Monday, January 19, 2009

Week 2 Postings - Ontology

As I read through and tried to understand the articles (especially the ontology article – wow!), it seems that the question we are wrestling with this week is about truth and the nature of truth, and how we try to come to the closest approximation that we can come to the truth about something.

If we decide to do research, then the underlying assumptions about how we perceive truth (and the acquisition of knowledge)becomes very important. So let me try to unravel this for myself here first and please let me know if I am on the right track here…

DeCartes says that there are 2 realities: the “thing” in reality and our “thoughts” about the thing and these are 2 real entities (object and the subject – the thing to be known and the knower). As we observe and get data about the “thing” we get closer and closer to understanding the “truth” about the thing itself. But this duality exists (Cartesian dualism - Kivinen & Piiroinen pg. 234). If I understand this article, the critical realists live with this duality and feel that the generalizations that they make as they observe the “object” can get closer and closer to the truth about the object itself. That the “subject” can know the “object”. The Pragmatists and methodological relationists on the other hand, like Hume in the opening lecture (and his problem of induction) say that you can never really know the thing wholly. That the best we can do is to get to a close approximation of the thing. That the subject and object will never be “one”. I think this is where the other articles come into play – Martin speaks of the impact of language to hinder (or cloud) the truth about the object and Rosaldo and Peshkin both write about the different ways that our own experience, culture, and background can either cloud or facilitate our getting closer to the objective truth.

It seems to me that Hume’s “problem of induction” (lecture by Dennis pg. 2)when it comes to deciding scientific truth is correct. That generalizations can be made, but the leap to the notion that what is observed as true today will always hold true in every situation goes too far. Karl Popper then adds to this idea that “the best that can be said about scientific truth is that is has not yet been falsified” (pg 2 lecture). Meaning that scientific laws are only true insofar as they have not yet been proven untrue. Again, we can only come to a closer approximation of what the thing actually is… but never get to the totality.

This line of questioning made me then ask the question, “Who decides when a hypothesis becomes a theory and when a theory becomes a scientific law?”That is, when is enough data enough? I had to “go to the experts” for this one, and so posed the question to my husband (a practicing scientist). As soon as I asked the question, he thrust his hands into his pockets and immediately started pacing the room in an animated fashion and we were off to the races.

My husband said that the “scientific community” decides (through the process of research and debate). Yet in that process, many voices are left out of the discussion, in other words, it is not a democratic process and a definite power structure exists within each scientific realm. With this comes all kinds of problems from political to social – making it even more difficult to determine “truth”.

As people get higher up in the power chain, it gets harder to challenge them and what Popper calls the “normative commitment of researchers to the fallibility of their own knowledge claims” that healthy skepticism, can me muffled by egos and laissez faire attitudes that success can bring. So he says that Popper says that there is no real concrete “truth” rather only what we know at this moment in time, and every hypothesis, theory and law stands waiting only to be disproved. I would have to say that when one looks back through time at the history of scientific endeavor, what we know to be true mostly is that our understand grows and changes through time, so a healthy skepticism is a tool that I think serves us well in any kind of thoughtful inquiry.

So how does this connect to how we learned science in our classrooms in the 60’s and 70’s? I’m sure, we weren’t taught to question things, but to accept the theories and simply continue to observe things that continued to support them. I do not recall being asked to take a skeptical stance… even today with the debate on global warming, look at how political it has become right away. People choose sides politically rather than looking at the issue with a healthy skepticism that would allow us to perhaps make our way closer to the truth (as we know it in this moment) so as to act in meaningful ways.

I think taking a skeptical stance really connects to what we talk about in critical literacy – that we cannot blindly accept all that is written as truth (even from experts) and that we have to stay open to what all sides say about a topic – but I’ll save this for a second posting!

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