Some Philosophical Considerations

Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know.

Bertrand Russell

One of the main motives of this book is the idea that any scientific discipline, including systematics, is impossible without its own theory—otherwise, it turns out to be “wandering by touch” within an unknown. Another motive, less obvious but just as important, is recognition that the theory of science is impossible without the philosophy of science, or metascience: it is the philosophy that lights the lantern illuminating the paths of scientific knowledge. As a matter of fact, it is the philosophy of science that poses and tries to answer the questions of paramount importance for systematics, such as: how can its studied object be outlined? How can we be sure that our classifications actually reflect something of interest to us? What makes the research method and the knowledge it provides scientific?—etc., etc., etc. Therefore, if science does not exist without scientific theories, then the latter do not exist without a certain philosophy of science [Heisenberg 1959].

In systematics, as E. Mayr emphasized, “every basic biological concept is also a philosophical concept [...] they run into each another” (cited after [Greene 1992: 259]). So, the scientific status of both systematics and the taxonomic knowledge developed by it cannot be comprehended outside a certain philosophical and theoretical context that deserves being termed philosophy of systematics. Therefore, before considering the theory of systematics, it is necessary, very briefly and in quite a simplified form, to touch upon some principal issues of the philosophy of science that concern our discipline most closely.

Classical and Non-Classical Science

From the beginning of the formation of European science in the 16th century and up to the end of the 19th century, all natural sciences developed within the framework of the classical philosophical canon. Throughout the 20th century, a movement shifted slowly from the classical towards a non-classical version of the philosophy of science. They differ in their understanding of the ways of defining objects, tasks, and methods of natural sciences [Lektorsky 2001; Gaydenko 2003; Ilyin 2003; Stepin 2005].

The classical philosophy of science is basically monistic. It acknowledges that Nature in all its manifestations is organized by a unified global cause—the overall universal Law of Nature—so it is possible in principle to explain all phenomena of Nature by its direct or indirect action. If Nature is unified in its foundations, then scientific knowledge about it should also be unified in its content and form. Such knowledge must be strictly objective and reflect what is “in reality,” and to do this it must be induced impartially and consistently from observations of objective facts. Such knowledge can be achieved with the help of the universal Scientific Method that is equally applicable to all phenomena of Nature; what is subject to such Method is the science—everything else is “non-science.” For this Method to be “objective,” any influence of both prior ideas about the “nature of things” (metaphysical background knowledge) and any subjects’ opinions and preferences should be excluded from it. This makes the Method—now a method (with a lowercase letter) as a set of technical devices—objective, and its application by itself should warrant scientific knowledge to be objective. Such method must certainly be mathematical, for “The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics” [Galilei]. The method is intended to link all conceivable variables that characterize the diversity of natural phenomena into a single “formula.” The latter “shapes” a unified and therefore the only “general theory of everything,” and if it actually explains “everything at once,” then this is the “final theory.” This is how the Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg, in his book under a rather symptomatic title Dreams of a final theory defined a goal towards which natural science should strive [Weinberg 1992]. A movement towards this goal, albeit slow but steady and unidirectional, subordinates the development of science to a unified trend of achieving the only possible true knowledge—from less to more complete, from less to more objective, from less to more precise, etc.

For classical systematics, a single universal Law is given in the form of the System of Nature: let us recall that, according to Linnaeus, “Nature is the Law of God” [Breidbach and Ghiselin 2006]. Accordingly, this System is reflected by a unified natural classification, which is achieved by means of a unified natural method: as M. Adanson once assured, such a method “should be universal, or unified, that is, there should be no exceptions for it” [Adanson 1763: civ]. This general idea dominated throughout the conceptual history of systematics and remains highly respected to this day, regardless of how natural classification and natural method are understood. So, with regard to such a claim to possessing a “final theory,” the newest cladistics hardly differs from, say, the quinarism of the early 19th century.

In the non-classical philosophy of science, understanding of how Nature and knowledge about it are arranged is fundamentally different—it is pluralistic. Nature is organized quite complexly; its organizing principle is a combination of different causes, local in their actions and not reducible to some unified “cause of everything”; therefore, it is impossible to encompass it with a single “general theory of everything.” As a result of cumulative actions of such causes, Nature breaks up into various local manifestations—fragments, aspects, levels, etc., each with its own local cause or a local set of causes. Therefore, non-classical science focuses on the very diversity of manifestations of Nature: this means that natural (as well as social, cultural, etc.) diversity is investigated not to reduce it to a single law, but in all its particular manifestations that are actual knowable objects. In such a “dismemberment” of overall Nature, an active role is played by the cognizing subject: without the latter, cognition is not feasible, which means that “absolutely objective” knowledge is impossible. Scientific knowledge cannot be simply inferred from direct observations: the latter become scientific facts only after they are comprehended in the context of some theoretical background knowledge that forms the metaphysical (eventually natural-philosophical) context of cognitive activity. The latter is organized as a set of research programs, each concentrating on a certain manifestation of Nature outlined by the respective metaphysical context, and a particular scientific theory is developed for it. Accordingly, scientific knowledge is an organized set of “local” theories with their specific objects, aims, and methods. However, such scientific pluralism, contrary to the widespread misconception, does not imply a denial of some “unified” truth: it only means that there is no single “classical” truth in the form of a “general theory of everything,” but there is a multiple “non-classical” truth encompassing all “local” truths elaborated by the respective theories that complement each other in a “whole.” With this, a plurality of such “local” truths means that scientific knowledge inevitably includes some unavoidable amount of uncertainty.

The following provisions are of fundamental importance for the development of what might be called non-classical systematics [Pavlinov 2006, 2012, 2018]. First, focusing on the structure of diversity and corresponding means of studying it, non-classical science allows systematics to assert its right to be a “normal science” with its specific subject area (taxonomic reality; see Section 4.2.1), specific research method adequate to it (classifying), and specific generalization reflecting it (natural classification). Second, non-classical systematics acknowledges the recognition of particular manifestations of the taxonomic reality that deserve to be considered respected objects of research to the extent that these manifestations are individualized naturally (by presuming certain natural causes generating them). It follows from the above, third, the reasonability of developing particular taxonomic theories dealing with these manifestations, along with research programs implementing the respective theories. And lastly, such theories and programs and, of course, the “locally” natural classifications reflecting these manifestations, can all be ascribed the same scientific status.

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