What is knowledge? The question has been supremely important in modern times. Before we could know about the world, it seemed to Bacon, Descartes and others, we should criticize our ways of knowing. Our investigations should free themselves of the things that lead to error. They should be exact and impersonal, based on logic and on observations that anyone could repeat with the proper training, equipment and care. They should be, in the modern sense, scientific.
Those aspirations have been borne out by success. By building on them modern natural science has vastly extended man’s knowledge and control of things. It hasn’t been all gain, however, because scientific standards are not as neutral as they look. By rigorously limiting what qualifies as knowledge they limit what can be known and therefore what can be viewed as real. To accept scientific standards as final is to prejudge the nature of the world. It is to permit only those things to exist that we can measure, manipulate, and know without regard to personal qualities or commitments.
In fact, of course, there are no such things. Knowledge always depends on a complex of habits, attitudes, and inarticulate common understandings, one’s own and those one shares with others. It can’t be altogether scientific, so science can be maintained as a final standard only through obfuscation. Further, it is more rational to accomodate knowledge to the world than vice versa. If the cosmos has a purpose then too bad for impersonality as a standard for knowledge.
What follows is that scientific standards must be kept in a subordinate place. Reality comes first, and we must rely on a sense of reality that can never be fully articulate or demonstrable. It is easier to state that conclusion than to get it accepted, however. One reason is that taken in an extended sense the principles of modern natural science serve as the foundation of the political and moral ideology dominant today. The demand for scientific proof is a handy way to debunk traditional understandings, which are in fact the way we come to know how to lead happy and productive lives, and substitute for them the authority of those in a position to claim impersonal expertise.
Scientism thus favors bureaucratic elites and the knowledge and communications industries at the expense of local and informal authorities such as the family and religious and ethnic communities. The fact that almost all formal education and public discussion are in the hands of the former makes it very difficult to fight them, no matter what the intellectual weaknesses of their position. The situation is made worse by the tendency of those who try to escape scientism to do so by arbitrary commitments or some truly irrational form of subjectivism.
Nonetheless, the fight must go on, and each of us must do what he can. The dependence of today’s political and cultural battles on basic issues of knowledge and being show the dimensions of what is needed. Still, the depth of the issues measures the depth of the intrinsic weakness of the outlook that is now dominant. As times and circumstances change the fundamental irrationality of that outlook will necessarily tell against it in a thousand ways. Regardless of the power it now has, it cannot last.