The return of radical empiricism

zby Massimo Pigliucci

“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” So wrote Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, one of the most influential philosophy books of all time. Kant is also the philosopher credited for finally overcoming the opposition between empiricism and rationalism in epistemology, as he realized that neither position, by itself, is sufficient to account for human knowledge.

Kant was notoriously awoken from what he termed his “dogmatic slumber” [1] by reading David Hume, who had written in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic … [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. … If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

The second part of the quote makes it clear that Hume, in turn, was reacting to the philosophical excesses of the Schoolmen, the medieval logicians who attempted to discover truths about the world by sheer power of mental analysis — an approach that, to be fair, goes back at the least to Plato himself, who was himself impressed by the effectiveness of mathematics in arriving at conclusions with certainty, and thought that the task of philosophy was to do likewise when it came to its own spheres of interest.

Why am I reminding you of all this? Because I am now convinced that we are witnessing a resurgence of what I call radical empiricism, the sort of thing that we thought we had left behind once Kant came onto the scene, and which, frankly, not even good ‘ol Hume would have endorsed.

Recently, here at Scientia Salon I published three essays — two by Robert Nola [2] and one by Coel Hellier [3] — that epitomize radical empiricism, more so in Hellier’s than in Nola’s case, I might add. Interestingly, Nola is a philosopher and Hellier a scientist, and indeed it is known by now that “scientism” — which is the attitude that results from radical empiricism — is being championed by a number of scientists (e.g., Lawrence Krauss [4], Neil deGrasse Tyson [5]) and philosophers (James Ladyman and Don Ross [6], Alex Rosenberg [7]).

Clearly, I find myself puzzled and bewildered by this state of affairs. As someone who has practiced science for a quarter century and then has gone back to graduate school to switch to philosophy full time I have a rather unusual background that, I think, makes me appreciate where radical empiricists come from, and yet which also precludes me from buying into their simplistic worldview.

In the remainder of this essay, then, I will try to do the following:

  1. Sketch out what I see are the logical moves attempted by radical empiricists;
  2. Show why they don’t work;
  3. Explain why this is more than an academic debate, and certainly more than “just semantics.”

Radical empiricists’ moves in logical space, and why they don’t work

My, by now, extensive readings of and conversations with radical empiricists have unearthed a number of standard moves they tend to make. I will briefly discuss six of them. Two obvious moves are (i) the use of an over-extensive definition of science and the assertion that other valuable disciplines — particularly (ii) logic and math — are “ultimately based” on empirical facts. Since radical empiricists do not seem to value (except for some degree of forced lip service when challenged) any other kind of inquiry or method of understanding (say, philosophy, literature, or the arts), it then follows that science really is all we should care about. It is as if they collapsed Hume’s already narrow distinction above between relations of ideas and matters of facts, arguing that the former are really a version of the latter anyway.

The concept of science, of course, has changed over time. The term did not actually exist as indicating a particular approach to knowledge of the world until recently [8]. Arguably, Aristotle (but not Plato!) was doing science, and so were some of the pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly the atomists. After the Renaissance, “natural philosophy” began to separate itself from philosophy more broadly construed, and finally a number of individual sciences became independent during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (most recently psychology, which was still a branch of philosophy until about the time of William James).

But modern defenders of radical empiricism don’t get to help themselves to the fact that what we understand by science has changed over the centuries, because if they did they might have to concede that, really, historically speaking it’s all philosophy.

Where could we turn for help, then? I’d say the dictionary, to get us started. Dictionaries are funny things. They play both a descriptive and a prescriptive role. They are descriptive of how — at any particular moment — a given culture uses a certain term; that, of course, can and does change over sufficiently long periods of time. But dictionaries are also prescriptive in the sense that, within a reasonably short time frame, they also tell us how we ought to deploy those terms. One doesn’t get to arbitrarily redefine words to suit one’s own ideological position or personal inclinations.

So, what are the dictionary definitions of science, mathematics and logic? Here they are (from my built-in Apple Dictionary):

science, the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. (Interestingly, the same dictionary also provides this alternative meaning: “knowledge of any kind,” but labels it as archaic.)

mathematics, the abstract study of number, quantity, and space.

logic, reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity.

It ought to be clear even from these definitions — which are congruent with the vast majority of the specialized literature on the philosophy of science, of math, and of logic — that mathematics is distinct from but akin to logic, and that both of them are very distinct from (although very useful to) science. Hume was onto something, after all.

As I mentioned, the most common refrain from radical empiricists when faced with the above is that math and logic “ultimately” are rooted in empirical knowledge, a recurring example being that we believe that 1+1=2 because we can see that if we put side by side two objects of the same kind we get a total of two objects of the same kind. Another example is that standard practices in logic, say modus ponens [9] are adopted because they “work” in the real world.

Both responses miss the mark because they subtly but surely change the conversation. The first example tells us at most that human beings began to think about abstract objects prompted by elementary empirical observations. But the question at hand is not how mathematical reasoning originated in the Pleistocene, it is what kind of mental activity is modern mathematics. And much of it has nothing whatsoever to do with empirical groundings of any sort. Yes, math is deployed as a tool in science and in all sorts of other applications, but there are huge swaths of mathematical territory that neither describe anything in the world nor are pursued by mathematicians for any practical reason at all.

As far as logic is concerned, a similar reasoning holds there too. And the example of the utility of modus tollens is another red herring that derails the conversation: the question isn’t whether some principles or methods of logic are useful and therefore employed in other areas of application. Of course they are. But logicians — just like mathematicians — are concerned with the formal structure and internal coherence of their constructs, not with whether they do or do not map onto the real world. Many of those structures do not, in fact, map onto the world. When they do, it is only because the world as it actually is does not contain logical contradictions and mathematical inconsistencies, so math and logic are bound to describe the real world together with countless other hypothetical ones (this is true quite irrespective of the ontological question concerning abstract objects, i.e., regardless of whether one is inclined to be a Platonist or not).

Another common move employed by radical empiricists is to (iii) deny the existence of a priori knowledge. It cannot exist, because otherwise they’d have to admit that science (understood as an essentially empirical enterprise) isn’t the source of all knowledge. The most sophisticated of the new wave of radical empiricists sooner or later will cite W.V.O. Quine’s famous rejection of the difference between analytic (a priori, by reasoning) / synthetic (a posteriori, by observation) truths in his paper, “Two dogmas of empiricism” [10]. But I bet that a good number of them have not actually read it, and even more likely that they are not aware of the criticism it got and of the significant amount of backtracking Quine himself had to do throughout the rest of his career.

You see, Quine made ample room for a priori truths in his “rejection” by acknowledging two things: the special status of mathematics as a type of science because it has applications in science (but see above for why this is irrelevant), and the fact that tautological statements (the famous “bachelors are unmarried men” kind of thing) are indeed examples of analytic truths, but turn out to be “epistemically insignificant” according to Quine’s judgment [11]. Well, that’s his opinion, and given that much of logic and math are built on tautologies, a very debatable opinion at that.

A better example of what Quine was talking about are equations such as F = ma from Newtonian mechanics. He thought that this may look like an analytic truth, specifically a definition (hence tautological) of force. But in fact the equation is only true within a specific empirically-based theory of the natural world, its truth not deriving from mathematical reasoning per se. I have no qualms with that, but acknowledging this is a far cry from saying that there are no a priori truths and no difference between synthetic and analytic statements.

Radical empiricists’ next move is to (iv) point out that science uses the same fundamental tools — observation and reason — that we all deploy in everyday life whenever we want to know anything at all. This is just as true as it is utterly uninteresting. It would be surprising, in fact, if science as a human epistemic activity were to somehow transcend the basic intellectual faculties of our species and operate sui generis (just as it would be equally surprising if there were a philosophical method that was entirely distinct from normal human reasoning). Of course doing math, logic, philosophy, art, literature, navigating the New York City subway system, and plumbing use facts (whenever appropriate) which are analyzed by reason. Nevertheless there are tons of interesting distinctions among all those activities, distinctions that are lost by the quest for what I have come to call “explanatory monism,” the obsession with a one-size-fits-all epistemology. Epistemic pluralism is much more interesting and fecund, not to mention more accurately reflective of actual human practice.

The next move, then, is a partial retreat on the previous one, and goes something like this: (v) there are no sharp distinctions between the mentioned activities, so there is no principled way to distinguish among them. To which I can only reply in two ways: there is no sharp distinction separating a helicopter, a jumbo jet and a Saturn rocket, as they are all flying machines. But if you think there are no interesting differences among them you are sorely mistaken. Also, anyone seriously arguing that philosophy, math, logic and, say, biology, are more or less the same thing has clearly not read a single technical paper in more than one of those disciplines.

There is one more defense of radical empiricism, rooted in a kind of greedy reductionism: (vi) the idea that “ultimately” whatever it is we are interested in (poetry, art, mathematics) is made of physical matter or done by beings made of physical matter, so that it all comes down to neuroscience or, if the radical empiricist is particularly bold, to quantum mechanics.

This, again, is a move predicated on shifting the discourse without apparently realizing that one has done so. The issue isn’t what something is made of (ontology), but rather how we may best proceed in understanding it (epistemology). Epistemologists understand very well that for any particular problem X there is a usually small number of levels of analysis that are most informative and appropriate in order to understand X. These can be located one or two (loosely defined) levels of complexity below or above X itself, but the explanatory returns taper off very quickly after that. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say you want to understand the population dynamics of a species of plants, for instance belonging to an invasive species (this comes straight out of my work as an empirical scientist, as you might have guessed). It is of no use to point out that plants, “ultimately” are made of quarks. A quantum mechanical theory of population dynamics — even if possible in principle — is never going to be developed and it wouldn’t help anyway because it would be far too complicated (and unnecessarily so) for a human to comprehend. Instead, the population biologist looks at population genetics (circa one level of complexity below that of organismal biology) and at ecosystem theory (circa one level of complexity above).

Similarly, it is a good bet that to understand economies one needs to operate at the level of economics as autonomous science, plus at the levels of, say, human sociology and psychology. Neuroscience is not likely to be helpful, because it would be too detailed for the problem at hand, even though of course economies are inventions of the human mind, and of course the human mind is the result of the activity of the brain, and of course the brain is made of neurons and other cell types. If you are not convinced, try to go even further down the hierarchy of complexity. How likely is it that we could develop a useful theory of economies based on molecular biology (after all, the brain is made of molecules!)? What about fundamental chemistry (those molecules are made of atoms!)? And so forth until we get to the single wave function that allegedly represents the entire universe.

So, a crucial reason to maintain distinctions among fields of inquiry — even when acknowledging bridges, cross-pollination, and similarities — is that ultimate reductionism will always be a losing epistemic proposition, even if one agrees with the ontological statement that everything is made of quarks (or strings, or wave functions).

Why bother?

I find all of the above intrinsically interesting as an example of intellectual debate about matters of proper definitions, conceptual understanding of different human epistemic activities and so forth. In other words, as a professional philosopher this kind of discussion represents a worthwhile venture into the philosophy of science and in epistemology. But there are far more practical reasons why the assault of the radical empiricists ought to be resisted.

Two reasons in particular are of concern to me: the damage being done to non-scientific disciplines, and the damage potentially to be suffered by science itself.

For years now the humanities and any non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields have been in retreat in colleges throughout the world, especially in the US. This retreat is the result of a number of factors, perhaps foremost among them the increasing importation of business-style models into academia and the resulting conviction that if studying a given discipline doesn’t have an immediate payoff in terms of employment then it is not worth studying. This is a false and perniciously instrumental view of higher (and lower, really) education, which has the potential to undermine people’s ability to develop into cultured human beings capable of reflecting on what they do, how they do it , of appreciating all aspects of life (not just jobs and livelihood), and of making informed decisions as members of a democratic polity.

The aggressiveness of radical empiricists and their dismissal of non-scientific fields exacerbates this problem, and in my mind, therefore contributes to undermining the very fabric of our democracy and to decreasing the quality of our life.

This may sound like “defending the turf,” and in a sense it is. But some turfs are worth defending against an all-encompassing cultural imperialism that risks to flatten the intellectual landscape in the name of Science (notice the capital S). And no, I’m not at all coming at this from the point of view of mystical or theological woo in constant entrenchment against science — as I hope is abundantly clear by the body of my writings.

The second worry may seem specious, but I think it is just as important to appreciate. I think that an over-emphasis on the powers and overall reach of Science will, in the long run, do harm to actual, good science. We are already facing a public that is increasingly unwilling to trust scientific findings (just think of the widespread rejection of the theory of evolution or the notion of climate change, or of the uncritical acceptance of a non existent causal link between autism and vaccines, to mention just a few examples). The more scientists are seen as arrogantly dismissive of any other dimension of human experience the more this distrust will grow and fester. And science, the real science done in countless laboratories and university centers across the globe, is just too precious an achievement of humanity to let it be damaged by an emotional reaction to the loud, radical statements of an overbearing but comparatively small number of highly visible public figures.

Isaac Asimov famously said that “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” Indeed, but we don’t get wisdom from science alone.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] As he put it, in Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

[2] Scientism: ‘Yippee’ or ‘Boo-sucks’? — Part I and Part II, by Robert Nola, Scientia Salon, 18 and 19 August 2014.

[3] Defending scientism: mathematics is a part of science, by Coel Hellier, Scientia Salon, 21 August 2014.

[4] Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, by Massimo Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 25 April 2012.

[5] Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 12 May 2014.

[6] James Ladyman on Metaphysics, Rationally Speaking podcast, 9 September 2012.

[7] Is science all you need?, by Massimo Pigliucci, The Philosopher’s Magazine, 2nd Quarter of 2012.

[8] The very word “scientist” was coined by philosopher William Whewell in 1833, in response to a challenge issued by poet S.T. Coleridge.

[9] Modus ponens.

[10] Two dogmas of empiricism, by W.V.O. Quine.

[11] Quine, W.V.O. (1991) Two Dogmas in Retrospect. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21:265-274, see p. 271.


315 thoughts on “The return of radical empiricism

  1. The scientism-ists may be a different type of Philistines than Tea Partiers, but they’re still Philistines. Maybe, per Monty Python and “Life of Brian,” the Tea Party types are the Judean People’s Front and the scientism-ists are the People’s Judean Front.

    And, in a sense, to continue the riff, it’s actually worse to have two different groups of stone-throwing Philistines firing away from different angles.


  2. I agree with this to some degree, but not totally; “subselves” or whatever still exist and develop, some more permanent, some less so. That said, it’s irrelevant to the issue of whether or not the humanities have value or other points of Massimo’s take on scientism and its reality.

    Besides we all, starting with Hume as father of the paradox of induction, “acted as if.” If you really want to “act as if” in the other way, the Dalai Lama is willing to take you on. I’ll venture you’re not.


  3. DM,
    “It seems to me that Coel and I are supervenienists. Now, I had taken this to be a species of reductionism, especially when emphasis is put on breaking problems down by examining lower levels of description, but I’m happy to be corrected.”
    That attitude is refreshing and much appreciated. Yes these (supervenience and reductionism) are both forms of physicalism or materialism such that they both assert that there is in some sense *only* the physical (but that gets a little tricky). Both are intended to rule out dualism, vitalism etc (though libertarianism is a little different.

    “On the other hand, I think there is likely no fact of the matter on whether there is a bridge law or not.”
    This strikes me as odd. Surely whether we know them or not they must straightforwardly exist or not exist (law of excluded middle).

    ” If they are free to be as arcane and complex and arbitrary and useless as we like, then it seems to me that supervenience implies they do exist.”
    No no. Supervenience implies they do *not* exist. Reduction claims they do.
    On Robin’s example,
    “The physicist can predict the future state of the machine and so I think it’s taking it too far to insist that he doesn’t understand what it’s doing, at least without qualifying it somewhat.”
    Well yes he understands it as a physical system but not as doing, for instance, a calculation.
    “For me, supervenience is really just the assertion that the physical perspective is all you need to understand physical events.”
    Well in a way it strikes me that this is basically exactly wrong. Supervenience implies that even if you know all the physical qualities of a system you can still be ignorant of the, say, intentional qualities. Yet the intentional description is not something over and above the physical in any creepy (ie cartesian) way. It just has a degree of independence as a different kind of description, it still is causally grounded in the physical.
    “It does not deny that there are other valuable (and usually more useful) interpretations or perspectives.”
    Yes! This is supervenience talk. There is the physical description and intentional description with concommitant vocabularies and concepts which do not reduce to each other. You might see (if you havent) Dennett’s Intentional Stances.
    “Perhaps it also implies that higher level concepts might in principle be abstracted from the physical layer by someone of sufficient intelligence. The principles of electronic hardware, software, algorithms and so on might be inferred by some godlike genius who only understands the physics of the computer by observing it (or perhaps just by introspection, if they’re that smart). The idea is that there are no higher level concepts that could not in principle be deduced from lower level concepts, and your example does not refute that.”
    Well I think with enough effort it could. I would argue intentionlity has a normative dimension which physical description can never capture. Likewise biology has a teleological dimension which physics and chemistry cannot capture. (Aravis pointed to that.) But thats more than I intend to attempt at the moment.


  4. Hi Aravis,

    The disjunction of physical states, which is not itself a physical state, cannot occur as either the antecedent or the consequent of a law.

    Sorry, but this does not make sense to me, which is probably my fault. I don’t know what the antecedent or consequent of a law are supposed to be. Antecedents/consequents apply to if/then statements. Now, a law can be phrased as an if/then statement, but then I don’t see how what you’re saying follows, which I will try to sketch.

    “If an electron experiences an electric force or an electron experiences a gravitational force, then it will accelerate.”

    This seems to me to be a crude statement of something like a physical law which uses a disjunction of physical states (indeed this equivalence of more than one state is crucial to general relativity where both acceleration and being in a gravitational field produce equivalent effects)

    But if you don’t like that, then I guess we can always make it into two laws.

    “If an electron experiences an electric force, then it will accelerate. If an electron experiences a gravitational force, then it will accelerate.”

    Following this pattern, we could do the same for mental states.

    “Given physical state p1, mental state m obtains. Given physical state p2, mental state m obtains. Given physical state p3, mental state m obtains” ad infinitum.

    In any case, I don’t see what is so (qualitatively) different between the disjunction I described and the average speed of molecules in the reduction of temperature to molecule kinetics. A given average molecular velocity is a description that can be realised by an infinite number of distinct physical states. What makes this a useful bridge law is that we have a convenient way to characterise this set of states with a mathematical function. It seems to me that the only difference between this state of affairs and that of the infinite disjunction of mental states is the convenience and concision with which the set of low-level states which manifest a particular high-level state can be expressed.


  5. Hi Massimo,

    I don’t deny that Aristotle left the academy because he had some disagreements with Plato, you are right. But my point is to remark that Aristotle got his scientifical background in the Academy, not only from Plato, also from other people that investigated there.

    “Yes, there certainly was also some empirical activity going on there, though alchemy is hardly a particularly positive example, being the empirical equivalent of the sterile logicism that so annoyed Hume”.

    Um…I don’t think alchemy “is the empirical equivalent of the sterile logicism that so annoyed Hume”. Newton was a bright scientific but at the same time spent many years involved in alchemic experiments. The list of chemical discoveries achieved by the alchemists is awesome: sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, etc. I want to point out that is common to emphasize the logic work of the schoolmen forgetting that some of them conducted practical experiments in physic, chemistry, optic, astronomy, etc, that have nothing to do with logic.


  6. My simple goal of this comment is to show that the statement {scientism is only about the fundamentals of how we acquire knowledge (mainly via empiricism), and that is only one aspect of what humans “should care about” or do care about} is wrong, by showing that I can ‘design (not discover)’ a universe and enters into a beauty-contest with the nature-universe, and I will definitely win this contest, law by law and data by data. Of course, I must not use a single bit of ‘idea’ from the nature-universe, let alone anything about the ‘empirical’ physics.

    In this process, I will show the step one (designing a ‘creation’-process) the last. I have showed a ‘ruling (governing)’ mechanism by designing three ‘measuring rulers’.
    One, the ruler-types: sling-stone (ħ), sling flying speed (C) and a composited ruler (the causality-charge, e).
    Two, I have fixed (locked) the ‘size’ of those rulers with a Beta equation.

    Now, I want to introduce three ‘emergent’ from the above design. When the sling-stone is casted out, it ‘produces’ three consequences.
    A. It is an ‘action’ or a step. I will mark this ‘step’ as ‘T’; that is, T1, T2, … , Tn, … . And, there is an ‘arrow’ of T. For the convenience, I will call this T as a time-like something.
    B. The flying sling-stone demarks a ‘range’ when it lands. I will denote this range with ‘S’, as a space-like something.
    C. The function of {T, S} will circle a land-‘mass’. I will denote this landmass with ‘M’, as a mass-like something.

    It is time for me to introduce a design-criterion: the absolutely ‘fairness’ principle. In the Beta equation, the pie was divided into 64 parts with absolute fairness. If the first cut does not get all even, the leftover will be divided into 64 pieces evenly again in the second cut. And, this process goes ad infinitum.

    Thus, the three consequences of the sling-stone action will also share that ‘action’ fairly and squarely. That is, a ‘structure’ must come out from this action and this principle. I will start with the landmass-structure first.

    There are 48 landlords who share the entire landmass (in the Earth-city and the Hell-city). These 48 landlords must be ‘different’ in some ways (otherwise, they will become a single one). Thus, their ability to grip the land could be different. The only way to ensure the ‘fairness’ principle is by making the land pile with every landlord to place a scoop into it. In this way, the landmass of each landlord will be exactly identical. That is,

    The landmass of Landlord 1 (LL1) is composed of ‘scoops’ from {LL1, LL2, …, LL48}

    The landmass of Landlord 48 (LL48) is composed of ‘scoops’ from {LL48, LL1, LL2, …, LL47}

    Now, we are ready for the first run of beauty-contest. And, I will pair up the contestants as below.
    Landlord 1 (LL1) to up-quark;

    Landlord 8 (LL8) to e-neutrino

    Landlord 25 (LL25) to anti-up-quark

    Landlord 48 (LL48) to anti-tau-neutrino

    While the up-quark carries a different ‘mass’ from all other particles, the 48 landlords are having the identical landmass, but each landlord uses its opponent-like stone as the ‘address-tag’. So, LL1 is an up-quark-like particle. The LL48 is an anti-tau-neutrino-like particle.

    Although every landlord gets the identical landmass, its ‘structure’ is still different from the other landlords when measured by the three measuring rulers; some of them does not carry the causality-charge (e). Their structure ‘design’ is another story (available at and ). Now, I just want to show a visible/dark issue in this design.

    In this design, only the first 8 landlords are ‘active’ (reason, will be discussed later), and only those who carry the causality-charge (e) is ‘visible’. So, among those 48 landlords, only 7 of them are both active and visible. Of course, some other landlords could be pissed from time to time and shine their anger; the ‘percentage’ of their shining is ‘w’. So, in this ‘designed’ universe, there is a shining/dark ratio, and it can be easily calculated with a super, super simple equation.

    dark/visible ratio = dv = [(48 – 7) x (100 – w) % /7]

    By choosing w = 9, the dark/visible ratio = 5.33

    Now, we can do a ‘cross-check’ on this design-calculation, from the ‘power’ distribution. The ‘power’ of the sling-stone throwing is shared by three {T, S, M} equally. That is, the ‘power’ for M is {33.3}, and {T, S} takes up {66.6}.

    [(33.3 – y) x (100 – 9) %]/y = dv = 5.33
    Y (visible) = 4.85625
    Power equation for (T, S): 66.66 + [(33.3 – y) x 9%] = 69.2199

    So, the ‘power’ structure of this ‘designed’ universe is {69.2199 for (T, S); dark mass (25.9238); visible mass (4.85625)}.

    The above calculation and design used ‘zero’ bit of info from the empirical physics. Yet, I am ready to entering into the beauty-contest with the nature-physics. I am sure that I will win. That is, the ‘radical empiricism’ is simply wrong. Of course, a lot more (more,…, more,…) contests can be made, yet.


  7. Hi Asher, I have to disagree with your comment…

    “You won’t hear cognitive sciences dissing philosophy in the same way that physicists do.”

    I have definitely heard cognitive research scientists ripping into philosophy. At one conference a cognitive neuro guy preceded his speech with “I don’t intend to deal with any philosophical implications of my results” and ended with a total harangue of philosophers and what they ought to be saying! And of course his logic was completely off.


  8. Asher, we agree that a tool (in this case, the human mind) constraints what can be done with it. Not all problems are nails just because you have a hammer and all that. But I’m not sure I see the relevance of that observation to the dispute with Coel. Enjoy L&R, it’s worth the effort, in my opinion.


  9. I have definitely heard cognitive research scientists ripping into philosophy.

    I stand corrected. I’m not an academic, so I’m happy to defer to those with direct experience in the matter.

    My impression comes more from popular writings, and there’s probably no Neil deGrasse Tysons or Richard Dawkinses of cognitive science (unless you’d count Lakoff, I guess).

    I do believe, though, that the intersection of cogsci and philosophy has been particularly fecund in recent years.


  10. But I’m not sure I see the relevance of that observation to the dispute with Coel.

    The relevance is that an argument from the structural nature of experience and perception is a more tenable and interesting position than Coel’s and still leads to mathematical empiricism. It’s a bit frustrating to see you and Aravis pick the easier target of Coel’s position, which is mistaken in some obvious ways that you’ve both pointed out. There’s a more interesting discussion to be had about mathematical empiricism (and scientism in general) that we’re not having because Coel’s big red target is sitting right there in front of us. I was simply attempting to point the more interesting target out to Alexander.

    L&R is definitely fascinating. I’m loving it.


  11. Hi David,

    This strikes me as odd. Surely whether we know them or not they must straightforwardly exist or not exist (law of excluded middle).

    The law of the excluded middle only applies when all terms are absolutely precise. I’m not sure the concept of a bridge law is precise and I’m not sure I know what we mean when we say a bridge law exists or does not exist. I think a vast disjunction of various physical states could constitute the essence of a bridge law for mental states. Aravis disagrees.

    In the same way, I don’t think there’s a fact of the matter on whether mathematical objects exist (it depends only on how we define existence) or on whether free will exists (it depends only on how we define free will).

    No no. Supervenience implies they do *not* exist. Reduction claims they do.

    You seem to be saying that supervenience and reductionism are mutually exclusive. I was assuming that reductionism was supervenience plus some other assumptions. I thought that a reductionist would agree that high level states supervene but also go further and claim that they reduce. Now, unless I’m wrong here, it is not true that supervenience implies that reductionism is false. If I am wrong, I hope you can at least understand what I’m trying to get at and if so help me figure out how I can express it better.

    “For me, supervenience is really just the assertion that the physical perspective is all you need to understand physical events.”
    Well in a way it strikes me that this is basically exactly wrong. Supervenience implies that even if you know all the physical qualities of a system you can still be ignorant of the, say, intentional qualities.

    I don’t think intentional qualities are physical events, not as I intend the term anyway. I think that’s a different level of description. What I mean is the kind of stuff that can be described in terms of physical primitives like quarks and electrons. So, again, supervenience (again interpreting it as a position which is compatible with and weaker than reductionism) is the assertion that the physical perspective is all you need to understand *physical* *events* qua *physical* *events*. It is the rejection of the idea that there are any profoundly new laws which suddenly appear at high levels of organisation (e.g. free will) which are not causally or logically entailed by the physical laws.

    I’m not sure I agree that there is a distinction between causal entailment and logical entailment. Or, if it is conceivable that there is, my view is probably that this is a mistake, and that in fact they turn out to be co-extensive.

    So, to sum up my position, I think I am more of a supervenienist than a reductionist, but it is not clear to me that reductionism is really well-defined enough to be true or false. Both its assertion and its denial seem to me to be rather muddled, largely because I’m not convinced that the concept of what constitutes a valid bridge law is sufficiently clear.

    But since I am not speaking with any authority on this, I am quite open to the possibility that I am completely incorrect.


  12. Good, so now we get to the real substance of the matter.

    Take any folk-psychological law: Say, FP1 –> FP2. (And yes, the causal relation is described in the notation of an “If, then” statement.

    In order to reduce this law to say, a law of biology — and therefore show that the biological law *explains* the relevant phenomenon in the relevant way — one would have to establish bridge laws, in which both FP1 and FP2 are shown to be identical with or materially equivalent to, some biological states.

    The problem is that FP1 and FP2 are multiply realizable. Thus, your bridge law will look something like this:

    FP1 = B1 or B2 or B3 or B4….
    FP2 = B20 or B30 or B40…..

    Resulting in the following reduced statement:

    B1 or B2 or B3 or B4 –> B30 or B30 or B40…..

    There are two problems:

    A. Neither the antecedent nor the consequent describe a biological type.
    B. The sentence described is not a law of biology.

    Thus, one has *not* reduced the folk psychological law to a law of biology and thus, whatever the folk psychological law *explains* has not been explained in terms of any law(s) of biology.


  13. I will always answer a question that is earnestly and honestly asked by someone who is genuinely interested in understanding something (provided I have the relevant expertise).

    Well – well done both getting the conversation to that point *and* explaining it so clearly. I hope DM will take it on board.


  14. Hi Aravis,

    I definitely see where you’re going with it now. It seems we conceive of the problem in two different ways.

    You want to derive a set of high level laws from a set of low level laws.

    I want to explain a set of high level states in terms of a set of low level states.

    The fact of the matter is I don’t think that folk psychological laws are really possible, not in the sense of determining successive states of a system as you have them. Folk psychology is much too fuzzy to ever work the way physical laws do. As such, I don’t think that producing an accurate, precise set of laws such as FP1 –> FP2 is possible at all, whether on reductionism or not. I think the only level of description where this kind of thing is possible is that of the physicist, where concepts can be defined utterly precisely.

    I don’t think that makes me an eliminative materialist like the Churchlands. Folk psychology need not be any more problematic than biology, say. I don’t think there are biological laws either, not like physical laws at any rate. There are only tendencies and heuristics. So I’m not saying folk psychology is wrong, I’m just saying its accuracy or usefulness is only approximate. The only way to predict the future precisely would be to simulate everything at the level of electrons and quarks (which is of course infeasible in practice).


  15. What comes to mind is the Movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt. According to IMDB:
    “Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to assemble a baseball team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.”

    To the fans in the stands they had little knowledge of how this team was assembled by statisitical analysis of the players’ performance characteristics or there is no difference to the fact that we eat foods made from GMO’s. I get the feeling that the hidden 800 lb gorilla in the room in this debate is the mass market and the need to feed the gorilla.


  16. Yes, there is a variety of positions amongst proponents of scientism, which needs to be recognized. For instance, as you point out, they are much more moderate than Rosenberg. Then again, their very first chapter is a consciously provocative endorsement of scientism, so…

    Yes, they do use the term “scientism”, and endorse it, just as Rosenberg does. But that doesn’t mean that they are defending the same view. (Many armies can march under the same banner.)

    In particular, it must be stressed that they come out stridently against the idea that there are “levels of reality”. I conjecture that L&R would say that Rosenberg’s dictum that “the physical facts fix all of the facts” is every bit as much a kind of “neo-scholasticism” as are the metaphysics via conceptual analyses of Kripke, Lewis, or Jackson. So it’s not that L&R are more “moderate” than Rosenberg, in the sense of mitigating their scientism in light of other considerations (ethical, political etc.), but rather that they arrive at an anti-reductionist view by taking science more seriously than Rosenberg does.

    For the curious, I recommend Scientific Metaphysics (ed. Ross, Ladyman, and Kincaid) as a sequel (or prequel) to Every Thing Must Go.


  17. Hi Massimo, nice essay. I tend to come down on your side for most of this (including the ongoing debate with Coel). However I guess I don’t see the situation as dark as you do. For example I agree with Coel that integrating philosophy into science is not really the same as dismissing it. Though as I said I tend to agree with you that there is no point in doing so.

    I should say that within the sciences (which you might be aware) there are moves to make connections between fields with the consequence that some might seem to “go under”. “Interdisciplinary” is a very hot word. It is harder to get funding for something that is single field related, or fundamental rather than applied.

    With this in mind I think your criticism of scientism leading to deterioration of other fields within university education is not entirely hitting the real problem. I would agree that scientism is being used by certain factions to pull money flow in their direction. But things are tight all over and the fact is the nature of the university itself, and education in general may be changing for good.

    The university was an institution that developed in a certain context, and it may be that the conditions that made them so useful for so long are no longer there. It is true that education is becoming geared to practical or business solutions (i.e. get jobs and make money), rather than “rounding” the individual. Given the extreme cost of education that makes sense for students ( it is demand that has changed), and for colleges (trying to promise students something solid for their money).

    Of course because of the terrible economy and high prices people are also starting to find ways around university itself. Internships and apprenticeships. Or at least the physical institutions. Learning online.

    In the end it may be that science, business, and law will simply be the last men standing inside as the traditional university falls.

    Perhaps an error is being made then in fearing how this effects the humanities in specific (being the first to fall out of that increasingly outmoded system), rather than trying to see where all these people working in the humanities can connect with people outside that institution? I think it is clear that people being more than just workhorses, they will still be interested in the information that professors in the humanities possess… whether they know it or not. And that includes scientists.

    Would it be terrible if there were less degrees in certain subjects, yet more workshops or clubs (or salons 🙂 )? Perhaps that could be a worthy future (basically a return to Epicurus’s garden format)? If not, why not?

    In any case I think scientism is at best exacerbating a larger issue for the humanities, rather than being the heart (or main artery) of a problem. Not that means it shouldn’t be tackled. I’m just not seeing the problem as that bleak.

    My problem with scientism is the accuracy and utility of using terms, and the problem of scientists who go on to mistake science for actually having answers for everything. Even if it could, it clearly doesn’t have them yet, and so the closest experts we have in some of these fields they want to discuss are the non-scientists, who should not be so casually dismissed.


  18. Part of what is at issue at this level of the discussion is whether laws are necessary for explanations. I’m not sure that I have a view on this. What I described to you is a somewhat textbook treatment of the subject.

    I *do* think, however, that folk psychological explanations *are* explanations and often, very powerful ones — much better than anything you’d get at a lower level of description. So, I would disagree with your point at the end that the only *real* explanations/predictions are going to come at the level of atoms.

    So long as folk psychological explanations can be construed as genuinely explanatory, I am not wedded to the idea of laws. That said, the following would be an example of a pretty commonly employed FP law:

    For any person, P, if P desires Q and believes that doing X will achieve Q, then P will do X, ceteris paribus.


  19. Hi Aravis,

    I *do* think, however, that folk psychological explanations *are* explanations and often, very powerful ones — much better than anything you’d get at a lower level of description.

    Actually, I agree, but what makes one explanation better than another would need to be elaborated. I think there are a number of orthogonal ways in which explanations can be better or worse.

    1) Accuracy
    2) Concision
    3) Intuitive appeal
    4) Whether it is satisfying.

    I think folk psychological explanations are pretty accurate as explanations (perhaps not as theories for making predictions). Where they really win out is in intuitiveness and satisfaction.

    So, I would disagree with your point at the end that the only *real* explanations/predictions are going to come at the level of atoms.

    I don’t think this is what I said. I said the only way one could make precise predictions would be at the level of atoms, and only then given perfect simulation and determinism.

    For any person, P, if P desires Q and believes that doing X will achieve Q, then P will do X, ceteris paribus.

    I agree that is generally true, ceteris paribus. But then, that ceteris paribus is telling. For example, there could be something about preparing to do X that causes the person to reconsider whether Q is desirable after all. Psychology is too messy and complex to be really workable as a set of simple laws like this, in my view. That’s one of the reasons why it is so difficult to make a machine which can pass the Turing Test, even if we take natural language processing problems out of the equation.


  20. Asher, I see, but I still don’t think mathematical empiricism can be helped by this sort of approach, because – again – I just don’t see why the nature of perception should tell us of interest much about the nature of mathematics. It would be like trying to shed light on quantum mechanics by pointing out that human senses are limited or fallible this way or that. They are, but…


  21. Aravis, your argument about multiple realisability (way back!: is great, and gets to the core of the issue as regards relations between the levels of the different sciences. It of course has not been refuted in any of the subsequent argumentation, it has just been ignored.

    Just one comment: you keep asking for an example of reduction of biology or social sciences to chemistry or physics, and none has been given. Actually the problem can arise even between the different levels in physics: it is sometimes not possible even there. For a wonderful description of this, see the opening part of Bob Laughlin’s Nobel prize lecture, available at


  22. Hi David,

    The crucial point is to see the difference between your “gives rise” and SEP’s “deduce”. In other words are we talking about causal or logical entailment?

    I admit that you’ve lost me with this distinction. I am talking about causal entailment, in which N “causes” or “gives rise to” the N+1 level. It seems to me that, if so, then we can “deduce” N+1 from the N, since all we have to do is follow the train of causation (and, ex hypothesi, we know about causes at the N level). At the least, we can do a brute-force suck-it-and-see simulation of N and see what happens, and in that way “deduce” the N+1 level. Thus I am not understanding the distinction you are making. Can you clarify it?

    Why *must* this be so? On a supervenient picture we can have complete physical knowledge but not software knowledge.

    As I see it, “software” is a particular pattern of physical stuff, with the information content being encoded in that particular physical pattern. Also, as I see it, “complete physical knowledge” requires knowledge of all the patterns stuff is in.

    That holds even for very basic physics. If the protons are grouped in batches of 6 then we have carbon and one type of behaviour, and if they’re grouped in batches of 2 then we have helium, and a very different type of behaviour. We have to know whether the N level is “carbon” or “helium” in order to predict the N+1 level, and in the same way we need to know everything about the software pattern in order to “have complete physical knowledge”.

    Yes on any materialist position complete physical simulation entails complete software simulation but this does not mean that (even complete) *knowledge* of the physical aspect implies *knowledge* of the software.

    If by “physical aspect” you mean knowing only about *some* aspects of the pattern of material in the N level, and not about other aspects, then I agree with you — the physical aspect is insufficient. However, by “complete knowledge of the physical aspect” I would mean not only knowledge of the physical stuff but also how it is arranged, where it actually is, and thus I would have knowledge of the software.

    Of course I might not *understand* the pattern and its implications, but even so I could still reproduce the N+1-level behaviour by suck-it-and-see simulation, and in that sense “deduce” the N+1 level.

    Great. I agree. Now will you reliably accept the consequences of this and stop insisting that from knowledge of N we necessarily have knowledge of N+1?

    Sadly, I can’t agree. I’m sticking to the idea that if I have *complete* knowledge of N then I do have knowledge of N+1, even if only by brute-force simulation.

    I am not, however, defending “bridge laws” (as Aravis defines them), and would agree that most of the time there are no bridge laws. I don’t see that as needed for the doctrine that I am defending, that from N one can deduce (= simulate) N+1.


  23. I said

    I think folk psychological explanations are pretty accurate as explanations (perhaps not as theories for making predictions). Where they really win out is in intuitiveness and satisfaction.

    I should have added that they are much better in terms of concision also, naturally.


  24. I just don’t see why the nature of perception should tell us of interest much about the nature of mathematics. It would be like trying to shed light on quantum mechanics by pointing out that human senses are limited or fallible this way or that. They are, but…

    That’s a pretty confused analogy. If you had said “shed light on the nature of quantum mechanical theory“, I’d almost get it. But your point would be weakened.

    Quantum mechanics is something that happens out in the world, with or without us. Mathematics is something we do. Why else insist that it isn’t dependent on the world?

    If the way our concepts are structured (through perception) isn’t relevant to the nature of mathematics, then where would you say mathematics (or logic) comes from?

    The position I’m talking about is a metaphysical position that says (to put it in an embarrassingly rough way) that the world is structured/patterned and that *that* structure is the source of the structured/patterned nature of our concepts. This happens at two levels: the level at which our brains are themselves structured processes in the world; and the level at which perception structures our brains (infants can’t do mathematics or logic).

    So there’s a very deep relationship between the structure of the “external” world and the structure of our concepts. And the way that relationship is established is through perception/experience.

    So all the puzzlement about why math is so applicable to the external world isn’t really puzzling, because it’s in essence a representation of it. A representation that’s experiential in nature.


  25. Hi DM and Aravis,

    To butt in about this issue of a disjunction of physical states and how that relates to “laws”.

    Resulting in the following reduced statement:
    B1 or B2 or B3 or B4 –> B30 or B30 or B40…..
    There are two problems:
    A. Neither the antecedent nor the consequent describe a biological type.
    B. The sentence described is not a law of biology.

    I don’t think that one need restrict “laws” to non-disjunct states in this way. Let’s take an example from physics, namely the example of a sound wave or a phonon. The phonon is an excitation of a lattice state, and many different physical lattices can give rise to a phonon. What that lattice is does not matter, it can be any sort of crystal.

    The point is that, even if the crystal is different, the *pattern* is sufficiently functionally equivalent that the mathematics modelling the behaviour is sufficiently similar that one can sensibly introduce the concept of “phonon” as a “quasi-particle” with a particular well-described behaviour.

    So, even if we are sticking purely with physics, I see no problem in principle with “laws” about disjunctions of physical states. Of course the term “law” is really just a formal name for a description of behaviour, and we can indeed collectively describe the behaviour of disjunct states, for example birds and bats and insects and aeroplanes all “fly”.


  26. Actually, I think the analogy would work for both quantum mechanical theory and quantum mechanics itself, depending. It’s a long conversation, but of course if one is a mathematical Platonist one would reject your argument about patterns. Even if one is not a Platonist, again, lots of math describes patterns that are not in the world and have never been perceived by anyone, so I still don’t get what perception has to do with it. Math is not a representation of the world, though the world can be represented, at the least in part, by math.


  27. Hi Michael,

    So, your saying the axiom and logic is justified because it is used as part of a physical theory which makes predictions that are verified. And, counter-factually if those axioms were wrong or other axioms were used the theory would have no predictive or explanatory power? Is this a correct representation of what your saying?

    Yes. (And note that the same could be said if “axioms and logic” were replaced by “physical law” — that epistemological similarity being the core of my case.)

    However, how strong is the generalisation you make? Are all mathematical axioms justified in the same way you claim? Are there exceptions? If so, how many?

    The only exceptions that I’m aware of are axioms about infinite sets. Obviously we can intuitively extrapolate to infinity, but we cannot test infinities. There is thus weirdness arising from applying the Axiom of Choice to infinite sets. But, as far as I’m aware, all other axioms of mainstream maths are real-world true in the sense of being verified in the above way.


  28. but of course if one is a mathematical Platonist one would reject your argument about patterns

    True. But mathematical platonists don’t have a satisfying explanation of where mathematics comes from.

    Even if one is not a Platonist, again, lots of math describes patterns that are not in the world and have never been perceived by anyone

    True, but as I said, it’s a rough description. Our concepts aren’t *really* a direct reflection of the patterns in the world. The world impinges on our perceptions in a pattered way and our concepts are structured by that (and structured by the brain’s operation itself). Novel patterns are pretty obviously possible in that kind of configuration (just as we see novel patterns arise from structures in the external world that don’t have to do with perception). Our brains hit upon the trick of symbolic, abstract conceptualization, which allows us (within constraints) to generate new patterns and formal systems.

    Within this view, consciousness itself is much like perception. Instead of sensing the external world, we are sensing (in a similarly limited way) the internal operations of our brains. That’s not all there is to it, of course, but our thoughts themselves can affect neural structure.

    It’s a long conversation, as you said. And I think if you don’t accept the basic idea of a “structural realism” at the metaphysical level, it’s going to be hard to swallow. But you can see why I perked up to hear what L&R were about.


  29. Hi Massimo,

    Try to provide an account of how the variety of modal logics are derived empirically, for example.

    This is one of those examples where we think sufficiently differently that we baffle each other. What is modal logic? It is logic that includes words such as “likely”, “often”, “usually”, “possibly”, “believed”, “might” et etcetera. Here is a list of modal-logic operators from SEP.

    It is necessary that ..
    It is possible that …
    It is obligatory that …
    It is permitted that …
    It is forbidden that …
    It will always be the case that …
    It will be the case that …
    It has always been the case that …
    It was the case that …
    x believes that …

    What strikes me about that list of phrases is that all of them would have been used for decades, centuries and millennia before the relatively recent development of formal modal logic. Why would people have used them? Because they relate to real-world behaviour. All of them are ideas that people generally would understand as relevant to their everyday real-world lives.

    So, when logicians came along and started developing modal logic, what they were doing is codifying and formalising real-world behaviour, using phrases that already related to the real world. As I say, it baffles me that anyone could regard this stuff as not being an abstraction of real-world experience. Where else would people have got those concepts from?

    Now, if anyone presents to me some logic that it utterly nonsensical, total gibberish, when translated into real-world terms, then I might have to concede the point. Do any logicians work with such a system?


  30. Coel wrote

    It seems to me that the Axiom of Choice is indeed chosen because of its relation to real-world behaviour. Namely, it seems to be intuitively true in the real-world sense of true. Further, it quite obviously is true about finite sets. The weird behaviour comes only from using it with infinite sets, and one can legitimately ask whether it is real-world true about infinite sets. But, even so, it seems to me that it is selected as an “abstraction of real-world behaviour”, with the issue being the extrapolation to infinite sets.

    Granting, for the sake of argument, that there is empirical support for it on finite sets, that is not a good reason to extend it to uncountable sets. That, and the fact that it is independent of other axioms, is a good reason to look at its consequences. But it is hardly empirical evidence for it as applied to uncountable sets.

    And I wonder about the nature of your claim about its “being selected”. Is this an empirical claim about the psychology of mathematicians? My experience with mathematicians (I spent a semester as a 1st year graduate student in a mathematics department) would suggest the opposite.


  31. To Asher Kay:

    You said:

    “August 29, 2014 • 5:26 pm

    Within this view, consciousness itself is much like perception. Instead of sensing the external world, we are sensing (in a similarly limited way) the internal operations of our brains.”

    Consciousness is thus another mode of perception (“sensing”).

    This is exactly what the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the intuition of System 1, the “fast thinking” that provides all the material that comes immediately, spontaneously to the mind, in the form of perceptions, impressions, emotions, immediate judgments. Its process is entirely unconscious and its result is the mental product that pops up in our consciousness as a raw mental data.

    But Kahneman pursues the distinction further by introducing System 2, the critical reflection of the “slow thinking” in the brain, which becomes the agent not of a mythical “reason” or an even more mythical “rationality”. Reason or rationality are both concepts that refer to categories of mental activities, but do not refer to any existing mental entity or function.
    What exists is only the brain activity of “reasoning”, done by comparison, retention in memory of many perceptions and impressions, in order to evaluate, criticize, order, or rectify the immediate input of System 1. A resulting outcome being a judgment by System 2 to endorse, modify, or reject the instinctive conclusions of System 1.

    In the same vein, Antonio Damasio called consciousness “the feeling of what happens”, if I remember correctly.

    If I recall also correctly, System 1 and System 2 are both active in mathematical activity. All the demonstrations of Euclid were done visually, with drawings on paper. Archimedes provided his demonstrations physically.
    All mathematicians work by manipulating symbols on paper, computing machines, or now even on a screen.
    We can see in our mind a few lines of a mathematical demonstration, but not very far without the help of physical support. Engineers and architects have to put their conceptualizations on paper, or models.
    Sometimes an answer to a problem may come intuitively, as a guess, but it can become a gigantic job for System 2 to prove, for instance the Riemann guess that all the zeros of the zeta function are aligned on the vertical of the real number 1/2. Einstein explained that he came to many of his findings by manipulating objects in imagination.
    So the working of System 1 remains essential to any mathematical activity, even if we tend to focus more on the working of System 2.


  32. Hi Coel,

    As I see it, “software” is a particular pattern of physical stuff, with the information content being encoded in that particular physical pattern. Also, as I see it, “complete physical knowledge” requires knowledge of all the patterns stuff is in.

    I really think you’re missing David’s point here. Software is a level of description at a far remove from the physical layer. When you later acknowledge that you may not understand the significance of a pattern, that is what David means (and I would agree) when he says you don’t understand the software.

    For example, I could present you with a complex Conway’s Game of Life setup with lots of stuff going on, lots of cells switching from black to white and so forth. You would have complete physical information of this system, to the point where you could simulate its evolution by hand with a bit of effort. Despite this, you could easily miss the fact that the simulation was set up to function as a four bit full adder.

    That said, where I perhaps disagree with David is that I think it is entirely possible for someone smart enough to see the pattern which matches to the function of a four bit full adder, perhaps even with no prior knowledge of four bit full adders.


  33. Coel: “I put this scheme forward in the previous thread and no-one has attempted a serious rebuttal of it. The above is the basic method science uses for verifying physics and physical laws. It works just as well for axioms of maths and logic. No-one has explained why not.”

    Wow, ‘no-one’ has attempted to rebut your position, but I have tried to show that many of your positions are wrong. The following is just a short list.

    Coel: ” Are we agreed that the basic axioms of maths are empirical (and if not which ones are not)?” ( ).

    Coel Hellier: ” … I have argued that all human knowledge is empirical and that there are no “other ways of knowing.” ( ).

    Coel: “In that case we would not expect the “infinity of logical possibilities” to be extant, … Now suppose that the “universal” set is logic and maths alone (with all physics being local and contingent). In that case, it more or less follows that there *are* worlds out there matching all mathematical topologies and all logical possibilities. (At least, I don’t see how you know that there aren’t.)” ( ).

    Coel Hellier: “If you don’t like the idea of a multiverse extending vastly beyond our observable horizon, or consider it to be unscientific, then realize that conventional cosmological models extend to infinity in much the same way. …and to have established that overall the theory does a better job than any alternative that we know of.” ( ).

    Yes, most (almost all) of axioms in physics and in math are making contacts to the real world. But, in principle, it needs not to be. In fact, many axioms (such as the creation-process-axioms) are way beyond the reach by any empirical means. In this thread, I have showed a ‘designed’ universe (the D-universe). The ‘step-one’ (the creation processes) is the key, but no contestant can ever be produced in the empirical-physics. Thus, there is no point for me to make a single contestant beauty-contest here. I however have showed the step-two (governing mechanism) beauty-contest, and it is by all means a rebuttal to your positions (that the physics-knowledge can only be obtained via empirical method). I am doing one more last try here.

    In this D-universe (totally without any empirical info), the measurement and the growth of this D-universe is totally depending upon the throwing the sling-stone (ħ), and this throwing action creates {delta S; delta T}. That is, the D-universe is not a ‘continuum’ of {S, T}. And, this sling-stone (ħ) action can be described with a function F.

    F (D-universe) = K ħ/ (delta S x delta T)

    K is just a coupling constant, dimensionless. Then, delta P (linear momentum) = F x delta T = K ħ/ (delta S)

    So, delta P x delta S = K ħ
    When, K is near to 1 (but a bit smaller than 1), then delta P x delta S > ħ. When K ħ is near to (0 ħ), the F is less confined by the ħ.

    This sling-stone throwing process actually ‘accelerates’ this D-universe expanding, and this was the key point in the book “Super Unified Theory”. An abridge discussion is available at .

    I am not disagree with ‘all’ your positions. I am showing this D-universe beauty-contest for a simple purpose of showing that “empiricism is not the ‘only’ way for gain the knowledge of this nature-universe”.


  34. This is certainly a bit off-topic, although the connection is still the general question of what is science. As discussed elsewhere before, I find it problematic to grant that “supernatural” claims cannot be addressed by science, and for two reasons:

    First, if they are about the material world, then it is the job of science to deal with them because describing the material world is what science does. Even if science only has to say, that claim is incoherent, that would still be science because it is an incoherent claim about our one instantiated world, and scientists have to say exactly the same thing about many other such claims (e.g. when some crank submits their great gibberish theory of why Relativity is wrong to a physics department).

    Second, I have no idea what supernatural even means. There is stuff that we can observe and stuff that we can’t, and there is real stuff and abstract ideas, there is natural stuff and artificial stuff, there is stuff that behaves in regular ways and stuff that can best be described stochastically (a different form of regularity, it could be added), but it is totally unclear what it even means to call some stuff supernatural. Without having a definition of that term, I do not see why I should grant that tacking it onto a claim makes any difference whatsoever, because then its only meaning seems to be “science no go here”, which is begging the question.


  35. Aravis (and any others against reductionism),

    Bringing up the multiple realizability argument as if its a nail in the coffin for reductionism is extremely misleading. I remember reading this Stanford page on it several years ago for a class back at school:

    The replies decimate the power of the argument. Reductionism stands on ground that is plenty firm. I’m sorry, but alternatives like strong emergence smack of mysticism and magic to a certain extent. Again, thinking on the simulation argument in my previous reply, how would the simulated evolution of the universe NOT capture the more complex dynamics that occur later on? If it didn’t then it would mean something strange is exhibited in the real world that doesn’t apply to the computer simulation, even though both start off with the same initial conditions. That seems patently absurd.

    In addition, asking about examples of biology being totally reduced to physics smacks of argumentation from ignorance. Again, these processes are so complex that even the worlds most powerful supercomputers couldn’t yet simulate it. And even if they could, why would anyone want to? Massimo already established that we utilize higher level concepts without significant loss of usefulness/prediction. I don’t understand why this seems to be a point commenters are continually overlooking.

    And in general, whats with the general animosity towards ontological reductionism? Its been massively successful over the last few centuries, a large proportion of scientists subscribe to it (though of course I am not attempting an ‘argumentum ad populum’), and it really doesn’t destroy the beauty of the world. As a staunch supporter, I can assure you that the beauty of a flower isn’t ruined when I consider that its built completely from underlying molecules and atoms and their interactions.

    If anything, the magnificence is further amplified.


  36. It’s interesting that religious truths apparently constitute scientific truths now that we’ve got all of mathematics under the science aegis with only an original nexus to observation required to establish that something is scientific. Empirical evidence? Only needed in sketchy form at the very outset and once you’re part of science, you’re in for good with no requirement for evidence any more. Religious concepts of magical entities controlling seemingly capricious and purposive things like the weather and who should be struck down by predator or disease, like 1+1=2, had their origins in observation. Since math is part of science and science doesn’t require empirical evidence for mathematical truths like the connectedness of the mandelbrot set, we can’t insist that religious truths be supported by evidence either.

    We had to destroy science to save it!


  37. Thanks for that Coel. I am waiting to see how Sci Sal responds.

    I have a question however Coel. Where do you see philosophy fitting in? Alex Rosenburg (supporter of scientism) thinks there is such a thing and the questions it deals with are 1: the questions science cannot, does not or will not answer. And 2: questions about why 1 is so.

    Would like to here what you think.




  38. Multiple Realizability is by no means the only problem with reductionism. It is just one of the most easy to explain and understand. The primary argument against it, at least in my mind, is the benefit/virtue of explanatory pluralism and the inadequacy/vice of explanatory monism.

    That said, your remarks are full of vagueries and inaccuracies. The replies hardly “demolish” the argument, and it is telling that most philosophers working in these areas today are neither reductionists nor eliminativists. As for the complaints about the arguments reflecting “ignorance,” it would seem to me that the unity of the sciences and epistemic monism crowd are the ones who are ignorant of the complexities of science and the relationship of the sciences to one another, not the anti-reductionists.

    Finally, what’s wrong with ontological reductionism is that it is false. Ontological monism, may be true, in the sense of token-physicalism, but the idea that there are no kinds or classes other than those belonging to the physical sciences is clearly false. As I’ve pointed out in numerous threads, across Scientia Salon, currencies exist, are real, and have causal efficacy, and yet they are not reducible to any physical type or kind, despite the fact that every instance of a currency is made of some physical substance or consists of some physical process or another.

    Who’s overlooked the point that “we utilize higher level concepts without significant loss of usefulness/prediction”? That’s been *our* point all along and it is an anti-reductionist point, at least in the explanatory sense (and I would argue in the ontological sense as well — part of the reason why social sciences are explanatorily successful is because of their ontologies, which consist of many irreducible kinds and classes).

    As for your point about the flower, there’s no there there. Of course it’s made of nothing but atoms and molecules. But the experience of its beauty and the discourse that follows is not fruitfully pitched at that level.


  39. “There is one more defense of radical empiricism, rooted in a kind of greedy reductionism: (vi) the idea that “ultimately” whatever it is we are interested in (poetry, art, mathematics) is made of physical matter or done by beings made of physical matter, so that it all comes down to neuroscience or, if the radical empiricist is particularly bold, to quantum mechanics.”

    It isn’t self-evident that ‘everything is reducible to quantum mechanics’. It may well be that quantum phenomena are merely a reflection of how we (homo sapiens, or some other category of sentient being) interpret reality. As a metaphysical theory, one that purports to explain the real nature of phenomena, the atomic hypothesis runs into the observer effect. Atomic theory cannot account for the role that human cognitive faculties (as typically configured) play in structuring the observed data; because any human observer must rely on those very faculties in attempting to account for such a role.

    As a result, scientific theories cannot support metaphysical claims by simply appealing to inductive inferences from observed data. Such appeals do not, in themselves, override philosophical theories based on deduction (including ones that deny the validity of some inductive inferences, hence the possibility of philosophical scepticism).

    Most scientific accounts aim at making accurate predictions within human experience, and are therefore unaffected by the observer effect. But when scientists make metaphysical claims about the veracity of empirical theories, as accurately representing how the world is apart from human experience, then the claims overreach the empirical data and have to compete with philosophical theories on deductive grounds, (The differences in verification criteria between claims of predictive success and veracity also rule out appeals to the former in support of the latter, for example in the argument that atoms must really exist because atomic theory makes accurate predictions and is technologically useful.)

    So appeals to spectroscopic images and other empirical findings do not conflict with the philosophical claim that atoms do not exist in the absence of (certain types of) observers. Even within standard quantum physics, it is now generally accepted that the observer effect confounds any attempt to draw a sharp distinction between ‘mental’ phenomena and purely ‘material’ processes. As one scientific commentary explains, “It now seems clear that this radical separation between mind and world was a macro-level illusion fostered by limited awareness of the actual character of physical reality and by mathematical idealizations that were extended beyond the realm of their applicability”.


  40. Pete:

    Bringing up the multiple realizability argument as if its a nail in the coffin for reductionism is extremely misleading.

    Even if it’s not the nail in the coffin (I don’t think it is, and I don’t think it was presented it as such), it’s a really good door into the room, and it helps the person thinking through the issues surrounding reductionism to clarify her own concepts.

    It’s also exactly the kind of thing that some of the people here have been urging DM to engage with. Thinking through it and formulating responses to it will only enrich the discussion.


  41. EJ: I’m sure you’ve read a few of the basic theories of the origins of language from 1-3 decades ago. None of them strike me as very satisfactory, and I’m frankly not sure we’ll ever know the origin of language. But, without going totally Sapir-Whorf, surely, for individuals, modern language background shapes one’s thinking, which in turn further shapes how one uses a language.


  42. Hi Asher. I agree that there can be and is an intersection that is useful. I was just pointing out that it is not as absolute as your comment suggested. There is a strain of scientists chomping at the bit to “disprove” free will, and somehow believe their findings based on cognitive studies refute philosophical inquiry.


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