Thursday, June 09, 2016

Gen Eds Series P5: Philosophy of Science

This is my fourth philosophy post in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." Philosophy is the first of ten subjects I plan to overview in this series. These are the subjects a person normally takes in college (or high school) to be a generally educated person (most of them also make up what is sometimes called the "liberal arts").

The first four philosophy posts were:
1. The previous post was on critical thinking, one of the three primary components in the pursuit of truth (assumptions, evidence, and reasoning). Critical thinking relates to reason as a tool and path of truth. Another path to truth is that of evidence and experience. So if we covered logic in the previous post, in this post we talk about the philosophy of science.

The rise of the modern era of science is often traced back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon developed what we now call the scientific method. The scientific method seems so obvious that it's hard to believe that it was somewhat of an innovation at the time of Bacon.

Yet theology was "queen of the sciences" in the Middle Ages. and beliefs about the world even in the days the Greeks were largely speculative. That is to say, "knowing" in the Middle Ages did not so much involve testing or experimentation or gathering evidence. Rather, individuals came up with ideas that expressed the mysteries of the world in some form pleasing to them or their time.

The scientific method, as we all learned in high school, basically looks at evidence and forms a hypothesis. That hypothesis is then tested, modified, and tested over and over again against reality. Then once the hypothesis has proved to be very successful at explaining and predicting what will happen under certain circumstances, we begin to call this hypothesis a theory.

It is important to note that when scientists speak of something as a theory, they don't mean it is just a blind guess. The scientific community only begins to call something a theory if a hypothesis has proved to predict a particular outcome successfully over and over and over and over again. A theory in science is thus quite different from mere speculation.

It is unheard of these days for the scientific community to call things, "laws." Back in the 1600s when Newton was exploring nature, he spoke of the "law of universal gravitation." But since the 20th century, scientists are generally not so bold as to call things, "laws." So there is the theory of relativity and the theory of evolution.

Again, we should not think that scientists are tentative about these theories just because they are called, "theories." They are called theories because of their predictive capacity. Yet we do not call them the law of relativity or the law of evolution. So many paradigms have shifted in recent times that scientists wisely refrain from speaking about new laws of nature. Rather, they develop and modify successful theories.

2. Probably the most important philosopher of science in the late twentieth century was Thomas Kuhn. His work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, drastically changed the way we think about science.

Thomas Kuhn studied the way in which key scientific perspectives or paradigms have changed throughout history, especially in the last few hundred years. He called these changes, paradigm shifts. What he found was that there was a strong social dynamic to these changes and that they were not driven entirely by evidence at all. [1]

For example, Copernicus (1473-1543) is known for suggesting that the earth circled the sun (heliocentric paradigm) rather than the traditional view that the sun went round the earth (geocentric view). But the math of Copernicus' explanation for the motion of the planets was not actually as accurate a predictor of planetary motion as that of the Ptolemaic view. However, the geocentric view was extremely complex, while Copernicus got close with a fairly simple circular model.

Kuhn's point is that the change came from a change in perspective far more than it did from new evidence. Of course when Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) suggested elliptical orbits, then the math of a heliocentric universe was not only simpler but more accurate as well. Kuhn pointed out that the shift became established because the older generation eventually died off and weren't around any more to fight it.

We see these sorts of paradigm shifts throughout the modern era. Einstein (1879-1955) of course brought one of the most remarkable paradigm shifts since Newton. But Einstein himself never agreed with quantum mechanics in its prevailing form. Eventually, Einstein died and is no longer around to try to poke holes in the prevailing quantum understanding.

Kuhn may have taken his sense of these paradigm shifts a little too far. Initially, he seemed to suggest that there really wasn't any truth at all to scientific paradigms. They only wandered from one perspective to the next. In the second edition of his book, he modified his position a little.

His point however is well-made. There are paradigms in all fields of knowledge, including the way a certain generation reads the Bible. Once a prevailing point of view is established, it becomes very hard to dislodge it. Kuhn called established paradigms, "normal science."

3. We might synthesize these insights in the following way. There are individual bits of evidence we experience with our senses (we might call them "facts"). Tree, crash, sun, rise, wire, shock. From "empiricists" (sense-oriented thinkers) of the past like John Locke and David Hume, we can speak of our human tendency to glue these individual bits of experience together.

We take simple impressions and glue them together in our minds in certain ways to form complex ideas (we might call them "interpretations"). Kant revealed that a lot of this gluing has to do with basic ways our minds process things. We glue causes to effects, for example, in various ways.

Kuhn showed that there's more to this gluing than some reliable mind-software we can count on. We come to the game of interpretation with a tendency to see some data and not to see others. We inevitably "select" some data and "deselect" others. There is almost always data that doesn't fit in our paradigm (I call this, "naughty data"). We tend to ignore it when we are with others who are also willing to ignore it.

This incongruent data though can sow the seeds for future paradigm shifts.

4. In our current situation, almost everything we believe about the atomic and subatomic world is not directly observable. That is to say, it involves extremely highly developed interpretations of "facts" at significant remove. We talk about electrons, quarks, spins, and probability waves, but these are not "facts" per se. They are highly effective systems of interpretation or paradigms.

There is another word we might use, namely, myths. While it is popular to speak of myths as stories that are false, there is a more sophisticated and arguably more useful definition. A myth is a story that expresses a mystery. The quantum world below the atomic level is mysterious indeed. We cannot see it. We can only tell stories that express in as detailed a fashion as possible the "mysteries" that we observe.

In that sense, human paradigms are a certain kind of myth. Scientific equations are the form they often take. They express, often in an extremely detailed form, the mysteries that we observe on our macro-level. The names we give the characters in our stories--gravitons, gluons, positrons--are much more specific and useful than a Thor or a Zeus. But they are not, as Kant said, what these things are in themselves. They are expressions of the world as it appears experimentally to us.

5. A good deal of energy was spent in the twentieth century debating the truth status of claims. Positivism insisted that we could not speak of anything as true if it could not be observed. Hopefully you can see that paradigms cannot be observed at all. They are rather "stories" we tell ourselves to express the things that we can observe. Positivism dies when you realize that you cannot observe positivism as a paradigm.

Karl Popper (1902-1994), by contrast, suggested that the key to truth in science had to do with falsifiability. Something had to be falsifiable to be considered scientific. Everything else was unscientific, something different from the kinds of things that science treated.

But we can see that both of these approaches do not fully realize the "mythical," paradigmatic nature of all thinking. The question is how precisely and accurately a paradigm accounts for the details of observation. A paradigm might work for part of the data and not for some other part. In quantum mechanics, some approaches work to address one set of questions but not another.

So most of our scientific "knowledge," as it were, ultimately falls under the category of the pragmatic test for truth. We should not think of scientific theories as factual, but as workable. We use scientific paradigms to account for the data we observe and to predict what will happen under certain circumstances. But these are really finely tuned myths, expressions of the mysteries of the world, not the world as it actually is.

6. So it is with all our paradigms and interpretations, including those that have to do with the Bible. Individual statements in the Bible are like bits of data. We interpret them by placing them within some context (and there are countless options). Then we "select" some verses as the central ones and "deselect" others as peripheral. There are always "naughty verses" that do not fit as well into our theology.

Our theology of some subject is our paradigm. For those who say they focus on the Bible in relation to their theology, theology involves various paradigms for reading the Bible in relation to specific subjects. Different Christian groups have different paradigms. Every once and a while, a group will undergo a paradigm shift, sometimes without even knowing it. Different verses become centralized. Other verses are now paid less attention to or even ignored.

Why are there 30,000 Christian groups? Because most of what we believe about the Bible is interpretation, using the paradigms we have inherited and invented.

Next Week: Philosophy 6: What is real?

Classic Reading
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
[1] In fact, the first edition of his study suggested that paradigm shifts in science weren't about truth at all.

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