Archive for category Philosophy of Science

Science, God, and the White House

Back in the 80s I stumbled upon the book, Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House!, by Franklin Jones, aka Frederick Jenkins, later Da Free John, later Adi Da Samraj. I bought it on the spot. Likely a typical 70s mystic charlatan, Jones nonetheless saw clearly our poor grasp of tools for seeking truth and saw how deep and misguided is our deference to authority. At least that’s how I took it.

Who’d expect a hippie mystic to be a keen philosopher of science. The book’s title, connecting science, church and state, shrewdly wraps four challenging ideas:

  1. That there can be such a thing as scientific proof of anything
  2. That there could be new findings about the existence of God
  3. That evidence for God could be in the realm of science
  4. That government should or could accredit a scientific theory

On the first point, few but the uneducated, TIME magazine, and the FDA think that proof is in the domain of science. Proof is deductive. It belongs to math, logic and analytic philosophy. Science uses evidence and induction to make inferences to the best explanation.

Accepting that strong evidence would suffice as proof, point number 2 is a bit trickier. Evidence of God’s existence can’t be ruled out a priori. God could be observable or detectable; we might see him or his consequences. An almighty god could easily have chosen to regularly show himself or to present unambiguous evidence. But Yahweh, at least in modern times, doesn’t play like that (A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign but none will be given – Matthew 16:4). While believers often say no evidence would satisfy the atheist, I think a focused team could come up with rules for a demonstration that at least some nonbelievers would accept as sufficient evidence.

Barring any new observations that would constitute evidence, point number 3 is tough to tackle without wading deep into philosophy of science. To see why, consider the theory that God exists. Is it even a candidate for a scientific theory, as one WSJ writer thinks (Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God)? I.e., is it the content of a theory or the way it is handled by its advocates that makes the theory scientific? If the latter, it can be surprisingly hard to draw the line between scientific investigations and philosophical ones. Few scientists admit this line is so blurred, but how do string theorists, who make no confirmable or falsifiable predictions, defend that they are scientists? Their fondness for non-empirical theory confirmation puts them squarely in the ranks of the enlightenment empiricist, Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne (namesake of our fair university) who maintained that matter does not exist. Further, do social scientists make falsifiable predictions, or do they just continually adjust their theory to accommodate disconfirming evidence?

That aside, those who work in the God-theory space somehow just don’t seem to qualify as scientific – even the young-earth creationists trained in biology and geology. Their primary theory doesn’t seem to generate research and secondary theories to confirm or falsify. Their papers are aimed at the public, not peers – and mainly aim at disproving evolution. Can a scientific theory be primarily negative? Could plate-tectonics-is-wrong count as a proper scientific endeavor?

Gould held that God was simply outside the realm of science. But if we accept that the existence of God could be a valid topic of science, is it a good theory? Following Karl Popper, a scientific theory can withstand only a few false predictions. On that view the repeated failures of end-of-days predictions by Harold Camping and Herbert Armstrong might be sufficient to kill the theory of God’s existence. Or does their predictive failures simply exclude them from the community of competent practitioners?

Would NASA engineer, Edgar Whisenant be more credible at making predictions based on the theory of God’s existence? All his predictions of rapture also failed. He was accepted by the relevant community (“…in paradigm choice there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community” – Thomas Kuhn) since the Trinity Broadcast Network interrupted its normal programming to help watchers prepare. If a NASA engineer has insufficient scientific clout, how about our first scientist? Isaac Newton predicted, in Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, that the end would come in 2000 CE. Maybe Newton’s calculator had the millennium bug.

If we can’t reject the theory for any number of wrong predictions, might there be another basis for rejecting it? Some say absence of a clear mechanism is a good reason to reject theories. In the God theory, no one seems to have proposed a mechanism by which such a God could have arisen. Aquinas’s tortured teleology and Anselm’s ontological arguments still fail on this count. But it seems unfair to dismiss the theory of God’s existence on grounds of no clear mechanism, because we have long tolerated other theories deemed scientific with the same weakness. Gravity, for example.

Does assent of the relevant community grant scientific status to a theory, as Kuhn would have it? If so, who decides which community is the right one? Theologians spend far more time on Armageddon than do biologists and astrophysicists – and theologians are credentialed by their institutions. So why should Hawking and Dawkins get much air time on the matter? Once we’ve identified a relevant community, who gets to participate in its consensus?

This draws in point number 4, above. Should government or the White House have any more claim to a scientific pronouncement than the Council of Bishops? If not, what are we to think of the pronouncements by Al Gore and Jerry Brown that the science of climate is settled? Should they have more clout on the matter than Pope Francis (who, interestingly, has now made similar pronouncements)?

If God is outside the realm of science, should science be outside the jurisdiction of government? What do we make of President Obama’s endorsement of “calling out climate change deniers, one by one”? You don’t have to be Franklin Jones or Da Free John to see signs here of government using the tools of religion (persecution, systematic effort to censure and alienate dissenters) in the name of science. Is it a stretch to see a connection to Jean Bodin, late 16th century French jurist, who argued that only witches deny the existence of witches?

Can you make a meaningful distinction between our government’s pronouncements on the truth or settledness of the climate theory (as opposed to government’s role in addressing it) and the Kremlin’s 1948 pronouncement that only Lamarckian inheritance would be taught, and their call for all geneticists to denounce Mendelian inheritance? Is it scientific behavior for a majority in a relevant community to coerce dissenters?

In trying to draw a distinction between UN and US coercion on climate science and Lysenkoism, some might offer that we (we moderns or we Americans) are somehow different – that only under regimes like Lenin’s and Hitler’s does science get so distorted. In thinking this, it’s probably good to remember that Hitler’s eugenics was born right here, and flourished in the 20th century. It had nearly full academic support in America, including Stanford and Harvard. That is, to use Al Gore’s words, the science was settled. California, always a trendsetter, by the early 1920s, claimed 80% of America’s forced sterilizations. Charles Goethe, founder of Sacramento State University, after visiting Hitler’s Germany in 1934 bragged to a fellow California eugenicist about their program’s influence on Hitler.

If the era of eugenics seems too distant to be relevant to the issue of climate science/politics, consider that living Stanford scientist, Paul Ehrlich, who endorsed compulsory abortion in the 70s, has had a foot in both camps.

As crackpots go, Da Free John was rather harmless.

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“Indeed, it has been concluded that compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society.” – Ehrlich, Holdren and Ehrlich, EcoScience, 3rd edn, 1977, p. 837

“You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program.” – Charles Goethe, letter to Edwin Black, 1934

 

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Fine Tuned Fibs for the Cause

In my last post I compared our self-policing of facts that might chip away at our beliefs about environmental religion to lying for God in medieval and ancient times – something the writer of the epistles seems to boast of doing. Lying for God, on matters of science, may still be with us today.

William Lane Craig argues, in a line of thinking he calls reasonable faith (see his video),  that the apparent fine tuning of the universe allowing life in it to exist can only be explained as the work a designer. For Craig that designer happens to be the God of evangelical Protestantism.

Fine tuning has two different but related meanings in physics. The first deals mainly with theory, the second mainly with observation – something for Descartes, and something for Bacon.

In theory selection, fine tuning refers to how the details of a theory might need to be tweaked to make them fit observations. For example, in Ptolemaic astronomy, as used prior to Copernicus, the model only matched measurements if the planets’ epicycles stayed put in comparison to the straight line connecting the earth and sun and if the periods of the epicycles were exactly one year. Given those restrictions, the Ptolemaic model made good predictions. But why would those particular quantities have such relations? No reason could be found other than that they needed to be that way for the model to work. In Ptolemy’s defense, he did not believe the model represented reality; it merely gave right predictions. But the church believed it; and they forbade the teaching of the Copernican model. Copernicus’s model gave no better predictions; and it didn’t explain the lack of parallax in star positions or why a rotating earth didn’t suffer from great winds. But, Copernicus didn’t rely on fine tuning of his theory. What criterion is most important in theory selection – absence of fine tuning, predictive success, or explanatory power? That’s a topic for another time I guess. Read Paul Feyerabend on the matter if it grabs you.

In modern physics, fine tuning more commonly refers to our observation that many of the measured values that are, to our knowledge, constant across the universe have values that, were they even slightly different, would prevent life from being possible anywhere. Martin Rees, perhaps the first scientist to delve deep into the matter, identified six dimensionless constants (ratios of things we measure in physics, basically) on which life as we know it depends. These include the ratio of electromagnetic strength to the strength of gravity, the ratio of the mass density of the universe to the density required to halt expansion, and the so-called cosmological constant, the ratio of dark energy density in the universe to the density that would be needed to halt its expansion.

Popular examples of such fine tuning include the claim that if the electromagnetism/gravity ratio differed by an almost infinitesimal amount – say 1 part in 10 to the 40th power (1E-40) – things would be very quiet indeed. With a bit more gravity, stars would be too small and would burn out far too fast. Tweaking the other constants makes things even worse. Adjusting the cosmological constant to a few parts in ten to the 120 in either direction would make the universe either expand too fast for galaxies and stars to form or to collapse upon itself just after the big bang. These are unimaginably large/small numbers. A few scientists argue that our thinking is wrong here – again a topic for later. If interested, see Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us  by Victor J. Stenger.

William Lane Craig accepts that fine tuning exists, giving three possible explanations: physical necessity, chance, or design. Craig rules out necessity because a life-prohibiting universe is easily imaginable. He notes that the probabilities for these incredibly fine-tuned values to occur by chance is ridiculously remote, thus leaving design as the only alternative.

Now I can’t know Craig’s motives or his state of mind, but his argument here is consistent with someone who knows more than he’s telling. That is, Craig is clearly highly intelligent; he has command of analytic philosophy, mathematics and at least a decent knowledge of physics. Yet he starts his fine tuning evangel with an egregious example of privileged hypothesis on top of false choice – just to start. Is he sure the given alternatives are the only live options? And can chance be ruled out in a multiverse model? I.e., in a model with 10 to the 500 instances of what we call our universe, you’re pretty much bound to get a few that look like ours with randomized values for the physical constants.

But we need not start with an exotic option. Did Craig rule out combinations of necessity and chance? Did he challenge the problem statement from the beginning? Many other have – questioning the notion that these measure values aren’t environmental constants at all; perhaps we’ve misconceived an underlying relationship that ties the values together in the same way pi is tied to 3.141592. Part of Stenger’s work is along these lines.

Having given his rationale for preferring the designer hypothesis to an artificially restricted set of alternatives, Craig then takes the leap from designer to the God of evangelical Christianity. That is, Krishna, Zeus, Ahura Mazda and the spaghetti monster are off the table. Craig holds that a being with unlimited cosmic power – who could construct any universe of his choosing – used his infinite powers to fine tune that universe to the precise values of constants that would allow that universe to support galaxies, stars and life. It’s hard for me to believe Craig doesn’t see the contradiction in an argument involving a God of ultimate power being bound by laws of physics. That is, Craig’s God is praiseworthy for essentially outwitting – by a tiny margin – physical laws that are nearly out of his control. This seems a better argument for the religion of the Assyrians than for evangelical Christianity; it recalls Marduk’s narrow defeat over Tiamat.

In Reasonable Faith, Craig deals often with the concept of insincere arguments. Do his religious convictions cause him to be blind to elementary fallacies and contradictions in his own doctrine? Or is he simply lying for the cause?

 

“…unbelief is at root a spiritual, not an intellectual, problem.” – William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd edn., p.59

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Marcus Vitruvius’s Science

Science, as an enterprise that acquires knowledge and justified beliefs in the form of testable predictions by systematic iterations of observation and math-based theory, started around the 17th century, somewhere between Copernicus and Newton. That, we learned in school, was the beginning of the scientific revolution. Historians of science tend to regard this great revolution as the one that never happened. That is, as Floris Cohen puts it, the scientific revolution, once an innovative and inspiring concept, has since turned into a straight-jacket. Picking this revolution’s starting point, identifying any cause for it, and deciding what concepts and technological innovations belong to it are problematic.

That said, several writers have made good cases for why the pace of evolution – if not revolution – of modern science accelerated dramatically  in Europe, only when it did, why it has continuously gained steam rather than petering out, its primary driving force, and the associated transformations in our view of how nature works. Some thought the protestant ethic and capitalism set the stage for science. Others thought science couldn’t emerge until the alliance between Christianity and Aristotelianism was dissolved. Moveable type and mass production of books can certainly claim a role, but was it really a prerequisite? Some think a critical mass of ancient Greek writings had to have been transferred to western Europe by the Muslims. The humanist literary critics that enabled repair and reconstruction of ancient texts mangled in translation from Greek to Syriac to Persian to Latin and botched by illiterate medieval scribes certainly played a part. If this sounds like a stretch, note that those critics seem to mark the first occurrence of a collective effort by a group spread across a large geographic space using shared standards to reach a peer-reviewed consensus – a process sharing much with modern science.

But those reasons given for the scientific revolution all have the feel of post hoc theorizing. Might intellectuals of the day, observing these events, have concluded that a resultant scientific revolution was on the horizon? Francis Bacon comes closest to fitting this bill, but his predictions gave little sense that he was envisioning anything like what really happened.

I’ve wondered why the burst of progress in science – as differentiated from plain know-how, nature-knowledge, art, craft, technique, or engineering knowledge – didn’t happen earlier. Why not just after the period of innovation in from about 1100 to 1300 CE in Europe. In this period Jean Buridan invented calculators and almost got the concept of inertia right. Robert Grosseteste hinted at the experiment-theory model of science. Nicole Oresme debunked astrology and gave arguments for a moving earth. But he was the end of this line. After this brief awakening, which also included the invention of banking and the university, progress came to a screeching halt. Some blame the plague, but that can’t be the culprit. Literature of the time barley mentions the plague. Despite the death toll, politics and war went on as usual; but interest in resurrecting ancient Greek knowledge of all sorts tanked.

Why not in the Islamic world in the time of Ali al-Qushji and al-Birjandi? Certainly the mental capacity was there. A layman would have a hard time distinguishing al-Birjandi’s arguments and thought experiments for the earth’s rotation from those of Galileo. But Islamic civilization at the time had plenty of scholars but no institutions for making practical use of such knowledge and its society would not have tolerated displacement of received wisdom by man-made knowledge.

The most compelling case for civilization having been on the brink of science at an earlier time seems to be the late republic or early imperial Rome. This may seem a stretch, since Rome is much more known for brute force than for finesse, despite their flying buttresses, cranes, fire engines, central heating and indoor plumbing.

Consider the writings of one Vitruvius, likely Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, in the early reign of Augustus. Vitruvius wrote De Architectura, a ten volume guide to Roman engineering knowledge. Architecture, in Latin, translates accurately into what we call engineering. Rediscovered and widely published during the European renaissance as a standard text for engineers, Vitruvius’s work contains text that seems to contradict what we were all taught about the emergence of the – or a  – scientific method.

Vitruvius is full of surprises. He acknowledges that he is not a scientist (an anachronistic but fitting term) but a collator of Greek learning from several preceding centuries. He describes vanishing point perspective: “…the method of sketching a front with the sides withdrawing into the background, the lines all meeting in the center of a circle.” (See photo below of a fresco in the Oecus at Villa Poppea, Oplontis showing construction lines for vanishing point perspective.) He covers acoustic considerations for theater design, explains central heating technology, and the Archimedian water screw used to drain mines. He mentions a steam engine, likely that later described by Hero of Alexandria (aeolipile drawing at right), which turns heat into rotational energy. He describes a heliocentric model passed down from ancient Greeks. To be sure, there is also much that Vitruvius gets wrong about physics. But so does Galileo.

Most of De Architectura is not really science; it could more accurately be called know-how, technology, or engineering knowledge. Yet it’s close. Vitruvius explains the difference between mere machines, which let men do work, and engines, which derive from ingenuity and allow storing energy.

What convinces me most that Vitruvius – and he surely could not have been alone – truly had the concept of modern scientific method within his grasp is his understanding that a combination of mathematical proof (“demonstration” in his terms) plus theory, plus hands-on practice are needed for real engineering knowledge. Thus he says that what we call science –  theory plus math (demonstration) plus observation (practice) –  is essential to good engineering.

The engineer should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory. Practice is the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing. Theory, on the other hand, is the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion.

 It follows, therefore, that engineers who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.

 It appears, then, that one who professes himself an engineer should be well versed in both directions. He ought, therefore, to be both naturally gifted and amenable to instruction. Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. Let him be educated, skillful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history, have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens. – Vitruvius – De Architectura, Book 1

Historians, please correct me if you know otherwise, but I don’t think there’s anything else remotely like this on record before Isaac Newton – anything in writing that comes this close to an understanding of modern scientific method.

So what went wrong in Rome? Many blame Christianity for the demise of knowledge in Rome, but that is not the case here. We can’t know for sure, but the later failure of science in the Islamic world seems to provide a clue. Society simply wasn’t ready. Vitruvius and his ilk may have been ready for science, but after nearly a century of civil war (starting with the Italian social wars), Augustus, the senate, and likely the plebes, had seen too much social innovation that all went bad. The vision of science, so evident during the European Enlightenment, as the primary driver of social change, may have been apparent to influential Romans as well, at a time when social change had lost its luster. As seen in writings of Cicero and the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, Rome now regarded social innovation with suspicion if not contempt. Roman society, at least its government and aristocracy, simply couldn’t risk the main byproduct of science – progress.

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History is not merely what happened: it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. – Hugh Trevor-Roper – Oxford Valedictorian Address, 1998

The affairs of the Empire of letters are in a situation in which they never were and never will be again; we are passing now from an old world into the new world, and we are working seriously on the first foundation of the sciences. – Robert Desgabets, Oeuvres complètes de Malebranche, 1676

Newton interjected historical remarks which were neither accurate nor fair. These historical lapses are a reminder that history requires every bit as much attention to detail as does science – and the history of science perhaps twice as much. – Carl Benjamin Boyer, The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics, 1957

Text and photos  © 2015 William Storage

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Great Philosophers Damned to Hell

April 1 2015.

My neighbor asked me if I thought anything new ever happened in philosophy, or whether, 2500 years after Socrates, all that could be worked out in philosophy had been wrapped up and shipped. Alfred Whitehead came to mind, who wrote in Process and Reality that the entire European philosophical tradition was merely footnotes to Plato. I don’t know what Whitehead meant by this, or for that matter, by the majority of his metaphysical ramblings. I’m no expert, but for my money most of what’s great in philosophy has happened in the last few centuries – including some real gems in the last few decades.

For me, ancient, eastern, and medieval philosophy is merely a preface to Hume. OK, a few of his predecessors deserve a nod – Peter Abelard, Adelard of Bath, and Francis Bacon. But really, David Hume was the first human honest enough to admit that we can’t really know much about anything worth knowing and that our actions are born of custom, not reason. Hume threw a wrench into the works of causation and induction and stopped them cold. Hume could write clearly and concisely. Try his Treatise some time.

Immanuel Kant, in an attempt to reconcile empiricism with rationalism, fought to rescue us from Hume’s skepticism and failed miserably. Kant, often a tad difficult to grasp (“transcendental idealism” actually can make sense once you get his vocabulary), succeeded in opposing every one of his own positions while paving the way for the great steaming heap of German philosophy that reeks to this day.

The core of that heap is, of course, the domain of GWF Hegel, which the more economical Schopenhauer called “pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking.”

Don’t take my word (or Schopenhauer‘s) for it. Read Karl Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy. On second thought, don’t. Just read Imre Lakatos’s critique of Marx’s critique of Hegel. Better yet, read Paul Feyerabend’s critique of Lakatos’s critique of Marx’s critique. Of Hegel. Now you’re getting the spirit of philosophy. For every philosopher there is an equal and opposite philosopher. For Kant, they were the same person. For Hegel, the opposite and its referent are both all substance and non-being. Or something like that.

Hegel set out to “make philosophy speak German” and succeeded in making German speak gibberish. Through great effort and remapping your vocabulary you can eventually understand Hegel, at which point you realize what an existential waste that effort has been. But not all of what Hegel wrote was gibberish; some of it was facile politics.

Hegel writes – in the most charitable of translations – that reason “is Substance, as well as Infinite Power; its own Infinite Material underlying all the natural and spiritual life which it originates, as also the Infinite Form, – that which sets this Material in motion”

I side with the logical positivists, who, despite ultimately crashing into Karl Popper’s brick wall, had the noble cause of making philosophy work like science. The positivists, as seen in writings by AJ Ayer and Hans Reichenbach, thought the words of Hegel simply did no intellectual work. Rudolf Carnap relentlessly mocked Heidegger’s “the nothing itself nothings.” It sounds better in the Nazi philosopher’s own German: “Das Nichts nichtet,” and reveals that Reichenbach could have been more sympathetic in his translation by using nihilates instead of nothings.  The removal of a sentence from its context was unfair, as you can plainly see when it is returned to its native habitat:

In anxiety occurs a shrinking back before … which is surely not any sort of flight but rather a kind of bewildered calm. This “back before” takes its departure from the nothing. The nothing itself does not attract; it is essentially repelling. But this repulsion is itself as such a parting gesture toward beings that are submerging as a whole. This wholly repelling gesture toward beings that are in retreat as a whole, which is the action of the nothing that oppresses Dasein in anxiety, is the essence of the nothing: nihilation. It is neither an annihilation of beings nor does it spring from a negation. Nihilation will not submit to calculation in terms of annihilation and negation. The nothing itself nihilates.

Heidegger goes on like that for 150 pages.

The positivists found fault with philosophers who argued from their armchairs that Einstein could not have been right. Yes, they really did this; and not all of them opposed Einstein’s science just because it was Jewish. The philosophy of the positivists had some real intellectual heft, despite being wrong, more or less. They were consumed not only by causality and determinism, but by the quest for demarcation – the fine line between science and nonsense. They failed. Popper burst their bubble by pointing out that scientific theory selection relied more on absence of disconfirming evidence than on the presence of confirming evidence. Positivism fell victim mainly to its own honest efforts. The insider Willard Van Orman Quine (like Popper), put a nail in positivism’s coffin by showing the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements to be false. Hillary Putnam, killing the now-dead horse, then showed the distinction between “observational” and “theoretical” to be meaningless. Finally, in 1960, Thomas Kuhn showed up in Berkeley with the bomb that the truth conditions for science do not stand independent of their paradigms. I think often and write occasionally on the highly misappropriated Kuhn. He was wrong in all his details and overall one of the rightest men who ever lived.

Before leaving logical positivism, I must mention another hero from its ranks, Carl Hempel. Hempel is best known, at least in scientific circles, for his wonderful illustration of Hume’s problem of induction known as the Raven Paradox.

But I digress. I mainly intended to say that philosophy for me really starts with Hume and some of his contemporaries, like Adam Smith, William Blackstone, Voltaire, Diderot, Moses Mendelssohn, d’Alembert, and Montesquieu.

And to say that 20th century philosophers have still been busy, and have broken new ground. As favorites I’ll cite Quine, Kuhn and Hempel, mentioned above, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty (late works in particular), Hannah Arendt, John Rawls (read about, don’t read – great thinker, tedious writer), Michel Foucault (despite his Hegelian tendencies), Charles Peirce, William James (writes better than his brother), Paul Feyerabend, 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner, and the distinguished Simon Blackburn, with whom I’ll finish.

One of Thomas Kuhn’s more controversial concepts is that of incommensurability. He maintained that cross-paradigm argument is futile because members of opposing paradigms do not share a sufficiently common language in which to argue. At best, they lob their words across each other’s bows. This brings to mind a story told by Simon Blackburn at a talk I attended a few years back. It recalls Theodoras and Protagoras against Socrates on truth being absolute vs. relative – if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, it’s still good.

Blackburn said that Lord Jeremy Waldron was attending a think tank session on ethics at Princeton, out of obligation, not fondness for such sessions. As Blackburn recounted Waldron’s experience, Waldron sat on a forum in which representatives of the great religions gave presentations.

First the Buddhist talked of the corruption of life by desire, the eight-fold way, and the path of enlightenment, to which all the panelists said  “Wow, terrific. If that works for you that’s great” and things of the like.

Then the Hindu holy man talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release. And the panelists praised his conviction, applauded and cried ‘Wow, terrific – if it works for you that’s fabulous” and so on.

A Catholic priest then came to the podium, detailing  the message of Christ, the promise of salvation, and the path to eternal life. The panel cheered at his great passion, applauded and cried, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you, great”.

And the priest pounded his fist on the podium and shouted, ‘No! Not a question of whether it works for me! This is the true word of the living God; and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to Hell!”

The panel cheered and gave a standing ovation, saying: “Wow! Terrific! If that works for you that’s great”!

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More Philosophy for Engineers

In a post on Richard Feynman and philosophy of science, I suggested that engineers would benefit from a class in philosophy of science. A student recently asked if I meant to say that a course in philosophy would make engineers better at engineering – or better philosophers. Better engineers, I said.

Here’s an example from my recent work as an engineer  that drives the point home.

I was reviewing an FMEA (Failure Mode Effects Analysis) prepared by a high-priced consultancy and encountered many cases where a critical failure mode had been deemed highly improbable on the basis that the FMEA was for a mature system with no known failures.

How many hours of operation has this system actually seen, I asked. The response indicated about 10 thousand hours total.

I said on that basis we could assume a failure rate of about one per 10,001 hours. The direct cost of the failure was about $1.5 million. Thus the “expected value” (or “mathematical expectation” – the probabilistic cost of the loss) of this failure mode in a 160 hour mission is $24,000 or about $300,000 per year (excluding any secondary effects such as damaged reputation). With that number in mind, I asked the client if they wanted to consider further mitigation by adding monitoring circuitry.

I was challenged on the failure rate I used. It was, after all, a mature, ten year old system with no recorded failures of this type.

Here’s where the analytic philosophy course those consultants never took would have been useful.

You simply cannot justify calling a failure mode extremely rare based on evidence that it is at least somewhat rare. All unique events – like the massive rotor failure that took out all three hydraulic systems of a DC-10 in Sioux City – were very rare before they happened.

The authors of the FMEA I was reviewing were using unjustifiable inductive reasoning. Philosopher David Hume debugged this thoroughly in his 1738 A Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume concluded that there simply is no rational or deductive basis for  induction, the belief that the future will be like the past.

Hume understood that, despite the lack of justification for induction, betting against the sun rising tomorrow was not a good strategy either. But this is a matter of pragmatism, not of rationality. A bet against the sunrise would mean getting behind counter-induction; and there’s no rational justification for that either.

In the case of the failure mode not yet observed, however, there is ample justification for counter-induction. All mechanical parts and all human operations necessarily have nonzero failure or error rates. In the world of failure modeling, the knowledge “known pretty good” does not support the proposition “probably extremely good”, no matter how natural the step between them feels.

Hume’s problem of induction, despite the efforts of Immanuel Kant and the McKinsey consulting firm, has not been solved.

A fabulously entertaining – in my view – expression of the problem of induction was given by philosopher Carl Hempel in 1965.

Hempel observed that we tend to take each new observation of a black crow as incrementally supporting the inductive conclusion that all crows are black. Deductive logic tells us that if a conditional statement is true, its contrapositive is also true, since the statement and its contrapositive are logically equivalent. Thus if all crows are black then all non-black things are non-crow.

It then follows that if each observation of black crows is evidence that all crows are black (compare: each observation of no failure is evidence that no failure will occur), then each observation of a non-black non-crow is also evidence that all crows are black.

Following this line, my red shirt is confirming evidence for the proposition that all crows are black. It’s a hard argument to oppose, but it simply does not “feel” right to most people.

Many try to salvage the situation by suggesting that observing that my shirt is red is in fact evidence that all crows are black, but provides only unimaginably small support to that proposition.

But pushing the thing just a bit further destroys even this attempt at rescuing induction from the clutches of analysis.

If my red shirt gives a tiny bit of evidence that all crows are black, it then also gives equal support to the proposition that all crows are white. After all, my red shirt is a non-white non-crow.

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Epistemology of Innovation

prismI recently ran across an outstanding blog and series of articles by Bruce A. Vojak, Associate Dean for Administration and an Adjunct Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. Vojak deals with the epistemology of innovation. Epistemology is mostly an academic term, not yet usurped by Silicon Valley spin doctors, which basically means the study of knowledge and its justification – in other words, what we know, how we know it, and how we know we know it. So it follows that Vojak’s intent is to challenge readers to reflect on the practice of innovation and on how practitioners come to know what to do today in order to innovate successfully.

Incidentally, Vojak uses the popular term, “breakthrough innovation” – as we all do. I’ve been somewhat skeptical that this term can really carry much epistemic weight. It is popular among innovation advocates, but I’m not sure it has any theoretical – thus predictive – value. Even Judy Estrin, a Silicon Valley visionary for whom I have great respect, differentiates breakthrough from other innovation only in terms of historical marketplace success. Thus it seems to me that breakthrough can only be applied to an innovation in retrospect. In this sense it may be rare that prospective innovators can know whether they are pursuing continuous innovation or the breakthrough variety. Why set your sights low? In any case, Vojak is much more knowledgeable on the topic than I, and I’ll enjoy seeing where he goes with the breakthrough distinction that he develops somewhat in his So, what’s the big idea?. Vojak offers that breakthrough innovators are systems thinkers.

The articles by Vojak that I’m most thrilled with, contrasting the minds of contemporary innovators, are entitled “Patriarchs of Contemporary Innovation.” He’s released two of these this month:  Newton & Goethe and Socrates & Hegel. I love these for many reasons including good subjects, concisely covered, flowing logically in a non-academic tone; but especially because they assign a very broad scope to innovation, contrasting the tunnel vision of the tech press.

In  Newton & Goethe, Vojak looks at what can be learned from contrasting the two contemporary (with each other) thinkers. The objective Newton used a mathematical description of color, saw color as external to humans, reduced color into components (his famous prism experiment), and was a detached and dispassionate observer of it – the classic empiricist. For the subjective Goethe, color is something that humans do (it’s in our perception). Goethe was attached to color’s beauty; color is an experiential matter. In this sense, Newton is an analyst and Goethe is a design-thinker. Vojak then proposes that one role of an innovator is be able to hold both perspectives and to know when each is appropriate. Contrast this mature perspective with the magic-creative-powers BS peddled by Silicon Valley’s hockers of Design Thinking.

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689Because of my interest in history of science/philosophy of science, one aspect of Newton & Goethe got me thinking along a bit of tangent, but I think a rather interesting one. Vojak contrasts the romanticism and metaphysics of Goethe with the naturalism and empiricism of Newton, the “mastery of them that know.” But even Newton’s empiricism went only so far. Despite his having revealed what he called “true causes” and “universal truths,” his responses to his peers on what gravity actually was suggest that he never sought justification (in the epistemological sense) for his theories.  “Gravity is the finger of God,” said Newton.

Newton was not a scientist, and we should avoid calling him that for reasons beyond the fact that the term did not exist in his day. He was a natural philosopher. When his rival continental natural philosophers – the disciples of Descartes – demanded explanation for force at a distance (how gravity pulls with no rope), Newton replied something along the lines of that gravity means what the equation says. For Newton there was no need to correlate experience with something behind the experience. This attitude seems natural today, with our post-Einstein, post-quantum-mechanics perspective, but certainly was rightly seen by the emerging naturalists of Newton’s day as a theological-holdout basis for denying any interest in understanding reality.

In my view, history shortchanges us a bit by not bothering to mention that only 20% of Newton’s writings were in math and physics, the rest being theology and various forms of spooky knowledge. As presented in modern textbooks, Newton doesn’t seem like the type who would spend years seeking divine secrets revealed in the proportions of biblical structures, yet he did. Newton helped himself to Design Thinking at times.

None of this opposes any of Vojak’s contrast of Newton and Goethe; I just find it fascinating that even in Newton’s day, there was quite a bit of thinking on the opposite side of Newton from Goethe.

I highly recommend Vojak’s very accessible blog and articles on the illinois.edu site to anyone seeking some fresh air on the topic of innovation.

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Kuhn’s Constructionist Corner

Every sinner has a futureA classic is a book that everyone has an no one reads. Or everyone wants to have read but doesn’t want to read. Or so said Mark Twain. Or so people say he said.

Two friends (count ’em, two!) read my last post on Thomas Kuhn and called me to discuss it. This is unprecedented. I didn’t really expect many people to read my random thoughts on esoterica from a half century ago. Like, geek out already. Actually, my Kuhn coverage has now been viewed 910 times. And I know that at least two of those “views” actually read it. I expect advertisers to be lining up at my door soon. Compare this to I Can Has Cheezburger. That site was getting 1.5 million hits a day in 2007.

One friend said that he had downloaded the Kindle sample of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and wasn’t able to get through more than a few pages. I should have warned my large reader base that nobody actually reads Kuhn. At least not much of it at once. Instead you mine Kuhn in the same way you mine other religious texts for statements that can be recontextualized (postmodernists love that word) to support your agenda. Seriously, it is much more fun to read about Kuhn than to read Kuhn. And Kuhn can’t hold a candle to Kuhnians – especially those Kuhnians who are rhetorically shrill. You know, the ones compelled to voice the urgency for society to choose between textual demodernism and subcultural dematerialism through a dialectic praxis paradigm that mandates art as a totality.  I’m kidding.

The other friend (I think I actually have more than two friends, but two of them called to discuss Kuhn) challenged me on my accusing Kuhn of being a constructionist. I’m aware that many Kuhn fans insist that he was nothing of the sort. I’ll accept that Kuhn shares little with many constructionists, but will stick to my guns on the claim that the term accurately describes Kuhn as he presents himself in Structure. I think this despite the fact that Kuhn denied that his remarks on world-change were aligned with constructionism. At the same time Kuhn did, however, acknowledge a parallel between his views and with Kantian idealism. (walks like a duck…). Consider a couple of quotes from Structure:

“knowledge is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all”

“the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds… Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction”

(As an example of the wide range of use and misuse of Kuhn, this quote from Structure appears in The Politics of Gender in African American Churches by Demetrius K. Williams.)

“The man who premises a paradigm when arguing in its defence can nonetheless provide a clear exhibit of what scientific practice will be like for those who adopt the new view of nature. That exhibit can be immensely persuasive, often compellingly so. Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle. The premises and values shared by the two parties to a debate over paradigms are not sufficiently extensive for that. As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice – there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community. To discover how scientific revolutions are effected, we shall therefore have to examine not only the impact of nature and of logic, but also the techniques of persuasive argumentation effective within the quite special groups that constitute the community of scientists.” – Chapter 9 of Structures, emphasis added.

[The] most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms… is that “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. – as cited in: Scott L. Pratt (2009) Logic: Inquiry, Argument, and Order.

Yes, Kuhn’s constructionism is different from that of the postmodernist moral relativists. Kuhn is complex. He rejects epistemic presumptuousness and epistemic modesty at the same time – and does so rationally. He’s part philosophical realist and part logical positivist. He is not a strong constructionist, but but he’s a constructionist of some sort. Or so thinks this amateur multidisciplinarian.

How many Kuhnian constructionists does it take to change a light bulb?
You’re still thinking in terms of incremental change, but we need a paradigm shift

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Are You Kuhnian?

Kuhn

For the last year or so I’ve done a lot of reading about and by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolution had its 50th anniversary last year. Though you may not recognize his name, you hear his doctrine – or more likely someone’s interpretation of it – every day. Wittgenstein is widely held to be the 20th century’s most influential thinker. I think not. Wittgenstein may be somewhere in the background, but Kuhn is everywhere. He is cited, quoted and misquoted daily in nearly every discipline. Kuhn pops up in a sermon from former Baptist minister Robert M. Price entitled What Is Truth? He is cited by political and legal theorists, authors of software methodology, and innovation cheer leaders. He’s in Corley’s Biblical Hermeneutics. Stephen Covey repackaged his terminology and built an empire on it. New Age mystics and feminist epistemologists love him. Robin Mansell, professor of New Media at the London School of Economics and Political Science says she read Structures “as a call to arms for a sociological account of science and innovation.” Environmental activists love Kuhn as much as do management strategists and psychologists. Or, at least, they love what they think is Kuhn. Kuhn was misinterpreted so badly that, at one point, he angrily shouted at a conference, “I am not a Kuhnian,” attempting to distance himself from the nonsense that claimed him as its high priest.

In a post last year I called Kuhn an accidental guru. But my more thorough reading of and about Kuhn has really blurred the line between Kuhn and Kuhnians for me. Kuhn claimed, in later writings, that Structures was meant as a descriptive, not prescriptive of science, and prescriptive (or normative) only for other historians of science. I.e., it describes science as he sees it, defends the practice of science as being rational if not optimal, and defines standards for how science should be written about. So Kuhn seems then to frame himself as more historian of science and less philosopher of science. On the other hand, in Kuhn’s view (and that of his defenders) the “Kuhnians” (followers Kuhn never expected or wanted to have) drew all sorts of political, sociological and postmodern philosophical content from Structures that it simply did not contain.

Not so fast, Dr. Kuhn. I’ve come to believe that Kuhn was either backpedaling when he attempted to distance himself from the Kuhnians or was simply incoherent in his Structures doctrine. Kuhn can’t use the principles of the postmodern philosophers – which predated him by at least a decade – the perspective of social constructionists, concepts from Gestalt-psychology, and politically charged vocabulary – and then disown the Kuhnians. Maybe he can disown the new-age fuzzies and charlatan management consultants, but not a lot of the others.

So let’s take a look at the minimal Kuhn and then some of the main flavors of Kuhnians. Among Kuhn essentials, I see:

  1. There is normal science and then revolutionary science, which causes a paradigm shift to the next normal science.
  2. Revolutions, originating in crisis, are required for paradigm shifts.
  3. Inter-paradigmatic communication is impossible (Kuhn’s “incommensurability”).
  4. Theories fully pervade observation; observation language that is free of theoretical influence is impossible (Kuhn vs. Popper)
  5. Paradigms dictate – not reflect – the world. Reality is constructed, not observed.
  6. The ultimate desideratum of truth is solidarity.

The first three claims are what Kuhn and his defenders see as his core material. But he explicitly and repeatedly states points 4 and 5 in unambiguous terms – and point 5 in terms nearly identical to the postmodern constructivists who preceded him. Point 6 (desideratum of truth) is something Kuhn doesn’t state explicitly but is an unavoidable conclusion from his discussion of points one through three.

In my view, Kuhn’s first three points are often, but not always, true. Yes, Einsteinian mechanics overturned – not added onto – Newtonian mechanics. A Newtonian cannot make sense of measuring distance in years and mass in Joules. But many major changes in science were simply additive. And some radical changes in reality models, while not additive (to the previous paradigm), did not involve revolutionary crisis at all. When DNA was discovered, I’m pretty sure just about every biologist said, “ah, so that’s how it works,” and nary a shot was fired; no crisis started the DNA revolution. Against incommensurability (point 3), opponents of plate tectonics conversed effectively with its proponents. I’ve read quite a bit of dialog between quantum mechanics friends and foes where it was clear that both sides, while disagreeing, even violently (“God does not play dice”), fully understood each other. Thus, against Kuhn, paradigm-neutral communication not only exists but is commonplace. One could rightly say that Galileo’s excommunication fully proceeded from normal science’s (i.e. the church) rather full grasp – across paradigms – of the revolutionary science’s content.

Kuhn’s last three points (as I have identified them) are the ones that fueled the Kuhnians. Kuhn’s constructionist (point 4 and 5) views completely escape me. Point 4 is too complex to discuss here, but for argument’s sake can be lumped with point 5, which is easier to digest but has more radical consequences. These two point are not merely a rejection of epistemic presumptuousness (that we can truly “know” the world as it is) – a position that has certain philosophical merit – but assert that there is no accessible world but that which is a mental construction. It’s there in black and white; and has spawned, or at least nursed, volumes of moral-relativist social-theory drivel – as I see it anyway. I’ll spare you the argument for this.

Point 6 should ruffle the feathers of conservatives of all flavors, including political and scientific.  Repulsive as this claim first appears, I can get no distance from it; though I’ve winded myself trying to do so. “You are only as old as the last time you changed your mind” (Leary).

One wants to say that science is objective, or at worst, that it strives vigorously for objectivity. And of course it does. It’s the most honest thing the human race has ever done. But how does science know when it has been objective? Or, viewed slightly differently, deciding what constitutes objectivity is outside the realm of science. How do we decide between two irreconcilable claims that both profess to have been objectively reached? The only conceivable means of deciding is consensus.

Consider two competing scientific theories. Neither is perfect; both fit the limited evidence reasonably well (“underdetermination of theory by evidence,” for the epistemologists among us). This brings up the issue of deciding what attributes of theory are most important in a  given situation. Some will support the one that appears simplest mathematically (e.g. Poincare), some will chose the most intuitive, some will go for one with the greatest empirical content (e.g. Popper). How do we create a value matrix with weightings  of the theories’ various attributes. And how do you objectivize the subjective judgments of “grades” and how well each theory scores for each attribute. Such decisions are subjective, and involve values and beliefs. Quantifying their components simply pushes subjectivity back one level, since someone needs to decide on the criteria, the weights, and the scores. And since disagreements on these are inevitable, consensus within a community of peers or competent judges seems the only option. Finally, those excluded from the group of deciders may disagree with its findings. Kuhn documents many cases of this, introducing corporate and political biases that fueled the fires of science’s critics. Defenders of science (critics of anti- and pseudo-science) like Alan Sokol famously refuted the claims of only the most facile of the social constructionists fueled by this facet of Kuhn. But Sokol and his ilk sidestepped the more logically-troublesome aspects of communities of scientists – namely, that the ultimate desideratum of truth (in the practical, non-metaphysical sense of that term) is solidarity.

So I, like some of the Kuhnians, find one of Kuhn’s main points inescapable and strangely compelling. And on the grounds stated above I simply can’t accept Kuhn’s claim that he is not a Kuhnian. This, by the way, is also the basis on which Richard Rorty proclaimed himself a Kuhnian, despite claims by Kuhn’s defenders that Rorty misused Kuhn. Rorty then based his bold, modified-pragmatist theory of truth heavily on Kuhn’s implications around truth.

Further, on point 5, I can’t avoid concluding that either Kuhn misstated his own position, using the language of social constructionists, or actually is a constructionist of the most extreme kind, in which case, again, Kuhn is in fact a Kuhnian. He certainly didn’t believe that all claims of truth (and all interpretations of evidence) are equally valid, that your reality can be different than mine, or that science is the first tool of oppression. Nor did he hold any anarchic or nihilistic perspectives. But you can still be a Kuhnian without holding all such beliefs. No Kuhnian holds simultaneously all the ideas derived from Kuhn; so you can’t falsify Kuhnianism based on absence of one or two Kuhnian characteristics.

I never expected it to come out this way, but I’m part Kuhnian. Are you?

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Richard Rorty: A Matter for the Engineers

William Storage           13 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Science, Technology & Society Center

Richard Rorty, PhilosopherRichard Rorty (1931-2007) was arguably the most controversial philosopher in recent history. Unarguably, he was the most entertaining. Profoundly influenced by Thomas Kuhn, Rorty is fascinating and inspirational, even for engineers and scientists.

Rorty’s thought defied classification – literally; encyclopedias struggle to pin philosophical categories to him. He felt that confining yourself to a single category leads to personal stagnation on all levels. An interview excerpt at the end of this post ends with a casual yet weighty statement of his confidence in engineers’ ability to save the world.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rorty looked at familiar things in different light – and could explain his position in plain English. I never found much of Heidegger to be coherent, let alone important. No such problem with Dick Rorty.

Rorty could simplify arcane philosophical concepts. He saw similarities where others saw differences, being mostly rejected by schools of thought he drew from. This was especially true for pragmatism. Often accused of hijacking this term, Rorty offered that pragmatism is a vague, ambiguous, and overworked word, but nonetheless, “it names the chief glory of our country’s intellectual tradition.” He was enamored with moral and scientific progress, and often glowed with optimism and hope while his contemporaries brooded in murky, nihilistic dungeons.

Richard Rorty, PhilosopherRichard Rorty photo by Mary Rorty. Used by permission.

Rorty called himself a “Kuhnian” apart from those Kuhnians for whom The Structure of Scientific Revolution justified moral relativism and epistemic nihilism. Rorty’s critics in the hard sciences – at least those who embrace Kuhn – have gone to great lengths to distance Kuhn from Rorty. Philosophers have done the same, perhaps a bit sore from Rorty’s denigration of analytic philosophy and his insistence that philosophers have no special claim to wisdom. Kyle Cavagnini in the Spring 2012 issue of Stance (“Descriptions of Scientific Revolutions: Rorty’s Failure at Redescribing Scientific Progress”) finds that Rorty tries too hard to make Kuhn a relativist:

“Kuhn’s work provided a new framework in philosophy of science that garnered much attention, leading some of his theories to be adopted outside of the natural sciences. Unfortunately, some of these adoptions have not been faithful to Kuhn’s original theories, and at times just plain erroneous conclusions are drawn that use Kuhn as their justification. These misreadings not only detract from the power of Kuhn’s argument, but also serve to add false support for theories that Kuhn was very much against; Rorty was one such individual.”

Cavagnini may have some valid technical points. But it’s as easy to misread Rorty as to misread Kuhn. As I read Rorty, he derives from Kuhn that the authority of science has no basis beyond scientific consensus. It then follows for Rorty that instituational science and scientists have no basis for a privileged status in acquiring truth. Scientist who know their stuff shouldn’t disagree on this point. Rorty’s position is not cultural constructivism applied to science. He doesn’t remotely imply that one claim of truth – scientific or otherwise – is as good as another. In fact, Rorty explicitly argues against that position as applied to both science and ethics. Rorty then takes ideas he got from Kuhn to places that Kuhn would not have gone, without projecting his philosophical ideas onto Kuhn:

“To say that the study of the history of science, like the study of the rest of history, must be hermeneutical, and to deny (as I, but not Kuhn, would) that there is something extra called ‘rational reconstruction’ which can legitimize current scientific practice, is still not to say that the atoms, wave packages, etc., discovered by the physical scientists are creations of the human spirit.”  – Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

“I hope to convince the reader that the dialectic within analytical philosophy, which has carried … philosophy of science from Carnap to Kuhn, needs to be carried a few steps further.” – Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

What Rorty calls “leveling down science” is aimed at the scientism of logical positivists in philosophy – those who try to “science-up” analytic philosophy:

“I tend to view natural science as in the business of controlling and predicting things, and as largely useless for philosophical purposes” – Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to his Critics

For Rorty, both modern science and modern western ethics can claim superiority over their precursors and competitors. In other words, we are perfectly capable of judging that we’ve made moral and scientific progress without a need for a privileged position of any discipline, and without any basis beyond consensus. This line of thought enabled the political right to accuse Rorty of moral relativism and at the same time the left to accuse him of bigotry and ethnocentrism. Both did vigorously. [note]

You can get a taste of Rorty from the sound and video snippets available on the web, e.g. this clip where he dresses down the standard philosophical theory of truth with an argument that would thrill mathematician Kurt Gödel:

In his 2006 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago, he explains his position, neither moral absolutist nor moral relativist (though accused of being both by different factions), in praise of western progress in science and ethics.

Another example of Rorty’s nuanced position is captured on tape in Stanford’s archives of the Entitled Opinions radio program. Host Robert Harrison is an eloquent scholar and announcer, but in a 2005 Entitled Opinions interview, Rorty frustrates Harrison to the point of being tongue-tied. At some point in the discussion Rorty offers that the rest of the world should become more like America. This strikes Harrison as perverse.  Harrison asks for clarification, getting a response he finds even more perverse:

Harrison: What do you mean that the rest of the world should become a lot more like America? Would it be desirable to have all the various cultures across the globe Americanize? Would that not entail some sort of loss at least at the level of diversity or certain wisdoms that go back through their own particular traditions. What would be lost in the Americanization or Norwegianization of the world?

Rorty: A great deal would be lost. A great deal was lost when the Roman Empire suppressed a lot of native cultures. A great deal was lost when the Han Empire in China suppressed a lot of native cultures […]. Whenever there’s a rise in a great power a lot of great cultures get suppressed.  That’s the price we pay for history.

Asked if this is not too high a price to pay, Rorty answers that if you could get American-style democracy around the globe, it would be a small price to have paid. Harrison is astounded, if not offended:

Harrison: Well here I’m going to speak in my own proper voice and to really disagree in this sense: that  I think governments and forms of government are the result of a whole host of contingent geographical historical factors whereby western bourgeois liberalism or democracy arose through a whole set of circumstances that played themselves out over time, and I think that [there is in] America a certain set of presumptions that our form of democracy is infinitely exportable … [and] that we can just take this model of American democracy and make it work elsewhere. I think experience has shown us that it’s not that easy.

Rorty: We can’t make it work elsewhere but people coming to our country and finding out how things are done in the democratic west can go back and try to imitate that in their own countries. They’ve often done so with considerable success. I was very impressed on a visit to Guangzhou to see a replica of the statue of Liberty in one of the city parks. It was built by the first generation of Chinese students to visit America when they got back. They built a replica of the Statue of Liberty in order to help to try to explain to the other Chinese what was so great about the country they’d come back from. And remember that a replica of the Statue of Liberty was carried by the students in Tiananmen Square.

Harrison (agitated): Well OK but that’s one way. What if you… Why can’t we go to China and see a beautiful statue of the Buddha or something, and understand equally – have a moment of enlightenment and bring that statue back and say that we have something to learn from this other culture out there. And why is the statue of liberty the final transcend[ant] – you say yourself as a philosopher that you don’t – that there are no absolutes and that part of the misunderstanding in the history of philosophy is that there are no absolutes. It sounds like that for you the Statue of Liberty is an absolute.

Rorty: How about it’s the best thing anybody has come up with so far. It’s done more for humanity than the Buddha ever did. And it gives us something that … [interrupted]

Harrison: How can we know that!?

Rorty: From history.

Harrison: Well, for example, what do we know about the happiness of the Buddhist cultures from the inside?  Can we really know from the outside that we’re happier than they are?

Rorty: I suspect so. We’ve all had experiences in moving around from culture to culture. They’re not closed off entities, opaque to outsiders. You can talk to people raised in lots of different places about how happy they are and what they’d like.

Then it spirals down a bit further. Harrison asks Rorty if he thinks capitalism is a neutral phenomenon. Rorty replies that capitalism is the worst system imaginable except for all the others that have been tried so far. He offers that communism, nationalization of production and state capitalism were utter disasters, adding that private property and private business are the only option left until some genius comes up with a new model.

Harrison then reveals his deep concern over the environment and the free market’s effect on it, suggesting that since the human story is now shown to be embedded in the world of nature, that philosophy might entertain the topic of “life” – specifically, progressing beyond 20th century humanist utopian values in light of climate change and resource usage. Rorty offers that unless we develop fusion energy or similar, we’ve had it just as much as if the terrorists get their hands on nuclear bombs. Rorty says human life and nature are valid concerns, but that he doesn’t see that they give any reason for philosophers to start talking about life, a topic he says philosophy has thus far failed to illuminate.

This irritates Harrison greatly. At one point he curtly addresses Rorty as “my dear Dick.” Rorty’s clarification, his apparent detachment, and his brevity seem to make things worse:

Rorty: “Well suppose that we find out that it’s all going to be wiped out by an asteroid. Would you want philosophers to suddenly start thinking about asteroids? We may well collapse due to the exhaustion of natural resources but what good is it going to do for philosophers to start thinking about natural resources?”

Harrison: “Yeah but Dick there’s a difference between thinking of asteroids, which is something that is outside of human control and which is not submitted to human decision and doesn’t enter into the political sphere, and talking about something which is completely under the governance of human action. I don’t say it’s under the governance of human will, but it is human action which is bringing about the asteroid, if you like. And therefore it’s not a question of waiting around for some kind of natural disaster to happen, because we are the disaster – or one could say that we are the disaster – and that the maximization of wealth for the maximum amount of people is exactly what is putting us on this track toward a disaster.

Rorty: Well, we’ve accommodated environmental change before. Maybe we can accommodate it again; maybe we can’t. But surely this is a matter for the engineers rather than the philosophers.

A matter for the engineers indeed.

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Notes

1) Rorty and politics: The academic left cheered as Rorty shelled Ollie North’s run for the US Senate. As usual, not mincing words, Rorty called North a liar, a claim later repeated by Nancy Reagan. There was little cheering from the right when Rorty later had the academic left in his crosshairs; perhaps they failed to notice.. In 1997 Rorty wrote that the academic left must shed its anti-Americanism and its quest for even more abusive names for “The System.” “Outside the academy,  Americans still want to feel patriotic,” observed Rorty. “They still want to feel part  of a nation which can take control of its destiny and make itself a  better place.”

On racism, Rorty observed that the left once promoted equality by saying we were all Americans, regardless of color. By contrast, he said, the contemporary left now “urges that America should  not be a melting-pot, because we need to respect one another  in our differences.” He chastised the academic left for destroying any hope for a sense of commonality by highlighting differences and preserving otherness. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals,” wrote Rorty.

For Dinesh D’Souza, patriotism is no substitute for religion. D’Souza still today seems obsessed with Rorty’s having once stated his intent “to arrange things so that students who enter as  bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists will leave college with  views more like our own.” This assault on Christianity lands Rorty on a D’Souza enemy list that includes Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, D’Souza apparently unaware that Rorty’s final understanding of pragmatism included an accomodation of liberal Christianity.

2) See Richard Rorty bibliographical material and photos maintained by the Rorty family on the Stanford web site. 

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Thomas Kuhn’s Disruptive Paradigm Shift Innovation

William Storage           4 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society

Down Not Out

Decades ago I read Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but forgot the details except for the general notion of paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifts are unforgettable. They’re popping up everywhere these days. Recently I’ve revisited Kuhn in detail with an eye toward understanding the application of science and criticism of science to technology and innovation (related posts: Postmodern Management Strategy, A New Misunderstanding of Science, Postmodernism, Thomas KuhnPaul Feyerabend).

Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts was innovative and disruptive, and he’s often cited in reference to disruptive innovation. His influence is amazingly broad. It’s hard to get through a TED conference or an innovation seminar without hearing his name. As I mentioned in my first post on Kuhn, he strongly rejected most use of his work. No matter – the accidental rebel Kuhn lives on, 50 years after Structure was published. Kuhn is the most famous of several historians/philosophers of science whose work escaped the realm of academia in the ’60s. This explosion of popularity may never have happened without the others in that field who set the stage for Structure. Primarily, these were Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend.

In revisiting their work, I’ve collected some amazing quotes that show why these guys’ influence (mainly through Kuhn) went viral. The essential background here is that these scholars were, for the most part, methodologically and politically conservative and their writing was intended for a narrow audience of readers in their own fields. This important fact escaped (and continues to escape) most of the actual audience receiving their messages.

Kuhn was highly conservative, objectivist, authoritarian and generally positivist (by most understandings of positivism) when he wrote Structure and remained so throughout his career. The standard public view of Kuhn, however, was that he was subjectivist, relativist and liberal. These characteristics actually fit Kuhn’s opponent Karl Popper somewhat better, though Popper was closer in reality to the public conception of Kuhn. Paul Feyerabend was all over the board regarding Popper vs. Kuhn and most other subjects. Feyerabend, unlike both Popper and Kuhn, once embraced the cultural constructivist view of science but ultimately landed in objectivism. Imre Lakatos attempted a hybrid model of science somewhere between that of Popper and Kuhn. Kuhn’s runaway fame vanquished Popper and rendered Lakatos irrelevant.

The above summary grossly oversimplifies. None of these men where ideologues; their positions were far too highly developed for terms like relativist to be of much use beyond the coarsest of characterization. The below quotes show just how susceptible their writings can be to social reinterpretation, creative misunderstanding, and application to a spectrum of unrelated causes, especially when removed from their context.

Before the quotes from Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend, I’ll give links to some recent writings that use Kuhn – not merely his terminology, which is ubiquitous – but direct references that actually cite The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I’m listing some examples without judgment as to creative adaptation, creative misunderstanding, or clueless misappropriation.

Recent usage of Kuhn’s view of Paradigm Shift

Provocative quotes from Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend:

Thomas Kuhn’s apparent attack on logic and empiricism:

As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community… this issue of paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

Thomas Kuhn on the paradigm shift:

The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications. During the transition period there will be a large but never complete overlap between the problems that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference in the modes of solution. When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn on interpretation of evidence:

Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn on bias in research:

Science does not deal in all possible laboratory manipulations. Instead it selects those relevant to the juxtaposition of a paradigm with the immediate experience that the paradigm has partially determined.  – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn on science’s distance from truth:

We may… have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Al Gore invoking Kuhn on paradigm shifts:

Well-established theories collapse under the weight of new facts and observations which cannot be explained, and then accumulate to the point where the once useful theory is clearly obsolete. – Commencement address at M.I.T. (7 Jun 1996)

Karl Popper on the role of the investigator:

… every step is guided by theory. We do not stumble upon our experiences, nor do we let them flow over us like a stream. Rather, we have to be active: we have to ‘make’ our experiences. It is we who always formulate the questions to be put to nature; it is we who try again and again to put these questions so as to elicit a clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (for nature does not give an answer unless pressed for it). And in the end, it is again we who give the answer; it is we ourselves who, after severe scrutiny, decide upon the answer. – The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959

Popper on impossibility of justification and verification:

The best we can say of a hypothesis is that up to now it has been able to show its worth, and that it has been more successful than other hypotheses although, in principle, it can never be justified… – The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Popper on the shaky foundations of science:

 The empirical basis of objective science has … nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being. – The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Paul Feyerabend’s often-quoted apparent defense of anarchy:

It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’, it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes. – Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), 27-8.

Feyerabend’s rarely quoted qualification of the above:

Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. – Against Method

Feyerabend, sounding very conservative on the cultural-construction model of science:

How can an enterprise depend on culture in so many ways, and yet produce such solid results? Most answers to this question are either incomplete or incoherent. Physicists take the fact for granted. Movements that view quantum mechanics as a turning-point in thought – and that include fly-by-night mystics, prophets of a New Age, and relativists of all sorts – get aroused by the cultural component and forget predictions and technology. – “Atoms and Consciousness,” Common Knowledge Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992

Sociologist Steve Fuller on Kuhn vs. Popper:

… both can reasonably lay claim to having been seriously misinterpreted by friends and foes alike. The situation has not been helped by the standard presentation of the ‘Kuhn–Popper debate’ in textbooks on philosophy and the scientific method. In terms of scholastic affiliations, Popper is portrayed as objectivist, realist and positivist, while Kuhn appears as subjectivist, relativist and historicist. … Thus, philosophers – even the great ones – spend most of their time attacking straw opponents who fail to correspond to any actual precursor. – Kuhn vs. Popper, 2003

Imre Lakatos defending philosophy of science against scientists:

How can a mere philosopher devise criteria distinguishing between good and bad science, knowing it is an inutterable mystic secret of the Royal Society?  – ‘Lecture One on the Scientific Method’ (1973)

Lakatos against Popper:

No experimental result can ever kill a theory: any theory can be saved from counterinstances either by some auxiliary hypothesis or by a suitable reinterpretation of its terms. – ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’, in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London 1965 (1970), Vol. 4, 116.

Lakatos on science creating its own universe:

Scientists dream up phantasies and then pursue a highly selective hunt for new facts which fit these phantasies. This process may be described as ‘science creating its own universe’ (as long as one remembers that ‘creating’ here is used in a provocative-idiosyncratic sense). A brilliant school of scholars (backed by a rich society to finance a few well-planned tests) might succeed in pushing any fantastic programme ahead, or alternatively, if so inclined, in overthrowing any arbitrarily chosen pillar of ‘established knowledge’. – ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes

Feyerabend on popular use of Kuhn:

Kuhn’s masterpiece played a decisive role. It led to new ideas, Unfortunately it also led to lots of trash – Against Method

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Down Not Out” photo by Thomas Hawk, used by permission  See him on Flickr.

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