The opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics states, “All men by nature desire to know.” But what does it mean to know? While one might wish for a universal answer to this question, none as yet has been forthcoming. As we understand the question, what it means to have knowledge depends on one’s standpoint. Moral knowledge is of a different kind than scientific knowledge. Even in science, the domain of scientific knowledge and what is accepted as authentic knowledge, meaning that it is accepted as “true,” has changed dramatically over time.
The domain of scientific knowledge for Aristotle was much smaller than it is today. He could not make observations of the atom or of distant galaxies. He could not observe the genes and proteins in a cell, nor could he measure electrical impulses in the brain. His concept of truth was limited by his ability to observe and measure, but it was also limited by the mathematical systems he had available to represent the behavior he viewed. It is naïve to think that our concept of knowledge in today’s world of quantum physics and microbiology would be the same as it was for Aristotle in 340 BC, what it was for Newton in 1687, or what it will be in 2500.
Scientific knowledge relates to the manner in which the mind formulates and operates on ideas concerning Nature. These must ultimately be related to our senses that provide the data from which the neural system formulates ideas. My idea of a rock is not outside my mind. Something is out there that results in sensations, that in turn results in the idea of a rock. Such ideas are the raw material of theories that describe the interaction of the ideas - and if a theory is valid it should produce consequences that can be checked against future sensations. The fundamental point is that theoretical operations in the mind correspond to physical operations in Nature that are not directly experienced, but whose activity is reflected in new sensations resulting in new ideas concordant with outcomes the original operations predicted. This very general description of scientific knowledge has been developed over many centuries and is not Aristotle’s view.
The first aim of this book is to trace this development up to and including the turbulent effects of quantum mechanics in the Twentieth Century. The second aim, which cannot be accomplished absent an appreciation of the subtle relations between reason, science, and metaphysics, including their historical evolution, is to scrutinize the new and rapidly accelerating crisis of scientific knowledge that has accompanied the desire to model extremely complex systems such as those arising in biology, environmental science, economics, and social science.