Archive for December, 2010

December 29, 2010

A scientist’s view of philosophy

by Neil Rickert

In a recent blog post, John Wilkins asks why there are “Attacks on philosophy by scientists.”

But once you stop knowing about things, and start arguing about things you cannot know by science, you are doing philosophy, and so it is a little, dare I say, hypocritical, to argue, philosophically, that philosophy is crap. Not to mention self-contradictory.

Well sure.  And scientists philosophize a lot.  But that is mostly not what they are criticizing.  Philosophers pontificate a lot about science.  I’m wondering why it bothers Wilkins so much that scientists return the favor.

Apparently, part of what bothers Wilkins, is the post by Mark Perakh at Panda’s Thumb.  Perakh said, among other things:

Ruse claims to be strongly pro-evolution, as well as a non-believer (see, in particular, the above link). It does not prevent him from constantly rubbing elbows with the most notorious creationists including the “leading lights” of intelligent design pseudo-science. He edits various anthologies together with such figures as Dembski, he rather energetically argues for the alleged rational notions science might borrow from religion, etc. Such activity, to my mind, serves to legitimize pseudo-science and provides a veneer of respect to the absurdities and often dishonest shenanigans of the likes of William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, and their cohorts.

Well, yes, I agree with Wilkins, that Perakh was out of line with that comment.  It is entirely proper that philosophy should be looking a wide range of disciplines, including religion.

Scientists criticize philosophy for reasons other than those used by Perakh.  I indicated that I would give a scientist’s view of philosophy.  So I will give my own view as a scientist and mathematician (really more of a mathematician).  I don’t read minds, so I won’t claim to be speaking for all scientists.

There are two things that trouble me most about philosophy.  They are the way that philosophers use logic, and the way that they do epistemology.

I’ll start with logic.  When reading what philosophers write, I often see what are claimed to be logic arguments.  And what I find troubling, is that it is often obvious that the conclusion is being arrived at in some other way, and then is just written down in a way so as to make it look as if logic were used.  Philosophers don’t all do this.  Some of them actually write clearly without this use of a false logical form.

Epistemology is the harder one to discuss, so I’ll only touch the surface.  Philosophers usually define knowledge as “justified true belief” with an occasional nod to the Gettier problem.  For me, and I suspect for many mathematicians and scientists, nothing is more obvious than that knowledge is not justified true belief.  Scientists prefer to depend on as few beliefs as possible.  They perhaps don’t have a good definition for knowledge, but “justified true belief” just does not fit.

You can easily see a couple of the problems of epistemology.  If it were a good theory of knowledge, it ought to be the basis for our systems of education.  But it isn’t.  As best I can tell, even professors of philosophy don’t apply their epistemology to their own teaching methodology.  And a second problem is that of AI (artificial intelligence).  Much of AI is based on automating epistemology.  So if epistemology were a correct understanding of knowledge, then why don’t we have working autonomous artificially intelligent robots?

Philosophy of science

When philosophers discuss science, they attempt to describe science in terms of their own epistemology.  And, because of the problems with that epistemology, this does not work at all well and tends to present a distorted picture of the science.

December 23, 2010

Ruse, religion and science

by Neil Rickert

Michael Ruse wrote a rather strange post: “From a Curriculum Standpoint, Is Science Religion?”  It was actually a response to an earlier post by David Barash: “NOMA? No Thanks!”  There have since been blog posts on the Rush article Jerry Coyne’s site and at the Panda’s thumb site.  So I am adding my two cents.

Science as metaphor

Strangely, Ruse suggested that science is metaphor:

Basically, I argue that science is inherently metaphorical, that today’s science has at its core the metaphor of a machine, that metaphors rule certain questions out of court—not wrong, just not asked—and that it is legitimate for religious people to try to provide answers.

That seems a rather odd idea.  One does not appeal to metaphor to predict eclipses.  Perhaps Ruse is merely chose a poor term.  It is true that science often idealizes, as Nancy Cartwright has discussed in “How the laws of physics lie.”  But I don’t think that was what Ruse was referring to, because he specifically referred to “the metaphor of a machine.”  It is true that many scientific theories are mechanistic in form, but surely that’s because that form of theory is particularly useful.  Unlike Ruse, I don’t see science limited by mechanistic assumptions.  Rather, I see it directed at that which leaves empirical evidence, whether or not mechanistic.


NOMA, or the idea of non-overlapping magisteria, was Gould’s way of looking at science.  And Ruse was defending that view against the criticism of Barash.  I can see both sides of this issue.  From one point of view, NOMA is a useful stance to try to set science apart from the issues of religion.  And I think that was Ruse’s aim.  However, looking at it more realistically, disagreement between science and religion seems unavoidable.

Science and the constitution

Ruse argued that without something like NOMA, science itself becomes religion and is therefore subject to the establishment clause of the first amendment to the US constitution:

If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim?  And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

I don’t see that NOMA is needed to avoid that problem.  Science does not imply that God does not exist.  Rather, science is silent on that question, for there is no empirical evidence that could settle the issue.

Based on the comments to the post at Jerry Coyne’s site, it seems that some people disagree with me about that.  However, we need to distinguish between what science says, and what scientists say.  Science does not say that Bigfoot does not exist.  At most, science says that there is no credible evidence of Bigfoot.  Many individual scientists, on the other hand, do conclude that Bigfoot does not exist, except as a mythical character.

We need to distinguish that from cases such as phlogiston or the luminiferous aether.  Both of those were hypothesized by science as part of tentative scientific explanations.  When new science showed that these hypothetical substances were not needed in explanations, the hypothesizing ceased and we can reasonably say that science concludes that they do not exist.  The difference here is that the idea of phlogiston and of the aether originated in science.  That’s rather different from the case of bigfoot, where the idea comes from folklore.

Similarly, science has nothing to say on whether God exists.  It need only say that there is no credible empirical evidence for God, and that God plays no role in scientific explanation.

December 18, 2010

Demarcation; defending Larry Laudan

by Neil Rickert

Since John Pieret informed us about an issue of Synthese on topics related to the evolution vs. creation debate, there have been several blog posts commenting on the article by Robert T. Pennock, and critical of Larry Laudan for what he has said about the McLean v. Arkansas case.  In particular, there are posts at Thoughts in a Haystack and at Panda’s Thumb.

I have never met nor communicated with Larry Laudan, though I have read some of his work.  I am guessing that I probably disagree with him more than I would agree.  One of the reasons that I setup this blog was to express disagreement with much of philosophy of science.  But, that said, in this case Laudan appears to be the victim of a bum rap.  According to the Panda’s Thumb critique:

After that case, a fairly famous philosopher of science, Larry Laudan, criticized the court, and one of the experts who testified, Michael Ruse, for (allegedly) relying on naive and long-discredited attempts to “demarcate” science from pseudoscience and from religion.

I am not seeing that in what Laudan wrote.  I see him criticizing the arguments used, but I don’t see him criticizing the decision itself.  His disagreement is with how the conclusion was reached, not with the conclusion.  Laudan sums up in his last paragraph, with:

We can raise that question anew, with the added irony that, this time, the pro-science forces are defending a philosophy of science which is, in its way, every bit as outmoded as the “science” of the creationists.

And Laudan has that right.

Pennock frames the issue as one of demarcation, with his title “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited.”  But that is not the issue that Laudan raised.  I often see evolutionists asserting that creationism is not science because it is not falsifiable.  The point Laudan was making was that not only is creationism falsifiable, but it has indeed been falsified.  And therefore evolutionists should not be making that kind of argument.  I agree with Laudan.

When you look at the question, as Pennock worded it, then it at first looks easy to distinguish between science and religion.  For example, the difference between a scientific theory and a theology is huge.  But Pennock’s title expresses the question very broadly.  Science and religion are both very broad phenomena.  If there is any overlap at all, then it will be hard to distinguish science from religion in those areas of overlap.  Take the study of human cognition as an example.  There are hypotheses of quantum consciousness, and there are computationalist hypotheses based on the AI assumption that the brain is a computer. They can’t both be right.  Both are usually considered to be part of science.  Neither one of them has sufficient supporting empirical evidence to settle the case.  There’s a long tradition of such speculative hypothesizing in science.  It won’t be easy to distinguish that from some of the speculative hypothesizing by creationists and ID proponents?

It shouldn’t matter that there are parts of science that are hard to objectively characterize in a way that distinguishes them from parts of theology.  Those parts of science don’t belong in the classroom either, except perhaps as a special topics class at graduate school.  The distinctions that should matter are those that are significant for government mandated classes in the public schools.  And at that level, the distinction is clear enough.  We don’t have to solve the most general demarcation problem in order to decide what belongs in the school curriculum.  And we should make those curriculum distinctions on clear unambiguous criteria (which falsification is not).  I see Laudan as standing for exactly that point, that we should stick to clear unambiguous criteria that are appropriate for the curricula issues, and not muddy the question by calling on outdated ideas from philosophy of science.

December 15, 2010

Not a dime’s worth of difference

by Neil Rickert

It was George Wallace who said “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican Parties.”  Wallace was a segregationist, and I disagreed with most of what he stood for.  But he was right about the differences between the parties.

Yes, there are differences between the parties.  The Republicans seem to have cornered the market on insanity, while the Democrats may have cornered the market on wimpiness.  But those differences are of little value to people who want government to actually work.

It seems that what we really have are the corporate-D party and the corporate-R party.  Both parties seem more concerned with corporate interests than with the interests of the American people.  And, worse still, we have a legislative supreme court that is creating new rights for corporations.

So here we are after 2 years of a solid Democratic majority.  We have universal health care – sort of – but it is a health care so damaged by bad compromises, that it is unlikely to solve the major problems of health care.  We still have too many troops in Iraq.  We still are fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.  We still have an economy based on the “manufacture” of dubious financial instruments.  We have no clear national economic policy, we spend more than we can afford on the military, we are hopelessly addicted to imported oil, and we have politicians who are more anxious to give huge tax breaks to the wealthy than to actually address the nations problems.

It looks to me as if we are headed for a national financial collapse, and the elected politicians won’t act in the nation’s interest until the collapse actually occurs.

December 11, 2010

On science and truth

by Neil Rickert

Over at his blog, Allen MacNeill asks “Is Science True?”  MacNeill is not suggesting that science is false.  Rather, he is questioning whether we should even be asking whether it is true.

For example, I have an immediate, knee-jerk negative reaction to the title of Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True, and indeed to much of what he writes for the general public. Consider a similar title, Why Quantum Mechanics is True, or if you prefer Why the Gas Laws are True. How would a physicist react to titles such as these? I hope (and my general experience has been) that they would object to the word “true”, and also perhaps to the question “why”. Physics isn’t about “truth” and doesn’t usually ask about “why” things happen. Physics is about “useful” and “consistent” and “empirically testable” models of reality, and it’s about “how” things happen, not “why” they happen.

I admit to having the same reaction to Coyne’s book title.  Likewise, I have some discomfort when I hear people proclaim that evolution is a fact.  It isn’t that I doubt evolution.  But I don’t go around saying “gravity is a fact.”  Gravity is a phenomenon, not a fact.  If I see something fall, then that event is a fact, and indeed it is a gravitation fact.  But it seems wrong to say that gravity is a fact.

My own view is that a scientific theory is neither true nor false.  A theory is not a description of the world.  Rather, it is a framework for a particular kind of study.  That study might reveal many truths about the world, but the theory itself is the framework.  Putting this in the perspective on my series of posts on the camera analogy, a scientific theory is like the camera (or apparatus), while the facts revealed by that theory are like the photographs.  We should apply “true” to the data that comes from using that framework, but not to the framework (i.e. scientific theory) itself.

I don’t agree with all of MacNeill’s post.  For example, he says that everyone makes metaphysical assumptions.  Though that might be true, I do attempt to avoid such assumptions as far as possible.  But I agree with MacNeill when he says “My first criterion is skepticism.”

December 11, 2010

The Christian right

by Neil Rickert

I rarely post on religion.  However, I do want to draw your attention to a recent article by Richard Hughes, at Huffington Post.  I sometimes think of the religious right as the anti-Christian, anti-American branch of American Christianity. In his report, Hughes expresses those concerns very well.

Nor is it my intent to attack Christian people. After all, I am a Christian as well.

But I do wish to hold the Christian Right accountable for its falsehoods and misrepresentations. For at two important levels, the message of the Christian Right is clearly deceptive: the way it portrays the Christian faith and the way it portrays the nation. And that is the truth that a nation in crisis must hear.

Hughes goes on to point out how the religious right fail to follow the teachings of Jesus, and how they attempt to undermine core American values.  He begins the last part of his report with:

But the worst part of the legacy of the Christian Right is the way that movement has helped to shrivel the nation’s soul.

I recommend reading the full report.

December 7, 2010

Are scientists just glorified plumbers?

by Neil Rickert

Well, okay, that title is intentionally tongue-in-cheek.

There has been some discussion, lately, on what constitutes science and on what differentiates science from other areas.  Jerry Coyne takes a rather broad view, with:

That is, I construe science broadly—as “empirical investigation combined with reason,” while Russell takes a narrower definition of traditional scientific investigation (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.).  Thus, when I say that there is no way other than science to find out things about our world and universe, I’m pretty much agreeing with Brother B.

Massimo Pigliucci thinks that’s too broad, and explains Why plumbing ain’t science:

I don’t actually believe that anyone takes seriously the proposition that all reason-based knowledge is “scientific.” If that were the case, then pretty much everything we do every day should count as science — from picking a movie based on a review by a critic we usually like (induction!) to deciding to cross the street when the pedestrian light is green (hypothesis testing!). If the concept of science is that expansive, than it is also pretty close to meaningless.

I agree with that assessment, though I don’t completely share Pigliucci’s views on the nature of science.  Instead of comparing the scientist to the plumber, I think we should be comparing him to the explorers of yore.

Before I compare science to exploration, I would like to put in a word for the plumbers.  If you have leaking pipes, you are surely better off calling a plumber than calling a scientist.  It’s fine to discuss things such as “empirical investigation combined with reason,” but that gives an intellectualist bias to our discussions.  The thing about plumbers, is that they get their hands dirty.  That is to say, they involve themselves in the physical activity of plumbing, and are not merely engaged in an intellectual exercise.  Scientists get their hands dirty, too, though in different ways.  They do work in their labs.  Some of them go on field trips to explore the aspect of reality that they are investigating.  What I see as a serious flaw in philosophy, and part of the reason that I am a bit of a heretic, is that philosophers seriously underplay the importance of physical involvement in the world, and seriously overplay the thin veneer of intellectual discussion.  I’m not implying that philosophers should do actual field work, but I do think that they should pay more attention to the kinds of knowledge that are poorly described as “justified true belief.”

In his blog post on plumbing as science, Pigliucci says:

Second, science is a particular type of social activity, certainly as conceived and practiced today. It has a complex — and necessary — structure of peer review, edited journals, funding agencies, academic positions, laboratories, and so on.

And he is right.  Science is a social activity, and the social aspect of it is an important part of what distinguishes science from other areas.  But there are more important distinctions than that, and it seems to me that they are often missed.  So that’s why I want to talk about explorers.

The accountant works with facts about finances and assets that are obtained in standard ways.  The plumber will use standard methods, a ruler or measuring tape for example, to get the facts that he needs for his work.  What the explorers of yore did was very different.  We can perhaps think of the Lewis and Clarke expedition or the explorations of Abel Tasman as examples.  These explorers could not just use conventional means of obtaining facts.  They had to be inventive.  They had to identify landmarks that could be found by future travelers, and then use those landmarks as a basis for measuring distances and locations.  In effect, they were coming up with new ways of representing the world in intellectual expressions.  That’s very different from using methods that were already part of the social convention.

I suggest that the scientist is acting somewhat like the explorer.  He is not simply combining reason with empirical investigation.  He is also improvising and inventing new ways of coming up with facts, way of coming up with facts that were never before expressible.  The famous use of displacement and buoyancy by Archimedes is an example of such inventiveness, as is the famous Michelson-Morley experiment.  For that matter, when a biologist identifies and characterizes a new species, he thereby provides a way of being able to express facts that had not been previously expressible.  This new ability depends on the naming of the species, arguably an intellectual activity, and by the characterizing of the new species and of how to distinguish it from related species.  That characterizing amounts to new ways of dealing with the world, and is one example of how a scientist gains new knowledge while “getting his hands dirty” in an activity that is not merely an intellectual activity.


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