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Tag Archives: Philosophy Of Science

Philosophical justification and critique of science.

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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Metaphysics and science

This post presents excerpts from Pierre Duhem’s The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, first published (in French) in 1906, and translated into English in 1954 (Princeton University Press). See also the following post on Physics and metaphysics.

[I]f the aim of physical theories is to explain experimental laws, theoretical physics is not an autonomous science; it is subordinate to metaphysics. p.10

Now, to make physical theories depend on metaphysics is surely not the way to let them enjoy the privilege of universal consent. p.10

A physical theory reputed to be satisfactory by the sectarians of one metaphysical school will be rejected by the partisans of another school. p.10-11

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Science vs. metaphysics

Modern science began with a turn away from medieval debates about metaphysics to focus on how things happen, rather than a metaphysically-adequate why. This was an indifference to metaphysics, not a deliberate ignorance or repudiation of the subject.

But that began to change in the 19th century with the influence of materialism, secularism, and the professionalization of the sciences, culminating in TH Huxley’s effort to make the sciences “agnostic”. Huxley promoted science against other forms of knowledge, not in addition to them.

Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. TH Huxley

His intention behind agnosticism was to establish and maintain epistemic merit of science without any unknowable, metaphysical or theological, apparatus. Science is the practice of agnosticism, and for this reason, our best way to knowledge. J. Byun

This is a form of scientism, an assertion that science is the pre-eminent or even the only legitimate source of knowledge. The irony is that scientism implicitly makes a metaphysical claim about the reality that can be known, which is the metaphysics of naturalism.

“Methodological naturalism” is the contemporary term but it amounts to the same thing: science must ignore or repudiate the possibility of other knowledge. Instead, the science community and its promoters should be indifferent to metaphysics so that regardless of whatever metaphysics people accept, they should also accept the claims of science.

Wonder vs. skepticism

It is often asked why the angel Gabriel treated Zechariah and Mary differently since their reaction was similar (Luke chapter 1). Note the parallel passages:

1:11-12 And there appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.

1:28-29 And [Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.

Gabriel responded similarly at first:

1:13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”

1:30-31 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

Their responses were seemingly alike:

1:18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

1:34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

But Gabriel’s reaction was different:

1:19-20 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

1:35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”

So he answered Mary’s question but rebuked Zechariah’s skepticism.

Asking questions and being skeptical are often confused. People with questions are said to be skeptical, and those who are skeptical are said to be just asking questions. What is the difference?

The difference is illustrated in the word “know” in Zechariah’s response (1:18): “How shall I know this?” The skeptic focuses on what they know or don’t know. But the questioner wonders and looks for further information.

It is often said that science requires skepticism, but what it actually requires is wonder and curiosity – asking questions to find out more, never being content with what is known so far. Skepticism adds nothing to science but undermines it since skepticism is essentially doubt about knowledge.

Aristotle wrote that philosophy starts with wonder. Science, a child of philosophy, starts with wonder, too, and grows with wonder and curiosity about everything. Questions grow from wonder, and lead to further knowledge. That is the opposite of skepticism.

Science proper

Science is the study of change. Where there is no change, there is no science.

It is said that chemistry is the study of matter but it is really change that is studied:

Every chemist I know studies change. Some chemists study a material before it has changed. Other chemists study a material after it has changed. Some even study a material while it is changing. Many materials are made specifically to resist change. For some chemists, the manner (pathway) in which a material changes is most important. There are also those who want to make a new material out of an old material and will spend years looking for a way to do it.

Mechanics is the part of physics that studies motion, which is a kind of change. But all of physics studies physical change in some respect. Thermodynamics, for example, studies change in heat and temperature.

It is said that evolutionary biology studies change in organisms and species over time. But all of biology studies change in some respect – genetic change, developmental change, ecological change, etc.

It is said that history is the study of change over time but what distinguishes history is the determination of what actually happened in the past, and why particular events happened. Once that has been determined, the various sciences can study the deltas – the differences between peoples or times or places.

Because science is the study of change, science always begins with a conditional. “If” is the beginning of science. The study of reality in itself or the ultimate origin of anything is beyond science.

Ultimate boundary conditions are exogenous to science. There may be practical limits to what can be observed – as the discussion of superluminal speeds shows. But whether or not a practical limit is ultimate is a matter of metaphysics or religion, as is knowledge of the actual existence of anything posited by science.

Thus science is dependent on other disciplines – notably, history, metaphysics, and theology – to say whether or not its constructs actually exist. Or else science is taken to be only a theoretical discipline, similar to mathematics.

Upper and lower causes

This post continues the discussion posted here.

Aristotle’s four causes (or my version of them) may be divided into two groups: an upper group and a lower group. I call the upper group hyperaitia (from Greek hyper, over, above + aitia, cause) and the lower group hypoaitia (from Greek hypo, under, beneath + aitia, cause):

Causes Δ time Δ space
hyperaitia final formal
hypoaitia efficient material

Natural science uses only the lower causes; it is hypoaitial. One might say that Aristotle’s science was hyperaitial since that is where he started. His metaphysics was hylemorphic (or hylomorphic) since it posited that everything has form and matter.

A science that uses only efficient and formal causes may be called dynamorphic. Such is the emerging science of dynamic information.

A top-down science or process, etc. may be called hyperhypo. A bottom-up science or process, etc. may be called hypohyper. A form applied to a material is hyperhypo. A material with emerging form is hypohyper.

Inverse causes

I’ve written about Aristotle’s four causes before (such as here and here). This also continues the discussion of observers and travelers, here.

Forward kinematics refers to the use of the kinematic equations of a robot to compute the position of the end-effector (the device at the end of a robotic arm) from specified values for the joint parameters. Forward kinematics is also used computer games and animation. Inverse kinematics makes use of the kinematics equations to determine the joint parameters that provide a desired position for each of the robot’s end-effectors.

In other words, forward kinematics is for finding out what motion happens given particular inputs, whereas inverse kinematics is for determining how to move to a desired position. In terms of the four Aristotelian causes or explanatory factors, forward kinematics is concerned with the efficient and material causes, and inverse kinematics is concerned with the final and formal causes.

The surprising thing is that these two kinds of causes (higher and lower) are inverses of one another.

Higher Final Formal
Lower Efficient / Mechanism Material

From the lower perspective one begins with some material. From the higher perspective one begins with the objective. From the lower perspective forces and laws make things happen. From the higher perspective following plans gets the job done.

One can see rôles parallel to the causes:

Traveler Set the destination Plan the trip
Observer Observe the motion See the material

And in robotics (or animation):

Inverse Pick the end position Plan the motions
Forward Make the motions Pick the device

One could say that forward kinematics is for scientists and inverse kinematics is for engineers since the latter incorporate objectives and designs in their work but the former are focused on observation only. To go beyond observation scientists would have to open up to formal and final causes.

Design illustrated

This post continues thoughts about design, last posted here.

Here is a description of how cement is made from the Portland Cement Association:

In its simplest form, concrete is a mixture of paste and aggregates, or rocks. The paste, composed of portland cement and water, coats the surface of the fine (small) and coarse (larger) aggregates. Through a chemical reaction called hydration, the paste hardens and gains strength to form the rock-like mass known as concrete.

The key to achieving a strong, durable concrete rests in the careful proportioning and mixing of the ingredients. A mixture that does not have enough paste to fill all the voids between the aggregates will be difficult to place and will produce rough surfaces and porous concrete. A mixture with an excess of cement paste will be easy to place and will produce a smooth surface; however, the resulting concrete is not cost-effective and can more easily crack.

The design in this case is the proportion of ingredients in the mixture. It might happen that the ingredients formed naturally but they would be in the correct proportion only by design. That is, the particular application entails a goal, which the design meets.

Certainly concrete can and does happen naturally in aggregate rock formations. But it does not meet a need without a design. And that doesn’t happen naturally. Roads built with concrete only happen because engineers and construction crews built them. There’s nothing natural about that.

Science in the center

There are many different musical temperaments that have been used to tune musical instruments over the centuries. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. But there is one musical temperament that is optimally acceptable: the equal temperament method in which the frequency interval between every pair of adjacent notes has the same ratio. This produces a temperament that is a compromise between what is possible and what is agreeable to hear.

Science faces many situations such as the challenge of musical temperament. Conventions and methods need to be adopted and there are multiple options, each with their advantages and disadvantages. There are those who promote one method and those who promote another method, often the opposite method. Should science pick one and force everyone to conform? Or should science find a compromise of some sort?

There is a way in the middle that is a compromise between extremes and alternatives. It is a conscious attempt to avoid extremes and biases, and seek a solution that is the most acceptable to all. This is science in the center, a science that minimizes bias. Although it might be called “objective,” that obscures the fact that it is a conscious choice.

I previously wrote about the need for a convention on the one-way speed of light. Science of the center would avoid the bias toward one direction of light and choose a one-way speed that is in the middle between all the possible speed conventions. This is the Einstein convention, which is part of his synchronization method.

Science in the center includes not biasing classifications either toward “lumping” or “splitting.” Nor should explanations of behavior be biased toward “nature” or “nurture.” The particulars of each case should determine the outcome, not a preference for one side or the other. If there’s any default answer, it’s in the center between such extremes.

Occam’s razor is understood to prescribe qualitative parsimony but allow quantitative extravagance. This is as biased as its opposite would be: to prescribe quantitative parsimony but allow qualitative extravagance. Science in the center would avoid the bias that each of these has by prescribing a compromise: there should be a balance between the qualitative and the quantitative. Neither should be made more parsimonious than the other. All explanatory resources should be treated alike; none should be more abundant or parsimonious than any other. I’ve called this the New Occam’s Razor, and it is an example of science in the center.

Event-structure metaphors

This continues the posts here and here and here based on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999).

The Location Event-Structure Metaphor
Locations → States
Movements → Changes
Forces → Causes
Forced Movement → Causation
Self-propelled Movements → Actions
Destinations → Purposes
Paths (to destinations) → Means
Impediments to Motion → Difficulties
Lack of Impediments to Motion → Freedom of Action
Large, Moving Objects (that exert force) → External Events
Journeys → Long-term, Purposeful Activities

The States are Locations metaphor has a dual, the Attributes are Possessions metaphor, in which attributes are seen as objects one possesses. The difference is a figure-ground shift. Grounds are stationary and figures are moveable relative to them. The Attributes are Possessions metaphor combines with Changes are Movements and Causes are Forces to form a dual Event-Structure system.

The Object Event-Structure Metaphor
Possessions → Attributes
Movements of Possessions (gains or losses) → Changes
Transfer of Possessions (giving or taking) → Causation
Desired Objects → Purposes
Acquiring a Desired Object → Achieving a Purpose

Perception requires a figure-ground choice. Necker cubes show that figure-ground organization is a separable dimension of cognition.

Necker cube

Figure and ground are aspects of human cognition. They are not features of objective, mind-independent reality. [p.198]

Location metaphor: Causation is the Forced Movement of an (Affected) Entity to a New Location (the Effect. Causation as Forced Movement of an Affected Entity to an Effect.

Object metaphor: Causation is the Transfer of a Possible Object (the Effect) to or from an (Affected) Entity. Causation as Transfer of an Effect to an Affected Entity.

In the Location metaphor, the affected entity is the figure; it moves to a new location (ground). In the Object metaphor, the effect is the figure; it moves to the affected party (ground).

What this means is that there is no conceptualization of causation that is neutral between these two! [p.199]

The Moving-Activity Metaphor
Things That Move → Activities
Reaching a Destination → Completion of the Activity
Locations → States
Forces → Causes
Forced Movement (or Prevention of Movement) → Causation
Impediments to Motion → Difficulties

The Action-Location Metaphor
Being in a Location → An Action
Forces → Causes
Destinations → Purposes
Closeness to a Location → “Closeness” to an Action
Forcing Movement to a Location → Causing an Action
Stopping a Traveler from Reaching a Location → Preventing an Action

The Existence (or Life) as Location Metaphor
Coming Here → Becoming
Going Away → Ceasing to Exist
Forced Movement Here → Causing to Exist
Forced Movement Away → Causing to Cease to Exist

The Causal Path Metaphor
Self-Propelled Motion → Action
Traveler → Actor
Locations → States
A Lone Path → A Natural Course of Action
Being on the Path → Natural Causation
Leading To → Results In
The End of the Path → The Resulting Final State

Each particular theory of causation picks one or more of our ordinary types of causation and insists that real causation only consists of that type or types. [p.226]

Ordinary vs. scientific perspectives: It is not that one is objectively true while the other is not. Both are human perspectives. One, the nonscientific one, is literal relative to human, body-based conceptual systems. The other, the scientific one, is metaphorical relative to human, body-based conceptual systems. [p.232]

What remains [after eliminating simpleminded realism] is an embodied realism that recognizes that human language and thought are structured by, and bound to, embodied experience. In the case of physics, there is certainly a mind-independent world. But in order to conceptualize and describe it, we must use embodied human concepts and human language. [p.233]