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Posts Tagged ‘falsifiability’

Theism and science compatible?

In critical rationalism, plantinga on 09/02/2012 at 7:30 am

Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened. (1 Kings 18:27)

Yes, they are. But first, I should explain …

I see only the prima facie absurdness in religious dogmas. I’m a genial atheist, the kind that will listen to those with a religious bent and let them believe what they will — as long as their metaphysical system is not incoherent: their beliefs are coherent and consistent with our best available knowledge. I might be wrong; they might be right. But overall, in the social sphere, I find most religions to be obviously manmade, at their best boring or neutral, and pernicious at their worst.

Consider a physical system that at first blush appears to contradict a metaphysical system, say that the universe is guided by a deity that acts directly in the world, or initially designed so that its movements follow its aims. Further suppose that we know precisely the history of this physical system. By statically analyzing the data, we learn that the apparently random effects have an organization so that they appear to not be random, so it does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. If accepted, this would falsify the claim that there is a random source. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that the source, while not random, is not due to this hypothesized designer or guider (apophenia happens), but it would be a significant blow to any claim that the source is random and corroborate claims about the existence of a guider or designer.

On the contrary, if we find that the data is in fact random, then nothing follows. The data does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. Rather, it corroborates that the source is random, but it equally corroborates that the source is guided or designed, but the designer or guider could act in ways that we are unaware of; or with plans, aims, and whims with which we have no access.

So, given the physical system and initial conditions shortly after the big bang, what is the probability p that in this universe an intelligent species will evolve purely by unguided means? If p had a very low value, this would falsify unguided evolution, for unguided evolution would probably not produce an intelligent species. If p had a high value, this would not falsify guided evolution, for the religious individual could claim that their deity guided or designed the universe in such a way that intelligent beings would evolve. Thus, against our intuitions, any advancement in the natural sciences has the potential of falsifying unguided physical systems, but not guided or designed physical systems.

What is the moral of the story? Metaphysical claims about deities are unfalsifiable, and can be held on to come what may, as long as the claims do not logically contradict one another and in line with our best available knowledge (or our best available knowledge is explained away with ad hoc rationalizations for inconvenient facts), but — since we’re good Popperians — unfalsifiability does not support a position; rather, it detracts from it. If the metaphysical system is to satisfy these two requirements (coherence and consistence with best available knowledge), they need only be constructed in such a way that a central religious claim is not amendable to scientific inquiry. By happenstance, there are an infinite number of coherent metaphysical systems: the Prime Mover may be left-handed, or the Great Architect live in a shack on the back side of the moon, and so on. The very fact of the unfalsifiability of metaphysical claims about deities is enough for us to reject it due to our wish to keep our ontological baggage light and rule them all out, and not set question-begging standards that let in some but not all metaphysical beings that are unobservable/uncriticizable.

Addendum: Here I should give a rudimentary account of Popper’s argument according to virtue epistemology: one way to understand critical rationalism is that there are intellectual traits that are virtuous in so far as they help solve problems ranging from the concrete to the most abstract. We create solutions to these problems, but our solutions will often make some mistake, and not solve these problems. If we want to solve problems, the only way to eliminate error is through criticism of these solutions.

It is far too easy to find positive stories, surreptitiously save our theories from criticism (either by slight modification of the theories at the core or ad hoc adjustments to the periphery), or sit back knowing that our metaphysical beliefs are untouchable, and such intellectual traits can take place with different content. Therefore, to promote intellectual well-being, we ought to shy away from giving self-serving positive stories about why we believe things to be so, or attempt to inoculate our theories from criticism, or believe metaphysical claims that cannot be subject to criticism.

Searching for confirming evidence, gradually changing positions without acknowledgement, and adopting beliefs that are beyond the scope of critical discussion are not virtuous acts. Rather, it is virtuous to refrain from these activities, virtuous to actively listen to criticism from others, and even more virtuous to be actively critical of our own theories. If we cannot do so, we retire from solving problems as failures.

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Laudan on the Demarcation Problem

In empiricism, experiments, laudan, popper on 22/07/2011 at 1:36 am

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.

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Conjectures and Criticisms, pt. 2

In critical rationalism, duhem, empiricism, experiments, popper, quine on 11/07/2011 at 12:03 am

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?

Gamma: Yes, I was getting at that there is a significant problem in Popper’s methodology of scientific progress, namely the very act of falsifying a theory. As we know from Duhem, no scientific theory can ever be conclusively refuted —

Flew

In flew on 09/07/2011 at 8:53 pm


Jerry Coyne recently said of Antony Flew’s famous paper Theology and Falsification,

I’m actually surprised that this piece, which is quite good (albeit written in academic-speak) was so popular, for what it says seems self evident.

Flew had a habit of following the latest philosophical fads, but not always understanding their purpose. For instance, when Flew says,

When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, “just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all, (bolding added)

this is nothing but an inversion of logical positivism’s verification principle of meaning. Flew claims that only scientific statements can be refuted. Religious statements are not meaningful, for if religious statements are not scientific statements, they cannot be refuted. Meaning is then tied to statements that are refutable at least in principle, while meaningless is tied to uninformative or irrefutable statements.

Is such a claim as ‘self evident’ as Coyne claims? I think not, since demarcating science from non-science by way of meaning is a dead end. Religious statements are meaningful, but do not necessarily refer: the statement “Merlin rides a unicorn” is a meaningful statement. Asserting that said statement is meaningless leaves me shrugging my shoulders. Such a statement makes sense to me, but if it is called ‘meaningless,’ in the process all sorts of meaningful statements may turn into meaningless statements. For example, any sort of God-conjecture (“There exists a being with characteristics x,y,z”) is a strictly existential statement, and therefore not falsifiable … since as a matter of logic, strictly existential statements are verifiable, but not falsifiable.

Has Flew then done away with the meaningfulness of strictly existential statements?

Flew does touch on the distastefulness of the behavior of holding on to a statement come what may,

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then,”

but Flew misses the point once more, and in the process conflates methodological or procedural rules and objective status of statements: Flew is now talking about ad hoc immunizing procedures when confronted with confounding ‘monsters.’ Monster-barring is not a distasteful behavior solely of the religious individual, but of the pseudo-scientific or non-scientific individual. Scientific statements may be falsifiable, but a scientist may hold on to them come what may as well!

Sagan’s classic The Dragon In My Garage is somewhat better than Flew’s, but it occasionally runs into its own problems or misses the big picture to rag on religion. Russell’s Celestial Teapot is another variation on the same theme, and ought to be preferred over the other two for its focus on doubt, rather than meaning.

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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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Ideas

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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“Falsifiability”

In critical rationalism, popper on 18/06/2011 at 12:31 am

Recently, a friend of mine sent me this criticism of falsifiability published in Edge.org in 2008 by Rebecca Goldstein, the wife of Steven Pinker and author of a few decent (so I hear) books. Upon reading it, I knew I had to write up a good ‘fisk’ of the criticism, seeing as it provides a good opportunity to clear up some misconceptions.

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Duhem

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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