If historical knowledge were truly inferior to experimental knowledge...

Noah Smith holds that there are "four levels of science," with "history" being the lowest level, giving the least confidence in one's understanding of the world. The ultimate level of confidence would be offered by "lab experiments."

But, of course, a report on an experiment is a piece of historical evidence, and thus knowledge about a series of experiments is historical knowledge. Therefore, if the above were true, the paradoxical result would be this: we would be more certain of what a series of experiments proved, than we would be of what happened in the experiments! Or to put it concretely, we would be very confident that a series of experiments disproved, say, the existence of the aether, but only have a vague understanding of what went on in any individual experiment.

And that, of course, is logical nonsense: abstractions from individual events will always give us a weaker understanding than we had of the concrete events in the first place. One can't strengthen a weak foundation by piling ever more floors atop it!

4 comments:

  1. But, of course, a report on an experiment is a piece of historical evidence, and thus knowledge about a series of experiments is historical knowledge.

    But it's not mere historical knowledge.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't understand what this "mere" Historical knowledge is supposed to be.

    ReplyDelete
  3. More historical knowledge is superior to less, at least if reasonably collected. Alternatively, experimental knowledge is not historical in the sense of existing in the wild. At its best it can tell us much more and about circumstances that haven't occurred naturally or frequently, though at its worst, it could mislead us by being unrepresentative of nature.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Blackadder, I'm guessing you're thinking of the "historical" as a mere report that so-and-so did an experiment on day X. But that is not "mere" history: it is severely defective history. A full historical account would explain WHY they were doing the experiment, which would include what theory they were trying to prove / disprove, and what the rival theories were, and what their result showed; i.e., an historical account would of necessity contain all of the science involved.

    Read some history of science and you will see I am not just imagining this!

    ReplyDelete