Thinkers on Conflict: Philip Kitcher’s ‘Science, Truth and Democracy’

Philip Kitcher: (1947-present)

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In his marvelous book Science, Truth and Democracy Philip Kitchen effectively also nails Post Modernist skepticism in relation to science. His ideas are foundational to the ‘modest realism’ which can help profoundly in conflict work. He thinks that the search for objective knowledge is one of the crowning achievements of our species. Post Modernists and other modern day skeptics, deny the objectivity of the sciences, question our ability to ‘get real’ and see science as an instrument of oppression.

Underlying this view is a profound difference of values. The skepticism suggests that our decisions in science are always distorted by our values and that there is no privileged way of conceptualizing reality. While final certainty in science is never possible, we can by the process of rigorous testing, doubt and pragmatic tests of what works, continue to operate. We do not need to despair of finding any better take on reality than all the others.

As Kitchen says this does not mean that science is value-free in its choice of research or that it has no moral obligations over the results of its research. Science’s role is to continue to search for better and more accurate takes on reality using free enquiry, peer review and appropriate intellectual argument. It needs to resist attempts to hobble the search for truth, but at the same time recognize that some research has lethal consequences. We do not have a blank check to disregard these consequences. Science can provide improved data reality. It is also a fertile conflict landscape in which values as well as different scientific paradigms compete and hopefully evolve in a positive direction.

Of course science is entangled with hierarchical arrangements in society and may be used for purposes of Social Dominance. But this usage needs contesting in the fight over interpretation and utilization of data, not be retreat into solipsist relativist nonsense. The marginalized should join the debate and use the Conflict Model of this book to compete in this space for their interests, bounded by reality and not some hierarchically distorted version of it or Post Modernist anarchy. Science can provide knowledge of reality and science is rightly a subject for intense debates: the two propositions are mutually supportive.

We construct our view of reality but it does not just float there and if the view we have is deeply unrealistic, sooner or later reality bites. Hitler’s view of reality brought down his country, his party and himself, though it took a lot of effort.

Kitcher asks us to imagine watching another person forming representations of reality, responding to them and shaping her environment: you are not needed for her to succeed in this goal and so neither is she needed for you to do the same. Yet both of us when we compare results usually have approximately the same take on much of reality and therefore can take it that we are approximate realists.

Science attempts to build on this everyday realism with a long tradition of experimentally based and tested knowledge that successfully supports the technology that the entire world uses. It is open to alternative beliefs in a way that many local belief systems are not. If the Hopi Indians have a better take on celestial objects that would enable a space ship to navigate more successfully into orbit around one of them, it would be used. So far as I know, they don’t, but you only have to read the research into a huge variety of religions or the analogues that I have seen between quantum mechanics and more ancient belief systems, to know that some people are looking to leverage the thought diversity available on the planet. Similarly they are looking at indigenous people’s use of plants for their healing properties to see if it leads to new drug treatments. Science has plenty of doubt, plenty of testing and a huge amount of pragmatic technological support: it works.

We know that our perception of reality is a combination of existing mental states or models and the reality impinging on them, but we also know that if the disjuncture is too great we realize it. Science works in the same way from hypotheses to their testing or as Popper would put: we attempt to disprove them. We work on the assumption that objects are independent of us. In certain cases at the sub-atomic level they are not independent of our observations, but this does not mean that we have lost hold on reality. Just that we have to take into account our impact on what we observe. It is more useful to challenge particular scientific theories for their adequacy or on their implications, rather than write off the whole enterprise.

We also don’t know in principle how tight or error tolerant our theories are. Kitchen uses the analogy of a map that we observe someone using and can figure out from their successful navigation how accurate it is (or at least how accurate it is relative to how good a map reader they are). Our conflict work is trying to do just that: help us interrogate our data and mental models for relevance, completeness and accuracy relative to the conflict task or journey we are engaged on. We certainly never get to stand on some privileged position of guaranteed truth, but we can test our maps against reality. Some maps are more accurate (not to mention more useful to a particular purpose) than others and there are good ways to find out. Maps are not equally accurate ‘narratives’ that we cannot chose between; even though the map is not the territory and it would be useless if it were: too big, and too detailed so what we are interested in (the roads to travel or where to eat) would not jump out at us! There are mapping conventions and they don’t make maps useless, but useful.

When we find our maps are increasingly inaccurate for some reason (like the crisis of Normal Science in Thomas Kuhn’s theory), then we need to replace or update them. We can most of the time live with minor inaccuracies, but if metaphorically a major new road system has been built or we find some part of our map has not been used before and has always been inaccurate, we don’t abandon the concept of maps, we draw a better map. Post Modernism metaphorically is saying that because of inaccuracies and biases by map makers (a country putting the border in a new place) all maps are equally valid and this is nonsense.

Given all this, our conflict work needs to rest on something like Kitchen’s modest scientific realism. It also represents a map of to how to navigate conflict space, whose accuracy and usefulness to you and others will be tested by its use.  It is based on many emerging theories of neuro-science and other fields, but its particular combination of insights and theoretical framework are more similar to Von Clausewitz’s view of war as a combination of art and science or the late Don Schon’s view of certain professions as the province of the reflective practitioner, rather than the research scientists. The Conflict Model of this book rests on science, is informed by science and like science is to be tested and improved on through practice and reflective learning.

Footnote: Kitcher has commented on Creationists appropriation of the work of Thomas Kuhn (see my posting on Kuhn versus Popper) whom he worked with for many years as follows (and it could equally apply to attacks on climate science):

Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has probably been more widely read—and more widely misinterpreted—than any other book in the recent philosophy of science. The broad circulation of his views has generated a popular caricature of Kuhn’s position. According to this popular caricature, scientists working in a field belong to a club. All club member are required to agree on main points of doctrine. Indeed, the price of admission is several years of graduate education, during which the chief dogmas are inculcated. The views of outsiders are ignored. Now I want to emphasize that this is a hopeless caricature, both of the practice of scientists and of Kuhn’s analysis of the practice. Nevertheless, the caricature has become commonly accepted as a faithful representation, thereby lending support to the Creationists’ claims that their views are arrogantly disregarded.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, Philosophy of Conflict, Types of conflict, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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