T.F. Torrance on Kant and Theoretic Structures

‘There is certainly a profound element of truth here, the fact that in all our knowing there is a real interplay between what we know and out knowing of it. Man himself is a part of nature and is so intimately related to nature that he plays a formative, and nature a productive, role in scientific inquiry, discovery and interpretation. This is everywhere apparent in the magnificent achievements of empirical and theoretic science, but the way in which Kant himself combined the theoretical and empirical components of the epistemic process has grave consequences.

It is certainly to be granted that we do not apprehend things apart from a theoretic structure, but if the theoretic structure actually determines what we apprehend, then what we apprehend provides no control over our understanding. The one way out of that impasse requires a theoretic structure which, while affecting our knowledge, is derived from the intrinsic intelligibility of what we seek to know, and is open to constant revision through reference to the inner determinations of things as they come to view in the process of inquiry. But this is ruled out by the Kantian thesis that the theoretic structure is aprioristically independent of what we apprehend and that there is no possible knowledge of things in their own inner determinations or relations.

While Kant was certainly concerned to show the limits of the pure reason, his theory of knowledge served to reinforce the Enlightenment doctrine of the autonomous reason (e.g. in its Lockean and Cartesian forms alike) and even to exalt it into a position beyond what had hitherto been claimed, where through prescriptive legislation it subdued nature to the forms of its own rational necessities. As F.C.S. Northrop expressed it: ‘For neither Locke nor Hume was the human person as a knower a positively acting creating being. With Kant the position is entirely changed. Apart from the knowing person, which Kant termed “the ego”, the a priori forms of sensibility and categories of the understanding which this ego brings to the contingent data of sense, there would be no single space-time world whatever, with its public, material objects and knowers. In this fashion Kant transforms modern man’s conception of himself from a merely passive into a systematically active and creative being.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, p. 42, reformatted for ease of reading)

Advertisement

Humean, All Too Humean

I intended this post to be a bit of reflection on agent causation and free will, but I was led in a more fundamental direction after concluding with Timothy o’Connor that an account of agent causation really depends on the impossibility of a Humean account of causation. This is a rather simple thesis that can be summed up as follows: agent causation (AC) takes as fundamental that causes really do necessitate their effects – let’s call this Real Causality (RC). Humean-ism (H) fundamentally denies that causes necessitate their effects. Therefore, the first step towards an account and defense of agent causation ought to begin with a look at the metaphysics of causation – more specifically, why we shouldn’t take H to be the case.

Tim Maudlin in his excellent volume ‘The Metaphysics Within Physics’ maps out H by way of two doctrines derived from a reading of David Lewis:

‘Doctrine 1 (Separability): The complete physical state of the world is determined by (supervenes on) the intrinsic physical state of each spacetime point (or each pointlike object) and the spatio-temporal relations between those points.’

‘Doctrine 2 (Physical Statism): All facts about the world, including modal and nomological facts, are determined by its physical state alone.’ (p. 51)

Maudlin then takes these ideas to task, drawing arguments against Doctrine 1 from quantum physics. Classical physics was indeed separable – the physical state of the universe is, more or less, determined by spatio-temporal relations, dispositions and properties in space and time. Maudlin spends a fair amount of time doing some pretty fancy math and comes to the conclusion that given quantum theory as a part of a true description of the world (which is a separate but related contention – Maudlin isn’t trying for an instrumentalist or consciousness-based interpretation of quantum theory here), separability cannot be sustained. He arrives here by an exposition of particle systems, spin states and entagled states, which is rather technical.

Doctrine 2 Maudlin takes to be indefensible as well, and I’ll quote him at length here:

‘It matters not whether one starts with Newton, who, in the Principia, simply announces his three laws of motion after giving the definitions of various terms, or whether one turns directly to any contemporary textbook on quantum theory, which will treat, e.g., the Schrodinger equation as a fundamental dynamical principle. Physicists seek laws, announce laws, and use laws, but they do not even attempt to analyze them in terms of the total physical state of the universe or anything else…Unlike reductive analyses of possibility, causality, and chance, reductive analyses of laws are not endorsed by scientific practice.

Indeed, scientific practice seems to preclude such an analysis. As we have seen, physical possibility is easily understood in terms of models of the laws of physics. Let us suppose (and how can one deny it) that every model of a set of laws is a possible way for a world governed by those laws to be. Then we can ask: can two different sets of laws have models with the same physical state? Indeed they can. Minkowski space-time, the space time of Special Relativity, is a model of the field equations of General Relativity (in particular, it is a vacuum solution). So an empty Minkowski space-time is one way the world could be if it is governed by the laws of General Relativity. But is Minkowski space-time a model only of the General Relativity laws? Of course not! One could, for example, postulate that Special Relativity is the complete and accurate account of space-time structure, and produce another theory of gravitation, which would still have the vacuum Minkowski space-time as a model. So under the assumption that no possible world can be governed both by the laws of General Relativity and by a rival theory of gravity, the total physical state of the world cannot always determine the laws. The only way out is either to assert that empty Minkowski space-time must be governed by both sets of laws, since it is a model of both, or (a more likely move) that it can be governed by neither set of laws, since neither is the simplest account of space-time structure adequate to the model (the simplest account is just Special Relativity). But how can one maintain that the General Relativistic laws cannot obtain in a world that is a model of the laws, and hence allowed by them? The necessity of distinguishing the physical possibilities (i.e. the ways the world could be given that a set of laws obtains in the world) from the models of the laws signals a momentous shift from philosophical analyses that follow scientific practice to analyses that dictate it.’ (p. 67-68)

There is no shortage of less physics-based reasons to not be a Humean, however. One might point out that Hume’s conclusions have force only if his empiricism is accepted, and there are many good reasons why that shouldn’t be accepted – modern philosophy is, in fact, partly composed of such rejections (Reid, Sellars, and the rejection of the positivists make up part of this history. The positivists, who claimed that non-analytic statements or statements that go beyond empirical justification are meaningless, are left in a position which doesn’t exactly aid one in the search for the laws of nature. Nor are things such as quarks and their flavors logical constructions out of sense-data). This isn’t to say that a wholesale rejection of Hume is called for – his observation that causation is not empirical is absolutely correct, though not his further conclusion that it doesn’t exist at all, since causation is very real though metaphysical category. But if the foundation for Humean-ism, which is a strict empiricism, isn’t sound, then we have far less reason to accept Humean-ism.

Given this all-too-cursory look at why we might not want to be Humean, what exactly follows? Concerning agent causation, we are left with a good bit of space with which to work, now that the shackles of Humean causation have been loosed – we are free to develop an account of agency and freedom in which agents are real causes of events.

Incommensurability and Private Language

– David Bohm argues in his talk in ‘The Structure of Scientific Theories’ that terms in a given scientific theory only have meaning within the context given by that theory. This can probably be called ‘strong incommensurability’ – no two theories seem to be able to talk to each other.

– What this leaves us with is a kind of private language for science – private theory language. If the terms in a theory have their meaning only within the context of that theory, then it would seem that, as far as theories are concerned, scientists are unable to talk to each other. Given, however, the fact that scientists do talk to each other (and sometimes even about each others theories) there must be a snag somewhere.

– Bohm’s solution (and he later acknowledges that though it looks as if he’s advocating a kind of solipsism, he’s not) is to try and show that until a kind of common language can be adopted, confusions will continue to crop up in theory development. He cites a number of scientific cases from quantum mechanics where confusion abounds. Some familiar examples might be von Neumann, Kepler/Newton, etc.

– I think it’s fair to here identify Bohm to be paying tribute to the positivist tradition (Carnap et al) in his effort to move from ‘private theory language’  to a common kind of language – a project which saw a large reaction in 60’s and 70’s philosophy of science, especially in the area of theory-laden observation, which attacked the idea that there is in fact even neutral sensory data and neutral language to translate a theory from and into.

– Despite significant confusions in science (Bohm is correct to identify this) it seems a bit shaky to assert that this is both something to assert that this confusion is something to be avoided at all costs by adoption of a more neutral language (even though a Wittgensteinian picture of language may be of help here). Such confusions are only a strict problem if they stem only from theories not being able to talk to each other and do nothing to advance science – and quite often, these confusions help to sharpen, clarify and discard theories and concepts and so help science to advance forward.

– An example here that Bohm cites is malaria – which, throughout history, has had many different theories formed about its origin, structure, spreading, etc. Bohm notes that every different theory here is incommensurable – theorized causes ranged from bad air, damp air, etc, which all seemed to be confirmed by the data – and that effectively, each theory had nothing in common other than the fact that each dealt with malaria.

– In rebuttal, Robert Causey argues that far from demonstrating strong incommensurability, this merely shows that some theories are harder to falsify and some easy to confirm. The current (correct) theory of malaria makes sense of the same data as earlier, more primitive theories (damp air, bad water, etc) – Causey more or less argues that the history of malaria shows that, far from being incommensurable, these theories dealt with the same problem and the same data. Causey further argues that to show the kind of incommensurablity that Bohm is driving at, Bohm would have to show that (1) the problems dealt with by the different theories really were different problems with only the mere appearance of being the same (2) that the terms used by the different theories really were different and (3) that the differences in these terms and their meanings are different enough to show that the problems the theories were dealing with really were different problems.

– This, though a crude sketch, shows that incommensurability requires a fairly high burden of proof if it’s going to be asserted in as strong of a form that Bohm asserted.

Theory-Ladenness, the Given, Intellectual Passion and Theory Development

Over the last half-century or so, a particular story about philosophy has come under fire. Typically called ‘the myth of the given’, it’s the idea that there is ‘given’ in experience come content upon which we can build our structures of knowledge. Prominent modern criticis include Sellars and Rorty, though criticisms of this story aren’t new to the modern era – Thomas Reid, a contemporary of Hume, directed some pretty serious arguments against ‘the way of ideas’ – the theory that what we perceive directly are ideas, or representations, of the world. Another term common in the early 20th century was ‘sense’datum’, found in the work of Russell and Moore.

The main critiques of this family of ideas, as I see it, come from Sellars, Rorty and Reid. Sellars argues along epistemic lines – our immediately perceived ‘given’ doesn’t justify any other beliefs, contra classical foundationalism, which states (broadly) that a properly functioning noetic structure will, once you trace it all out, have its foundation in a set of immediately justified/perceived beliefs, on the basis of which other beliefs can be formed. Sellars, as stated above, basically says that our apprehension of the given, that is, our immediate perception of the given and the consequent immediate justification, doesn’t justify any further beliefs. Hence, the given cannot serve as a foundation.

Reid, characteristically enough, takes a more common-sense approach, and notes that if we take the way of ideas to be the case, three big problems present themselves: (1) that ideas/given don’t have any explanatory power – he doesn’t see how it’s the case that the perception of ideas does any more explanatory lifting than direct perception of objects – (2) representationalism leads to infinite regress (which has some similarities to Plato’s third-man argument) – and (3) the great skeptical problems of the early moderns – how do I know that my mental representations represent reality accurately? Rorty takes roughly similar lines to Reid’s third point, and from there develops some of his more (in)famous dissolution schemes for the mind. For further reference, the SEP article on Reid is fantastic.

The takeaway from this brief genealogy is this: the idea (haw haw) that we construct our structures of knowledge out of ‘given’ sense-data or ideas (read: empiricism) is, if not untenable, pretty shaky.

A further development of the critique of this philosophical story comes from the philosophy of science: the theory-ladenness of science. This idea states, more or less, that all observation is ‘theory-laden’ or conditioned by prior knowledge – what we see depends on our ‘theories’. The classical example is that of Aristotle and Copernicus looking at the sun – both are looking at the same star, but both see two completely different objects because of their theories. This is a fairly radical idea – this isn’t simply the fact that people interpret data different, but rather the theory-ladenness of science states that there is no neutrel data given. While Sellars’ critique is more epistemic (one could hold to his idea while affirming the existence of the given) theory-ladenness allows no such luxury. Two different observers with two different theories literally see two different objects. For a much fuller and substantially more technical discussion, head here.

Another interesting idea to come ffrom the philosophy of science (which I’ll only mention briefly to save time) is the idea of incommensurability – two different theories cannot map onto each other point-for-point. This thesis is tied to Kuhn and Feyerabend, and generally cashes out to saying that there is no neutral language which different theories can be translted into without some loss of information or meaning.

What’s the payoff here, then? Where does all this leaves us? In a way, I’m not quite sure. We can clearly see that, with the above ideas in hand, that science and theory-development is far from a cold, value-free logical enterprise, a mere accumulation and manipulation of the facts – science and theory-development is a thoroughly human undertaking.

All our scientific research and theory-development takes place within a framework of prior knowledge – this is the theory-ladenness of science. This framework is what enables us to ‘see’, as it were – let’s call this frameowork our ‘eyes’. As we continue to research and develop – less by shutting up and calculating and more by way of instinct-led groping – we make discoveries. Things are discovered which change the framework – which changes our eyes, so to speak. Thus Polanyi:

‘Major discoveries change our interpretive frameowork. Hence it is logically impossible to arrive at these by the continued application of our previous interpretive framework. So we see once more that discovery is creative, in the sense that it is not to be achieved by the diligent performance of any previously known and specifiable procedure. This strengthens our conception of originality.. The application of existing rules can produce valuable surveys, but does not advance the principles of science. We have to cross the logical gap between a problem and its solution by relying on the unspecifiable  impulse of our heuristic passion, and must undergo as we do so a change  of our intellectual personality. Like all ventures  in which we comprehensively dispose of ourselves, such an intentional change of our personality requires a passionate motive to accomplish it. Originality must be passionate.’ (‘Personal Knowledge’, p. 143)

‘From the start of this book [Personal Knowledge] I have had occasion, in various contexts to refer to the overwhelming elation felt by scientists at the moment of discovery, an elation of a kind which only a scientist can feel and which science alone can evoke in him. In the very first chapter I quoted the famous passage in which Kepler announced the discovery of his Third Law: “nothing holds me; I will indulge my sacred fury.” The outbreak of such emotions in the course of discovery is well known, but they are not thought to affect the outcome of discovery. Science is regarded as objectively established in spite of its passionate origins. It should be clear by this time that I dissent from that belief; and I have now come to the point at which I want to deal explicitly with passions in science. I want to show that scientific passions are no mere psychological by-product, but have a logical function which contributes an indispensable element to science. They responded to an essential quality in a scientific statement and may accordingly be said to be right or wrong, depending on whether we acknowledge or deny the presence of that quality in it.

What is this quality? Passions charge objects with emotions, making them repulsive or attractive; positive passions affirm that something is precious. The excitement of the scientist making a discovery is an intellectual passion, telling that something is intellectually precious and, more particularly, that it is precious to science . And this affirmation forms part of science. The words of Kepler which I quoted were not a statement of fact, but neither were they merely a report of Kepler’s personal feelings. They asserted as a valid affirmation of science something else than a fact: namely the scientific interest of certain facts, the facts just discovered by Kepler. They affirmed, indeed, that these facts are immense scientific interest and will be so regarded as long as knowledge lasts. Nor was Kepler deceived in this majestic sentiment. The passing centuries have paid their cumulative tribute to his vision, and so, I believe, will the centuries yet to come.

The function which I attribute here to scientific passion is that of distinguishing between demonstrable facts which are of scientific interest, and those which are not. Only a tiny fraction of all knowable facts are of interest to scientists, and scientific passion serves also as a guide in the assessment of what is of higher and what of lesser interest; what is great in science, and what relatively slight. I want to show that this appreciation depends ultimately on a sense of intellectual beauty; that it is an emotional response which can never be dispassionately defined, any more than we can dispassionately define the beauty of a work of art or the excellence of a noble action.

Scientific discovery reveals new knowledge, but the new vision which accompanies it is not knowledge. It is less than knowledge, for it is a guess; but is more than knowledge, for it is a foreknowledge of things yet unknown and at present perhaps inconceivable. Our vision of the general nature of things is our guide for the interpretation of all future experience. Such guidance is indispensable. Theories of the scientific method which try to explain the establishment of scientific truth by any purely objective formal procedure are doomed to failure. Any process of enquiry unguided by intellectual passions would inevitably spread out into a desert of trivialities. Our vision of reality, to which our sense of scientific beauty responds, must suggest to use the kind of questions that it should be reasonable and interesting to explore. It should recommend the kind of conceptions and empirical relations that are intrinsically plausible and which should therefore be upheld, even when some evidence seems to contradict them, and tell us also, on the other hand, what empirical connections to reject as specious, even though there is evidence for them – evidence that we may as yet be unable to account for on any other assumptions. In fact, without a scale of interest and plausibility based on a vision of reality, nothing can be discovered that is of value to science; and only our grasp of scientific beauty, responding to the evidence of our senses, can evoke this vision.’ (p. 133-135)

Stanley Jaki on Einstein’s Failure

‘The year of that Slovay Congress, was, it is well to recall, the year in which Heisenberg gave his derivation of the principle of indeterminacy concerning measurements in physics. One can therefore in a sense understand Einstein’s tactics in taking on the Copenhagen interpretation at its nerve center, which consisted in the insistence that measurements were inconceivable without someone doing them. Thus it would be argued that the act of measurement, which in one way or another implied pointer readings and therefore a reliance on light quanta, deprived the measurement of absolute precision. Such insistence when elevated into a first principle became equivalent to withdrawing into a citadel. Once confined to measurements within that citadel, one could declare that physical theory was limited to the measurable and therefore had no need of hidden variables. Withdrawal into that citadel also meant the the viewing of anything outside it as unreal. It was such a citadel that Einstein wanted to conquer from within, by trying to devise a thought experiment in which absolute precision was in principle possible. He was bound to fail for the very reason that no measurement is possible without observation. But it did not follow from this that knowledge of reality was equivalent to measuring it with absolute precision. Philosophically the citadel in question did not represent the full range of man’s knowing reality, and it certainly did not represent the full range of modern physics. Einstein’s own theory of relativity was a case in point, and all members of the Copenhagen school could have been forced to admit that it was a telling case.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 209)

Stanley Jaki on the Copenhagen Theory

‘Whatever the distance of human passions from atomic physics, the real question was whether one’s epistemological attitude was truly general, that is, consistent or not. The impression Bohr gave was that one was to have two kinds of epistemology, one for atomic phenomena, another for everything else, but it was still to be explained whether the understanding, or episteme, could be split in two. On this decisive point Bohr gave at best an impression which was vague and superficial. Staying with superficial impressions means staying on the surface, and this in turn implies the avoidance of deep questions. Typically enough, Bohr completed the final review of his epistemological conflict with Einstein with the remark that “through a singularly fruitful cooperation of a whole generation of physicists we are nearing the goal wheere logical order to a large extent allows us to avoid deep truth.” The most obvious of such deep truths should have been for Bohr the truth of the complementarity of matter and light, waves and particles, atomic stability and indeterminacy. The truth that they were complementary to one another was not a matter of observation, but an inference, and a genuinely metaphysical one, which had no justification in the Copenhagen theory. The truth in question was about the truth of a reality which had complementary aspects. These aspects could really complement one another only if they inhered in a deeper reality, about which Bohr could only be agnostic. A harmony of relations or aspects, complementing one another, such was Bohr’s epistemological message, a message void of reference to the ontological reality of anything harmonious. About the entity which embodied the harmony of relations he was not permitted by his own premises to make any claim and he carefully avoided doing so. In a truly pragmatist way, which he learned from Hoffding, a forerunner of William James, Bohr could speak of fruits, though not of their harmny (which is never a matter of direct observation) and certainly not of the tree which produced the fruits, to say nothing of the soil which supported and nourished the tree. For Bohr the deepest aspect of existence was pragmatic fruitfulness, the rather shallow perspective in which he saw physics itself: “Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the present position of physics is that almost all the ideas which have ever proved to be fruitful in the investigating of nature have found their right place in a common harmony without thereby having diminished their fruitfulness.”

As will be seen shortly, this was not even true of quantum mechanics, a fact which should surprise no one. The really creative elements of quantum mechanics are not the data observed by physicists bu the marvelous ideas formed in their heads. Of those heads few were as impressive as that of Bohr, who for many was a twentieth-century Moses with two flaming horns on his forehead. The horns were the horns of complementarity, but as interpreted by Bohr they could not secure reality to the atomic realm, to say nothing of Moses or Bohr himself. Bohr’s pairs of complementarity resembled pairs of horns from which one could not even infer unambiguously that they were rooted in the same head and thereby truly complementary or that the head itself was real, and even more fundamentally real than the horns themselves.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and he Ways to God’, p. 205-206)

Thoughts on a ‘Transcendental Realism’

As I was running out to the pet store last night to grab an e-collar for my cat, the thought occurred to me that it might be fruitful to see if the transcendental aspect of Kant’s metaphysic could be married with realism. What follows are various other thoughts that occurred to me on this subject.

What would a transcendental realism be concerned with? Well, as I’m thinking of it, it would be a metaphysic concerned primarily concerned with the following: what are the conditions that make empirical study of the world possible? So in this sense, it’s more of a metaphysic of science. How is science possible? That’s a key question.

To polish the question a bit more: how must the world be in order for science to have proceeded as it has? Two things that come to mind are the issues of causality and universals – laws of nature would probably fit in here under both of those. So what would TR (tentatively) say here?

Well, causality, of one form or another, seems to be necessary for any empirical science to get off the ground. But causality is a metaphysical, and not empirical, category (here we can follow Hume’s insight without committing ourselves to his conclusions). We can’t study causality under a microscope. But if causality is a real feature (albeit a metaphysical feature) of the world, the question we need to ask is how exactly is causality ‘mediated’ through experience (here I wonder if modalities have a role to play)? Here’s a possible answer (not THE answer, but merely a way in which the question might be answered on this view):

Causality is a real feature of the world with both objective (transcendental) and subjective aspects – so it’s a bottom up/top down feature. Causal structures are mediated through and reflected by the empirical world and empirical study. This allows for for the conditions of study, science, etc. This view effectively thinks backwards from the given of our experience, but an argument seems to be needed that I don’t have at the moment.

So I suppose a map of this view would look something like this:

Reality———->causal structures———->experience of reality———->causal concepts———->allow empirical science

I’m not hugely satisfied with this yet, but the raw material for a decent metaphysic is here, at least.

A Few Good Links

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump, so in lieu of a post of my own here’s a few good links I’ve found today:

A few 3:AM interviews:

Tim Maudlin –

‘Philosophy of mathematics is a large and fascinating area about which I have had nothing at all to say. I am a mathematical Platonist in the simple sense that I believe clear, unambiguous mathematical propositions (e.g. Goldbach’s conjecture or the Axiom of Choice) to be either true or false independently of whether or not they can be proven. Indeed, it seems obvious to me for many different reasons (including, of course, Gödel’s theorems) that infinitely many mathematical truths are not theorems of any intuitively acceptable proof system. So I believe in a “world” of mathematical fact in virtue of which clear mathematical propositions are either true or false. But I do not take these mathematical facts to be materialist or naturalistic in any interesting sense. I would not, myself, regard this as a “counterexample” to naturalism or materialism, because I never thought of those doctrines as making any claims about mathematics. But perhaps I am idiosyncratic in that regard.’

Tim Crane –

‘What I am against is the idea that in the search for the correlates of consciousness, we already have a clear idea of what we are looking for, and we have to find the neural correlate of that. I don’t think we are in this situation: we are fundamentally confused about what consciousness is. For instance, we have no proper understanding of the relationship between conscious thought and conscious sensation. The various forms of thought and sensation are underpinned by very different neural mechanisms; so how can the neural correlate of their conscious natures be the same? I don’t think we are yet in a position to make such speculations. To make progress, we have to have a good conception of the phenomenology of consciousness, among other things. I think we are very prone to errors about this, for all sorts of reasons…’

Timothy Williamson 

‘Anyway, I am indeed saying that it is necessary what there is. Necessarily everything is necessarily something. There could not have been more or fewer things than there actually are, and which particular things there are could not have been different. What is contingent is only what properties those things have, and what relations they have to each other. I call that view necessitism. Its denial is contingentism.’

‘Wittgenstein could indeed have had a daughter. But no past, present, or future person could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein, at least not in the biological sense (obviously he could have adopted many actual women). Nor could any actual sum of atoms have been identical with a daughter of Wittgenstein, it could only have constituted such a daughter, and constitution isn’t identity. Rather, for a necessitist, something that could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein is a merely possible person, and a merely possible concrete object. It is neither concrete, a person, nor a daughter of Wittgenstein, but it could have been all three. Similarly, there could have been no tigers, if evolution had taken a different turn. In those counterfactual circumstances, all the actual tigers would have been merely possible tigers—non-concrete non-tigers that could have been concrete tigers. So it is contingent what kinds of thing are instantiated.’

aeon’s David Dobbs on why the selfish gene needs to die

‘It’s a gorgeous story. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple. It has inspired countless biologists and geneticists to plumb the gene’s wonders and do brilliant work. Unfortunately, say Wray, West-Eberhard and many others, the selfish-gene story is so focused on the gene’s singular role in natural selection that in an age when it’s ever more clear that evolution works in ways far more clever and complex than we realise, the selfish-gene model increasingly impoverishes both scientific and popular views of genetics and evolution. As both conceptual framework and metaphor, the selfish-gene has helped us see the gene as it revealed itself over the 20th century. But as a new age and new tools reveal a more complicated genome, the selfish-gene is blinding us.’

A really cool chart on the philosophy of science –

tumblr_n8xr8asYUf1te399ao2_r1_1280

(I’d probably put myself between scientific and structural realism, leaning a bit closer to structural realism, while recognizing that no one position here can do science justice. Some theories are purely instrumental – some are much more realist.)

A great Russell quote:

“I still think that truth depends upon a relation to fact, and that facts in general are nonhuman; I still think that man is cosmically unimportant, and that a Being, if there were one, who could view the universe impartially, without the bias of here and now, would hardly mention man, except perhaps in a footnote near the end of the volume; but I no longer have the wish to thrust out human elements from regions where they belong; I have no longer the feeling that intellect is superior to sense. I used to think of sense, and of thought which is built on sense, as a prison from which we can be freed by thought which is emancipated from sense. I now have no such feelings. I think of sense, and of thoughts built on sense, as windows, not as prison bars.” (‘My Philosophical Development’ (1959), p. 213)

And, on the topic of Russell, An Aristotelian-Thomistic response to Russell’s problem of induction –

‘And so to respond to Russell’s claim: what is existential or particular or singularcan refer either to the thing understood, or the way of understanding. If the latter, it’s false to say that experience is particular; if the former, then the particular is no more opposed to the universal than it is to the particular.’

Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.

This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.

Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:

‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue  from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)

This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:

‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)

 

T.F.Torrance, Michael Polanyi and Ultimate Beliefs

In his book ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge’, T.F. Torrance devotes an essay to examining what he calls ‘ultimate beliefs’ and their effect on the natural sciences. Here’s a few relevant sections with some of my comments:

‘…the controlling statements with which we operate in science are both unfalsifiable and unverifiable. They are statements which express what we have called ultimate beliefs, beliefs without which there would be no science at all, beliefs which play a normative role in the gaining and developing of knowledge. Yet these ultimate beliefs are by their very nature irrefutable and unprovable. They are irrefutable and unprovable on two grounds: (1) because they have to be assumed in any attempt at rational proof or disproof; and (2) because they involve a relation of thought to being which cannot be put into logical or demonstrable form. Ultimate beliefs, then, are to be understood as expressing the fundamental commitment of the mind to reality, which rational knowledge presupposes and on which the reason relies in any authentic thrust towards truth.’ (p. 194) 

The fundamental commitment is important here – Torrance took from Polanyi the idea that trust, commitment and obligation are key aspects of our knowledge in the natural sciences, and I’ll come back to it here. The basic point to be taken here is that ultimate beliefs operate at a level which formal logic and proofs don’t apply because of their tacit nature. Continuing on:

‘Far from being irrational or non-rational, these beliefs have to do with the ontological reference of the reason to the nature and structure of things, which all explicit forms of reasoning are intended to serve, and without which they are blind and impotent. It is indeed not finally through formal reasoning that knowledge is advanced, but through the responsible commitment to reality in which are minds fall under the normative insights or ultimate beliefs which prompt and guide our inquiries, which enable us to interpret our experiences and observations, and which direct the reasoning operations of our inquiries to their true ends.’ (p. 194)

This goes back to the fundamental commitment – the commitment is essential for knowledge to be  and for reasoning itself to function. This commitment, where the mind falls under the ultimate beliefs, is what Polanyi called the ‘fiduciary framework’, which also includes a rational obligation for us to think in accordance with the revealed structures of reality – thinkng after the nature of things, to use Torrance’s maxim. This, for Torrance as well as the classical Christian tradition, is more or less the definition of faith. Continuing:

‘Since this is the case, it is irrational to contrast faith and reason, for faith is the very mode of rationality adopted by the reason in its fidelity to what it seeks to understand, and as such faith constitutes the most basic form of knowledge upon which all subsequent rational inquiry proceeds. There could be no rational inquiry, no reflective thought without prior, informal knowledge grounded in experience and formed through the adaption of our minds faithfully to the nature of things, in the course of which our basic beliefs arise.’ (194)

We could map out Torrance’s idea out roughly like this thus far:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs

The act of fundamental commitment arises when our mind falls under the normative ultimate beliefs – there is an obligation to think after the nature of things which one has to personally commit to so as to not fall into irrationality:

‘The ultimate beliefs…are objectively grounded in, and ontologically derived from, the intelligibility of the real world so independent of our understanding that it reaches out in an objective depth far beyond what we can bring within the range of any masterful comprehending on our part. Beliefs of this kind, calling us to personal commitment, differ from the natural beliefs of David Hume, which he spoke of as causally induced determinations of the mind, and not as free acts resting on grounds or reason. According to Polanyi,’Every belief is both a free gift and a payment of a tribute exacted from us. It is held on the personal responsibility of the believer, yet in the clear assumption that he cannot do otherwise.’ In other words, belif is at once a free and obligatory act, an act which we cannot rationally resist: it is thrust upon us from the given.’ (p. 197)

Here our map can be extended:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs —–> rational obligation —–> personal commitment 

What both Torrance and Polanyi both stress, as can be seen here, is the element of trust, commitment and obligation in the gaining of scientific knowledge. Ultimate beliefs forms the fiduciary framework within which we can commit to reality and so inquire more deeply into reality.