A Brief Borgesian Thought About Knowledge

It turns out that I absolutely love philosophers of science who like, but are somewhat critical, of science studies. I’ve recently read Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour, Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening, and I am now working my way through Helen Longino’s The Fate of Knowledge. All three are critics of the various excesses of science studies (especially the Strong Programme, everyone’s favorite bête noire), but all three recognize some of the theoretical and empirical insights of science studies as crucial to understanding science in action (as opposed to some sort of rational reconstruction of how science should have been or some normative program for creating an idealized science).

One of the interesting debates that Hacking and Longino both discuss is the issue of monism vs. pluralism – basically, is there one unified set of laws that coheres completely and, if known, would describe the whole world accurately, or are there multiple (potentially inconsistent) but “correct” ways of looking at the world depending on the scale you are looking at and the kind of problem you are trying to solve. I would have thought that philosophy of science would side strongly with monism, but both Hacking and Longino seem to embrace (or at least defend the possibility of) pluralism. Here’s a snippet from Hacking (1983: 219):

God did not write a Book of Nature of the sort that the old Europeans imagined. He wrote a Borgesian library, each book of which is as brief as possible, yet each book of which is inconsistent with every other. No book is redundant. For every book there is some humanly accessible bit of Nature such that that book, and no other, makes possible the comprehension, prediction and influencing of what is going on.

Another, equally nerdy way of putting this is.. there is no sufficient statistic for the entire universe smaller than the entire universe. For any given question, we may be able to find a stable relationship which can give us nice predictions and aid us in controlling specific phenomenon with relatively small amounts of information (e.g. the ideal gas law, PV=nRT), but these laws are domain specific, and so what may be sufficient information for one purpose (e.g. knowing nRT and V gives you P) will not be sufficient for some other kind of question.

What’s interesting to me about this formulation is that it foregrounds the process of problem-choice. That is, the problems we choose to investigate will determine which books in the Borgesian library we read and choose to emphasize. Knowledge of one set of books may or may not make learning another set easier. The world may seem incoherent because our shocking ability to gain some understanding in spite of the immense complexity of everything breaks down as we try to shove more and more phenomena into the same book. But how we choose our problems, how we decide what problems are important, are messy, problems that have been ignored by much of the philosophy of science – the context of justification being preferred over the context of discovery. A Borgesian view of the world foregrounds discovery (and the communal aspects of discovery at that), because we jettison the assumption of convergence on a single, book of Nature, and assume instead a collection of librarians wandering together through an endless library, discarding most books as worthless but holding onto a treasured view that give us insight into specific bits of the messy universe-library.

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