Science and Different Images of the World

Michele Marsonet

It has often been claimed in contemporary philosophy that the scientific world-view will necessarily replace the view of the world provided by common sense. It may be argued, however, that common sense holds a sort of methodological primacy over the aforementioned scientific world-view. For example, the thesis of the indeterminacy of radical translation entails the impossibility of establishing what a scientific theory is talking about. We can say what a scientific theory deals with only by having recourse to our ordinary language, i.e., by assuming that we know and understand in advance what we are talking about normally, in our daily life. It follows that science cannot be conceived of as a form of knowledge which is totally independent of ordinary language and, therefore, alternative to it. According to such a stance, even scientific theories stem from the universe of meanings that belong to common language. On his part Davidson, in challenging the scheme-content dualism, mentions both “a dualism of total scheme (or language) and uninterpreted content”, and “a dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content”. What we have here is a real dichotomy between these two elements, in the sense that the (conceptual) scheme is “other than” the (non-conceptual) content that is opposed to it. Now, Davidson’s rejection of the scheme-content distinction is supported by a set of arguments purporting to reject, first of all, the thesis that totally different conceptual schemes can actually exist. To put things in a very sketchy manner, he equates having a conceptual scheme with having a language, so that we face the following elements: (1) language as the organizing force; (2) what is organized, referred to as “experience”, “the stream of sensory experience”, and “physical evidence”; and, finally, (3) the failure of intertranslatability. It follows that “It is essential to this idea that there be something neutral and common that lies outside all schemes”. If this is the situation, he goes on, then we could say that conceptual schemes that are different in a radical way from each other correspond to languages that are not intertranslatable. How can we, however, make sense of a total failure of intertranslatability among languages? For sure “we could not be in a position to judge that others had concepts or beliefs radically different from our own”. Davidson’s conclusion is that if one gives up the dualism of scheme and world, he will not give up the world, but will instead be able to “re-establish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true”. Davidson’s solution is radical, but we are bound to ask at this point what the expressions “reality” and “world” mean for him. They seem to coincide with the world of common sense which is formed by the familiar objects whose antics - as he says - make our sentences and opinions true or false. These familiar objects are tables, chairs, houses, stars, etc., just as we perceive them in our daily life. One is not entitled to ignore, however, that the current discussions on the problem of scientific realism arise because there appears to be a strong asymmetry between the commonsense view of the world and the scientific one. For instance, the table that we see with our eyes is not the same table that we “see” through the mediation of scientific instruments, and this fact is not trivial. It is rather easy to reach a high level of inter-subjective agreement among the individuals present in a room about the color, size and weight of a table, and it can also be granted that we form our beliefs in this regard by triangulating with our interlocutors and the surrounding environment. Such an agreement, however, may turn out to be problematic when we try to reconcile this vision of the world with what today science tells us about it. So, being in touch with such familiar objects as tables, chairs and stars “all the time” - as Richard Rorty adds - has a fundamental bearing only on the ontology of common sense, since our actual science shows that quite a different representation of reality can actually be provided (or, even better, it shows that those objects might not exist as men perceive them). Naturally, one can always resort to an objection of the following kind: Why should we deem the table viewed as a collection of subatomic particles more important than the table that our eyes see in daily life? After all, we can conduct our life well enough even ignoring what science claims (just like men did for many thousand years). This, however, may be judged as a serious underevaluation of the scientific enterprise. As a matter of fact, in the last centuries we are confronted not by one world-view, but by two complex images, each of which means to be a complete picture of man in the world. Wilfrid Sellars called these two perspectives, respectively, the manifest and the scientific image of man in the world. They are both intersubjective and non arbitrary. What are, however, these two images, and are they really alternative? Let us note, from the onset, that the two images we just mentioned are both idealizations in the same sense of Max Weber’s “ideal types”. This means that, in order to discover their actual presence, we need having recourse to a good deal of philosophical abstraction. In other words, they are not disclosed by mere empirical recognition. For instance, we live in the commonsense view of the world, and only a complex process of reflection makes us understand that we, as human beings, share a common view of the world, which is in turn determined by the fact that our physical structure bounds us to conceive of reality in a certain way rather than in another. Think about the importance that light, for example, has not only in daily life, but even in our philosophical conceptualization of the world. The story is complicated by the fact that each image has a history, and while the manifest image dates back to pre-history, the scientific image is constantly changing shape.

science; language; common sense; scientific image; manifest image

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