Thursday, May 31, 2007

Common Sense and Scientific Inquiry, OR why I'm always tripping over my feet

Almost every day I trip over my feet: I catch my toe on a curb, shuffle over some uneven piece of pavement, mis-step down a stair, or trip over a shoelace. I've never met someone who stumbles as much as I do. But I almost never actually fall over. I'm a master in terms of using my momentum, flailing my arms, and other strategies that doubtlessly make me look ridiculous, but pretty much do a great job of keeping myself upright. And I was walking to LSE this morning, after such a close save, thinking about all this. And thinking about whether there might be something about the way I walk that causes the problem (doubtless this is the case).

Then it occurred to me that this was the perfect analogy for something I've been thinking about recently. John Dewey, perhaps notoriously, maintains that scientific and common sense inquiries are of fundamentally the same type, operating the same sort of way. This is extremely dubious to most people, given the obvious dissimilarities (how is Loop Quantum Gravity or Evolutionary Genetics anything like fixing a bike?). Dewey maintains that the only difference is that scientific inquiries are more systematic, more concerned with general relations and long-term consequences that immediate circumstances, but they have the same basic pattern, and they serve the same basic type of goal (solving a concrete problem rather an abstract one like "discovering the true structure of reality" or "saving the phenomena"). How to understand this?

Well, here's an analogy. Clearly, something like problem-solving has gone on as I attempt to compensate for my clumsiness. I have developed a set of solutions to help me recover from a fall (this has actually proved useful this year as I've pursued the quixotic venture of trying to learn how to skateboard, with only a few tumbles and even fewer serious ones, though many ungraceful recoveries). These solutions are more or less particular solutions to immediate problems. But when I begin to think more systematically about the way I walk, I begin an inquiry that is more scientific in nature. I'm concerned now not so much with an immediate problem, but a generic set of consequences and a systematic cause for them. To follow the inquiry out might take me through areas of physics and physiology, and perhaps ending in a general theory of walking that could be used to correct particularly clumsy gaits.

The advantages to this approach are the same advantages that Dewey names for science. Solutions developed here are potentially applicable to any person, if done well enough, and they cut to the problem right at the source, rather than develop more fragile and immediate solutions. It could be used to inform more immediate inquiries in a way that helps develop more permanent and robust solutions, though of course any application will itself require some degree of inquiry, rather than being totally automatic.

Anyhow, I thought that was a pretty neat illustration.