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Local Knowledge and Scientific Success

C C Offline

EXCERPT: It’s often said that science strives towards generality, looking for laws and principles about reality that admit of no exceptions, or as few as possible. Some even go as far as saying that unity is a standard of scientific success, that an ideal scientific knowledge would be one simple, unifying, and universal theory of everything.

Others, as you’d expect, disagree. One angle of attack is to claim that there are plenty of branches of science that simply have no such thirst for generality. In vast swaths of the biological sciences, for example, the aim of the game isn’t finding general laws but about narrowing to a single domain and getting to know it as well as possibleーgrowth regulation in the fruit fly, or the nesting behaviour of the northern flicker. To put it another way, much of science happily confines itself to just one pocket of the world without (much) concern for what’s going on elsewhere.

What good is there in restricting attention in this way? Is it just because our resources (time, money, interest) are finite, and so studying reality a piece at a time is the best we can do? That must be part of the storyーwe are limited beings, after all. But there’s good reason to think that this local knowledge is more than just an unfortunate and temporary side-effect of human limitations. In fact, local knowledge has rich benefits of its own.

[...] Engineered realities are stable, predictable, and also of our own making. But the point about the value of local knowledge doesn’t just apply to environments of our own design: there are eddies in the chaos to be discovered as well as created, and knowing those can be just as useful. To give just one example, a great leap in the science of communication was to observe that natural languages have pattern and order: if you know that pattern, you can build that knowledge into the technology we use to talk to each other.

With that, we can return to the question we started with about science as local versus general knowledge. What exactly does this dispute come down to? Why, for instance, should we expect scientific advancement to either tend towards unity or diverge into patches? One way of interpreting this dispute is that it’s a disagreement about what the world is like. Some have the intuition that the world is fundamentally simple; since it’s science’s job to say what reality is fundamentally like, the thought goes, science itself should take simplicity as a mark of progress. Herbert Simon (1996) expresses a similar intuition: “The central task of a natural science is to make the wonderful commonplace: to show that complexity, correctly viewed, is only a mask for simplicity; to find pattern hidden in apparent chaos” (p. 1). Others doubt that there’s any fundamental underlying simplicity. Ken Waters (2016), for one, takes something like the latter view: for him, the most general thing we can say about reality is that there is no “general structure” to be found. The best we can do, in that case, is to get to know patches of it.

So looked at this way, it seems that this disagreement comes down to appearance versus reality...

Ostronomos Offline
How we perceive incoming information from reality can mean the difference between life and death. And scientific breakthroughs versus nonsense. Much of our recognition of the patterns of nature can indeed be considered generalizations of information, which is the goal of science. So an ultimate theory versus a strictly specified approach that encompasses reality in whole versus in part respectively would correspond to two separate mentalities, namely metaphysicists versus materialists. But materialists do not actually exist come to think of it as I draw reference to the popular thread of similar name on sciforums.

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