iSoul In the beginning is reality

Tag Archives: Science

sciences in general, what they are and their methods

Knowledge and repetition

Consider the distinction between repeatable events from unrepeatable events. Repeatable events includes events that have repeated or may be repeated at will (as in a laboratory) or may possibly repeat in the future. Unrepeatable events are events that are very unlikely to repeat or are impossible to repeat. It is said that science only studies repeatable events, and it can be argued that history is the study (science) of unrepeatable events – not that it excludes repeatable events but that it focuses on unrepeatable events.

“Nature” could be defined as the realm of repeatable events. Then natural science would be the study of nature or repeatable events. Those events that are unrepeatable would be left to historians but ignored by natural scientists. But could such scientists rightly study the past while ignoring unrepeatable events? Ignorance of unrepeatable events would be a limitation and a defect. We would not expect historians to ignore repeatable events, so why expect scientists to ignore unrepeatable events?

We may well expect events that only involve inanimate nature are repeatable in some way. But are all events with living beings repeatable? The position of naturalism says, Yes. But at some point we need to say, No, at least some living beings have free will (or whatever you want to call it) so that their actions may be unrepeatable, and thus beyond the purview of a science of repeatable events.

Knowledge of repeatable and unrepeatable events may need different methodologies to address both kinds of events but it could not ignore either kind without bias. We need both the study of history, with its unrepeatable events, and the study of science, and its repeatable events, as independent disciplines. The synthesis of science and history would require a different discipline, perhaps called “scihistory” or “histence”, that would balance the input of each discipline with the other.

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 excess. This is as biased as its opposite would be: to prescribe quantitative parsimony but allow qualitative excess. 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.

Reality and conventions #4

This post continues a series of posts. The previous one is here.

Modern natural science attempts a systematic account of the causes of change in the physical world, and is willing to go against the appearance of the physical world if that will further its goals. This differs from the ancient Platonic attempt to “save the appearances” at all costs by placing appearances within an ad-hoc but meaningful system.

In one sense, philosophy is the helpmeet of science. It aids in the task of putting our conceptual household in order: tidying up arguments, discarding unjustified claims. But in another sense, philosophy peeks over the shoulder of science to a world that science in principle cannot countenance. As Professor Scruton put it elsewhere, “The search for meaning and the search for explanation are two different enterprises.” Science offers us an explanation of the world; it may start out as an attempt to explain appearances, “but it rapidly begins to replace them.” Philosophy seen as the search for meaning must in the end endorse the world of appearance. The New Criterion, vol. 12, no. 10

Saving the appearances famously led to tweaking Ptolemaic astronomy despite its inability to explain why celestial bodies should move in epicycles. The Newtonian system didn’t give ultimate explanations but at least it gave laws that applied on Earth and skyward.

Yet there is nothing “wrong” with saving appearances such as the motion of the Sun relative to the Earth. In that sense, geocentrism was never wrong despite generations of people being taught so. Whether saving the appearances or saving the system is a goal, both must accept some conventions that include things such as the celestial body of reference – or lack thereof.

One may legitimately pursue a phenomenal science that saves appearances by sacrificing some consistency in conventions. For example, the Moon is in orbit relative to the Earth and the Sun is in a different kind of orbit relative to the Earth. In order to save both of these appearances, one would have to use a gravitational dynamics for the Earth-Moon system and a levitational dynamics for the Earth-Sun system. Awkward, perhaps, but legitimate.

Reality and conventions #2

This post continues the topic of the previous post here.

Every pair of contrary opposites may have one or more conventions associated with it. That is because there is a symmetry between the two that can be reversed. Note this is not the case with contradictory opposites: they are not symmetric. Note also that terms may be symmetric without the references of the terms being exactly symmetric.

I’ll start with the latter point. A common example is the terms for male and female. In some respects they are symmetric opposites but in other respects they are not. The language can mislead on this point. Males and females have some similarities, some contrary (or complementary) differences, as well as differences that are not contraries, just different. Some aspects of male-female relations are conventions but not every aspect is.

The deconstructionists associated binary opposites with power structures (not unlike Hegel). They would reverse the meaning in order to undermine them. That assumes pairs are complete contraries, which is not as common as they thought. Deconstructionism works mostly on texts, in which the language of contrary opposites is deconstructed. The conventions associated with contrary opposites can be reversed but not all binary opposites are genuine contraries.

Contradictory opposites such as good and evil or true and false are not symmetric, contrary to the language that is often used. Not-evil is not necessarily good and not-false is not necessarily true. What is a matter of goodness or truth are not mere conventions.

There is a reality independent of us (or of our minds) but some things are conventions that are dependent on us. Motion is real but all motion is relative so it is a convention as to what motion is relative to. Galileo and the Scholastic philosophers (and their supporters) were wrong to think of the Earth as either only at rest or only in motion. Whether or not the Earth moves is a convention.

Reality and conventions #1

This post relates to the previous post here, as well as posts on light conventions here and here.

There comes a point in science in which a convention needs to be adopted in order to avoid confusion and ensure consistency. The tendency, however, is to think that the convention adopted is real, that is, that reality uniquely matches the convention. But that is an illusion since a different convention can legitimately be adopted.

This happens more often that we might realize. I have not tried to catalog all the conventions of science but here are some:

  1. Units of measure. These are all conventions, and there are variations such as the inch-pound units.
  2. Statistical significance. A p-value of 0.05 is often used, but it is a convention, not statistics.
  3. Negative charge of the electron. The current and the flow of electrons are in opposite directions.
  4. “A rod is undergoing tension. Is this negative or positive? In steel and concrete studies, tension is positive. In soil studies, tension is negative.”

Some of these conventions are a matter of choosing a value as the standard, others involve selecting a positive and a negative type (direction, charge). The positive type would seem to be the main or default one, as with arithmetic, but this may not be the case.

The conventions on the one-way speed of light show that the question relates to the status of the observer. Is the observer always right? That leads to one convention, in which the incoming speed of light is instantaneous. Is there an average that is right? That leads to Einstein’s convention, in which light travels at the average of the two-way speed of light.

Scientifically the latter is more straightforward but the problem is that it entails that some observations need to be corrected. The former may be more awkward but it has the advantage that “the observer is always right.” This accords with a common-sense realism and empiricism.

Consider optical illusions. They are something that appears one way but under further investigation are another way, such as the horizontal lines in this cafe wall illusion that appear to be sloped:

cafe wall illusion

But what about refraction? When we see a stick in water, it appears to bend but when we put our hand in the water, there is no bend. Yet we do not call this an illusion. We call it refraction. That is, it is an optical phenomenon and the appearance of a bend is real.

So it is a matter of classification. Yet all classifications are a matter of convention. We cannot get away from convention. In that sense reality is ambiguous or (à la Heisenberg) uncertain.

Since Plato and Aristotle science has included an attempt to “save the phenomena”. Although they meant different things by this phrase, it does indicate the primacy of phenomena. After all, there is no science (except perhaps for mathematics) without appearances. If all appearances are illusory, then appearance is not something to be explained but to be explained away.

A common-sense realist takes appearance as reality, with the understanding that some reflection is needed to avoid mistakes.

The knowledge the realist is talking about is the lived and experienced unity of an intellect with an apprehended reality. This is why a realist philosophy has to do with the thing itself that is apprehended, and without which there would be no knowledge. (#5 in A Handbook for Beginning Realists by Étienne Gilson)

Properly apprehended, the world of appearances is the real world. The observer is always right.

8000 dissident scientists

The worldwide list of dissident scientists: Critics and alternative theories by Jean de Climont (Assailly Publishing, 2016) compiles 40 lists of dissident scientists from around the world and finds 8000 of them. This is a remarkable challenge to the assertion that scientists are in agreement about scientific theories.

Synopsis : This directory, available exclusively in English, includes scientists who disagree on generally accepted positions exclusively in the field of physics (natural philosophy), referenced to on the Internet and in particular those who propose alternative solutions.

The list includes more than 8000 names of scientists, doctors or engineers for more than 50%. Their position is shortly presented  together with their proposed alternative theory when applicable. There are more than 1000  theories, all amazingly very different from one another.

In the Soviet era, the term dissident could refer to a political dissident but then as now it mainly has to do with differences about the status of leading theories. Every major scientific theory has its dissidents. And many dissidents have lost jobs or research funding for speaking out. See, for example, Jerry Bergman and Kevin Wirth’s Slaughter of the Dissidents (2011).

Schools of thought

A school of thought is an approach to a discipline by a group of people, especially one that develops its own vocabulary and intellectual tradition. There are many schools of thought in the humanities and soft sciences, including historical sciences. There are fewer schools of thought in the hard sciences, but they exist there, too (e.g., Bayesianism and Frequentism in statistics).

Examples of major schools of thought:

Biology: Creationism, Evolutionism

Economics: Classical, Keynesian, Marxism, Monetarism, Rational Expectations

Geology: Catastrophism, Uniformitarianism

History (historiography): Cyclical, Christian, Marxism, Historicism, Progressivism, Postmodernism

Literary Criticism: Pragmatism, Formalism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, New Criticism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Post-modernism, Post-Structuralism, Post-colonialism, Feminist Theory, Queer Theory, New Historicism, Cultural Studies, Reader Response

Philosophy: Idealism, Materialism/Pragmatism, Postmodernism, Realism

Psychology: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Functionalism, Humanistic/Gestalt, Psychoanalytic, Systems psychology

Sociology: Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, Symbolic Interactionism, Feminist Theory

Statistics: Bayesianism, Frequentism

Theology (Christian): Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism.

Schools of thought can and do co-exist. As their traditions develop over decades and centuries, it can be more difficult for inter-school dialogue because their terminology and concepts are different.

It’s often not appreciated that creationism and evolutionism are schools of thought. They have their own terms, concepts, and intellectual traditions. They deal with historical events, which makes them soft sciences. And all science is still a branch of philosophy, in which schools of thought abound.

Creationism and evolutionism have been mainstream modern science at different times: creationism up to the late 19th century, evolutionism since the late 19th century. Evolutionism began development while it was a minority view in the 18th and 19th centuries. Creationism has continued development while it is a minority view. Among the best-known evolutionists are Charles Darwin, Thomas H Huxley, and Alfred R Wallace. Among the best-known creationists are Carolus Linnaeus, Gregor Mendel, and Louis Pasteur.

Creationism and evolutionism can and should be taught as two schools of thought. Teaching them in universities should be no more controversial than teaching Marxist, feminist, or post-modernist schools of thought, which have been taught in universities for years.

New Occam’s Razor

This post follows others written about Occam’s razor here and here and here. The flaw of Occam’s razor has been identified: the parsimony it privileges is biased against qualitative explanations and in favor of quantitative explanations.

Here’s a simple example: “the hypothesis that the damage to my lawn was caused by 12 rabbits is less quantitatively parsimonious but more qualitatively parsimonious than the hypothesis that it was caused by 1 deer and 3 rabbits.” Simplicity, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

William of Ockham adopted the idea now usually stated as, “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” This is understood to mean that qualities must not be multiplied beyond necessity, whereas quantities may be. The introduction of new qualities should be avoided or minimized but known qualities may be multiplied indefinitely.

So atomic theories have been preferred to elemental (natural kind) theories. The periodic table of the elements shows the happy confluence of atomic and elemental theories, but that is an exception. More common is how qualitative but not quantitative parsimony enables one explanatory resource to be multiplied a vast amount.

Time in particular has been multiplied since there’s no penalty for vastly expanding time. This encourages for example biology to focus on the possibility that there is only one natural kind of organisms. If other resources are multiplied (e.g., fortuity, self-organization, money, etc.), other theories would result so that the type of parsimony determines the types of theories enabled.

The New Occam’s Razor is simply, “Explanatory resources must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” That puts all explanatory resources on an equal footing. In particular, quality and quantity are treated the same. There is no fixed rule that says X new qualities equals Y new quantities but the pressure is on to minimize both.

In the simple example above, if the damage to one’s lawn can be explained with 1 deer and 2 rabbits, that should be preferred. Or if there is evidence that many rabbits but few deer are in the vicinity, then 12 rabbits should be preferred.

The quantity of matter, antimatter, dark matter, space, time, etc. should all be minimized as much as any other explanatory resource. New qualities should be minimized as they have been, but now in concert with minimizing new quantities and other explanatory resources.

Causes and functions

This post continues other posts (see here and here) on the relevance of Aristotle’s four causal factors.

Call the higher causes the final and formal causes, and the lower causes the efficient (mechanistic) and material causes. Aristotle argued that the upper causes are more important. Early scientists argued that we couldn’t know them regarding nature and so should only look for efficient and material causes.

The lower causes are synchronic, spatial causes expressed in theories, and are most appropriate for the natural sciences. The higher causes are diachronic, temporal causes expressed in narratives, and are most appropriate for the social sciences and history.

There are some parallels between the four causes and the psychologist Carl Jung’s four functions: sensing, intuition, feeling, and thinking, especially as modified by Myers and Briggs’ MBTI:

function groups: judgment perception
upper causes: final || feeling formal || intuition
lower causes: efficient || thinking material || sensing

Aristotle focused on the perceptual functions, sending and intuition (SN in MBTI), with formal and material causes in his philosophy combining matter and form, called hylomorphic (from Greek hylē, matter + morphē, form). The lack of judging functions may reflect Aristotle’s realism.

Modern science focuses on the efficient cause (the forces and mechanisms) and the material cause; it could be called hylodynamic after Greek hylē, matter + dynamis, power. Here the sensing-thinking (ST) personality dominates.

Intelligent design advocates are trying to return formal causes to science. They tend to focus on information theory and so the formal and efficient causes; such science could be called dynamorphic after the Greek dynamis, power + morphē, form. The intuitive thinking (NT) personality dominates.

Other possibilities include final causes/feeling. A telohylic (SF) science might be the detailed narratives of historians. A telomorphic (NF) science might be the wide-ranging narratives of a theologian. A telodynamic (TF) science lacks perceptive functions and would be suitable for anti-realists.

Beyond Occam’s razor

This continues a previous post on Occam’s razor, which it was pointed out is a principle that is arbitrary and biased. With what should it be replaced?

Every science has at least two schools of thought. These reflect well-known tendencies to ascribe more significance to one of two contrary explanatory factors. For example, there are lumpers and splitters in every classification endeavor. In every historical science there are those who emphasize continuous change and those who emphasize discontinuous change. Social sciences have their nature-nurture poles.

From a larger perspective, there is the importance of subjective vs. objective methods. Which comes first, facts or theories? That is, do scientists discover facts and develop theories to explain them or do they construct theories and seek facts that follow from them? Is the “view from nowhere” better than a self-aware view from somewhere? Are final and formal causes (explanatory factors) more important than efficient (mechanistic) and material ones? Is the spiritual more important than the physical?

It should be clear by now that these extremes are all partly true but too extreme. The truth is somewhere in the middle or in a combination of the extremes. Instead of expecting one side to win and the other side to lose, we should allow them both equally. Let them compete. Let them compromise. Let them jointly come up with something that is acceptable to both.

There are a few examples of friendly competition. The corpuscular theory of light developed by Isaac Newton and the wave theory of light developed by Christiaan Huygens competed for years. The quantum mechanical solution is to accept both. Atomic theory developed by John Dalton competed with the known natural kinds of substance. The periodic table solution joins both in a combination of common atoms and distinct chemical elements.

There are a few examples of monopolistic science in which one side sought to marginalize and ban the other side completely. Since the late 19th century those espousing gradualist theories of historical science have worked to banish their one-time colleagues who promote the importance of discontinuous change and difference. The control of educational positions, funding, and prestige have enabled much one-sided and weak science to persist. Science is the loser in these wars.

Each science needs to work out the compromises and combinations that are best for it. A genuine pluralism is possible and should be sought earnestly. The replacement for Occam’s razor is a razor that allows multiple criteria, minimizing both quantities and qualities without sacrificing accuracy.