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Tag Archives: Philosophy Of Science

Philosophical justification and critique of science.

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 Galilei. Ptolemy had adopted geocentrism for his astronomy, whereas Copernicus had showed the advantages of heliocentrism. Galilei 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.

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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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.