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Vitenskapsteori

(1) Background

The Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (in Norwegian “vitskapsteori”) is “research on research” in a broad sense. The subject is scientific and scholarly research, encompassing all academic disciplines including the role of the sciences and the humanities in society. The methods are theoretical and normative as well as historical or sociological, with room for both a qualitative and quantitative approach.

The research-based production of knowledge has changed dramatically in the last one hundred years by the large volume of research activity and knowledge being generated, the development of new theories and methods, changes at the institutional level, and taking into account all the new challenges and an altered sense of responsibility towards society. Coinciding with these changes, scientific and scholarly problems have gained greater relevance.

The Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT) at the University of Bergen was established as an interfaculty institution with the purpose of stimulating and supporting research involving a wide spectrum of questions under discussion by modern research-based societies. The Centre is intended to be a catalyst for the study of the sciences and the humanities for the entire University.

At its inception the Centre has been associated with every faculty and discipline within the university. The Centre’s objective is two-fold. (i) The study of the sciences and the humanities should be carried out by researchers well acquainted with in the scientific or scholarly activity under investigation; (ii) concurrently the Centre aims to promote a general competence of sorts that will make it possible to build a bridge between the different scientific and scholarly communities within the University. Accordingly the Centre supports the University’s strategic plan that aims to encourage multidisciplinary research.

The name “theory of science” (vitskapsteori) has been discussed in great detail. Two main points deserve our attention in this context:

·       The Norwegian word “vitskap” covers university disciplines in all fields of scientific and scholarly study, not just the natural sciences, as often is the case in similar institutions in English-speaking countries.

·       The word “teori” was introduced as a term for interdisciplinary research that incorporates sociological and historical studies as well as the philosophy of the sciences and the humanities (and not “either/or”, as is common in discipline-based institutions).

The strategic plan of the University in Bergen stresses that the University will work for an ongoing quality assessment of its research activity. This plan emphasizes the need for an academic network to promote discussions concerning basic challenges of modern research, including its working conditions. In addition to the study dealing with normative research theory and in addition to the goal of being a catalyst for encouraging scientific and scholarly dialog between different research milieus, the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities intends to be an important tool in such a quality assessment. Equally, the Centre intends to support and implement ongoing and balanced discussions concerning research ethics as well as profession ethics. Along the same lines the Centre also intends to contribute to the strengthening of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary cooperation. Consequently the Centre may thus contribute in strengthening the legitimacy of research in society. The Centre will therefore play the role of a natural partner in implementing the University’s strategic plan.

(2) Professional profile

Accordingly the Center intends to be a research-based resource for the study of the sciences and the humanities in all fields, focussing on three main areas, with overlapping interrelations: “Research of research” within the natural sciences, within social sciences and within the humanities.

The research profile of the Centre can be summed up with three keywords: science, society, ethics (and again, “science” in the broad sense of “the sciences and the humanities”. These three keywords are relevant to each other, but we can point out specific focus areas pertaining to each keyword:

Science   

Science is a normative concept for those who do research. But scientific research is simultaneously an activity and an institution that can be described and explained empirically. The concept of scientific (and scholarly) research can be focused on in different ways:

·       In a semantic perspective we focus primarily on science as a set of assertions which are tested by using scientific and scholarly methods, by considering empirical evidence and logical consistency, with the objective to arrive at a well-established theory.

·       In a pragmatic perspective science appears as an activity, governed by basic norms, either for empirical or textual testing or for discursive testing of the arguments advanced. From a pragmatic perspective one can also emphasize the rhetorical qualities of the speech act, and thereby we may also obtain a critical language-based access to questions concerning science and power.

·       In a sociological perspective the main focus is on the institutional aspects of scientific and scholarly research.

Dependent upon how the concept of science (vitskap) is interpreted, we may therefore obtain a somewhat different understanding of scientific insight and research, and we get different critical problems for discussion: (i) From a semantic perspective we get, for example, the problem of reductionism when there is an attempt to explain one semantic system within the context of another system. (ii) From a pragmatic perspective we get, for example, the problem on how we can “crisscross” between subjects and disciplines, in order to be able to evaluate different forms of scientific knowledge. (iii) From a sociological perspective we gain, among other things, an understanding of different institutions, groups and interests, as for example when there is research on conflicts and power structures within and around a research environment.

         Along the line of the aforementioned questions, we have the debates concerning “the two cultures” (see C. P. Snow), natural-scientific and humanistic research — or perhaps we should rather say: “the three cultures”, to the extent that we include research within the social sciences as the third component. Research methods, language-use and types of knowledge can vary in different ways within and between each of these “cultures”, just as concurrently it would also be important to do research on that which constitutes common presuppositions, for example in terms of common norms for interaction and discussion, including the question of how different disciplines can have a stimulating effect on each other.

         With this kind of focus on the study of the sciences and the humanities we can further draw attention to the role science has played in the cultural modernization process, both institutionally and normatively. In a situation where science operates globally, simultaneously as there is widespread opposition against “Western” cultural modernization and against what is perceived as “Western” science, this is a question of current interest. Consequently it is necessary to enter the debate on modernity and post-modernity as to how we should conceive scientific and scholarly research and also as to the demarcation between scientific and scholarly discourse and other kinds of discourse.

 

Society

The normative problems in the research process appear in the participant-perspective. But this perspective must be supplemented with an observing and explaining perspective when we want to find out what the results of a specific event or initiative might be and what might be the unintentional consequences. Such questions can be investigated empirically, for instance:  What were the political priorities for research in a particular field? How do the research norms function in practice, and what kinds of harm or damage may certain research methods inflict upon the subject of an experiment and the outside world? And further: How are particular research results used or misused, and what do we know about the long-term consequences and about the relative competence of those actors who analyze different types of research results and scientific insights? What role does scientific research have as a social institution and as an intellectual norm setter? How are different types of research presented by the media, and what is the level of information among laypersons and among various employers, for example in government administration and in politics, and how may laypersons be included in assessing scientific research?   

            Such questions require empirical research, but a kind of empirical research that is illuminated by a normative concept of scientific and scholarly research, since this is the only way that scientific and scholarly activities can be identified in contrast to other activities: Modern knowledge-based societies raise many ethical and moral questions that require ongoing discussions, and to insure the best possible competence in these discussions, it is necessary to have an interplay between discipline-based scientific and scholarly research and studies of the sciences and the humanities where normative questions are included. More precisely: The ethical and moral questions that are here discussed require a moral-philosophical competence that is also updated on the current situation within different fields of scientific and scholarly research. Negatively expressed: Moral philosophy alone is not sufficient, and neither are the different types of discipline-based research. What is called for is the competence of a study of the sciences and the humanities that is at the same time research-related and normatively oriented.

         In modern knowledge-based societies there are thus some distinct and pertinent questions where the competence obtained from the “study of the sciences and the humanities” is decisive.

Ethics

As a researcher one is looking for non-trivial questions, for better methods and models, for more solid evidence, for more convincing arguments, and for more secure, more reliable and interesting results — consequently the concept of science is a normative concept and thus the question of normative validity represents an important challenge for the study of the sciences and the humanities.

         In addition we have the challenges related to the different ethical questions concerning the use and misuse of research results and about possible harm and rights violations during the research process. Moreover with the development of IT (Information Technology) we got an increasing problem of the assessment of copyright and the control of cheating, and also concerning the quality assessment of a staggering chaos of information.

         These different normative and ethical questions can be seen entering the research process at different points and at different levels. We could, for example, distinguish between “before”, “during” and “after”:

·        Up front we have the questions connected to research policy, for instance the prioritizing of specific research fields and types of knowledge.

·      During the research process we have on the one side the philosophical questions concerning norms for scientific and scholarly work and on the other side the questions of “the study of the sciences and the humanities” concerning the different types of harm and injuries to research subjects and the surrounding world.

·       And finally, when the research results are released, we have on the one side the ethical and political questions concerning the danger of misuse and the risk of unintended negative consequences and on the other side questions of ethics and of the study of the sciences and the humanities, surrounding the danger of misinterpretation and unwise actions, because of various types of internal uncertainty — and we also have the questions of fraud and quality assessment.

Along these lines we also have the normative questions concerning the role of scientific and scholarly activities in our society, both institutionally and as standard-bearers for enlightened and unbiased discussions in an open and democratic society. Furthermore we encounter the normative questions of research information, of how to present scientific and scholarly results to the public, and about the role of laypersons in discussions concerning ethical and political problems. One complex issue in this context is linked to the tension between the right to have knowledge, as a universal rights principle, and the knowledge gap between the rich and the poor. Such questions should generate research plans about who has control of the knowledge apparatus and about basic rights principles concerning universal access to knowledge.

These three keywords — science, society, ethics — thus suggest several clusters of urgent questions in modern knowledge-based societies, questions that are both interesting and open for research, but which demand the competence of the study of the sciences and the humanities. A few examples can serve as a supplementary illustration:

(3) Supplementary illustrations 

(i) “More knowledge, greater uncertainty”

This incisively formulated paradox expresses a point made (for instance) by Karl Popper, as an argument directed against the idea that it is possible to predict the future as a totality: Our acts are based on the knowledge we have at the time; through research new knowledge is generated; to the extent that our future acts are based on knowledge that we did not have at an earlier stage, it would not have been possible to predict these acts. The notion of a complete prediction is thus impossible when new knowledge, relevant for our actions, is constantly being generated. Also in those cases where we do not intend to give a complete prediction, this argument holds weight in a research-based society: The faster new knowledge evolves, the more problematic it becomes to predict what we are going to do in future scenarios. The more new knowledge we get and the quicker it happens, the greater the uncertainty will be for those who intend to act prospectively in a way that is knowledge-based.

This is true of new knowledge that can be used instrumentally, as an instrument within well-known frames. But it is also true of the research-based conceptions we have of the situation in which we act, of who we are and of what we want - and of the unintended consequences of that we are trying to achieve. Consequently we have a set of urgent problems for the study of the sciences and the humanities: What does societal planning entail for a modern research-based society, where knowledge changes rapidly, and where society (partially for the same reason) is also changing rapidly? What kinds of competencies do we need in order handle this problem in the best possible manner? Is a meta-competence needed, a “knowledge of knowledge” characteristic of the study of the sciences and the humanities? And are discursive institutions needed, but of sort that is different from those we know from decision theory and traditional social science?

( ii) “Making visible means making invisible”

This incisively formulated paradox  expresses a point known from Martin Heidegger’s emphasis on the internal interplay between “uncovering” and “covering up”. Simply put: That a phenomenon is made visible in one manner from one perspective implies that it becomes invisible in regard to another perspective. That which we perceive appears in light of the concepts we use to conceive it. That which is perceived is “constituted” in one way or another, where other ways of “constituting” are always possible. When we “uncover” in one manner, we simultaneously cover up in another. Perception is perspectivistic.

In a science-based society we thus generate perspective-bound knowledge, which simutaneously gives insight from one perspective and “overshadows” or “turns a blind eye” to views from other perspectives. The more the research-based society develops, the more specialization and fragmentation occurs, along with an increased perspectivism.

A semantic synthesis of all disciplines and concept-based perspectives is unattainable for a human being. Simply put: We see by bits and pieces. Research-based knowledge development implies therefore that we simultaneously “see more” and “see less”.

Consequently we have a group of problems for the study of the sciences and the humanities, problems that can be investigated using case studies as its base: To the degree that all research is trapped within one or another perspective, in what sense then is it true that the growth in research-based knowledge implies simultaneously growth in perspectivistic “overshadowing”? In what sense can different perspectives be said to be comparable? In what sense can one perspective be said to spill over to another perspective and in what sense can we (as epistemic persons) “cross back and forth” between such perspectives? And how can we prevent certain perspectives from becoming too dominant, in an unfortunate manner? How can we in pertinent cases be able to decide which of them is or are the relevant perspectives? And in what sense can it be ascertained that this perspectivism implies that science-based knowledge increases our powerlessness?

Starting with these two points ([i] and [ii]) we may formulate several interesting and realistic research projects — here are some suggestions:

In the light of these insights it is reasonable to focus on the need for a discursive culture, that both encompasses a (meta-)competence of the actors and a development of relevant institutions, for example in education and the media.

In what sense is such a (meta-)competence in the form of a reflexive “knowledge on knowledge” needed, where one (e.g.) is familiar with the problem surrounding the former point, i.e. (i) whether more knowledge and a rapid growth of knowledge implies more uncertainty and greater problems with prediction, and surrounding the latter point, i.e. (ii) whether the research-based act of making something cognitively visible simultaneously implies making something else cognitively invisible?

And in what sense is a group of relevant institutions needed here for an appropriate exchange of ideas and opinion-formation, from schools and the mass media to different arenas for public discussions and political learning processes?

From selected examples these types of problems can be researched even further: What kinds of knowledge and skills “go out of style” as a result of developments within science and technology? Is there a basis, for example, for claiming that such “out-of-datedness” is especially valid for factual knowledge, for example concerning societal relationships, or skills used in special technologies that become obsolete, as in the computer field? On the other side, will more “durable” (meta)-skills (as to how one learns and how one acquires knowledge and evaluates that which is relevant and well-established knowledge) be found, within the multitude of information to which we in this computer age are being exposed?

Furthermore, in what sense is there a certain basic knowledge (and skills) that does not change to any notable degree? In what sense is this (for example) valid for knowledge pertaining to natural law and mathematics and to history and language?

And further: What do these questions have to say about the problem of how we ought to design some of our central societal institutions, for example educational and research institutions and governmental administration? In what sense can research on such questions have implications for our conceptions of appropriate procedures, of assessment requirements and of the selection procedures of persons in different public agencies?

This type of question can point towards the normative, primarily with an eye to future improvements; but such questions can also be raised with the aim to obtain better insight into what is actually happening, or into something that had occurred earlier. Following such questions one can (for example) generate research on the relationship between politics and types of knowledge during various phases in the modernization process, e.g. of Norway in the 19th century. Or we can promote research on the question of the relative dominance of variable types of knowledge after World War 2 in Norway, for example during the reconstruction phase, or related to the protest movements of the sixties and seventies or after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many believe that during these time periods we went through something that is similar to a “paradigm shift”, as to knowledge and identity. Could this be true? If so, how and why? Is it true, for example, that certain disciplines have been dominant, in these processes, to the detriment of others?

These questions open for a critical reflection concerning research policy. At this poinnt, comparative modernity studies could be enlightening, for example by comparing similar developmental traits in different European nations.

In a pragmatic-based research on the expansion of knowledge there will not only come questions about cognitive perspectivism, competence and uncertainty, but also about the changes in the socio-cultural identity. Knowledge is not merely instrumental, but applies to self-understanding and moral standards on different levels.

This point entails, among other things, a question about the relation between scientification and traditional culture. In what sense are there pre-modern cultures that do not get along with modern scientifically based societies? And how can and should we, in a modern globalized society, relate to a diversity of “comprehensive doctrines”?  In what sense is for example a basic humanistic competence, such as the knowledge of language and historical insight, important in such attempts at multi-cultural understanding and identity expansion? To the extent that the educational system is supposed to teach different life- and world-views, how can and should this be done? Is the common notion, that the choice stands between facts and preaching, an unfelicitous one, one caused by a conceptual poverty? - since such a conceptual dichotomy does not appreciate the problem of understanding, in a hermeneutic sense? What can we, by hermeneutic research based on selected case studies, obtain as an improved insight as to how different cultures, by virtue of being cultures, can enrich each other, beyond the learning processes that the single individual can master because they as persons can learn to shift between different cultural codes?

Similarly we can promote research in terms of the study of the sciences and the humanities concerning the relationship between a scientifically created and discursive culture with a reflexive identity and inalienable universal rights on the one side and contextual codes of cultural meaning and of values on the other side. By using selected examples one can research both concerning the relationship between different types of scientific knowledge-exchange and of tradition-based ways of thinking and acting, and also of the relationship between scientific development of knowledge and different types of action-based insights into the lifeworld.

We can now point out a series of interesting questions for the study of the sciences and the humanities — in the form of keywords, for example:

  • Possible approaches to reduce unfavorable types of mono-disciplinary “tunnel vision”
  • Conditions for successful interdisciplinary research
  • The relationship between qualitative and quantitative methods in professional disciplines
  • The question concerning the new “contact” between “post-normal” science and the modern “risk society”
  • Dominance and power in the relation between disciplines
  • The relation between discipline-based expertise and the judgment of laymen
  • The relation between scientific and and scholarly knowledge, and popular opinion
  • The normative principle implicit in various social sciences
  • The question of basic norms for research and for a discursive culture
  • Ethical problems of priorities and distribution in health policy
  • Poverty and justice
  • Ethical principles for biotechnology