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The Empirical and Theoretical Levels of Scientific Cognition

The concepts of the empirical and the theoretical. There are two levels of research distinguished in science — the empirical and the theoretical. This distinction is founded, first, on the modes of cogni­tive activity itself, and second, on the character of the scientific re­sults obtained. Empirical cognition means the working out of a re­search programme, organization of observations and experiments, description of observed and experimental data, their classification and initial generalization. Characteristic of empirical cognition is the activity of recording facts. Theoretical cognition is cognition of essence at the level of high-order abstractions. Its tools are concepts, ca­tegories, laws and hypotheses. These two levels are interconnected and inseparably linked to each other, although historically, empiri­cal (experimental) cognition preceded theoretical cognition. Ex­perience has its limits beyond which it either loses its way or swit­ches to speculation. Research requires analysis, generalization, ex­planation of facts, formulation of ideas, principles and laws which throw light on the facts, and finally construction of a theory—the crowning achievement of scientific thought.

Scientific research assumes not only the movement upwards, to­wards the elaboration of theoretical apparatus (towards the con­struction of a perfect theory), but also the movement downwards in­volving assimilation of empirical information and discovery and pre-

prediction of new facts. Research never begins with observation and gathering of facts—it begins with an attempt at a solution of some task underlying which is always a certain hypothesis or surmise; it begins with the formulation of a problem.

Problem formulation and research programme. When a scientist raises a problem and tries to solve it, he inevitably works out a research programme, drawing up a plan for his quest and devising a system of instruments for the attainment of a cognitive goal. In all this, he has jn mind the supposed answer to the question he has raised. This supposed answer figures as a hypothesis. The hypothesis determines the area and the angle of viewing the empirically given, forming the framework of the research programme intended to produce a the­oretical interpretation of the object under study.

Observation and experiment. There are two ways of achieving a solution of a problem: one may look for the necessary information, or one may try to investigate the problem on one's own through ob­servation, experiment and theoretical thinking. Observation and ex­periment are extremely important methods of research both in natu­ral and in social science. There can be no research at all outside ob­servation. Observation is an intentional and directed process of per­ception, carried out in order to identify the essential properties and re-


lations in the object of cognition. Observation may be either direct or mediated by various technical devices (for instance, even molecules are now accessible to visual observation with the aid of electronic microscopes). Observation acquires scientific significance if it per­mits the reflection, in the framework of a research programme, of objects with the maximum accuracy, and if it can be repeated under varying conditions

But man cannot restrict himself to the role of observer only: ob­servation, as we know, records only that which life itself provides, while research also requires experiment through which an object is either artificially reproduced or placed under specified conditions in accordance with research goals. Through experiment, Faraday discovered magnetic induction, Lebedev, the pressure of light, and so on.

The so-called mental experiments are also part of scientific cogni­tion: here, a scientist operates with certain mental images and men­tally places the object of study under various conditions which, ac­cording to the experimental design, should facilitate the obtaining of a desired resultExperiment thus com­prizes both practical and theoretical activity, with the latter pre­dominating.

Wliat is a fact? The word "fact" comes from the Latin word/flctam "that which has been done". It means an actual, unim-agined event in nature, history, everyday life, in the intellectual

sphere. An arbitrary invention is also a fact, but it is a fact of con­sciousness recording the fact of invention. A fact is a fragment of being that has moved into the focus of a subject's thought, into the system of knowledge. A fact is a phenomenon of the material or spiri­tual world which has become an authenticated part of our conscious­ness; it is an object, phenomenon, property or relation as it is recorded in observation or experiment. The importance of facts in science is exceptional: reliable facts constitute the basis of any scientific re­search, for any science is concerned with the study, description and explanation of facts and nothing but facts

Facts have scientific value if there is a theory interpreting them. When facts appear which cannot be explained in the framework of an existing theory, a contradiction arises between facts and theoreti­cal principles. Scientific thought has to look for new explanations. In such cases, a shortage is sensed of really large-scale theories. Only in these circumstances can the "black market" of all kinds of sur­mises, sometimes reaching fantastic proportions, arise. It often so happens that something is hard to confirm yet impossible to refute!

Description and explanation. The course and results of observa­tion and experiment are invariably recorded and described. The de­scription employs generally accepted terms, visual means (graphs, drawings, photographs, film records), and symbolic means (mathe­matical, chemical and other formulas). The main scientific require­ment imposed on description is reliability, accurate presentation of the data of observation and experiment. Description may be complete and incomplete. It always presupposes a certain systematization of the material, i.e. its classification and a certain generalization: pure description is left behind on the threshold of scientific creativity

Description and classification are the initial stages in the devel­opment of scientific cognition, as scientific cognition does not merely establish facts — it strives to understanding them, to comprehend the causes why these facts emerged and function in precisely this way and not another.

Explanation is a mental operation aimed at establishing the causal dependences of the object of research, at grasp­ing the laws of its functioning and development and, finally, at the dis­covery of Us essence. Explanation occurs where it is shown according to what laws an object emerged, exists, and is developing. Explana­tion assumes the existence of certain initial data about the object. To explain means to interpret an object in a system of already exist­ing, historically accumulated knowledge, of definite principles, laws, and categories. It is impossible to explain anything without spec­ifying the object's all-sided links with other objects, without taking into account the principle of historism, the object's genesis, contra­dictions, and development.

Explanation as an extremely complex searching activity cannot do without all kinds of guesses and hypothetical judgements, that is, without hypotheses. It should be noted that contradictions some­times arise at the level of explanation of facts: identical facts can sometimes be explained in different ways and in different theoreti­cal systems.

Hypothesis and its role in the development of scientific knowledge. Not one scientific theory appeared in ready-made form. At first, a theory exists as a hypothesis. The hypothesis itself does not spring up at once but goes through definite stages of formation. A hypo­thesis is a supposition starting out from facts, a proposition trying to grasp the essence of an inadequately studied sphere of the world.

The need for a hypothesis arises, as a rule, in a situation when facts are revealed which go beyond the boundaries of the explana­tory possibilities of an existing theory

Hypotheses have a purely auxiliary but extremely great heuristic significance: they are instrumental in making discoveries.

Just as theories, hypotheses are generalizations of available knowledge. At the same time knowledge contained in a hypothesis does not necessarily follow from previously available knowledge. A hypothesis is basically probabilistic; its truth is on credit, so to speak. Hypotheses should be clearly distinguished from fantasies.

Hypotheses are respected no less than theories. Although the lat­ter are more reliable and even tinged with a halo of infallibility, the history of science shows that in the course of time they are either thoroughly revised or else destroyed or otherwise collapse, and fresh hypotheses are evolved on their ruins.

Theory as the highest form of integral scientific knowledge. In the broad sense of the word, theory is a system of reliable repre­sentations, ideas, and principles explaining some phenomena. In a narrower sense, a theory is the highest, well-substantiated, logically consistent system of scientific knowledge formulating an integral view of certain essential properties, laws, cause-and-effect relations, and determinants, all conditioning the character of the functioning and de­velopment of a definite sphere of reality.

A theory is a developing system of objectively true scientific knowledge verified by practice and explaining the laws governing the phenomena in a given field. The core of a scientific theory is its laws.

Science develops not only through gradual accumulation and augmenting of new knowledge. The turning points in the history of science were scientific revolutions linked with the names of Coper­nicus, Newton or Einstein. Revolutions in science are expressed in qualitative changes in its basic principles, concepts, categories, laws, theories, methods and the style of thought itself, in the replacement of one scientific paradigm by another. What is a scientific paradigm? This concept covers the norms and models of empirical and theoretical thinking ac­cepted in a given scientific community which have become convic­tions; a mode of choosing the object of research and explaning of a definite system of facts in terms of sufficiently substantiated princi­ples and laws forming a logically consistent theory. The scientific picture of the world is continually enriched, which ul­timately leads the replacement of one paradigm by another, more meaningful, profound and complete. The characteristic features of paradigms distinguish the styles of scientific thought — mechanistic, probabilistic, or cybernetic.

On scientific prediction. We live in a predictable world. Both at the empirical and theoretical levels thought has the power of antici­pating events. But it is only possible where there is order and objec­tive logic grasped by the predicting subject.

Scientific prediction is an empirically and theoretically substan­tiated supposition about the future state of natural phenomena, about social, intellectual and spiritual processes unknown at the moment of making the prediction but amenable to identification. In practical ac­tivity, prediction is realized in the forms of prognostication and forecast.

Prognostication is a special scientific study of the prospects for some phenomenon, which assumes the identification of the real possibilities of the" system, attention for the tendencies and rates of progressive movement, and complex scientific planning and management taking into account all the essential links in their contradictory and harmonious interaction.

Forecast is a concrete prediction localized in time and space — e.g., a forecast of a solar eclipse, of the weather for tomorrow, of enemy behaviour during a military operation, or of a diplomatic action.

Scientific cognition opens up the possibility not only of predic­tion but also of conscious shaping of the future. The vital meaning of any science can be described as follows: to know in order to fore­see, to foresee in order to act.

While prediction can be accurate in relation to events whose com­ing is determined by the already known laws, causes and conditions, the features of the future determined by circumstances not yet in evidence cannot be accurately foreseen.


Date: 2015-02-03; view: 3812

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