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Tag Archives: Science

sciences in general, what they are and their methods

Technology and science

It’s not uncommon to hear an argument like this: “If you use modern technology, you are buying into all of modern science.” But that’s like saying, “If you celebrate Christmas, you are agreeing with all Christian doctrines.” For example, many Japanese celebrate Christmas, but only 1% of the country is Christian. Similarly, all sorts of people use modern technology, from children to terrorists, who aren’t adopting modern science. So this argument is not true.

This is related to the argument that modern science deserves all the credit for modern technology. But that’s like saying all the credit for modern science should go to mathematics, since science uses mathematics. So this argument also not true.

Consider some great inventors: Cai Lun (paper), Johannes Gutenberg (movable type), Jethro Tull (seed drill and horse-drawn hoe), Abraham Darby (pig iron), John Harrison (marine chronometer), Alessandro Volta (electric battery), Samuel Morse (telegraph), Karl Benz (petrol-power automobile), Thomas Edison (electric light bulb, phonograph, motion picture camera), Alexander Bell (telephone), Nikola Tesla (fluorescent lighting, induction motor, AC electricity), Rudolf Diesel (diesel engine), Wright brothers (airplane), Alexander Fleming (penicillin), John Baird (television), and Enrico Fermi (nuclear reactor).

A few of these inventors are known as scientists (Volta, Tesla, Fleming, Fermi) but most are not. They had various backgrounds and much of their interest was in practical advances, not theoretical ones. Also, the practical use of technology requires advances in engineering, which is not the same as science. Engineers do much of the work implementing technology but get little credit.

Moreover, the development of technology arguably derives the most impetus from those in business and investment who provide the capital to market and improve the devices. Without them, inventions would remain like Da Vinci’s diagrams lying dormant for centuries.

The science community does often get (or take) credit for technology. And they have an incentive to, since they are a prestige-driven occupation. The amount of funding that goes to basic research is directly related to the prestige of scientists. And scientists in the universities are part of the prestige-driven model of funding and promoting higher education.

So no, someone using modern technology is not buying into all of modern science. Nor do scientists deserve all the credit for modern technology.

Interesting universe

This post continues a series on history and science, see here and here.

The development of the comparative method in linguistics led to the genealogy of languages in the 19th century. This diachronic approach was largely abandoned in the 20th century with the rise of synchronic theories. In short, linguistics pivoted from history to science.

Modern science is basically synchronic, that is, spatially broad within a narrow time period. This arises most commonly with empirical methods, which can range throughout the earth and beyond but focus on contemporary observations. While it is possible to focus on a different time period, the common procedure is simply to assume that the past is like the present. We might call this the boring universe postulate: nothing significantly new ever happens.

Such an anachronistic method is anathema in the discipline of history, that is, diachrony. One cannot assume the past is like the present without evidence from past sources. Moreover, significant events are pivotal for history, unlike science. It is difference, not similarity, that drives history.

History is basically unpredictable, no matter how much minor predictions can be made. The empirical sciences extract what can be predicted from empirical sources but leave the unpredictable out, relegated to noise or chance. It would be better for the sciences to leave the unpredictable to history than to sideline it as if it were unimportant.

Historical science or scientific history are oxymorons. They seem to mean a science of history. The search for a theory of history was a focus of the 19th century with uniformitarianism and Darwinism (and Marxism for some) providing the top candidates. But the project is misguided: it would mean history in a boring universe, which would be history without meaningful history.

The history of the universe or nature or life are within the domain of history. Science is able to assist but it is presumption to substitute a boring universe for the real one. The universe, nature, and life are too interesting and meaningful for that.

From natures to nature

This post follows on a previous post here.

How did we get from natures to nature? In a word, nominalism. The many natures of pre-modern science have been transformed into one nature or Nature, reified if not personified as a thing or force or being.

Nominalism is the teaching that universals or qualities or natures do not exist. Only particulars or quantities or individuals exist. And the result is that only one universal or quality or nature is acknowledged to exist, the somewhat mystical universal quality or nature of everything that underlies all the particulars and quantities and individuals.

We can see nominalism in physics and chemistry, with the rise of the atomic model of nature as composed of one kind of atoms, with only different quantities and configurations to differentiate them. We can see nominalism in biology, with the rise of the evolution model of nature as composed of one kind of life, with only different lines of descent to differentiate individuals. We can see nominalism in politics and economics, with the rise of the equalized person interchangeable with any other person.

By why should this one universal or quality or nature exist at all? Why not go all the way and deny any universal or quality or nature? Nominalism has no defense against such a move. And so we are seeing nominalism end in nihilism, the denial of nature altogether.

We are also seeing the rise of an opposite extreme: that every individual is a unique kind of person and that every individual life is a species. If there are no permanent kinds or species, then individuals are the only kinds. Every person has a right to a unique identity, unique treatment, and unique pronouns.

Nominal breakthroughs

Modern science is quantitative, not qualitative. The top breakthroughs in modern science have broken through traditional distinctions of quality or kind. Consider the following:

(1) Newton’s theory of gravitation broke through the traditional distinction between the sublunar and supralunar universe (e.g., the earth and the heavens). All motion is subject to the same laws.

(2) The atomic theory of matter broke through the traditional distinctions between different kinds of matter (e.g., water, earth, air, and fire). All matter is merely a combinations of atoms (or subatomic particles).

(3) Darwin’s theory of evolution broke through the traditional distinctions between different kinds of organisms (e.g., humans and animals). All species are merely variations of life (or genes).

(4) Einstein’s theory of relativity broke through the traditional distinction between space and time. All dimensions are subject to the same laws.

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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.

Science and history again

To some extent the sciences of society and history can be pursued as if they were natural sciences. For example, groups of people exhibit some characteristics of natural objects, and so reflect physics to some extent.

On the other hand, the physics of social beings is different in a complementary way from the physics of natural bodies. That is because social beings have purposes and plans. These can be accommodated within natural science only by including formal and final causes to some extent.

But knowledge of society and history are different from knowledge of the physical world. Their focus is different and the result is more likely to be a narrative than a theory.

The natural sciences emphasize quantities and have an over-riding principle of qualitative parsimony, often called Occam’s Razor. The sciences of society and history have a complementary principle of quantitative parsimony. This is seen in the increasing distinctions and qualities of society and history that resist generalization and lead to greater particularization.

While it would be best to have a balanced methodology of qualitative and quantitative parsimony, it may work well to have a dialectic of methodologies between two schools or disciplines, one with qualitative and the other quantitative parsimony. Then they can critique each other and seek to converge at a common solution.

Science and metaphysics again

The Scholastics developed a cosmology with the Earth at absolute rest in the center of moving concentric spheres. Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy with its epicycles was thought to be consistent with the Scholastic cosmology. When geocentrism was challenged by the early scientists, the whole Scholastic cosmology was thought to be undermined.

The difference between science and metaphysics has been confused ever since.

For example, in his General Scholium to the Principia Newton wrote:

For whatever is not deduc’d from the phenomena, is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.

But then in his Scholium to the Definitions Newton goes on to give his opinions about absolute time, absolute space, and absolute motion. So much for staying away from metaphysics!

As the sciences progress they normally come to question their metaphysical assumptions, reduce the metaphysics, and become more formal and mathematical. Quantum mechanics as an example of science with minimal metaphysics. Some people think that is a problem but I see it as a success.

Philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin describes quantum mechanics this way:

Unlike Relativity, there is no agreement among physicists about how to understand quantum theory. Indeed, the very phrase “quantum theory” is a misnomer: there is no such theory. Rather there is a mathematical formalism and some (quite effective) rules of thumb about how to use the formalism to make certain sorts of predictions. … The philosopher of physics cares about the underlying reality and attends to the predictions only insofar as they can serve as evidence for which account of the underlying reality is correct.” p.xiii, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time by Tim Maudlin

Like most in his field, Maudlin develops a metaphysics that doesn’t go beyond the bounds of naturalism. That’s his business but it’s not the business of science.

Other sciences are entwined with metaphysics. For example, the development of geology and biology as historical sciences conjured up first thousands, then millions, and then billions of years of time before recorded history. With no quantitative parsimony there was no cost for such magic.

The existence of time before the history of humanity is really about metaphysics, not science. What can be done in science is to show that the assumption of pre-historic time fits well – or not – with other science. Those with a methodology that includes quantitative parsimony (with or without qualitative parsimony) have an incentive to avoid such large metaphysical quantities.

Formal and material space and time

Science makes no metaphysical claims but it is not unusual for scientists to make metaphysical claims, sometimes even in their scientific publications. That has confused the relationship between science and metaphysics. The philosophies of scientific realism and naturalism have further confused the relationship between science and metaphysics.

As a Christian I must say that if scientists make metaphysical claims, then their metaphysics should be consistent with Christian metaphysics. If scientists object to that, they should refrain from making metaphysical claims.

Science needs to begin without metaphysics. Mathematics has no metaphysics. So science should begin with mathematics. That is, mathematics should be the framework on which science is built.

Thus a science of space and time begins with a mathematical formalism. This formalism should be distinguished from the empirical units employed to measure space and time. As far as I know, that has not been done, so people have confused the measure of length with the form of space and the measure of duration with the form of time.

Isaac Newton separated his metaphysical claims about space and time into what he called scholia in his Principia. He should have just adopted a mathematical formalism and left out any metaphysical claims.

In order to distinguish the formal and material space and time, I have revised the Parallel Glossary for Classical Physics, see link above.

Variationism vs. progressivism

Broadly speaking, there are two different paradigms concerning the history of the material world. One paradigm is that the material world has always been roughly the same as it is now. An ancient version of this said everything would eventually return to the same state. This cyclic version is rare now. What became more common is the idea that things change within limits. Call this variationism, because it says that everything is a variation of what came before.

The other paradigm is that the material world was very different from what it is now; whether that is seen as better before or better now. The idea of a former golden age was common in ancient times but has almost disappeared. The more common idea is that the world was once primitive and has become complex, which is seen as better. Call this progressivism, because it says that everything progressed from something different to what it is now.

There are metaphysical and theological implications of these two paradigms. Aristotle said that the world is eternal since an origin couldn’t be determined. That is compatible with variationism since an eternal world must always be a variation on what it was in the past. Many today would say there are eternal laws of nature that have operated on the natural world over time to generate the world of today. That is compatible with progressivism since it says everything is always progressing to something different.

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