Empirical Inquiry: Limitations and Possibilities

Paul Grobstein
Center for Science in Society (with appreciation)
7 December 2007

There can be no single definitive description of reality, nor of beauty, nor of virtue. What then is the business of inquiry? of education?

Noticing the problem, a general oneToward a general solution?
Socrates and Plato suggested that if we tried hard enough we should find beliefs which everybody found intuitively plausible, and that among these would be moral beliefs whose implications, when clearly realized, would make us virtuous as well as knowledgeable ... unwobbling pivots that determine the answer to the question: Which moral or political alternative is objectively valid? For Deweyan pragmatists like me, history and anthropology are enough to show that there are no unwobbling pivots, and that seeking objectivity is just a matter of getting as much intersubjective agreement as you can manage (Richard Rorty, 1992)

The truth about stories is that that's all we are. The Nigerian story-teller Ben Okri says that "... here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories that are planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted -- knowingly or unknowingly -- in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives." (Thomas Young, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, 2005)

An interesting issue came up in my college seminar course today. Supposing one accepts that absolute "objectivity" is not achievable, ie that all understandings are "stories" that inevitably have a personal context dependence (some "subjectivity") to them. And one notices that many people are more attracted to stories with a personal element to them than they are to the "dry" stories told by scientists/academics. If absolute objectivity is unachievable, is there any rationale for putting up with (even aspiring) to "dryness", ie for preferring more objective stories to less objective things? for teaching students the virtues of trying to be more "objective"? ... College Seminar 2007

... despite the efforts of many reformers, Descartes still rules. Mind and body are still held apart. Their division tends to produce a population of one-eyed specialists on both sides, specialists who are mystified by their respective opposite numbers and easily drift into futile warfare. It is surely worth while to take a much harder look at the misleading imaginative picture of the intellectual life which is the source of this habit. (Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, 2001)

The brain ... and philosophy of science

Re-uniting mind and body
Acknowledging inherent inescapable subjectivity
Finding opening for new "intellectual life," educational directions
Empirical non-foundationalism

  • three loops
  • generativity as objective

| no unwobbling pivots | story | intersubjectivity | inquiry and education