Archive for the ‘philosophy of science’ Category

My Proudest Moment (and the problem with Dawkins)

May 15, 2012

One of my proudest moments:

A religious student in one of my linguistics classes challenged Darwinian evolution as “just a theory.” For a moment I thought I’d try to explain that the theory of evolution is scientific because it could be wrong, whereas Creationism is not scientific because it can never be wrong, but I realized that even if I spent the rest of the hour explaining that conundrum of falsificationism, they’d come away thinking that science is false and Creationism is necessarily true, so I’d not only be digressing from class topic, but it would be counterproductive.

Instead I suggested that the difference between the millions of years of evolution that resulted in the complexity and usefulness of natural language, on the one hand, and on the other, the clumsy strictures of standard languages, are exactly like the difference between god-given perfection and the imperfect creations of the human hand: helicopters, extraordinary as they are, crash; dragonflies don’t. The theory of evolution is the scientific way of explaining what in religion is called the god-given.

Thereafter whenever I mentioned evolution, I’d parenthetically add, “or in the discourse of religion, the god-given.” Not only did this make her happy, it allowed her to appreciate fully the content of the course without further objection. Here were two opposing theories which now seemed to work together, harmoniously, if not perfectly. It was as if theoretical swords had been turned to plowshares. And that is a desirable result overall and in itself.

When Dawkins calls atheists “brights” he does nothing to sway his opponents, he merely insults them. The religious may be irrational, but they are not stupid. (more…)


dismal complaint

March 2, 2012

Naked Capitalism posts an interview The New Priesthood,¬†with Yanis Varoufakis, a Greek economist who currently heads the Department of Economic Policy at the University of Athens, in which he criticises economics as self-reflexive and unfalsifiable because economists won’t commit to factual prediction of the economic weather.

Whatever troubles the field, his criticism can’t be it.


hard to believe

October 29, 2011

To the extreme positivists who insist that science should stick with the surface data only, not speculative theories, and that science can only describe the world never explain it, here’s another homegrown example to add to your shortcomings. (more…)

Stephen Hawking’s latest

April 9, 2011

In his The Grand Design Hawking seems to take pains to set the record straight on his view of creation — no need for a prime mover, no intelligent design, no anthropic principle. None of that surprises me, since arguments for prime movers are logically inconsistent, if there’s a design here Mickey Mouse could have done better, and I can’t make coherent head or tail of the anthropic principle. What did surprise me was Hawking’s trashing of Aristotle on a scale with Bishop Tempier’s. He berates him for applying rationality where he should have observed, a peculiarly Procrustean habit of philosophers. In the context of rejecting prime movers and teleological causes (like the anthropic principle and intelligent design) it’s not surprising that Hawking is critical of Aristotle, who relied on both. But it seems a bit extreme. At one point he even says, without any further comment, “Philosophy is dead.”

I’m an Aristotle fan, not for his physics, but for his logic. A good logician doesn’t necessarily make a good empirical scientist and philosophers have always been weak on knowledge. Their motto should be akin to “those who can’t do, teach” — “They who don’t know anything, philosophize.” Perfect for logic, a science without content.

Everything and more

April 9, 2011

Btw, Wallace’s book on infinity, Everything and More, is an excellent, lucid treatment of the problems within mathematics (which implies scientific theory in general) and its application to the real world.

There are limits at the boundaries not only of mathematics, but also in logics — not only modal logics but even simple first order logic. Reminds me of a Kantian remark Russell made somewhere to the effect that our descriptions of phenomena only approach the phenomena from our descriptive perspective. The things themselves remain utterly mysterious. Worse, our descriptive apparatus is limited. Even ourselves as phenomena (pace Schopenhauer) cannot gain access to ourselves beyond our own descriptive apparatus — language, sensibility, logic and science. We can, at best, observe behavior and derive a few conclusions. Schopenhauer, prior to Darwin and armed only with Eastern religion, mistook that behavior for the thing in itself, when, really, it was just a character of evolutionary survival, not of the entire cosmos of phenomena or noumena. With sufficient scientific research, we approach explanation of both sentient and non sentient behavior … but substance itself? What can you say about the limits of knowledge? Is there a something beyond it or not? I’ve never been impressed with Wittgenstein’s cavalier gnome “It’s not a something, but it’s not a nothing either.” Well, so what? I think Rumsfeld said it better. We can have no access to it, and we don’t even know if there’s a there there.

Which brings me back to the notion of explanation in the sciences: the theory of evolution has explanatory value for psychology (despite Fodor’s just complaint that it is, at this point, merely post hoc and not predictive) because it is a theory independent of emotions or sensibility. It is not just a statistical account of emotions under conditions (the behaviorist model). It is a theory of species development in general. I think Fodor is right that it is post¬† hoc and unpredictive, but it still has explanatory power, just post hoc. Maybe that’s the best place to rest on Fodor’s complaint: natural selection is explanatory but not yet predictive.