On vjtorley on ways of knowing

by Neil Rickert

Recently, in a post at the Uncommon Descent blog, vjtorley made a post critical of Jason Rosenhouse:

Here, I shall comment on part of vjtorley’s post.

I’m actually a bit puzzled by the whole post.  I read Jason’s blog often enough to doubt that he is claiming that science is the only way of knowing.  I guess I’m also a bit troubled by the expression “ways of knowing” which seems a bit too vague.

Torley begins with:

People who hold the view that “there is a non-scientific source of knowledge about the natural world, such as divine revelation or the historical teachings of a church, that trumps all other claims to knowledge,” are a menace to science. That’s the claim made by mathematician Jason Rosenhouse, in his latest post over at his Evolution Blog.

As I see it, the significant part is “that trumps all other claims to knowledge.”  I don’t see Jason as saying that science is the only way of knowing about the the natural world.  I only see him as denying that what comes from religion can trump science.

Torley goes on to give what he sees are necessary starting assumptions for science:

The following is a short (but not exhaustive) list of background assumptions about the world, which the scientific method presupposes. Science would be impossible as an enterprise, if the vast majority of scientists did not hold these assumptions:

I shall mainly be disagreeing with Torley’s list of required assumptions.

(a) There exists an external world, which is independent of our human minds: it’s real, regardless of whether we believe in it or not;

I do not see that as an assumption.  Rather, the evidence strongly supports that view.  For sure, there is no certain proof.  But then science is not about certainty or about logical proof.  Science is about evidence and about what can reasonably be concluded on the basis of evidence.

(b) Objects in the external world have certain identifying characteristics called dispositions, which scientists are able to investigate;

Torley later says that he makes no metaphysical assumptions.  But here he as assumed that there are objects.  I would have thought that was metaphysical, at least as Torley is using it.

My own view is that the world just is.  The world does not come as objects or with objects.  Rather, we humans find it useful to divide the world, and to refer to some of the divisions as objects.  So I do not see objects as metaphysical.  I do see objects has having characteristics.  But that is not a starting assumption.  Rather, as I see it, we divide the world up for our own use, and the “characteristics” come from the criteria that we use in that dividing.

I’ll say that differently.  The world might contain lots of things that could be said to be objects.  But we do not notice those, for we have no way of characterizing them.  Maybe there really are tooth fairies, but because we have no way of detecting them we do not count them as objects.

Torley is presupposing, as part of his assumed metaphysics, that God determines what is an object and we depend on assumed characteristics or dispositions to identify them.  By contrast, I suggest that it is we, not God, who decide what to count as an object.  So it is not a presumption that objects have characteristics.  Rather, it is our behavior in the world to decide something is an object on the basis of characteristics.  That’s methodology, not metaphysics.

(c) Objects in the external world behave in accordance with certain mathematical regularities, which we call the laws of Nature, and which tell us how those objects ought to behave;

Again, I don’t see this as an assumption of science.  My personal view is that there are no such things as laws of nature.  I see our scientific laws as human constructs.

As I see it, science is systematic in its exploration of the world.  And, being systematic, we organize how we deal with the world and thereby introduce mathematical patterns into our methodology.

I see something, and call that a pebble.  I see something else, and call that an apple.  But there is no logical reason that I can see, for not calling some of those pebbles “apples”, and for not calling some of those apples “pebbles”.  The only reason we do it as we do, is because we are being systematic.  And mathematical relations that are part of our systematicity will then be seen to apply to objects that we have systematically named.

(d) Scientific induction is reliable: scientists can safely assume that the laws of Nature hold true at all times and places;

Personally, I’m a critic of inductionism.  The actual assumption, as I see it, is that our systematic methods would apply at all times and places.  It might be wrong, and most scientists will admit that might be wrong.  But it does seem useful to assume this, until we run into problems that require a change in methodology.

(e) Solipsism is false: there exist other embodied agents, with minds of their own;

I’ll grant that I cannot disprove solipsism.  But then science is not about logical proof.  If solipsism were true, then everything that I observe around me would be the creation of my own mind.  Yet my best evidence of myself is that I am not nearly that creative.  So I find solipsism implausible.  I do not have to assume it false.  I can simply ignore it as too implausible to be worth worrying about.

(f) Communication is possible: scientists are capable of talking to one another, and sharing their observations, as well as their thoughts (or interpretations) relating to those observations;

This is not an assumption.  This is observed.

(g) The senses are reliable, under normal conditions, within their proper domain, which means that scientists are capable of making measurements on an everyday basis;

Again, this is observed.  Let me get back to an earlier point.  Maybe there really are tooth fairies, but our senses are unreliable about them.  So we have no science of tooth fairies, and we are inclined to deny their existence.

That’s the point here.  Science does not require that our senses be reliable.  Rather, science restricts itself to studying those aspects of the world about which our senses are adequately reliable.

(h) There exist standard conditions, under which ordinary people (including scientists) are routinely capable of thinking logically, making rational discourse possible;

Again, this is observed.  And exceptions to this are also observed.  It is part of the cross checking done in science, that we avoid dependence on such assumptions.

(i) Scientists are morally responsible for their own actions – in particular, they are responsible for their decision to tell the truth about what they have observed, or to lie about it; and

(j) Scientists should not lie under any circumstances, when doing science.

These might be nice principles, but they are not assumptions.  We know that scientists are human, and that sometimes they lie.  The methodology of science usually uncovers such problems.




%d bloggers like this: