Friday, August 31, 2012

A few last thoughts on the general and the particular

As I suggested yesterday, we all make our way through a lifetime of particulars guided by generalizations.

It is the particulars that make each life unique, that are the building blocks of a self. Generalizations give a course to steer by.

We don't always choose our particulars. To a large extent, they find us. Some are welcome, some aren't. Right now I am fighting off a particularly nasty cold.

And what about the generalizations? Where do they come from?

Some we are perhaps born with, such as an innate distrust of the "other." Some we grasp from elemental experience: The sun will come up tomorrow. Some we learn from family or school: It is better to give than receive.

Generalizations can be morally complicit. We have a roster of names for morally suspect generalizations: racism, ageism, sexism, Islamophobia, and so on.

Which brings me to science.

Science is the best way humans have yet devised for sifting the general from the particular. Not perfect, to be sure, but reliable. Reproducibility is one way to identify the general. Quantification is another. Peer review, citation, and consensus put generalities to the test.

Science is not just an arbitrary hodgepodge of "facts" and "theories." It is a program for discovering the constants that hide in a world of particulars. It is also a way of exposing particular prejudices -– yours and mine -- posing as generalities.