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Tag Archives: Philosophy Of Science

Philosophical justification and critique of science.

Science and Hypothesis excerpts

What follows are excerpts from the book Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré, translated (1905) from La Science et l’hypothèse (1902).

p.xxiii The latter [definitions or conventions] are to be met with especially in mathematics and in the sciences to which it is applied. From them, indeed, the sciences derive their rigour; such conventions are the result of the unrestricted activity of the mind, which in this domain recognises no obstacle. For here the mind may affirm because it lays down its own laws; but let us clearly understand that while these laws are imposed on our science, which otherwise could not exist, they are not imposed on Nature. Are they then arbitrary? No; for if they were, they would not be fertile. Experience leaves us our freedom of choice, but it guides us by helping us to discern the most convenient path to follow.

p.xxv Space is another framework which we impose on the world. Whence are the first principles of geometry derived? Are they imposed on us by logic? Lobatschewsky, by inventing non-Euclidean geometries, has shown that this is not the case. Is space revealed to us by our senses? No; for the space revealed to us by our senses is absolutely different from the space of geometry. Is geometry derived from experience? Careful discussion will give the answer—no! We therefore conclude that the principles of geometry are only conventions; but these conventions are not arbitrary, and if transported into another world (which I shall call the non-Euclidean world, and which I shall endeavour to describe), we shall find ourselves compelled to adopt more of them.

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Science, unity and duality

It is a Christian concept (or at least a theistic concept) that the world we inhabit is a universe. The existence of the universe requires there to be a perspective that encompasses the whole of the world, which is the perspective of a transcendent divinity. The universe is thus the whole of creation.

It is said that natural science studies the universe, but natural science today does not recognize a transcendent being, and so cannot genuinely recognize the universe. What can natural science recognize as the world that it investigates?

Natural science recognizes law and chance, the regular and the stochastic, but what determines the mix of law and chance? There are three possibilities: (1) the mix of law and chance is determined by law, in which case science investigates a cosmos; (2) the mix of law and chance is determined by chance, in which case science investigates a chaos; or (3) the mix of law and chance is determined by another mix of law and chance, which, if this duality continues at every level, indicates a dualism of law and chance as two independent principles for science to investigate.

Natural science seeks unity, so option (3) is distasteful. Option (2) is distasteful for aesthetic reasons, as well as for its lack of meaning. Option (1) is the least distasteful, and the science community increasingly states that they investigate a cosmos, a world of order that we inhabit. But mere law and order seems fatalistic, and the reality of chance keeps rearing its head, which undermines (1).

This pattern of seeking unity and finding duality occurs in other ways, too. Space and time are duals, but can they be unified by space or time? Either space alone is real (and time is unreal), or time alone is real (and space is unreal), or there is a duality of space and time that cannot be unified. Again, the first option is the most popular, though it has the same weaknesses as above.

The most satisfying answer for these dualities is that science investigates a universe, a unity that can be fully grasped only transcendently, but may be glimpsed by us. This gives us confidence that there is a unity, even if we haven’t yet found how that unity is shown by observation and experimentation. It is a qualified unity, which is not troubled by duality, and does not seek to force unity on a diverse universe.

Cycle of science

There is a well-known alternation of induction and deduction in science (click to enlarge):

induction-deduction cycleThe induction phase consists of data collection, data analysis, and model development. The deduction phase consists of taking the model, making hypothetical inferences, and following up with experiments that lead to new data collection. Then the cycle repeats.

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History and science combined

For previous posts on history and science, see here.

History and science are different kinds of knowledge. History is based on the particulars that go into narratives. Science is based on the universals that go into theories.

History is focused on the matter and science is focused on the form, in the Aristotelian sense. The nature of something is its essence, its participation in universals, which is why there are natural sciences. Social sciences look at the form of human interaction. The term natural history is an older term for a scientific investigation into the natural world, especially biology, not a history in the modern sense.

The matter of something is its key particulars. Physical history is the investigation of the key particulars of physical objects in the past resulting in a narrative. This might be called natural history, but that term has meant science so it would be confusing. The investigation of the key particulars of documents in the past resulting in a narrative is simply called history.

History and science can be combined to explain something in the past. Yes. This is often called science but it is mainly history, with science assisting. For example, the investigation leading to the conclusion that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by a large asteroid or volcano is physical history that is commonly called science. Key particulars explain what happened. Science provides support. The result is a narrative, not a theory. (See here.)

The explanation of an event or series of events is history, since the particulars of events are history, even if science takes a supporting rôle. The explanation of a phenomenon or multiple phenomena is science, since their explanation depends on their nature, even if history takes a supporting rôle.

Repeating events entail universals that require science for explanation. Non-repeating events entail particulars that require history for explanation. Ancient mythology tried to explain repeating events through particulars, e.g., Zeus’ anger explains lightening, as if their nature was irrelevant. Modern mythology tried to explain unique events through universals, as if their substance was irrelevant.

“Creation science” concerns created universals. “Creation history” concerns created particulars.

Deep time postulate

This subject was previously mentioned, e.g., here.

James Hutton proposed introducing deep time into modern science in 1788. In the early 19th century it was accepted for the geologic time scale. Biologists followed with Darwinism in the late 19th century. Astronomers accepted it to explain cosmology.

What’s wrong with the deep time postulate (DTP)?

The DTP is a large expansion of explanatory resources. It may be compared with explaining crimes by assuming that everyone has access to a large amount of cash. That may make it easier to explain crimes, but such an assumption leads to poor quality explanations.

Similarly, the DTP makes scientific explanations easier, but not better. The more time there is, the more time that one has to fit all the events that might have happened to bring about some state of affairs. But easier does not make better.

This is most egregious in evolutionary biology, in which the possibility of the extremely unlikely happening becomes seemingly more likely the more time there is. It leads to the evolutionary imagination running riot with possibilities. Such a science turns away from what actually occurred.

The DTP invents a whole history that is discontinuous with history based on documents and testimonies. Such a time is not the time of memory but of calculation. It obscures the difference between science and history. History seeks key particulars, whereas science looks for universals. It will not do to replace history with science, as the 19th century ideologues tried to do (Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx).

Science is based on induction, not explanation. The slow accumulation of evidence, the incremental formation of hypotheses and laws, and experimental testing are the hallmarks of science. Grandiose postulates are contrary to this careful effort. The DTP should be rejected.

All theories are limited

This post continues previous posts on this topic, such as here.

Once a theory becomes established, it is always valid. It is never falsified. What happens is that its limits are discovered. Any pretense to being universal breaks down.

All theories are limited. Theories are analogies, and all analogies have limits. It is the scientific fashion to initially present a theory as universal, but this is a manner of speaking, not to be taken literally. No theory is universal because all theories have their limits.

When the limits of a theory are known, it is what Werner Heisenberg called a closed theory. An open theory is one whose limits are not known. It may be considered universal, even though it is not. But until its limits are known, no one knows its limits so it’s as if there are none. Eventually, limits will be found.

This means for example, there are three valid theories of the figure of the earth: the flat earth, the spherical earth, and the ellipsoidal earth. Each is valid within a certain domain of accuracy and precision.

There are several valid theories of the celestial bodies: simple geocentrism, Ptolemaic geocentrism, Copernican heliocentrism, Tychonic geoheliocentrism, Keplerian heliocentrism, Newtonian barycentrism, and Einsteinian cosmology. They are all valid within their domain of applicability.

Several theories of biological diversity are valid: fixed species, fixed kinds with limited change, and change over time (evolution). None of these are universal. They all have their limits.

Science is conditional

Science is indifferent to metaphysics. This is seen in the break between science and philosophy in the 19th century, and before that in the rejection of metaphysics by early scientists such as Newton. The scientific community doesn’t make metaphysical arguments.

The model science since classical times has been mathematics. The geometry of Euclid has been seen as the ideal for all the sciences. It is a model of conditional, systematic knowledge.

Euclid begins by considering definitions and axioms that are sufficiently simple and self-evident that everyone or almost everyone would easily accept them at least provisionally. Through logical argument and inference the reader is led step-by-step to see the derivation of propositions acceptable to common experience. Then new propositions are derived that are not obvious.

In the end a magnificent deductive system has been built that reflects inductive experience. But is it true? Not necessarily. The whole system is conditional on the truth of the definitions and axioms. Within science it is adopted as a convention. Whether or not it is true is not part of any science. (Whether metaphysics itself is a science is another matter.)

The history of science shows the indifference of science to metaphysics, though the success of science led many to accept it as metaphysically true. The most famous case is the geocentric-heliocentric controversy at the time of Galileo. Ptolemy had adopted geocentrism for his astronomy, whereas Copernicus had showed the advantages of heliocentrism. Galileo went beyond Copernicus and promoted a metaphysical heliocentrism, which led him into conflicts.

Geocentrism, heliocentrism, or the current astronomy with no universal center are all conventions that scientists are free to adopt for the purposes of science. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Whether any of them represent reality is a metaphysical issue, not a scientific issue. Science is indifferent to such metaphysical questions.

TH Huxley famously said “Agnosticism is of the essence of science …”. He should have meant that science is indifferent, not necessarily agnostic.  But he went on, “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.” Tying science to belief or the lack of belief ties science to metaphysics. That was a mistake.

We all have our metaphysical notions but these should at most provide motivation for doing science or trying a particular line of research. Metaphysical commitments, no matter how much they are commonly accepted, are not part of science. Science is conditional.

Other posts on science and metaphysics are here, here, and here.

Science or stories

Science has no stories. Stories have characters, plots, and narratives. Science has data, hypotheses, postulates, and theories. Science and stories are different. They should be kept separate.

Stories can refer to science or be about scientists, but that is not part of science. Science can refer to stories or collect data from stories, but that is not storytelling.

Evolutionary stories are not part of science. Evolution without stories is part of science. But evolution without stories is variation and adaptation.

The science community and its boosters confuse science and stories. They are different and should be kept separate.

History is a chronicle, a narrative, a story. But history is not science.

The Bible is a story of stories. It includes chronicles, poetry, parables, and letters. The Bible may refer to science, but the Bible is not part of science.

The stories of the Bible are not inconsistent with science as long as science is not confused with stories. If science is confused with stories, then there may be inconsistencies with the Bible. The answer is to stop confusing science and stories.

Biblical creationists follow the science community and its boosters in confusing science and stories. Creationism is about history and theology, not science.

Science or stories: focus on one or the other but don’t confuse them.

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.