We are surrounded by Information! A modern, socialized, healthy, individual is incapable of making a ‘pure and simple’ observation. All our observations are culturally loaded and therefore informative to us in many of our predisposed ways. Biologist Jerry Coyne disagrees and maintains an outdated allegiance to what is called “Empiricism.” (http://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/07/27/more-on-scientism-and-ways-of-knowing/)
I’m sitting in my living room and observe that “my couch is burgundy.” First, what is a “couch”? That is a loaded term, and I do not know when it became popular and useful. It designates a kind of “chair,” but no kind that many human beings would recognize or have used in the past. Maybe some of the few very elite ancient Egyptians and Romans had used something like our modern “couches” and would have more or less recognized it and understood it if standing in front of one today. But even today, there may be some cultures to which such a ‘chair’ would be quite alien.
And “burgundy.” Even I have to pause and think a moment, “what kind of color is that?” I’m not that good with color words: “fuchsia”, “chartreuse”, even “maroon” tend to confuse me and I have to think of their relation to more common colors to “picture” them. “Burgundy” is a kind of purple, or brownish red; but how different is it from maroon?
Words like “burgundy” and “couch” work like that. Individually, they have no clear reference to any one obvious thing in our environment that they “correspond to.” In fact, I’m contending that all our words work that way and that is why it is a myth to think that “observations” can be individual and simple and context free. Every observation is loaded with context and culture, that is how they “makes sense.” Culture directs our senses. Any one particular thing does not naturally jumping out at us from the crowd of all the things that naturally surround us. Our language is a network of contrasts and we use all these distinctions to identify any one thing “meaningfully.” It is our Culture and Society that train us, socialize us, to to live a particular way and notice and care about particular things.
Cultural Relativism and Biological Orientations
But here I am obviously getting into some trouble. I’m a Cultural Relativist so far, but now I am going to take this a step deeper. Some things do “naturally jump out at us.” Take a bird in flight or a young bird learning to fly. They almost automatically “know how.” It is built into their physical structure. Flying for them is a “know-how;” it is not a “knowing that” it involves many aeronautical principles and laws of physics.
Recently we have been watching some Wrens in our backyard nest in a bird house. The young birds are now starting to spill out of the nest, and I think “spill” is an accurate term. We have so far found three young birds on the ground and unable to fly. Yet, we see them flapping their little wings as if working at it, and I am trying to follow their progress. They are ‘biased’ toward flight. There is no “observation” that is not oriented.
Human infants, likewise, are biologically prone to respond to human faces, suckle, and learn language. These basic biological structures orient human infants. Later in life adult humans are also oriented in their observation and behavior by our cultural institutions. They are know-how. Our traditions of Art, Science, Religion, Law, Politics, Entertainment, and the Crafts, orient us daily. These Paradigms do change but it is a process more complicated than “observation”, “hypothesizing” and “testing,” the so called Empirical Method.
Dr. Coyne has a favorite example of this empirical method as he envisions it in its broadest form. After all, he contends it to be the basis of All Real Human Knowledge! His example is The Plumber facing a leak. He/she observes it, speculates, tries a solution. Did it work? And this is well enough, but no plumber brings to ‘the plumbing situation’ a claw hammer, nails, or an electric sander. They bring their plumber’s wrench and new washers. They bring their life time experience of plumbing going as far back as their toilet training and their daily experience of leaning over a sink and brushing their teeth. Plumbing is as much a “know-how” as it is a “knowing that” a wax toilet mount is needed or plumber’s putty. We all are far from any pristine innocence —and the observations that would bring— about the workings of plumbing.