That the world is rational is an assumption. By now you should realize that this assumption has
been largely responsible for some very important characteristics of our western culture. However,
it is just an assumption. It does not constitute knowledge. No philosopher has ever even
attempted to prove the rationality of the world. David Hume, in fact, showed conclusively that
the fact can never be proven. We can call this the Humean problem, that is, the paradox that
empiricists believe that all knowledge must come from experience yet also realize that there is no
direct connection between knowledge and experience. How, then can we have knowledge? The
first philosopher to tackle this problem head on was Immanuel Kant.
When we examine the answer that Kant suggested we have to keep something in mind that is
germane to our subject. That is the reputation of Newtonian science as westerners saw the field
in the eighteenth century. Scientists and laymen alike believed Newtonian science to be absolutely
true. Kant, faced with both the Humean problem of the inaccessible nature of truth. And at the
same time aware of the astounding success of Newtonian science, developed a sophisticated
approach to philosophy in an attempt to surmount the obstacles created by Hume's skepticism.
He developed what he called a "transcendental philosophy" that allows for both a world of
existent objects concerning which we have no direct knowledge and a system of reasoning, of
analyzing thought and synthesizing from that analysis, which he felt would account for the success
of Newtonian science. Some of the characteristics of this approach are important to our study
because they became topics by the later positivists
Kant expressed his version of the Humean problem in these
terms, "Our knowledge springs from
two fundamental sources of the mind, the first is the capacity of receiving representations, the
second is the power of knowing an object through these representations. Through the first an
object is given to us through the second the object is thought in relation to the given," These
two sources lead to the emergence of two powerful mental tools, intuitions and concepts. Of
course it is only pure intuitions and pure concepts that are possible a priori, or prior to experience.
Empirical intuitions and empirical concepts are only known a-posteriori, or following experience.
Since intuition can never be other than sensible, the faculty that enables us to think an object of
intuition is the understanding. At the same time without sensibility no object could be thought.
"Thoughts without objects are empty, intuition without concepts are blind." I can think my wife
is wearing the blue dress I bought for her birthday. This is an a-priori intuition, a pure thought
about a sensible object. I can then leave my study and perhaps find that she is indeed wearing
that dress. This then is an a-posteriori intuition. The first only contains the possibility of truth,
the second the actuality. The philosopher of science Karl Popper recognized this as an important
concept of Kant when he said that Kant's philosophy asks us to force our ideas on the world, to
try them out.
Knowledge furnishes its own criteria for truth when it is considered in relation to its form only,
and not of its content. Kant said it accomplishes this when it expounds the universal and
necessary rules of the understanding. It does this through formal rules of thought. It must be so
otherwise it would contradict its own rules. So general logic, by resolving understanding and
reason into elements and exhibiting them as logical criticism, may be entitled analytic. Its rules
appraise the form of knowledge prior to our study of the content. It therefore, as he put it,
becomes the "negative touchstone" of truth.
In John Locke's theory of knowledge there was a direct connection between experience and
knowledge. Experience in the form of ideas formed the raw material for the mind which analyzed
this raw material into complex ideas. But David Hume rejected Locke's ideas and made the
content of experience simply impressions and passions. This change had the advantage that it was
already developed as a mechanical process by Descartes and did not suppose any mysterious
concepts like ideas. But this made knowledge impossible since he also showed that there was no
connection between the impressions and the sources of the impressions. By adding intuition and
conceptions to the furniture of the mind Kant was able to develop a complex transcendental
philosophy which provided a path for knowledge through the problems that were posed by David
Hume. But some philosophers rejected the Kantian method and developed their own connections
between experience and knowledge. However, this occurred only after Newtonian science had
been replaced by a new and more philosophically intractable approach to physical existence.
In 1895 most physicists did not believe in the existence of the atom. Fifty years later in 1945 the
world entered the atomic era, where its very existence depended on the control of the atom. The
revolution began in much the same way that the Copernican revolution began, as a search for
simpler answers to old questions.
In this case it was the answer to a problem in radiation thermodynamics. The laws of
thermodynamics were set down by Newton in the seventeenth century and had never given any
problems until they were applied to some problems in electromagnetic radiation. In 1900 Max
Plank discovered that the mathematics came out simple if you introduced an extremely small
number (6.27x10-27). The implication of this was that electromagnetic radiation must travel in
discreet packets. Albert Einstein later showed that all electromagnetic radiation, including light,
not only travels in discreet packets it consists of the discreet packets implied by Plank's constant.
Thus, the Photon was born. Later the same number was found to determine the quantum jumps
of electron orbits. Einstein is usually thought of in regard to his work in relativity. In fact he
received the Nobel prize in 1910 for his work in Quantum Physics. He considered his work in
relativity a direct expansion of classical physics. Quantum Physics, on the other hand, he called a
totally new way of seeing the world. Only by seeing the world of sub-nuclear particles as
constrained by quantum movements could the problems involved in understanding atoms and their
constituents become possible.
The explosive growth of science in the first half of the twentieth century has been well
documented and is beyond the scope of this work. But there is one point concerning this growth
that does concern us in our search for the implications of the assumption that the world is rational.
If we look at just a few of the many scientists that contributed to this growth something startling
jumps out at us. Max Plank was a German, Niels Bohr Dutch, L. De Broglie French, Pauli and
Hiesenbeg were German, J. Willard Gibbs was American, Einstien was Swiss by choice, J. J.
Thomson and Rutherford were Engish, George Gamow was Russian. The list could go on almost
indefinitely. The point here is that unlike the sojourns into philosophy we have taken in the last
few chapters, there is no regional flavor to science. This is obvious even though the period spans
two world wars and the imposition of an otherwise impenetrable iron curtain. In science
there is a different value structure which makes it possible for scientists to not only communicate,
but to trust the value of their communications.
Bronowski wrote this excerpt originally in
1953. This is taken from a lecture series he did in 1973 where he repeated it. I quote it
completely because it illuminates the scientific point of view that became so important to the
development of the philosophy of science.
|There are certain personal values--respect, sensitivity, tolerance--without which science
could not be carried on. They are the "is" values, the values of the man working by
himself. And there are the communal values, the "ought" values―honesty, integrity,
dignity, authenticity―which bind the scientific community together. And on the basis of
this, science has been able for three hundred years to change completely (as I have told
you several times) practically every fifty years. Nobody is shot, nobody is gleichgeschalet, nobody is liquidated. People whose theories have been wrong retire full
of honors. Somebody was talking to me this very afternoon about Patrick Blackett's
theory that magnetism is due to rotation. I remember when the theory came out, I
remember it has not worked. Patrick Blackett is now president of the Royal Society, and
nobody says to him, "Come on, you are no good, you made a mistake." But on the other
hand, if he had been going about ever since then pretending he had not made a mistake,
making ingenious experiments to say he had not made a mistake, bribing his colleagues to
give testimonials about what a good fellow he was, he would not be president of the Royal
Society, I do assure you.
If you are going to make what science has been―a stable body of knowledge which at any
given moment is closed and yet is always changing―and if it is really going to be dynamic,
yet stable, then you have to build in the conditions and the safeguards for absolute
integrity. The society of scientists, the community of scientists have this advantage, that
from the moment we enter it, we all know that fifty years from now, most of the things we
learned here will turn out not to have been quite right. And yet that will be achieved
without enormous personal dramas. It will be achieved by giving due honor to the people
who take the steps, the steps that turnout to be wrong as well as the steps that turn out to
be right. You have to build this into social relations if the society is to be able to maintain
itself in the face of change, otherwise you get a rigid totalitarian society of the kind Plato
wanted to build, Hitler wanted to build, Mussolini wanted to build, Stalin wanted to build.
And all that I know about these societies is that I have seen Hitler die, and Mussolini die,
and Stalin die, while the societies in which I was fortunate to be brought up have on the
whole sustained themselves without the enormous human loss of those others.
Is there a path to true knowledge that can be attained through the kind of attitude that prevailed in
scientific communities? If we begin our look at this search we begin at the same period of time as
the explosion in scientific breakthroughs occurred, at the turn of the twentieth century. This path
was through "Epistemology," a culturally neutral field dedicated to the source of knowledge. The
person most responsible for providing the basis for such a philosophical position was Bertrand