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CLEA SEMINAR. Science and Certainty Revisited - by Karin Verelst

Location: VUB Etterbeek campus - room D.1.07 + online
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A common belief among laymen and practising scientists alike holds that (exact) science delivers “true”, all be it incomplete, knowledge about (a part of the) the “real” world based on experimental evidence (“data”). Regularities in these data lead to the formulation of formal laws, which are represented in some logically consistent model that describes the behaviour of the objects in said part of the world. From this model again hypotheses can be derived to test the model and falsify the theory.

Nevertheless, we know that the story behind scientific knowledge is somewhat more complicated. Theories are underdetermined by their empirical evidence so that there is always more than just one possible theoretical explanation for a given body of data. Another way of saying this is the famous Duhem-Quine thesis, which states that it is impossible to test hypotheses in isolation. One always needs to make assumptions about the nature of the part of the world — the ontology — to which the phenomenon one is interested in belongs if only to be able to set up the experiment. Thus there is an inherent feedback loop between the known and the unknown even on the level of experimental observation itself — a fact known as the “theory-ladenness” of scientific experimentation. The experiment itself partially creates the physical context in which the measurement occurs; the experiment creates a context which is not just a separate environment to the system considered in isolation. Hence data are to some extent always a construct, informed by the choices and preferences of the researchers involved. Moreover, we can never step outside the world we share with the phenomena we study in order to get a complete overview of all their aspects or properties, like a God looking at his creation with an all-seeing eye. This is why there will always be more than just one valid perspective on the “real”. Even a “scientific consensus” cannot undo this intrinsic theoretical multiplicity. Defining rationality as “pure science” in the sense of a merely formal description of the data available objectively clearly misses these essential points.

This, however, does not mean that in science “anything goes” — one still has to be able to account for the evidence available. Experimental data effectively exclude potential explanations and limit in retrospect the theoretical scope available to a specific spectrum of explanatory possibilities. More experiments allow to narrow down the theoretical scope. But there is a limit to this as well, and it only works if one takes the observational interventions qua interventions explicitly into account. It, therefore, seems that science even on the classical level is always a subtle balancing act between constructivism and empiricism. Especially in the context of the ever-growing importance of interdisciplinary research, it is necessary to shed more light on the nature of this complex balancing act, because it will influence how cooperation between different methodologies could work.

In this presentation, Karin Verelst will use Poincaré’s approach to scientific knowledge — his so-called “conventionalism” construed as a general perspectival principle — in order to shed some light on this question. We shall see that by using Poincaré’s principle, it is possible to do justice to the dual nature of science as both invention and discovery without falling in the relativist trap. It however requires a reformulation of our notion of objectivity in a perspectival way.


The Speaker

Karin Verelst is a philosopher and historian of science with a background in molecular biology, foundations of mathematics and ancient philosophy. She is an affiliated senior researcher at the interdisciplinary research Centrum Leo Apostel (CLEA), of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), and teaches at the VUB’s Art college RITCS. Her interests are broad, ranging from foundational issues in seventeenth-century science to philosophy of technology, military history and the study of consciousness. She recently joined the new interdisciplinary program at the VUB’s Law Faculty, a program that aims to help future lawyers and legal experts to develop a critical perspective and an interdisciplinary methodology for addressing "wicked problems” relevant to society. She is an avid practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), and has added the study of its text sources to her area of competence.



The CLEA seminars are taking place simultaneously at the VUB campus in Etterbeek, Brussels, and online (via Zoom) and are open to everyone interested!

When. Friday June 24, 2022 from 14:00 until 16:00 h

Where (live). VUB campus Etterbeek, room D.1.07

Online. You can follow online via Zoom: 



Karin Verelst Seminar 20220624