This post is going to be dull, I apologize, but it’s an important definition of “knowledge” and scientific research.
Though objectivity seems to be the philosophical status quo right now, the definition of the truth was long a subject of controversy for philosophers. From the ones who believed truth didn’t exist or that there were infinite versions of it to the ones believing we projected the frame of our knowledge on it, the notion of reality as being independent from us was accepted fairly recently. Bacon, in theorizing the scientific method, and basically inventing modern science, acknowledged the independence of the Universe – its physical properties – from the human mind – our understanding of these properties -. Starting with Bacon, scientists were increasingly using figures, statistics, trying to represent the world as accurately as possible, driven by this new ideal of impartial, impersonal, objective knowledge.
The truth is this philosophical and scientific ideal of objective knowledge.
Scientific research is founded on this principle of objectivity; that the Universe is understandable by the human mind, but also by any other intelligent being. Reason is the faculty that allows us to go from simple perceptions to knowledge. In other words, it allows us to understand reality.
We understand that we’re just intelligent animals, so if we can understand the Universe, another intelligent creature can too.
The content of science -knowledge, truth- is universal: it doesn’t depend on the knowing subject, it doesn’t depend on time, nor place. Gravity is supposed to apply everywhere in the Universe, any time, whether you know/acknowledge it or not (the cosmological principle).
Now of course, science encompasses many different disciplines: from art history to astrophysics, objective truth is sometimes difficult to see in certain subjects. If physics, biology are difficult to describe as unobjective, what about history, or sociology?
We have to carefully distinguish the truth, which is universal, and our conceptions of it. History is objective. Our interpretations of it aren’t. The Second World War happened. How you recall it might vary whether you live in Japan or the United States. Wikipedia, adhering to the principle of objectivity (which is a part of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, of which Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, is a follower), developed the idea of the Neutral Point Of View: For controversial subjects, Wikipedia favors expressing the different points of view (as long as they are published by reliable sources, of course) in order to eliminate bias from the encyclopedia. That’s a good way to represent the state of our current knowledge while waiting for a consensus, for the objective truth to emerge.
So basically, every science, even the most “literary” one, adheres to the principle of objectivity. Indeed, if chimpanzees or octopuses were to study history, or biology, or mathematics, they should come to the same conclusions as we did, albeit in a different language. As Karl Popper wrote, objective knowledge is knowledge without a knowing subject. The sum of our knowledge, contained in all our scientific publications, is independent from humanity’s existence. It is an independent entity, which I described as a monolith, which we feed new knowledge by publishing new discoveries through scientific papers.
Objectivity is certainly part of the beauty and appeal of scientific research.
As I talked about Popper, I can’t not mention his theory of falsifiability. Scientific theories are confirmed by experiments; Popper argued experiments can’t “validate” a theory. They can prove it wrong, as just one experiment contradicting a theory is sufficient to destroy it. But to validate a theory, you’d need an infinity of experiments, which is impossible. For example, we can’t prove the theory of gravity, which I talked about earlier, to be 100% true. However, with all the data we have and the experiments we realized, the probability of the theory of gravity being true is extremely high. Falsifiability helps us understand how we create concepts to explain the objective reality.
It’s interesting to realize that the concepts we create to understand objective reality (the theory of gravity to understand “gravity”) can be as close to this objective reality as is possible (the only barrier being the language we are forced to use to describe our concepts).
And as objective reality is understandable by human thought, it can be understood by Artificial Intelligences, too. As I wrote in “The Virtual Scientist”, AIs could help us discover new things and do science faster.
In the time-consuming knowledge- and data-intensive activities an AI could help us do, there is the example of the bot writing thousands of articles on Wikipedia. The bot mines databases for facts (about cities, species, etc.) and creates articles based on these facts. Of course, it’s not reinventing the wheel, but it saves Wikipedians time by doing simple, yet tedious work, so they can focus on writing the more subtle parts of the article.
If we gave an AI a representation of our world similar to the one we can enjoy through our senses, it could come up with a theory of gravity of its own for example; and that would be a big evidence of objectivity.
One scientific discipline is even closer to objective truth. Mathematics are a universal language, the purest, simplest expression of the truth. Though they are based on symbols, they don’t rely on language and culture, as our other concepts do; they rely on pure logic. It was Galileo who said the “book of the Universe is written in mathematics”. Carl Sagan and others hoped we could probably communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences by sending them mathematical works!
Computers are already producing mathematical proofs too big for humans to manually check. It doesn’t make these proofs wrong, though we have to find a way to confirm them for sure, but it’s an evidence of maths (and perhaps generally, science) being independent of human consciousness. A mathematical proof can be true, whether we are able to verify it by “human” means or not.
With science generally, and maths especially, humanity has a universal language, with which we represent, describe the objective reality of the Universe, and which we could use to communicate with other intelligent beings.
Knowledge, this independent entity, this monolith we feed with scientific papers, is the ultimate repository of this universal language.
But of course scientists make mistakes, and some papers which are fed to the monolith are wrong. In fact there’s a real problem with reproducibility of scientific papers right now. In biomedical research, a study found that less than 10% of scientific papers are reproducible, which is baffling: how can we claim science is about objectivity when so little publications are actually right?
The main problem is the pressure put on scientists to publish, which values quantity over quality, and effectively encourages scientists to fake results in order to get “exciting” articles published in high Impact Factor journals. Scientists are very rarely punished for these behaviors and usually continue their work in academia after their frauds have been exposed. We should sanction the ones who publish fake articles and/or fraudulent data.
More importantly, we should stop putting pressure on scientists to publish, and judge their value by the quality rather than the quantity of their publications.
Let’s encourage researchers to do great work, to be honest, and to publish only when it’s meaningful.
There’s an amazing website called Retraction Watch which tracks, as its name indicates, the retraction of fraudulent/false scientific publications. This initiative is a good example of the Internet’s power to make research more open and transparent, in a way that benefits the pursuit of the truth.
Our beliefs, personalities, and general humanity can be impediments in the quest to understand the Universe. However, knowing that reality exists independently of our own existence, and that all intelligent beings can understand it, with or without the help of sophisticated tools like computers, is very comforting.