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Conventions in science

The main convention of modern science is that it is based on observation only. This convention treats experiments, interventions, and projectiles as if they always happened naturally. Then it is easy to assume, for example, that the transmission and reception of light are at the same speed, a convention promoted as a fact.

It also makes it easy to assume that heavier bodies have the most effect in dynamics, since they move the least and so are seemingly the least impacted. This is like the observer who sees but does not intervene, and so is little impacted by what happens (quantum mechanics nonwithstanding).

But this obscures the fact that scientists do perform experiments and do intervene in various ways – and people in general do, too, as they move about. It also obscures the fact that conventions determine much of science.

Take dynamics, for example. Newton set the convention by taking the ancient concept of gravitation and ignoring its inverse, the ancient concept of levitation. One could as well reverse the convention and take levitation as the standard. That would mean that instead of distance weighted by mass for the bathycenter (Greek bathys, deep) as the center of motion, the weighting is by inverse mass for the ‘pechocenter’ (Greek pechos, shallow) of motion.

It so happens that observation of the Sun orbiting the Earth fits well with the inverse convention. The irony is that science purports to follow observation, but ends up discounting many ordinary observations, not because they are wrong, but because they are against conventions.

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.

Science and conformity

For the purposes of understanding science it is best to focus on “closed theories” – Heisenberg’s term for theories that are superseded. That’s because we understand the limits of closed theories, so a true evaluation of their content can be made.

This fit well with the old model of academia: focus on a canon of classics, not on the latest hot ideas. Such an education provided time for contemplation and understanding. The humanities were king then, with the arts and sciences following along.

That changed in the 19th century, with the spread of the the Prussian model of education. Universities were to engage in cutting-edge scientific research and teach the latest theories rather than the ideas of the past. The sciences were repositioned to the top of the academic hierarchy and “open” theories were promoted with their seemingly limitless potential to transform society. “It’s all different now” was born.

One problem was that old academic weakness: conformity. A school is not in the position to say “we don’t know” without making students wonder why they are there. Instead, what is taught as knowledge covers everything and is everywhere authoritative.

Academic conformity didn’t much matter when the canon was fixed and the debates focused on the fine points. But when the canon became open and the latest ideas were now in play, academic conformity sought a rapid end to scientific debate. The consensus was formed quickly and doubt silenced.

Science changed. (The humanities did, too, but that’s another story.)

Science today has become more like the old humanities: debate is about the finer points – not the larger questions, which were decided some time ago. Anyone who doubts this is a “science denier”.

The irony is that all the great scientists of past centuries were “science deniers” in this sense. Following the crowd rarely leads to great advances. Like the old Scholasticism arrayed against Galileo, the science establishment has ways to enforce conformity. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Aristotle’s physics

Physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote the article “Aristotle’s Physics: A Physicist’s Look” published in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2015, pp. 23-40 with a free version available here. Luke Barnes summarizes the article here. For more on limited domains see here and here.

Below are some excerpts from the free version:

Aristotelian physics is a correct and non-intuitive approximation of Newtonian physics in the suitable domain (motion in fluids), in the same technical sense in which Newton’s theory is an approximation of Einstein’s theory. Aristotelian physics lasted long not because it became dogma, but because it is a very good empirically grounded theory. The observation suggests some general considerations on inter-theoretical relations. p.1

Read more →

Amateur and independent science

An independent scientist (or gentleman scientist) is someone who pursues scientific research while being independent of a university or government-run research and development body. “Self-funded scientists practiced more commonly from the Renaissance until the late 19th century … before large-scale government and corporate funding was available.” (Wikipedia)

Independent scientists are amateurs in the sense that they are doing scientific research for the love of it (the word is from the French amateur, “one who loves”) rather than as an occupation. They may have an occupation in a related field such as teaching science but their scientific research is done on their own time. Or they may be professional scientists in a specialty other than their research.

I remember years ago hearing the great Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős remark that an “amateur mathematician” had done work in number theory. He explained that the amateur was a professional mathematician but not a professional number theorist. That made the person an amateur number theorist. It is the same with professionals in any specialty outside their own.

Some great scientists were professors of mathematics, such as Galileo, who was a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, and Isaac Newton, who held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

In the history of science many breakthroughs have been done by amateurs. Here are some great amateurs or independent scientists:

Albert Einstein – physics
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek – microbiology
Charles Darwin – biology
Gregor Mendel – genetics
Joseph Priestley – chemistry
Michael Faraday – electromagnetism
William Herschel – astronomy

One could add others who were primarily inventors such as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, since science is often given credit for inventions.

On a related note, Robert A. Stebbins wrote Amateurs, Professionals, and Serious Leisure (McGill, 1992) and other works on productive uses of one’s free time.

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.

Classical Model of Science

Another paper that should get wider exposure: “The Classical Model of Science: a millennia-old model of scientific rationality” by Willem R. de Jong and Arianna Betti. Synthese (2010) 174:185-203. Excerpts:

Throughout more than two millennia philosophers adhered massively to ideal standards of scientific rationality going back ultimately to Aristotle’s Analytica posteriora. These standards got progressively shaped by and adapted to new scientific needs and tendencies. Nevertheless, a core of conditions capturing the fundamentals of what a proper science should look like remained remarkably constant all along. Call this cluster of conditions the Classical Model of Science. p.185

The Classical Model of Science as an ideal of scientific explanation

In the following we will speak of a science according to the Classical Model of Science as a system S of propositions and concepts (or terms) which satisfies the following conditions:

(1) All propositions and all concepts (or terms) of S concern a specific set of objects or are about a certain domain of being(s).

(2a) There are in S a number of so-called fundamental concepts (or terms).

(2b) All other concepts (or terms) occurring in S are composed of (or are definable from) these fundamental concepts (or terms).

(3a) There are in S a number of so-called fundamental propositions.

(3b) All other propositions of S follow from or are grounded in (or are provable or demonstrable from) these fundamental propositions.

(4) All propositions of S are true.

(5) All propositions of S are universal and necessary in some sense or another.

(6) All propositions of S are known to be true. A non-fundamental proposition is known to be true through its proof in S.

(7) All concepts or terms of S are adequately known. A non-fundamental concept is adequately known through its composition (or definition). p.186

The Classical Model of Science is a recent reconstruction a posteriori of the way in which philosophers have traditionally thought about what a proper science and its methodology should be, and which is largely set up, as it were, by abduction. The cluster (1)-(7) is intended, thus, to sum up in a fairly precise way the ideal of scientific explanation philosophers must have had in mind for a very long time when thinking about science. p.186

A proper science according to this Model has the structure of a more or less strictly axiomatized system with a distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental elements. p.186

The history of the conceptualization Science knows three milestones: first of all, Aristotle’s Analytica posteriora, especially book 1; secondly, the very influential so-called Logic of Port-Royal (1662), especially part IV: ‘De la méthode’, written mainly by Antoine Arnaud and relying in many respects on Pascal and Descartes; and finally Bernard Bolzano’s Wissenschaftslehre (1837). p.187

The formulation coming closest to a systematization of the ideal of science we codify in the Model is perhaps the description of scientific method given in the Logic of Port-Royal, ‘The scientific method reduced to eight main rules’:

Eight rules of science

1. Two rules concerning definitions

1 . Leave no term even slightly obscure or equivocal without defining it.
2. In definitions use only terms that are perfectly known or have already been explained.

2. Two rules for axioms

3. In axioms require everything to be perfectly evident.
4. Accept as evident what needs only a little attention to be recognized as true.

3 . Two rules for demonstrations

5 . Prove all propositions that are even slightly obscure, using in their proofs only definitions that have preceded, axioms that have been granted, or propositions that have already been demonstrated.
6. Never exploit the equivocation in terms by failing to substitute mentally the definitions that restrict and explain them.

4. Two rules for method

7. Treat things as much as possible in their natural order, beginning with the most general and the simplest, and explaining everything belonging to the nature of the genus before proceeding to particular species.
8. Divide each genus as much as possible into all its species, each whole into all its parts, and each difficulty into all its cases. pp.187-188

… the Model is a fruitful analytical tool. Its influence lasted until recently; having persisted at least to Lesniewski, it in fact extended far beyond what one might expect at first glance. It is certain, however, that at a some point the Model was abandoned without being replaced by anything comparable. p. 196

Science and uniformity

Science studies uniformities. There is uniformity in the physical universe and science is the study of that. In addition to uniformity there is uniqueness in the universe. One can study that, and apply science to understand it better but science does not study uniqueness per se. Other disciplines deal with aspects of uniqueness – history, philosophy, theology, and literature for example.

One does not need a principle of uniformity – that nature is uniform – in order to do science. Behind a principle of uniformity is a logical point as to the nature of induction. John P. McCaskey has explained this and is writing a book on the topic. I have written before on this topic here.

A uniformity principle implies that the future is like the past but cannot say which past properties imply which future properties. That is what induction does: it classifies things that share essential properties, whether in the past or future. Inductive classification is needed, not a principle of uniformity.

Science need not affirm that there is only uniformity in the universe or that nature is only uniform. That was understood before the late 19th century, when naturalism was promoted by TH Huxley and others as the only way to do science.

Scientists should say that the science of biology covers the uniform part of biology and the rest is handled by others. But scientists assert that the science of biology covers all of biology, which is false unless one accepts naturalism or defines biology as the study of those aspects of organic life that are uniform.

Science studies uniformities. Uniqueness also exists but science is not the study of that. One can be open to what is unique, non-uniform, or mysterious and do science.

Unlimited banks of explanation

In his 1869 Presidential Address to the Geological Society of London on the subject of Geological Reform TH Huxley said:

Catastrophism has insisted upon the existence of a practically unlimited bank of force, on which the theorist might draw; and it has cherished the idea of the development of the earth from a state in which its form, and the forces which it exerted, were very different from those we now know. That such difference of form and power once existed is a necessary part of the doctrine of evolution.

Uniformitarianism, on the other hand, has with equal justice insisted upon a practically unlimited bank of time, ready to discount any quantity of hypothetical paper. It has kept before our eyes the power of the infinitely little, time being granted, and has compelled us to exhaust known causes before flying to the unknown.

He went on to say that Evolution “embraces all that is sound in both” of them. If only that were true. Instead evolutionary theories draw from “a practically unlimited bank” of force and time.

Explanation is easy with an unlimited bank of resources to draw from. With two unlimited banks, force and time, one can explain just about anything. The problem of explanation is solved. The problem then is that explanation is too easy.

Consider if one had “a practically unlimited bank” of money to draw from to explain contemporary events. You could easily show how money controls everything — just chercher l’argent (look for the money trail) and you’ll find suggestive evidence everywhere. Pick your boogeyman and match them with money since there’s “a practically unlimited bank” of liquidity floating around.

Good explanations require something better. They require a balancing of solution spaces and solutions. An equation that is easy to solve for complex numbers may be very difficult to solve for integers, which is the challenge of Diophantine Equations.

What is the right domain of solutions? The one that is real. People don’t believe in speeds greater than the speed of light because that would lead to imaginary values for space and time. Restricting the domain is necessary to maintain correspondence to reality.

Somehow many people accept deep time, deep force, deep multiverses, etc. Meanwhile science gets deeper in debt to inflated explanations and goes off the deep end.