“Only seeing general patterns can give us knowledge. Only seeing particular examples can give us understanding.” To what extent do you agree with these assertions?
In 2007, approximately 1.58 million scientific research papers were published, far more than one could possibly read in a lifetime. However, when I visited CERN last year, I was told that all of our present understanding of physics could be summarised in a few equations: General Relativity, describing gravity; and the Standard Model, which describes the fundamental particles and their interactions. Can we gain complete knowledge about the universe through seeking general patterns, in the form of scientific theories? Or are we forced to trawl through the masses of observed data and scientific papers to understand even a fragment of reality? I will argue that to understand something, you have to be aware of the mechanism causing it, whilst I associate knowledge with facts. Consider an astronomer who has spent his lifetime meticulously recording the locations of the planets and stars. I would argue that this astronomer has amassed much knowledge by observing of many particular examples. Now consider a physicist who is familiar with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which models the movement of the planets and stars. We might argue that the physicist has more knowledge, since he can apply his theory to calculate the past and future positions of the planets. Imagine, however, that the astronomer had a time machine, which he used to measure the positions of the planets at all possible points of time. If one believed the role of scientific theories is simply to make predictions then there is no difference between the astronomer’s data book and the physicist’s model, which merely summarises the data. However, we could argue that scientific theories do more than predict; they explain. The physicist can explain how the stars and planets alter the geometry of spacetime that determines the motion of these bodies. Therefore, we might claim that the physicist understands the motion of the stars whilst the astronomer merely knows what it is. However, if the laws of physics really do exist, then the physicist, by having understood the general pattern, has more knowledge about reality than the astronomer. We can perhaps interpret the statement in the question as claiming that general patterns really do exist, but we can only understand them by seeing particular examples. In this case, we are using the word understand to mean discover, rather than have awareness of the mechanism causing something to happen. There are many instances in science where general theories have emerged from observations. Sticking with gravitation as an example: Tycho Brahe and his assistant Johannes Kepler worked for forty years observing the solar system. Kepler eventually abstracted from this data a general pattern: his three laws of planetary motion. Isaac Newton continued this process of abstraction, showing that Kepler’s laws and observations were a consequence of an inverse-square law of gravitation. However, we may question whether Newton’s laws of gravity are anything other than a model, neatly summarising the observations. Newton himself did not explain the cause of his gravitational force, famously writing ‘hypotheses non fingo’ meaning ‘I feign no hypotheses.’ We are therefore led to an instrumentalist view of science, that the best science can do is make predictions, and the laws of physics (or the general patterns) do not exist independently of their human creators. An instrumentalist interpretation would suggest that we do not gain any knowledge by developing theories, they merely save us from performing difficult or impractical experiments. In other words, the physicist gained no extra knowledge through his theory about the geometry of spacetime. I believe that physical laws do in fact exist, and most scientists presumably share this conviction. The attraction of science is...
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