(For the first part of Science Is Not That Simple click here.)
Chalmers argues against the common idea that facts precede and are separate from theory. Chalmers starts his argument out against this common idea by explaining the ambiguity of the term “fact”.
It can refer to a statement that expresses the fact and it can also refer to the state of affairs referred to by such a statement. For example, it is a fact that there are mountains and craters on the moon. Here the fact can be taken as referring to the mountains or craters themselves. Alternatively, the statement “there are mountains and craters on the moon” can be taken as constituting the fact. When it is claimed that science is based upon and derived from the facts, it is clearly in the latter interpretation that is appropriate. Knowledge about the moon’s surface is not based on and derived from mountains and craters but from factual statements about mountains and craters.1
Chalmers also distinguishes between statements of facts and perceptions.
For example, it is undoubtedly the case that when Darwin underwent his famous voyage on the Beagle he encountered many novel species of plant and animal, and so was subject to a range of novel perceptual experiences. However, he would have made no significant contribution to science had he left it at that. It was only when he had formulated statements describing the novelties and made them available to other scientists that he made a significant contribution to biology.2
There are statements, not perceptions, in the minds of those who base their knowledge upon facts. That is, by facts these people mean to say statements rather than perceptions. Mountains and craters are perceptions; that mountains and craters are found on the moon is a statement about these perceptions. This is problematic for the idea that facts are given to unprejudiced observers through the senses since facts are not themselves sensed. Unlike perceptions, observation statements do not come to people through the senses.
Additionally, observation statements are accepted or made utilizing the proper application of concepts surrounding what the statement is about. Chalmers supports this by describing the way that children learn about the world and learn how to describe the world.
The parent shows the child an apple, points to it, and utters the word “apple”. The child soon learns to repeat the word “apple” in imitation. Having mastered this particular accomplishment, perhaps on a later day the child encounters its sibling’s tennis ball, points and says “apple”. At this point the parent intervenes to explain that the ball is not an apple, demonstrating, for example, that one cannot bite it like an apple. Further mistakes by the child, such as the identification of a choko as an apple, will require somewhat more elaborate explanations from the parent. By the time the child can successfully say there is an apple present when there is one, it has learnt quite a lot about apples.3
What is to be noticed here is that the child in the illustration cannot be said to observe facts about apples and then base knowledge about apples upon those observations since the child cannot even know how to identify an apple correctly in many circumstances unless he or she is first given a great deal of knowledge about apples. The child has not derived his or her knowledge from observable facts. When facts about apples are made into statements they are made upon a rather large amount of prior knowledge about apples.
Chalmers again shows that this is directly applicable to science as well and not just how children learn about apples. He provides the example of being on a trip with a botanist. The botanist will make more observations and be able to explain them much better than Chalmers would be able to. This seems rather obvious and provides strong support for Chalmer’s argument that conceptual schemes are needed for observation statements.
The botanist has a more elaborate conceptual scheme to exploit than myself, and that is because he or she knows more botany than I do. A knowledge of botany is a prerequisite for the formulation of the observation statements that might constitute its factual basis.4
According to Chalmers, when observable facts are recorded much more is involved than the eye being given stimuli through light rays. As shown in this part of Chalmer’s argument, knowledge of concepts and how they are applied is necessary for recording observable facts.
Statements of fact are not determined in a straightforward way by sensual stimuli, and observation statements presuppose knowledge, so it cannot be the case that we first establish the facts and then derive our knowledge from them.5
1. A.F. Chalmers. What is this thing called Science? 3rd Edition. Hackett Publishing Company Inc. Indianapolis/Cambridge. 1999. Pg. 10.
2. Ibid. Pg. 10.
3. Ibid. Pg. 11.
4. Ibid. Pg. 12.
5. Ibid. Pg. 12.