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THEORY LADEN OBSERVATIONS (Super Fun…?)

December 21, 2012

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THEORY LADEN OBSERVATIONS

By: Mike Stayton

Objective observation seems to be at the heart of scientific endeavor. Many philosophers of science argue that observations are theory-laden, meaning they are influenced by, or even depend upon, preconceived theories held by those conducting the research. I will argue that observations are inherently dependent on theories and cause problems for the objectivity of science. First, I will describe a common view of science, introducing the problems posed by the idea of theory-laden observations. Second, I will expound on the views of Thomas Kuhn, counter objections by Jerry Fodor and lean on Immanuel Kant to show that observation is necessarily objective. Finally, I will pose solutions to offer solace to the empiricist.

Because of its methodological approach of deriving knowledge from carefully collected and observable facts, science is almost universally viewed as an especially certain form of knowledge. Most individuals, however, hold a naïve view of science based on the following three assumptions[1]:

i.         Facts are directly given to careful unprejudiced observers via the senses.

ii.         Facts are prior to and independent of theory.

iii.         Facts constitute a firm and reliable foundation of knowledge.

These assumptions attempt to explain the certainty of science. If brought under scrutiny these assumptions are found to be unsound.

Though our visual mechanics are similar, each of us can remember an instance where we disagreed with someone on an object we saw before us. A simple example would be looking at clouds as a kid. I see a spaceship while my friend, Robert, sees a fish. Though the light is forming the exact same image on both our retinas, we interpret that image differently. We view the clouds differently because we interpret the world based on individual mental frameworks. This example shines a light on human subjectivity, undermining the idea that facts simply present themselves.

This cloud example illustrates that perception is not simple and that our minds play a role in interpreting even basic experiences. Let us revise its complexity to make a further point. I see the spaceship because I love astronomy. If Robert is trained in meteorology he may see a cumuliform cloud. This cloud informs him that it’s probably going to rain. Though the cloud is the same our celestial observations are filtered through our minds and combined with relevant interests and facts. Robert’s observation is a good example of an observation that is theory-laden. He is trained to understand the information that clouds can convey. If well trained, he may even do so intuitively. These personal filters, both conceptual and theoretical, interpret what we see on an individual basis. This adjusted example shows that facts may be prior to our perceptual experience.

If the first two assumptions are questioned, a direct challenge is posed to scientific reliability. Thus the problem with accepting the above arguments is that science would be found on an unreliable source, undermining its objectivity. If objective human observation is impossible then science cannot be considered a firm and reliable foundation of knowledge.

It could be argued that professional observers, such as scientists, should be able to separate theories and expectations from their observations. Thomas Kuhn[2] utilizes psychological research to claim that even trained, careful, observers can be influenced by preconceptions and expectations. In the experiment, scientists are shown simple playing cards some of which are anomalous (e.g. a red ace of clubs). They are asked to report their observations after each card. The results show that the anomalous cards were regularly described as normal. For example, a red ace of clubs may be normalized as a black ace of clubs or red ace of hearts. Even these trained observers are synthesizing their perceptions with expectations. Their expectations categorize the anomalous cards into previously experienced categories. Though many eventually noticed the irregularities, some never detect them. The explanation given is that some are unable to acquire the anomalous concept (red club). This infers that not only is perception influenced by basic concepts but that expectations help form our perceptual experience. Just as in the cloud example, scientists with differing backgrounds observing the same phenomenon can also have different observations depending on their preconceptions. It is more difficult for one to perceive a red club if one’s accepted beliefs do not accept their existence.

Jerry Fodor claims that theory-laden observations that rely on theoretical assumptions interpreting perceptual sensations, such as Kuhn’s, only occur in low-level perceptual processing[3]. He uses visual illusions to bolster his claim that most held theories, even those explaining illusions, have no affect on our perception of a given illusion. He extends this claim to state that theories that do influence our perception are not high-level scientific theories. Fodor’s argument rests on the modularity of mind theory[4] that posits individual modules, like car parts, compose the inner workings of the mind. Fodor limits his version of modularity to low-level modules including perceptual observation. Each low-level module functions as an inherent and unconscious mental processor with no access to higher-level concepts, such as theories. The low-level modules send processing results to the higher central cognitive processors. It is only there that more complex concepts may be applied to observations.

While modularity of mind seems perfectly reasonable, I would argue that Fodor’s view is overly simplistic and underestimates the complexity necessary for even the simplest cognitive operations. Returning to the sky, it could be said that on the lowest level we all see “Cloud.” If I experience a rocket and Robert experiences a fish, it could be inferred that low-level processes are less affected by concepts than higher-level cognitive processes, such as those that give rise to experience, are most susceptible to preconceptions. Pre-existing mental structures contribute more so to what is consciously experienced than what is directly seen.

Immanuel Kant became one of the first to attempt analyzing the function of reason in organizing our experiences[5]. Kant’s view supports the idea of theory-laden observations by arguing that the human mind plays an active role in constructing experience. Kant noted that physical sensations are given to us via sensory organs. These sensations are filtered through a pre-existing mental framework conceptually categorizing the incoming sensations into what we experience. This leads to the counter-intuitive claim that senses cannot provide direct knowledge of objects in the world. Instead, “objects must conform to our knowledge[6]” as all sense data are filtered through our existing mental interpretation of the world. Thus we cannot know things objectively as they are outside the mind. We can only know things subjectively as they appear to be. Information about an object can only be acquired after the perceptual image is processed by the mind.

With all this doubt thrown upon the objective observation it seems science is in dire straits. Alan Chalmers claims subjective observation does not undermine scientific knowledge[7]. The inevitability of subjectivity does mean that observers must practice caution. Countering methods have been developed. Researchers carefully attend to established observation methods ensuring observations are repeatable and testable by others. Although the theory-ladeness of observation has shown that empirical observation is inherently flawed, it has not undermined science as humankind’s most reliable method for making sense of the world. Instead it taught us that if we must strive to ensure we guard against human imperfection.


[1] Chalmers, A.F. What is This Thing Called Science. Third Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999.

[2] Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Fourth. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

[3] Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Theory and Reality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

[4] Robbins, Philip. Modularity of Mind. Summer 2010. Robbins, Philip, “Modularity of Mind”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/modularity-mind/&gt;. (accessed November 10, 2012)

[5] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

[6] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

[7] Chalmers, A.F. What is This Thing Called Science. Third Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999.

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