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Friday, September 18, 2015

BERNARD: Observation and Experiment (for Non-Scientists)

In last week’s reading Tocqueville outlined how it was entirely possible (and even probable) that a new aristocracy would arise in America out of “the bosom of democracy.”  Two hundred years later he might revise his theory and show how modern American “aristocracy” is driven more by science and (new) technology rather than the old aristocratic standards based on land and/or manufacturing.  In this week’s reading we meet another Frenchman from the 19th century, Claude Bernard.  He’s very different from Tocqueville.  Bernard isn’t interested in culture and how politics works.  He’s interested in science and how Nature works.  Professional scientists may understand exactly what Bernard is talking about.  Many of us non-scientists will struggle with it.  After reading this selection on Observation and Experiment we may come away with more questions than answers.  We might begin with a simple question.  What is the purpose of science?  Then we might make a stab at a couple of simple answers.  The purpose of science is to understand Nature as it really is, on its own terms.  But how can we understand Nature on its own terms?  We can only understand things on human terms.  Ok, then how about this: the purpose of science is to express Nature in a system we can understand.  That sounds fine but leads to a troubling conclusion.  What we know then is a system we’ve developed ourselves.  How do we know the system accurately reflects Nature and not the nature of our own minds?

Maybe Bernard can help us figure it out.  He says there are “two classes of conditions” called ideas and facts.  That’s fine.  But what does he mean by that?  What’s the difference between an idea and a fact?  And how do we distinguish between them?  Is gravity an idea or is it a fact?  What about evolution?  The theory of relativity?  Bernard says we need “two qualities of mind” to answer questions scientifically.  One quality of mind is that of observer.  Bernard says “the observer’s mind must be passive, that is, must hold its peace; it listens to nature and writes at nature’s dictation.”  That sounds easy enough.  But will two people observing the same phenomena necessarily “see” the same thing?  Compare two accounts of a presidential debate.  Obviously we need a standard method and language if we plan to study Nature; so we need to add another quality of mind.  Bernard calls this quality of mind “experimenter” and goes on to explain that “an experimenter’s mind must be active.”  But this presents another problem.  How do we know all this human activity won’t distort the phenomena we’re trying to study?

Let’s assume the observer’s report is accurate and the experimenter’s method gives us a true reflection of Nature.  Then what?  Bernard says “as soon as Nature speaks, we must hold our peace; we must note her answer, hear her out and in every case accept her decision.”  Now another question pops up.  Why?  Do we have to accept Nature’s “decision” as final or can we bend it to serve our own human needs?  And the questions keep on coming.  Bernard says “it is the scientific investigator’s (experimenter’s) mind that acts; it is the senses that observe and note.”  For the purposes of science, which is more important: the mind or the senses?  Bernard says we need both but goes on to make a curious statement: “we must give free rein to our imagination.”  Hm.  What is the role of “imagination” in science?  Is this the same kind of imagination we bring to poetry and drama?  Would this kind of imagination work just as well in another field of study, such as mathematics?  What about history?  Science is different from literature and mathematics and history.  It has different aims and uses different methods.  Bernard says scientific “hypotheses, unverified or unverifiable by experiment, would engender nothing but systems and would bring us back to scholasticism.”  But what is science itself if not a system?  And what’s wrong with scholasticism?  So many questions in such a few pages.


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