The Naturalistic Turn — II

Quine[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

Willard Van Orman Quine

“Belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths that are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact, and truths that are synthetic, or grounded in fact” and “reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construction upon terms which refer to immediate experience.” These are the famous two “dogmas” that W.V.O. Quine imputed to positivism (Quine 1980: 20), and that he proceeded to dismantle in one of the best examples of progress in contemporary philosophy. As we shall see, the rejection of a sharp distinction between analytic and synthetic truths, as well as the abandonment of the strict logicism of the positivists, do not necessarily amount to the complete abandonment of “first philosophy” (i.e., philosophizing to be done independently of any empirically-driven scientific investigation). Nor does it follow that philosophy blurs into science to the point of subsiding into it, a position not exactly championed by Quine, but to which he came perilously close. Regardless, one cannot talk about progress in philosophy, and especially about the naturalistic turn, without taking Quine seriously.

I do not have the space to get into an in-depth analysis of the history of positivism and the reactions it engendered by the likes of Quine, Putnam and others (see, for instance, chapters 3-6 of Brown 2012). Nonetheless, the transition from positivism to Quineian post-positivism is a very good example of what I am arguing for in this book: philosophy makes progress by exploring, refining and sometimes rejecting positions in the vast conceptual space pertinent to whatever it is that certain philosophers are interested in, in this case the nature of epistemology and the foundations of knowledge. The positivists did indeed make far too much of the analytic/synthetic distinction, which in turn leads to the notion that certain types of knowledge are possible a priori, and that therefore there is ample room for an ambitious kind of “first philosophy.” They also went too far in their peculiar form of “reductionism,” an approach to meaning that excluded not just a lot of philosophy, but even a good chunk of science from consideration, on the ground that it is (allegedly) literally meaningless. But the positivists themselves were attempting to make progress by reacting, among other things, to the excesses of a metaphysics that sounded either Scholastic or obscure (e.g., their sharp criticisms of Heidegger). It seems to me that as a result of positivism we do indeed have a number of tools to question speculative metaphysics, and even excessively speculative science (e.g., string theory: Smolin 2007); and as a result of Quine’s criticism of positivism we have the outline of a naturalistic epistemology, metaphysics, and indeed philosophy. What we do not have, however, is the collapse of epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy into science — pace the bold pronouncements of the sort of philosophically less than literate scientists we have encountered in the chapter on Philosophy’s PR Problem.

Quine left no doubts about what he was up to in a late reconstruction of the goals of his own work: “In Theories and Things I wrote that naturalism is ‘the recognition that it is within science itself, and not in some prior philosophy, that reality is to be identified and described’; again that it is ‘abandonment of the goal of a first philosophy prior to natural science’” (Quine 1995, 251). I will get back to what exactly it may mean to abandon the idea of a first philosophy prior to science, but it is crucial to point out that Quine immediately proceeded to “cheat” somewhat about the actual scope of his project, for instance by allowing mathematics to be treated as a science (p. 252). This is somewhat odd, or at the least controversial, considering that if there is anything that defines science it is its concern with empirical evidence about the nature of the world, and mathematics most certainly does not share this basic concern (the Pythagorean theorem is about abstract triangles, not about the clumsy variety we may actually trace on the ground or on a piece of paper). Realizing this, Quine shifted the focus to applied mathematics (p. 257), which, however, does not improve things very much, since applied mathematics is only a relatively small portion of what mathematicians actually do, and at any rate it still is not derived from (although it does apply to) the empirical realm. Mathematics thus presents a problem for Quine’s overarching denial of the existence of a priori truths. His response is ultimately to argue that mathematics is justified by the role it plays in science, and therefore by experience. But that justification seems to get things backwards, and it certainly would surprise the hell out of mathematicians and most philosophers of mathematics (e.g., Brown 2008).

In his analysis of Quine’s contribution to contemporary philosophy Hylton (2010) points out that the full force of Quine’s critique of analyticity is not understood if one focuses on standard examples of the latter, like the ubiquitous “All bachelors are unmarried.” Rather, one has to consider sentences like “Force equals mass times acceleration.” Indeed, referring to examples such as the one about bachelors, Quine himself (1991, 271) says “I recognize the notion of analyticity in its obvious and useful but epistemologically insignificant applications.” But rejecting standard examples of analytical truths such as definitions on the grounds that they are “epistemologically insignificant” begs the question of what, precisely, makes a given statement epistemologically “significant.”

And this brings us back to math: for Quine math is certainly not epistemologically insignificant, which is why his example of F = ma is interesting, particularly in light of his ongoing disagreement with logical positivists (and later the logical empiricists), especially Carnap (1937), who had a lot to say about both the analytic/synthetic distinction and the status of physical laws such as Newton’s. Now, F = ma can be interpreted in a variety of ways, including as a definition (of force, or, rearranging the equation, of either mass or acceleration), but it does not snugly fit the classic conception of analytic truth. That’s because one can argue that the equation is only true within a particular empirically-based theory of the natural world, from which it derives the meaning of its constituent terms (“F,” “m” and “a”). Its truth is not rooted in mathematical reasoning per se. Indeed, it could be argued that F = ma should not even be treated as a definition of force, but rather as an operational way to measure force. There is no explicit conceptual content in the equation, which in itself is compatible with different ideas of what force, mass and acceleration are, as long as they remain related in the way in which the equation connects them. It seems like Quine was focusing on examples like F = ma because they are the sort of statement that may have looked analytical (since it is expressed in mathematical language), but is actually closer to philosophers’ understanding of synthetic truths. This narrow focus, however, may exclude too much, somewhat undermining Quine’s bold claim that there is no such thing as a priori truths. But if the latter re-enter the game — however qualified and circumscribed — then some kind of first philosophy cannot be far behind.

A related issue here is that Quine does not admit the existence of necessary truths, a negation that would be yet another nail in the coffin of pretty much the entire enterprise of (first) philosophy, at least as classically conceived. Quine, of course, arrived at this view because he was what some have termed a “radical” empiricist, and if there is one thing that empiricists abhor is the very idea of necessary truth. Indeed, for Quine even logic was — at least potentially — on the chopping block of his version of a naturalized philosophy. But another major philosopher of the 20th century, Kripke (certainly not a naturalist [2]), argued shortly thereafter that there is a new way of conceiving of necessary truths: in modal logic, these become truths that hold in all possible worlds (Kripke, 1980). The caveat with Kripke’s reintroduction of necessary truths is that they turn out to be so a posteriori, as in the famous example of whether water is necessarily H2O, something that can be answered only by science, and therefore on empirical grounds. A posteriori necessary truths are controversial in philosophy, but for the purpose of our current discussion they count as a type of necessary truth, and of course they do not exclude the possibility of more standard, a priori necessary truths anyway. Indeed, Kripke insisted that he was making an ontological point about the existence of a priori truths; how we find out about them (scientific investigation = a posteriori, philosophical reasoning = a priori) is an epistemological issue. Considering again F = ma, Kripke’s point would be that the equation, if expressed as an identity statement, would be both necessarily true and known a posteriori.

The broader context of this discussion is provided by Quine’s views of metaphysics and epistemology, which are in turn related to his idea of knowledge as a “web of beliefs,” a metaphor that I very much like, with some caveats. Let us begin by tempering the web-of-beliefs metaphor the way the master himself did: “It is an uninteresting legalism … to think of our scientific system of the world as involved en bloc in every prediction. More modest chunks suffice, and so may be ascribed their independent empirical meaning, nearly enough, since some vagueness in meaning must be allowed for in any event” (Quine 1960, 71). This admission may be somewhat surprising, and indeed Fogelin (1997) uses it effectively as part of his argument that Quine’s naturalism was of a more limited scope than is commonly understood. The Quineian holistic thesis, it seems, is to be taken with a large grain of salt, as a logically extreme possibility (a “legalism,” albeit an “interesting” one), but in practice we need to limit ourselves to examine only local portions of the web of beliefs at any given time, taking much of the background for granted, at least until further notice.

The other pertinent caveat made explicit by the above quoted passage pertains to Quine’s critique of the logical positivists’ distinction between synthetic and analytic truths that we have just explored. That critique is based on the idea that the distinction (one of the two “dogmas”) deploys terms whose meaning is insufficiently clear. But as Hylton (2010) points out, critics have remarked that Quine’s standards for clarity and adequacy are themselves not clear and possibly artificially high. From the point of view of a web of knowledge, the meaning of the terms used by the logical positivists cannot be understood in isolation, but requires a holistic approach. The problem is that if one pushes holism too far one gives up on the idea of meaning altogether, as Quine himself realized.

From epistemology back to metaphysics. According to Fogelin (1997) Quine began by admitting a fairly broad ontology, but became increasingly committed to physicalism (by about 1953), which was “whole-hearted except for the grudging admission of a few, seemingly unavoidable, abstract entities” (Fogelin, p. 545). Quine did allow — in principle — things like the “positing [of] sensibilia, possibilia, spirits, a Creator,” as long as they carried the same sort of theoretical usefulness as quarks and black holes (Quine 1995, p. 252). Analogously, E. Nagel (1955) wrote that “naturalism does not dismiss every other differing conception of the scheme of things as logically impossible; and it does not rule out all alternatives to itself on a priori grounds” (Nagel 1955, 12). Early on Quine even entertained (and ultimately abandoned) an ontology that used only the set of space-time points, i.e. an ontology of entirely abstract entities, something that nowadays would be considered an extreme form of structural realism of the type defended by Ladyman and Ross (2009; we’ll get back to them later on). Quine went on to articulate what he called a “regimented” theory that contains no abstract objects other than sets (his famous “desert” ontology). As Hylton  (2010) points out, however, sets can be used to define a wide range of abstracta, only some of which are acknowledged by Quine (e.g., numbers, functions, and mathematical objects in general). Quine excluded propositions and possible entities from his list of admitted abstracta, on the ground that the identity criteria in the latter cases are “unclear.” But as I mentioned earlier, Quine’s own criteria for including or excluding something from his ontology were themselves not very clear.

The bottom line is that for Quine metaphysics is metaphysics of science, because science is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to grounding our beliefs about reality. It then naturally follows from this position that epistemology is just psychology, as he famously stated, a conclusion that has seen some push back since, as also evidenced by the empirical fact that epistemologists have not migrated en masse into Psychology departments.

It is worth remembering that Quine did not understand scientific knowledge as different from ordinary knowledge (Hylton 2010), which means that his position can be construed as different from blatant scientism (Sorell 1994): the latter is about reducing everything worth investigating to science, so that philosophical questions become either irrelevant or scientific. It would be more accurate to say that for Quine there was little if any distinction between science and philosophy because both, when done correctly, were in turn indistinguishable from (sound) ordinary knowledge. Indeed, he wrote (Quine 1995, 256) “Is this sort of thing still philosophy? Naturalism brings a salutary blurring of such boundaries.” Blurring boundaries is not at all the same as collapsing philosophy into science, as some more aggressive contemporary naturalistic philosophers are either explicitly advocating or implicitly endorsing (e.g., Alex Rosenberg in the first group, and perhaps the more recent writings by Dan Dennett in the second).

However we want to reconstruct Quine’s project — something that as any Quine scholar will readily testify is certainly open to a variety of interpretations — it was supposed to retain the philosophically crucial normative aspect of epistemology: “Naturalistic epistemology … is viewed by Henri Lauener and others as purely descriptive. I disagree. Just as traditional epistemology on its speculative side gets naturalized into science, or next of kin, so on its normative side it gets naturalized into technology, the technology of scientizing” (Quine 1995, 258). But it is not at all clear on what scientific or technological grounds one can move from descriptive to prescriptive epistemology.

Let me bring up a simple example to make the point a bit more clearly. There is a lot of talk these days about how recent discoveries in cognitive science are rendering the study of philosophically based critical thinking and informal logic obsolete. For instance, experimental psychologists have now documented the existence of a number of ingrained cognitive biases, from the tendency to confuse correlation and causation to the confirmation bias (ignoring evidence contrary to one’s own beliefs and accepting evidence supporting them), and many others. Interestingly, cognitive biases tend to map with well known formal and informal logical fallacies, as they have been analyzed by philosophers and logicians for some time. The difference between the psychologist and the philosopher here is precisely that the first one describes the problem empirically, while the second one prescribes the solution logically. The discoveries made by cognitive science actually make it even more important that one study logic, not less. To argue that the psychology somehow supersedes the philosophy would be like suggesting that since many people are really bad at estimating probabilities (thanks to which phenomenon the gambling industry thrives), therefore we should stop teaching probability theory in statistics courses. On the contrary! It is precisely because, empirically speaking, human beings are so bad at reasoning that one needs to emphasize the prescriptive aspect of theoretical disciplines like probability theory and logic (besides, without the latter two fields, how would psychologists even know that people are getting things wrong?). Depending on how exactly one reads Quine, he may have been perfectly fine with the distinction I have just drawn, but I am worried by some authors being more Quineian than Quine these days, which easily leads not just to a “salutary” blurring of boundaries between science and philosophy, but comes close to an outright selling out or dismissal of the philosophical enterprise (e.g., Rosenberg 2011; some of the literature on experimental philosophy that we will take on in the last chapter).

According again to Hylton (2010), one of Quine’s revolutionary steps was to apply naturalism to naturalism, arguing that the reason to believe that natural science provides us with the best way to understand the world is natural science itself. This may sound like straightforwardly circular reasoning, but it would be so only if one were to look for a “foundation” to the edifice of knowledge. If instead one does away with foundational projects altogether and substitutes them with the concept of a web of belief, one does arrive at an intricate — and I would argue more realistic and useful — picture in which science, philosophy, mathematics, logic and “ordinary knowledge” all grade into each other, and all influence each other. Even so, we have seen earlier that Quine himself did not take the metaphor of a web of belief too far (cfr. his comment on “legalism”). What then emerges from a reasonably moderate reading of the Quineian critique of positivism is that the web of belief is underpinned by a number of partially distinct yet overlapping approaches, the resulting patchwork being reflected in the prima facie distinctions we do make among philosophy, science, mathematics, logic and common knowledge. The blurring of disciplinary boundaries is then salutary because it encourages dialogue and cooperation. But altogether ignoring the existence of such boundaries (blurry as they may be) throws the baby out with the bath water and encourages a rapid slide into scientism. In a sense, for me the best response to a strong reading of Quine is that a scientist (or a mathematician, let alone a common person) would most certainly not recognize Quine’s own writings as scientific (or mathematical, or as instances of common knowledge). But no philosopher — whether he disagrees with Quine or not — would have difficulty in recognizing them as philosophy.

Notes

[2] As Kripke himself put it: “I don’t have the prejudices many have today, I don’t believe in a naturalist world view. I don’t base my thinking on prejudices or a worldview and do not believe in materialism.” Quoted in “Saul Kripke, Genius Logician,” David Boles Blogs, 25 February 2001.

References

Brown, J.R. (2008) Philosophy of Mathematics: A Contemporary Introduction to the World of Proofs and Pictures. Routledge.

Brown, J.R. (ed.) (2012) Philosophy of Science: The Key Thinkers. Continuum.

Carnap, R. (1937) The Logical Syntax of Language. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Fogelin, R.J. (1997) Quine’s limited naturalism. The Journal of Philosophy 94:543-563.

Hylton, P. (2010) Willard van Orman Quine. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 19 December 2012).

Kripke, S.A. (1980) Naming and Necessity. Blackwell.

Ladyman, J. and Ross, D. (2009) Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. Oxford University Press.

Nagel, E. (1955) Naturalism reconsidered. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association 28:5-17.

Quine, W.V.O. (1960) Word and Object. MIT Press.

Quine, W.V.O. (1980) From A Logical Point of View. Harvard University Press.

Quine, W.V.O. (1995) Naturalism; or, living within one’s means. Dialectica 49:251-261.

Rosenberg, A. (2011) The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. W.W. Norton & Company.

Smolin, L. (2007) The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Mariner Books.

Sorell, T. (1994) Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Routledge.

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101 thoughts on “The Naturalistic Turn — II

  1. Haulianlal Guite

    Good to see the conversation moving along quite well. Let’s see how much thread I can pick up.

    Hi Cole. Again, unfortunately I happen to disagree with almost every line you wrote, so this rebuttal may be quite long. apologies beforehand!

    lets start with your “quality controls”. a general point to note is that Quine never used those quality controls in his epistemology, probably for reasons he already knew, which I will explain below.

    let’s take the first, Occam’s razor. so many things wrong with it.

    – first, Occam’s razor has been used and misused for so many ideas that the user simply happens to dislike it makes one wonder whether it does more harm than good. for every ‘proper’ usage, there is an improper usage. it has been used to deny wave theory of light, atoms, subatomic particles, even meteorites, among many others. this is why many philosophers refrain from calling it a principle even: it is not a principle of logic, and its lack of utility guidelines mean it is not more than a heuristic. some even advocate its abandonment and propose anti-razors; but regardless, the problems remain.

    – second, there is not one razor but 2, and there is a huge trade-off between them. the first maybe called “Occam’s parsimonious razor” because it is ontological and says ‘entities must not be unnecessarily applied’. the second is “Occam’s elegant razor”, which is epistemological, and says ‘explanations must not be necessarily applied”. in practice, parsimony often comes at the price of elegance, and vice-verse; so which one must you prefer? for example, if the test between Newton’s and Einstein’s theories were based on the razor alone, Newton’s theory is ontologically more complex (admits of entities like ether and planets like vulcan) but epistemologically simpler (its mathematical formalism) compared to Einstein’s, which is ontologically simple (no need for aforesaid entities) but epistemologically complex (its mathematical structure is far more complex). so, if the razor were the criterion for choosing, will you prefer the parsimonious over the elegant razor, or vice versa? religions, for example, are usually ontologically complex (gods, demons, angels, etc), but epistemologically simple (the gods are responsible, that’s it).

    – third. Occam’s razor in either versions cannot be applied across different categories that share nothing in common. for example, just because the ideal gas law, thermodynamics, temperature, pressure and composition of eggs can adequately explain why an egg boils, should the razor shave off the cook as unnecessary with respect to the question, “why does the egg boils?” obviously not. not only will your spouse be pretty mad about her deletion, that’s because you have 2 categories: mechanism and agency. in such cases you cannot apply the razor just that; you cannot just shave the agency off on the grounds that your mechanistic explanation is complete.

    likewise, with respect to science and the hinduism example. Occam’s razor may (just maybe) useful within the scientific worldview to shave off which explanations or entities that are superfluous within the worldview itself, and it may also be shaved off those that are superfluous within the religious worldview. that is, the razor has its place within each particular system, but not across it, when they share nothing in common (unless you unfairly begin the presumption of the superiority of science, that is). otherwise you will be shaving off apples because of oranges.

    hope the above summary suffices!

    //But it would be useless for any question not in the look-up table. In other words it would have no predictive power.//

    = here you are obviously presupposing without any basis the superiority of the scientific worldview vis a vis the Hindu worldview (of course the Hindu worldview may probably claim the scientific worldview is a component of itself). who says predictive power is the only, in fact even the best, criterion for judging whether a worldview is acceptable or not? after all, its ability to account for human suffering, ability to explain to many people’s satisfaction why the human society is the way it is, may be just as important.

    secondly, just because one system has lesser predictive power than the other, does that imply that without greater predictive power is false? of course as far as scientific theories are concerned, history shows those with lesser predictive power tend to be; but what of the non-scientific theories? is it valid to judge other theories on the same grounds that you judge scientific theories? if so, why? why assume even that they are competing worldviews? after all, hinduism may have simply incorporate the scientific worldview within itself, tightly cloistered away somewhere, undisturbed even. that perhaps explains why most Hindu scientists are believers, while most of their atheists are atheists not because of science but because of other philosophies like Marxism (the same in case of China). it is only in the Christian-dominated world that science allegedly play critical role in their atheism. for the hindu however, he is quite comfortable with all scientific theories, which occupy just a room in its palace.

    third, it is arguable religious worldviews like Hinduism themselves have vast predictive powers. Say, astrology is part of their worldview, as is reincarnation. Astrology makes a lot of predictions, some of which comes true, most of which do not. of course you will see the failed predictions as the ground for rejecting it; but if you remember Quine’s lesson, no theory can be tested in isolation, but only as part of science as a whole, so no hindu theory like astrology should be tested in isolation, but only as part of the hindu worldview. seen that way, hinduism does make many unknown predictions, many of which do not come true; but the system already has adjustments within it that can save the appearance. as for its other predictions like humans in the afterlife turniing into cats, dogs and viruses, of course there is no proof; but there is the prediction nonetheless. now you will
    probably demand falsifiability, but falsifiability again is subject to so many problems which we may go into at a later stage.

    So, for exactly the reasons you’re outlining, the test in science is not whether a model adequately accounts for the information used to construct the model. Rather, the test is how good at a job it does with data that wasn’t already known, and so was not used to construct the model. Thus, the gold-standard test is how good the model is at making predictions.

    Therefore, I shall for the sake of argument grant you that Occam’s razor and explanatory power are indeed very important WITHIN a single worldview like science or even hinduism (even this is problematic really, as there is no reason to consider either to be ontologically significant), but they cannot be applied across worldviews as such.

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  2. Coel

    “Water” is satisfied by anything that is liquid, transparent, tasteless, etc, while “H2O” is satisfied by anything that is made of two hydrogen atoms bound to an oxygen atom.

    And, of course “H2O” could be ice or steam which, depending on context, might or might not qualify as “water”.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. synred

    Names 4/28/2016 8:50 AM

    Words are just names. They are sounds we decide to use to identify things.
    They are arbitrary. They vary from language to language. In another world they would be unlikely to use the sound ‘Helium’ to name Helium.
    H2O is not another name for water. It is a name for the structure of water as discovered by science. Water was known long before we knew it was made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

    Same for Helium. Helium is a name applied to a substance. That it’s made of 2 protons, 2 neutrons and 2 electrons is science.
    Now since finding and naming Helium from its spectral lines, we have discovered there is a variant with one less neutron. We call that Helium 3; we have called it ‘Finnegan’, but Helium 3 has a bit of science encoded into the name. That is convenient.

    Feynman, I don’t think is right, that we should just number the elements. What would we use — accession numbers? We didn’t know their atomic numbers when iron and copper were or even meant when we discovered them. We didn’t know they were elements! Earth, air, fire and water, right?

    Still we could choose to rename them numbers, if we find that convenient, but we’d lose The Elements Song.

    Do we need to drag out Wittgenstein when we have Tom Lehrer?

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  4. synred

    – first, Occam’s razor has been used and misused for so many ideas that the user simply happens to dislike it makes one wonder whether it does more harm than good. for every ‘proper’ usage, there is an improper usage. it has been used to deny wave theory of light, atoms, subatomic particles, even meteorites, among many others. this is why many philosophers refrain from calling it a principle even: it is not a principle of logic, and its lack of utility guidelines mean it is not more than a heuristic. some even advocate its abandonment and propose anti-razors; but regardless, the problems remain.

    Occam can be over used. People forget the caveats and so many versions are floating about.

    “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”

    The ‘unnecessarily’ tends to be forgotten! If ‘entities’ did not on occasion need multiplying, we wouldn’t get anywhere.

    As I.I. Rabi said of the muon, “Who ordered that?” – it would have been simpler to leave it out, but there it was.

    I take Occam has a rule of thumb, but not to be taken too seriously. And there’s nothing wrong with arguing against an ‘entity’ that later turns out to be ‘necessary’. It’s part of the scientific method. If you want to add a muon to the elementary particles you need to provide compelling evidence. Skeptics server an essential purpose.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Haulianlal Guite

    //For example, if by “helium” you meant “something that acts *chemically* like helium does on Earth”, and if by “atomic number” you meant “count of protons”, then all you need to do is envisage a world in which the proton had a charge of half that of the electron, and “helium” would have an atomic number of 4. //

    = perhaps you are right; as i’m not scientist, i will take your word for it that helium can have an atomic number 4 (though most chemist i have asked think otherwise! probably they are a bunch of incompetents!)

    in any case, i think the point still stands; it simply goes to show that’s a bad example. so lemme try another yet.

    suppose I say, “all human optical perceptions lie between 0 and 360 degrees”, will that be a priori or a posteriori? it can be a priori in the sense that a circle has one and only 360 degrees; but it is a posteriori in the sense that, without first seeing it with your eyes, you cannot really determine whether this is true (as the eye, after all, is not known a priori).

    now i’d say that proposition is true in all possible worlds where there are entities with visions, precisely because it is not even logically possible to view anything outside 360 degrees. i’m not sure if this is a posteriori example, but if it is?

    another example maybe the statement “no matter can have a thermodynamic temperature less than absolute zero”, where “absolute zero” is understood as the state of maximum entropy. now, it is entirely imaginable that the absolute zero of possible worlds are greater or less than minus 273.something, but so long as the definition of “absolute zero” is “a state of maximum entropy”, the initial statement will be true in all possible worlds. of course, because you have to find out the exact value of absolute zero, this is an a posteriori example. hope these make sense!

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  6. Haulianlal Guite

    hi synred:

    //I take Occam has a rule of thumb, but not to be taken too seriously. And there’s nothing wrong with arguing against an ‘entity’ that later turns out to be ‘necessary’. It’s part of the scientific method. If you want to add a muon to the elementary particles you need to provide compelling evidence. Skeptics server an essential purpose.//

    for the first time in a long time, i agree completely! 🙂

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  7. brodix

    Arthur,

    “Evolution poking blindly around does not generally find the most efficient solution, but one that’s good enough.”

    Keep in mind the most efficient solution is the lowest energy solution and life needs energy to sustain itself. The bottom line is the flatline.

    The most efficient political system would be one person making all the decisions and there would be no conflict, yet that doesn’t seem to work very well, when it is tried.

    Currently we have an economy that is excellent at generating capital, but apparently having to support an actual society is an inefficiency.

    Energy and order function as inseparable opposites. Energy is movement, while order is stable.

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  8. synred

    Helium having atomic number 2 is a matter of definition. Maybe that’s what your saying

    I take that back.

    We knew about Helium before we knew what it is was made of! Same with water. See post on ‘names’

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  9. synred

    Keep in mind the most efficient solution is the lowest energy solution and life needs energy to sustain itself. The bottom line is the flatline

    Huh? Evolution still won’t find usually find the ‘most efficient’. In economic terms the most efficient may not be worth the money.

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  10. Daniel Kaufman

    The murdering of Krikpe’s and Putnam’s exceedingly important contributions to the philosophy of language and mind in much of this conversation bothers me tremendously, but my experience with many of the actors here has taught me that no amount of discussion on my part is going to do any good.

    All that I will do, then, is *beg* readers to investigate these crucial texts on their own. Here are some good starting points:

    Re: Naming and Necessity

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v02/n17/richard-rorty/kripke-versus-kant

    http://www.jerkert.se/jesper/kripke-reflections.pdf

    http://comp.uark.edu/~efunkho/Lang12F08.pdf

    Re: Putnam and “The Meaning of ‘Meaning'”

    http://sites.middlebury.edu/middmag/2013/02/05/language-in-depth-what-is-the-meaning-of-meaning/

    https://canvas.brown.edu/courses/959435/assignments/5778760

    I will not answer questions or participate in discussion, for the reasons already indicated.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. synred

    It seems likely that abstractions arise in various ways. Some like counting numbers are found to correspond to reality and then abstracted. Others like imaginary numbers are kind of invented (there are two D surfaces out there [a]) and then found to be useful. Other abstractions may never be of much use.

    I do not find it unreasonable that mathematics works. As long as reality is made of stuff that have some kind of order, some kind of relationship and rules about how they affect each other math is going to apply. It might be surprising that it’s simple enough that we can understand some of it, but that math is in principle describes part of anything that exist seems almost necessary. It’s hard to imagine what utter chaos would be and we wouldn’t be there to see it anyway.

    It might be that the last bit of describing our world (we’ve done the ‘easy’ stuff) will prove too hard for us. Let’s hope not.

    I go into this and a lot else besides in my Tegmark reviews found here:

    https://skepticalsciencereviews.wordpress.com/home/

    [a] You can do everything you need w/o imaginaries, but they make it a lot easier.

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  12. SocraticGadfly

    Evolution, to greatly nuance Brodix, falls into “energy wells” as the book I read by Nick Lane a few months ago on eco-devo notes. Future evolutionary development, even if we use the phrase “more efficient,” can only become so within the energy wells/pathways carved out by already existing development. That’s why evolutionary development is full of “kludges.”

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  13. Mark Szlazak

    So is it just because one view of mathematics does not fit well with Quine’s thoughts that makes his view problematic. If you view the effectiveness of (some) mathematics as obvious because those are the parts that grew up together with physics then it is those parts that probably form the base of math. Some math then tells “stories” about physical phenomena. The rest of math could then be view as fiction. Maybe math is just something like linguistics or something you find in “English” departments except it is highly restricted in the ideas it uses. Math may not be that “special” after all.

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  14. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal,

    … unfortunately I happen to disagree with almost every line you wrote, …

    Ah good, keeps it interesting! 🙂

    Occam’s razor. so many things wrong with it.

    It is indeed often misunderstood and badly applied, but it is still a crucial rule of science. Always, you only complicate your model sufficiently to model the data. It is, though, a probabilistic rule rather than an absolute one.

    This can be made quite precise. The “chi squared” statistic tells you how well a model fits a dataset. The “F-test” statistic then asks the question: does the amount of improvement of chi-squared (improvement of fit) caused by adding extra parameters to your model, justify the addition of those parameters?

    there is not one razor but 2, and there is a huge trade-off between them.

    The statement widely accepted in science is in terms of the information content of the model: If adding information content to a model does not improve the fit to the real world, then don’t do it.

    If two very different models are similar in information content (as in your Newton v Einstein example), then you would not choose on the razor alone, after all it is only a probabilistic rule, about the relative likelihood of models, not more than that.

    religions, for example, are usually ontologically complex (gods, demons, angels, etc), but epistemologically simple (the gods are responsible, that’s it).

    I deny that religions are simple in information terms, given the amount of information needed to specify a blueprint of a demon, angel or God sufficiently well to enable you to build one!

    … in such cases you cannot apply the razor just that; you cannot just shave the agency off on the grounds that your mechanistic explanation is complete.

    If, say, a NASA probe found a very strange-shaped rock on Mars, you’d first want to ensure you could exclude all natural geological processes before concluding that it was an alien artefact, so Occam works in this situation also.

    Of course if it’s a scenario where the presence of human beings who cook eggs is already established by other data, then pointing to such people doesn’t “cost information”, since they are already established.

    who says predictive power is the only, in fact even the best, criterion for judging whether a worldview is acceptable or not?

    I’m using it as a criterion for judging whether it corresponds to the truth (not whether a human finds it acceptable, which is another issue). I’m doing that for exactly the reasons you outline: for any set of *known* facts there are a vast number of possible explanations, but only a subset of those will be good at predicting unknown facts. It’s unlikely that any model can do that purely by chance, and so if a model does so there is likely a correspondence between the internal logic of the model and the world’s logic.

    secondly, just because one system has lesser predictive power than the other, does that imply that without greater predictive power is false?

    Yes, it certainly imples that it is less likely to be true (again, this whole argument is probabilistic rather than absolute). It is simply unlikely that any false model can generate successful predictions (other than an occasional chance one).

    Astrology makes a lot of predictions, some of which comes true, most of which do not. of course you will see the failed predictions as the ground for rejecting it

    Yes, exactly. If I “predict” a lottery outcome by programming a computer to write down every possible combination then that is hardly a “prediction” (and is utterly useless for placing a bet!). If, though, I correctly predicted the next hundred lottery draws by giving you exactly one hundred sets of numbers in order then you’d be impressed. You could rule out that I got it right by chance, and you could rule out that my predictions came from a hopelessly *wrong* understanding of how the lottery machine worked.

    Therefore, I shall for the sake of argument grant you that Occam’s razor and explanatory power are indeed very important WITHIN a single worldview like science …

    But then my “scientific” worldview can get quite all-encompassing. 🙂

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  15. Coel

    Hi Socratic,

    Future evolutionary development, even if we use the phrase “more efficient,” can only become so within the energy wells/pathways carved out by already existing development. That’s why evolutionary development is full of “kludges.”

    I don’t see what “energy wells” have to do with it. Fitness-landscape minima, yes, in the sense that evolutionary trajectories head downhill in a fitness landscape. But energy minima, no.

    To pick an example, some dinosaurs got very, very large (maybe the plant-eating ones evolved to become very large to avoid predators). The energy requirements of those beasts were prodigious, and would have been on a strong upward trajectory as they got bigger.

    It’s then the development constraints from the impossibility of going uphill in *fitness* terms that then leads to lots of kludges.

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  16. synred

    I like to use Occam’s razor in auto-repair. If car won’t start I first check the things that are easy (and cheap) to fix. Check for dead battery, before bad started motor [a]. Check if I ran out of gas before looking into time-belt, etc.

    [a] On an old valiant the starter motor is not much harder to replace than the battery. The battery is still in simpler – you can check it with a volt meter — but on a Toyota Camry a lot simpler.

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  17. brodix

    Arthur,

    It’s a feedback loop between order defining and energy manifesting, so neither extreme, of form without energy, or energy without form, is possible.

    Platonic ideals are form without being physically manifest, because they have no energy, thus absolute zero, so they don’t exist. While all energy will have some form, even it is just frequency and amplitude of the wave.

    Form becomes more efficient, as the energy manifesting it is constantly probing for weaknesses and short cuts, like water seeking the quickest route downhill. Which generates more feedback of available energy and waste form, ie. inefficient and less compact. So it expands.

    So it is more efficient for form to condense, while it is more efficient for energy to expand.

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  18. SocraticGadfly

    Coel, I’m using “energy wells” in that way, not as energy “minima.” Per the book I already mentioned, my review, and bullet point 12: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1414384819

    Within biology, since that’s what we’re talking about, not physics, I think “energy well” is a legitimate phrase to describe the concept that evolutionary development constraints require very high energy inputs to overcome, hence, the “kludges” with further development.

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  19. brodix

    Arthur,

    It is certainly circular and I would like to get off the merry-go-round on occasion as well, so if you can name a physical expression of form that doesn’t expand as it absorbs energy/hasn’t peaked/is fully formed and contract as it sheds energy, becoming more condensed around its more stable aspects, I’d be interested to consider it.
    Necessarily abstractions are not physical.

    I fully admit I’m throwing ideas out and trying to get feedback on them, so if you see holes in them and can point them out, it gives me more to think about and that’s my main purpose in these discussions.

    If you just think I’m an idiot, that’s ok too.

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  20. synred

    It is certainly circular and I would like to get off the merry-go-round on occasion as well, so if you can name a physical expression of form that doesn’t expand as it absorbs energy/hasn’t peaked/is fully formed and contract as it sheds energy, becoming more condensed around its more stable aspects, I’d be interested to consider it.

    Necessarily abstractions are not physical.

    I don’t know what that means either. If you want to do physics you need to learn some physics and perhaps a different blog would be more appropriate.

    Sign up at your local junior college and take elementary mechanics. If you don’t know calculus (I’d guess you don’t) take the arts/doctor version for a starter.

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  21. Robin Herbert

    It is interesting to me that Quine didn’t ditch all of logical positivism.

    Reading the Web of Belief, I am struck by how much the ideas owe to the LPs, in particular to Neurath. Thus I think he has built on the good ideas they had as well as refuting the bad ones.

    To me that indicates that it is true progress, since after all it would be no progress at all if philosophy had done nothing more than fix the mistakes which philosophy made in the first place

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  22. brodix

    Trying to wade through Dan’s links, I find my simple minded description of (mental) forms building/coalescing/fluctuating/breaking apart/cycling/undulating/etc and generally coming and going, as the psychic energy swirls through and mentally tumbles and sorts them, to be a useful image, to give some perspective of the various frames, emphasis’s and judgements.
    For those of us otherwise time constrained, but willing to stub our toes on occasion, some mental editing of all this is necessary, no matter how much ridicule it engenders from those with professional commitments.

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