Book Club: The Edge of Reason, 2, science for humans

Time to go back to Julian Baggini’s book, The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, which I have began discussing last month. While the first chapter was about God and the rationality (or lack thereof) of arguments pro and against, the second one is about science and why it is far less rational that we are led to believe (especially by scientists).

The chapter opens with the observation that science is not an objective “view from nowhere” thing, but a sophisticated, yet fallible, human enterprise, fundamentally dependent on human judgment. As in the case of a poll Baggini cites from 1999: when 90 leading physicists were asked which interpretation of quantum mechanics they thought was best, 4 voted for Copenhagen, 30 for Many Worlds, and 50 said either none of the above or undecided. Clearly, which available model is preferable is a question of subjective judgment, not empirical fact (as the very word “interpretation” strongly suggests…).

The point Julian is making throughout the chapter is simple, yet controversial: “My aim is to show how accepting the role of judgement in science in no way undermines it, but it does require us to rethink how we assume reason works.”

One of his best examples comes again from quantum physics, when he notices that Schrödinger’s and Heisenberg’s competing theories were not only equally compatible with the empirical data, but in fact had been shown to be mathematically equivalent. They were, therefore, both empirical and mathematically underdetermined. Which one you preferred came down to subjective judgments having to do with beauty, simplicity, or even, possibly, whether you personally liked one physicist better than the other.

The general idea that theories are never, by themselves, uniquely determined by the evidence is known today as the Duhem-Quine theses, but Baggini points out that the concept goes back at least to John Stuart Mill, who wrote in A System of Logic that a hypothesis “is not to be received as probably true because it accounts for all the known phenomena, since this is a condition sometimes fulfilled tolerably well by two conflicting hypotheses.” Mill thought that this was commonly accepted by “thinkers of any degree of sobriety” (I love the turn of phrase!).

As Julian observes, scientists are often dismissive of the Duhem-Quine theses, charging that it is difficult enough to come up with one reasonable theory to explain the data, let alone dream up multiple alternatives. But “this misses the point. The value of the underdetermination thesis is not to make us seriously consider all alternatives to the most powerful and tested scientific explanations. Its value is that it makes it clear that even when the evidence appears overwhelmingly to support one theory rather than another, there is always a gap, however small, between what the evidence requires we conclude and what we actually conclude.”

Another factor that conjures in hiding the role of human judgment in science is the fiction that there is such thing as a quasi algorithm-like thing called “the scientific method.” While philosophers of the early part of the 20th century kept searching for it, the consensus nowadays is that it doesn’t exist. Yet scientists themselves help perpetuate the myth, both in references to the phantomatic method in introductory textbooks, and also by creating “the false impression of a regular, orderly method by writing up their findings in ways which gloss over the real messiness of discovery.”

Indeed, as Baggini stresses, if one looks at how science is actually done — rather than described in simplistic idealizations — it is a highly messy activity where “quirks and deviations” from the official picture of rigorous experiments and straightforward deduction are not exceptions, but rather the norm.

There are many documented cases in the history of science when a scientist persisted out of sheer obstinate conviction of being right, an attitude we associate instead with pseudoscience. My favorite example among those cited by Julian is Boyle, who was “persistent in holding to his theory when observation refused to confirm it. On 49 occasions he tested his hypothesis that smooth bodies that stuck together in air would come apart in a vacuum, without success, yet succeeded on the 50th attempt.”

What, then, distinguishes a brilliant scientist like Boyle from a crank? Good judgment of his intuitions, arising from experience as well as brilliance. Not much else, really.

Moreover, scientists — especially physicists — tend to rely on theory more than empirical evidence, even when the empirical evidence appears to contradict the theory. Eddington, the astronomer that confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1919, famously declared that “It is a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they have been confirmed by theory,” a striking reversal of the usual idea of how science works.

The temperament and gut feelings of scientists play a major role early on during discovery and initial verification, notable cases include Einstein’s suspicion of quantum mechanics (“God doesn’t play dice”) and Heisenberg finding Schrödinger’s theory “repulsive.”

Here is one gem from the chapter: “Another of Einstein’s remarks is extremely revealing. He once said, ‘I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will, not only its moment to jump off, but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming-house, than a physicist.'” This is an expression of a strongly emotionally held aesthetic judgment. Nothing to do with physics or mathematics as ordinarily understood, or the quest for truth, for that matter.

And of course beauty and aesthetics are not, in fact, guarantors of truth: “As George Ellis and Joe Silk point out, ‘Experiments have proved many beautiful and simple theories wrong, from the steady-state theory of cosmology to the SU(5) Grand Unified Theory of particle physics, which aimed to unify the electroweak force and the strong force.'”

Scientists — below the surface, mostly in private or informal exchanges — even disagree on major issues of epistemology and metaphysics. For instance, “Bohr … completely rejected scientific realism. ‘There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum mechanical description,’ he said. ‘It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.'” Needless to say, a number of his colleagues disagreed vehemently, thus unwittingly engaging in philosophical debates about the nature and scope of their discipline.

By the end of the chapter, Baggini concludes: “The success of science should not lead us to believe that it provides the model for all reasoning; rather that the domain of science is one which is especially conducive to the use of reason. … We need a more expansive notion of what it means to be rational, one which includes all the elements that are left out when we focus only on the strictly formal and empirical ones. At the heart of this notion we need to place judgement.” Indeed.

292 thoughts on “Book Club: The Edge of Reason, 2, science for humans

  1. Haulianlal Guite

    Marc, I mean that the “idea” is a necessary postulate, In that, had the noumena (whatever it maybe) not exist, there will be no phenomena. Because the phenomena must come from somewhere. The presence of the phenomena (as modeled in our everyday experiences and scientific models) already presupposes the existence of the noumena, from which comes the data we model into apples, oranges, tables and Trump’s hair.

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  2. Bunsen Burner

    Marc:

    ‘what I think they might be saying is that talk of existence and such, even before humans appeared, is necessarily a mind-dependent exercise.’

    This is what i don’t understand. Isn’t this obvious?. How could it be possible to talk about anything in a mind-independent way?

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  3. SocraticGadfly

    Philip said:

    It’s seemed to me that physicists who “like” many worlds have an implicit (emotional?) bias against randomness.

    This is broadly similar to my observation about many cosmologists not wanting to accept an eternally expanding universe.

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  4. marc levesque

    “Assuming either interpretations are correct however, and you accept the argument, the conclusion is inevitable that it affects our ability to know reality”

    I think the argument points out that it isn’t coherent to talk of a certain kind of knowledge.

    Disclaimer, I have very little knowledge of Davidson and I’am often not sure I’m following correctly what Dan is saying on the subject

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  5. Bunsen Burner

    Haulianlal:

    I was really interested if any modern philosophers – those who know about quantum mechanics, evolution and all that – have those beliefs.

    I also don’t agree that if we accept something as radical as Bostrom’s idea that we live in a simulation the reality does not exist. Reality still exists, its just that for us it has a computational component that we didn’t expect. In fact maybe someone can help me with this. How is it possible to deny reality and not be a solipsist? Where do all the other minds reside?

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  6. Bunsen Burner

    Socratic:

    ‘This is broadly similar to my observation about many cosmologists not wanting to accept an eternally expanding universe.’

    Yes, I’ve often thought that too. Much of the debates on this topic have struck me more about psychological temperaments than actual science.

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  7. Haulianlal Guite

    Bunsen:

    ||I was really interested if any modern philosophers – those who know about quantum mechanics, evolution and all that – have those beliefs.||

    Given that most interpretations of Quantum Mechanics seem to confirm part of the good bishop Berkeley’s arguments (that the observer is somehow involved in the wave function collapse – QM consciousness theories), and given that even his (Berkeley’s) own arguments against matter are still unrefuted unless we take Kant’s transcendental route, and finally, given that most of modern science already presupposes the existence of physical reality (though some will say science can still go on without believing in the existence of reality at all, and they may yet have a point) … I’d say modern science is monumentally irrelevant to this ultimate question of what exists.

    ||I also don’t agree that if we accept something as radical as Bostrom’s idea that we live in a simulation the reality does not exist. ||

    Actually, David Chalmers explored this nice idea that even if Bostrom’s argument is sound, he’d prefer to accept that these (we being meat, then atoms and molecules, finally bits) as different stages of being, so to speak; that all are real, rather than say only the bits are. So this emergentist line of thinking may actually be conducive to your line of thinking.

    || How is it possible to deny reality and not be a solipsist? ||

    I don’t think it is, if Kant’s transcendental argument is not to your liking. Forget about matter, which Berkeley demolished. Hume went a step further, and did show that we never see or feel or experience even the self. This is what he has to say:

    “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…”

    So Berkeley demolished the existence of matter, and Hume did the same thing to the mind, thus drawing empiricism to its logical conclusion, that we can never really know whether the mind or matter exists. And a wit of the day had this to say, “no matter, never mind!”

    The only way to escape Berkeley’s idealism and Hume’s skepticism, imo, is to take the transcendental route.

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  8. marc levesque

    Bunsen,

    “This is what i don’t understand. Isn’t this obvious?. How could it be possible to talk about anything in a mind-independent way?”

    It’s obvious to me too, but there are those who still state things that way, blatantly or subtly, consciously or not , and I’m not immune. That’s one of the reasons I think philosophy’s useful — to help point out and clarify problems.

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  9. Robin Herbert

    Hi Bunsen Burner

    “Are there philosophers who dispute the existence of the physical world before humans arrived to create concepts? ”

    The last major figure to make that claim was not a philosopher but a physicist – Erwin Schrödinger. He appears to have held this view quite sincerely over a significant period of his life, although it has sometimes seemes strangely at odds with his views on evolution and neuroscience.

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  10. brodix

    Haulianlal,

    “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…”

    Yet the sense of awareness moves from one perception to the next. That is the distinction.

    Awareness goes from prior to succeeding perceptions, as these perceptions come and go. So they go opposite directions of time. Awareness goes past to future, while perceptions go future to past.

    Much as individuals go from birth to death, i.e. being in the future to being in the past. As species are constantly going onto the next generation and shedding the old, past to future.

    Awareness is always and only present. Particular perceptions come and go.

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  11. Robin Herbert

    Hi Marc

    “Do you mean the idea is uninformative”

    That appears to have been Kant’s view when he introduced the term. The context is that he was discussing language problems in the way people talk of metaphysics. Mach, influenced by his reading of Kant said that this made him realise that the concept of the noumenon was superfluous.

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  12. Robin Herbert

    Taking Hume’s statement:

    For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…

    It has always seemed to me that this is akin to saying that when I enter into what I call a forest I stumble around and never encounter anything but trees and never a forest. This may have been Hume’s point, I don’t remember.

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  13. Robin Herbert

    Kant’s account of the distinction between phenomena and noumena from Critique of Pure Reason:

    At the same time, when we designate certain objects as phenomena or sensuous existences, thus distinguishing our mode of intuiting them from their own nature as things in themselves, it is evident that by this very distinction we as it were place the latter, considered in this their own nature, although we do not so intuite them, in opposition to the former, or, on the other hand, we do so place other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).

    and part of the following discussion

    Our understanding attains in this way a sort of negative extension. That is to say, it is not limited by, but rather limits, sensibility, by giving the name of noumena to things, not considered as phenomena, but as things in themselves. But it at the same time prescribes limits to itself, for it confesses itself unable to cognize these by means of the categories, and hence is compelled to cogitate them merely as an unknown something…….
    ….The question therefore is whether, over and above the empirical use of the understanding, a transcendental use is possible, which applies to the noumenon as an object. This question we have answered in the negative.

    Read it in context here https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4280/4280-h/4280-h.htm

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  14. Robin Herbert

    Even if I were the Solipsist, there are thoughts that come unbidden to my mind which must originate from outside my consciousness and so there would still be an external world of sorts.

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  15. brodix

    Robin,

    It is pretty much the function of the mind to distinguish and quantify.

    Though my interpretation would be that we are always aware of, not just simply aware.

    It’s not just that we are observers, but receivers. Does information exist, if it is not received? As in, ‘Does a tree make a sound, if it falls and no one is there to hear it?’

    Would a rock be hard, if it never encountered a resisting force? It might be hard, if it strikes your hand, but if it were to strike the sun?

    It seems much of what we consider as objective/ontological are our more stable relational perceptions, rather than “things” in and of themselves. Which is why some see math as foundational.

    As I see it, “energy” is real, as in conserved, thus always and only present, while all form is a function of interactions of energy. Even photons and quanta are only measures of energy interacting with our instruments and other, ultimately energy based receivers. Atoms are positive and negative energies.

    Space, on the other hand, has no form or definition, other than the non-physical properties of infinity and equilibrium. Everything else is just fluctuations in the vacuum, expanding toward infinity and coalescing toward equilibrium. Radiation and gravity.

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  16. brodix

    The future being where the energy is expanding toward, as in the open switches, not the closed ones.

    While the past is/are the forms saved and structured.

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  17. SocraticGadfly

    It is off track, yes, but …

    Americans, a moment of silence tomorrow morning, please, for the centennial of our entry into a war, led by a non-neutral president, that we never should have gotten into in the first place.

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  18. wtc48

    HG: “That said, attempting to prove the existence of such a brute fact like existence of an external world is a perennial occupation of philosophy, in whose tradition I stand justly proud. So long as you do not mistake this to be an investigation of the empirical sciences (which begins with the presumption of the world’s existence, so there is no question of having to prove it), its been a fun and rewarding ride.”

    I find this distinction between philosophy and science attractive. Viewed this way, philosophy appears to operate like a court of law, in which there are strict rules of evidence, and the question of innocence or guilt is argued by champions of opposing sides, rather like the medieval trial by combat. The legal version of truth is not always satisfying to what common sense might expect, and may be overturned by appeal to a higher court.

    In contrast, the scientist’s procedure is one of investigation, wanting to find out what actually happened, how the thing works, or in Maxwell’s expression, “What’s the particular go of that.” The motivation is the solution of problems, and usually solving one problem only leads to a train of other related problems, so the quest is endless.

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  19. brodix

    “I basically split the diff between Hume and Wittgenstein, adding, or trying to add, an ever-larger dash of Diogenes the older I get.”

    Not only should we chose the filters through which we observe life wisely, but far more importantly, be willing to switch them around on occasion. It is the very function of a filter to restrict information, by framing and structuring it in ways which are useful, but the groove can turn into a rut. If you find yourself on only one side of the coin, you are not objective, no matter how brilliant you assume yourself to be.
    Even if the other side seems pure shit, it may well be fertilizing something and you might just be backing yourself into a corner. Think current political hysteria.
    There are many maps of the territory.

    Spinning the diff between philosophers and philosophy.

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  20. Robin Herbert

    Hi HG

    “So long as you do not mistake this to be an investigation of the empirical sciences (which begins with the presumption of the world’s existence, so there is no question of having to prove it), its been a fun and rewarding ride.”

    You don’t have to presume the existence of a world in order to do empirical science. Schrödinger said there was no physical universe, Einstein said there was and Bohr left it open. Didn’t stop them collaborating on physics.

    As Mach said, all the world could be a dream but science would go on the same so long as it was a sufficiently consistent dream.

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  21. Daniel Kaufman

    You don’t have to presume the existence of a world in order to do empirical science.

    = = =

    In one sense you don’t and in another sense you do. If i am engage in an investigation concerning the solar system, while I can doubt whether Saturn has 53 moons, but I cannot doubt whether there are planets or moons. Those beliefs have to “stand fast,” as Wittgenstein put it, in order to engage in the inquiry in the first place — and in order to be able to entertain doubts regarding the number of Saturn’s moons.

    The same seems to me true of empirical investigation generally. That’s why I said there is a version of naive realism which has to be true, even though, metaphysically speaking, I lean towards anti-realism. A bit like Hume’s distinction between the “vulgar” and “philosophical” views, though I think Wittgenstein’s way of framing the matter is better.

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  22. Daniel Kaufman

    God, my arm for an edit button.

    “If I am engaged in an investigation concerning the solar system, while I can doubt whether Saturn has 53 moons, I cannot doubt that there are planets or moons.”

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  23. Robin Herbert

    As I have said before I don’t think that the Wittgenstein approach is necessary. If the boy in the history class says “I doubt the world exists” then the teacher might reply “So do I but the subject in hand would be done the same way whether or not there was a world and so that opinion is not relevant here.”

    I seem to have gotten by pretty well without those beliefs standing fast. The only drawback, if it is one, is that the occasional philosopher will call me a dimwit.

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  24. Daniel Kaufman

    I think you’re pretty clearly wrong. You can’t have the relevant conversation — or entertain the relevant doubts — without those things standing fast. Whether or not something is presupposed by a type of discourse is not a matter of whether you think you’ve gotten by without them, but of whether the discourse is intelligible without them, which, of course, is a social, not an individual matter.

    And no, the subject in hand wouldn’t be done in the same way. You can’t have a discussion about planets or moons unless the notion that there are planets and moons stands fast. And likewise for all the rest of the things one talks about. As G.E. Moore pointed out in his essay “A Defence of Common Sense,” which provided much of the inspiration for Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty,” those who wish to deny this wind up presuming it, insofar as they are denying it to … other people.

    We’ll just have to disagree on this then.

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  25. Robin Herbert

    We will have to disagree. But I am working on a dream where where I hold up one hand and then the other before my face.

    Then I will dream that I am Bishop Berkeley and someone asks me ‘How do you refute Samuel Johnson?’ and I kick a rock and say ‘I refute him thus’.

    Maybe all that will prove is that I need to stop thinking about this stuff.

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