On my philosophy of science

by Neil Rickert

I haven’t posted for a few weeks.  Some of the ideas that I have been discussing and want to discuss, are difficult to present.

In the meantime, I posted something at an online forum that seems to have been received well.  And it does have to do with my philosophy of science.

So I’ll start by quoting that post.  For reference and context, the original post is here:

So here’s that post:

Eddie: Would the same physicists all say that “the standard model is a true, or approximately true, depiction of nature?”

I don’t know about physicists.

As I see it, the standard model is neither true nor false as a depiction of nature. Our concept of “true” does not allow us to make such a judgment of the standard model.

Here’s the problem:

There is nothing at all that can be said directly about nature. In order to say something, we need words and we need a standard way of attaching those words to nature. Until we have the words and the standards, there is no basis for saying anything.

The role of the standard model is to provide us with those words and standards which would allow us to say things about nature. So the standard model, or some suitable replacement, is a prerequisite to being able to have true or approximately true depictions of nature.

I look at the cosmology of Genesis 1 in about the same way. In its time, it provided a vocabulary and a set of standards on how to have true depictions of nature. So I tend to see that cosmology as neither true nor false, but as setting the stage to be able to make true depictions. But, of course, it has been superseded by newer and better cosmologies.

Commentary

The site where I posted that is primarily a site for Christian evolutionists.  The person to whom I was replying is a critic of evolution.  The post itself is not about evolution but about how we view science and truth.  Part of the background was about how science relates to truth.

My broad view of science, is that scientific theories are neither true nor false in the correspondence sense of “true”.  Rather, the job of a theory is to provide the terminology, the methodology and the standards for scientific research within that theory.

We are somewhat inconsistent in how we use the term “theory”, so some theories don’t quite fit that characterization.  But many do.

It seems that the view of many philosophers is that scientific theories must be true or nearly true.  That’s roughly the “no miracles” argument from Putnam.  According to Putnam, it would require a miracle for science to work if the theories were not true.  But Putnam has to say “almost true” because he knows that theories are often replaced by better theories.

I disagree with Putnam and with that view of science.  I see science as working well because scientists are pragmatic.

As my quoted post suggests, I see a scientific theory as prerequisite to being able to make true observations and descriptions.  The theory sets the terminology and the standards by which we can make those observations and descriptions.

What would really be a miracle, would be if all of the needed vocabulary and standards already existed in ordinary language prior to science.

We do, of course, talk about scientific theories as if they are true.  From my perspective, we are making those theories true by convention — either popular convention or scientific convention.  So, for example, we conventionally take heliocentrism to be true.  However, if I am given a speeding ticket while driving too fast, I will take the speed listed on the ticket to be a geocentric speed.  We use context as a guide to which conventions we should follow.

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4 Comments to “On my philosophy of science”

  1. The modern view about how reality relates to consciousness is now more clear due to neuroscience. Anil Seth states ‘ your brain hallucinates your conscious reality. In simple words what is out there is in part created by our own minds. This view is also stated by Nicholas Humphrey in his book ‘Soul Dust’ ‘ Consciousness is a self created entertainment for the mind ? A show that dramatically changes your outlook on life , so as to help you propagate your genes.’
    So we could ask how does the mind of the scientist seem to find a consistency in his observations ? Can it all be in the mind ? Surely not there must be something ordered going on in the world.

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    • I don’t much care for “hallucinates”, but I do agree that the brain is doing something that could be considered construction.

      There’s a mathematical theory of how to reconstruct a topological space from the properties of the continuous functions on that space. The classical book on this is Gillman & Jerison: “Rings of continuous functions” (I am not suggesting that you buy the book). The idea would be that our perceptual system constructs functions on reality (such a redness) which we use in observing the world.

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  2. Thanks for your reply I expect the book would be beyond me to be honest I seem to be drawn to those subjects to difficult for me to investigate. Most of my knowledge of these deep questions comes from what I’m able to pick up from the experts. I have no higher education and when I retired I set about educating myself , realising how much I missed out on. Before retirement I was busy bringing up a family of four ; English literature and poetry was not too bad but science was a difficult task.

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    • There’s no need to read the book. It is sufficient to know that the theory is out there. The neat thing is that the brain doesn’t have to “know” the mathematics. If it just gets information from the world, then it will implicitly construct a picture of the world based on that information.

      If we were getting different information, our conscious experience would be different. If we had infra-red receptors, the world would look different to us.

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