The Revenge of the Dinosaur Argument

Sun 23 Apr 2006 06:31 PM

I have commented on Philip Kitcher and scientific significance before, both here and in the d-cog paper. To briefly recap Philip's argument in in ch 6 of Science, Truth, and Democracy, he claims that science aims at finding true answers to significant questions. Questions can be significant for any of three reasons: (A) They relate to some more fundamental, antecedently significant question. (B) They relate to our projects and how we can best attain our goals. (C) They answer to natural human curiosity.

A crude pragmatist theory of truth, according to which an answer is true if it gets us what we want in the short term, would be enough to capture A and B. Kitcher wants truth in a stronger sense than this. Without C, this insistence loses its force.

Of course, all of these factors vary between individuals and between cultures. If two people disagree about which things are significant due to A, then we can trace it back to a disagreement about which questions are antecedently significant. If they disagree due to B, we can trace it back to a disagreement about which goals we should be pursuing. If they disagree due to C, however, there is nothing further to say. One person is curious and another is not. End of discussion.

Kitcher covers this over by calling it natural human curiosity. A total lack of curiosity would be a cognitive failure, I suppose, but someone can fail to be curious about specific things without thereby being an inhuman monster. If someone doesn't care about dinosaurs, there is nothing further to say to them.*

I cannot think of any way besides these three by which a question could be recognizable a significant one. Nevertheless, there are a great many lines of research which turn out in retrospect to be significant. Research programmes can lead in unexpected directions. Work that seems hifalutin now may yield spectacular applications down the road. This suggests another way in which questions can be significant: (D) Answers to them will lead to subsequent work that can be exploited to attain our goals, but we do not yet know which goals exactly or how.

We cannot be confident that a question is significant due to D in the way that we can with the other factors. It will inevitably involve a kind of hunch. Nevertheless, this is a standard defense of so-called pure research as opposed to applied research. The very possibility that there may be answers of this kind is enough to rebut crude pragmatism. Questions can have true answers-- or at least better or worse answers-- well before the answers have practical utility.

As Dewey often emphasized, and as Kitcher recognizes, our objectives may change over the course of enquiry. As such, there are further ways that questions may be significant: (B') They relate to projects we will pursue and how we can best attain goals we will have. (D') Answers to them will lead to subsequent work that can be exploited to attain goals we will have.

B' and D' are also matters which we cannot judge in advance, because we do not yet know what we will value. If we already did, then arguably we would already value it as a long-term objective.

Since Kitcher argues that science aims at significant knowledge, he is pressed to say that significance must be something we can recognize in advance of doing science. If we can't know it in advance, we can't aim at it. As such, although he recognizes that science can lead to unexpected developments and that our goals will change, he is not free to put D, B', and D' forward as distinct sources of scientific significance.

* In principle, there could be topics about which all humans are inclined to be curious. As an empirical matter, however, it just isn't so-- as I think Philip would concur. In a different context, he rejects the notion "that a yearning to satisfy curiosity is essential to being human" [p. 165]. (Although he does so without argument. The remainder of the paragraph seems to me to be a non sequitur.)