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AnswerCategory: PhilosophyHow can we know
Maddox Smith Staff asked 2 months ago

How can we know

How can we know whether sensory perception is a reliable way of gaining knowledge in the field of natural sciences?

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1 Answers
Maddox Smith Staff answered 2 months ago

The question you have asked is one of the central question that has kept the philosophers engaged across centuries. The most generalized form of your question would be – which form of knowledge is completely reliable? I can further qualify this question to suit natural science (as you have asked above). In the generalized form, there are broadly two answers possible – rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism is the position where the true knowledge is provided only by reasons. Here, perceptual knowledge is doubted and considered inferior. Descartes and Leibniz were rationalists. Compared to this, empiricists believe that the true knowledge is gained only by perception. Hume, Russell were empiricists. (There are similar schools of philosophy in Indian and other non-european philosophical traditions, where you can observe the same. E.g., in Indian philosophical schools, Nyaya school was rationalist and Carvaka were empiricists.)
That being the introduction to your question, the history of science shows how natural science (which started as natural philosophy) and empiricism went hand in hand. It all started during 15th century with Francis Bacon promoting this methodology. Later it was taken by Galileo, Newton and the rest is well known – on how the scientists emphasized the importance of experiments and observations (i.e. perceptual verifications) for acceptance of any theory.
This being the case, with modern physics and usage of mathematics, rationalism begins to gain importance too. And this is where your question becomes important. The discovery of anti-particle and various other discoveries aided by mathematics and theoretical physics poses the question which provides true knowledge about the external world – experiments or theories? (There is a ongoing fight between two schools of scientists – instrumentalists vs theoreticians).
It might be claimed that the final acceptance of any theory happens with experimental verification and hence, it is perceptual observation that validates any scientific knowledge. But the theoreticians reply back saying that one cannot do and observe an experiment without any theory – i.e., an experimentalist should have a theory to make sense of the data.
This is the brief introduction to the question you have raised. Let me know if you need more input. In the mean time, you can see these links –
Rationalism vs Empiricism
Under-determination of data