Scientific research without a clear and valid epistemology marks the scientific amateur. Most scientists fall into this category – no matter how well paid, they are essentially technicians. Do you have a positivist or constructivist bent? Most scientists who claim that philosophy of science is inessential are de facto positivists. They believe that objective reality lies out there, waiting to be discovered. This is, of course, an epistemological stance – it is merely invisible and poorly framed to the holder, who feels it merely to be ‘truth’ or the ‘way things are.’ But the idea of objective reality is unproven.
Causality, for example, is the very backbone of science. Without a cause and effect framework underlying reality, science has no meaning. Hard science is the study of cause and effect expressed as something called ‘Natural Law’ – whatever that phrase means.
Karl Popper, the reigning champion of science philosophy, defines the central principle of causality as the idea that any occurrence is causally explicable and thus deductively predictable. This divides into two methods – the conceptual explanation (scientific logic) and the extant reality, wherein “the world is governed by strict laws. The assertion is not falsifiable…I shall neither adopt nor reject the principle of causality. I exclude it as metaphysical from the sphere of science.”[i]
It’s a scathing critique. Popper’s idea of falsifiability is probably the most often invoked to validate an idea as scientific. Most people using this logic separate the world into science/ truth/ reality and non-science/ bogus/ irrelevant. Popper unequivocally states that the entire scientific enterprise of natural laws giving rise to particular events is a causal explanation and that causality is a metaphysical assumption. The entirety of science is thus founded on metaphysics.
Popper is fine with that; he even celebrates it. He puts the onus of proof where it belongs – on the shoulders of science. Creating falsifiable theories is not the job of the metaphysician; it is that of the scientist. If a scientist wishes to test a metaphysical theory, he must render the theory into acceptable form and devise experimentation which can falsify it. Otherwise it remains a metaphysical idea, as valid as any idea in science. Falsifiability is not a means to destroy non-scientific knowledge. It is a means to frame other hypotheses for the purpose of testing them, and nothing more.
No scientist has a legitimate claim to objectivity without analyzing her epistemology. Objectivity is unreachable with hidden preconceptions, biases, and a priori beliefs. To assume that beliefs will not affect research is naïve. The genuine scientist also studies his own mind, biases and outlook. Most scientists who do so conclude that objectivity is either non-existent or unachievable due to inescapable human bias.
This does not mean that ALL scientists will or have come to that conclusion. But the unexamined mind marks one as an amateur, no matter what field.
[i] Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959. Harper Torchbooks. 1965 Translation. Section 12.