iSoul In the beginning is reality

Category Archives: Science

Science particularly as related to creation and the creation-evolution controversy

Nominal breakthroughs

Modern science is quantitative, not qualitative. The top breakthroughs in modern science have broken through traditional distinctions of quality or kind. Consider the following:

(1) Newton’s theory of gravitation broke through the traditional distinction between the sublunar and supralunar universe (e.g., the earth and the heavens). All motion is subject to the same laws.

(2) The atomic theory of matter broke through the traditional distinctions between different kinds of matter (e.g., water, earth, air, and fire). All matter is merely a combinations of atoms (or subatomic particles).

(3) Darwin’s theory of evolution broke through the traditional distinctions between different kinds of organisms (e.g., humans and animals). All species are merely variations of life (or genes).

(4) Einstein’s theory of relativity broke through the traditional distinction between space and time. All dimensions are subject to the same laws.

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Wise knowledge

Presuppositions are a priori suppositions, usually unstated. They are not inevitable. Presuppositions may be replaced with suppositions. That is, presuppositions may be made explicit.

For example, someone might say, “I will flip a coin. If it is heads, I will adopt presupposition A; if it is tails, I will adopt presupposition B.” In that case, neither A nor B are presuppositions; they are suppositions that are chosen a posteriori.

Mathematics is the discipline that is based entirely on suppositions. It is purely conditional. “If X is supposed (or given), then Y follows necessarily.” If X is rejected, then something else may follow.

The existence of mathematics shows it is possible to have knowledge that is truly universal. Science is the attempt to mathematize all knowledge and remove all subjectivity. That is the “view from nowhere”. See here for how induction works through formal definitions and conditions.

But is it wise to remove all subjectivity? No, for the simple reason that it would turn us into mere objects. The person in us cries out, “I am not a number; I am a free man” (The Prisoner). We are subjects and so want a “view from somewhere”.

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Middle ontologies

As the previous post noted here, nominalism seeks a minimal ontology, that is, a minimum of qualities. This qualitative parsimony leads toward the ultimate minimum ontology: an ontology of one. That is, the assertion that there is only one quality, one kind of stuff, whatever it may be called – matter, energy, or whatever.

This is a bias toward one extreme. Compare the opposite extreme: quantitative parsimony, which leads toward the ultimate of one member in each kind of thing so that each thing is unique. This has the advantage that it allows the individuality of every thing to be emphasized rather than obscured by being merely one member of a large class of things.

But either bias is a bias and so predisposes the search for knowledge toward a biased answer. It would be better to adopt a neutral ontology, or seek one, in order to avoid biasing the result. Such an ontology would be between these two extremes, somewhere in the middle. That allows a great deal of flexibility for research and discussion, contrary to the take-it-or-leave-it attitude that goes with an extreme ontology.

A middle ontology could be a common sense ontology, at least as a starting point, since common sense recognizes some qualitative distinctions. A middle ontology could be a mid-entropy ontology, with some notion of middle to select the best frequency or probability distribution. In any case, the search for knowledge should prefer middle ontologies, and only if all middle ontologies fail should an extreme ontology be considered.

Scientific nominalism

Nominalism has three senses:

  1. A denial of metaphysical universals.
  2. An emphasis on reducing one’s ontology to a bare minimum, on paring down the supply of fundamental ontological categories.
  3. A denial of “abstract” entities.

William of Ockham, the name most associated with nominalism, agreed with the first and second senses, and in a lesser way, the third sense. The scientific principle called “Ockham’s razor” (or “Occam’s razor”) focuses on the second sense.

Ockham’s “nominalism,” in both the first and the second of the above senses, is often viewed as derived from a common source: an underlying concern for ontological parsimony. This is summed up in the famous slogan known as “Ockham’s Razor,” often expressed as “Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.

What this means for science is not a vague simplicity but qualitative parsimony:

This distinction is between qualitative parsimony (roughly, the number of types (or kinds) of thing postulated) and quantitative parsimony (roughly, the number of individual things postulated). The default reading of Occam’s Razor in the bulk of the philosophical literature is as a principle of qualitative parsimony.

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Science and history again

To some extent the sciences of society and history can be pursued as if they were natural sciences. For example, groups of people exhibit some characteristics of natural objects, and so reflect physics to some extent.

On the other hand, the physics of social beings is different in a complementary way from the physics of natural bodies. That is because social beings have purposes and plans. These can be accommodated within natural science only by including formal and final causes to some extent.

But knowledge of society and history are different from knowledge of the physical world. Their focus is different and the result is more likely to be a narrative than a theory.

The natural sciences emphasize quantities and have an over-riding principle of qualitative parsimony, often called Occam’s Razor. The sciences of society and history have a complementary principle of quantitative parsimony. This is seen in the increasing distinctions and qualities of society and history that resist generalization and lead to greater particularization.

While it would be best to have a balanced methodology of qualitative and quantitative parsimony, it may work well to have a dialectic of methodologies between two schools or disciplines, one with qualitative and the other quantitative parsimony. Then they can critique each other and seek to converge at a common solution.

Science and metaphysics again

The Scholastics developed a cosmology with the Earth at absolute rest in the center of moving concentric spheres. Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy with its epicycles was thought to be consistent with the Scholastic cosmology. When geocentrism was challenged by the early scientists, the whole Scholastic cosmology was thought to be undermined.

The difference between science and metaphysics has been confused ever since.

For example, in his General Scholium to the Principia Newton wrote:

For whatever is not deduc’d from the phenomena, is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.

But then in his Scholium to the Definitions Newton goes on to give his opinions about absolute time, absolute space, and absolute motion. So much for staying away from metaphysics!

As the sciences progress they normally come to question their metaphysical assumptions, reduce the metaphysics, and become more formal and mathematical. Quantum mechanics as an example of science with minimal metaphysics. Some people think that is a problem but I see it as a success.

Philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin describes quantum mechanics this way:

Unlike Relativity, there is no agreement among physicists about how to understand quantum theory. Indeed, the very phrase “quantum theory” is a misnomer: there is no such theory. Rather there is a mathematical formalism and some (quite effective) rules of thumb about how to use the formalism to make certain sorts of predictions. … The philosopher of physics cares about the underlying reality and attends to the predictions only insofar as they can serve as evidence for which account of the underlying reality is correct.” p.xiii, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time by Tim Maudlin

Like most in his field, Maudlin develops a metaphysics that doesn’t go beyond the bounds of naturalism. That’s his business but it’s not the business of science.

Other sciences are entwined with metaphysics. For example, the development of geology and biology as historical sciences conjured up first thousands, then millions, and then billions of years of time before recorded history. With no quantitative parsimony there was no cost for such magic.

The existence of time before the history of humanity is really about metaphysics, not science. What can be done in science is to show that the assumption of pre-historic time fits well – or not – with other science. Those with a methodology that includes quantitative parsimony (with or without qualitative parsimony) have an incentive to avoid such large metaphysical quantities.

Formal and material space and time

Science makes no metaphysical claims but it is not unusual for scientists to make metaphysical claims, sometimes even in their scientific publications. That has confused the relationship between science and metaphysics. The philosophies of scientific realism and naturalism have further confused the relationship between science and metaphysics.

As a Christian I must say that if scientists make metaphysical claims, then their metaphysics should be consistent with Christian metaphysics. If scientists object to that, they should refrain from making metaphysical claims.

Science needs to begin without metaphysics. Mathematics has no metaphysics. So science should begin with mathematics. That is, mathematics should be the framework on which science is built.

Thus a science of space and time begins with a mathematical formalism. This formalism should be distinguished from the empirical units employed to measure space and time. As far as I know, that has not been done, so people have confused the measure of length with the form of space and the measure of duration with the form of time.

Isaac Newton separated his metaphysical claims about space and time into what he called scholia in his Principia. He should have just adopted a mathematical formalism and left out any metaphysical claims.

In order to distinguish the formal and material space and time, I have revised the Parallel Glossary for Classical Physics, see link above.

Entropy here and hereafter

While the quantity of energy remains the same (the first law of thermodynamics), the quality of energy deteriorates gradually over time (the second law of thermodynamics). That is, energy tends to become less usable over time.

This is expressed with the concept of entropy, which is a measure of energy usability within a closed or isolated system (the universe, for example). As usable energy decreases and unusable energy increases, entropy increases.

Since the minimum entropy is zero, one conclusion is that the universe must have had a beginning with zero or very low entropy, like a clock that was wound up and continues to wind down. But some say that any increase in entropy is bad, which shows the imperfection of the physical universe.

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Distinguishing history and science

The post continues several posts on history and science such as here and here.

All histories are part of the humanities, which are separate from the sciences. There is no scientific history or historical science – that would be like a round square.

A purported scientific history or historical science is either science and not history or history and not science. A scientist who writes histories is to that extent an historian, not a scientist.

Histories are focused on significant dissimilarities, discontinuities, and particulars. Sciences are focused on significant similarities, continuities, and universals.

Histories are diachronic; sciences are synchronic. A history takes a region or subject and follows it over time. A science takes a period or object and explores it over space.

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Physics and metaphysics

Physics and Metaphysics” is the English title of an essay by Pierre Duhem in Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science, translated by Roger Ariew and Peter Barker (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996). It was originally published in 1893 as “Physique et métaphysique.” Below are some excerpts.

We have devoted ourselves above all to delineating the exact role of physical theories, which, in our view, are not more than a means of classifying and coordinating experimental laws. They are not metaphysical explanations that reveal to us the causes of phenomena. p.29

We regard the investigation of the essence of material tings, insofar as they are causes of physical phenomena, as a subdivision of metaphysics. This subdivision, together with the study of living matter, forms cosmology. This division does not correspond exactly to the peripatetic one. The study of the essence of things constitutes metaphysics in peripatetic philosophy. p.30

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