Saturday, August 7, 2010

Science and Underdetermination: The Uncertainty of Objective and Subjective Knowledge.

Massimo Pigliucci takes a swipe at Atheist Jerry Coyne concerning Coyne’s lack of understanding of the separation of Philosophical Materialism and functional materialism (science). Massimo is correct here, but he takes the idea in wrong direction, being under the influence of Philosophical Materialism himself. As expected, he declares religion to have no value, epistemologically, since it is not falsifiable, materially:
” In the cases we are discussing there is no science-like connection between theoretical constructs and empirically verifiable facts, so to “falsify” the latter is equivalent to shooting into a cloud of gas. It unnecessarily flatters and elevates religious belief to treat it as science.”
For Massimo, there is no knowledge that is not science, even though he disputes it in the text. He cannot relinquish it in his worldview. He continues,
”That is because they seem to equate science with reason, yet another position that is abysmally simplistic from a philosophical perspective. Science is conducted through the application of reason to a particular type of problems and in particular ways. But reason can be applied to other problems in other ways. Philosophy, of course, is an example, as it makes progress through the analysis and dissection of concepts, not via empirical discoveries. Logic and mathematics are additional obvious examples: mathematical theorems are neither discovered nor proved by using scientific methods at all. Unless one wishes to conclude that math is not a rational enterprise, then one is forced to admit that science = reason is a bad equation.”
Massimo goes on to claim that scientists are not educated in the history and philosophy of science, and they shouldn’t be commenting outside their areas of expertise (never mind that Massimo has been doing that all along as a prophet of evolution). Only philosophers should be telling the world what science consists of – not scientists, who don’t understand it:
” But when it comes to writing for the general public, I suggest that scientists stick to what they know best, unless they are willing to engage the literature of the field(s) that they wish to comment upon…”,
” He has of course no obligation to study philosophy, but then he should refrain from writing about it as a matter of intellectual honesty toward his readers.”
In the course of his discussion, Massimo refers to the Duhem-Quine Thesis, which he thinks supports his idea that “the philosophers of science have moved well beyond Falsificationism”. The idea, refined by W.V.O. Quine, does not refute Falsificationism, it refines it in order to determine its value as a source of valid knowledge. But here Massimo takes off in the old Philosophical Materialist mode again, creating a strawman to shoot down:
” Conceptions of gods are infinitely more flexible (or vacuous, if you prefer) than either Marxist or Freudian theories, and they are thus simply not falsifiable. This is often (naively) mistaken to imply that no specific claim made by these theories can be rejected on empirical grounds. That’s as manifestly not true as it is besides the point: of course modern science can firmly reject the empirical claim that the earth is a few thousand years old; but since “the god hypothesis” doesn’t behave as a hypothesis at all from the epistemological standpoint, it doesn’t matter.”
Of course the “god hypothesis” is not that the earth is a few thousand years old (the strawman); the god hypothesis asserts that there exists a first cause for the universe. Here empiricism is emasculated. And it is hopelessly intellectually helpless to claim that,
“It unnecessarily flatters and elevates religious belief to treat it as science.”
Let’s examine the idea of underdetermination, and then examine first how it applies to objective knowledge, and then how it applies to subjective knowledge.

Holistic Underdetermination
“Duhem’s original case for holist underdetermination is, perhaps unsurprisingly, intimately bound up with his arguments for confirmational holism: the claim that theories or hypotheses can only be subjected to empirical testing in groups or collections, never in isolation. The idea here is that a single scientific hypothesis does not by itself carry any implications about what we should expect to observe in nature; rather, we can derive empirical consequences from an hypothesis only when it is conjoined with many other beliefs and hypotheses, including background assumptions about the world, beliefs about how measuring instruments operate, further hypotheses about the interactions between objects in the original hypothesis’ field of study and the surrounding environment, etc. For this reason, Duhem argues, when an empirical prediction turns out to be falsified, we do not know whether the fault lies with the hypothesis we originally sought to test or with one of the many other beliefs and hypotheses that were also needed and used to generate the failed prediction:”

“A physicist decides to demonstrate the inaccuracy of a proposition, in order to deduce from this proposition the prediction of a phenomenon and institute the experiment which is to show whether this phenomenon is not produced, he does not confine himself to making use of the proposition in question; he makes use also of a whole group of theories accepted by him as beyond dispute. The prediction of the phenomenon, whose nonproduction is to cut off debate, does not derive from the proposition challenged if taken by itself, but from the proposition at issue joined to that whole group of theories; if the predicted phenomenon is not produced, the only thing the experiment teaches us is that among the propositions used to predict the phenomenon and to establish whether it would be produced, there is at least one error; but where this error lies is just what it does not tell us.”

“In sum, the physicist can never subject an isolated hypothesis to experimental test, but only a whole group of hypotheses; when the experiment is in disagreement with his predictions, what he learns is that at least one of the hypotheses constituting this group is unacceptable and ought to be modified; but the experiment does not designate which one should be changed.”
Pierre Duhem; “The Aim And Structure of Physical Theory”;
From W.V.O. Quine:
The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.”
Or as I have frequently put it, an hypothesis verification - or falsification - depends first on the deductive fallacy as a prediction made from a law, then on the inductive fallacy as a generation of the law; next, the hypothesis contains premises which must be reconfirmed, axioms upon which the premise reconfirmation depends, and First Principles which are observed characteristics of the universe which are thought to be universal, but without a universal proof.

Or as Feynman put it, every experiment should be accompanied by re-verifications of all the supporting principles to make sure they are still valid.

Quine argued further,
“…because this leaves any and all beliefs in that web at least potentially subject to revision on the basis of our ongoing sense experience or empirical evidence, there simply are no beliefs that are analytic in the originally supposed sense of immune to revision in light of experience or true no matter what the world is like.”via

This argument against absolute truth is valid only for objective “scientific truth”, or sense and empirical truth. The argument for subjective truth cannot be allowed to suffer by any implications of this argument. To do so would be under a Category Error.

Contrastive Underdetermination is another name for the Dichotomy Fallacy, where a dichotomy is presented which ignores the possibility of other choices or hypothetical pathways. It is an example of the inability to prove a negative, the negative being that there are NO other possible choices to be considered, so that one of the choices offered must necessarily be correct.

Underdetermination and Subjective Knowledge
If objective scientific knowledge is subject to definable and measurable uncertainties, then what of the uncertainty of Subjective Scientific knowledge? Specifically historical knowledge and variable laden knowledge such as social science produces? Falsification in these areas is relegated to exceptions, not falsification. If falsification is the sole arbiter of validity, then the only possible source of knowledge is objective empiricism. But even Massimo argues that that is not the case. But if non-objective knowledge is subjected to falsification, it is jeopardized with refutation on scientific grounds. This is the basis for Massimo's refutation (and denigration) of religion (that generic belief).

But in even more jeopardy is evolution, which as a theory is allowed to produce any outcome, all outcomes, or no outcome at all. This is not falsifiable, certainly not in the empirical sense since it is not empirical. And it is not falsifiable in the inferential sense (a non-valid concept at best) because any finding is used to adjust the theory slightly in order to accommodate the “all outcome” conclusion.

Are inferential conclusions always false? Of course not. But they also are never objectively True; as shown above, even decent objective findings are never True in any absolute sense. Evolution is somewhat less than not objectively true. It is subjectively speaking, a series of extrapolations, stories made up in order to fill knowledge gaps that are otherwise unfillable.

These stories extrapolated to fill gaps in knowledge are now protected by law. They are being instituted as first principles. There are battalions of lawyers poised to defend these stories and their exclusive use in government education.

Scientifically speaking, evolutionary stories are not underdetermined, they are explicitly non-determined as empirical science; they are non-experimental and non-empirical, and thus have no real standing in objective knowledge at all, save as dogma for Atheist agendas.

But as Massimo continually demonstrates, the axiom of Philosophical Materialism in his swarm of supporting principles colors all conclusions that he tries to make, even when he starts out on the right track. It appears that the residual dogma from his years as an evolutionary scientist have stymied intellectual openness in his few months as a philosopher.

As it happens, many of the supporting swarm of underlying axioms and first principles of logic and rational thought are inferential and subjective. These paths to knowledge, it turns out, have more truth value than any objective science knowledge or subjective science knowledge. Massimo needs to look there, and adjust his worldview accordingly.


sonic said...

First I would object to the notion that science has philosophic materialism as an underpinning.
In what sense are the results of the Aspect experiments re: Bell's theorem part of philosophic materialism?
If materialism allows for 'spooky action at a distance', then in what sense does the philosophy have meaning?
I'll leave off there...

The Other BG said...

If I had more time, I might say more, but your comment about Massimo using a "strawman" really caught my attention. It is my understanding that using a "straw man" is not a fallacy if it is not used as a proof, but merely as an example of something that *can* happen, as Massimo uses it. Namely, it is one example of a "specific claim made by these theories [that] can be rejected on empirical grounds." The "strawman" was not meant to represent the entire "god hypothesis", but only one possible result of it that can be empirically rejected.

Stan said...

Hmm, interesting point. It would seem that any comment at all might not be a fallacy if it is not intended as a proof. But yes, your point is well made, that only those issues, as proofs of God, are falsified by the appeal to coherence (which is valid).

But these are the only definitions of a deity that I have ever seen Massimo use, and he uses them time and again with the implication that finding the three O's non-coherent means that the God concept is non-coherent.

Actually these concepts are not empirically rejected, they are logically rejected based on internal contradiction and cross contridiction, depending on how the O's are defined. If one defines the O's in a manner that is not contradictory, then the concept is not non-coherent, and Massimo loses his whipping boy.

If we say that the first cause is necessarily coherent (an assumption), then he might be all powerful within coherent limits, all knowing within coherent limits, and benevolent within the limits of justice.

If pressed, probably most believers would accept this, with the caveat that the true properties and limits of a deity are not known to humans, but are only guessed at, and approximated within our own limitations, which far exceed the deity's.