Column on Objectivity and Consensus

Objectivity and Consensus

Tibor R. Machan

The radical skeptic regarding gaining knowledge about the world will tend
to trust the empirical sciences above other means of investigation.
Several issues arise, though, Scientist do not all deploy identical
methods across the sciences. Botany and physiology study differently as do
astrophysics and subatomic physics. That’s because the method of study
needs to be fitted to the object of study. This is one reason that
subatomic physicists, find it difficult to reconcile their work with
astrophysicists–Stanford University’s Leonard Susskind versus Cambridge
University’s Stephen Hawking.

Because the human form of consciousness a quite complex, its study, too,
will involve comparably subtle tools and approaches. And, of course, the
tools of study, instruments of measurement, medication, etc., will vary
from field to field.

The diversity of rational approaches is evident also in how readily
scholar argue. Even among ordinary folks there is less argument about,
say, where the line divides a road, one side going there, another here.
Other than for those whose faculties are impaired, disputation in these
simple regions are rare.

Consider, for illustrative purposes, that the same people who drove to
work on some express highway at 75 mph and had no trouble agreeing on
where the curbs, lines, and signs stood and what they meant will enter
their work and begin to argue about various issues related to their
subject matters, often bearing on the making of public policy,

Is reality suffering from innate instability, as some physicists have been
claiming, so measurements are in principle and practice not possible to
undertake and agree about? Are the instruments badly designed? Are the
students themselves impeded by differences in the way their faculties
operate? Or are the individuals themselves exercising their cognitive
capacities differentially–plainly put, are some slower than others, more
distracted, less attentive, etc.?

Or perhaps when tasks turn out to be surrounded with many contingencies,
lots of variables, and are undertaken by scholars with varied capacities,
willingness, interests, and influences on their thinking–including that
neglected influence of their own varied levels of attentiveness and
focus–disagreements multiply. At that point it becomes tempting to
ascribe responsibility to the way the world itself works, not to human
shortcomings, to alleged innate irrationalities about the world, much
vagueness or many ambiguities. This is suggested by those who take some
epistemological challenges passed to human knowledge at the subatomic
level and generalize or extrapolate it to all cases of our knowing the
world.

Take, for example, that the future president’s economists drive to their
offices in considerable harmony, with no intransigencies plaguing their
trip but once they sit down at the round table and begin to discuss the
country’s economic wows, varied opinion become routine. Why? Is it because
the world is so messy that no rhyme or reason can be attained from
studying it? Or is it that such coordinated study requires enormous unity
of purpose and similarity of approach, otherwise the results will be mixed
and that can lead skeptics to declare the effort hopeless.

If there is anything that shows that human beings are free agents, not
determined to act as they do, their ubiquitous disagreements certainly
suggest it. The varied beliefs people hold about God, free will,
democracy, child raising and zillions of other topics shows that they need
to be very much in self-control, very focused, very skilled so as to reach
similar conclusions. And they need to keep in mind the philosophical
issue, the one that emerges out of the study of metaphysics, that at
bottom the world is and can be nothing else but internally consistent.
This is implicitly acknowledge by most scholars and scientists when they
do not rest until they come up with a theory that excludes contradictions.
Just as at a criminal trial, if a witness makes a contradictory claim
that claim is discredited, the same is true in science and everywhere else
where we want to know about the world.

——————
Machan wrote Objectivity, Recovering Determinate Reality in Philosophy,
Science and Everyday Life (Ashgate, 2006).

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