Archive for the ‘holism’ Category


In holism, irrationalism, kuhn on 17/10/2011 at 4:26 am

When Kuhn says that the “most fundamental aspect of … incommensurability” is “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds” (Structure, 150) or that a scientific revolution is “a displacement of the conceptual network through which scientists view the world (ibid., 102), it is difficult to understand Kuhn as saying anything other than that incommensurability implies incomparability. With the incomparability of two theories, then theory choice is necessarily irrational, commitment to a paradigm or lexicon follows, and so on.

The assumption that theories are incommensurable can lead to, in this most radical version, parroted by post-modernist college kids all across the globe, ‘conversation-stoppers’, modes of speech that deny the very possibility of an assumption’s falsity, and are self-reinforcing enough that the most committed individual can defend the assumption come what may. In short, it’s far too convenient for anyone to claim that they do not understand the meaning of a sentence.

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In grunbaum, holism, quine on 25/08/2011 at 2:26 pm

Quine’s problem (which is different from the Duhem problem) begins by calling into question ‘the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.’ (Quine, 39) However it was never Duhem’s intention to save the hypothesis, merely to indicate the element of uncertainty of falsifying evidence. Quine has taken the Duhem problem and extended it so that there is no limit to the set of hypotheses which face a test: “our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body.” (ibid, 41)

Of course, Quine is correct in saying that “Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision,” (ibid, 43) but as Grünbaum shows, this is a trivial result.

It’s best not to reduce Grünbaum’s argument too far, but a brief analysis of the paper is necessary: Grünbaum demonstrates that while the Quine problem is trivially true as a matter of following the rules of logic, it leaves us only with no compelling reason to favor any of our auxiliary hypotheses over our scientific theories, and in its non-trivial form is a non sequitur. Anyone interested in examining Grünbaum’s argument fully can read the paper here [.pdf] (alt link).

In a letter dated June 1, 1962 and printed in Harding (1976), Quine responded to Grünbam. It’s interesting to understand Quine in light of this letter. I’ve reproduced it below, bolding specific passages of note.

Dear Professor Grünbaum:

I have read your paper on the falsifiability of theories with interest. Your claim that the Duhem-Quine thesis, as you call it, is untenable if taken non-trivially, strikes me as persuasive. Certainly it is carefully argued.

For my own part I would say that the thesis as I have used it is probably trivial. I haven’t advanced it as an interesting thesis as such. I bring it in only in the course of arguing against such notions as that the empirical content of sentences can in general be sorted out distributively, sentence by sentence, or that the understanding of a term can be segregated from collateral information regarding the object. For such purposes I am not concerned even to avoid the trivial extreme of sustaining a law by changing a meaning; for the cleavage between meaning and fact is part of what, in such contexts, I am questioning. Actually my holism is not as extreme as those brief vague paragraphs at the end of “Two dogmas of empiricism” are bound to sound. See sections 1-3 and 7-10 of Word and Object.

Sincerely yours,

W. V. Quine

After all, if you see something that appears to be a black swan no matter how many tests are conducted, only by the most tortuous steps can one protect the theory “All swans are white.”


Determining the Truth

In critical rationalism, experiments, fallibilism, holism, justificationism, popper, quine, skepticism, underdetermination on 08/07/2011 at 1:13 pm

I go to a wedding and I miss a gigantic explosion in the blogosphere over Sir Harold Kroto’s Nobel Laureate lecture. Eh, I’ve missed worse things.

Andrew Brown at The Guardian has an adequate–but far from complete–drubbing of Kroto’s proto-positivist claim that “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.”

PZ Myers disagrees with Brown, but I’m not surprised. After reading him for a few years, he comes off as a genuine naïve Popperian, saying “If someone were to say something truly false and giggleworthy, like for instance, “all cats are black,” what I’d do is go out and find a Siamese and a white Persian and wave them in his face. Isn’t that obvious?” After Quine, it isn’t so obvious anymore. Isn’t that obvious? PZ is a scientist, and scientists aren’t often paid to think about epistemology, so I won’t hold it against him. Only through a critical discussion can we come to an agreement, tentative though it may be, about things like the color of cats–and yet this agreement is forever provisional. If someone were to point out this distinction in private, PZ would probably temper his initial statement, but headlines sell papers.

Kroto, Myers, and Brown all come off thinking that science is directed at establishing claims–I am apparently the odd man out when I concede that, rather than lifting up other traditions to science’s level, science does not have the epistemic privilege Kroto and PZ think: there is no way to reliably determine the truth.

That said, we can choose to prefer science over other ‘ways of knowing’ for the same reason we can choose to prefer a theory that has survived criticism over one that has not: while its past success at solving our problems provide no ‘good reasons’ for favoring science, the failures of alternative ‘ways of knowing’ are sufficient to provisionally adopt what remains.


Gardner’s Misstep

In carnap, critical rationalism, empiricism, experiments, fallibilism, gardner, holism, justificationism, popper, the ancient greeks, wittgenstein on 28/06/2011 at 10:33 am

Martin Gardner wrote A Skeptical Look at Karl Popper back in 2001. I decided to give it a read then put down some provisional comments …

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In duhem, holism, popper on 19/06/2011 at 12:39 pm

These are all notes I’ve had lying around for some time. Thought they deserved some fresh air after reading this article, especially this part:

What all this means, in practical terms, is that the best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn’t to fetishise the “spark of genius”, to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to “be creative”, or to blabber interminably about “blue-sky”, “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the internet. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

In his later years Popper generalized his proposal of falsifiability as demarcating science from pseudoscience: proposals can be assessed qua solutions to problems. Does the proposal solve the problem (rather than shift the problem), and how does it compare to other solutions?

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In duhem, holism, induction, popper on 15/06/2011 at 3:21 pm

The Duhem problem can be expressed as follows:

A physicist disputes a certain law; he calls into doubt a certain theoretical point. How will be justify these doubts? From the proposition under indictment he will derive the prediction of an experimental fact; he will bring into existence the conditions under which this fact should be produced; if the predicted fact is not produced, the proposition which served as the basis of the prediction will be irremediably condemned. (Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Princeton University Press. Translated from the French by Philip P. Wiener.1954, p. 184)

By means of this mode of inference we falsify the whole system (the theory as well as the initial conditions) which was required for the deduction of the statement p, i.e. of the falsified statement. Thus it cannot be asserted of any one statement of the system that it is, or is not, specifically upset by the falsification. Only if p is independent of some part of the system can we say that this part is not involved in the falsification. (Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 76)

A naive theory of science might say that when testing a theory T, if an observation-statement O is found to agree or disagree with the logical consequences of T, O either supports or refutes T. This can be expressed as follows:

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In holism, popper, quine on 15/06/2011 at 3:06 pm

Suppose a man were translated to a planet, the sky of which was constantly covered with a thick curtain of clouds, so that he could never see the other stars. On that planet he would live as if it were isolated in space. But he would notice that it revolves…” (Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypotheses)

Poincaré goes on to note that this man would, if he were observant, notice that a free-swinging pendulum — something akin to Foucault’s pendulum — gradually rotates.

Assume, for the moment, that this man looks around him, at the birds flying through the sky, the trees undulating in the breeze, the houses firmly rooted to the ground, and thinks that the planet does not–cannot–rotate. This is a commonsense conclusion to make. After observing this rotation, the thought-experiment man may conjecture that the planet does or does not rotate.

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