Philosophy and science (part 2)

by Neil Rickert

David Weinberger discusses Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in a recent article at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I want to discuss that here, because it illustrates where I disagree with much of what is written as philosophy of science.

By far the most consistently attacked idea was what Kuhn referred to as incommensurability, a term taken from geometry, where it refers to the lack of a shared measurement. In SSR it means something like the inability to understand one paradigm from within another. In the book, Kuhn borders on putting incommensurability in its strongest imaginable form: A new paradigm causes scientists to “see the world of their researcher-engagement differently. In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.”

I did think Kuhn was overstating things with his reference to “a different world.”  He should have omitted that last quoted sentence.

Weinberger continues with:

To overstate it: The scientists hated incommensurability because it seemed to imply that science makes no real progress, the philosophers hated it because it seemed to imply that there is no truth, and the positivists hated it because it seemed to imply that science is based on nonrational decisions.

I don’t recall talking to any scientist who hated Kuhn’s thesis.  I have found several who thought that Kuhn made some good points.

The use of “incommensurable” in geometry is in saying that the diagonal of a square in incommensurable with the side of the square.  As far as I know, almost anybody could tell that the diagonal was a little less than 1.5 times the length of the side.  The “incommensurability” referred to the fact that it was not an exact rational multiple, and in an era before irrational numbers had come into use, that meant that you could not exactly express the length of the diagonal.  Analogously, I saw Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis as stating that statements from one paradigm could not be exactly translated into statements from another paradigm.  And that seemed true enough.

In the case of the paradigm shift from Newtonian mechanics to relativity, some philosophers seem to take the view that there are direct contradictions, and I suppose that is what leads to the comment about truth.  But most scientists don’t see it that way at all.  They tend to see relativity as a refinement of Newtonian science, albeit a refinement that is sometimes harder to use.

Using relativity, one describes the world differently from the way that a Newtonian would have described it.  However, scientists see it is the same world being described in different ways.  Some philosophers seem to see the different descriptions as contradictory.  I guess this gets back to the point I tried to make in an earlier post, that philosophers seem to be looking at the syntactic aspects of the description, while scientists are looking at the semantics.

On a similar note, Michael Ruse recently wrote:

For us philosophers of science, the big problem back then was the extent to which science can be said to be a disinterested picture of objective reality and to what extent it is a “social construction,” an epiphenomenon of the culture or society (especially the values) of the day.

But why would he think those are incompatible?  There’s no doubt that the camera is a social construction, yet the photographs it takes seem to present a reasonably disinterested picture of some part of the world.  And that’s a point I tried to make in my earlier posts on the camera analogy.

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5 Comments to “Philosophy and science (part 2)”

  1. “philosophers seem to be looking at the syntactic aspects of the description, while scientists are looking at the semantics”

    I think that in this case, the problem lies in saying that Newtonian as well as Relativistic physics “describe the same world but in different ways”.
    What if more specifically, we say that the two schools of thought (Newtonian vs. Relativistic) are really descriptions of two different aspects of the same world (thus the descriptions HAVE to be different both syntactically and semantically). I will agree that a scientist is more interested in semantics than syntax when compared to a philosopher, and one issue science deals with is trying to describe the indescribable — that is, try to translate the semantic quality into some syntactic form that allows people to understand the meaning.

    I’m curious — why exactly do some philosophers think that these two descriptions are contradictory? If they are describing different aspects of the world, then they aren’t going to be the same so what exactly makes them contradictory (incompatible)? Hmm…based on what you wrote, I can assume it may be inferentially related to syntax but I’m curious what the contradiction is exactly.

    “For us philosophers of science, the big problem back then was the extent to which science can be said to be a disinterested picture of objective reality and to what extent it is a “social construction,” an epiphenomenon of the culture or society (especially the values) of the day.”

    I, too, believe that these are compatible and I also believe that they affect each other. Culture affected how science developed because there were many religious entities that realized the new paradigm would invalidate their religion and force those religious leaders to lose their manipulative power. This caused the scientific revolution to progress at a slow pace as well as pressured scientists to make their new paradigm compatible with religion (like the catholic church condoning the concept of evolution, as long as somehow along the chain of evolution we humans were specifically endowed with souls).
    Going the other way, science has altered culture dramatically. Take a look at the success of the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”. We are immersed in technology and the scientific method. We are immersed in physicalism. All these things affect culture in profound ways including what implications we THINK are a result of these “truths” (like incompatibilities, etc.).

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    • What if more specifically, we say that the two schools of thought (Newtonian vs. Relativistic) are really descriptions of two different aspects of the same world (thus the descriptions HAVE to be different both syntactically and semantically).

      Maybe we should say that the French and the British are really describing different aspects of the same world. So therefore they can’t communicate with one another, because they don’t have common referents.

      The only trouble is that the evidence doesn’t agree.

      I’m curious — why exactly do some philosophers think that these two descriptions are contradictory?

      According to Newton, there is a gravitational force attracting the earth to the sun, and that is what keeps the earth going around the sun in an elliptical path.

      According to Einstein, there is no gravitational force of attraction. Instead, the gravitational field of the sun distorts space-time, and the earth takes the path it does because of that curvature of space-time. Somehow, philosophers see those as contradictory, while many physicists just see them as alternative ways of parameterizing the relative motion of the two bodies.

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  2. “Maybe we should say that the French and the British are really describing different aspects of the same world. So therefore they can’t communicate with one another, because they don’t have common referents.”

    Poor analogy. I am talking about the fundamental unfamiliar concepts involved between Newtonian and Relativistic physics. They are describing two different aspects entirely.

    “According to Newton, there is a gravitational force attracting the earth to the sun, and that is what keeps the earth going around the sun in an elliptical path.
    According to Einstein, there is no gravitational force of attraction. Instead, the gravitational field of the sun distorts space-time, and the earth takes the path it does because of that curvature of space-time. Somehow, philosophers see those as contradictory, while many physicists just see them as alternative ways of parameterizing the relative motion of the two bodies.”

    Yes, as a scientist I am well aware of the theories but I still fail to see a real contradiction between the two (perhaps it’s because I’m a scientist). Force is something that physicists have equated with mass times acceleration (F = m*a). Gravity is still a force because it allows mass to accelerate towards massive bodies. Since the force requirement has been met, then the only issue is Einstein stating that it’s not a force. I’m not sure what his exact words were regarding this, but we could easily say that in the case of relativity, the distortion of space time is the mechanism BEHIND the force. It is HOW the force precipitates. This is analogous to virtual photon exchanges being the mechanism BEHIND the electro-static force. Saying that electrons don’t repel each other by an electrostatic force, but rather that they are just exchanging virtual photons of a particular frequency is equally misguided. The explanation for how the force exists is just that — an explanation. It does not negate the force’s existence. In the case of distorted space-time, it is the explanation (partial explanation anyways) behind the force of gravity. I would say that relativity has merely filled in the gaps or better refined the theory of Newtonian mechanics (to include more accurate theory of motion and force with regards to high speeds and gravity). The principles of Newtonian mechanics work, but the effects of relativity, and quantum mechanics (while we’re at it) start to become dominant in certain regimes and must be factored in at all times. I see no contradiction between the two theories, just a mis-interpretation of the implications.

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    • (perhaps it’s because I’m a scientist)

      Yes, I think that’s it.

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      • It seems that if these distraught philosophers understood science a little better and realized that there are multiple ways of describing things that are erroneously seen as contradictions, the problem would go away. Either way, it is a good exercise to bring up these proposed contradictions as I appreciate the opportunity to present an argument from both a scientist’s and philosopher’s perspective. There is a battle between the two selves from time to time but I’ve found ways to make them get along. It’s just like Einstein once said “Religion without science is blind, and science without religion is lame”, or my version which is “Philosophy without science is blind, and science without philosophy is lame.”

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