Monday, November 12, 2012

Responses 001 (May 2013)

The next lot of prescribed topics of this kind produces intellectual contortions of various varieties. Topic 1 reads:
In what ways may disagreement aid the pursuit of knowledge in the natural and human sciences?

There are clearly several levels of disagreement and pursuit of knowledge to think about here. However, we should begin by taking a little digression to establish what the natural and human sciences are in the first place. We'll look at the content of these large super-areas of knowledge and then what lies beneath them.

The natural sciences are areas of knowledge that stem from the observation of natural phenomena and the construction of theories and experiments concerning such phenomena. These would include the life sciences (e.g. biology, zoology, botany), earth sciences (e.g. astronomy, geology and meteorology), and physical sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, metallurgy).

The human sciences are areas of knowledge that stem from the observation of human phenomena and the construction of theories and experiments concerning such phenomena. These would include psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology and so on.

There's more about the disciplines in the natural and human sciences in this topic from the previous session. Theories in the natural and human sciences also differ (prior argument here).

Because of the differences between the two large groups of disciplines, and the range within each group, you'd probably need to think about the general rules for each group; you can use the linked posts I've provided to think about what the rules are. Once you've decided what defines these areas of knowledge, you can think about how you would pursue that knowledge.

Which leads us back to how disagreement might aid such pursuit. What is disagreement? On one level, it occurs when two data or data sets do not agree; that is, they are just not the same or lead to different conclusions. On another level, it is a process of trying to produce arguments that contradict a given position. On a third level, it is the mindset of deliberately being contradictory in order to ensure that a fair skepticism is brought to bear when thinking about science.

The first case is perfectly natural. We define things by difference; our senses tell us what inputs are different from the previous state (e.g. 'it is getting brighter' or 'this water is warmer than normal') and our emotions are basically differences in physiological states that allow us to evaluate our environment and shift our psychological perspectives. Therefore, to make an observation requires us to determine whether or not what we sense and record disagrees with what we have sensed and recorded before.

The second case is an extension of the first. If we keep evaluating our disagreements or the disagreement of our 'new' data with the 'old' data, we will start constructing theories about why this is so — one famous case is the Hegelian dialectic, where a thesis is confronted by its antithesis and a synthesis resolves this disagreement.

The third case occurs when this kind of thinking becomes a legitimate and established process. Then the idea of disagreement with what we've found becomes a valuable tool that keeps us from being too conservative about knowledge. Disagreeing with what we think we've established earlier can also help us to learn new things (look up 'cognitive dissonance' and 'skepticism' elsewhere).

OK, that's my brief take on the first topic. Goodness, it's not as brief as I thought! How... disagreeable.

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