Posts Tagged ‘bas van fraassen’

Van Fraassen on Technology

In van fraassen on 07/09/2011 at 6:10 am

Note to self…

There’s one huge problem I have with Bas Van Fraassen’s argument against realism of scientific entities: I have myopia, and have to wear glasses all the time. What clear distinction can I make between using glasses to fix my myopia and using a magnifying glass to see cells? In both cases, I would use a piece of theory-laden technology to improve upon my evolved senses. It might be said that my myopia is, at least in this case, an outlier, as would someone that is born deaf requiring a cochlear implant. The general senses of a community is what matters, not any particular individual. This looks like, at least to me, to be an ad hoc solution: we’re dealing with things in middle-world that are, I should hope, deserving of a stronger epistemological status than atoms. The use of glasses is a technological fix, rather than a widening of my epistemological horizons. But then we return to the problem: where is the hard distinction between a pair of glasses and a magnifying glass?

Imagine that the human race had instead evolved a set of eyes that were far more exact than an eagle’s. The veil surrounding the atom would be pierced. But would it? Our senses are designed only for adequacy, and frequently do not track the truth. The difference between the eagle-eyed race of humans and our own would be what, exactly? Their ‘technology’ has undergone a process of conjecture and refutation on the species-level, refining particular tools over billions of years. Our technology has undergone the same process, but on a different level, the theoretical level. While the differences are superficial, since one is to a large extent innate and the other manufactured, this difference does not extend to the level of epistemological warrant. Why should innate senses be elevated over acquired senses?

Here is the rub: I think Van Fraassen’s argument doesn’t just apply only to the very small, but to any and all possible objects. All sensory experience is theory-laden, not just technological ‘experience’. While there is an extra step between seeing a read-out on a Geiger counter and seeing an apple, none of the two are on surer epistemological footing (think of Plantinga). Van Fraassen’s argument then, if we wish to be conservative in the properties, relations between properties, and objects in our epistemological bag, applies not just to theoretical scientific entities, but to theoretical everyday entities. We ought to be as strongly against realism of the everyday.


Of What is Rationally Permitted

In critical rationalism, empiricism, van fraassen on 21/07/2011 at 2:52 am

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)


Popper Scholarship

In critical rationalism, popper, toulman, van fraassen on 16/07/2011 at 11:18 pm

The biggest problems in critical rationalism, expressed as broadly as possible:

  1. too many are engaging in exegesis on, and history of, Popper’s thought.
  2. too few are progressively advancing critical rationalism.

The same could be said of most schools, and I do not intend to target anyone directly. That said, the work of historians of science and philosophy is invaluable, giving unseen insights into brilliant minds; however, Popper should only be valued because he, like many before him, paved the way for others. Of course, 1 is often not a problem, for younger generations often have had little understanding of the full implications of critical rationalism, and good historical scholarship can only help. That said, all things being equal, 1 is not as important as 2 in the long run, for critical rationalism will stagnate without constant criticism and revision in light of that criticism.

What can be done to advance critical rationalism? It is still in a savage state.

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