A Prominent Pair of False Alternatives
By Tibor Machan - March 19, 2012

Jon Gertner, author of the forthcoming The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,* writes for The New York Times (in an excerpt from his book), about innovation in America. I spotted the piece and immediately suspected there was a hidden motive behind it, not, indeed, one that was aiming at "understanding," the purposes Gertner purports to find behind what "our innovative forbears" had in mind, as opposed to profit! So he writes, for example:

"The conflation of … different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries…."

This kind of writing, referring to some alleged belief that "we" are lead to − who "we"? − isn't about enlightenment but about promoting a not so hidden agenda. It is that most of the talk among those who try to understand American culture, including science and technology − especially talk by economists who defend the free market − is misguided. The profit motive isn't what advances knowledge; it is the goal of understanding that does this.

Well, why is the goal of understanding juxtaposed with profit? In fact, isn't one of the elements of profit to gain understanding? Places like Bell Labs, where Mr. Gerner did much of his research for his book and for the article in The Times, were established throughout the globe so as to promote greater and greater understanding which, in turn, is supposed to give support to the pursuit of all kinds of progress, including making a profit.

So-called pure science is often contrasted with so called applied science but the contrast is artificial, just as are so-called theoretical and practical knowledge. Such a contrast is the outgrowth of bad philosophy, of an artificial division of human knowledge into two kinds. In philosophy it is the contrast between analytical versus synthetic knowledge, the former dealing with the relationship between ideas and the latter with the application of ideas for some "practical" purpose (suggesting that ideas on their own aren't practical).

Of course, in philosophy, especially the philosophy of science, such a contrast has always met with strong criticism. One critic, the late Harvard philosopher Willard van Orman Quine, wrote a seminal and very influential paper on this very issue, one that, sadly, Jon Gertner appears to be unfamiliar with. It was written in 1951 and titled "Two Dogmas of Empiricism."

Empiricism is a very prominent and promising school of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of human knowledge. The dogmas in question are that there exists factual (empirical) and theoretical (conceptual), knowledge, which are very different. From a long time ago these two dogmas have been very widely embraced but also rejected by many. Plato in his way embraced them while Aristotle didn't, to put the matter a bit simply. As Quine's paper suggests, all human knowledge is, well, knowledge of the world, not knowledge of two realms, such as that of facts and that of ideas. The only sense in which these two are actually distinguishable is that there is the world, the realm of facts, and there is our understanding of the world, the realm of ideas. But the latter is always in some way about the former.

Now back to Mr. Gertner's supposedly innovative idea, namely, that people do not engage in scientific and technological research to gain profit but to gain understanding. In fact, the better way to put it is that as people seek to understand the world, they achieve knowledge that enables them to address problems in the world, some of which indeed advance their well being. Which is to say that some of what understanding promotes is prosperity or profit. Some of it is of course, placed on the back burner, for possible future practical use. Some such understanding is used to play with, as it were − for experiment, speculation, etc.

But if one wishes to undermine an element of the case for a free society, including a free-market place, one might like to show that understanding is a higher goal than profit and that the two aren't actually very closely related. Pure science, which is supposed to promote understanding, can be pursued but not in contrast to the pursuit of practical goals.

So there is nothing in what Mr. Gertner argues that undermines one main reason for having a free society, namely, to secure human freedom, with government mainly out of the way other than in its limited role as the cop on the beat who keeps the peace.


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