Friday, January 20, 2023

Cartwright on theory and experiment in science

Nancy Cartwright’s A Philosopher Looks at Science is a new treatment of some of the longstanding themes of her work.  It is written in her characteristically agreeable style and full of insights.  The book is devoted to criticizing three widespread but erroneous assumptions about science: that science is essentially just theory plus experiment; that in some sense everything science tells us is reducible to physics; and that science reveals that everything that happens, including human action, is determined by the laws of physics.  In this post I’ll discuss what she says about the first of these claims, which is the subject of the first and longest chapter in the book.  I may devote a later post to the other claims.

The supposition that science amounts to theory plus experiment is, Cartwright observes, widespread among laymen, scientists, and philosophers alike.  The mathematically expressible kind of scientific theory, familiar from modern physics and enshrined in equations like F = ma, is taken to be the gold standard.  From such equations, it is thought, specific observable consequences are predicted, and the point of experimentation is to test these predictions.  And that’s basically it.  Except, as Cartwright shows, that isn’t it, not by a long shot.  In addition to theory and experimentation, there are models, narratives, diagrams, illustrations, concrete applications, and so on.  None of these is reducible to theory or experiment, and neither are they any less essential to the practice and content of science.  And when we take account of them, both science and the world it describes are seen to be far more complicated than the common conception of science and its results implies.

Theoretical concepts

Cartwright begins her analysis by noting that any theory is expressed in concepts, and that science aims for concepts with content that is both unambiguous and empirical.  As all philosophers of science know, it turns out to be very difficult to come up with a general account of how this is achieved.  Cartwright summarizes the familiar difficulties.  First of all, explicit definitions of theoretical terms are obviously of limited help when the definition is itself couched in yet further theoretical terms.  At some point we need to arrive at terms with clear empirical content.  But exactly how does that work?

Operationalism held that the solution was to define a theoretical concept in terms of some operation by which the scientist could measure the empirical phenomenon captured by the concept.  But there are several reasons why this won’t work.  For one thing, it entails reductionist analyses that we can independently know to be false.  Cartwright offers the example of behaviorism, which was an application of operationalism to psychology.  The behaviorist would define anger, for example, in terms of the observable behavior on the basis of which we would attribute anger to someone. 

Note that the implication of operationalism here is not just that we can know someone is angry by way of observing his behavior.  It is that there is nothing more to anger than the behavior.  Now, one problem with this claim is that it simply isn’t true.  A person could be angry without exhibiting the usual behavioral signs of anger, and could also exhibit those signs without actually being angry.  Hence anger is something more than the behavior.  Another problem is that it turns out even apart from that to be impossible entirely to analyze anger or any other mental state in entirely behavioral terms.  Suppose we say that “John is angry” means “John is disposed to raise his voice, frown, stomp his feet, etc.”  The trouble is that this sentence will be true only if John does not desire to hide his feelings.  But if we add a reference to the absence of this desire to our definition, we’ve now got a further mentalistic concept – desire – that needs to be given a behaviorist analysis.  And it turns out that to carry out such an analysis, we need to make reference to yet further mental states, with those now needing a behaviorist analysis, and so on ad infinitum.  Hence the operationalist analysis cannot actually be carried out. 

A second problem with operationalism is that it has the false implication that there cannot be different empirical tests for the same concept.  For again, operationalism holds that there is nothing more to a concept than the operation by which we test its application.  Hence, if we have two different tests, we must be dealing with two different concepts.  But that’s absurd.  Take, for example, the concept of being round.  I can test whether something is round either by looking at it or by feeling it, and obviously it is one and the same concept I am applying in both cases.

A third problem, as Cartwright emphasizes, is that in actual scientific practice it often takes a lot of hard work and argumentation to show that a certain empirical test plausibly measures the reality captured by some scientific concept.  That could not be the case if there were nothing more to the concept than the empirical test.  It follows that there is more to theoretical concepts than what is captured by such tests, in which case operationalism is false.

Logical empiricism, as Cartwright notes, was another failed attempt to solve the problem.  The “logical” component of logical empiricism had to do with its application of modern formal logic to the formulation of scientific theories, e.g. as axiomatic systems from which theorems could be deduced.  The “empiricism” component had to do with the idea that the claims of a theory could be verified by observation.  Here too there are several problems. 

For one thing, exactly what counts as an observation?  Only what can be perceived by the naked eye (or the naked ear, the naked nose, etc.)?  Or do observations made using instruments count?  Furthermore, what exactly is it that we are observing – mind-independent physical objects, or sense data?  And are all scientific claims really verifiable in this way in the first place?  (See pp. 139-51 of my book Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science for detailed discussion of the intractable problems facing verificationism.)

It turns out that, just as the content of theoretical concepts outstrips what can be captured in an operational definition, so too, more generally, does it outstrip what is observable.  The content of concepts is given instead by the axioms of the theory in which they are embedded.  But the problem now, as Cartwright notes, is that such axioms are never sufficient to determine exactly what it is in the empirical world a theory is about.  Consider, again, the equation F = ma.  Considered just by itself, it tells us nothing more than that one quantity is equal to the product of two others.  And as Cartwright observes, this is true not only of the force, mass, and acceleration of a material object, but also of the area of a rectangle with respect to the length of its sides.  There is nothing in the equation itself that tells us which of these is its subject matter.  Of course, we could add further items to our set of axioms, such as Newton’s law of universal gravitation.  But no matter how many we add, there will always be alternative possible interpretations. 

(This issue is closely related to the epistemic structural realist thesis that physical theories reveal to us only the abstract structure of the physical world and not its intrinsic nature.  See chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Revenge for detailed discussion.)

Of course, in practice, scientists and the laymen who are familiar with their work don’t worry about such problems.  The reason is that, for one thing, when encountering an equation like F = ma, most people have at least in the backs of their minds the ordinary language usage of terms like “force,” “mass,” and “acceleration,” and thus naturally interpret the variables in light of them, even if they know that the variables aren’t meant to correspond exactly to our commonsense notions.  For another thing, they often apply the equation as a tool for carrying out very practical tasks, such as figuring out the speed of a ball hit by a tennis player (to borrow an example of Cartwright’s). 

But all of this comes from outside the theory itself, at least if we take the mathematics alone to be what is essential to theory as such.  Moreover, as Cartwright emphasizes, this utility of theory in practical applications does not entail that the world really is exactly the way the abstract theory represents it as being.  (She gives the well-known example of phlogiston theory, which was very useful predictively and technologically despite the fact that it turns out that there is no such thing as phlogiston.) 

I would emphasize a further point.  It is commonly assumed that scientific theory gives us a richer and more accurate representation of the world than common sense does, and indeed ought to replace the commonsense description of phenomena.  But as Cartwright’s argument indicates, this is the reverse of the truth.  For one thing, scientific theory in fact cannot even be given a determinate interpretation without some connection to the ordinary linguistic usage from which its concepts ultimately derive, and the concrete applications to which theory is put.  For another thing, what theory describes are really only abstract features of the world of common experience rather than that world in all its rich complexity.  That doesn’t necessarily entail that scientific theory should be given an instrumentalist rather than realist interpretation.  But it does support the epistemic structural realist view that, while what theory describes is really there in nature, it is very far from capturing everything that is there in nature.  (See Aristotle’s Revenge for detailed exposition and defense of this view.)

Beyond theory

Now, because of the way the actual applications of a theory often unconsciously determine how we interpret it, we can be blind to how much work is being done by the application and how little by the theory considered in isolation.  In particular, when we consider a theory in isolation, just in terms of its mathematical formulation, its concepts can seem very precise.  But a concrete application of the theory may nevertheless involve an interpretation of those concepts that is not so precise.  Yet it may retain its utility nonetheless, and retain it precisely because the concepts are being applied in a way that goes beyond the content of the theory itself.

The consequence of this is that scientists often end up supposing that precision is possible where really it is not.  Or, because a concept’s application may be susceptible of precision in one, limited domain, scientists can fallaciously suppose that it must be equally capable of precision when extended beyond that domain.  This is, Cartwright argues, especially likely in social science.  She gives as an example the notion of probability.  When we consider simple examples like pulling cards from a fair deck, the probabilities of various possible outcomes can be determined with precision.  But it simply doesn’t follow that we can meaningfully assign probabilities to events in general, and Cartwright thinks there are good reasons to suppose that this is not in fact possible. 

In particular, she notes that probabilities are determined relative to what Ian Hacking calls “chance set-ups.”  These are circumstances where both the possible outcomes and the processes that might lead to them can be fully specified, and where there are probabilities built into the situation at the start from which the probabilities we wish to calculate fall out logically.  Again, pulling cards from a fair deck would be an example.  But much of what happens in nature does not amount to a chance set-up in this sense.  For example, in the real world (as opposed to what Cartwright calls the “small world” representations that social scientists make use of) there often simply isn’t one relatively simple and fixed set of variables that might influence possible outcomes.

For this reason, Cartwright judges that much of what is said by social scientists about “effect sizes” when evaluating alternative policy proposals is poorly founded.  (Cartwright doesn’t mention the relevance of all this to arguments for various pandemic policies, criminal justice reforms, “equity-conscious” educational proposals, and other currently trendy issues, but it is obvious.  I leave the specifics as homework.)

In any event, in natural science and social science alike, Cartwright argues, theory is only ever brought to bear on the world by way of various intermediaries.  First of all, there are the idealized models by which we bring abstractions like the laws of physics to bear on concrete reality.  For example, when we apply Newton’s laws to the solar system, we do so by modeling the latter (in terms of a system of point masses orbiting a larger point mass, and so on).  In this way, our application of abstractions is mediated by further abstractions.  There are also the concrete narratives by which all of these abstractions are made intelligible.  (Think of the way that, in order to understand even a simple system like the solar system, we still have crudely to visualize large objects moving through space over time around other large objects; that in order to understand the implications of special relativity, we tell stories about twins traveling on rocket ships; and so on.)  Cartwright notes that diagrams, graphs, and illustrations also deeply influence how we interpret and apply theory.  Nor are these various intermediaries dispensable.  We simply couldn’t understand or make use of theories without them.

Finally, experimentation too, Cartwright argues, is a much more complex affair than is implied by the common notion that “science = theory + experiment.”  Experiment is often treated as if its only point is to test theory.  But that is not the case.  Sometimes experimentation is carried out even in the absence of any well-worked out theory, in an exploratory way that aims simply to see what will happen under various circumstances.  Sometimes experimentation creates new phenomena that would otherwise not be observed – where, precisely because they have not otherwise been observed, no theory yet exists to account for them.  Sometimes experimentation reconstitutes phenomena in the sense of deeply altering our understanding of them, even in the absence of theoretical considerations.  And in all these cases, experimentation, like theory, depends on fixing the content of concepts, on models, and so on.

“Science ain’t an exact science”

I’ve mentioned already one of the implications I see in Cartwright’s discussion, viz. support for an epistemic structural realist interpretation of modern physics.  Here’s another.  It is a commonplace of modern philosophy of science that theory is underdetermined by empirical evidence.  What that means is that for any body of empirical evidence, there are always alternative possible theories that are incompatible with each other but consistent with that evidence.  That does not entail that all theories are equally good, but only that considerations independent of both theory and empirical evidence are ultimately necessary in order to choose between theories.  Philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have also shown how extra-scientific considerations (of a philosophical sort, for example) play a crucial role in determining the outcome of scientific investigation.

The considerations raised by Cartwright greatly reinforce these judgments.  In particular, they reinforce the underdetermination of theory by evidence insofar as it isn’t just alternative theories that are compatible with the same empirical evidence.  There are also the alternative possible models, narratives, diagrams, etc. which mediate between theory and evidence.  And as with theories, so too with models, narratives, diagrams, etc., philosophical considerations no less than empirical ones can influence our judgments about what is within the range of respectable options, what is plausible all things considered, and so forth.

By no means does this entail that science is not a rational enterprise, any more than philosophy is not a rational enterprise.  What it does entail, though, is that the boundary between science and philosophy is much less sharp than is commonly supposed.  As I have argued at length elsewhere (including in Aristotle’s Revenge), much of what is today assumed to be “scientific” – the refusal to countenance irreducibly teleological explanations, the primary/secondary quality distinction, and so on – are really just contentious philosophical assumptions masquerading as empirical results.  And it is not possible to do science without making philosophical assumptions of some kind, which are bound to be controversial.

To borrow a line from the movie 12 Monkeys, “science ain’t an exact science.”  To be sure, there is an exactness in its purely mathematical aspects, but that is precisely because mathematical representations simply leave out all aspects of reality that don’t fit that exact mode of representation – which turns out to be quite a lot.  There are not only more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by scientists, there is more to science itself than is dreamt of by them.

Related reading:

Dupré on the ideologizing of science

Scientism: America’s State Religion

The particle collection that fancied itself a physicist

Fallacies physicists fall for

One Long Circular Argument

Science and Scientism

Blinded by Scientism

Rosenberg roundup

57 comments:

  1. From a review of the works of the philosopher of science, Rev. William Wallace, OP, which nicely sums up what Prof. Cartwright is saying.

    "That conviction, that the principles of Aristotle’s logic and natural philosophy, especially as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas, were still the most profound and accurate lens through which to understand the reality of the natural world and the progress of modern science."

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  2. WCB

    Science, as a word can be misleading. It assumes a sort of category that does not really exist. Astronomy, as a science is different from biochemistry chemistry. Biochemistry is different from theoretical physics and particle physics. Geology is different and so is field botany. Each field of studay has its own techniques, equipment and tools, and history. Aristotle's
    "Science" has been dead since the days of Galileo. Galileo, a professor of physics threw all of physics out and started investigating physics empiracally, dropping objects, rolling objects down planks etc to found physics on a sound experimental, observational basis.

    Optics changed everything. Telescopes and microscopes exposed whole new worlds to observe not found in Bible, Islamic science or Greek philosophers. You cannot outguess nature. And the naked eye is not good enough. This was a major wake up call for everyone.

    With the golden age of scientific instruments, science was born as we know it. Natural philosophy was a dead issue.

    With Descarte's and friends failure to explain how soul or spirit interacted with matter, theology and science parted ways. The most orthodox Catholic chemist and rank atheist chemist did chemistry the same way post Decartes.

    Methodological materialism is the basis of modern science and will ever remain so.

    WCB

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    1. "If I repeat it enough times, and sprinkle it among some obvious and uncontroversial statements without showing logical connection, it will come true. But I must keep my eyes tightly shut, since I'm posting it underneath a blog full of hundreds of pages of counterargument that I don't want to know about because I'm scared I might be wrong.

      "Mouth open, eyes shut; mouth open, eyes shut; mouth open, eyes shut. Hey, it's working!"

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    2. WCB

      The era where some philosopher cogitated mightily and pulled some theory out of his ear has long been over. With the invention of telescopes and microscopes, mankind found out there is a lot of things going on one cannot observe with a naked eye. A very important step in the development of real science. An important step in the development of science was the invention, and devolpment of scientific instruments and techniques to expand our abilities to observe nature.

      Science was becoming effective and sophisticated and Aristotle became irrelevant to modern science.

      WCB

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    3. "...Aristotle became irrelevant to modern science..." Heisenberg (one of the most important founders of modern physics) would not agree.

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    4. There is a vast literature that proves you wrong on theoretical grounds. But since your assertion "answers" the arguments in the article with this historical "analysis", i will limit myself at these statements.

      " Galileo, a professor of physics threw all of physics out and started investigating physics empiracally"

      "The era where some philosopher cogitated mightily and pulled some theory out of his ear has long been over. "

      You can believe this ready-made positivist version of it. Or you can try to read the work of a great historian of science like Alexadre Koyré beginning with the article "Galileo and Plato"

      https://www.jstor.org/stable/2707166

      and see that the process was much more complex and indeed has required philosophical thinking and not in a secondary position. Point is your "analysis" is wrong on theretical grounds also because it is historically wrong.

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    5. WCB

      Historically, inventions like telescopes and microscopes changed everything.
      That is history. You cannot outguess nature without such tools. This was indeed the sobering realization that change atitudes of how to do science.

      Aristotle, plato and pre-telescope and pre-micrscope thinkers had no chance of understaning much of anything worth mentioning. Drivers of science were no longer philosophers, but instrument makers. Better telescopes, microscopes and instruments to observe nature one could not do with the naked eye.

      There is no other way to do effective and meaningful science.

      WCB

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    6. You simply don't know what are you talking about and present, i repeat myself, a crude positivistic sketch that is as simplistic as, as a consequence, factually wrong. Instruments are important but without philosophical ideas to guide their use (such as the platonic understanding of the role of mathematics in the study of nature), those instruments (and not all of them, because other important instruments came to be as a conseguence of this process) would have no use whatsoever in the formation of different paradigms, but just pratical uses, like many exemples in history.

      The tools need an idea to change things; if you really studied history and good philosophy of science (quite rare these days) you would know that various tools, necessary for various "scientific discoveries" were already present in various places and times, like in ancient China or in the hellenistic period, but what was lacking the kind of ideas, philosophical ones to be clear, that could change the paradygm; and the social form to accept/incourage it, in this case the various elements (socio-economical, ideological and, of course, also technical) involved in the process of formation of "modern age" and, indeed, of capitalism.

      The role itself that technological craft came to to have in the research is a consequence of philosophical positions (Bacon, Descartes, etc.), as you can see with the image universe-machine and God-clockmaker. It is a philosophical metaphor and the shift was prepared by an interation of philosophical speculations, socio-economical changes and processes that included the technological development, when the speculation integrated it in a theoretical vision (that, of course was fueled also by economic and military interests).

      A telescope without Galilei platonic understanding of nature would have been useful only to see better the enemy deck during a naval fight.

      All this said in a neutral way, just looking at the process and not judging it, because phenomenological understanding of a process is one thing, judgment of the phenomenon is another.

      Now it would be auspicable that you read the damn article of Koyré (and really you should at least read "From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe" by him), not to say other works of good literature on the matter, just to begin (for instance the various studies on how Newton's metaphysics was necessary for his physics), and come with an actual proposition that answers those arguments, you know dialectics, instead of reiterating your positivistic tell-tale.

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    7. WCB

      There were other things going on in Enlightenment Europe. Rediscovery of the Greek Skeptics. Printing of Lucretius's Epicurean writings. Pierre Bayle's Philosophical Encyclopedia. And more.the European progress at better and better scientific instruments was a big reason why Europe leaped to the forefront of science in the world. Scholasticism, empty philosophisizing were no longer adequate. Scientific Europeans discove Dr ed what Richard Feynman called " The joy of finding things out". Scientific societies made science a status symbol that rewarded the best and brightest.

      WCB

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    8. Really, i can't bother. What could follow would be ad hominem, because, simply, you live in your semi-accultured bubble and understand very little of these subjects, but you think you know because you share a very ideological mockery of them. There is nothing to answer; "better", "best and brightest", it's fantasy, bad fantasy, i like good one, there is no rational basis to continue, even in dialectical disagreement. I just give dr. Feser my apologies because i wanted to contribute to a discussion no to do a polemic.

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    9. Alam,

      Don't bother. WCB is a lazy troll who doesn't care about arguments or discussion. He just proselytize like a good hard naturalist/new atheist/scientistic type. And, of course, he won't listen, nor even realize he has no arguments to support his positions.

      What's more is that he doesn't even care to make an account, so everyone can impersonate him. I suspect he's nothing more than a sockpuppet of the usual atheistrolls.

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  3. The theories of the hard sciences are indeed accurate in quantitive abstraction of quantity, but lack sufficient ontological depth to be able to confirm their correlation with truth. I don’t think the social sciences are accurate in either aspects!

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    1. WCB

      With a multi-billion dolar CERN particle accerator, one can confirm the existence of the Higgs particle and Higgs field. Explaining the deep processes of particle physics.

      All the thick philosophical and theological tomes on ontology (of which there are many) will add nothing
      To the understanding of the Higs particle or basic physics.

      It neither leads there, predicts anything, helps design the upgraded design that found the Higgs particle. For that one is better off learning tensor calculus.

      WCB

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    2. WCB

      Michael Faraday's theories on electro-magnetical physics are true. His field equations are true. Objectively true. They are the basis of our modern world and its reliance on elctricity, and electrical devices. None of this needs philosophers' opinions about ontology.

      One good experiment is worth a thousand opinions.

      WCB

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    3. Technologically the basis of the modern world is quantum physics not classical physics. And quantum physics and Aristotle go together like peas and carrots.

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    4. So, it is confirmed, your understanding of science is as crude of your understanding of philosophy and history, if you think that crude mockery of it you exposed above is history. Perhaps you should do a research about the meaning of the concept "truth" to understand that no experiment is "true". That you think that "scientific certainty" is truth tell much about your understanding of such matters.

      And a study about the nature and history of mathematical models woul be in order. I'm sorry, can't help here, my bibliography on this is in italian.

      Ah, i may have double-posted above, i don't know, can't see my comments until approval. Sorry.

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    5. WCB

      "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong."
      - Richard P. Feynman

      Shut up and experiment, is what is the basic process of science. It is sobering to read the history of modern physics and see how much of what we now know was discovered by physicists messing around in a lab somewhere. Utter surprizes. Basic ideas like Plato's Forms and Aristotle's Categories have not stood the test of time as fruitful ideas.

      WCB

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    6. @WCB Richard Feynman was a psychopath.

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    7. Sure, physicists experimenting has taught us a great deal about physics. But physics doesn’t explain all of reality. Not even close.

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    8. As i said, you don't even know what the basis of science are, starting with the role of interpretation in it (and this just for starters), the required gnoseology, epistemology and other wee philosophical things. What you "know" is just the positivist popularizer version of it. "It is sobering", indeed, because it is exacltly what it is that you are doing, cradling your little self in a ideology; and you dare speak about religion and philosophy. Rationality, indeed. I won't further reply to you, it would be pretty irrational.

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  4. Professor Feser, would it be a fair representation of the thomistic understanding of laws of nature as merely a description of how the universe acts without the interference of an outside agent?

    I am reminded of a philosopher who once gave this description, it may have been JL Mackie but I cannot be sure.

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    1. WCB

      Wili!m of Ockham. God created nature, the material world and the laws of nature. Known as seconday causes. Once set in motion, God does not cause everything to happen by direct action. An idea that continued on with the philosophy of Descartes. God the great clock maker. Nature as a secondary cause is an old concept with venerable theological roots.

      WCB

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    2. i would argue that Ockham and Descartes were both an axe at the root of theology, although of course that was not the intention of either. The older understanding could still be seen as having a distinction between primary and secondary causes. However with the rediscovery of Aristotle in the west, the basis of the christian neoplatonic foundation of the past thousand years was slowly lost. In this the primary cause was naturally the divine idea(l)s of things, the eternal form towards which things unfolded in time. This was the basis of teleology which became uprooted after Oakham and even more so after the cartesian divide, where laws of nature (secondary causes) start to be seen as a kind of primary magic that acts on our abstraction of reality. As if reality is our abstraction of it.

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    3. @Simon Adams here is what Jesus said about Aristotle:

      "So again Jesus said to them, 'Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits.'" (John 10:7-8)

      Every great world teacher that came before Jesus (Hillel, Shammai, Aristotle, Socrates, the Buddha, Zoroaster, etc...) was from the Evil One. William of Occam and Descartes were doing the greater works of Jesus Christ by destroying Aristotle. "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil." (1 John 3:8)

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    4. @infinite growth. I don’t know where to start in replying to that. Ockham was paying TOO MUCH attention to Aristotle. There is a reason (in my view) that the Church Fathers chose to focus more on the neoplatonic ontology than on Aristotle. The essences are ‘essentially’ missing in Aristotle, but not in Augustine or Aquinas.

      For you to think that Ockham, whose primary aim was to find certainty, was working with Christ, whilst the Church fathers like Augustine, whose primary aim was Christ, were against Him, seems very upside down.

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    5. @Simon Adams Jesus is saying that all knowledge that came before Him was false. Whether it be Judaism, Buddhism, Greek philosophy, etc.... But He didn't say that all knowledge that comes after Him will be false. And indeed, knowledge didn't explode until after the Protestant reformation when the "ancient wisdom" was thrown out and science was embraced. Even though Muhammad, Karl Marx, and Alfred Kinsey are seen as the unholy trinity of traditional Catholics, the truth is, Jesus didn't call them bandits, because they came after Him.

      "Ancient wisdom" comes from the Evil One. Jesus Himself said so in John's gospel. That makes me question many "traditional" "time-honored" interpretations of the New Testament. Especially the seemingly irrational idea that behaviors between consenting adults (same-sex relationships) somehow can make the Creator of a spatially infinite universe angry.

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    6. @InfiniteGrowth You seem to have a very strange, possibly fringe protestant, understanding. Both Paul and John referenced Greek philosophy. If you’re Christian then this is holy spirit inspired scripture. So the black and white interpretation you have of Jesus words contradicts the very “sola scriptura” framework you seem to be using.

      Of course not all of all ancient beliefs are compatible with what was revealed by Jesus, which is why the Christian neoplatonism of the “1000 years” of Christianity up to the errors of nominalism and the reformation was not the same as the non christian neoplatonism.

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    7. WCB

      @Simon Adams

      "I would argue that Ockham and Descartes were both an axe at the root of theology, although of course that was not the intention of either."

      Aristotle states the Unmoved Mover, Aristotle's God, set the Universe into motion and then withdrew from the material world, contemplating his own thouhts. Aristotle tells us that is the highest form of existence for this Unmoved Mover.

      Thus nature is for Aristotle, a secondary cause, and neatly avoids the issue of the problem of evil.

      Othodox Christianity early on adopted the ides of God's omnipresence, immanence and providence. Reaching its ultimate conclusion with Calvanism.

      WCB

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    8. Calvinism is not the ultimate conclusion of anything, just another branch of the ever fissile protestantism….!

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  5. A very insightful post! Loved it!

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  6. From an epistemological point of view, discussing science would be less controversial if we simply acknowledged and agreed that:

    (1) Certainty (i.e., the judgement of "truth" when comparing what we know with our experiences) is limited to our own personal experiences and cannot be shared with others by definition.

    (2) Objectivity (i.e., putting ourselves in the place of the object or pretending to represent its perspective) is an extrapolation that cannot be verified.

    (3) Objectivity as impartiality is a matter of consensus among certainties communicated through language and agreement on a narrative.

    (4) Mathematics is a human invention in the sense that its rules do not exist a priori in a realm of ideas. It is incorrect to imagine the object of mathematics as something to explore like an unknown land, but it is more akin to something we build like a Lego game. It is also a narrative, where formulas and diagrams are similar to Chinese ideograms in that they can be read and understood within their own cultural frames.

    (5) Physics is a narrative, and the evaluation of its quality does not rely on its ability to predict, but on its ability to function as a useful and operational story, depending on the culture in which it is developed. There is no pretension of certainty or objectivity, only impartiality.

    (6) Metaphysics is the only narrative that claims to develop a narrative that examines certainty and objectivity as defined above.

    (7) What is common to all these narratives, what underlies them all, is logic, and for obvious reasons, the logic that is supported by our own certain experiences, as declined by Aristotle.

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  7. Modern physics is quantum mechanical. The founders of modern physics (Heisenberg, Bohr, Born etc...) understood that the ontology behind classical physics had been proven wrong by experimental results that could only be explained through quantum mechanics. Heisenberg understood that physicists must now resign themselves (see below). This means that physics is no longer ontological at all but now presupposes existence (this was always the case but classical, Newtonian physics made it easy to neglect this fact). If you want ontology you have to go to philosophy which inevitably leads to theology (see Przywara "Analogia Entis").

    “...The atomic physicist has had to resign himself to the fact that his science is but a link in the infinite chain of man's argument with nature, and that it cannot simply speak of nature "in itself". Science always presupposes the existence of man and, as Bohr has said, we must become conscious of the fact that we are not merely observers but also actors on the stage of life…”

    Werner Heisenberg, The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (London, 1958)

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  8. The true reason why communism doesn't work is because you can't legislate people to have empathy. The Soviet Union taught that by abolishing religion and instilling scientific values in education that they could create an empathetic citizenry and it failed miserably.

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    1. Right-wing economic theories (e.g. von Mises, Hayek, Rand, etc…) are all based on the axiom that empathy is not necessary to build a sustainable society: that everyone could be a complete psychopath but as long as they're aware of their desires, can perform calculation and comparison and perform human action a flourishing society can be built. This is madness. In objective reality, empathy is the necessary and sufficient logical condition for building a sustainable society.

      The conservative "twist" on right-wing economics that controlling external behavior (e.g. banning drugs, pornography, enforcing morality, etc...) can make up for an economic system without empathy is ludicrous.

      People call communists atheists, but in objective reality right-wing economics is far more atheistic, because it presupposes that empathy is a mistake and it exists for no reason. That people feel empathy is based on an "accident" and has nothing to do with the ultimate nature of reality.

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    2. WCB

      If we read Acts 4, it would seem God commands Christian communism.

      WCB

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    3. @WCB The people in Acts 4 were all empowered by the Holy Spirit and had empathy, so communism worked. It cannot work for the world at large though unless you subscribe to postmillennialism (the official position of the Holy Catholic Church is amillennialism).

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    4. WCB

      One would have thought God would have sent the Holy Ghost to Marx, Engles, Lenin and Stalin and gave them the Word of God as to do this Communism thing..

      As it was. It was one of humanity's great social experiments. 70 years of Communism, 70 years of utter failure. Experiment over. Other grand ideas that failed, wide spread chattel slavery, feudalism, Facism, and neo-Liberalism.

      Fools never learn from their mistakes. Smart men learn from their mistakes. Wise men learn from the mistakes of others. That is why wise men study history.

      WCB

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    5. WCB
      "This is why wise men study history."
      Wow! Such a simple and obvious statement, yet so utterly profound. That IS wisdom. Please continue.

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    6. WCB

      And often people don't bother to study history with understanding. For example Vladamir Putin.

      WCB

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    7. @Other anonymous

      Is it me or is WCB blissfully unaware he's being trolled at? :D

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    8. WCB

      Science today is based on methodological materialism, experimentation, and continuing development of technology to enable better observation of the Universe.
      All we need to know.

      Can anyone tell us anything since the days of Galileo where metaphysicians beat the empirical scientist to any major discovery?

      Sute, some scientists have dabbled in metaphysical speculation, but in the end it was careful observation and experimentaion that provided scientific progress.

      Sometimes to great distress to some as cherished ideas were disproven.

      Trolled? Not very well.

      WCB

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    9. @wcb Science, by its very nature, is concerned with understanding the underlying principles of the natural world. This requires a belief in the existence of an objective reality that is separate from our subjective perceptions. Without this belief, it would be impossible to develop the scientific method, which is based on the idea that the natural world is knowable and that knowledge can be acquired through observation and experimentation.

      You also need some kind of framework for understanding the relationship between the natural world and our concepts of it. How is the natural world knowable? Materialism has cut off the abstraction of quantities from what is abstracted and how it’s abstracted, and then ignored this as if it’s irrelevant magic that just happens in the background. Yes this process is very effective at developing theories of what is presented to us as reality. However to then claim that the quantitive abstraction IS reality is like looking at a great painting under the microscope, and claiming that the painting is nothing more than pigment on canvas fibres. It’s only correct if you restrict reality in a very warped way.

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    10. WCB

      One can either try to work from metaphysics to physics, or from physics to metaphysics. From metaphysics to physics does not work. The development of Relativity and Quantum physics put an end to that. The real Universe is far to weird to do that. Only experimentation that demonstrates how weird real physics is is truly meanigful.

      Gravity is a prime example. Modern physics cannot understand gravity as it relates to quantum mechanics. And no metaphysics helps to solve the problem. Not hylomorphism, or forms or Pythagorean mathematical.metaphysics.

      WCB
      WCB

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  9. I have a question. Can you make an argument for immateriality of the soul from meaning/intentionality eve though you committed to the aristotelian world view picture? In other words, can argument like this: (Your thoughts has a meaning but everything material is meaningless, therefore your thoughts are immaterial.) work for one that is holding aristotelian world view picture?

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    1. Who says that everything material is meaningless? That's just begging the question.

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    2. Doll
      Maybe Dr Feser will answer that question in his forthcoming book on the. soul.

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    3. WCB

      A nice cherry pie is material, but hardly meaningless. One cannot eat metaphysics.

      WCB

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    4. That is in fact that main Thomistic-Aristotelian argument for the immateriality of the rational human soul.

      Specifically, by virtue of being rational, our intellects are capable of grasping universals with our thoughts, and universals are necessarily eternal and immaterial, transcending any temporal material thing, hence there must be an immaterial and eternal component to our rational intellects.

      And that means that the substantial forms (aka the souls) of rational creatures are forms of immaterial and eternal substances, albeit substances with material components that are naturally essential to them but are lost at death. And that in turn fits in nicely with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

      So the Aristotelian picture is not only compatible with the the immortality of the soul, it has traditionally been seen by Christians as presaging and being completed by the Christian understanding of the bodily resurrection of the dead.

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  10. The Professor has already dealt with this in his book "Philosophy of Mind", which I would recommend. He also demonstrates how any meaning that material things have is dependent on mind for its significance.

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  11. Ed:

    "For example, when we apply Newton’s laws to the solar system, we do so by modeling the latter (in terms of a system of point masses orbiting a larger point mass, and so on). In this way, our application of abstractions is mediated by further abstractions."

    It occurs to me that fact is itself presents a pretty solid argument that hylomorphism or something like it must be true.

    If material objects did not have form as per hylomorphism, we would have a vicious infinite regress of mediating abstractions, with no way of "connecting" the mathematical representation to the things being represented. It is only because material objects do have that abstract component - the forms that they instantiate - that mathematical equations and other abstractions can be meaningfully applied to them at all.

    But at the same time, if material objects were pure abstraction, there would be no such need to mediate between the abstract model and the concrete material thing, because there would BE no concrete material thing. There would only be the abstraction itself, and the hence the "right" equations would simply be identical to the material objects rather than modeling them.

    So the very act of mathematical modeling implicitly requires that all material things are composites of matter and form as per hylomorphic dualism.

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    1. You may be interested in this

      Scott Berman:
      Platonism and the Objects of Science

      https://www.amazon.com/Platonism-Objects-Science-Scott-Berman/dp/1350080217

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  12. I find it always mysterious when people attempt to demonstrate the truth or falsity of hylomorphism through physical experiences. It's as if they believe that the form of a chair or a dog can be found experimentally within its physical elements, proving its existence. This reminds me of Descartes, who had a lack of understanding of scholastic concepts and believed that the human soul, or human form, could be located in the pineal gland. It's a mystery of the blogosphere's culture.

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    1. WCB

      Yes, the pineal gland nonsense was silly. An old idea from Galen. It solved nothing so a lot of otherwise smart people spent years trying to figure out occasionalism. In the end the entire enterprise of trying to demonstrate how the soul or spirit interacted with matter died a natural death. Hylomorphism did not step in to save the day. Plato's forms did not. Nor vitalism.

      Soul or spirit and matter no longer are part of modern science. Methodological naturalism, physicalism has stood the test of time.

      WCB

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    2. WCB. I truly do not understand what you are talking about: my bad most probably. It could be useful for you in order to communicate fruitfully that you define precisely the terms you use: as physicist and philosopher I do not have any cue. Thank you

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    3. It depends, I'd say. In general, following William Jaworski, hylomorphism can be argued for in the fields where reduction is impossible, and this can be found within physics as well.

      But yes, due to the nature of empirical sciences, there's no way to experimentally confirm any metaphysical hypothesis

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    4. @Dominik A form refers to the "whatness" of an object, meaning its essential characteristic or defining feature that gives it its specific nature or identity. This "whatness" can only be known by a cognitive agent and is present in both material and immaterial entities. It cannot be object of experience, as an instrument of measure is not a cognitive agent as such (but our five senses, obviously).

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  13. Feser writes: "That does not entail that all theories are equally good, but only that considerations independent of both theory and empirical evidence are ultimately necessary in order to choose between theories. Philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have also shown how extra-scientific considerations (of a philosophical sort, for example) play a crucial role in determining the outcome of scientific investigation." -- So implied here: scientific considerations are dependent on theory and/or empirical evidence, whereas extra-scientific considerations are not? I wonder, how does one show that such extra-scientific considerations (of a philosophical sort, for example) are indeed extra-scientific?

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