Friday, July 20, 2018

Fallacies physicists fall for


In his essay “Quantum Mechanics and Ontology” in his anthology Philosophy in an Age of Science, Hilary Putnam notes that “mathematically presented quantum-mechanical theories do not wear their ontologies on their sleeve… the mathematics does not transparently tell us what the theory is about.  Not always, anyhow” (p. 161).  Yet as Putnam also observes:

The reaction to [such] remarks of most physicists would, I fear, be somewhat as follows: “Why bother imposing an ‘ontology’ on quantum mechanics at all?... [Q]uantum mechanics has a precise mathematical language of its own.  If there are problems with that language, they are problems for mathematical physicists, not for philosophers.  And in any case, we know how to use that language to make predictions accurate to a great many decimal places.  If that language does not come with a criterion of ‘ontological commitment,’ so much the worse for ‘ontology.’”…

[But] to say “We physicists are just technicians making predictions; don’t bother us with that ‘physically real’ stuff” is effectively to return to the instrumentalism of the 1920s.  But physical theories are not just pieces of prediction technology.  Even those who claim that that is all they are do so only to avoid having to think seriously about the content of their theories; in other contexts they are, I have observed, quite happy to talk about the same theories as descriptions of reality – as, indeed, they aspire to be.  (pp. 153-4)

The problem is not confined to the interpretation of quantum mechanics.  The metaphysical implications of relativity theory, or indeed of any theory in physics, is something the physics itself does not reveal.  Then there are more general philosophical questions about science which science itself does not and cannot answer.  For example, what is the relationship between the abstract mathematical representation of nature afforded by physical theory and the concrete reality that it represents?  Is there more to nature than mathematical representations can capture?  What demarcates science from non-science?  What is a law of nature?  Why is the world law-governed in the first place?  And so on.

The tendency of those beholden to scientism, including professional scientists who are beholden to scientism, is to dismiss such questions on the grounds that the only thing worth talking or thinking about is whether the predictions pan out – which entails positivism, or instrumentalism, or some other form of anti-realism.  And yet, when pressed about this implication, or when presenting the findings of science to the layman, the same people will usually insist on a realist understanding of scientific theories – apparently blithely unaware of the contradiction.  And this is an equal-opportunity form of cognitive dissonance, afflicting everyone from whip-smart Ph.D.’s down to the dumbest combox troll.  

You can’t have things both ways.  If you insist that nothing worthwhile can be said about any matter that is not susceptible of experimental testing, then you have indeed ruled out of bounds philosophical questions like the ones just referred to.  But you have also thereby ruled out a realist interpretation of theoretical entities, because realism is not susceptible of experimental testing.  That’s the whole point of the debate between realism and anti-realism – that the experimental results would come out the same whether or not theoretical entities are real or just useful fictions, so that the dispute has to be settled on other grounds.

Indeed, you can’t have things even one way.  For suppose the physicist or the combox troll beholden to scientism sees the problem and, to be consistent, adopts an across-the-board instrumentalism.  He avoids philosophical issues like the ones mentioned, and he also refrains from endorsing realism.  The problem here, of course, is that even instrumentalism itself is a philosophical thesis and not a scientific one – again, the dispute between realism and anti-realist views like instrumentalism cannot be settled experimentally – so he is not really being consistent after all.  

Scientism is simply not a coherent position.  You cannot avoid having distinctively philosophical and extra-scientific theoretical commitments, because the very attempt to do so entails having distinctively philosophical and extra-scientific theoretical commitments.  And if you think that these commitments are rationally justifiable ones – and of course, anyone beholden to scientism thinks his view is paradigmatically rational – then you are implicitly admitting that there can be such a thing as a rationally justifiable thesis which is not a scientific thesis.  Which is, of course, what scientism denies.  Thus scientism is unavoidably self-defeating.

The fallacy is simple, and blindingly obvious once you see it.  So why is it so common?  Why do so many otherwise genuinely smart people (as well as people who merely like to think they are smart, like combox trolls) fall into it? 

Part of the reason is precisely because it is so common and so simple.  Again, as Putnam complains, even many professional scientists (by no means all, but many) commit the fallacy.  So, when you call someone out on it, there is a strong temptation for him to think: “If my critic is right, then I and lots of other scientists have been committing a pretty obvious fallacy for a very long time.  Surely that can’t be!”  They think that there must be some way to avoid the contradiction, even if they are never able to say what it is, and always end up doing exactly what they claim to be avoiding, viz. making extra-scientific philosophical claims.  Paradoxically, the very obviousness and prevalence of the fallacy keeps them from seeing it.  As Orwell famously said, “to see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.”

Then there is the element of pride.  You have to be smart to do natural science.  Combox trolls usually are not very smart, but they think of themselves as smart, because they at least have the capacity to pepper their remarks with words like “physics,” “science,” “reason,” etc. as well as to rehearse whatever science trivia they picked up from Wikipedia.  So, suppose you are either a scientist or a combox troll who has gotten your head full of scientism.  You are convinced that philosophers and other non-scientists have nothing of interest to say.  Then one of them points out that you are committing a fallacy so simple that a child can see it.  That can be very hard to swallow.  And if the person pointing out the self-defeating character of scientism happens to be religious, the blow to one’s pride can be absolutely excruciating.  “Some religious nut is going to catch me out on a blatant fallacy?  No way in hell!  I refuse to believe it!”  One’s pride in one’s presumed superior rationality locks one into a deeply irrational frame of mind.

A third factor is that, though the fallacy is pretty simple, you have to have at least a rudimentary understanding of certain philosophical concepts – realism, instrumentalism, self-contradiction, etc. – and a basic willingness to think philosophically, in order to be able to see it.  Now, suppose you not only don’t know much about philosophy, but are positively contemptuous of it (as those beholden to scientism often are).  Then you are not going to know very much about it, and you are not likely to be able to think very clearly about even the little bit you do know.  Your prejudices keep getting in the way.  You are bound to be blind even to obvious fallacies like the one in question.

The bottom line is that if you cannot help doing philosophy – for again, the very act of denying that one needs to do it itself involves one in a philosophical commitment – but at the same time also refuse to do it, then you are inevitably both going to do it and do it badly.  

The clueless reactions I have seen to these simple points over the years only reinforce their validity.  For example, many defenders of scientism will, in response to the claim that extra-scientific philosophical commitments are unavoidable, demand that you produce an operational definition for this or that philosophical concept, or experimental evidence for this or that philosophical thesis – thereby adding begging the question to the list of fallacies of which they are guilty.  For of course, such demands presuppose the correctness of scientism, which is exactly what is at issue.

My favorite response is the suggestion that a philosopher who criticizes scientism has gotten too big for his britches.  “How dare you suggest that scientists don’t know everything!  How arrogant!”  Scientism, it seems, kills irony along with basic critical reasoning skills.

In his recent book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker summarizes some cognitive science research on bias, and notes that there is a special kind of bias to which those who detect bias in others are prone.  He calls it “bias bias” (p. 361).  The idea is that when you are keen to ferret out biases in others, you are often blind to the biases that influence you as you do so.  As Pinker also points out, people who are well-informed about a subject are also often prone to certain biases, precisely because the interest in the subject that leads them to learn a lot about it also makes it more difficult for them to be objective about it.  As Pinker writes:

[A] paradox of rationality is that expertise, brainpower, and conscious reasoning do not, by themselves, guarantee that thinkers will approach the truth.  On the contrary, they can be weapons for ever-more-ingenious rationalization.  (p. 359)

Pinker also judges, absolutely correctly in my view, that “the major enemy of reason in the public sphere today … is not ignorance, innumeracy, or cognitive biases, but politicization” (p. 371).  When you turn an idea into a political cause to promote, with allies to the cause needing to be recruited and enemies of the cause needing to be defeated, etc., then you are bound to let reason give way to rhetoric, to lose the capacity for dispassionate evaluation, and so forth.

These factors account for why defenders of scientism are often so dogmatic and nasty in their dealings with critics, often prone to ridicule and ad hominem attacks rather than the calm and rational discourse you’d think their purported commitment to reason and science would commend to them.  Scientism has become a political cause, and those beholden to it tend to delude themselves into thinking that their loud condemnations of cognitive bias and rationalization somehow make them immune to these very foibles.  There is no one in greater danger of irrational and unscientific thinking than the fanatic who screams “Reason!” and “Science!” in your face at the top of his lungs.

Scientism is, by the way, self-defeating in more than just the way already identified.  Consider that scientific methodology involves both the construction of mathematical representations of nature, and the experimental testing of those representations.  If you think carefully about either of these components – including even the second one – you will see that it cannot be correct to say that we can have no rationally justifiable belief in what cannot be experimentally tested.  

This is most obvious in the case of mathematics.  Even those beholden to scientism will typically admit that even those parts of mathematics that do not have application within empirical science constitute genuine bodies of knowledge.  And even the parts of mathematics that do have application within science operate in part by distinctively mathematical rules of reasoning rather than being evaluated solely by experimental testing.  

Now, defenders of scientism are often willing to expand their conception of what counts as “science” to include mathematics.  But there are two problems with this.  First, once they do this, then they can no longer consistently criticize philosophical claims for not being susceptible of experimental testing.  For their admission of mathematics into the fold concedes that there are rational forms of discourse that don’t involve empirical testability.  Second, the thesis that empirical science and mathematics exhaust the genuine forms of knowledge is not itself a proposition of either empirical science or mathematics.  Admitting mathematics into the science club simply does not suffice to save scientism from self-refutation.

Turn now to the notion of experimental testing.  Obviously, this presupposes that we have experiences.  Now, the fact that we have experiences, and certain very general features of experience, are themselves known through experience.  However, these particular facts are not susceptible of experimental testing.  The reason is that experimental testing – and in particular, the possibility of falsification – requires that experience can go in one direction or another.  We predict that it will go in direction A rather than B – that we will observe this rather than that – and then try to set up an experiment or observational scenario in which we can see whether this prediction pans out.

But not everything that is true of experience is testable in this way, not even in principle.  To take an example beloved of us Aristotelians, consider the proposition that change occurs.  We know this is true from experience.  But that does not mean that it is empirically testable in the sense of falsifiable.  It is not falsifiable.  For the very possibility of testability or falsifiability presupposes change.  You predict that you will have such-and-such an experience and see whether it happens, and that procedure itself involves change.  You go from thinking “Let’s see if this happens” to thinking “Ah, it did happen” or “Oh, it didn’t happen,” and either way a change will have occurred.  The thesis that change occurs is, accordingly, not falsifiable or empirically testable.  And yet we know it from experience, and the very possibility of empirical testing presupposes it.  Any appeal to empirical testability thus presupposes that we know at least some things that are not empirically testable (such as the reality of change).  Which is precisely what scientism denies.  Hence, once again, scientism is self-refuting.

Those beholden to scientism don’t see this because they conflate empirical with experimentally testable.  And these are not the same thing.  Again, the proposition that change occurs is empirical in the sense that we know it via experience, but it is not experimentally testable or falsifiable.  Aristotelian philosophers like Andrew van Melsen and Henry Koren characterize propositions like this as grounded in “pre-scientific experience.”  They are grounded in experience in the sense that we know them empirically rather than a priori.  They are pre-scientific in the sense that science involves empirical testability or falsifiability, and these propositions concern facts about experience that are deeper than, and presupposed by, anything testable or falsifiable.  

Hume’s Fork famously holds that all knowable propositions concern either matters of fact or relations of ideas.  The logical positivists drew a similar dichotomy between analytic and synthetic propositions, and contemporary naturalists often claim that all significant propositions concern either empirical science or conceptual analysis.  These are all variations on the same basic idea, and scientism typically appeals to one or another of them.  But as I have argued elsewhere, they are all self-refuting.  Hume’s Fork is not itself true either by virtue of relations of ideas or by virtue of matters of fact.  The positivist’s principle of verifiability is not itself either analytic or synthetic.  The naturalist’s dichotomy of empirical science and conceptual analysis is not itself knowable either by way of empirical science or conceptual analysis.  Like the adherent of scientism caught in his self-refutation, none of the adherents of these related views has much more to offer in response than a shit-eating grin.

Anyway, propositions of mathematics, propositions grounded in “pre-scientific experience,” and philosophical propositions (such as the thesis of scientism itself, which is philosophical rather than scientific) fall into a third (and indeed, perhaps a fourth, a fifth, etc.) category beyond the two that these self-defeating views are willing to recognize.

Metaphysics, as Gilson said, always buries its undertakers.   Or it would do so if those untertakers weren’t so busy burying themselves.

45 comments:

  1. Dr Feser,

    Could you expound on what the other categories of knowledge are that a Thomist would be willing to admit? You mentioned that the positivists divide propositions into analytic and synthetic. I've wondered for a while what a Thomistic position would be on synthetic a priori knowledge. Insofar as Thomistic epistemology grounds all knowledge in experience, can a thomist grant that some knowledge is had a priori, and if so, would metaphysics in general be considered an a priori discipline?

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    1. iirc, they are physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. The first proceeds inductively from experience to theories about the abstracted propertied of material bodies. The second proceeds deductively from principles to theorems about ideal bodies. The third proceeds deductively from experience to conclusions about being as such.

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    2. I always wanted to know what the Thomistic view of apperception is - that is, self-awareness without necessary reflection and objectification of one's mental actions.

      Insofar as we are doing or thinking anything, we are necessarily aware of our actions as our own even if we aren't self-reflecting and objectifying them for complete self-awareness - apperception basically.

      But Thomism says that our self-awareness is based on our experience, and as such reflecting upon our experiences is the source of our reflective self-awareness, and as such when we are very young we first encounter the world without seriously reflecting upon our actions and thus have incomplete self-awareness.

      But even when we aren't objectifying our thoughts and actions and aren't turning our reasoning back into itself, it seems we must still necessarily be aware of ourselves and what we are doing, even if we aren't reflecting on what we are doing at the moment. And contrary to what many commentators would say, Aquinas himself never denied apperception, so it seems there is room for it in Thomist thought.

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    3. JoeD,

      Aquinas holds that we have two different kinds of self-knowledge: one by presence and one by a sort of reflective inquiry. I'm not sure what commentators you have in mind, but Aquinas is very clear about it. In any case, you can find him discussing it in ST 1.87.

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    4. @Brandon,


      Well, two Aristotelian-Thomists, namely Mortimer Adler and John Haldane, deny the existence of first-personal experience of conceptual knowledge.

      For example, Adler says in Ten Philosophical Mistakes:

      "We apprehend objects of thought, but never the concepts by which we think of them."

      And Haldane agrees in an interview with 3:AM Magazine by saying:

      "There is no medium of (intellectual) thought, or put another way there is no phenomenology of (abstract) thought."



      Both of these statements seem to contradict Aquinas in SCG b2 ch75.13:

      "Now, while we have said that the intelligible species received into the possible intellect is not that which is understood but that whereby one understands, this does not prevent the intellect, by a certain reflexion, from understanding itself, and its act of understanding, and the species whereby it understands."

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  2. The best part is when you are debating someone who is probably a high school drop out about scientism, and explain to them that you have a Bachelors in Science, have taken modern physics courses, have had hours long conversations with your PhD physics professor, who wrote a textbook on modern physics with an introductory chapter on epistemology (thus rejecting scientism), and they simply respond that you’re probably lying and really have a “BS” degree (as in bu** sh**). There really is a point when you need to realize you are casting pearls before swine. It’s honestly heartbreaking, and at that point, all you can do is pray for them.

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  3. For an excellent account of a priori knowledge, including Aristotelian approaches to it, I'd recommend Edwin Mares'A Priori. No prizes for originality with the title but it makes an intimidating topic easily accessible.

    Insofar as Thomistic epistemology grounds all knowledge in experience, can a thomist grant that some knowledge is had a priori, and if so, would metaphysics in general be considered an a priori discipline?

    Accounts of a priori knowledge permit experience based enabling conditions for such knowledge. Unless one is a nativist about knowledge most philosophers will happily admit that various instances of a priori justification require a background of experience for the thinker to be in the state required to perform the act of reasoning

    A cautionary note: how Neo-Thomists define the a priori is different from both Kantians and early Analytical philosophers. None of these accounts is very satisfactory and of anything more than historical value now.

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    1. Laurence BonJour's In Defense of Pure Reason is also excellent.

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  4. ... because realism is not susceptible of experimental testing.
    But, in fact, it is and has been done. Bohr was right, Einstein was wrong. See Mermin's Is the moon there when nobody looks? Reality and the quantum theory.

    See also Motls' recent Postulates of quantum mechanics almost directly follow from experiments, where he writes:

    ...you can't fake quantum mechanics within a "realist" theory.

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    1. It looks like you are making a fallacy of equivocation.

      Because the word Realist shows up in both places, doesn't it means the same thing.

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    2. It looks like you are making a fallacy of equivocation.

      How so? Philosophical realism and quantum realism share the same root idea, do they not?

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    3. I went over Motls' argument again after snarking below about political quantum mechanics. He really does seem to be rejecting Bohm's argument on the grounds that Bohm was a Communist. The world is full of such beautiful things!

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    4. Not necessarily.

      Let's say that you are the one that collapses the Wave-Function (if I say anything wrong just tell me, after Uni my physics knowledge is all fuzzy) and you are the one that causes the measurement to be the way it is.

      Great, but Philosophical Realism is not necessarily about that. Here it is the thing, Realism holds that our senses, our perception of the world is Accurate, or at least it points to somehting real, the anti-realists say that it doesn't, the whole "it's all an invention of your brain" is a anti-realist position.

      Now, in the case of Quantum Mechanics, there is still something real there, something not created by our minds, that exists out there, even if it is all probabilistic or fuzzy or something spooky, it is still real and non-mind dependant.

      In another words, it is NOT an illusion of my brain or something like that. So, even if detecting changes the system, it doesn't seem to follow therefore anti-realism is real. Now, of course that is not what you mean I suppose, but that is what Feser was talking about, so bringing Bohr vs Einstein isn't really a criticism of Realism.

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    5. Eduardo: Let's say that you are the one that collapses the Wave-Function...

      There is no physical wave that collapses. The wave function is just a description of the random behavior of a quantum object. The "collapse" is just replacing a range of probabilities with one value. You're just replacing a variable with a value in your head.

      and you are the one that causes the measurement to be the way it is.
      No. Nature picks a value at random. You do not cause which value it happens to be.

      Great, but Philosophical Realism is not necessarily about that.
      Now who's equivocating? If you actually read the linked articles (especially Mermin's), you'll note that the thing being measured does not exist until it is measured.

      Now, in the case of Quantum Mechanics, there is still something real there,
      That's exactly what QM says isn't the case. Either the universe is real and effects can happen faster than light (the "real, non-local" option), or the universe is unreal and the speed of light is the upper limit (the "unreal, local" option). Since there is no non-locality in this universe, you're left with the unreal option.

      Now, of course that is not what you mean I suppose, but that is what Feser was talking about, so bringing Bohr vs Einstein isn't really a criticism of Realism.
      Read the Mermin paper.

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    6. Anon, I wasn't clear enough mate, and thanks for the corrections, but I am not saying that Philosophical Realism entails that whatever is about to be measured must be DETERMINED way before the measurement.

      I am trying to say this: "A realist account of some phenomenon takes it to be both real and essentially what it appears to be."

      Got it why they are not related?

      Actually the Anti-Realist account would be Einstein's!

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    7. Anon, simply search for realism in the blog and then Ctrl+F for the same word, I guess you gonna get it what I was trying to get at.

      -------------------------------------
      That's exactly what QM says isn't the case. Either the universe is real and effects can happen faster than light (the "real, non-local" option), or the universe is unreal and the speed of light is the upper limit (the "unreal, local" option). Since there is no non-locality in this universe, you're left with the unreal option.
      -----------------------------------

      Well at that point I meant... Electrons exist and they have random states (that is what I had in mind). Or is QM a mechanics about nothing?

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    8. @Anonymous:

      "There is no physical wave that collapses. The wave function is just a description of the random behavior of a quantum object."

      This is by no means an uncontroversial opinion; and it is a question that is *not* settled by QM alone, because ultimately it is a philosophical question on the correct interpretation of QM.

      "Since there is no non-locality in this universe, you're left with the unreal option."

      This is a false dichotomy and provably so. The reality of the wave funcxtion and wave function collapse is a distinct issue from non-locality.

      Just to give a simple example, even those physicists that tend to favor the Copenhagen interpretation (whose most notable feature is that it does not really exist as a single monolithic existence) disagree on the status of the wave function and you have people taking all sides: it is real, it is a mere artifact of our formalisms, etc.

      It is not only Eduardo that needs to do some reading.

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    9. Eduardo: I am trying to say this: "A realist account of some phenomenon takes it to be both real and essentially what it appears to be."

      That isn't what philosophical realism or quantum mechanical realism means. Realism is the idea that things are observer independent.

      Electrons exist...
      Not until they are observed.

      Metaphysically, this isn't hard. The future does not exist until you encounter it. It isn't like a body of water that you move through; it's created "on the fly".

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    10. grodrigues wrote: This is by no means an uncontroversial opinion...

      Sure. But lot's of things are controversial that shouldn't be. People don't like giving up their cherished intuitions.

      it is a philosophical question on the correct interpretation of QM.
      No, it isn't philosophical. Read Motls' post.

      Even simpler, my wave function isn't your wave function (because my wave function has to take the possibility of your wave function into account). So we aren't "collapsing" the same thing.

      This is a false dichotomy and provably so. The reality of the wave funcxtion and wave function collapse is a distinct issue from non-locality.
      I _did not say_ that these two things were related. What I said is that the only options for Quantum Mechanics is (real, non-local) or (non-real, local). This is shown by Bell's Inequality or, even better, the GHZM experiment (see, for example, Quantum Mechanics in your face).

      you have people taking all sides
      Sure. But just because many people are confused, or ill-informed, or unable to admit to being wrong, doesn't change the facts of the matter.

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    11. "Electrons exist...
      Not until they are observed."

      I think this is not right. Or at least it represents a peculiar use of the verb "to exist".

      The statement "the electron has a momentum p" and the statement "the electron exists" seem to me to be of very different character. This is the kind of thing that people complain about when physicists get sloppy with their metaphysics.

      I think it's crucial to the theory that individual electrons cannot be distinguished from one another. So I don't think it means anything to say "this electron did not exist until it was measured". Did some electron exist before hand? If so it might have been the one you measured. Or it might not have, no way to tell.

      Conservation or charge and of energy, and the fact that matter is too cold and too sparse here for many nuclear reactions to take place means that electrons are not created or destroyed very often. To say that "they exist" is not such a horrible abuse of terminology. Even to talk about a specific one, if it is the only mass and charge worth of electron in a sufficiently large volume of space. What is measurement in this case? Once we know the electron is in there, can we say with confidence that it continues to exist or will we have to measure it again?

      Doesn't the Hamiltonian formalism presupposes that the number of dynamical variables are known before we even take a crack at the equations of motion? If we condescend to count something, don't we first admit that it exists? Of course I am being very bold here, since then I could pretend that every subspace of the Hilbert space in question was "a thing that exists". Perhaps I have bitten off more ontology than I can chew.

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    12. @TMA-6655321:

      Reversing the order and starting with this:

      "I _did not say_ that these two things were related. What I said is that the only options for Quantum Mechanics is (real, non-local) or (non-real, local). This is shown by Bell's Inequality or, even better, the GHZM experiment"

      This is false and provably so. The precise hypothesis for the the Bell's Inequality theorem have been laid out (I would have to search a little bit as I do not remember the references off the top of my head) and here is just one way in which QM can be real and local: super-determinism.

      There are other reasons why what you say is a simple case of a false dichotomy, but what I said suffices.

      "No, it isn't philosophical. Read Motls' post."

      Motl may be a competent physicist but he is a "pompous moron", to borrow his expression, when it comes to philosophy. His post debunking the Many Worlds interpretation is one of the glaring examples of a physicist's stupidity (and yes, I think the many worlds interpretation is *false*) in biting off more than he can chew. Similarly for the linked post.

      Yes, it is philosophical, you do not know what you are talking about. Motl is explicitly cheering for one *interpretation*, the Copenhagen one, which is not even a well-defined beast; Bohr, the most clear proponent of such, very influenced by the positivism and neo-Kantianism so prevalent in his age, evolved in his views, and other defenders of the so-called Copenhagen interpretation differ amongst themselves, sometimes markedly. As I said above, even broadly Copenhagen adherents differ for example, in the ontological status of the wave function so they would disagree with Motl that the probabilities are "subjective". There are, currently, no empirical tests to separate the theories, that is why they are called *interpretations*, a supplemental story added on top of the QM formalism. His characterization of other QM interpretations is simply false. Period, end of story.

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  5. Hi Ed,

    "Scientism is simply not a coherent position. You cannot avoid having distinctively philosophical and extra-scientific theoretical commitments, because the very attempt to do so entails having distinctively philosophical and extra-scientific theoretical commitments. And if you think that these commitments are rationally justifiable ones – and of course, anyone beholden to scientism thinks his view is paradigmatically rational – then you are implicitly admitting that there can be such a thing as a rationally justifiable thesis which is not a scientific thesis. Which is, of course, what scientism denies. Thus scientism is unavoidably self-defeating."

    That depends on how you define scientism. Suppose someone says: "Show me another reliable way of knowing, apart from science and logic." They're not advocating a position, but simply issuing a challenge. And the only way to meet that challenge is to describe another way of knowing.

    The obvious way that springs to mind is that of identifying the presuppositions of our doing any science at all. And surely the reality of change is the most basic of these presuppositions. Or is it?

    "For the very possibility of testability or falsifiability presupposes change. You predict that you will have such-and-such an experience and see whether it happens, and that procedure itself involves change."

    All that follows from this argument is that psychological change is possible. The argument does nothing to overthrow Einstein's argument that a four-dimensional spacetime in which no changes take place can adequately represent physical reality. And from the perspective of an eternal, changeless Mind which created contingent reality (including our finite minds), even our own psychological changes (including going from believing in change to not believing in it) can be apprehended from an atemporal standpoint. From God's perspective, it seems that change is an illusion.

    Or should we say that from God's standpoint, change is real but time is not? What do readers think?

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    1. Re: All that follows from this argument is that psychological change is possible.

      It follows from that argument that change occurs. You're right that the argument doesn't also overthrow Einstein four-dimensionalism.

      Re: From God's perspective, it seems that change is an illusion.

      This seems a very odd way to put things. First, on classical theism, we don't have any idea what "God's perspective" is like in that it is radically different from ours. Second, Thomists (and others) hold to the distinction between primary and secondary causality such that primary causality does not erase or supplant the reality of secondary causes. So, the classical theist can say that God creates the world and everything in it, and that change really occurs.

      Re: Or should we say that from God's standpoint, change is real but time is not? What do readers think?

      I'm haven't studied the AT view of time, but I'm pretty sure Feser would say change is real and time is real. Though for precise views on time and what the reality of time means, we'll have to wait for his next book Aristotle's Revenge. But we can know Feser holds to some form of realism regarding time, since his objection to the Kalam argument proceeds along those lines.

      Hope this helps somewhat!




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    2. Vincent, of course if one ascribes to the B-theory, one can simply refine the meaning of change to be that difference between a prior time and a later time, which is still required for experiment. (Not that I subscribe to this or any version of B-theory.)

      All that follows from this argument is that psychological change is possible.

      And (it follows) whatever in the world occurs as necessarily concomitant to psychological change (e.g. according to the naturalists, changes in the brain neurons, and the chemical receptors, and...) That is to say, it does no good reducing the amount and nature of change to "only psychological" change if in doing so one undermines the rest of the science of mind that that scientism uses to explain the apparent phenomena of mental change.

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    3. *From God's perspective, it seems that change is an illusion.*

      There's no reason to hold this. Change is not in itself either the perception of a flow of events or the perception of one thing and then another thing.

      I mean, even in our own experience, that the butterfly proceeds from the caterpillar is not thought of only as a video playback of one state followed by another. It can be held simply conceptually as 'X changed to Y (in such and such a respect)'. Though this knowledge in our own experience proceeds from the kind of experience we are discussing it does not remain the kind of experience we are discussing.

      God knows better than we do the respect in which something has changed and the temporal situation of everything, because he knows everything better than we do. There's no reason to hold that he knows it as an illusion.

      To use a contrasting example:

      God knows that we are finite. He is not finite and has no experience of personal finitude. But this does not mean that he does not know it no it doesn't mean that finitude is an illusion.

      Why?

      Because God's knowledge flows from his own being, and creation flows from his own being. Even if he himself is not finite finitude is in some respect available to him to know.

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    4. Dr. Torley,

      I believe that your claim that one can grant psychological change without granting real change (per a static Parmenidean universe) implicitly assumes some form of idealism and would thus beg the question against the person who rejects scientism. Essentially, one is saying that the human psychology is not part of the universe that needs to be explained by scientific and metaphysical reasoning. But if human psychological experiences are not part of the universe, then it is not clear how they can be affected by the “extra-mental” universe. And in that case, how can we come to any scientific knowledge (and therefore make assumptions about our universe based on experimental observations).

      With regards to God experiencing change, classical theists would say that God does not have a real relationship with creation (but only a conceptual one) because he is not dependent on creation in any way. However, creatures do have a real relation with God (because they are dependent). This an example of a non-paradigmatic relationship that has been hinted at since Aristotle and more fully worked out by the medieval Scholastics. I recommend you read the excellent article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry titled Medieval Theories of Relations by Jeffrey Brower for an in-depth explanation of these nuances. Question 13 (especially Article 7) of the Summa Theologiae is also particularly relevant.

      Please let me know if you find this helpful or problematic.

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  6. Pinker also judges, absolutely correctly in my view, that “the major enemy of reason in the public sphere today … is not ignorance, innumeracy, or cognitive biases, but politicization” (p. 371). When you turn an idea into a political cause to promote, with allies to the cause needing to be recruited and enemies of the cause needing to be defeated, etc., then you are bound to let reason give way to rhetoric, to lose the capacity for dispassionate evaluation, and so forth.

    You just sowed the seeds of your own destruction. For if, you cannot avoid having distinctively philosophical and extra-scientific theoretical commitments... then what you end up with are stories. And people form tribes around stories. And since no two philosophers agree with each other, there will always be more than one tribe. And the interplay of tribes requires politics.

    I will tell you something about stories, [he said]
    They aren't just for entertainment.
    Don't be fooled
    They are all we have, you see,
    all we have to fight off illness and death.
    You don't have anything
    if you don't have the stories.
    Their evil is mighty
    but it can't stand up to our stories.
    So they try to destroy the stories
    let the stories be confused or forgotten
    They would like that
    They would be happy
    Because we would be defenseless then.
       --Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko

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    1. That there must be politics doesn't refute the point. There is nothing wrong with politics in its proper place. What is bad is having science conclusions driven by politics, all the more so if - like with scientism - its practitioners don't even recognize that beneath and driving the science is something that is not science and about which they (given their presuppositions) would reject the notion it is capable of being true or known.

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  7. Great article, Dr. Feser. Very astute point here:

    But not everything that is true of experience is testable in this way, not even in principle. To take an example beloved of us Aristotelians, consider the proposition that change occurs. We know this is true from experience. But that does not mean that it is empirically testable in the sense of falsifiable. It is not falsifiable. For the very possibility of testability or falsifiability presupposes change. You predict that you will have such-and-such an experience and see whether it happens, and that procedure itself involves change. You go from thinking “Let’s see if this happens” to thinking “Ah, it did happen” or “Oh, it didn’t happen,” and either way a change will have occurred. The thesis that change occurs is, accordingly, not falsifiable or empirically testable. And yet we know it from experience, and the very possibility of empirical testing presupposes it. Any appeal to empirical testability thus presupposes that we know at least some things that are not empirically testable (such as the reality of change). Which is precisely what scientism denies. Hence, once again, scientism is self-refuting.

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  8. “the major enemy of reason in the public sphere today … is not ignorance, innumeracy, or cognitive biases, but politicization”

    The smooth transition here from scientism in quantum mechanics to scientism in cognitive science made me smile. Let the political platforms take a stand on the interpretation of quantum theory. The Realists vs. the Localists! This is the whimsical world in which I want to live!

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  9. Quantum Mechanics and Relativity do say something about the nature of the world but not everything.
    They say things have only probable classical values in space time until measured or until they interact.

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  10. Dr Michael Huemer has a nice article on objective morality on his site where he goes into the fallacy of scientism a little bit.

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  11. God, leave it to Feser to dissect his enemies from like 14 different directions.

    I wrote a piece arguing against scientism on my blog and the objections my scientist friend threw at me were a little different. They involved arguing that nothing can be known through the deductive method because your starting assumptions may be wrong. Bacon said something similar.

    You can see our exchanges here, but Dr. Feser - I wanted to ask, how would you respond?

    http://themuslimtheist.com/scientist-responds-to-the-difference-between-proof-and-evidence/

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  12. "the same people will usually insist on a realist understanding of scientific theories"

    Prithee, mercy for a simpleton....can someone give me an example of such (real or hypothetical), I trust the statement is true....I'm just have problems visualizing a concrete example.

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  13. It seems to me that this is an old debate, long predating positivism and quantum mechanics.

    In the early 20th century, idealists such as F.H. Bradley denied the reality of space and time. G.E. Moore responded by pointing out that the very people who denied space and time acted as if they believed in it. The difference was not just that idealists were talking theoretically and Moore was talking pragmatically: they were talking about *different things* even though they were using the same words.

    Likewise, quantum theorists talk about entities that have no counterparts in our ordinary experience of life. When we ask about "the metaphysical implications of relativity theory, or indeed of any theory in physics," we're asking physicists to connect their theoretical entities and principles to the things we consider real, i.e., what we can experience or imagine. It often happens that there's no way to do it. I can explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics with reasonable accuracy by giving an example about throwing a deck of cards on the floor. However, to explain quantum field theory to a non-scientist, all I can use are metaphors and imagery.

    The meaning of some more esoteric aspects of physical theory is contained entirely in the theories themselves and the observations to which they lead. They barely ever touch the ground of ordinary human experience, but if they're consistent and useful, that's all the metaphysics they need or can have. I suppose that the bottom line is to deny that there is only one way to describe "reality."

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    1. N.S. Palmer: They barely ever touch the ground of ordinary human experience...

      True. Nature is stranger than we imagine. So, should we condition our metaphysics on our naive experiences and uninformed intuitions, or on wherever the evidence leads?

      I suppose that the bottom line is to deny that there is only one way to describe "reality."
      How many realities are there? I can say "the cat", "the black cat", "the black cat that belongs to Mrs. Feser", .... But those are all consistent descriptions of one thing. If I say "it's a green dog" then that's a wrong description -- unless we're looking at different things, our perceptions are off, or the principle of non-contradiction doesn't hold.

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    2. "Likewise, quantum theorists talk about entities that have no counterparts in our ordinary experience of life."

      Have you experienced form as such? Act as such? Potency as such? The things we talk about in metaphysics aren't objects of ordinary experience as such, though they attempt to explain the causes of things we do experience. Indeed, one criticism of metaphysics that some of the scientistic-minded have made is that metaphysics is empirically untestable. Putting aside questions of the validity of that criticism, what it does demonstrate is that empirical testability is the standard of verification in empirical science. And what is testability if not relating something to experience? QM and relativity aren't just armchair speculations, they are tested theories corroborated through observation. So while the things QM talks about are arguably not objects of experience in themselves -- superpositions, entangled states, wave functions, etc. -- they must be found to be consistent with experimental results which are objects of experience, which is to say nothing of the motivating objects of experience in the first place.

      "When we ask about 'the metaphysical implications of relativity theory, or indeed of any theory in physics,' we're asking physicists to connect their theoretical entities and principles to the things we consider real, i.e., what we can experience or imagine."

      See above. If empirical science is not ultimately related to objects of experience, then what is it about? What does it tell us about the world given the general methodological commitments of empirical science?

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  14. The Heisenberg's uncertainty principle rests on a fallacy of equivocation. As Fr Stanley Jaki writes in Miracles and Physics:
    “It was largely overlooked that Heisenberg’s principle states only the inevitable imprecision of measurements at the atomic level. From that principle one can proceed only by an elementary disregard of logic to the inference that an interaction that cannot be measured exactly, cannot take place exactly. The fallacy of that inference consists in the two different meanings given in it to the word exactly. In the first case it has a purely operational meaning, whereas in the second case the meaning is decidedly ontological. The inference therefore belongs in the class of plain non sequiturs that, as a rule, are severely structured in better-grade courses on introductory logic.”

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  15. The EPR experiment was meant to show particles have an exact location even if we do not know where they are. Bell came up with his inequality based on that. When the experiment was tested in Paris it turned out that Nature violates Bell's inequality. Particles have probable values in space and time, before measured not classical values.

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  16. gotta love the phonic alliteration of the title :D

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  18. I saw one man give a great example of why what might be called "mathematism" (specifically) in modern science to be a potentially very dangerous methodology: because if you rest the reality of theories (or evidence of their being true) simply on mathematical possibility, coherency and consistency, then you can effectively construct any universe you like. He gave the example that you could have an radically small universe simply by hypothesizing that everything shrinks proportionately as you move away from the earth. Consequently, in absolute terms, e.g. the Sun might be even EXTREMELY close to us by anyone's estimation and extremely tiny because its light rapidly increases in proportion to how near it comes to the earth: and so long as you maintain that physical forces are also proportionately maintained (which are represented mathematically), no one could falsify such a theory based on math alone. Further, it isn't even clear how you could falsify the hypothesis even with physical experimentation (and even if someone managed to, you could easily argue a special case exemption or something - and again make this as mathematically possible and coherent and empirically near impossible to falsify).

    Now I am not saying that math is irrelevant to physics nor would I disagree that mathematical possibility, coherency and consistency is often a good indication of a theory's plausibility (and certainly its potential utility). I am just pointing out that we certainly already do apply much more in assumption to our physical theories than we might appreciate (unless you think rockets going up is an exercise in Honey I Shrunk the Kids).

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  19. In the book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking made the bizarre claim that there is no point in referring to a reality outside of the theoretical models; there are only the models that should be judged only by their usefulness. Notice that Hawking makes no argument for this instrumentalist claim; he just states it as an unavoidable fact. So why should anyone believe him? He says we have developed better and better theories over time, but we should ask him what makes a theory better.

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  20. The best refutation of positivism I've ever seen is Brand Blanchard's book Reason and Analysis. It utterly destroys positivism.

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    1. I agree. Prof. Blanshard was my mentor and dissertation supervisor, but he seldom gets credit for the tremendous impact his ideas had on 20th-century philosophy.

      https://ashesblog.com/2010/08/27/brand-blanshards-birthday/

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