Archive for ‘science and philosophy’

May 17, 2018

The reasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences

by Neil Rickert

In 1969, Eugene Wigner wrote what has become a famous paper, titled “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”  There’s a pretty good summary of the related issues in the Wikipedia article of the same  name.

As you might guess from the title of this blog post, I disagree with Wigner.  In my view, the effectiveness of mathematics is entirely reasonable.  And it has long seemed reasonable to me.  I thought about it either in high school or as a graduate student in mathematics (I’m not sure which), and came up with what I found to be a satisfactory explanation.

Perspective on mathematics

I’ll start with my broad perspective, which I have probably mentioned before on this blog.  I often say that mathematics is not about reality.  The mathematician Kronecker famously said “God gave us the natural numbers.  All else is the work of man.”  I almost agree, except that I think Kronecker gave God too much credit.  As I see it, the natural numbers are also the work of man.  That’s part of why I am a mathematical fictionalist.

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February 13, 2018

On scientism

by Neil Rickert

I’m never quite sure what “scientism” is supposed to mean.  It often seems to be little more than a strawman, or a punching bag used by some theists and some philosophers.

In any case, a recent blog post by Larry Moran:

drew my attention to an argument against scientism by Massimo Pigliucci.

I suggest you start by reading Larry Moran’s post.

Pigliucci’s questions

In his argument, Pigliucci gives a list of questions that he sees as philosophical questions rather than scientific questions.  I shall quote the questions here, and then give my comments on them.

  • In metaphysics: what is a cause?

Why should any scientist care about this?  Yes, causation is important to science.  But for science, we test causation be seeing what we can cause in our experimentation.  We attempt to narrow down causes.  And we tend to extrapolate that knowledge by way of predictions.  It is not at all clear that this has anything much to do with the metaphysics of cause.

  • In logic: is modus ponens a type of valid inference?

I’m not sure why any scientist would even care about this.

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November 6, 2017

Popper upside down

by Neil Rickert

The idea for the title comes from a blog post by Sabine Hossenfelder:

Hossenfelder is herself a physicist.  She makes a good argument on the problems with the way that scientists use (or misuse) Popper’s idea of falsification.  It is well worth reading.

For myself, I slightly disagree.  I don’t think she should blame the problem on Popper alone.  The problem is bad philosophy of science.  And, unfortunately, there is a lot of bad philosophy of science.  Some of that bad philosophy comes from professional philosophers.  And some of it comes from scientists themselves.

[Yes, this was a very short post intended to reference Hossenfelder’s post.]

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January 22, 2015

A heretic’s take on scientific realism

by Neil Rickert

Note that the “heretic” in the title refers to me, and comes from this blog’s title.

I have long considered myself a scientific realist.  At least, on some definitions, a scientific realist is one who believes that science provides the best available descriptions of the natural world.  And, in that sense, I surely am a scientific realist.

I’ve been noticing that some people have been suggesting that I am an instrumentalist or an anti-realist.  So they must be using a different notion of “scientific realism.”  There’s a post, today, at Scientia Salon which gets into such an account of scientific realism:

Here, I will discuss that post and where I have difficulty with the way that it looks at science.  My own view of science, and how it works, should be apparent from that discussion.  And I think it will be clear that my own view is non-standard (and, in that sense, heretical).

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August 30, 2014

A response to Deepak Chopra

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at his web site, Jerry Coyne reports that he has received a request from an assistant to Deepak Chopra:

I have not received my own copy of this request, nor do I expect one.  But I will comment anyway.

You can read the full document at by following the link above.  I’ll quote parts and respond to those.

We are concerned, however, that the old scientific paradigm is not adequate to provide answers to either question. The old paradigm, under which we were trained, along with every working scientist, reduces difficult problems to smaller, more manageable parts. Experiments are conducted, data is collected, and findings are reached. In this way objective knowledge emerges that a consensus can accept, whether it concerns the behavior of moving bodies in Newton’s time or the existence of the Higgs boson in ours.

No, this so-called “old paradigm” is not how science works, though it might be close to how some philosophers of science say that it works.  You need only look to Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962, 1970, University of Chicago Press) to see an analysis of where science fails to fit that description.

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August 20, 2014

On scientific realism

by Neil Rickert

In my last post, I hinted that I might comment on the videos that John Wilkins has posted.  Here, I will be commenting on John’s video on scientific realism.  That’s the second video HERE.

This post isn’t really a response to John.  I shall also be referencing the Wikipedia page and the SEP page on scientific realism.  I am puzzled by the discussions of scientific realism, so I’ll be illustrating that puzzlement.

The Wikipedia page begins with:

Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science is the real world, as it is, independent of what we might take it to be.

That sounds about right to me.  And, with that as a definition, I could call myself a scientific realist.  But, as I read further in that Wiki page, I begin to run into statements with which I cannot agree.  In discussion on other internet sites, I have had philosophers suggest that I am anti-realist, though that seems wrong to me.  So perhaps you can see that I might find it all a bit puzzling.

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August 17, 2014

The Wilkins videos

by Neil Rickert

John Wilkins has recently posted a short series of videos, where he talks on topics related to philosophy of science.  Here are links to the posts where he presented the videos:

I found these worth watching.  I am tentatively planning a future post where I comment on some of the videos.

What I liked about these videos, is that they give a better picture of what John Wilkins thinks about the issues he mentions.  Take, for example, his video on “Frequentism vs. Bayesianism.”  I have seen John mention Bayesian methods in earlier blog posts, and they left me a bit puzzled as to John’s position.  In the video, he makes it clear that he is very uncertain about these views (which I see as a respectable position).  I found that clarifying.

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August 12, 2014

Constrained invention

by Neil Rickert

This will mostly be a copy of what I recently posted in a Yahoo groups discussion.  And, incidentally, Yahoo badly mangled that post (stripped out most of the formatting).

As background, I’ll note that in an earlier Yahoo groups post, I had indicated that I was opposed to the view that perception is passive.  This seemed to puzzle some participants in the discussion.  So my post — the one I am quoting — was intended to explain what I mean when I say that perception is active.

The quoted post

You guys need to get out more. You are trapped in a world of logic, and unable to think outside that box.

You both seem committed to God’s eye view thinking, though you may be in denial over that. So you see perception as a system to report to you what is seen by the hypothetical God. But how could that ever work?

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June 15, 2014

A note on the science/philosophy wars

by Neil Rickert

Further to my earlier post, there was a recent discussion of this topic at Blogging Heads TV, between Daniel Kaufman (Missouri State Univ.) and Massimo Pigluicci (CUNY) on this topic (h/t Brian Leiter at his blog).

It was a pretty good discussion, and worth the 57 minutes it took to watch and listen.  Or you could just listen, as the watching is of talking heads.

At around 4:40, Pigliucci says (as transcribed by me):

Philosophy of science, in particular, is a way to look at the doings
of science from the outside, specifically from the epistemic warrant
perspective. So we want to know, as philosophers, how science
works logically, what is it that scientists take to be sufficient
evidence for their theories, how they construct their theories.

My own criticism of philosophy of science, is that I see them as doing poorly what is mentioned in the second sentence of that quote.

Overall, I agree with these two philosophers on many of the points that they brought up.  I do recommend taking the time to listen.

June 6, 2014

The science – philosophy wars

by Neil Rickert

From time to time, scientists criticize philosophy.  And philosophers react.  For an example of this, see the relatively recent post by John Wilkins:

In that post, John quotes some physicists, and wonders why they criticize philosophy.  I am going to suggest that a lot of this is miscommunication.

Knowledge

To see the problem, let’s look at what John said in a comment to that post:

Philosophy, which is about the nature of knowledge at least in part, must attend to actual knowledge. Hence it cannot ignore science and just pull epistemic strictures out of its rear end. Hence, [good] philosophy must attend to science.

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