There is a subtle yet notable difference between scientific knowledge and any other kind of knowledge. A cursory study of the history of science will show that all of its potential lies in the scientific method, the scientific principle. Knowledge accrued through any medium of instruction and any medium of discovery cannot reside in the bastille of facthood if that medium cannot pay homage, even in part, to the scientific method.
What is the scientific method? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the scientific method is “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” In recent years, with cheaper and better avenues of information-sharing having opened up, the concept of “full disclosure” has also been included into the scientific method: when a discovery is made or a conclusion reached, the data accompanying the study is to be made public and accessible. This habit allows the scientific community to gather evidence of statistical reliability and thereby establish the validity of that information.
In that context, scientific knowledge is progressive. How? Every moment we gather information, every moment we process it into knowledge, we know something more than when we didn’t possess such information. Consequently, we could be said to have come from a state of possessing X units of knowledge to now possessing X + 1 units of knowledge. While such a growth means nothing if one were to look only one way through time, written records and saved files enable us to look back and reconsider our evaluation of the past.
Consider this small thought-experiment: at 1 PM in the afternoon, we learn about thermodynamics; at 2 PM in the afternoon, we learn about steam engines; at 3 PM in the afternoon, we learn about World War II. At 2 PM, therefore, with our knowledge of the steam engine, we’d have re-evaluated the future of thermodynamics that we didn’t know at 1 PM. Similarly, at 2 PM, we’d have known nothing of how the steam engine would affect the future of mankind. Therefore, at 3 PM, it becomes obvious that the steam engine evolved into the internal combustion engine, which was used to power battle tanks and bomber aircrafts – adding to the quality of our knowledge at 2 PM. In conclusion of this thought-experiment, we realize that, yes, scientific knowledge is progressive.
While other forms of knowledge, such as history, ethics and the arts, do not conform to the scientific method, they are knowledge nonetheless. So, are the two kinds of knowledge really demarcated? Yes, they are, and the answer to this question is tied in with the reasoning behind the establishment that scientific knowledge is progressive. Consider the example of history: when the veracity of scientific progression rests with our ability to re-evaluate the lessons of the past, why isn’t history considered to be progressive? Historical events are interpreted with greater degrees of accuracy using tools discovered in the present. Doesn’t that mean we know more about history today than we did yesterday? No.
Why? To answer that question, the nature of science and the nature of history must be understood. Both scientific and historical knowledge did not exist before man was born, and to pull at that thread would be useless. Instead, let’s examine the way we interact with science and history. To provide a simple analogy: in looking through a telescope at the distant stars, the open skies would be the metaphor for history and the telescope itself, a metaphor for science. While scientific and historical knowledge are similar, history is what I call the projection of “subject knowledge” while science is the projection of “method knowledge”. By using tools birthed in the present, our knowledge of history is not bettered but our knowledge of the events that are constituted within history is bettered.
By using tools birthed in the present, our knowledge of science is bettered because science is inescapably the sum of all that constitutes it. Why? Because history is not subject to the initiatives of mankind, science is; because our interaction with history is only our interaction with the events of history, and our interaction with science is our interaction with science because what makes up science is also science. History is universal fact and can never be altered. Science is also universal fact but only in the universe we are capable of observing. In the unobservable or unknowable universe, history remains truthful while the validity of science cannot be ascertained because we are not in a position of knowing how such knowledge may be disputed. In the unobservable and unknowable universe, history continues to be objective knowledge while science transmogrifies into subjective knowledge.
Another conclusion of the above discussion is that there never can be an end to science for the simple reason that science isn’t only “what’s out there” but what we think it means to be “out there”, too. This truth arises out of the a priori knowledge that science represents the truth and the a posteriori knowledge that its validity can be ascertained only by conducting repeated studies and making repeated observations and establishing statistical averages. A posteriori knowledge becomes a priori knowledge only if the truth-value of the a posteriori knowledge becomes universal, and to prove universality, the number of experiences that gives rise to the generation of that a posteriori knowledge stretches into infinity. This notion translates into reality as the refusal of science to “finish itself”.
However, there is a concept in information physics (Bekenstein bound) that states that any region of space that contains a finite amount of energy has an upper limit on how much information can be contained within that space. For example, when a balloon is inflated, air is blown into it. The plastic membrane that makes up the outer surface of the balloon cannot withstand very high pressures, which means the quantity of air that can be blown into the balloon is finite. Assuming that each atom of the gas contains I units of information, and that n atoms of the gas come together to generate the maximum pressure that can be withstood by the plastic, nI is the total amount of information contained within the balloon. The same principle applies to the universe – with the given knowledge that the universe cannot contain more than a certain quantity of heat (law of conservation of energy).
In such a universe, even if the science remains unending and perpetually open to more investigation, the upper limit of “essential information” as postulated by the Bekenstein bound will be reached. However, before the consequences of the occurrence of such an event are discussed, a moment’s introspection will reveal that that event could have occurred just now, just at this moment that you are reading these words.
Right now, we are alive and thinking; right now, we are alive because we have survived the time since our birth using whatever knowledge was available on that day. Right now, you are aware that you only need to know that much more before you go to bed tonight and that there is no necessity for you to understand high-energy physics to be able to dream candy-filled dreams. Therefore, we possess all the essential information we think we need. At the same time, for every moment we live for after this one, we interpret the information available to unearth newer information. The Bekenstein bound puts in place an upper limit only on the quantity of essential information. The essentiality of it, on the other hand, is subject to the discretions of each individual.
While the discussion up to this point has remained focused on the theory of knowledge, what of the application of that knowledge? Any arguments in this section will remain decidedly blunt-edged if the context of ethics removed from it. Before we proceed, it must be clarified that decisions concerning the ethical stance pertain only actions and not to the entities that are created, exchanged or modified in the process. Say A shares a secret with B and then asks B not to share it with C; when B shares it with C, he has behaved unethically. However, the secret itself cannot be called unethical. In much the same way, there is no ethicality or morality associated with knowledge, scientific or not. Before the discussion is extended further, the acquiring of scientific knowledge can be broken down into a series of steps:
- Assimilation (or, learning)
Both testing and assimilation are actions involving that section of reality that is external to the self, i.e. the mind. Ergo, since ethicality is associated only with the execution of action, the acts of testing and assimilation are more commonly associated with unethical behaviour. Ergo, while the knowledge itself cannot be held to be unethical in any way, knowledge obtained through unethical acts of testing or unethical acts of assimilation can inherit that negative ethical value. Ergo, there is no area of scientific knowledge that is morally unacceptable as long the acquiring of that knowledge does not necessitate unethical methods of investigation. For example, killing a man to learn more about the digestive system makes that knowledge unethically acquired while the knowledge itself is neither ethical nor unethical.
While practising the scientific method when inquiring qualifies the findings to be held as error-proof, is the method enough to extend that proof beyond the limits of scientific application? The answer is neither yes nor no; more importantly, the answer to that question does not matter because, and here again, the process of application can be broken down into a series of steps:
None of these steps can be conducted parallely; each has to follow the other. The inquirer’s role, in fact, ends before the selection step of the application sphere. However, it has been argued that negative ethical values are inherited through actions. Therefore, if we were to draw a line after the assimilation of scientific knowledge to demarcate the discovery sphere and the application sphere, we see that any negative ethical values can be inherited from one sphere into another through actions. This essentially means that, if some knowledge has been acquired through unethical actions, then the person who enables that knowledge to be applied endorses those actions, and therefore infuses the application stage with negative ethical value. However, as long as the knowledge has been acquired via ethical methods, the scientist does not deserve to be held responsible for what he or she has discovered. Perhaps the best real-life example of this is the usage of nuclear power: for peace or for war?
Such is the theory of knowledge.