There are important assumptions, or attitudes of science, which ground scientific study across all disciplines; Determinism, Empiricism, Experimentation, Replication, Parsimony, and Philosophic Doubt. The last one holds a key role in how we deal with the information we gain from science, and what we do with it in the future. Philosophic Doubt is the attitude of science which encourages us to continuously question and doubt the information, rules, and facts that govern our interpretation and understanding of the world (universe, etc). Philosophic Doubt is what has practitioners of science question the underpinnings of their belief, and continually do so, so that their understanding is based on consistently verifiable information. Philosophic Doubt cuts both ways- it can have a scientist test the truthfulness of what others regard as fact, but that means they also must take on the same level of scrutiny and skepticism in their own work. To some, Philosophic Doubt is a gift that has helped them expand on their ideas and shape them beyond the initial first experimental steps. To others, Philosophic Doubt is a detrimental form of skepticism clawing at information or beliefs that they hold dear. These views are not new, and in fact we can find traces of this disagreement going back to the 19th century. Here we will explore the assumption of Philosophic Doubt, including proponents and detractions both old and new.
Why do we need Philosophic Doubt anyway?
Philosophic Doubt is important to science because it has an effect on how the progression of scientific work takes place. It has scientists test their own assumptions, hypotheses, and underlying beliefs, even if those are held precious to them, against replicable evidence and new future findings. Philosophic Doubt drives experimentation, and it precedes replication as well. It is what underlies the empirical drive for seeking evidence. Without philosophic doubt, science can go wrong. A hypothesis could be formed based on inaccurate information which would never be retested. Subjective experience could entrench anecdotes in a study as a broader experience than they are. A scientist could start with what they want to find, and cherry pick only what fits their assumption. These examples are the risks of not taking Philosophic Doubt in to account. Sometimes it can simply boil down to the scientist wanting to be right, against keeping an open mind that they might not be. Holding the assumption that there is a benefit to questioning findings or previously accepted beliefs is not a slight against past experience or belief, but rather a better way of interpreting future information if it were to challenge it. Questioning is a part of science, but not everyone thought so.
“In Defence of Philosophic Doubt”
Authur James Balfour, a 19th century philosopher, debater, former Prime Minister, and scientist, took this topic head on in “In Defence of Philosophic Doubt”. Unlike today, opponents of Philosophic Doubt at the time were more interested in comparing the empirically-heavy scientific beliefs to a more open metaphysical series of alternatives- that is, they were more interested in comparing science to non-scientific belief systems as the truth of reality. When it came to psychology, there were idealists, and realists, and stoics at each others throats with concepts that could not be observed or proven. As you might already be able to see, comparing metaphysical constructs to an assumption that has them continually question their arguments and points, makes metaphysical assertions all the harder to make. Scientific points, however, make Philosophic Doubt a little easier to withstand:
Under common conditions, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit
Employing Philosophic Doubt, we can continually circle back to this assertion to test it again, and again. Pragmatically, there comes a point where we only question these basic and well founded particulars when we have reason to do so, but the doubt is always present. Sometimes for precision, sometimes to be sure that we are building off of the knowledge correctly, and others to help with the replication and experimentation assertions that grow science. Balfour was a strong proponent of natural sciences, and the use of this kind of questioning. Science founded on observation and experimentation was something truly important to him. Keep in mind, the 19th century was shaped by scientific discovery at a pace never before seen. Balfour kept an even head about this, and believed more in the assumptions of science as the path to understanding the natural world. Propositions which states laws, or which stated facts, had to be built on concrete science and not just personal belief or anecdote. Some of his points we would take as obvious today- for example, when using comparative probability, would we run an experiment or trial just once, or twice? Multiple times? If we ran something like this just once, it wouldn’t be comparative probability, but if we ran it twice and accepted this as the final answer to the question we would miss out on the further replication and experimentation on the subject. The curiosity that Philosophic Doubt embodies would keep the experiment and replication going. Without Philosophic Doubt, we fall into a trap of not questioning initial assumptions or findings.
Another interesting thing about Balfour’s work is that it came at a time where there was a great deal of belief in a mechanical universe that followed strict Newtonian laws. At the time, this was compared with more metaphysical alternatives. Balfour cautioned everyone to continually use philosophic doubt and to question both belief systems- even if the “mechanical universe” was winning by a landslide at the time. If we were to take Balfour’s points and stretch them into the future, we might see how he would have found some justification in further development in physics- quantum mechanics for example, where the Newtonian mechanical universe which was seen as sufficient to explain everything, falls a little short. Without that testing of the original tenets of physics, the use of Philosophic Doubt, we might not be where we are now. The analysis of Balfour’s work could go on for entire chapters, but I would like to top it off with an excerpt on the topic of the evolution of beliefs, and the reluctance to test our own personal beliefs:
“If any result of ‘observation and experiment’ is certain, this one is so- that many erroneous beliefs have existed, and do exist in the world; so that whatever causes there may be in operation by which true beliefs are promoted, they must be either limited in their operation, or be counteracted by other causes of an opposite tendency. Have we then any reason to suppose that fundamental beliefs are specially subject to these truth-producing influences, or specially except from causes of error? This question, I apprehend, must be answered in the negative. At first sight, indeed , it would seem as if those beliefs were specially protected from error which are the results of legitimate reasoning. But legitimate reasoning is only a protection against error if it proceeds from true premises, and it is clear that this particular protection the premises of all reasoning never can possess. Have then, then, any other? Except the tendency above mentioned, I must confess myself unable to see that they have; so that our position is this- from certain ultimate beliefs we infer than an order of things exist by which all belief, and therefore all ultimate beliefs, are produced, but according to which any particular ultimate belief must be doubtful. Now this is a position which is self-destructive.
The difficulty only arises, it may be observed, when we are considering our own beliefs. If I am considering the beliefs of some other person, there is no reason why I should regard them as anything but the result of his time and circumstances.” -Arthur James Balfour, “In Defence of Philosophic Doubt” (1879).
Back to Basics- Science and Philosophic Doubt
In “Applied Behavior Analysis ” Cooper, Heron, and Heward begin their first chapter with the basics of what science is, specifically behavioral science, and the assumptions and attitudes of science including Philosophic Doubt. Cooper, et al., consider these foundational concepts in science as a whole and relate their importance to psychology and behavioral science. In their words:
“The attitude of philosophic doubt requires the scientist to continually question the truthfulness of what is regarded as fact. Scientific knowledge must always be viewed as tentative. Scientists must constantly be willing to set aside their most cherished beliefs and findings and replace them with the knowledge derived from new discoveries.
Good scientists maintain a healthy level of skepticism. Although being skeptical of others’ research may be easy, a more difficult but critical characteristic of scientists is that they remain open to the possibility- as well as look for evidence that their own findings and expectations are wrong.” -Cooper, Heron, Heward, “Applied Behavior Analysis”, (2017).
Bonus! B.F Skinner
“Regard no practice as immutable. Change and be ready to change again. Accept no eternal verity. Experiment.”- B.F Skinner, 1979
The sentiment behind Philosophic Doubt and science is that of openness and humility. Not only is the scientific work we read subject to doubt, but our own as well. The latter is the most difficult part- challenging our own beliefs constantly, challenging our most cherished propositions and reasoning. To some, this is something that expands the horizon of future knowledge infinitely, to others; a hard trail to follow that is no easy task. In either case, perhaps this brought up the importance of Philosophic Doubt, and how it ties in with the other assumptions in science as a challenging but inseparable part of the process.
Comments? Thoughts? Likes? Questions? Leave them below.
1. Balfour, A. J. (1921). A defence of philosophic doubt: being an essay on the foundations of belief. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2017). Applied behavior analysis. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson.
3. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior: B.F. Skinner. New York: Macmillan.
2 thoughts on “Philosophic Doubt- When Scientific Inquiry Matters”
I would add that Balfour was most of all a politician, serving as British Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905 and holding a good many other posts over some decades in public life. Philosophic doubt and political success are uneasy companions, so perhaps it is not a surprise, in the words of one historian, that “Balfour much preferred to think about a decision, rather than to take one.”
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Great point. Thank you