Monday, May 23, 2005

Why indexicals can't be eliminated

Can science know everything? I have my doubts, at least if certain kinds of truths are excluded from science.
Well, the concept of the first person, to begin with. Scientific facts are supposed to be objective and third-personal, true from no point of view in particular. But there are important truths that end up being lost. Consider the following story. During the height of the Watergate scandal President Nixon takes a nasty fall and loses his memory. He stumbles into the White House tape room, listens to some of the tapes, and concludes that the President must be a crook. He rushes across the street to Impeach Nixon headquarters, and asks to join. Startled, the impeachment supporters say "It would be easy for you to get Nixon out of office. All you have to do is resign. You are Richard Nixon." But instead, of course, he went back to the White House and continued to try to stay in office.What did Nixon learn to change his behavior so drastically, and how could it be described from a third-person perspective? The truth, "I am Richard Nixon" has an indexical in it. You can't change the statement and eliminate the indexicals without eliminating the meaning. So not all truths are accessible from a "neutral" perspective, and if science requires a "neutral" perspective, there are truths that science cannot know.

1 comment:

Jason Pratt said...

Nice! {g}

Of course, the question "Can science know everything?" is not itself a question that can be answered by inferences from data acquired via scientific experiment. It's a philosophical question; and the answer (whatever it is), will be a philosophical answer. Consequently, the answer must be 'no' in any case.

Granted, the question as phrased is somewhat loose, since 'science' is at best a derivative abstraction that cannot 'know' or do anything at all. But the answer would still be 'no', even if the question was tightened down more precisely; e.g. "can we, as persons, find answers, in principle, to any and all questions, by use of science?" The question still isn't a scientific question, answerable by scientific methodology.

(That doesn't mean we can't reach true answers with scientific inquiry, nor that this question itself cannot be truly answered.)