In It’s Not Easy Being Grue, I argued for skepticism — or at least incredulity — towards any inductive inference made solely by appealing to a posteriori evidence. Two hypotheses, as long as they have a logical content greater than the evidence and are not yet refuted are, as a matter of following the rules of logic, necessarily equally favored by the evidence. Even if one should appeal to one of the two hypotheses having a natural property, this problem still stands, since it cannot be uncovered through a posteriori investigation. Of course, more than two hypotheses fit this criteria — any number of empirically adequate hypotheses with greater logical content than the evidence may be constructed. In sum, favoring one hypothesis over another, even with an a prior warrant, cannot be determined from a posteriori evidence at all.
Archive for the ‘empiricism’ Category
One solution to Goodman’s new riddle of induction, as proposed by David Lewis and WVO Quine, is that certain languages describe natural properties, which have a special metaphysical status. All things being equal, the evidence will favor the hypothesis that uses languages that have natural properties over any other language in all cases. The problem of choosing between hypotheses that will be favored by the evidence and hypotheses that will not is solved by choosing a hypothesis expressed in a language that uses natural properties. There is, however, a problem with this solution: how can a scientist decide whether a language is using a natural property?
The imagination has made more discoveries than the eye. (Joseph Joubert)
We make a conjecture, a guess. We make tentative proposals, and then see how they work. If they don’t withstand criticism, we try again, either making an iteration on the initial theory, or making a drastic revision that explains why the initial theory was mistaken. If they withstand criticism, this says nothing about their truth or falsity. What happens, though, before the criticism?
Anaximander, the first scientist, said the Earth was unsupported in space. From the modern point of view, we do not understand that at the time this was a highly controversial supposition, one that went against the firm foundation of the senses. It is obvious (and I rarely use the word, for very few things are truly obvious) that this was something Anaximander could not possibly have observed. Here we have one of the most revolutionary conjectures, for while it happened to be true (or at least approximately true), it is the first known case of an individual going against the assumption that the senses were the final arbiters of the truth.
Anaximander deduced that if the Earth was supported on pillars, or the back of a turtle, or four elephants, or water, that the pillars, turtle, elephants, or water would themselves require some support. And this new support would require a support as well, and so on, in an infinite regress of supports. So Anaximander did away with the whole notion of support entirely and said that the Earth did not rest on anything.
The eye and the ear are notoriously unreliable, but more importantly, they do not give us any interesting theories. Cosmology does not come from the senses; cosmology is created from the mind. Here we have the first scientist acting — unwittingly, and centuries before the 18th century — as a Kantian, not an empiricist. Science began without empiricism, for empiricism in science is unnecessary and possibly unproductive.
If a basic statement and theory are incoherent, then observation reports cannot inform us that theories are wrong and theories cannot inform us that observation reports are wrong. Either the theories or observation reports are wrong — or both. Neither T1 nor T2 should be adopted a priori, for they effectively annihilate one another: all we can see is an incoherence between T1 and T2.
Furthermore, even after we recognize an incoherence between an observation report and a theory, this ‘recognizing’ is relative to a given system of logic, background assumptions, language, and cognitive framework: we are even fallible in recognizing incoherence. Whatever method or route we follow that leads to preferring one over the other will either not rest on an Archimedean point, or will not be known to rest on an Archimedean point. All is theory-laden and subject to error. We must admit that it is possible to change the logic we employ, statements we adopt, theories we accept, methods we follow, language we use, or the cognitive frameworks we inhabit, for none of them are privileged.
Larry Laudan’s well-known paper “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” has been republished several times in several volumes. The most readily available copy I could find was in “Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum.” The paper is worth reading for Laudan’s historical analysis of the demarcation problem, but two points in the essay stand out as supremely lackluster, especially for Laudan.
Bas van Fraassen’s work is, to use the words of another philosopher said to me during a brief Skype conversation, “one of the best philosophers of science alive.” But why? The concluding pages of his article The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology (2000) stand out as bucking the trend in philosophy of science and epistemology in much the same way Bartley and Popper did–he considers the historical problem-situation, finds faults with all the available options, and then reconfigures the problem in such a way as to dig out an underlying assumption.
In this case, his language is still laden with certain terms that make him far more understandable to others that still cling to these assumptions, but his conclusions are, when understood, close enough to critical rationalism as to deserve either catcalls and gnashing of teeth from the traditionalist monkeys that cling to the rafters, or a long time spent reflecting by critical rationalists. I’ve already taken on board several of his positions, and may take on more in time, but even if I should reject them in due course, he has provided, even implicitly, a powerful alternative to critical rationalism.
I take it that what is rational is precisely what is rationally permitted. Thus we are rational in believing something exactly when we are not rationally compelled to believe the opposite. This implies, tautologically, that nothing more than staying within the bounds of reason is needed for this status of rationality–not good reasons, not a rationale, not support of any special sort, not a pedigree of inductive reasoning or confirmation, nothing is needed above and beyond coherence. Thus any truly coherent position is rational.
Now this may strike you as absurd, because it seems to imply that ‘anything goes’, the ugly brought of skepticism’s ‘nothing goes’. But that is simply not so. If it were so, I would have come to an impasse and would have to admit that the constrains of rationality are more than coherence. But it is not so, and we have not in fact come to an impasse.
… Logically speaking there may be infinitely many coherent alternatives to our posterior opinion, but almost none of these will be live options for us. This is not an accidental feature of our situation, but integral to it, exactly because we have prior opinion and prior understanding, which is not laid out for us on the side, like a textbook, but which is already our own. Any small part of it we can think of changing as part of our response, and any large part of it we can think as possibly changed, to any imaginable alterative, over the long run, in the course of time. But we do not have the wherewithal to respond in more than a limited variety of ways at any given time. Many of the imaginable alteratives to what seems plausible to us cannot be incorporated by us.
… It does not mean that there are constraints on rationality beyond coherence, and it does not mean that we are following apliative rules after all. It means simply that the Neurath ‘mariners repairing their boat at sea’ for m of relativism does not lead us into a damagingly enfeebled epistemic enterprise. The ‘already on a boat’ part defeats the skeptical argument based on the ‘at sea’ part.
So here is my conclusion. We supply our own opinion, with nothing to ground it, and no method to give us an extra source of knowledge. Only the ’empty’ techniques of logic and pure math are available either to refine and improve or expose the defects of this option. That is the human condition. But it is enough. (Bas van Fraassen, The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LX, No. 2, March 2000, 277-279)
The comments over at Feser’s blog are fairly amusing. The theist’s side is wanting, so they give the tu quoque: the empiricist’s is unfounded as well. I can only shrug and let them fight it out amongst themselves.
That said, it’s a good example of two groups operating within the justificationist meta-context, and generally falling all over themselves–one comment even relates to my previous post and CR in general, if you’re able to slog through the whole thread:
The OFloinn says,
What has been discounted was Popper’ larger program of discrediting the certainty of scientific knowledge, reducing it from knowledge to opinion, however well-educated the opinion was. It’s inadequacy can be seen by considering two falsified theories: Heliocentrism, falsified by the lack of stellar parallax by Aristotle, Archimedes, et al.; Maxwell’s electromagnetism, falsified by the existence of permanent magnets. These two examples indicate the inadequacies of Popperian irrationalism.
I sometimes wonder how some people are able to think and breathe at the same time without choking.
There is endless conjecture, and certainty is not to be counted upon (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason)
Some people treat evidence as something that accumulates over time, like sap from a tree. Once enough evidence is collected, you need only synthesize it into syrup, and then you’ve proved your point. “I have X amount of evidence for Y, therefore you ought to believe Y, otherwise you are behaving irrationally.” So the story goes.
‘Faith’ is often taken to be a theory that is not taken on logical or empirical grounds. This is little more than a simultaneous disparagement of theories that are not logically or empirically grounded and an assumption that such grounding is possible.
It is impossible, so I conjecture, to ground anything. If this is the case, according to this description of faith, all theories are equally faith-based. That doesn’t seem right. At this point, most people see this as a reductio of the conjecture of the impossibility of grounding. I can intuitively tell apart a scientific theory, they might say, from religious theories. Therefore, some theories are grounded. The nature of grounding is then examined in detail.
- The ambition of empiricism is to reduce all relevant matters of fact to sensory qualities.
- Sensory qualities, even if assumed that they can be known immediately, do not justify matters of fact outside sensory qualities.
- The ambition of empiricism to reduce all matters of fact outside sensory qualities to sensory qualities is impossible.
Teacher: Previously, we touched on how non-scientific statements play a bigger role than Popper first acknowledged. Gamma, you said yesterday that you disagreed with Sigma’s description of the scientific process?
A chess problem is genuine mathematics, but it is in some way ‘trivial’ mathematics. However ingenious and intricate, however original and surprising the moves, there is something essential lacking. Chess problems are unimportant. The best mathematics is serious as well as beautiful — ‘important’ if you like, but the word is very ambiguous, and ‘serious’ expresses what I mean much better.
I am not thinking of the ‘practical’ consequences of mathematics. … The ‘seriousness’ of a mathematical problem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is ‘significant’ if it can be connected, in the natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas. (G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology, p. 88-9)
This insight into ‘serious’ and ‘trival’ problems in mathematics is, I think, analogous to science: the depth and breadth of scientific theories is of a different kind than the kind of puzzles that occupy our day-to-day lives. “Where did I park the car?” is a practical problem for me, but it is an unimportant problem for science.