The arguments against reductive scientific method

This article is extracted from a Usenet post I made in talk.philosophy.misc back on December 30, 1994. I have reproduced it almost exactly here, except to remove references to other Usenet posts and to correct some spelling errors. It’s fascinating for me to look back now, and see how I already had developed my extremely interdisciplinary, anti-reductionist view of the universe at the age of 21.

Why do so many people who embrace scientific method throw “personal experience” out the window? Why is something less valid because it is personal experience? Why is something less “true” or “real” because it is subjective? Why is the “objectivity of measurement” given so much credence?

In physics it may seem rational to take this kind of approach to science: only make repeatable objective measurements, connect the measurements together using formulas, make predictions using equations. The fact that you are a person who is making a measurement never enters into it.

But this has leaked over into the cognitive sciences as well, which seems very strange. Aren’t objectivist and reductionist methodologies inherently counter-productive in the science of the mind — where the very thing that you are studying is subjective?

Some authors in psychology and cognitive science have tried to address this. Anne Schaff’s Beyond Therapy, Beyond Science and Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s book The Embodied Mind both talk about the importance of phenomenology and including the observer’s experience as part of your theory.  William Wimsatt’s article, “Robustness, Reliability and Overdetermination” in Scientific Inquiry and the Social Sciences (p. 124-163) talks about the fact that hypothetico-deductive argument is not the only way to formulate valid scientific theories, either.

Other methods of verification depend on the overlap of independent derivations from independent subjective frameworks–even different scientific fields or disciplines–where laws are considered “laws” when they are derivable from a wide variety of diverse approaches. In this view, “triangulation” from intertheoretic viewpoints is more reliable or “robust”, compared to conclusions that are deduced from long chains of reasoning from “basic” (assumed to be infallible) premises (see Barlow and Proschan, 1975, on “Reliability Theory”). Richard Feynman refers to this kind of “triangulation” as the “Babylonian” method of scientific inquiry, in his second lectures-on-physics series (1965).

So the ideas are out there. The idea that we can deduce an objective reality superior to any individual’s given experience, or that objective reality is somehow independent of the subjective processes by which we
detect it, has already been brought into question. I just wish it played a larger role in cognitive science.

Scientific Observations about observation

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