Conversations with Dan: social vs natural science

nature of scienceHere is another of my occasional conversations with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman, this time on the nature of explanation in social vs natural science (i.e., psychology, sociology and economics on one side; biology, chemistry, physics and the like on the other).

We begin by discussing what constitutes an explanation in the natural sciences, and the role causality plays in it. We then look for (and, in my mind, do not find) categorical differences between social and natural sciences — which of course does not mean that there are no interesting differences at all.

The conversations moves to the divergence, if any, between biological and social explanations of human behaviors, and we agree that there are, in fact, some significant differences to be fleshed out.

Dan brings up what he refers to as the distinct “narratives” of the social vs physical sciences, which leads us to talk about whether the social sciences are in the business of explaining or interpreting human behavior (I argue both).

The last part of the video deals with a bit of general philosophy of science, as we question the necessity of “laws” (whatever they are) in natural science, and talk about why the social (and, indeed, the biological) sciences will likely never discover laws in anything like the physical sense of the term.

41 thoughts on “Conversations with Dan: social vs natural science

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Oh, indeed it’s a both. That said, per that book on evolutionary religion, and other recent social sciences reading, some individual social scientists tilt toward explaining, and others toward interpreting.

    Or, to look at it in a somewhat different way, some tilt toward answering “how” questions and others tilt toward answering “why” questions.

    Like

  2. SocraticGadfly

    I’ll read more, but, in terms of the “cannot,” there certainly seems to be no philosophical/logical reason why they “cannot,” i.e., at least one possible world exists where they can do both, so I’ll assume your “cannot” is based on other grounds?

    Like

  3. brodix

    Law is order. So to the extent we can proceed to extract order from the more complex-chaotic aspects of reality, does become a function of what our particular goal is, otherwise we get lost in endless tail chasing.

    I do think the point I keep trying to make about time is relevant here. That our narrative sense of the point of the present moving past to future, is a subjective effect of our perception of change turning future into past, i.e., coalescing and dispersing configurations of the physical state we refer to as the present.

    For instance, Dan ask if causality in the social sciences can be described as one event leading to a subsequent event. The problem being that this is a linear temporal sequence, but the total input into any particular event cannot be fully known from any subjective point of view, i.e. within space and time. Information can only travel at C and only fully arrives at the singular point of occurrence, with the occurrence of the event. It is non-linear.

    Consider these sequential events; Yesterday and today, versus a batter hitting a ball and it flying away. Does yesterday cause today in the same way a batter hitting the ball causes it to fly away? Not really. It is the sun shining on a spinning planet that creates this effect called days, to a particular location on the surface. While the energy transferred from the bat to the ball is directly causal.

    What is similar to both is the dynamics of the energy, as it only exists as the present. The energy is conserved, not the configurations it manifests. So while the energy is transferred from bat to ball, the energy creating yesterday is not the same energy creating today, only similar energy creating a similar effect.

    So look at it this way; two objects, say pool balls, hit each other, creating an event and then go on to other such events. Being physical objects, the balls go from prior to succeeding events/past to future. Meanwhile the events come into being and dissipate, going from future to past. Now our brain is a physical object, so it goes from past to future events, while our mind is the record of these events occurring, so its memory is of these events constantly receding into the past. We then organize these collections of memories into a semi-coherent sequence and rationalize connections where we lack full knowledge, thus the creation of narrative.

    So causality is a function of energy exchange, whether the batter hitting the ball, or the sun shining on a spinning planet, but there is no singular objective linear sequence, as that is the effect of a particular/subjective point of view.

    Now the sense of order we select for is either what is most repetitive and/or stable, what we call “laws.”

    Or it is the narrative sequence we extract, i.e. the determined past, which coalesced out of the chaotic present, as we only have the most fleeting impression of this energy that is present, since much of it is traveling at the speed of light and so need to collect and assemble the resulting impressions into organized thoughts.

    The fallacy of this is that we assume that past to be unchanging and foundational to the present, but the reality is that it is actually being consumed by the present and re-arranged to fit current needs. Remember the events occur too fast for us to actually make sense of them and so we are constantly regurgitating these impressions and further arranging them to incorporate a broader knowledge base, in the creation of narrative.

    So not only is the past receding and thus getting smaller in the collective memory, but constantly being viewed through an ever more layered lens of further events and increased information about other, prior events.

    This applies to the physical world as well, as nature continues to shuffle the deck.

    So to best understand causality and context, it would seem to be most effective to sense where the energy to manifest a particular configuration came from and where it goes, i.e. its consequences.

    As Deep Throat(to bring up the pornography connection) said, “Follow the money.”

    Like

  4. SocraticGadfly

    Per a quick grokking of Daniel’s piece, a few thoughts:
    1. Are social science explanations limited to intentionality? This is especially an issue with something like sociology or cultural anthropology, where group and not individual behavior is under study
    1A. This relates to issues of consciousness and volition, not just to folk psychology, whether Dennett’s version (derived, of course, from Ryle ultimately) or somebody else’s. If not all individual actions are fully conscious (or whatever the group behavior equivalent might be), that means that “intentionality” might not be at play. “Quasi-intentionality”? “Sub-intentionality”?
    2. Is it possible to offer “why” explanations as well as “how” explanations even if intentionality is not part of the picture, or even if it is, but details of intentionality cannot be fully established?
    3. In a Husserlian angle, is it possible to explain “apparent intentionality” even if “actual intentionality” doesn’t exist?

    Given my repeated “mu” on the issue of “free will vs. volition,” these are in part rhetorical, but at the same time, I believe legitimate questions for thought.

    I know that intentionality is not the only issue at stake here …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coel

    Hi Massimo and Dan,
    There’s a lot of the video that I would agree with, but here are a few comments, mostly about the earlier part on the physical sciences.

    Re: Laws as “widely generalisable *causal* relations”. I’d instead say, widely generalisable *descriptive* relations. Even pre-QM, laws in physics were not causal, they were descriptive.

    Take for example Kepler’s three laws, which all *describe* planetary motions but are not about causes. Ditto Boyle’s law, or the other gas laws. Of course one can then argue that there are underlying causes which lead to these laws, but it’s still the case that “laws” are generalised empirical descriptions.

    Physical laws (even pre-QM) are not causal because they are not about events. Events are contingent. Laws are descriptions that hold regardless of contingency.

    Re: Explanations in the physical sciences as “antecedent *causal* event as leading to a subsequent event”. Even pre-QM, this is only one type of explanation in the physical sciences.

    For example, take the explanation “such and such happens because energy is conserved” (or momentum is conserved or similar). This is not a causal explanation. This explanation instead takes the form of a intepretational commentary.

    We now understand that, for example, energy is conserved because the underlying behaviour of physical stuff does not change with time, and if that is the case then energy must be conserved. But that is an commentary or accounting-summary about the ensemble, not an “X causes Y” explanation.

    Thus, even in the physical sciences I’d take a broader meaning of “explanation” than just causal explanations. In a more general sense, “explanations” are linkages between descriptions of different aspects of the system. All systems (simple or complex) can be (partially) described in different ways, and if we show how those descriptions link together then we “explain”.

    For the above two reasons, I don’t think that “explanations” in physical vs social sciences are perhaps as different as suggested in the video — though that is not to deny that there are big differences in styles of explanation.

    Re: Purpose. I’d agree with Massimo’s account of “purpose” as being a product of evolution. A similar point is to contrast top-down explanations of “purpose” (gods and ultimate teleology) versus bottom-up explanations of purpose (resulting from natural selection, and hence purpose arising out of non-purpose).

    Re: “special sciences”. Sorry to be boring, but to repeat that if a “special science” is one in which Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction does not hold then there are no non-special sciences, not even fundamental physics. My previous example that it doesn’t work even for calculating the mass of the proton or neutron in terms of its constituents demonstrates this.

    (The only way of retaining it would be to apply *only* to the lowest level of all, such that you weren’t doing *any* reducing, then it might work ok. 🙂 )

    Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction has never been a viable or live issue within physics. The far more interesting questions are about epistemology in a world governed by the ontological thesis of supervenience physicalism. [dismount hobby horse].

    Like

  6. Daniel Kaufman

    Socratic:

    Intentionality is at the heart of all social scientific inquiry.

    In terms of the explanandum, social scientists are not interested in understanding human motor movemernt per se, but human motor movement, under intentional description. Hence the difference in interest between understanding why peoples’ arms and legs move and why riots occur. Or the difference in interest in understanding why people’s pupils dialate and why people engage in voyeurism.

    In terms of the explanans, social scientists invoke the intentional states — and emotions and sensations — of the actors involved. Economists will explain behaviors like massive selloffs, in terms of various beliefs concerning the future direction of the markets, fear, panic, etc… Sociologists will explain riots in terms of any number of “frustrations” experienced by the rioters.

    These are not simply brain states — activities of the brain of the actor — but rather, brain states, under various intentional and qualitative descriptions. These “composite” states — i.e. brain state under intentional and qualitiative description — then, are not “in” the heads of the various actors, insofar as the concepts under which the various brain states are conceived are representational and thus, are social, rather than psychological. (As per Wittgenstein’s rule following and private language arguments.)

    Thus, while social scientists speak, loosely, of the “causes” of mob violence and invoke various intentional and qualitative states as filling the role of causes, they can only be speaking loosely, if what one means by “A caused B” is somethig like “Event A was sufficient for event B,” given that strictly speaking, neither A nor B are events, per se, but rather, events interpreted in various ways.

    Like

  7. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction has never been a viable or live issue within physics.

    Nagel did not suggest that there were inter-theoretic reductions between all theories.

    And the physicist Weinberg did:

    One can illustrate the reductionist world view by imagining all the principles of science as being dots on a huge chart, with arrows flowing into each principle from all the other principles by which it is explained. The lesson of history is that these arrows do not form separate disconnected clumps, representing science that are logically independent, and they do not wander aimlessly. Rather, they are all connected, and if followed backward they all seem to branch outward from a common source, an ultimate law of nature that Dyson calls “a finite set of fundamental equations”.

    Steven Weinberg “Reductionism Redux” (my bolding)

    So can we stop calling it Nagel style inter-theoretic reductionism and start accurately calling it Weinberg-style inter-theoretic reductionism?

    The far more interesting questions are about epistemology in a world governed by the ontological thesis of supervenience physicalism.

    Which, as we established last time, is the thesis that everything supervenes on whatever it is that everything supervenes on.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Robin Herbert

    Can we agree that none of us is proposing inter-theoretic reductionism, whether it be Nagel style or Weinberg style? And maybe we can also agree that everything supervenes on whatever it is that everything supervenes on, or to put it another way, we are using Monism as a working hypothesis?

    Like

  9. brodix

    Dan,

    ” if what one means by “A caused B” is somethig like “Event A was sufficient for event B,” given that strictly speaking, neither A nor B are events, per se, but rather, events interpreted in various ways.”

    Possibly because seemingly discrete entities are really nodes in the network and the faint boundaries between the internal and external networks are all that make them singular.

    “One can illustrate the reductionist world view by imagining all the principles of science as being dots on a huge chart, with arrows flowing into each principle from all the other principles by which it is explained. The lesson of history is that these arrows do not form separate disconnected clumps, representing science that are logically independent, and they do not wander aimlessly. Rather, they are all connected, and if followed backward they all seem to branch outward from a common source, an ultimate law of nature that Dyson calls “a finite set of fundamental equations”.”

    Of course, some still insist the singular entity is foundational, be it math, God, or the universe.

    Fact is, energy goes past to future, form goes future to past.

    As consciousness goes past to future, thoughts go future to past.

    Individuals go future to past(birth to death). Species go from past to future(generations).

    Even if the universe is a singular entity, it started in the future and is flowing into the past. Now the multiverse proponents argue there are multitudes of such entities and so this metaverse moves onto future universes, dissolving prior ones.

    Therefore nodes go future to past, while networks go past to future.

    Like

  10. Robin Herbert

    Ok, suppose we have a very simple mechanical mechanism, with a tape running through it stretching out both ways, and a handle on its side.

    Now someone says that this system (tape + mechanism) knows what the word “cat” means in just the same way that you know what the word cat means.

    I would reject that, because it is static, nothing is happening. It no more knows what the word “cat” means than TS Eliot’s “Book of Practical Cats” knows what the word “cat” means.

    Well ok, this person says, when that handle has been cranked a sufficient number of times, that system will have known, over the period of time it was cranked, what the word “cat” means in just the same way that you know what the word cat means. But that would imply some super process across all of those separate actions that could unify them all as knowing what the word “cat” means.

    But we know of no such superprocess in Nature, and even if there was one, those actions and symbols only have meaning to an intelligent agent.

    Anything that was just information processing could be processed equivalently on this system.

    So ir is not reasonable to adopt the axiom that meaning is just an element of information processing as we have at least prima facie evidence that it is not.

    Like

  11. Robin Herbert

    Given the current state of physics, can any event be regarded as antecedent to anything else? If we regard time as a persistent illusion or regard the Universe as a static 4 dimensional object then can the statement “event x is antecedent to event y” have any different meaning to “event x is to the left of event y”?

    On the other hand, ontological antecedence can still have meaning, ie “event x would not have happened if energy was not conserved”

    So does causality depend on temporal antecedence, or ontological precedence?

    Like

  12. brodix

    Robin,

    Keep in mind that if energy is conserved, it means it cannot recede into the past. It remains in the present. If it were not conserved, then it would recede into the past, like events.

    So since the energy is conserved, it has to keep moving onto the next event. Therefore energy is essentially synonymous with the present. It doesn’t come from the future, but from the prior events, like kinetic energy from the bat, or radiant energy from the sun and it doesn’t recede into the past.This is causality.

    As Dan observes, all these seeming events are descriptive, but when we look too closely, the riots dissolve into moving hands and feet, which dissolve into relationships and the energy propelling them.

    Like

  13. ejwinner

    All right, so there is a technical usage of “explanation” in the sciences; it answers any ‘why’ question with causal narrative. To use Brodix’s billiard ball example (borrowed from Hume), the cue ball moves to point A, the 8 ball at point A then moves forward – contact of cue ball to 8 ball ’causes’ 8 ball to move. Of course we cannot know with absolute certainty, but the regularity of the sequence of events, on repetition, leads to a reasonable supposition that similar results will occur given a similar sequence of events.

    Then there is a common understanding of the term ‘explanation.’ John O’Smith comes from a family with a history of heavy drinking, and develops a personal biography of heavy drinking. One interpretation is that his family is Irish and Irish culture finds the occurrence of heavy drinking acceptable; another is that his father being a heavy drinker, he emulates that father and drinks heavily. One possible interpretation is that he has a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism – but this doesn’t actually help, because his brother James responded to the father’s heavy drinking by becoming a abstemious teetotaler – in other words, there was a choice possible at some point; John went down one path, James down another.

    All of these interpretations (and others – eg., that John has lived a hard life and resorts to drinking as ‘self-medication’) can be found under the common understanding of the term “explanation.” None of them indicate that ‘event B follows A with lawful regularity’ in the manner that science ‘explains’ the billiard ball phenomenon.

    But there are a couple problems to be aware of. The ‘causal’ explanation of the billiard ball events is not an answer to the ‘why’ question at all – that can only be answered by metaphysics. The physical explanation is actually an answer to a ‘how’ question – eg., ‘how does impulsive contact of one ball with another produce movement in the contacted ball?’

    Meanwhile, the folk-explanations of John O’Smith’s behavior, while interpretations of history, answer ‘why’ questions fairly clearly.

    “Why does he drink so much?”
    “Well, his Dad was a drunk.”

    Being folk-explanations, their accuracy is a matter of degree, requiring close analysis and critique. But that is not to say that they will never be accurate.

    Am I suggesting here that the ‘explanations’ we expect from the social sciences may have more in common with folk-explanations of behavior than we would like to admit?

    Yeah, I think I am.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    Can we agree that none of us is proposing inter-theoretic reductionism, whether it be Nagel style …

    Sure, would love to, but the philosophers keep asserting that it works in fundamental physics (what they base that assertion on I don’t know). Perhaps you could persuade them to stop using the term “special” science, since it implies that there is at least one science where it does work. (Even if there was, it would seem rather weird to use the term “special” about 98% of science.)

    … is the thesis that everything supervenes on whatever it is that everything supervenes on.

    Sure, the thesis is supervenience, that large objects are ensembles of lower-level stuff (an ontological thesis). That means that higher-level descriptions need to be consistent with lower-level descriptions (an epistemological thesis following from the ontological one).

    That is a much weaker thesis than Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction complete with “bridge laws”, but it is still a powerful statement of how the world is. That statement is the form of reductionism that works, that statement is the form of reductionism that is interesting, and that is the form of reductionism prevalent in science.

    … or Weinberg style?

    No, because I *am* advocating Weinberg-style reductionism.

    So can we stop calling it Nagel style inter-theoretic reductionism and start accurately calling it Weinberg-style inter-theoretic reductionism?

    Nope, because the two are very different. Weinberg is advocating the epistemlogical thesis that higher-level descriptions need to be consistent with lower-level descriptions. But that is not what philosophers generally mean by “reductionism”, who take the word to refer to the much stronger thesis of Nagel-style bridge laws.

    Hi ej,

    … so there is a technical usage of “explanation” in the sciences; it answers any ‘why’ question with causal narrative.

    Not really, there isn’t really a “technical” usage of that word in science, and “explanations” in science are wider and more general than causal explanations.

    is not an answer to the ‘why’ question at all – that can only be answered by metaphysics.

    I don’t see why science cannot deal with “why” questions entirely adequately. (That does of course mean dealing with brain states and intentions within science, but that’s fine, that’s what biological and social sciences do.)

    Like

  15. brodix

    To explain something is to place it in its entire network of influences and therefore it would be a contradiction to reduce them, as that would select some aspects over others.

    To define something is to reduce it to its clearest features.

    Yes, effectively we can never fully explain anything, so a useful explanation would be one which serves the purpose of what we need.

    Like

  16. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    But that would imply some super process across all of those separate actions that could unify them all as knowing what the word “cat” means.

    Why do we need such a “super process” to “unify” the actions? If we have a “football match” or (to use Dan’s example) a “riot”, the term is an interpretation and commentary on a set of events. But we don’t need any sort of natural process “unifying” the events that amount to the football match.

    Like

  17. Philip Thrift

    Comparing the domain-specific languages used in separate domains, e.g. ML3 (computational social science) – which actually has a keyword “ego”, NineML (computational neuroscience), perhaps shows some similarities in the semantics of “causation”. But maybe it’s not that useful. The languages that have been developed (from astrophysics to biology to social science) are all pretty separate.

    Like

  18. brodix

    It would seem to be a process of evolving knowledge, where the fields speciate.

    The problem is the Tower of Babel situation, where they are no longer able to communicate.

    One notable effort to overcome this was Complexity Theory and its basic dichotomy of chaos and order, mediated by complexity.

    I’ve been arguing this does tie into the process giving rise to time, in that the signals we extract are what constitute our sense of past, as in memory, determination, the knowns, etc. While chaos is potential input, i.e. the future. The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. So the present being the Complex state, where the signal is being extracted, isolated, distilled from the noise.

    Which then start all those other feedback loops and we find ourselves drawn further into the noise/unknown/future and the order we thought we knew gets disrupted and so we speciate, in order to explore the non-linear reality…..

    Like

  19. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel

    I am not sure how your analogies help. I said that the unifying process would be needed for it to be knowing the meaning of cat in just the same way that I know the meaning of cat

    I am looking at am entire word “cat” and knowing what it means. For that even to seem like a unity requires a connection.

    By the time the machine has processed a similar amount of information the first turns of the handle are long in the past. If it is knowing what cat means in just the same way that I do.

    As far as nature is concerned, that is a series of unconnected events. It requires a mind which knows what the events mean to connect them.

    In any case, a football match or riot are only unified events in the minds of observers and participants.

    Like

  20. brodix

    The problem is thinking in terms of a football match, or riot in terms of an object, rather than a wave. Yes, a game is contained within a set frame of time and rules, but a riot will build, intensify and then disperse, as its energy is distributed. Much like an individual life will build and eventually dissolve, sort of confined, like the game and sort of a basic accumulation and distribution of energy, like the less confined riot.

    Like

  21. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    Sure, would love to, but the philosophers keep asserting that it works in fundamental physics (what they base that assertion on I don’t know). Perhaps you could persuade them to stop using the term “special” science, since it implies that there is at least one science where it does work.

    I wish you would either explain why you think that bracketing a group of sciences under a particular label implies a claim about the closure of another area of science under inter-theoretic reductionism, or else stop saying this.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. brodix

    “In any case, a football match or riot are only unified events in the minds of observers and participants.”

    As football matches and often riots are composed of opposing elements, I’m reminded of this quote from an interview I’ve posted several times;

    “A ten-foot electron! Amazing

    It could be a mile. The electrons in my superconducting magnet are that long.

    A mile-long electron! That alters our picture of the world–most people’s minds think about atoms as tiny solar systems.

    Right, that’s what I was brought up on-this little grain of something. Now it’s true that if you take a proton and you put it together with an electron, you get something that we call a hydrogen atom. But what that is, in fact, is a self-consistent solution of the two waves interacting with each other. They want to be close together because one’s positive and the other is negative, and when they get closer that makes the energy lower. But if they get too close they wiggle too much and that makes the energy higher. So there’s a place where they are just right, and that’s what determines the size of the hydrogen atom. And that optimum is a self-consistent solution of the Schrodinger equation.

    http://freespace.virgin.net/ch.thompson1/People/CarverMead.htm

    Like

  23. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    I am looking at am entire word “cat” and knowing what it means.

    Let me guess, you’re wanting to bring consciousness into this? Well, I’m not at all sure whether an emulation with a Turing machine would be “conscious”. I suspect not, but I really don’t trust my intuition on this question and so am not claiming to know. (You’ll have to address your question to DM 🙂 )

    My previous comment was assuming a far more limited concept of “knowing”, rather than knowing “in just the same way” that you do, which presumably entails consciousness.

    … explain why you think that bracketing a group of sciences under a particular label implies a claim about the closure of another area of science …

    Well I may be misunderstanding the terminology, but I understood that the term “special” science is used for one that does not have a Nagel-style intertheoretic reduction, complete with “bridge laws”, to another science that uses a lower-level description.

    If that is the case, then surely the word “special” (“different from what is usual”; OED) implies that some other sciences do reduce in such a way? It would seem a distinctly weird word to use if that is not the intent. Further, why would one exempt fundamental physics from the bracketing unless one was asserting that difference?

    Like

  24. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    Dan has talked in the past about how the term “special science” is used variously in different places, sometimes referring to just the social sciences, sometimes referring to the social sciences and sometimes referring to things like physics. He has used the term in the past just to refer to the social sciences. I notice that here, the distinction is being made between the social sciences and the physical sciences.

    Did they mention “special science” in the video? I can’t remember, but they may have. But the main bracketing here is the social sciences.

    What is “distinctly weird” is to read into someone’s use of a term “special science”, that they subscribe to a view that they have been at length to explicitly deny and which is generally not accepted in philosophy since the 1970’s at least, a view for which there are explicit counter-arguments.

    Yet when Steven Weinberg makes a very explicit claim about inter-theoretic reductionism applying to all science, you can maintain your belief that physicists don’t subscribe to this view.

    I don’t know what to say. No, philosophers do not, in general, subscribe to inter-theoretic reductionism at all. It is a dead subject in philosophy, I think that you would be looking very hard to find one that did.

    But at least one prominent physicist subscribes to the view that it applies to all knowledge.

    Like

  25. Robin Herbert

    When I say I know something I am referring to the things I know I know, and not to the things I don’t know I know.

    I am not ruling out that there are things I know that I don’t know I know. I just don’t know about them. Unless, of course, I know about the things I don’t know I know but just don’t know it.

    Similarly I may mean things that I don’t know I mean, but when I use the word ‘mean” I am referring to the things I know I mean.

    I hope that us as clear for everyone as it is for me.

    And I don’t trust my intuitions either which is why I don’t accept that axiom that I said I didn’t accept right at the beginning.

    Like

  26. Robin Herbert

    As I said on the Electric Agora, I don’t think that words like ‘explanation’ or ’cause’ can have a precise enough definition for us to make any solid distinction between the way we use them in the social and physical sciences.

    Causes and explanations are always proximate and partial things, whether in the social or physical sciences.

    But that is not to say that there cannot be a useful distinction.

    Like

  27. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    You are confusing two very different concepts:

    (1) Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction, complete with bridge laws, of the particular sort that Ernest Nagel described in his book (“structure of science”) about how he thought science should work. This is a rather strong variety of “reductionism”. It was this that Fodor — correctly — rejected as applying to what he termed the “special sciences”. It is this concept that philosophers generally mean by “theoretical reductionism” or just “reductionism”.

    (2) Weinberg-style reductionism. This is essentially a consequence of the ontological thesis of supervenience physicalism. The epistemological consequences of that is that descriptions in terms of low-level concepts have to be consistent with descriptions in terms of high-level concepts.

    But this does not require Nagel-style bridge laws. It is thus a much weaker thesis. This concept has *not* been refuted as applying to *any* science. To reject it you would need to reject the ontological doctrine of supervenience. It is *this* much-weaker thesis that physicists generally mean by “reductionism”, and it is this, in particular, that Weinberg is espousing in that essay.

    Did they mention “special science” in the video?

    Yes they did, with Massimo explicitly saying that “special sciences” were everything except fundamental physics. See my previous comment for why that is effectively an assertion that Nagel-reductionism (ie. 1 above) applies to fundamental physics. I disagree on that, I don’t think that (1) works for *any* science. It’s not how nature is, and it’s not how physicists think.

    I do assert that (2) applies to all sciences If I interpret Massimo in the video correctly, he also accepts the ontological thesis of supervenience physicalism applying throughout the sciences, and thus would — I presume — accept (2).

    Yet when Steven Weinberg makes a very explicit claim about inter-theoretic reductionism applying to all science, …

    By which he means doctrine (2) above, not doctrine (1). And I and virtually all physicists would agree.

    Realise that physicists and philosophers are — to quote Churchill out of context — divided by a common language. When philosophers say “reductionism” they mean (1); when physicists say “reductionism” they mean (2).

    Your comment fails to distinguish between the two and thus is confused. Just about every discussion about this on Scientia Salon and now here has been bedeviled by people not distinguishing between the two concepts.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. brodix

    Coel,

    Thanks for the clarification. It does primarily raise the question of what further principles, beyond just more complexity, the “special sciences” require, that are not necessary to describe the elemental sciences.

    I realize you disagree with me vehemently on this, but is it possible that the physical sciences just might have incorporated various perceptual biases and that might be part of the problem as well?

    Obviously I’m intruding on hallowed ground when I question such premises as whether “the fabric of spacetime” really is the physical basis for the mathematical efficacy of Relativity and I’ve certainly laid out my arguments enough times not to repeat them.

    Along with various other beliefs, such as the materialist assumption that reality must ultimately be composed of physical objects, even though our efforts to find and measure them seem to keep leading ever further down the rabbit hole of fuzziness and indeterminacy.

    As I point out in the above comments, if more consideration were given to the wave nature of reality and not just the particle/object/atom/matter side, then such social phenomena as riots(or even musical scores) might be better understood as dynamical processes.

    Think amplitudes and frequencies, rather than boundaries, objects and movements.

    Thermodynamic feedback loops, rather than just linear histories.

    Like

Comments are closed.