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Start Scientific Progress and Innovation in Niiniluoto’s Philosophy
24 February 2014

Scientific Progress and Innovation in Niiniluoto’s Philosophy

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Since the mid-1970s a large number of philosophical works have been published on subjects such as the development or progress of science. There are different types of progress, depending on formulation and conceptual content, intentionality, aims, etc. Cognitive progress, which is conceptual in nature, characterizes basic science and should be distinguished from progress in other human activities such as applied science, even though scientific progress may be closely related to technological progress.

Given the diversity of methodological concepts among scientists, this research will be based on the theories of Prof. Niiniluoto (the Finnish School). Together with authors such as Popper or Tuomela, he believes in real progress in science, not as a mere accumulation of knowledge, but quite the reverse: new theories are more plausible than earlier ones; in other words they are closer to the truth. Thus we progress through plausibility. Identifying variables, distinguishing types of change, etc. all oblige us to evaluate more carefully the alternatives routes to follow, as progress is not a one-way street.

Distinction Between Basic and Applied Science

The common aim of science should be establishing a theoretical force that unifies and describes how the world has to be. The notion of plausibility may provide a partial solution to the problem of scientific progress. There are theories that are conceptually different but that share a common substratum, allowing us too compare them and reflect objective reality in all its varieties. In my view, this is the mission of basic science.

Applied science may be predictive science or design science. Predictive science would encompass basic research whose aim is a descriptive knowledge of the world. However, basic science depends on receiving correct information about the world. This description of reality follows the path of scientific realism. According to this, the main objective of basic science is cognitive.

Niiniluoto adopts a clear position with respect to the concept of “technoscience” in favor of a conceptual difference between science and technology, despite their historical nexus and mutual interrelation. There are various models for understanding the relationship between the two: technology that can be reduced to science and vice versa; the two can be established as identical; or as independent in terms of their reality from a causal point of view or in terms of their essence. Thus Niiniluoto states that:

“The standard distinction between basic research and applied research has been rejected by many colleagues, who consider it obsolete, while other specialists still defend the importance of this distinction in some way.”[i]

I believe the author is right. We have to make a terminological distinction between science and technology, scientific and technological policy. Looking at the aims of each of them, we will find that applied science combines prediction and prescription, while basic science aims to understand and analyze variables.

Toward a Critical Scientific Realism

For scientific realists the basic aim of science is to give plausible information on reality: nature, culture, society, etc. Knowledge about these variables may help provide scientific explanations as a response to the Why questions, make predictions about future events and retrodictions about past events. Thus it is possible to make predictions about observable events in the future.

Niiniluoto points out that the concept of applied science may be understood in two ways: as predictive science and as design science. Both are established by dynamic regularities that help predict the future in terms of the social system and technical standards that condition the rules for action. In his opinion, there are two types of applied research: the first, predictive science, aims for descriptive knowledge and recalls basic science; while the second, design science, is defined by the technical rules to be found in practical knowledge, geared to controlling artificial and natural systems. For Niiniluoto, basic and applied research have regularities that make each permeable, so that the structural differences are nearly non-existent.[ii]

In one of his articles, “The limits of technology”, Niiniluoto comments that technology cannot be subordinated to the economy, as technological development presents a social and cultural dimension that transcends any economic facet. Technology should be limited, controlled and directed so that its effects are not harmful; it should take into account, for example, the conservation of the natural environment and ethical criteria related to moral dignity.

A good theory is needed for predicting new facts[iii], and this can only arise from the right methodology. The use of a series of models takes us to the verge of prescription in the form of prediction, whose mission is to issue a series of possible averages to choose from, although prescription is much more relevant in subjects such as economics or technology. Niiniluoto makes it very clear that applied science has a predictive sense, a practical reason that leads to epistemic utility. Sciences are subject to a design. The generation of new specialties in the professionalization of science opens the way to theoretical changes (the branching model).

The Science of the Future

The different branches of knowledge have been updated with new ideas and techniques tackled by design. The instruments of research deposited a growing technological substratum that has led to the birth of practical science, regulated by scientific methods that explain their content. The future depends on the construction of possible alternatives and diverse scenarios where we can discover and imagine; that is the reason for the need for prediction.

Both prediction and explanation have their risks, above all when they present facts that are not sufficiently known. Radnitzky points out that the disadvantages may appear in two directions:

  • “A/ when prediction contradicts basic knowledge, the current state of knowledge or the dominant theory;
  • B/ when prediction responds to a question on which basic knowledge or previous theory has not said anything.”[iv]

Human beings have become accustomed to see science and technology as activities destined to produce benefits in social life. Our natural condition is transformed in an special and artificial world that has essentially modified all our original habits in interpersonal relations, social hierarchies, ethical situations… The applications and conditioning of scientific research may produce undesirable consequences if future activity is not programmed.

Design implies reaching accepted aims and that technology develops a social dimension[v] (which is linked to its creations); this in turn contributes to social progress and generates factors that are relevant for a possible prediction of new facts. The truth is that when an artifact complies with the criterion of problem-solving it becomes standardized. It generates new values and due to its design or easy handling becomes a commonly used tool that will end up being perfected in time with new designs and features, such as computers, cell phones…

Society perceives technology as the only contribution of science to culture. In this way, it underestimates other important contributions. The philosophy of science provides a powerful argument: in order to approach reality, all theories must be tested through critical discussion. There is no doubt that very different conclusions can be extracted on whether the level of application of knowledge contributed by basic science has or has not been deficient, or whether in the future it will be necessary to modify current trends. What is true is that, the spectacular progress and discoveries of recent times suggest an immediate future that will continue still further along these lines. On the other hand, it is clear that without the effective application of these discoveries, our new knowledge will be of no use for what in the final analysis should be the purpose of scientific research: the benefit of mankind.

Arantxa Serantes

Researcher at the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela (Spain)


Bibliography and Notes:

[i] Cf. Niiniluoto, I., “Ciencia frente a Tecnología: ¿Diferencia o identidad?”, Arbor, v.157, no.620, (1997), p.286.

[ii] Niiniluoto, I., “Approximation in Applied Science”, Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of Sciences and Humanities, v.42, (1995), pp. 127-130.

[iii] Niiniluoto, I., “Scientific Progress Reconsidered” in Deutsch, E. (ed), Culture and Modernity: East-West Philosophic Perspectives, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1991, p.601.

[iv] Cf.Radnitzky, G., “De la fundamentación de teorías a la preferencia fundamentada de teorías” in  Radnitzky, G., Anderson, G., et al. (eds), Progreso y racionalidad en la Ciencia (Spanish translation by Luís Meana), Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1982, p.306. On the same page he talks about the probabilities of cognitive progress. One of them is: “The possibility of opening up a new domain of knowledge, i.e. developing a new discipline.”

[v] Niiniluoto, I., “ Future Studies: Science or Art?”, Futures, v.33, (2001), p.373. It should be pointed out that in this article Niiniluoto uses the Greek etymology of “technology” which means “discourse of the arts” (both esthetic and applied), which in the 17th century was only associated with the applied arts.

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