wikipedia page on Burke is rather good, if you wish to know more.
And, there are many other avenues that reasoners have travelled in seeking truth about the world. But,
in the seventeenth century, a consensus began to form among the Continental Philosophers about a way
to both approach seeking the truth, and what qualified as truth.
Francis Bacon argued for a planned procedure of investigation to replace syllogism.
This procedure consisted of a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, and
experimentation. He also advocated independent verification, and wrote down the
details of his experiment methods, so others could try to reproduce his result. He felt
that There are two methods of knowledge: the one by argument, the other by
experience. Mere argument is never sufficient; it may decide a question, but gives no
satisfaction or certainty to the mind, which can only be convinced by immediate
inspection or intuition, which is what experience gives.
Thomas Hobbes proposed that a proper explanation tells you three things:
what the cause is, the nature of the cause, and how the cause gives rise to the effect. John
Locke began the empirical school of philosophy which held all thinkers responsible for
investigating for themselves rather than accepting the authority of others. (Hobbes also
started political philosophy that outlines much of the foundation of the American political
John Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He
postulated that the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Contrary to pre-existing Cartesian
philosophy, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is
instead determined only by experience derived from sense perception.[
If, then, truth comes from experience, which is the continuum of our perception of the world,
rather than philosophy or authority, then by using our senses in observation of the world, we
can come to learn the world.
2. Thus, a way of thinking about what truth is, and how it may be obtained evolved during this
period in western thought.
a. One can trust one’s senses. They are the right way to apprehend the world.
b. To undertake a program of acquiring understanding of the world, one can use a
systematic method employing observation.
c. The knowledge gained through observation is objective.
d. The essence of the scientific method is the cycle of question and answer, or question
and observation.
e. Bacon and others have posited a refinement that formalizes how this cycle leads to
knowledge: the hypothesis. The subsequent observation may disconfirm – but never
confirm – the hypothesis. More on the hypothesis later.