Herbert Simon and scientific methods

Posted on March 1, 2008


A few days ago Mark Rowlands posted something on the Secular Philosophy blog which I have been meaning to comment on. The two most relevant section were:

While we’re on the subject of what I don’t like, I should add that I equally detest scientism. Scientism is the view that all the ultimate truths of reality – all the truths worth knowing at any rate – are discoverable through scientific investigation. Now that would surprise me. Science is a method for investigating reality that has proved very effective in a certain domain. But to suppose that it enjoys unrestricted access to all truth and reality – that supposition would be one of the biggest acts of faith ever perpetrated.

Our ignorance, I suspect, is profound and probably incurable. The best thing we can do is acknowledge this and deal with it.

In reply, I wrote the following:

Mark, a number of people have picked on this sentence – Science is a method for investigating reality that has proved very effective in a certain domain. Most, however, have gone on to wonder about what you mean by ‘domain’. I’ll pick a slightly more circuitous route and pick on ‘method’ – one of the points on which Blinn chews you out. The point is that science is NOT a method. If it were, it would, indeed, only be able to investigate a certain domain. It seems to me, at least, very clear that science is a galaxy of ever changing and developing interrelated methods. The methods of today’s science are not the same as those of the science in 1908. Not only that but they are far more powerful, allowing science to investigate many more ‘domains’. Not having a definite method (something that science could not do anyway, given Hume’s problem!) means that science is open-ended. If we add to this another claim that I would (and have) vociferously defend, i.e. the continuity of human epistemic efforts, from the everyday to the scientific (clearly not a scientistic notion), we seem to get the result that whatever bounds there are to science must also be the bounds to human knowledge in general. I would hazard, further, the claim that these bounds are co-extensive with those of our world, i.e. that anything with which we can interact we can investigate. And, if that is what is meant by the domain of science, I am happy to say – that is world and time enough for me. Especially given that I am enough of a Peircean to think that anything that falls outside of that sphere of possible interaction is without meaning for us.

However, I do not think that anything of what I have said conflicts with the claim that “our ignorance is profound and probably incurable.” My second favourite pragmatist philosopher is Herbert Simon (a view of Simon I was introduced to by William Wimsatt) so I always work with the assumption that human reason is bounded. The point is that we are constantly transcending our existing limitations, only to run into new ones – and I expect this will continue to be the case in the future.