The nature of knowledge creation varies across academic disciplines. I propose a differentiation into two camps: logical fields, such as mathematics and philosophy, dependent on abstract reasoning, and empirical fields, such as biology, physics, and neuroscience, dependent on observation and measurement.
It might seem difficult to reconcile these two different “sources of truth”. Could these ways of knowing ever tell us contradictory things? Does the mathematicians’ logical truth ever feel threatened by the physicists’ empirical truth? Does the neuroscientists’ empirical truth ever feel threatened by the philosophers’ logical truth? Here’s a better question: why has their reconciliation proven so easy?
The Whole World is Logical
Why do empirical results cooperate with logical preconceptions? Why, for example, do physical results fail to contradict and, instead, universally support preconceived mathematical truths?
Empirical truth itself – conceivably – doesn’t exist, but refers merely to highly complex manifestations of logical truths. “Empirical” is just the name we give to logical truths whose logical underpinnings are too intricate for us to understand. The whole world operates on logic; logic is all there is.
This is not to say that empirical truths are not instructive. Our world contains many truths, and many, unfortunately, lie beyond our ability to directly and explicitly comprehend. For these complex truths, we undertake empirical investigation.
This does explain, however, why the two realms don’t contradict. Though these two types of truth come to our attention in different fashions, they both rest on the same set of underlying principles (more precisely, one rests on the other).
There’s something more subtle happening, though. Why is logical soundness so necessary in interpreting empirical truths, even when these empirical truths are far too complex for explicit logical comprehension?
Logical Antecedes Empirical
Philosopher Peter Hacker and Neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett – together in their book Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (1) (2) – argue that correct understanding of philosophical underpinnings is crucial to sound methodology and interpretation in empirical research. The writers claim that knowledge is hierarchically divided: “Conceptual questions antecede matters of truth and falsehood,” they argue. “The concepts and conceptual relationships in question are presupposed by any such investigations and theorizing.” Poor philosophical underpinnings, they claim, will lead to poor empirical science. Putting neuroscientists’ philosophical houses in order, the pair seeks to pave the way towards better empirical neuroscience.
Hacker and Bennett’s fundamental argument – that, roughly, the logical antecedes the empirical – makes our picture more complex. Previously, we described a direct causal link from the logical to the (so-called) empirical. Now, however, it seems that abstract, general logical understanding can also aid our interpretation of empirical phenomena.
The Two Theories Are The Same
Perhaps logic works in recursively increasing complexity. Basic, abstract logical principles are not separate from – but ultimately derived from – complex and fine-grained ones. By understanding these principles abstractly, at a “lower resolution”, so to speak, we can receive clues about the smaller, tougher ones.
Logic, then, both produces empirical results and leads to better interpretations of these empirical results. This is because the underlying logic is pervasively identical. Logic, dictating the universe, causes particular empirical results to exist; (partially) understanding this logic, moreover, we’re more apt to properly interpret and understand these empirical results.
Philosophy, mathematics, and logic, here, have been “grouped together” as (different levels of) the universe’s basic, fundamental laws. Is this theory grandiosely speculative, or illuminating? Like Ivan Karamazov’s “quadrillion miles”, perhaps this youthful philosophizing is deeply insightful.
Alternatively, perhaps, the universe doesn’t follow predictable laws at all.
Hacker and Bennett’s Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience
- Hacker, Bennett, Searle, and Dennett’s Neuroscience and Philosophy, containing key excerpts from (1) as well as rebuttals from leading philosophers.