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A Prelude to Good Science

I tend to agree with Karl Popper far more than I disagree. Nevertheless, I diverge from Popper over his under-specification of truth (BTW: I work out the particulars of this argument in much greater detail in a forthcoming book, Good Science: The Pursuit of Truth and the Evolution of Reality). Truth can be defined as undistorted knowledge. The process of redefining reality involves a transition from an inadequate to a more adequate definition of reality (“adequacy” in this context relates to the degree to which one paradigm or another provides plausible explanations for facts and anomalies: for example, Galileo’s heliocentric cosmology was more adequate than geocentrism, and Hubble’s expanding universe theory was more adequate than the island universe theory).

Although I believe it is possible to identify demonstrable improvements in the progression of scientific paradigms, I do not believe that any paradigm that humans ever have or will produce is an expression of “The Ultimate Truth.” Nonetheless, the process of redefining reality is an expression of human agency. Agency can be understood as a unique quality of creative, sentient beings and it involves three key components:

  1. Inventive, original thinking: agents are capable of conjuring ideas that no one else has previously dreamed of (e.g., take your pick of novel ideas that humans have produced)
  2. Opposition: the new ideas that agents produce have a tendency to challenge established beliefs (one of the best examples is Galileo’s legendary falling out with the Catholic Church, another is the undying controversy over Darwinian evolution)
  3. Redefinition: in spite of opposition, if agents are tenacious enough, they can advance their novel ideas in such a way as to redefine the perception and structure of empirical reality (the universe has never been the same since Galileo aimed his telescope at the heavens, also, inventive thinkers, such as the Wright Brothers literally transformed the substance of lived reality: heavier-than-air flight used to be a fantasy, but, thanks to Wilbur and Orville, now it is a fact–or, one might even say, a new truth).

When agents redefine reality, I argue that their knowledge-seeking endeavors are guided by truth. By that I mean, many knowledge seekers are motivated to develop more adequate explanations for perceived anomalies (As an aside: in Good Science, I also argue that many truth-seekers are motivated to resolve challenges that I categorize as “problematics” — but I won’t digress further on that here). The limitations of established paradigms invariably create dissonances for knowledge-seekers: paradigms are static and limited, whereas the universe is dynamic and infinite. Thus, knowledge-seekers are generally keen to pursue the truths that lie beyond established paradigms. Knowledge-seekers make stepwise progress toward compassing universal truths by advancing knowledge through a process of redefining reality, i.e., agents counteract the limitations and distortions of existing knowledge systems by developing creative, more adequate paradigmatic advancements. Thus, knowledge-seekers have the goal of evincing truth and, although their innovative paradigms may never succeed in becoming an expression of ultimate truth, the process through which they redefine the boundaries of knowledge is guided by and productive of truth.

About Timothy McGettigan

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.
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