Moral Perspectives on Science Epistemology
Updated: Mar 17
Lately, I've been exploring questions around the moral dimension of science. What is the role of moral status of the purported disinterested neutrality of science? How is this reflected in our science institutions? When, how, and why has this standard failed? Is it a legitimate standard to begin with? After our latest Zoom chat, I've done some deeper reflection on these questions in terms of education as a moral endeavor. What does our thinking about heterogeneity of perspectives have to do with a knowledge-building enterprise so associated with a singular, disinterested perspective?
To begin answering these questions, I have been doing some research into the origins of modern science. The prevailing disciplinary processes that characterize modern science are generally attributed to a series of cultural and intellectual shifts in Europe from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, known today as the Scientific Revolution. This period marked a restructuring of formal inquiry into the natural world, emphasizing disinterested insight and civility of intellectual discourse. At the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, natural philosophy, the disciplinary antecedent of modern science, had been regarded as “a notoriously divisive and disputatious form of culture” (Shapin, 1996, p. 121), lacking the epistemological and methodological cohesion of
robust systematic inquiry.
While the Scientific Revolution’s reformed methodology brought order to natural philosophy, Shapin (1996) emphasizes the sociopolitical context of this development. Religious and political upheaval in the wake of the Protestant Reformation had diminished the authority of governing institutions, and the gentlemen of European courts looked to natural philosophy for guidance, regarding nature as “a divinely written book whose proper reading and proper interpretation had the potential to secure right belief and thus to guarantee right conduct” (Shapin, 1996, p. 125). It was in this context that Sir Francis Bacon, known today as the father of the scientific method, set out to reform natural philosophy to be the intellectual foundation for the polity. Shapin (1996) writes:
"Bacon had no doubt that a methodically reformed and disciplined natural philosophy could augment the power of those who controlled it. This was true in two senses. First, the control of knowledge was conceived as an instrument of state power. A state that abdicated its right to monitor what was believed was putting its authority at risk. Second, as Bacon famously said "Human knowledge and human power meet in one.” The ability of natural philosophical knowledge to yield practical outcomes and to produce the means for technological control of nature were taken as reliable tests of its truth"(pp. 130-131).
Shapin’s account makes clear that the scientific method must be understood as a sociopolitical framework as much as an epistemological one. In particular, while dominant narratives ascribe a causal relationship between the Scientific Revolution’s clarity of insight and the subsequent sociopolitical changes of Enlightenment, "In Bacon's plan the implementation of proper method called not for disciplined individual reasoning (as it did for Descartes) but for organized collective labor. The reform of natural philosophy was to be accomplished by making the method-machine a tool of state bureaucracy" (Shapin, 1996) p. x).
To close, I want to share a video of Miranda Fricker, a philosopher, who has developed the concept of epistemic injustice, a sort of injustice specifically pertaining to a person's capacity as a knower.