THE METHOD: Pirsig, Scientific Relativism, and Rational Knowledge

In science, Uncategorized on May 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance






Robert Pirsig in his world famous classic Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shares the experience of his disillusionment with science when he was an undergraduate university student.

Pirsig’s Law

Pirsig noted a curious fact about doing research in his biochemistry lab. He found that the easiest part of experimentation is the thinking up of plausible hypotheses that may explain the phenomenon in question. Moreover, as he attempted to take up these hypotheses one by one and test them, their number did not decrease. Rather, it kept increasing!

Initially, Pirsig took a humorous view of the situation and even stated a law to express it:

The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.” (p. 139)

While this law is certainly not rigorously defended, the main point is that at any given point of time more hypotheses can be generated to explain a given phenomenon than can be tested. But if all hypotheses cannot be tested (because their number keeps increasing as experimentation continues) than the result of any single experiment at a given point of time is actually inconclusive: Which is to say that all scientific truth is relative, a function of time.

The nature of scientific method

When we closely inspect the nature of scientific method, it is easy to see why any scientific truth must be relative. Scientific method rests on a form of reasoning called as the hypothetico-deductive model. The model entails the following steps in any scientific inquiry:

1. You look at a problem (an unexplainable phenomenon) and first look for any previous explanations.

2. If no previous explanation is available, you construct and state an explanation yourself (the theory).

3. Next, you derive one or more very specific consequence(s)  (the hypotheses) that follows from the explanation in the step #2.

4. Finally, you test the hypothesis by collecting data and seeing whether they fit the opposite of the hypothesis in question.

This last point may well be unclear to those not familiar with scientific research, so here I go again:

The hypothesis from step 3 is called as the research hypothesis (also termed as the alternative hypothesis), the one that the experimenter is really interested in. For every research hypothesis, its corresponding opposite, the null hypothesis, is actually what is tested.

For example if the research hypothesis is “Tomato plants exhibit a higher rate of growth when planted in compost rather than in soil” then the null hypothesis would be “tomato plants do not exhibit a higher rate of growth when planted in compost rather than in soil”.

The experimenter really tests this null hypothesis. If the data do not fit the null hypothesis, it is rejected and the alternative hypothesis is then accepted.

No absolute proof for the research hypothesis

It is clear from the above explication that the scientific method can never really prove any given consequence (step #3) drawn from a given explanation (step #2). All it can do is to prove that the literal opposite of the research hypothesis does not conform to the observed variation in data.

This is what Christiaan Huygens meant when he said: “I believe that we do not know anything for certain, but everything probably.” Albert Einstein expressed the same idea more precisely: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” [Source for both quotes is the wikipedia page on the Scientific Method.]

Since the evidence is really not in favor of any single explanation, a multitude of explanations can be surmised. It will be a matter of time before the currently favored explanation for any given phenomenon is ultimately disproven, with another alternative hypothesis taking its place.

Scientific truth as a function of time

This leads us directly to scientific relativism. Throughout the history of science, new and changing explanations have emerged for old facts. Explanations remained “true” for a certain period of time and were finally replaced by a newer truth. As Pirsig observes: Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year.

Authors, J. A. Fodor and Z. W. Pylyshyn made a similar observation with reference to a theory of perception: “Even in the respectable sciences, empirical knowledge is forever going reformulation, and any generation’s pet theories are likely to look naive when viewed from the perspective of thirty or forty years on.”

Pirsig additionally observes: “the scientific truths of the twentieth century seem to have a much shorter life-span than those of the last century because scientific activity is now much greater”. Thus the greater the number of hypotheses, the greater the amount of activity to test them, with ever increasing stimulation of more and more hypotheses. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude.

Is the Explainer of Chaos it’s Producer?

The ultimate conclusions Pirsig reaches about science are rather interesting, definitely harsh and, in my personal opinion, certainly true.

Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones. The major producer of the social chaos, the indeterminacy of thoughts and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself.

Pirsig’s final verdict on rationality:

It begins to be seen for what it really is–emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless, and spiritually empty.

  1. But if rationality “works well enough,” it stays? Otherwise, we could move over to irrationality, which may not be hollow, but is more like a hallucinogen.

  2. That is why ‘it stays’. We human beings can only deal with a limited amount of information at any time (see my post on LSD part II). That is why rationality ‘works well’; though it may be keeping away from the far more complex reality all the time…

  3. […] ‘tentative’ property of the logic on which the castle of Science is raised. However, I once reflected on this topic by reference to quotes from Robert’s Pirsig’s book. The validities of all ideas and […]

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