Realism and Anti-Realism About Natural Laws

If you ask the average man on the street what a law of nature is, chances are you’re going to get a reply that’s not too dissimilar from what Nancy Cartwright calls the ‘facticity’ view – ‘the view that laws of nature describe facts about reality.’ (Do the Laws of Physics State the Facts?) Cartwright describes this view as so deeply ingrained into the (presumably human) psyche that it doesn’t even have a name. It is simply The View. Comparing the laws of physics with biological laws, Cartwright notes: Continue reading

An Argument Against Theory-Ladenness

A van-Frassen ish constructive empiricist argument against theory-ladenness:

1. Theory ladenness states that there is no theory-neutral observation

2. Theories on a CE account are not tested on the basis of observable phenomena but on the basis of unobservables which are inferred from the data (statistics, probability, etc).

3. Therefore, constructive empiricism cannot be theory-laden.

Two Notes on Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science

– What if instead of a fundamental metaphysical principle, the act/potency theory is just a folk-physics theory? If that’s true, then it wouldn’t serve too much purpose beyond the folk-physics level, since we would be ascribing aspects of our interactions with ‘medium-sized dry goods’ (Austin) to a fundamental metaphysical principle – and how fundamental can a theory be if it only describes our most basic interaction with the world? In other words, if act/potency is a folk-theory about how we interact with objects, then it seems incorrect to incorporate that into a fundamental theory

– I suspect that for the empirical sciences to be possible a version of modal realism must be true, so that the structure of the world must be such that counterfactual can be true or false. Thus, modal realism would be transcendental

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)

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)