05 October 2008

Theory is basic ...

Among the basic commitments of pragmatism as a philosophical view (it is the view to which I generally subscribe) is what is known as fallibilism.* That means that any of our beliefs, even those which we might hold most confidently, can turn out to be mistaken. This is true especially of science.
"And one of the easiest ways to dismiss literally anything in science is to say, "Well, it's just a theory"--as if to say it's not certain. The reality is that nothing in science is certain, and that's one of the things that makes science so interesting. But that doesn't translate into theories being just hunches or just guesses. To say I have put together a scientific theory is to proclaim to the world that I have a consistent, sensible, overarching interpretation that unites a large range of experimental and observational facts. Yes, evolution is a theory--just like the germ theory of disease."
This point - a really basic point that often is overlooked - is among the good bits in this short interview with biologist Kenneth Miller from The Nation ... and, for those of you looking for smart, accessible writing on matters at the intersection of science (mostly biology)/philosophy/public affairs, I'd recommend the various essays and reviews my colleague Allen Orr has published over the past few years in the Boston Review [1] [2], the NYRB and The New Yorker.
* At the risk of boring you to tears .... Not everyone who subscribes to fallibilism is a pragmatist, (i.e., Karl Popper) but any pragmatist must endorse fallibilism. Pragmatism is especially attractive because, as Hilary Putnam noted, it couples fallibilism with anti-skepticism. The latter commitment constrains the scope of doubt; it implies that while we can call any of our beliefs into question, we cannot simultaneously call all of them into question. Like belief, doubt requires justification.

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