Posts tagged ‘science’

June 14, 2018

The scientific and manifest images

by Neil Rickert

In 1960, Wilfrid Sellars gave some lecturers on the Scientific Image of Man and the Manifest Image of man.  These were later published, and seem to be available on the net as a pdf file.  Roughly, the scientific image is how the world looks to science (particularly physics), while the manifest image is how it looks to us.

Right now, I am looking at a table (actually, my desk).  And it presents itself to me as a solid object with a smooth surface.  That solid object can be said to be part of the manifest image.  However, science describes it as mostly empty space, but with an array of atoms.  The atoms are separated by space.  To science (that is, to physics), there really isn’t a surface nor anything particularly smooth.  This array of separated atoms in space is part of the scientific image.

Why the difference?

I will mainly be looking at the differences between those images, and discussing why there is such a difference.

In recent posts, I have been discussing how we get information about the world by means of carving it up into parts.  The way that we carve up the world gives us the manifest image.  The way that science carves up the world gives us the scientific image.

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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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May 6, 2018

Carving up the world with science

by Neil Rickert

In previous posts, I have discussed how we carve up the world, and how that carving up is what allows us to express true statements about the world.  Science also expresses true statements about the world.  In this post I will discuss how that relates to carving up.

Yes, science also carves up the world in its own way.  And it does that in order to be able to make true statements about the world.  So the basic idea is the same.  But the method is very different.

Which science

Unsurprisingly, different sciences carve up the world in different ways.  Biology is concerned with living organisms.  So it wants to carve up the world into organisms, and then to further carve up those organisms into organs, cells, proteins, genes, etc.  At a larger scale, it wants to look at populations of organism.

In this post, I shall mainly be looking at how physics carves up the world.  That’s partly because the physics way of carving is most different from our ordinary way of carving.  And, additionally, all sciences borrow from physics, at least to some extent.


Take a look at a ruler, such as we use for measuring length.  I have a ruler in front of me know, as I write this.

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April 27, 2018

Analysis and synthesis

by Neil Rickert

I’ll start with some definitions, from

  • synthesis: the combining of the constituent elements of separate material or abstract entities into a single or unified entity;
  • analysis: the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements.

In order to carry out a synthesis, you must start with the component parts.  Otherwise there is no way to proceed.

In order to perform analysis, you must start with some sort of methods for separating into parts.

In recent posts, I have been discussing the idea of carving up the world.  That more or less fits the definition of analysis.

My starting assumption, based on what I know about biology, is that an organism starts its life without much knowledge of what exists in the world, but with some innate abilities (methods).  So it would seem that analysis, rather than synthesis, should be the basis of learning how to cope in the world.

An example

As a child, maybe at around 12 years of age, I remember taking my bicycle completely apart.  And then I reassembled it.  That would be an example of analysis, followed by a synthesis.

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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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January 18, 2018

Generalization in science

by Neil Rickert

According to most treatments of philosophy of science, or at least most of those that I have looked at, science advances by means of inductive generalizations. Inductive generalizations are often assumed to be the basis for scientific laws (such as laws of physics).

To me, that seems wrong.  I do not see the evidence that science is using induction.

I can agree that there are generalizations in science.  But it does not seem to me that they are inductive generalizations.


First an example of induction, to illustrate what is meant by the term.

All the many crows that I have seen are black.  Therefore all crows are black.

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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.]

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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September 11, 2014

Metaphysics — what I am against

by Neil Rickert

I’ve occasionally suggested that I don’t do metaphysics.  One of the comments to my previous post took me to task over that, saying that it was an example of doing metaphysics and that I was therefore contradicting myself.

Such literalism.  This kind of quibbling is part of why many scientists are dismissive of philosophy.  Here, I’ll try to clear up that confusion.

What I’m against

Of course, every thinking person will do some thinking about metaphysical questions, self-included.  We can’t help it.  We are confronted with these questions, posed by others.  They may be questions that have no answers.  But we will think about them anyway.

What I oppose, is using metaphysical assumptions as a basis for other reasoning, such as reasoning about knowledge.


I’ll illustrate the point with mathematics.  There, I avoid platonist assumptions.  I usually consider myself a fictionalists (mathematical entities are useful fictions).  And I suppose that, technically, fictionalism is considered a metaphysical position.  But the point of fictionalism is to avoid making assumptions about the existence of mathematical entities by treating them as fictions.

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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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