Posts Tagged Philosophy of Science

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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Mark Jacobson’s Science

The writings of Stanford’s Mark Jacobson effortlessly blends science and ideology along a continuum to envision an all-renewable energy future for America. His success in doing this marks a sad state of affairs between science, culture and politics.

Jacobson’s popularity began with his 2009 Scientific American piece, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables. The piece and his recent works argue both a means by which we could transition to renewable-only power and that an all-renewable energy mix is the means by which we should pursue greenhouse gas reduction. They seem to answer several questions, though the questions aren’t stated explicitly:

Is it possible to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is it feasible to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is it desirable to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is a renewable-only portfolio the best means of stopping the increase in atmospheric CO2?

The first question is an engineering problem. The 2nd is an engineering and economic question. The 3rd is economic, social, and political. The 4th is my restating of the 3rd to emphasize an a-priori exclusion of non-renewables from the goal of stopping the increase in atmospheric CO2. That objective, implied in the Sci Am article’s title, is explicitly stated in the piece’s opening paragraph:

“In December leaders from around the world will meet in Copenhagen to try to agree on cutting back greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. The most effective step to implement that goal would be a massive shift away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources.”

It should be clear to readers that the possibility or technical feasibility of a global 100%-renewable energy portfolio in no way defends the assertion that it the most effective way to implement that goal is such a portfolio. Assuming that the most desirable way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is by using a 100% renewable portfolio, the feasibility of such a portfolio becomes an engineering, economic, and social challenge; but that is not the gist of Jacobson’s works, where the premise and conclusion are intertwined.  Questions 1 and 2 would obviously be great topics for a paper, as would questions 3 and 4. Addressing all of them together is a laudable goal – and one that requires clear thinking about evidence and justification. On that requirement, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables fails outright in my view, as do his recent writings.

Major deficiencies in Jacobson’s engineering and economic analyses have been discussed at length, most notably by Brian Wang, William Hannahan, Ted Trainer, Edward Dodge, Nate Gilbraith, Charles Barton, Gene Preston, and Barry W. Brook. The deficiencies they address include wrong facts, adverse selection, and vague language, e.g.:

“In another study, when 19 geographically disperse wind sites in the Midwest, over a region 850 km 850 km, were hypothetically interconnected, about 33% of yearly averaged wind power was calculated to be usable at the same reliability as a coal-fired power plant.”

Engineers will note that “usable at the same reliability” simply cannot be parsed into an intelligible claim; and if the intent was to say that that these sites had the same capacity factor as a coal-powered plant, the statement is obviously false.

Jacobson’s proposal for New York includes clearing 340 square miles of land to generate 39,000 MW with concentrated solar power facilities. CSP requires flat, sunny, unburdened land, kept free or rain and snow without addressing the possibility, let alone feasibility, of doing this. His NY plan calls for building 140 sq mi of photovoltaic farms, with similar requirements for land quality. He overstates capacity factor of both wind and photovoltaics in NY, as elsewhere. He calls for 12,500 5MW offshore wind turbines with no discussion of feasibility in light of bathymetry, shipping and commercial water route use. Further, his offshore wind turbine plan ignores efficiency reductions due to wind shadowing that would exist in his proposed turbine density. The economic impact, social acceptability, and environmental impact of clearing hundreds of square miles of mostly-wooded land and grading it level (NY is hilly), of erecting another 4000 onshore turbines, and of 12,500 offshore turbines is a very real – but unaddressed by Jacobson – factor in determining the true feasibility of the proposed solution.

The above writers cover many concerns about Jacobson’s work along these lines. Their criticism is aimed at the feasibility of Jacobson’s implementation plan. In my engineering judgment these complaints have considerable merit. But that is not where I want to go here. Instead, I’m intensely concerned about two related issues:

1) the lack of knowledge on the street that Jacobson has credible opponents that dispute his major claims
2) absence of criticism of Jacobson for doing bad science – not bad because of wrong details but bad because of poor method and bad values.

By values, I don’t mean ethics, beliefs or preferences. Jacobson and I share social values (cut CO2 emissions) but not scientific values. By scientific values I mean things like accuracy, precision, clarity (e.g., “useable at the same reliability”), testability, and justification – epistemic values focused on reliable knowledge. To clarify, I’m not so naïve as to think scientists and engineers shouldn’t have biases and personal beliefs, that they shouldn’t act on hunches, or that theory and observation are not intertwined. But misrepresenting normative statements as descriptive ones is a kind of bad science against which Bacon and Descartes would have railed; and that is what Jacobson has done. He answered one question (what we should do to level CO2 emissions) while pretending to answer a different one (are renewables sufficient to replace fossil fuels). This should not pass as science.

Jacobson’s writings are highly quantitative where they oppose fission, and grossly qualitative where they dodge the deficiencies in renewables. This holds particularly true on the matters of variability of renewables (e.g., large regions of Europe are often simultaneously without wind and sun), difficulties and inefficiencies of distribution, and the feasibility of energy storage and its inevitable inefficiencies (I mean laws-of-nature inefficiencies, not inefficiencies that can be cured with technology). He states the fission is not carbon-free because fossil fuels are used in its construction and maintenance, while failing to mention that the concrete and other CO2-emitters used in building and maintaining solar and wind power dwarf those of fission.

At times Jacobson’s claims might be called crypto-normative. For example, he says that “Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered.” As stated, the claim is absurd. Applying the principle of charity in argument, I dug down to see what he might have meant to say. Beneath it, he is actually including the CO2 footprint of his estimation of the impact of inevitable nuclear war. So, yes, with a big enough nuclear war included (not uranium refining and transport), the CO2 emissions of nuclear power plus nuclear war could result in up to 25 times more CO2 than wind. But why stop there? We could conceive of nuclear war (or non-nuclear was for that matter) that emitted thousands of time more CO2 than wind power. Speculation about nuclear war risks is a worthwhile topic, but not when buried in the calculation of CO2 footprints. And it has no place in calculating the most effective means to cut greenhouse gas.

How can Jacobson have so many mistakes in his details (all of which favor an all-renewables plan) and engage in such bad science while so few seem to notice?  I’m not sure, but I fear that much of science has become the handmaid of politics and naïve ideological activism. I cannot know Jacobson’s motives, but I am certain of the incentives. Opposition to renewables is framed as opposing the need to cut CO2 and worse – like being in the pocket of evil corporations. I experience this personally, when I attend clean-tech events and when I use this example Philosophy of Science talks. As a career and popularity move, it’s hard to go wrong by jumping on the renewables-only bandwagon.

At a recent Silicon Valley clean-tech event, I challenged three different attendees on claims they made about renewables. Two of these were related to capacity factors given for solar power on the east coast and one dealt with the imminence (or lack thereof) of utility-scale energy storage technology. All three attendees, independently, in their responses cited Mark Jacobson’s work as justification for their claims. My attempts at reality checks on capacity factors using real-world values in calculations didn’t seem to faze them. Arguments hardly affect the faithful, noted Paul Feyerabend; their beliefs have an entirely different foundation.

Science was once accused of being the handmaid of religion. Under President Eisenhower, academic science was accused of being a pawn of the military industrial complex and then took big steps to avoid being one. The money flow is now different, but the incentives for institutional science – where it comes anywhere near policy matters – to conform to fickle societal expectations present a huge obstacle to the honest pursuit of a real CO2 solution.

I’m not sure how to fix the problem demonstrated by the unquestioning acceptance of Jacobson’s work as scientific knowledge. Improvements in STEM education will certainly help. But I doubt that spreading science and engineering education across a broader segment of society will be sufficient. It seems to me we’d benefit more from having engineers and policy makers develop a broader interpretation of the word science – one that includes epistemology and theory of justification. I’ve opined in the past that teaching philosophy of science to engineers would make them much better at engineering. It would also result in better policy makers in a world where technology has become integral to everything. Independent of whether a statement is true or false, every educated person should be able to differentiate a scientific statement from a non-scientific one, should know what constitutes confirming and disconfirming evidence, and should cry foul when a normative claim pretends to be descriptive.


“The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.” – Paul Feyerabend – Against Method, 1975.

“I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which were not always the same.” – Keith Briffa – IPCC email correspondence, 2007.

“A philosopher who has been long attached to a favorite hypothesis, and especially if he have distinguished himself by his ingenuity in discovering or pursuing it, will not, sometimes, be convinced of its falsity by the plainest evidence of fact. Thus both himself, and his followers, are put upon false pursuits, and seem determined to warp the whole course of nature, to suit their manner of conceiving of its operations.”  – Joseph Priestley – The History and Present State of Electricity, 1775

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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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You’re So Wrong, Richard Feynman

“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”  

This post is more thoughts on the minds of interesting folk who can think from a variety of perspectives, inspired by Bruce Vojak’s Epistemology of Innovation articles. This is loosely related to systems thinking, design thinking, or – more from my perspective – the consequence of learning a few seemingly unrelated disciplines that end up being related in some surprising and useful way.

Richard Feynman ranks high on my hero list. When I was a teenager I heard a segment of an interview with him where he talked about being a young boy with a ball in a wagon. He noticed that when he abruptly pulled the wagon forward, the ball moved to the back of the wagon, and when he stopped the wagon, the ball moved forward. He asked his dad why it did that. His dad, who was a uniform salesman, put a slightly finer point on the matter. He explained that the ball didn’t really move backward; it moved forward, just not as fast as the wagon was moving. Feynman’s dad told young Richard that no one knows why a ball behaves like that. But we call it inertia. I found both points wonderfully illuminating. On the ball’s motion, there’s more than one way of looking at things.  Mel Feynman’s explanation of the ball’s motion had gentle but beautiful precision, calling up thoughts about relativity in the simplest sense – motion relative to the wagon versus relative to the ground. And his statement, “we call it inertia,” got me thinking quite a lot about the difference between knowledge about a thing and the name of a thing. It also recalls Newton vs. the Cartesians in my recent post. The name of a thing holds no knowledge at all.

RichardFeynman-PaineMansionWoods1984_copyrightTamikoThiel_bwFeynman was almost everything a hero should be – nothing like the stereotypical nerd scientist. He cussed, pulled gags, picked locks, played drums, and hung out in bars. His thoughts on philosophy of science come to mind because of some of the philosophy-of-science issues I touched on in previous posts on Newton and Galileo. Unlike Newton, Feynman was famously hostile to philosophy of science. The ornithology quote above is attributed to him, though no one seems to have a source for it. If not his, it could be. He regularly attacked philosophy of science in equally harsh tones. “Philosophers are always on the outside making stupid remarks,“ he is quoted as saying in his biography by James Gleick.

My initial thoughts were that I can admire Feynman’s amazing work and curious mind while thinking he was terribly misinformed and hypocritical about philosophy. I’ll offer a slightly different opinion at the end of this. Feynman actually engaged in philosophy quite often. You’d think he’d at least try do a good job of it. Instead he seems pretty reckless. I’ll give some examples.

Feynman, along with the rest of science, was assaulted by the wave of postmodernism that swept university circles in the ’60s. On its front line were Vietnam protesters who thought science was a tool of evil corporations, feminists who thought science was a male power play, and Foucault-inspired “intellectuals” who denied that science had any special epistemic status. Feynman dismissed all this as a lot of baloney. Most of it was, of course. But some postmodern criticism of science was a reaction – though a gross overreaction – to a genuine issue that Kuhn elucidated – one that had been around since Socrates debated the sophists. Here’s my best Readers Digest version.

All empirical science relies on affirming the consequent, something seen as a flaw in deductive reasoning. Science is inductive, and there is no deductive justification for induction (nor is there any inductive justification for induction – a topic way too deep for a blog post). Justification actually rests on a leap of inductive faith and consensus among peers. But it certainly seems reasonable for scientists to make claims of causation using what philosophers call inference to the best explanation. It certainly seems that way to me. However, defending that reasoning – that absolute foundation for science – is a matter of philosophy, not one of science.

This issue edges us toward a much more practical one, something Feynman dealt with often. What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience (the demarcation question)? Feynman had a lot of room for Darwin but no room at all for the likes of Freud or Marx. All claimed to be scientists. All had theories. Further, all had theories that explained observations. Freud and Marx’s theories actually had more predictive success than did those of Darwin. So how can we (or Feynman) call Darwin a scientist but Freud and Marx pseudoscientists without resorting to the epistemologically unsatisfying argument made famous by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I can’t define pornography but I know it when I see it”? Neither Feynman nor anyone else can solve the demarcation issue in any convincing way, merely by using science. Science doesn’t work for that task.

It took Karl Popper, a philosopher, to come up with the counterintuitive notion that neither predictive success nor confirming observations can qualify something as science. In Popper’s view, falsifiability is the sole criterion for demarcation. For reasons that take a good philosopher to lay out, Popper can be shown to give this criterion a bit too much weight, but it has real merit. When Einstein predicted that the light from distant stars actually bends around the sun, he made a bold and solidly falsifiable claim. He staked his whole relativity claim on it. If, in an experiment during the next solar eclipse, light from stars behind the sun didn’t curve around it, he’d admit defeat. Current knowledge of physics could not support Einstein’s prediction. But they did they experiment (the Eddington expedition) and Einstein was right. In Popper’s view, this didn’t prove that Einstein’s gravitation theory was true, but it failed to prove it wrong. And because the theory was so bold and counterintuitive, it got special status. We’ll assume it true until it is proved wrong.

Marx and Freud failed this test. While they made a lot of correct predictions, they also made a lot of wrong ones. Predictions are cheap. That is, Marx and Freud could explain too many results (e.g., aggressive personality, shy personality or comedian) with the same cause (e.g., abusive mother). Worse, they  were quick to tweak their theories in the face of counterevidence, resulting in their theories being immune to possible falsification. Thus Popper demoted them to pseudoscience. Feynman cites the falsification criterion often. He never names Popper.

Feynmann_Diagram_Gluon_Radiation.svgThe demarcation question has great practical importance. Should creationism be taught in public schools? Should Karmic reading be covered by your medical insurance? Should the American Parapsychological Association be admitted to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (it was in 1969)? Should cold fusion research be funded? Feynman cared deeply about such things. Science can’t decide these issues. That takes philosophy of science, something Feynman thought was useless. He was so wrong.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, there’s the matter of what activity Feynman was actually engaged in. Is quantum electrodynamics a science or is it philosophy? Why should we believe in gluons and quarks more than angels? Many of the particles and concepts of Feynman’s science are neither observable nor falsifiable. Feynman opines that there will never be any practical use for knowledge of quarks, so he can’t appeal to utility as a basis for the scientific status of quarks. So shouldn’t quantum electrodynamics (at least with level of observability it had when Feynman gave this opinion) be classified as metaphysics, i.e., philosophy, rather than science? By Feynman’s demarcation criteria, his work should be called philosophy. I think his work actually is science, but the basis for that subtle distinction is in philosophy of science, not science itself.

While degrading philosophy, Feynman practices quite a bit of it, perhaps unconsciously, often badly. Not Dawkins-bad, but still pretty bad. His 1966 speech to the National Science Teacher’s Association entitled “What Is Science?” is a case in point. He hints at the issue of whether science is explanatory or merely descriptive, but wanders rather aimlessly. I was ready to offer that he was a great scientist and a bad accidental philosopher when I stumbled on a talk where Feynman shows a different side, his 1956 address to the Engineering and Science college at the California Institute of Technology, entitled, “The Relation of Science and Religion.”

He opens with an appeal to the multidisciplinarian:

 In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another.  The great problems of the relations between one and another aspect of human activity have for this reason been discussed less and less in public.  When we look at the past great debates on these subjects we feel jealous of those times, for we should have liked the excitement of such argument.”

Feynman explores the topic through epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. He talks about degrees of belief and claims of certainty, and the difference between Christian ethics and Christian dogma. He handles all this delicately and compassionately, with charity and grace. He might have delivered this address with more force and efficiency, had he cited Nietzsche, Hume, and Tillich, whom he seems to unknowingly parallel at times. But this talk was a whole different Feynman. It seems that when formally called on to do philosophy, Feynman could indeed do a respectable job of it.

I think Richard Feynman, great man that he was, could have benefited from Philosophy of Science 101; and I think all scientists and engineers could. In my engineering schooling, I took five courses in calculus, one in linear algebra, one non-Euclidean geometry, and two in differential equations. Substituting a philosophy class for one of those Dif EQ courses would make better engineers. A philosophy class of the quantum electrodynamics variety might suffice.

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“It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man – as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places.  When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described.  It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand.” – Richard Feynman, The Relation of Science and Religion

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 Photo of Richard Feynman in the Payne Mansion woods copyright Tamiko Thiel, 1984. Used by permission. Feynman diagram courtesy of SilverStar.

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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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