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. I’ve recently been reading William James’s Essays in Radical Empiricism, eagerly clicked a facebook link based on the title of this article, and was surprised to see ‘radical empiricism’ linked with scientism. That certainly isn’t William James’s radical empiricism is it?

    Like

  2. Hi DM,

    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.

    We seem to be conflating two different things, whether we “know” about the software and whether we “understand” it.

    If the person “knows” everything about the N-1 level, then that includes knowledge of the software, and that is sufficient to simulate or “deduce” the N-level behaviour.

    Of course he may not “understand” the software, and if he didn’t then he would not understand its implications for the N-level. But the lack of understanding of the N level results from the lack of understanding of the patterns at the N-1 level, and so I don’t regard this as a refutation of what I’m saying.

    Like

  3. Hi DM,

    I think your phonon example is interesting …

    Yes, I think these stronger versions of reductionism that Aravis is discussing don’t even hold within physics, never mind wider than that. Thus much of physics would be a “special science” in these terms.

    Thus I think that the weaker version of reductionism (as I’ve defined it) is all that there is (as I’ve said, I’ve not encountered the strong versions being promoted within science, and I don’t think there is any program within science to find such “bridge laws”, since this is not how scientists generally think about these things).

    Thus, to take Aravis’s example:
    B1 or B2 or B3 or B4 –> B30 or B30 or B40,
    which Aravis says: “is not a law of biology” since the antecedent and consequent are not biological types, but rather sets of biological types, then my reply would be along the lines of, fine, what’s wrong with a law in terms of sets of biological types?

    What we are doing in science is describing nature, and “laws” just describe how nature is. If nature chooses to have physically disjunct sets of behaviour, then our “laws” simply reflect that. From the point of view of the physical sciences I don’t see a problem with that, as the phonon example demonstrates.

    Like

  4. Hi jschwarz,

    But it is hardly empirical evidence for it as applied to uncountable sets.

    I agree. The extension of the AofC to infinite sets is indeed not empirical.

    And I wonder about the nature of your claim about its “being selected”. Is this an empirical claim about the psychology of mathematicians?

    Yes. The axiom of choice would be proposed because it is “intuitively obvious”, and is, indeed, real-world true about finite sets. So that’s how mathematicians arrived at the axiom of choice.

    From there, extension to infinity arises because there is no obvious reason why it should stop working, and that sort of extrapolation is how both mathematicians and physicists tend to think about things. (e.g. you might arrive at Newton’s law of gravity from consideration of finite distances, but then you just assume that it works to infinity, since you have no reason to limit it.)

    Of course there is no direct empirical evidence about the axiom of choice applied to infinite sets, and Banach-Tarski suggests that this is dubious. We have exactly the same issues in physics, for example cosmological models are taken to extrapolate to infinity, beyond the observable horizon of the universe where we cannot empirically verify them.

    This sort of thing is inevitable given that both maths and physics are about building abstracted models of reality, and then one can extrapolate from the models in ways that are not directly empirical.

    I’m beginning to think, by the way, that people who are disagreeing with my central thesis are not so much disagreeing with me over maths, they are disagreeing with me over the nature of physics, and not realising how maths-like it is in its epistemological structure.

    Like

  5. Hi Mike,

    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.

    Sorry, but no, subject topic and connection to empirical reality are not the only qualifications for science — the quality of the arguments is also relevant.

    (For maths that is not an issue, since no-one is disputing the validity of their logical reasoning from axioms.)

    Like

  6. Hi Michael,

    I have a question however Coel. Where do you see philosophy fitting in?

    As I see it “philosophy” is a term for asking various types of question that I would regard as within broadly-defined “science” (or what Massimo terms “scientia”).

    For example I don’t regard “thinking about science” as not-science and thus something distinct, namely philosophy, I regard it as science (though that area of science can be usefully termed “philosophy”).

    Much of philosophy is necessary and valuable — I don’t dismiss philosophy at all — though I do think it would do better to see itself as allied with the rest of science.

    There is also badly done philosophy, which I would regard as pseudoscience (theology being an obvious example). Of course all other fields have badly-done versions also, so saying that is not denigrating philosophy.

    As you’ve summarised it, I’m not sure I’d agree Rosenberg’s view, but I’ll have to go and read him again (I’ve not done so for a while).

    Like

  7. Another alternative to “radical empiricism” is “pragmatic naturalism”:

    “Pragmatic naturalism offers a promising via media between ‘reductive naturalism’ and ‘normatively oriented accounts of social practice’. It can do so because the incorporation of the vocabulary of agency into naturalism makes possible a much richer and more sophisticated picture of ourselves as ‘natural agents’: animals who are inescapably committed to the process of triangulating between the subjective, objective, and intersubjective aspects of knowledge and experience, and in that process engendering, as Rorty has done more than most to emphasize, ever more interesting and exciting forms of science, philosophy, and poetry.”

    Contemporary Pragmatism
    Vol. 6, No. 1 (June 2009), 15–37
    Natural Agents: A Transcendental Argument for Pragmatic Naturalism
    Carl Sachs

    Like

  8. “It isn’t self-evident that ‘everything is reducible to quantum mechanics’.”

    “…the philosophical claim that atoms do not exist …”

    Amazingly, you appear to have the solution to Massimo’s concerns about funding troubles (due to ‘philistine’ university administrators, or at least those controlling the money, I had thought ) which he seems to think are largely caused by scientism. I’m quite sure that the bucks will start flowing, at least to philosophy, if a large scale philosophical project is proposed to prove that atoms do not exist. And working to make sure no one is foolish enough to regard a proposition as highly-probably true if it is not self-evident can be a more general money-generating project.

    Like

  9. Coel, forgive me, but it looks like you just took a look at the intro of the SEP entry on modal logic and ran with it. Of course those terms have been used for centuries, and of course modal logic has been inspired by real life problems. But that – once again – confuses the origin of X with the epistemic warrant for X. If all you are saying is that logic and math are eventually historically rooted in people’s curiosity about the world nobody here would disagree. But that statement is trivial (remember Sokal’s quote from above?).

    If, on the other hand, you are saying that modal logic, for instance, works by checking its rules and inferences via empirical data, then that would be a very interesting claim. But it happens to be utterly false.

    And by the way, yes, some logicians even work with systems that haven’t even been inspired by the real world. Paraconsistent logic is one such system.

    Like

  10. Alexander, the issue isn’t one of “science can’t go there,” but rather one of “science doesn’t need to go there” because there is no “there” there. That is, my contention is the supernatural “hypotheses” aren’t any such thing at all: they are squishy, ever changing targets, which science can’t get a hold of because they don’t rise to the level of coherence necessary to get a testable hypothesis. Unlike, say, homeopathy, which is based on a coherent set of statements that are eminently testable, have been tested, and found to be false.

    Like

  11. Hi Massimo,

    Of course those terms have been used for centuries, and of course modal logic has been inspired by real life problems. But that – once again – confuses the origin of X with the epistemic warrant for X.

    But I see the two as deeply linked, and the epistemic warrant for modal logic is indeed the real-life correspondence, as evidenced in its origins. What other epistemic warrant is there for the axioms of model logic?

    If all you are saying is that logic and math are eventually historically rooted in people’s curiosity about the world nobody here would disagree.

    I’m also making claims about the epistemic warrant of the axioms of maths and logic.

    If, on the other hand, you are saying that modal logic, for instance, works by checking its rules and inferences via empirical data, then that would be a very interesting claim.

    No, I’m not saying that. Having already got all the real-world knowledge they need, in the form of the axioms, they then just reason from them.

    And by the way, yes, some logicians even work with systems that haven’t even been inspired by the real world. Paraconsistent logic is one such system.

    Paraconsistent logic is very much about real-world issues. It is an attempt to deal with information that is inconsistent. That is very much a real-world problem.

    The point being that if information is inconsistent it might still have information content (whereas conventional logic says that an inconsistency leads to zero information content). In the real world that is true!

    So, let me have a look at the relevant SEP page and run with it! 🙂

    The section headed “motivations” is all about real-world issues:

    “A most telling reason for paraconsistent logic is the fact that there are theories which are inconsistent but non-trivial … An example can be derived from the history of science. (In fact, many examples can be given from this area.) Consider Bohr’s theory of the atom. … Bohr’s account of the behaviour of the atom was inconsistent.”

    “Natural languages are another possible site of non-trivial inconsistency. In linguistics, it has been observed that normal lexical features are preserved even in inconsistent contexts.”

    “One of the applications is automated reasoning (information processing). … Consider a computer which stores a large amount of information. … Now it is quite common for the computer to contain inconsistent information, because of mistakes by the data entry operators or because of multiple sourcing. This is certainly a problem for database operations with theorem-provers, and so has drawn much attention from computer scientists.”

    “As a part of artificial intelligence research, belief revision is one of the areas that have been studied widely. Belief revision is the study of rationally revising bodies of belief in the light of new evidence. Notoriously, people have inconsistent beliefs. They may even be rational in doing so. For example, there may be apparently overwhelming evidence for both something and its negation. “

    Like

  12. Hi Coel

    That stuff from Rosenburg was from a philosophy of science textbook he wrote. 

    You sound to me very much like a Quinean naturalist.1:  No first philosophy. 2: Physics is a paradigm science. 3: Darwin’s theory is immensely important for philosophy. 4: Science is extremely important or necessary for answering many or all philosophical questions.

    (I kinda of agree with this sort of naturalism)

    The most contentious issue I think is normative thinking (outside of mathematics) or morals for scientism/naturalism.

    I have been reading your blog, some good stuff there. 

    Question about morals:

    I agree with you about your rejection of what you call the absolute shouldness scale or what Kant would call a categorical imperative. I think like you, that there are only in the end hypothetical imperatives. 

    What I am troubled about in your view about morals is that I don’t see if you allow or want to allow a rational or reasonable approach to moral problems. 

    Even if we give up talk about morality we still have conflicts of interest, we still need to make pratical decisions, we still need some kind of rules and principles  for the regulation of society. 

    Furthermore, do you think rational persuasion is possible on moral disagreements once we have factored out non-moral beliefs?

    Do you think we can criticise someone’s desires even if they have no false or contradictory belief?

    Best

    Mike. 

    Like

  13. Aravis –

    You say that the primary argument against it is that explanatory monism is inferior to explanatory pluralism. That’s not an argument against ontological reductionism. I completely agree with you that epistemically we should focus on things at higher levels (species, genes, etc.) when we talk about things in biology (as an example), rather than fundamental physics. Where does this logically negate ontological realism? The answer is it doesn’t. Yet again, I’ll go back to the simulation example. If we run it long enough, then complex characters might start to utilize currencies and interact in more complex ways, but it would still be captured by the simulation itself (which again begins with only those fundamental particles and their interactions).

    I’m not going to get into an argument about vagaries and inaccuracies because I used the word “demolish,” but your assertion that ontological reductionism is false holds no merit. Nowhere did I say higher level classes or laws wouldn’t exist (they certainly would in the weak emergence sense), only that they would be completely captured by the evolution of the universe from initial conditions (which they would), so lets not talk past each other.

    Asher –

    Definitely agree we should discuss all sides.

    Like

  14. I’m afraid it isn’t even “highly probably true” that ‘everything is reducible to quantum mechanics’. We have to distinguish between claims to veracity (that something is true, or probable, independently of the existence of minds or observers) and claims to verifiability within human experience. It is certainly verifiable within human experience that physical objects are composed of discrete particles we call ‘atoms’. however, the observable evidence does not (and cannot) show that atoms exist (even probably) in the absence of minds or observers.

    To show that atomic theory has veracity, and not just verifiability within human experience, you need a transcendental philosophical argument (i.e. one that transcends human experience). As for philosophical arguments against the veracity of atomic theory, you may refer to my paper at http://commons.pacificu.edu/eip/vol15/iss2/5/

    (The main argument starts at pg. 303)

    In the paper, i argue that atomic theory’s claim to veracity is premised on the existence of causation as a mind-independent phenomenon (because atoms are posited to cause mental phenomena, and to do so, the former must be causally prior to the latter. So causation would have to occur independently of minds or observers). However, the origin of a host of philosophical problems can be traced to the premise that causation is mind-independent. This suggests that the fundamental error is the premise, and the solution to the problems is the rejection of that premise.

    After all, what do we think of when we hear the word ’cause’? The first picture that comes to mind is usually of one solid object pushing another (the classic ‘billiard ball’ model). It is a plausible hypothesis that the idea of ‘causation’ is an analogical heuristic concept based on this primitive model (perhaps augmented by the human experience of ‘resistance’ when pushing objects). The concept is pragmatically useful, but theoretically misleading when applied to phenomena other than the transmission of kinetic energy. The classic example of such non-kinetic phenomena is, of course, mental phenomena.

    In order for atomic theory to explain ‘everything’, it would have to close the ‘causal loop’ between the ‘physical’ and the ‘mental’. In the article, I argue that this cannot be done (and both science and philosophy have failed to do so), because causation is just an anthropocentric (and possibly anthropomorphic) analogical model, it isn’t a ‘phenomenon’ that exists ‘outside the mind’, it is something that the mind projects upon experience. In other words, we think causally, it doesn’t follow that causation can exist without thoughts.

    None of this impacts the evidence for atomic theory (and it’s predictive and technological usefulness) within human experience, but if my argument is sound, that evidence alone doesn’t have the slightest possibility of delivering a ‘theory of everything’.

    Like

  15. SocraticGadfly,
    Agreed.
    I wasn’t thinking ‘origin of language’ in terms of, say, ‘when did it first appear,’ but rather, ‘what does it achieve.’ We’ll likely not get a final answer on that one, either, but it’s certainly a useful backdrop to a critical thinking on language.

    Like

  16. Coel, “Sorry, but no, subject topic and connection to empirical reality are not the only qualifications for science — the quality of the arguments is also relevant”.

    So how do you test quality of the arguments?

    – Is that a philosophical judgement? What are the criteria?
    – or can you test it scientifically? if so how do you avoid infinite regress?
    – or is it an or aesthetic assessment?

    Please clarify.

    Like

  17. Your assertion that ontological reductionism is false holds no merit.

    —————–

    I offered an argument against what you might call “strong” ontological reductionism. I also said that ontological monism is true, at the level of token physicalism.

    It’s you who’s engaging in the bald assertions, which we don’t do in philosophy.

    If you have a reply to my example of currencies, my points re: token vs. types, and the other arguments that I and others have put forth in this by now already substantial discussion, that’s great. Otherwise, you haven’t done anything but show up near the end and say “Nyet!” which doesn’t establish anything.

    Like

  18. Pete wrote:

    “Nowhere did I say higher level classes or laws wouldn’t exist (they certainly would in the weak emergence sense), only that they would be completely captured by the evolution of the universe from initial conditions (which they would), so lets not talk past each other.”

    ————————

    Depending on how you mean this, you are not, then, an ontological reductionist…or at least, not an ontological monist. it’s the latter that I’ve really argued against, as I think that token physicalism is true.

    And there’s nothing weak, in *any* ontic sense, about the classes and kinds that you find across the social sciences.

    Like

  19. Hi gfrellis,

    So how do you test quality of the arguments?

    In this context (which is about the definition of science) a “quality” argument is one that best leads to matches to empirical reality and to models with explanatory and predictive power. To test those things, and thus test “quality”, we use the arguments to make predictions about things that we don’t already know, then we verify whether the predictions are true. If the predictions tend to come true the arguments are high “quality”.

    or can you test it scientifically? if so how do you avoid infinite regress?

    I don’t think there is infinite redress, since the claim is about a match to empirical reality, and whether a model prediction matches empirical reality is something that we can observe.

    Like

  20. Hi Mike,

    You sound to me very much like a Quinean naturalist.

    Maybe! From what I’ve read from Quine he seems a sound chap (though, like many philosophers, way too keen on the analysis of language rather than reality).

    What I am troubled about in your view about morals is that I don’t see if you allow or want to allow a rational or reasonable approach to moral problems.

    I think that, in a practical sense, discussion of morals rationally and reasonably is essential for us all existing harmoniously in society. Of course reason can never suffice alone, since all morals are rooted in our feelings and desires. The pieces on my blog are really advocacy of emotivism as the basis for it all, rather than being about what to do practically. On that, I agree with you that rational discussion is needed.

    Furthermore, do you think rational persuasion is possible on moral disagreements once we have factored out non-moral beliefs?

    Yes I do. Rational persuasion can indeed affect how people feel about things.

    Do you think we can criticise someone’s desires even if they have no false or contradictory belief?

    Yes I do. We are all moral agents with moral opinions, and are entitled to criticise others or seek to persuade them of a different view.

    Like

  21. Coel, this is going to be my last comment on the topic, since we keep running in circles and the returns – if any – are drastically diminishing. Feel free to ignore.

    “I see the two as deeply linked, and the epistemic warrant for modal logic is indeed the real-life correspondence, as evidenced in its origins.”

    Once more: no. The two issues are completely logically distinct, and the etiology of X is less and less helpful to talk about the epistemic warrant for X the more X becomes sophisticated. Imagine, as an analogy, that you were to claim that modern astronomy is grounded in the abilities of the naked eye. That is certainly how it started, but pretty much close to nothing today is done in astronomy that way, so you gain little understanding by pointing to origins.

    “Having already got all the real-world knowledge they need, in the form of the axioms, they then just reason from them.”

    Besides the fact that plenty of people, again, have told you that your premise here is actually wrong; and besides the fact that you keep defending it on the basis of invented stories about how we *might* have arrived at axioms empirically; if you think that math (or logic) can be derived in their entirety by a small number of axioms, or that reasoning directly from those axioms to everything else is all there is to it, I don’t know which math and logic you are referring to.

    “Paraconsistent logic is very much about real-world issues. It is an attempt to deal with information that is inconsistent. That is very much a real-world problem.”

    Sorry, but that’s just preposterous. Paraconsistent logic is about resolving paradoxes, which are by definition most definitely NOT about the real world. (There are no paradoxes in physics or biology, last time I checked.)

    “The section headed “motivations” is all about real-world issues”

    Yup, which says *nothing* about epistemic warrant. Cheers.

    Like

  22. Hi Coel,

    Seems to me you are having a double dip at connection to empirical reality: this `quality of the argument’ criterion is just a rephrasing of that requirement.

    Like

  23. Hi Massimo,

    we keep running in circles and the returns – if any – are drastically diminishing.

    You’re right, we baffle each other with our very different ways of thinking. Which is somewhat interesting in itself.

    . Imagine, as an analogy, that you were to claim that modern astronomy is grounded in the abilities of the naked eye. That is certainly how it started, but pretty much close to nothing today is done in astronomy that way,

    Modern astronomy is independent of early astronomy, in that if you threw all the early stuff away you could just continue with the modern stuff, and it’d work fine.

    Maths is *not* independent of the axioms. If you threw the axioms away you could not just continue, you’d need another set of axioms. Thus it really does matter where the axioms come from. This is not an issue of timing, it is an issue of where the starting points of maths, that you then reason from, come from.

    For astronomy, the starting point is the observations, and you can just do new ones. In maths you also need starting points, and what they are is the whole issue here.

    you keep defending it on the basis of invented stories about how we *might* have arrived at axioms empirically;

    What is the alternative source of axioms? (In case anyone suggests, it is demonstrably not true that they are just made up randomly.)

    if you think that math (or logic) can be derived in their entirety by a small number of axioms, or that reasoning directly from those axioms to everything else is all there is to it, I don’t know which math and logic you are referring to.

    Yes, that is what I think (so long as you allow reasoning indirectly from axioms, but still anchored to the axioms), and I think I’m referring to mainstream maths.

    Sorry, but that’s just preposterous. Paraconsistent logic is about resolving paradoxes, which are by definition most definitely NOT about the real world. (There are no paradoxes in physics or biology, last time I checked.)

    But humans are often faced with paradoxes. For example in a court of law we often have conflicting accounts. In science we often have information that is inconsistent. In a database we might have lots of true information and some corrupted (false) information. It is entirely “real world” to think formally about the correct way of processing that information, which is what paraconsistent logic does.

    Like

  24. Hi gfrellis,

    Seems to me you are having a double dip at connection to empirical reality: this `quality of the argument’ criterion is just a rephrasing of that requirement.

    It’s more than “connection to” reality, it’s also about degree of explanatory and predictive power about reality. That’s what religion lacks.

    Like

  25. Thanks for mentioning my paper! There’s a really excellent criticism of that paper:

    “Non-Reductive Naturalism and the Vocabulary of Agency”
    Jonathan Knowles
    Contemporary Pragmatism, Vol. 10, No. 2 (December 2013), 155–172.

    I haven’t figured out yet if I have a response or if Knowles is simply correct.

    At the time I wrote that, I was trying to figure out if “naturalism without scientism” was coherent and defensible. I used to think that it simply had to be! Now I’m largely of the persuasion that naturalism without scientism is not really coherent after all. If you push hard enough on it, it turns either into scientism (even a very soft and cuddly, anti-reductionist scientism like that of Ladyman and Ross) or into epistemological pluralism — and where epistemological pluralism goes, ontological pluralism cannot be far behind.

    I’ve read the Macarthur and del Caro volumes on “liberal naturalism”. That looks like epistemological pluralism to me. (Horst uses the phrase, “cognitive pluralism,” which I prefer but I’m not going to co-opt it till I’ve read more of his stuff.) I’ve got no problem with that — I’m happy with epistemological pluralism! — but then I don’t see what the point is of clinging to the label “naturalism”. And I don’t see how epistemological pluralism is consistent with ontological monism, because I don’t see what could possibly ground or justify the commitment to ontological monism once we embrace epistemological pluralism.
    ,

    Like

  26. Coel writes:

    Modern astronomy is independent of early astronomy, in that if you threw all the early stuff away you could just continue with the modern stuff, and it’d work fine.

    Maths is *not* independent of the axioms. If you threw the axioms away you could not just continue, you’d need another set of axioms. Thus it really does matter where the axioms come from. This is not an issue of timing, it is an issue of where the starting points of maths, that you then reason from, come from.

    So this is your excuse for relying on 3000-year-old math?

    SciSal grossly understates the errors in your reasoning. None of your examples or arguments even recognize that math is all about logical proofs. You use “1+1=2” as a typical math result, but it is just a definition. Some of the better known theorems of the ancient Greeks were (1) there exist an infinity of primes; (2) the square root of 2 is irrational; and (3) the Pythagorean theorem. So in particular, the hypotenuse of an isosceles right triangle is not rationally related to the leg length.

    So tell us how this is empirical. Yes, you can go square a bunch of numbers and see that you do not get 2. However you would never do that if you understood the proof, and you would never call it a theorem based on observations.

    And that is just the math of 2300 years ago. You cannot apply your thesis to current axioms of math like ZFC, or any other math of the last century.

    Your biggest flaw, not even mentioned by SciSal, is your claim that math results are “provisional”, like a model of astronomy observations. They are not. Those Greek math proofs are 100% certain and correct, while their astronomy has had to be revised many times.

    Your attitude is unfortunately common among physics professors. Few have any appreciation for math. Physics textbooks are commonly loaded with math equations, but very rarely have any proofs. It is rare that they ever make mathematical statements precise enough to state a theorem. In the view of mathematicians, physicists are innumerate.

    You seem to have the idea that astronomy has purged itself from its ancient epicycles and astrology, but math is somehow locked into the empirical motivations of ancient Babylonians. This was already wrong 2300 years ago, when the Greeks discovered the axiomatic method.

    Like

  27. IF you eat those cookies THEN you will be in trouble…….IF P THEN Q

    IF you eat those cookies then you will be in trouble………Conditional again
    If YOU eat those cookies then you will be in trouble………Cookies meant for someone else.
    If you EAT those cookies then you will be in trouble………Cookies are meant as decorations
    If you eat THOSE cookies then you will be in trouble……..Means there are a choice of cookies
    If you………………..

    System 2 per Khaneman assigns deeper meanings or per Damasio the emotional basis of mind.

    Like

  28. Hi Massimo and Coel.

    At the end of your brilliant dialogue, you agree to disagree. Bafflement ensues. I am not surprised, and could have predicted this – metaphysical arguments ‘always’ end up with multiple potential answers. This outcome seems to be repeated in many disciplines.

    The explanation seems simple, it is biological, it is how are brains work. It seems that we are designed to be diverse. The brain is plastic and is physically shaped by its environment and thus should process information differently for each unique individual.

    My take is that metaphysics is very good at finding and clarifying questions, terrible at answers. Scientists try to answer these and other questions, one small reductionist bite at a time.

    I find math and quantum mechanics terribly interesting, even beautiful, but not very informative. We have to do the best we can with our limited resources. Our destiny is in our DNA.

    Like

  29. Hi schlafly,

    So this is your excuse for relying on 3000-year-old math?

    What’s your issue with the timing? Has the value of pi changed over that time? Yes, I am asserting that the axioms of maths derive from empirical observations, and that such observations were made 3000 years ago, but those observations are redone and renewed each generation.

    Afterall, the correspondence of maths to the real world is continually demonstrated by the fact that engineering works. (You can bet that if engineering stopped working, and this was traced to the value of pi and other bits of maths changing [= axioms no longer holding in the world], then mathematicians would take an interest. I bet they would not just say “we don’t care”.)

    None of your examples or arguments even recognize that math is all about logical proofs.

    But I do recognise that! Maths is all about logical proofs *from* *starting* *points* (axioms). And if you reason logically from starting points then the starting points do matter; your end result really does depend on the starting points that you choose! None of my critics seem to appreciate that rather basic point! It’s like claiming that the taste of a cake has no relation to the ingredients used!

    You use “1+1=2″ as a typical math result, but it is just a definition.

    Agreed, it is a definition that is part of a scheme adopted as a model of the real world. What other starting points are there? On what other basis are axioms adopted? None of my critics have even attempted an answer to that question!

    I agree entirely that once you’ve chosen the starting points it is a matter of non-empirical logical deduction from there. That is obvious! But it is equally obvious (surely?) that the theorems of maths depend also on the starting points.

    (2) the square root of 2 is irrational; … So tell us how this is empirical.

    It is empirical because the starting points of the system are empirical. Humans adopted counting numbers and simple addition as a model of the world, for counting days to the next full moon of for counting sheep. From there multiplication follows (as simply repeated addition). Once you have the concept of multiplication you can write down A x A = 2 and ask what value A has. All of this system follows logically from its empirical roots.

    and (3) the Pythagorean theorem.

    The pythagorean proof is indeed empirical, it involves rearranging triangles and seeing what the result looks like.

    You cannot apply your thesis to current axioms of math like ZFC, or any other math of the last century.

    Sure I can, I just ask where the axioms of ZFC come from. That answer is that they are arrived at owing to correspondence with real-world behaviour. What other basis for adopting axioms is there? Any chance that my critics might try actually answering that? (And, no, they are not just random; nor were they given to Moses on Mt Sinai.)

    Your biggest flaw, not even mentioned by SciSal, is your claim that math results are “provisional”, like a model of astronomy observations. They are not. Those Greek math proofs are 100% certain and correct, …

    Maths results depend on the axioms. What is the basis of choosing the axioms? It is relation to real-world behaviour. Since that latter point is an empirical matter, that gives the whole system the same “provisionality” as physics.

    But, you might say, I’m not asking about the real-world behaviour, I’m just pointing out that *if* the axioms are a given, *then* the result follows with 100% certainty.

    OK, *but*, you are then relying on correct reasoning. How have you validated the reasoning that you used to get from the axioms to the result? You will likely say that you simply wrap up the reasoning (and the axioms of reasoning that you used) as part of the system. But, Godel tells us that you cannot show that your system is self-consistent. So on what basis are you asserting complete confidence in the system?

    I assert that the answer to that is to fall back on validating the reasoning by the fact that it works in the real world (with reasoning also being a system derived from empiricism).

    Physics textbooks are commonly loaded with math equations, but very rarely have any proofs. It is rare that they ever make mathematical statements precise enough to state a theorem.

    You are right that physics often just uses maths as a tool, and thus glosses over some of the precision that mathematicians would insist on. Fortunately we have people like you to do things the formally correct way!

    This was already wrong 2300 years ago, when the Greeks discovered the axiomatic method.

    Yes, the *axiomatic* method. The everything-depends-on-those-axioms method!

    Like

  30. Massimo, In light of the NFL and the Michael Sam news, on any Sunday between September and February millions participate in the NFL ritual plus factor the millions who participate in the Saturday NCAA. Factor in the other major sports plus Olympics (Putin and Winter Games) and athletics is really the major vehicle for promoting public debate and values. Considering the financial impact of college athletics, have they become the new humanities? Also considering the focus of the medical sciences, psychology and technology involved. May make for an interesting post.

    Like

  31. Aravis –

    This’ll be the last response I have for now. As far as the difference between “strong” and “weak” emergence, you can start here to get a handle on the difference, because its a important one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence

    I’ll do some research on the whole ontological reductionism vs ontological monism and type-token physicalism so I can ensure I’m using the right language to describe my system of belief. What I will say though, as a final thought, is that simulations run today get us to the large scale structure of the universe we currently observe (with some details missing of course, as astrophysics is very much an active field and new discoveries emerge all the time). Now as our computers get better and better and increasingly resolve finer distinctions, we will be able to capture more of the dynamics to unprecedented accuracies. This has already had a profound impact on meteorology (currently reading about it in Nate Silver’s ‘The Signal and the Noise’), nuclear physics, quantum chemistry, etc. If we start seeing the emergence of individual planets and solar systems with properties that mirror the ones observable throughout the universe, then we’ll be able to see that a simulation starting ONLY from fundamental particles and their interactions has successfuly described the universe up to the point of galaxy and planet formation.

    From there, I don’t know if some people believe something supernatural/magical seems to happen once planets have formed and complex geological and climates have developed, thus making supercomputers incapable of further carrying out the simulation, but I imagine not. I imagine if a simulation then started with a planet as the initial condition (or even a part of a planet), it could evolve self replicating molecules and life thereafter. That is my conception of reductionism (as well as the opinion of many, many others). If we can see novel phenomena emerge later on down the line after starting only with particles and their interactions, how is this not ample evidence that they are reducible to those starting components? Its a deterministic computer program, no magic has entered anywhere. High level functions may develop within that simulation, but of course that’s true with enough particles lying around and interacting with each other. I mean, we’ve already seen extremely novel behavior in things like cellular automata (think Conway’s Game of Life, which you can read about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway's_Game_of_Life). The fundamental rules and initial conditions are responsible for everything that comes later, again, including novel interactions at higher levels and possible patterns/pseudo-laws/generalities that come about along the way.

    So I’m not sure what group that belongs to, but that’s the type of reductionist I am. It’s the same type I’ve heard many other people describe. I hope that clears things up a bit. Time to get back to Labor Day weekend.

    Like

  32. Disagreeable Me: “… It seems to me that Coel is interested in pointing out the empirical origins of mathematics and similar disciplines.”

    Superficially and practically, Coel is not wrong. But he is fundamentally wrong, a total mess-up.

    First, there are ‘nature-physics’ and ‘nature-math’. And, ‘nature-physics’ is identical to (=) ‘nature-math’. I will show this proof in due time.

    Second, there are ‘human-endeavors’ studying on this ‘nature-physics’ and ‘nature-math’.
    A. Studying on ‘nature-physics’: (1) based on Popperianism, totally ‘empiricial-physics (including the theoretical physics)’, (2) base on a ‘first principle’ — the ‘Large Complex System Principle’ (all large complex systems are governed by a ‘single’ principle), thus designing a universe to enter into a beauty-contest with the nature-physics.
    B. Studying on ‘nature-math’: in a sense, this is a big tragedy. Thus far, the true understanding the ‘nature math’ is almost nil. Yet, it shows one great nature of this ‘nature-math’, having infinite ‘creating’ power. The human math thus far is all about building lego structures.

    Third, from the two above, there are three conclusions.
    1. There is no lego-structure can go ‘beyond’ the ‘nature-math’. Each lego-structure shows only one side of the nature-math.
    2. The ‘nature-physics’ can “be totally derived’ from the nature-math (with absolutely no empirical info).
    3. The Popperian-human-physics (empirical-physics) can only be described with math-lego-structure.

    Thus, the ‘physical universe’ is the emergent of the nature-physics while the nature-physics is the emergent of nature-math. So, every axiom for any math-lego-structure must have a physical-correspondence. But using this to show that math is ‘based’ on empirical and to prove that ‘empiricism’ is the ‘only’ way of knowing are ‘totally’ wrong. There is a physical-correspondence for every math-axiom is the ‘consequence’ of nature-math being the source (creator) of this physical-universe. Note: my math-creator is totally different from ‘multiverse-related-math-scheme’.

    The stone-tools were something of wonder for millions years. Now, we have transformed that silicon into computers and iphone. Will any of you still wanting the stone nail? On the same token, the Popperianism did great wonder for 400 years. But, Popperianism is ‘fundamentally’ wrong, useful only when we were super ignorant. With it, we have learned great deal of the nature-physics. Now, we are no longer ignorant, and it is the time for Popperianism to go, so must go the grandiose-scientism.

    Like

  33. Hi Massimo,

    But I do think there are a priori truths, in the specific sense of truths that are not dependent on empirical facts. […] And all tautologies, of course, are run of the mill examples of them.

    Let’s take the tautology: “No unmarried man is married”. Thus amounts to the law of non-contradiction. (Or perhaps the law of the excluded middle.) It asserts that the man cannot be both married and unmarried. How do we know this? Afterall, we don’t have a proof of it. The assertion that it does not depend on empirical facts implies that it is necessarily true in all possible worlds, but I’m not sure how we know that. Just asserting it as obvious isn’t sufficient, given that we are children of this world, and thus our intuition is the product of this world. A world without the law of non-contradiction might be nonsensical chaos, but nothing (as far as I’m aware) excludes the existence of nonsensical chaos.

    Adopting radical empiricism, I suggest that even something as basic as the law of non-contradiction is an empirical fact about how our universe is. Does anyone have a better justification for adopting that law? If I’m right then there are no a priori (analytic) truths at all.

    Further, let’s try three alternatives:

    1) No unmarried man is married.
    2) No dead cat is alive.
    3) No spin-up electron is spin-down.

    At least some interpretations of quantum mechanics (admittedly fairly silly ones) hold that (2) can be false (and that Schrodinger’s cat can be both alive and dead). Even the sensible interpretations of quantum mechanics (as far as there *are* any sensible ones) hold that (3) can be false. Indeed, the negation of (3) appears to be an empirical fact about how our world actually is, proven so by Bell’s inequalities.

    At the very least, this shows that all three of those, including (1), can not just be assumed as necessary properties of all possible universes, and thus if one is true about our universe then that is an empirical fact about our universe. Indeed, the evidence is that (3) is false and that (1) is only true because unmarried men are large enough (compared to Planck’s constant) that quantum decoherence must always be complete.

    This train of thought suggests that radical empiricism holds and that there are no a priori truths that are independent of empirical facts.

    Like

  34. Coel, no, the bachelor example is a definitional tautology, so to even ask whether there is a possible world in which it is not true is to engage in a category mistake. Sure, if you change the definition of bachelor of course there won’t be a tautology anymore. But that’s precisely the point: it’s tautological given that definition. Just like, by the way, there is no possible world in which triangles defined by a plane have an internal sum of their angles that is different from 180 degrees.

    Like

  35. I agree with Massimo here (there can be no unmarried bachelors in any possible world), but I think it’s important to recognise that Coel is not making a category mistake but just engaging in the kind of radical skepticism that Massimo and Aravis were quite happy to entertain in the article about whether we have hands. Coel is entertaining the possibility that our reason is so constrained by this particular universe that we see tautologies where there are nothing of the sort. This is equivalent to the hypothesis that we are deranged and incapable of thinking rationally. On such radical skepticism, anything is (epistemically) possible, including married bachelors.

    However, radical skepticism of this sort is not particularly useful and is perhaps best avoided once it is acknowledged as an intellectual curiosity. Therefore, though it is epistemically possible that we are deranged and that it is only our sickness that prevents us from acknowledging the possibility of married bachelors, it nevertheless remains my view that this is wildly unlikely and that it is safe to assume there are no possible worlds where married bachelors can exist.

    Like

  36. But I do recognise that! Maths is all about logical proofs *from* *starting* *points* (axioms). And if you reason logically from starting points then the starting points do matter; your end result really does depend on the starting points that you choose! None of my critics seem to appreciate that rather basic point! It’s like claiming that the taste of a cake has no relation to the ingredients used!

    While an end result does – in some (trivial) sense – depend on the starting point, the exact relationship is far from trivial and it’s precisely at the heart of the issue in this discussion.

    A fictional novel, for instance, usually starts from or is at least inspired by empirical facts about the real world and from then on usually seeks to create a plausible storyline by developing the plot and its characters in some way that is in turn at least inspired by real world facts or phenomena. You could even turn every story into an axiomatic system, where the next event would follow necessarily from prior events and some additional axioms (although it would get messy).

    Now you would find it disingenuous if I would argue that therefore it is and will always be an (approximate) empirical description of the real world and when questioned on that would simply refer to its empirical roots. Your argument simply doesn’t do the work you need it to do.

    Agreed, it is a definition that is part of a scheme adopted as a model of the real world. What other starting points are there? On what other basis are axioms adopted? None of my critics have even attempted an answer to that question!

    I think what the formalisms are supposed to be “about” is actually a good way of looking at it. In physics – as I understand it – most formal models are supposed to be about the real world. They are supposed to tell us what is really going on in the world – even if only approximately. Sure physicists also study toy models that are way oversimplified to investigate certain (mathematical) properties, but if they would not be motivated in doing this by the hope of extending these insights to more intricate models that capture the real world then I wouldn’t call it physics.

    Mathematical systems, outside of applied math (and sometimes even therein) are not supposed to be about the real world, nor are they studied in the hope of applying the insights to the real world in some more extensive model. They are formal systems studied in pursuit of a better understanding of the formal structure and that is that.

    Asking my colleagues in pure math: “How might we use these insights to eventually better explain some measurement carried out in reality?” would most of the time not even make sense. While it would (or should, in my opinion) always be a sensible question in physics.

    Like

  37. Hi DM,

    The physicist does indeed understand what the computer is doing — it’s moving electrons around and changing charges on capacitors and whatnot.

    Or it might be flinging some pieces of wood around with rubber bands, or moving a bunch of cogs by a shaft attached to a windmill, or moving little lengths of metal attached to springs, etc.

    The point is that it that it makes no difference whatsoever which of these physical substrates is working the algorithm, because it is doing exactly the same thing in each case.

    If the physicist concludes that what this machine is doing is moving little pieces of wood around with rubber bands then he has missed pretty much the entire picture, and that only illustrates the problem with reductionism (using this definition).

    Suppose there is a brilliant physicist studying this machine and also an equivalently clever person who knows nothing whatsoever about physics then the physicist will have no advantage whatsoever over the non-physicist in working out what the machine does.

    Moreover, if the physicist persists in the belief that this is something which arises from the underlying physics then he will be at a severe disadvantage to the non-physicist because he will be using the wrong type of mathematics.

    Not only is it a process which could happen identically on a vast number of entirely different physical substrates, it is a process which could happen identically even in physical environments which were radically different to the physical world we see.

    So it is a process which is not reducible to physics and shows how the automatic assumption of reducibility would lead to wrong conclusions, even if everything is physical.

    Like

  38. >>Sorry, but you just are not engaging this question at the practical level. It doesn’t matter if Coel or Neil de Grasse Tyson or Lawrence Krauss *say* that the arts and humanities are worthless and not worth spending money on. Their criticisms are taken up by people in legislatures and university administrations who are already looking for a reason to go after the arts and humanities. Their criticisms are being used by other people for nefarious ends that they do not intend themselves….the fact that they are being used as weapons by the Philistines is doubly upsetting.

    My point is precisely that arguing about scientism isn’t a practical way to solve the problem. Do you think any politician is going to say, “Oh no, scientism is wrong! Let’s boost funding for the humanities!” Like you said, those people are already looking for a reason to cut those programs – they don’t CARE if the scientistic philosophy is sound or not (they’re bullshitter’s in Frankfurt’s sense of the word).

    If Massimo had merely pointed out that the philistines employ scientistic rhetoric, I couldn’t deny that. But I’m skeptical of the claim that the scientistic rhetoric actually does much to “exacerbate” their influence.

    >>Besides, Neil did explicitly say that philosophy is useless. And so did Hawking. And Krauss. And Weinberg. And Dawkins.

    First of all, someone who thinks philosophy is useless isn’t necessarily a philistine (in the sense of being anti-humanities in general.) Indeed, sometimes *humanists* are hostile towards philosophy, so let’s not confuse being anti-philosophy with being anti-humanities. Second, some of those people (particularly NdT and Krauss) explicitly *did* say that philosophy has its uses (e.g., for thinking about ethics).

    >>The arts and humanities are mere “function” of human behavior. History- out; literature- out; philosophy- out. You’re inclusion of him in your list underscores the problem of ‘scientism’ ideology. It has yet determined no way to delimit moderates from extremists.

    I don’t see anything in Rosenberg’s position that says we should stop teaching students classic literature, music, art, foreign languages. It would be an understatement to say that one’s metaphysical/epistemological views underdetermine one’s views on the aims and purposes of higher education.

    Anyway, since I don’t want to get derailed into an argument over Rosenberg exegesis, let me just clarify that I didn’t intend the contrast between ‘scientism-ists’ and ‘philistines’ to be one of moderates vs. extremists. Likewise, the contrast between philosophical skeptics/anti-realists and creationists/climate change deniers isn’t a one of moderate vs. extremist.

    Like

  39. Hi DM,

    But if it were the case that we could be so misled as to be mistaken about a definitional tautology being a tautology then we must also be misled about what we mean by the terms.

    In that case there would still be no possible world in which there could be a married bachelor because the terms “bachelor” and “married” would mean something other than the meaning we ascribe to them.

    Therefore the words “married” and “bachelor” would not be equivalent in that world to the words in this world – they would mean – we don’t know what..

    It would simply be a world in which a scrimpson-scrampson-scree could be needle-nardle-noo.

    Like

  40. In effect, this would be to say “Maybe nothing that anybody says, or ever has said or ever will say makes any sense at all”.

    I am not quite sure how you would even parse that sentence since, if it described reality it would not make sense.

    That is the difference between doubting that we have a physical body and doubting that a definitional tautology is a definitional tautology.

    We can doubt the first without also doubting that any knowledge or meaning is possible at all. The proposition that doubts the first does not entail doubt that the proposition itself carries any meaning, even approximate meaning.

    It is like the sentence “Everything that has ever been said, thought or written may have no meaning”

    That sentence can only be false. It can’t even be meaningless, if you think about it – because what would “meaningless” mean?

    Like

  41. Hi Coel,

    Further, let’s try three alternatives:

    1) No unmarried man is married.
    2) No dead cat is alive.
    3) No spin-up electron is spin-down.

    At least some interpretations of quantum mechanics (admittedly fairly silly ones) hold that (2) can be false (and that Schrodinger’s cat can be both alive and dead). Even the sensible interpretations of quantum mechanics (as far as there *are* any sensible ones) hold that (3) can be false. Indeed, the negation of (3) appears to be an empirical fact about how our world actually is, proven so by Bell’s inequalities.

    Actually you are wrong about 3). If 3 was false then a superposition would not even be, in principle, possible.

    For example if a spin-up electron could be a spin-down electron then there could be no superposition of spin-up/spin-down since it might equally be a superposition of “spin-up/spin-up” or “spin-down/spin-down” and not even a fact of the matter about the probability of which it was.

    How would you be able to do the maths of QM if every member of a superposition could be something else? That would entail, for example, that there could be no expectation value. It would mean that there could be no prediction at all about the pattern on the back plane on the double-slit experiment since there would not be a fact of the matter even about the probability of where the particle is.

    This idea that QM contradicts the axiom of contradiction is a furphy.

    There is a difference between there being a superposition of X and not X and X being not X.

    Like

  42. And as I have pointed out before, the homeopath can move goalposts and make untestable claims just as well as the priest. You allow the scientist to call the homeopath on it, I would allow the scientist to call both of them on it. Because there is no difference between the two cases except the use of the label “supernatural” which does not seem to have any meaning beyond “science, keep your hands off please”.

    Like

Comments are closed.