Posts Tagged Philosophy of Science

The scientific method — what about the philosophical method? Ken Perrott Jan 30


I enjoy the In Our Time Podcasts with Melvyn Bragg. The subjects are very wide-ranging and always informative.

His last one was on The Scientific Method. It basically discusses the evolution of scientific methods from a philosophical viewpoint. The participants were:

  • Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge;
  • John Worrall, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the LSE and
  • Michela Massimi, Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at University College London.

Personally, I would have welcomed inclusion of a practising scientist to bring some practical insight into the discussion. Still, I did find the historical survey of philosophers ideas on the scientific method interesting. But it got me thinking – these philosophers seem so concerned about the scientific method – and yet no one talks about the philosophical method!

What is the philosophical method?

What methods do philosophers use? And how have these evolved over time? And why do we never come across critiques of philosophical methods? Is this because philosophers are happier critiquing other areas and avoid their own?

For example. While I thought this discussion did treat the subject fairly the descriptions of scientific method offered by various philosophers over the years do strike me as “just so” stories. I get the feeling that the philosophers concerned are presenting their pet model. Evidence quoted is usually anecdotal, more for example rather than support. The Copernican revolution, or the evolution of Einsteinian mechanics out of Newtonian mechanics are used to illustrate a thesis, rather than testing the hypothesis by analysing the data from the history of a large number of scientific theories.

Now, I could never have got any of my research results accepted for publication with only anecdotal and illustrative evidence. Good data, statistically analysed to show significance for claims, was always expected. The standards for philosophical theories seems to be a lot lower. How many philosophers really take data collection and analysis seriously?

The other thing that strikes me about these “just so” stories are that they always seem to ignore the human factor. Scientific method is often presented as an algorithm or flow chart – scientists behave this way and they produce hypotheses which are checked experimentally, etc.

But scientists are humans. They are just as prone to emotions as any other people. And in fact current scientific understanding of decision-making indicates that emotions are very much involved in our seemingly rational considerations. Where else do scientists get the passion for the work they do? Creativity does not come from mechanical application of methods. And scientists are also prone to prejudice, fantasy,  attachment to preconceived ideas, and confirmation bias as anyone else. The possible consequences of this need to be recognised and scientific methodology must compensate for it.

That’s why I like Richard Feynman‘s description of scientific method as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” This is a better description of the human reality of scientific research than any descriptive, or prescriptive, flow diagram of “scientific method.”

Why does this matter?

Well, for two reasons:

1: How often does one read material from opponents of science using pop versions of scientific method and philosophy of science to justify their rejection of, or denial of, scientific knowledge?  Creationists and climate change deniers will often talk about Kuhnian “paradigms” or Popperian “falsification” to justify their rejection of whole fields of science. We even have the ridiculous example of a climate denier group in Australia naming itself The Galileo Movement! They are equating acceptance of the current scientific understanding as equivalent to belief in a geocentric universe! (See “Galileo Movement” Fuels Climate Change Divide in Australia).

2: Post-modernist and ideological motivated concepts of the philosophy of science do get circulated in academic circles.  In the past I have heard some of these descriptions presented by local science managers and suspect that these ideas can influence management and human resources teachings via philosophy of science and sociology of science inputs. The danger is that this influence decisions on science funding and investment.

Maybe some of the cock-ups we have seen in science management and New Zealand over the years could be traced back to ideology and misunderstanding about the nature of scientific research picked up by managers during their training. Maybe not all these mistakes were due to incompetence.

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Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees Ken Perrott Oct 14


I came across this nice little quote recently:*

Philosophy of science without history of science is empty;
history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

It’s attributed to  Imre Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science.

This really appealed to me as I have been somewhat surprised lately how some historians of science approach their subject mechanically. They look on the history of science as a sequence of events, discoveries, etc., without ever seeming to recognise the significance of what is going on. I can’t help thinking about woods and trees.

One example is the intensive debate about the Galileo affair which questions why Galileo should have argued for heliocentricism when no parallax evidence could be found. Or that his explanation for tides was wrong. Or that he was rather abrasive with a tendency to polemics. Or that he was ambitious. Etc., Etc.

These historians seem to impose too much of their own understandings, values and ideology onto the historical events.  They are also treating history as a dead collection of unconnected events while ignoring the underlying evolution of methods and approaches. The changes in the philosophy and epistemology of science.

Galileo’s real contribution

To me the real importance of studying such history is to see the changes in approach lying behind the great discoveries. Galileo is often called the father of modern science, not because he was the first astronomer to use a telescope, or because of the discoveries that ensued. But because he challenged the old approach, the old way of thinking influenced by theology and religious philosophy, and not objective reality. His contribution was basically epistemological. And it was a necessary part of the modern scientific revolution.

I commented on this before in Galileo’s revolutionary contribution. To me Galileo’s real significance and contribution is summarised in his comments of theology. In part:

’therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.’

Elsewhere he expressed this in terms of discovering the truth about nature in the “book of nature”, rather than the scriptures.

I just wish more historians of science appreciated the history of the philosophy or epistemology of science.

*This quote was used as an introductory message by Peter Dear in his chapter “Philosophy of Science and Its Historical Reconstructions” in the collection Integrating History and Philosophy of Science: Problems and Prospects.

Some of the other chapters also have interesting quotes. For example, this one in Jan Golinski’s chapter “Thomas Kuhn and Interdisciplinary Conversation: Why Historians and Philosophers of Science Stopped Talking to One Another.”:

“Paradigm was a perfectly good word until I messed it up.”

Thomas S. Kuhn

So true!

Then what about this one in Dean Rickles’ chapter “Quantum Gravity Meets &HPS”:

Science is what scientists have done, not what a philosopher tells us the scientist meant to do, were really doing, or should have done.

James Cushing

Yeah – doesn’t that attitude of some of the philosophically minded annoy you?

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Science and the ’supernatural’ Ken Perrott Sep 19

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I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

The non-overlapping magisteria argument

Dr Fishman takes issue with the idea that science can say nothing about the “supernatural,” or be used to evaluate “supernatural” claims. This argument has often been used by opponents of science, eg. the theologically motivated  who argue that science is too restrictive, that it should be “opened up” to “supernatural” explanations.

But it has also been used by those defending science from such religious intrusions. As Fishman says this position argues:

 ”that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims. Thus, science is necessarily mute on the question of whether or not supernatural phenomena exist. Consequently, to the extent that religion involves supernatural entities or phenomena, there can be no conflict between scientific claims and religious claims.”

On the one hand opponents argue this is a limitation that should be removed from science. On the other hand defenders of science concede the limitation and argue that this enables science and religion to coexist harmoniously – provided they keep to their own “magisteria.” They put a lot of weight on their claim that science only deals with the “natural” world.

The latter approach was implicit in Stephen J. Gould‘s description of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (see Overlapping Magisteria?). An approach supported by many, but not all by any means,  scientists, philosophers of science , religious philosophers and theologians. For example Fishman refers to statements of position by two prominent US scientific institutions, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). And the arguments against intelligent design (ID) presented by supporters of science, like philosopher Barbara Forrest, at the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial. This approach was incorporated into the judgement from this trial which is often quoted by supporters of science.

But the same argument (the inability of science to accommodate the supernatural) is used by opponents of science to discredit scientific ideas and campaign for reincorporation of theological ideas into science. This is a common argument of supporters of ID (see the Wedge document or Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda for a clear example), conservative Christians and many theologians/philosophers of religion.

The latter groups will often use “arguments from authority”, quoting cherry-picked “secular” or “naturalist” philosophers of science  to support their attacks on science and its findings. I believe this makes the use of this “limits of science” argument by supporters of science doubly faulty because it feeds the opponents of science.

The scientific method

Fishman rejects the thesis that science is unable to investigate “supernatural” claims. After all, those advancing “supernatural” phenomena claim these are real – and science investigates reality. The scientific method is ideal for this because:

“if an entity, phenomenon, or effect exists, it is detectable in some way. Either its existence is directly observable or its existence is not directly observable but it causes effects or implies consequences which are directly observable (such as the track made by a subatomic particle in a bubble chamber).”

Proponents of the “supernatural” open up their claims to scientific investigation because:

“In general, most believers hold that gods, spirits, and paranormal phenomena have real effects on the world and on their lives. These effects should be testable by the methods of science. Indeed, many supernatural and paranormal claims have already been investigated by scientists, often at the behest of those intending to validate the supernatural.”

He mentions as examples the effects of intercessory prayer on patient outcomes, paranormal or ’psi’ phenomena, astrology and the so-called ’Bible Code’ prophecies.

“If these hypotheses can legitimately be examined by science, then there is no principled reason why other supernatural claims cannot be so examined as well.”

Surely this has implications for how we present the scientific method. And the argument “that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims” appears disingenuous.

And hasn’t science, throughout its history been doing this. Investigating phenomena which have in previous times been seen as “supernatural” and which we now consider “natural:”

“the history of science has been characterized by the progressive ‘naturalization of the world’, providing non-supernatural alternative explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be explicable only by appeal to supernatural agents.”

In my experience no scientist ever asks herself if phenomena are “supernatural” or not before undertaking an investigation. The question of pursuing investigation of phenomena revolves more around funding, difficulty, availability of equipment and expertise, etc. Not around a “supernatural”/”natural” judgement. (And how can such a judgement be made at the beginning of an investigation, anyway).

Demands for special treatment

The real problem with “supernatural” claims in science is that their advocates very often demand special treatment. They are not looking for their claims to be tested – just accepted purely on the basis of logical possibility. Or they reject scientific findings with arguments like “science has not yet caught up with homeopathy!”

In fact the usual argument of the proponents of “supernatural” claims is to attempt to discredit existing so-called “naturalist” theories and then argue their alternative “supernatural” ideas should be accept as the default (or fallback) position – no testing required. They assure us their claims are “logically sound.” That seems to be the inevitable mode of argument used by proponents of creationism/ID.


“mere logical possibility is not sufficient. As Kelly Smith notes, ’If we accept the mere possibility of an alternative explanation [i.e., supernatural creationism] as sufficient grounds to abandon an hypothesis [i.e., naturalistic evolution], we will never commit to any hypothesis whatsoever, because the alternatives to be ruled out are limited only by our imaginations.’

True, there have been areas science has avoided in the past – like origins of morality, the nature of consciousness, etc. But these are no longer taboo. And I think we are no longer fooled by the idea that such difficult subjects should be handed over to theology.

Scientists are quite happy to acknowledge that a pehomena may, at this stage, be inexplainable. That some things, in the end, may even be beyond human ability to understand or explain. Human may not have, may never have, the required technological, congitive or reasoning skills. But such arguments should never be used to justify, by default, hypotheses or explanations which rely on wishful thinking rather than evidence.

Implications for science education

I agree that the popular NOMA argument and exclusion of the “supernatural” from science misrepresents the way we do science. And it should not be used to dictate the way we teach science.

The data so far. Credit: xkcd (

It is really only a political tactic – used either by supporters  to defend science against theological intrusions or by opponents to demand theological influence in science.

Scientists should not resort to such an opportunist, and incorrect, argument in their defense against current theological attacks. As Fishman says:

“rejection of the supernatural is not a priori, it is not declared ‘before examining the facts.’ It comes only from a scientific investigation of the evidence  . . . .

ID should not be dismissed on the grounds that it is unscientific; ID should be dismissed on the grounds that the empirical evidence for its claims just isn’t there.”

Fishman discusses the implications and challenges of this issue for science education. It is important that science should “pursue truth, regardless of religious or political sensitivities.” But “science educators face the challenge of maintaining both intellectual integrity and the receptivity of students to potentially controversial scientific material.”

They may be assisted by “presenting a historical perspective on science to provide a framework for understanding how science has arrived at its currently accepted theories about the world.” But honesty and good factual information are important.

“It is clear that teaching critical thinking skills in addition to factual information will not only foster scientific literacy, but may have far reaching beneficial consequences for how students conduct their daily lives and for a society all too often enticed by the paranormal and deceived by potentially dangerous pseudoscientific claims. By fostering critical thinking and a scientific frame of mind there is an increased likelihood that students will adopt a skeptical attitude toward supernatural claims in light of the scientific evidence against them. Importantly, critical thinking and a scientific approach to claims are not just for scientists and debunkers of the supernatural. A well-informed population proficient in critical thinking will be better equipped to make intelligent decisions concerning crucial political issues of our day, such as global warming and governmental foreign policy. Indeed, an intellectually honest engagement with reality is a prerequisite for promoting the long-term interest of individuals and society at large.”


These few sentences seem to sum things up from the point of view of education:

“Given that science does have implications concerning the probable truth of supernatural worldviews, claims should not be excluded a priori from science education simply because they might be characterized as supernatural, paranormal, or religious. Rather, claims should be excluded from science education when the evidence does not support them, regardless of whether they are designated as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’.”

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Bias in the history of science Ken Perrott Jul 18

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I am currently reading Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992 by Maurice A. Finocchiaro. This certainly provides some background to the current mythology about the Galileo affair (see The Galileo myths). Apparently Galileo’s trial never stopped with his sentencing in 1633 – he has been continually re-trialled ever since. So many myths, both anti-Galileo and anti-Church, have been promoted over the intervening years.

On the one hand this does show how susceptible history is to the confirmation bias of the individual historian. But it also provides plenty of “authentic” quote-mining material for the current Galileo mythologists.

Where is the sympathy for science?

What drives this common bias on such subjects? I naively expected that experts from other fields who make a living studying or commenting on science to be sympathetic with scientific processes and understanding of scientific method. Retrying Galileo shows this is not always the case.

We can see plenty of examples where such experts have been hostile to science. For example, the proponents of intelligent design (ID) had “philosophers of science” as expert witnesses at the Kitzmiller v Dover trial (see Intelligent design and scientific methodThese “philosophers of science” were effectively defending a perverted “theistic” science. Similar the “sociologist of science” Steve Fuller was an expert witness supporting ID. He has since written posts on the ID blog site Uncommon Design and authored a book defending ID – Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.

When I realised that sociologists of science study and advise on science management and funding that had me worried. Mind you, perhaps it explains the phenomenon I noticed during my career – some of those managing our science were actually anti-science!

This tweet from historian of science James Hannam is another example that concerned me:

@DrJamesHannam: Could science come to regret claiming to have all the answers? It can cost you when you get it wrong. “

Now as the author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution – how does Hannam make such a mistake? Who the hell claims science has all the answers – certainly not the practitioners of science. Nor should a respectable historian of science.

Back to the Galileo myths

Another example of confirmation bias is the attitude of Elaine Howard Ecklund, author of the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (see Are scientists hostile to religion? for my review). She claimed many of the scientists she interviewed  gave the Galileo affair as “a central piece of their evidence that religion and science are in entrenched conflict.” But as she says – “Galileo was never tortured; that’s a myth.”

True – and I wonder how many scientists specifically claimed he was tortured. She does not quote a single example. (See The Galileo myths for my point that these sort of claims are themselves myths – no reputable history of science makes this claim today and I seriously suspect not many informed scientists do either). But Ecklund felt it necessary to expand on her assertion by presenting a lengthy quote from Koestler’s history of the affair in The Sleepwalkers. This is one of the anti-Galileo “histories.” In Retrying Galileo Finocchiaro claims that Koestler “disliked Galileo” and described Koestler’s history as a “popular libel against Galileo”. So her quote implied that Galileo did not deserve our current assessment of him as one of the great fathers of modern science. And made a number of straw man assertions aimed at discrediting Galileo – eg., “Galileo did not invent the telescope; nor the microscope; nor the thermometer; nor the pendulum clock . . and did not prove the truth of the Copernican system.”

In his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, philosopher and historian of science Richard Carrier discusses methods of gaining knowledge at length. He points to problems that historians face in obtaining reliable knowledge but suggests they can usually do so by adopting specific historical methodologies.

I really like his warning to “recognize that almost any story can be an invention”:

“So the First Rule of Historical Method is: don’t believe everything you read. A believable history has to be constructed from several converging lines of evidence that have been critically and skillfully examined, and not every piece of evidence is equally trustworthy. Humans are notorious liars, eager exaggerators, and happy to believe almost anything they agree with. Skepticism is a virtue–but unfortunately a rare one, even rarer than honesty.”

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Debates in the philosophy of science Ken Perrott Jul 06

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Jerry Coyne, over at his Why Evolution is True blog does get into some important issues of the philosophy of science. Usually in debates with others. PZ Myers at Pharyngula often participates, some times agreeing, sometimes disagreeing withy Jerry.

Currently both Jerry and PZ are critiquing an article by Andrew Brown at his Guardian Blog (see Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd). Andrews article itself is a criticism of a comment by Nobel prize winner Harry Kroto in a recent talk:

’Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.’

Jerry Coyne’s response is in Andrew Brown: there are lots of ways besides science to find truth. PZ Myers’ response is in There’s something obvious missing from this argument….

It’s an important and interesting discussion – worth following.

Another interesting recent post of Jerry’s is Why am I reading theology?

Apparently he has undertaken a study of theology! That seems really strange to me – a complete waste of time. Perhaps he has lost a bet. or maybe he is taking those theist critics of Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion to heart. You know – the charge that Dawkins had no right to produce that book because he has not studied theology!

Jerry claims to have so far learned only three things:

1: “I am spending my middle age reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact. This seems a total waste of time.  I could be reading books about real things instead.” He must have lost a bet!

2: “Theologians can’t write.  A lot of what they have to say is postmodern or obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate . . .”. That’s one of the overwhelming impressions I have obtained from the little theological writings I have encountered.

3: “There seems to be no ’knowledge’ behind theology, and I haven’t learned anything–not even any clever philosophy.  One gets the strong sense when reading theology (and granted, I am biased) that everyone is just making stuff up.” That’s another overwhelming impression of mine – and as Jerry says this helps explain point 2.

These discussions are worth following.

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Philosophical problems Ken Perrott Dec 10

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Here’s a post I wrote several years ago. OK, it’s a filler as I am out of town but still relevant – especially with the current philosophical arguments raving on here.

You must watch the Monty Python video.

I seem to have upset someone with my comment “bugger the ‘philosophy’” in a recent discussion. Of course I wasn’t trying to deny the value and role of philosophy – just the way it is sometimes used. My comment was meant in the same way that a previous Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jim Bolger, commented “bugger the polsters” on election night 1993. He did so to underline that the pre-election polls were wrong – and this was shown by the election itself.

I am amazed at how often people will use ‘philosophical’ arguments to support unscientific positions, such as creationism/intelligent design. ‘Philosophical’ arguments also seem to play a central role in theology.

Philosophical and logical arguments have their place. In many ways mathematics can be seen as arguments by logic. The danger lies in using them as a substitute for real experience. Such arguments easily become divorced from reality and can then be used to justify conclusions which conflict with reality. In particular they give free reign to subjective opinions, personal prejudices and emotional commitment to conclusions.

I guess that is why some people prefer ‘philosophical’ and ‘logical’ arguments to consideration of empirical evidence.

Being subjective

Of course, everyone is prone to subjectivism. But objective reality is what keeps science honest. Ideas, hypotheses, theories and speculations are expected to be tested and validated by mapping against reality.

Philosophy and logic are used dishonestly when the discussion is just a game and participants grab at arguments to justify their preconceived positions, or to ‘shoot down’ opponents arguments. ‘You can’t even prove that you exist’ or ‘you can’t prove that you are not a brain in a vat’ arguments are just ways of avoiding the real evidence.

And there is always the way that words are used. Philosophical categories are usually not defined and very often participants will understand them differently. Consider words like ‘matter’, ‘materialism’, ‘natural’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘naturalism.’ I often find that the meaning I would give to these words is different to what some others do. Without common meanings discussion becomes a bit irrelevant so I prefer to avoid such terms.

For example, we used to consider ‘matter’ in a mechanical way. As something with physical substance. That may have been useful a few hundred years ago but is not adequate for our current scientific knowledge. Consequently ‘matter’ today has a deeper meaning and use of the term in philosophical debate needs to accommodate this. But it very often doesn’t.

How often do we hear science being criticised as ‘materialist’ where ‘matter’ is assumed to be only something with physical substance. It’s a silly criticism because it is using these words in a very archaic way – matter’ today has a deeper meaning. When this deeper meaning is understood the ‘materialist’ criticism is not relevant to modern science as any simple consideration of the history of science will show.

Substituting logic for reality

Logical arguments are also often used in ways which don’t take into account modern knowledge. Consequently such arguments which may be true in their abstraction are used to justify conclusions about reality which may be completely wrong. For example conservation laws today are applied in a very different way to 150 years ago when nuclear transformations and the equivalence of mass and energy were not known. Similarly we often hear the 2nd law of thermodynamics being used inappropriately to ‘disprove’ evolution.

Even where ‘logical’ arguments are used honestly mistakes can be made by applying abstract principles to real life situations. Without empirical checking it is easy to draw the wrong conclusion. The abstract logic cannot be used as a ‘proof.’

I think Monty Python conveyed the problem of a philosophy divorced from reality in their video of the International Philosophers football game. It’s an old clip but an excellent one.

Philosophers’ football (3 min 47 sec)

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What is matter? What is materialism? Ken Perrott Sep 09

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I have often thought most philosophers vague when they talk about matter. And especially when they use the word “materialism.”And this includes some who call themselves “philosophers of science.”

And try to hunt down the definitions. Answers for example describes matter as “something that has mass and exists as a solid, liquid, gas, or plasma.” In Wikipedia we find: Matter is the substrate from which physical existence is derived, remaining more or less constant amid changes. Anything that occupies space and has mass and weight.” Search for clarification usually produces the circular definitions that matter has substance and substances are matter.

Philosophical materialism

This understanding of matter extends to definitions of philosophical materialism. Wikipedia says: “the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance.”

These definitions may have been useful 2oo years ago but surely the discoveries of the last 100 years or more make them inadequate. We now understand the equivalence of matter and energy. We know about mass less particles. Matter comes and goes – it has become very unsubstantial. Yet some philosophers don’t appear to have caught up.

This is often manifested in discussions of philosophical materialism.  Of course the critics of materialism will opportunistically use the old definitions. It sets up a straw man that is very easy to knock down. The old mechanical materialism is really no longer relevant but it makes a handy target.

But even those who might be expected to accept philosophical materialism. I just wish that they would carefully define terms like “materialism” when they use them to prevent this sort of straw mannery.

At least Michael Ruse in his book Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science acknowledges the problem (see Making room for faith in science?). He points out the discovery of electromagnetic forces ’showed the idea of a world of simple masses, atoms, is no longer tenable. Whatever may be the basic stuff of existence, forces in some sense must be included. For this reason, a lot of people (myself included) hesitate to speak of themselves as materialists, if this means some sort of Cartesian res extensa is the substance of reality.’

This seems to me an avoidance of the problem. Why not talk in more depth about the modern scientific understanding of matter and introduce better definitions. Leaving the old definitions unscathed hands them over to those who wish to use them maliciously.

Particle physics

However, the particle physicists are well aware of the inadequacy of of definitions of matter. They are busy creating weird and wonderful particles all the time in their accelerators. They have particles for forces and forces for particles. It’s fascinating but all very confusing to the lay person.

Frank Wilczek

So people like Frank Wilczek are very valuable. He is a Noble Prize winner and an educator – a professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he has also done a lot to make his field more intelligible to the motivated lay person.

I was impressed with his book Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces. Very readable but still covering the field, new discoveries and speculations.

There are a number of videos of popular lectures of his online (* see below for a short list).

And last week a discussion between him and Robert Wright on Blogging Heads became available (see – Science Saturday: Lightness of Being). It’s a great discussion and he provides useful descriptions of some modern scientific understandings of the nature of matter.

Really, matter is more like light than the old mechanical matter. And more easily understood as fields. Particles are excitations in a field.

He really knocks the old concept of matter as “substance with mass volume and weight” to six.

Now all we need is for philosophers of science to incorporate this into their teachings. A year ago I wrote a review of Alan Chalmers’ excellent book The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms (see From stones to atoms). I think the title summed it up well. Philosophical atoms was vague and unproven. It took science to make atoms real.

Perhaps we need a book with a title like “The scientist’s field and the Philosopher’s substance.”

* See also some of Frank Wilczek’s lectures:
Nobel Lecture by Frank Wilczek
The J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture – Frank Wilczek. Anticipating a new golden age.
The Large Hadron Collider and Unified Field Theory – Frank Wilczek

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Understanding the ’multiverse’ Ken Perrott Jan 11

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Book review: In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin

Price: NZ$55
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Allen Lane (August 27, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1846141133
ISBN-13: 978-1846141133

These days when people talk about the ’multiverse’ they usually mean the idea that our ’universe’ is just part of a larger, perhaps unending, collection of ’universes.’ And that these different universes may have different characteristics, different values of physical constants, for example.

So, I was a little surprised to find John Gribbin beginning his book with the ’many worlds’ idea of Hugh Everett. The idea that the different possibilities inherent in quantum-mechanical descriptions leads to formation of many words as events lead to multiple quantum-mechanical choices. A little disappointing as I wanted to learn about the origin of multiple universes in inflationary ’big bang’ theory. He discussed this only in the second half of the book.

A global approach

However, the book does take a ’global’ approach — describing the history of concepts of multiple worlds or universes. It also provides a suitable coverage for most current ’multiverse’ and ’multiple world ideas.’ And, despite the mind-expanding nature of the subject, in the very readable style we have come to expect from Gribbin who has written many popular science books. These include Eyewitness: Time & Space; Get a Grip on Physics; Science: A History: 1534-2001; Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity; The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors; In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality, and others.

In Search of the Multiverse covers quantum theory, the branching tree of history and the ’many worlds’ theory: cosmic coincidences or ’fine-tuning’ and its relevance to multiverse ideas, the nature of time and infinity of time and space; ’big bang’ theory, the role of quantum effects, inflation, eternal inflation, chaotic inflation and a new idea of steady state theory; string theory, landscapes and their meaning for Multiverse ideas; and finally speculations about the future investigation of multiple universes, their evolution and even ’designer universes.’

It’s all very interesting and stimulating. However, it can be difficult working out where the boundaries are. Where does ‘what we know’ stop and ‘what we think’ start? Where does the speculation start? And how widely are all these concepts accepted by modern theoretical physicists and cosmologists?

I would have liked more presentation of the differing opinions of these scientists – of what schools of thought there are on these subjects. Gribbon, for example, appears enthusiastic about the ’many worlds’ explanation of quantum mechanics, saying ’To my mind, the fact that quantum computation works proves the existence of the Multiverse’ — here he is referring to the ’many worlds’ version. However, he does not describe the opinions of Jim Hartle and Murray Gell-Mann on this. In The Quark and the Jaguar Gell-Mann refers to descriptions of the ’many worlds’ as being ’equally real’ as confusing. He believes one should instead talk of ’many histories, all treated alike by the theory except for different probabilities.’

Similarly, in a later discussion of string theory he refers to quantum loop gravity as an alternative approach — but does not describe or discuss it.

The human side of science

Gribbon often injects a human side to his history of science, and this contributes to the appeal of his books. I was amused, for example, of his description of how Everett came up with his ’many worlds’ idea — in the aftermath of ’a party at which a considerable amount of sherry was consumed, Everett, his fellow student Charles Misner (who would later become a leading expert on relativity theory) and a visitor, Aage Petersen, amused themselves by dreaming up increasingly ridiculous implications of quantum puzzles like the parable of Schrödinger’s cat.’ Everitt tossed in his idea more or less as a joke – but later, in the sober light of day, the idea didn’t seem so wild to him. So he developed further.

Gribbon includes many other ideas and speculations from modern physics and cosmology in this book because of their association with multiverse theories. Ideas like entropy and the effect of gravity, time and the possibilities of time travel, formation of stars and universes from ’nothing,’ Ideas about the origin of universes themselves.

I was interested to find the multiple universes or worlds ideas have a long history. Giordano Bruno, for example, held similar ideas. ’In 1584, [he] outraged the established Church by suiggesting that ‘the excellence of God’ might be ‘magnified and the greatness of his kingdom made manifest [if] he is glorified not in one, but in countless suns; not in a single earth, but in a thousand, I say, in an infinity of worlds.’’ The Roman Inquisition imprisoned (and probably tortured) Bruno for seven years and eventually burned him at the stake in 1600 for this and other heresies (including support for Copernican heliocentricism).

And science fiction stories have often included ideas of multiple universes and dimensions.

So, another interesting book by John Gribbin. If you are interested in popular science it will entertain and inform you. It will provide a far more stimulating introduction to the subject then that usually encountered in theological cosmology which limits itself to interpreting the multiverse as an atheist attempt to avoid belief in gods.

Be aware, though, this is an area where there is plenty of imaginative speculation. Don’t take all these ideas as ’gospel.’ But do enjoy thinking about them.


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Promoting confusion Ken Perrott Nov 02

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A great feature of the scientific endeavour is that our ideas, hypotheses and theories are usually tested against reality. In fact we get very worried when we can’t do this. Consequently there has been some philosophical discussion and concern around speculative ideas or hypotheses like string theory (really hypotheses not theories) and the multiple universe ideas.

But, in some areas of philosophy and theology reality can safely be ignored. And here all sorts of weird and wonderful preconceived ideas can get justified  using a logic which basically boils down to mental gymnastics. I have always found debate with post modernists and theologians is a bit like jelly wrestling. Without reality to fall back on anything goes.

The philosopher of science Daniel Dennett gave an interesting talk, “The evolution of Confusion,” on theological justification at the Atheist Alliance International convention last month. Its based on his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore. Atheist clergymen are probably far more common than we might think. And all clergymen have problems in their profession which require theological arguments to resolve, or at least to patch up for the moment. This leads to a weird style of logic and argument – hence my feeling of jelly wrestling.

This is a fascinating talk. I understand the research will be published soon. Hopefully it will also be available in a popular format like a book.

Dan Dennett is the author of many excellent books, including “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea“. He is also featured in the video “The Four Horsemen” along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

‘The Evolution of Confusion’ by Dan Dennett, AAI 2009.
From ‘Dan Dennett talks about purposely-confusing theology and how it’s used. He also describes his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore, and introduces a new term: “Deepity.”‘


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Metaphysically speaking Ken Perrott Sep 16

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Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has an interesting article over at Rationally Speaking. Entitled Ah, metaphysics! it criticises attempts to revive metaphysics in philosophy.phil-fieldtrip

I too am sceptical at the way ’metaphysics’ is used. While I can appreciate the concept of understanding underlying principles the word is often used to justify ’supernatural’ ideas. Or to justify positions without recourse to empirical testing. Even to argue that ’metaphysical’ knowledge is somehow ’better’ or more reliable than scientific knowledge.

Pigliucci’s article says in part:

’ Metaphysics these days has a bad reputation even among philosophers, so I was aware of its ’fall,’ but I was rather curious about the possibility of a ’revival.’ I came out of the lecture without much conviction that the 21st century is going to see anything like a resurrection of metaphysics.

Metaphysics, of course, is that classical branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental nature of the world.  . . . It is an honorable tradition, of course, but it has ceded most of its terrain to fundamental physics. These days those philosophers who have something to say about such issues are likely to be philosophers of science or mathematics working in fields such as quantum mechanics or string theory. Saying that ’water is the principle of all things,’ as Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 BC—ca. 546 BC) used to do, just doesn’t cut it anymore.

’After Aristotle, for a long time metaphysics was taken over by theological considerations, from the Scholastics to Hegel, and it became increasingly esoteric, self-contained, and at every iteration, inching closer and closer to complete absurdity. The Monadology (1714) by Gottfried Leibniz was one of the last pre-physics attempts to account for fundamental aspects of reality by simply thinking about it, but again to say that monads are a basic unit of perceptual reality is to assert something rather obscure without a shred of evidence, and moreover something that has been superseded by much clearer and more evidence-based accounts provided by modern science. And let us not even get started with all the metaphysical fluff about the existence of god, of course (if someone mention’s the ontological argument I will reach for my metaphorical gun!).’

’It was within this context that the 20th century saw the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) critique of metaphysics by the logical positivists, whose position was that metaphysical concepts – in philosophical parlance – have no referent. In lay terms, metaphysicians talk literally about nothing, and therefore do not and cannot make any sense. These days it isn’t polite in philosophical circles to show much sympathy for the neopositivists, but I must admit that as far as certain kinds of metaphysics are concerned, it seems to me that they got it largely right.’

. . . .

Limitations of philosophy

’ (classical, Aristotelian) metaphysics has run its course, it has achieved what it could achieve, and has now receded into the background and left the initiative to physics? ’

. . .

’But as for a satisfactory description and explanation of our basic beliefs about the world, it seems to me that they are much more likely to come from, respectively, the cognitive sciences and evolutionary biology than philosophy. Moreover, as someone pointed out in the Q&A following the lecture, we know now (thanks to fundamental physics) that a lot of our folk metaphysics is, in fact, wrong, which is not surprising considering that we have evolved as macroscopic animals needing to be equipped with ways to handle those aspects of the world pertinent to our survival and reproduction – aspects that don’t include an understanding of quantum mechanics or string theory.’

’What, then, is metaphysics good for? Other than its (invaluable, I think) historical contribution to human thought, there are two things that modern metaphysics can do for us: on the one hand, aspects of it can serve as good models for a fruitful relationship between philosophy and science (think of attempts at understanding the nature of time and space, for instance); on the other hand, it is a constant reminder that even science can get started only on premises that cannot be justified empirically within science itself (think of causality, or reality).’


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