E&E3. This entry is an elucidation and exegesis on Character of Science (November 2013)
Living and Dead Sciences
Living Science is like a loose-leaf folder in which our latest insights into every aspect of Nature are temporarily stored. The folder is part of our font of knowledge and therefore contains all sorts of bric-a-brac, including recently acquired knowledge and items of information which have been handed down to us over generations. They are often treasured, mainly for that reason, not because of they have much truth-value.
The collection is highly correctable and in recent years has often been revised and re-edited, like items in Wikipedia. Every now and then the folder is emptied out — a phenomenon now known by the memorable title of a “Scientific Revolution”. The implication is that there are “living sciences” but also several dead sciences.
If science is characterized as consisting of several bodies of knowledge it follows that several exist cheek-by-jowl, concurrently, as it were. It would therefore be appropriate to refer to a library of such folders as the library of living sciences — and to refer to those not in good standing, as a library of dead sciences. Dead sciences often retain their shine and continue to be valued by many, but do not serve as they once did, as launching pads for new discoveries and important insights.
Comments on the meaning of *Incontrovertible*
In the folder-library of living science is a collection of separate areas of concern. Some are more related to each other than others, like chemistry and physics once were. It is assumed that each folder contains a collection of truths, which I described earlier as have the status of a collection of incontrovertible truths. These are treasured by readers of these folders.
How do we define *controvertible*? The word is rarely used. I have seen it defined as, “To raise argument against; to voice opposition to something claimed.” *Incontrovertible* expresses the idea that a claim is beyond, or above challenge and is widely used in that sense.
For me the notion that something is not challengeable is odd indeed. On the other hand I accept the idea that there should be a pay-off to a challenge. The best pay-off would be to demonstrated that a received opinion or entrenched view rests on shaky, insubstantial foundations, that a previously impenetrable position had fault lines, that there were chinks in its armour, that a firmly held “truth” had been dislodged from its premier position and was obliged to cede some of its sovereignty. It is not merely a native iconoclasm that moves me. Experience is my teacher. Time and again I have found that views firmly and fervently held by others and by myself, were inadequately supported by evidence.
Incontrovertible Truths, or Truth in a Box
What is an incontrovertible truth? It is a truth-claim which cannot be challenged without also challenging the set of assumptions which were used to establish these truths.
Strictly, *incontrovertible* means that what is stated cannot be argued against since to assume that something is not true means that one can state what the world would look like without the truths which have now been denied. It is like sitting in a box, climbing outside it to see whether the box is white or black. To *controvert* means to hold a different opinion to an existing one — which is entirely possible — whereas to state that something is incontrovertible is to say that something cannot be conceived in other terms than those already used. It sets limits.
But setting limits has two implications: specifically (1) what is deemed incontrovertible is also axiomatic and therefore cannot be challenged; (2) whatever lies outside / beyond the limiting lines is also beyond being accessible (is inaccessible).
The second of these meanings permits us to claim that what is incontrovertible is only so within a frame of reference; but it is entirely possible to step over the line(s) of the framework and to redefine everything by taking into account that the range of items enclosed by the new space has been enlarged! The net has widened and new items have been encompassed. When this happens we are forced to re-evaluate each item in its relation to others in our collection, in our net.
The upshot is that when someone claims that some truths are incontrovertible they claim not only that they these marked truths must be accepted as basic, as self-evident, as not requiring justification, but that such truths cannot be challenged because the frame-work as been permanently fixed, moulded in concrete, not in sand.
Truths-in-a-box can be repackaged and are highly controvertible.