john42t

Scientific Certainty?

Recommended Posts

. As I said in another post, Objectivism holds that knowledge is contextually absolute. I know you don't care about this sort of 'philosophical word salad,' Bob, but I regard it as important to try to clarify such issues for those who do.

Clarify all that you will. When the falsifications are based on experiment they won't go away because you talk them to death.

The Black Swan is an absolute.

The perihelion of Mercury simply does not go where Newton's law says it goes.

Atoms don't collapse as is predicted by Maxwell's laws.

And the past does not perfectly predict the future.

Empirical inductions work perfectly except when they fail.

And facts are so God Damned stubborn.

Ba'al Chatzaf

The ‘black swan’ argument is a perfect example of how a misunderstanding of induction leads to skepticism. If the statement that ‘all swans are white’ is based purely on observation, then that fact represents the evidentiary context, and the valid inductive conclusion becomes: “All swans I have ever observed are white.”

We cannot reasonably conclude that all swans are white based purely on external observation. The only way to have any scientific basis for such a conclusion would be to use experimentation to connect the property of being white to the biological nature of swans (i.e., a causal connection). To assert that all swans are white simply because one had never seen a swan of any other color is a perfect example of dropping the scientific context.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Dennis,

You have just shown how scientific bottom-up reasoning is good for collecting and manipulating data, but is a flop at coming up with wisdom (which is a top-down big-picture thing--looking at context, etc.).

It's easy to find tunnel-view scientists who will build a nuke for a common bloody dictator. And they won't have a clue about the evil they are engaged in. All the scientific learning in the world will not give such a person the horse-sense to evaluate the wisdom of what he is doing, nor, for that matter, how precarious his own situation will be after the dictator gets what he wants.

In my view, we need both wisdom and the detailed view.

It's not nice to say, but I get tickled when overly-scientific people try to examine issues where wisdom is necessary. They're just as silly as fundamentalist religious people explaining a technical issue like evolution.

And when they put on airs, like bad-mouthing Aristotle with an air of superiority, I call that snooty. Vanity is a poor, poor replacement for wisdom. But at least there's some entertainment value....

:smile:

Michael

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
. As I said in another post, Objectivism holds that knowledge is contextually absolute. I know you don't care about this sort of 'philosophical word salad,' Bob, but I regard it as important to try to clarify such issues for those who do.

Clarify all that you will. When the falsifications are based on experiment they won't go away because you talk them to death.

The Black Swan is an absolute.

The perihelion of Mercury simply does not go where Newton's law says it goes.

Atoms don't collapse as is predicted by Maxwell's laws.

And the past does not perfectly predict the future.

Empirical inductions work perfectly except when they fail.

And facts are so God Damned stubborn.

Ba'al Chatzaf

The ‘black swan’ argument is a perfect example of how a misunderstanding of induction leads to skepticism. If the statement that ‘all swans are white’ is based purely on observation, then that fact represents the evidentiary context, and the valid inductive conclusion becomes: “All swans I have ever observed are white.”

We cannot reasonably conclude that all swans are white based purely on external observation. The only way to have any scientific basis for such a conclusion would be to use experimentation to connect the property of being white to the biological nature of swans (i.e., a causal connection). To assert that all swans are white simply because one had never seen a swan of any other color is a perfect example of dropping the scientific context.

When I moved back to Missouri both my brother and myself had girlfriends from the city visit. One had never seen black cows before and was amazed - she had never seen horse manure before and thought she was seeing burned up charcoal briquets laying about everywhere. The other girl had never seen a clear night sky before. Given a very nice pair of binoculars to look on a clear night sky in the fall - she became motion sick and I suspect had religious misgiving hit her about her place in the universe and asked to head home. With very nice field glasses on a very clear night you can see millions of stars. I doubt she had ever seen more than 100 at a time before.

Dennis May

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Bob,

You want an instance? Sure. You don't have to go far, either. Look at the first paragraph right here at the link you provided:

The development of thought since Aristotle could, I think, be summed up by saying that every discipline, as long as it used the Aristotelian method of definition, has remained arrested in a state of empty verbiage and barren scholasticism, and that the degree to which the various sciences have been able to make any progress depended on the degree to which they have been able to get rid of this essentialist method. (This is why so much of our 'social science' still belongs to the Middle Ages.)

That's a pretty snooty theory if I ever read one. And Popper does not give one iota of evidence that "the Aristotelian method of definition" was the cause impeding progress, not just here or there, but in "every discipline," or that getting rid of it was the historical cure (or any other kind of cure for that matter). Instead, he uses a rhetorical device called presupposition.

He states his claim as if it were an unquestionable fact. But it merely rests on his pet theory and nothing else.

That's both theory-laden and snooty-laden.

Michael

Couldn't possibly be more wrong. Popper is dead-on correct.

He is attacking (and righteously so) this exact problem you accuse him of - taking someone's word as an unquestionable fact.

What? Is it opposite day or something?

"And Popper does not give one iota of evidence"

If you were not so obviously and profoundly scientifically illiterate you would know that he doesn't have to. Anybody with any exposure whatsoever to science would know this. And we're not talking about just physics. IIRC, he 'proclaimed' that plants do not have sexes, and it took MORE THAN 2000 years after his death to overcome this nonsense. This is just a tiny single example of his many fundamental errors.

Science had to break his deathgrip on thought before it could move forward in the slightest. Not that this was his fault or intention, but that's not relevant. Century after century after century, his ideas were accepted unquestioned as if they were God's own. His physics errors were absolutely fundamental and deadly wrt progress - do you need evidence? There is an abundance - inertia, speed of falling bodies, heavenly bodies (only seven fixed ones) and on and on and on. This is not "presentism", his ideas were simply wrong and had great influence, that's all, and that was very bad.

These errors HAD to be overcome for progress to happen - not a value judgment, just a fact - and if you can do basic arithmetic you'll see that 1500 years is a low estimate. Galileo dropped stuff from the tower of Pisa 1900 years later after he was turfed from the university for questioning Aristotle's ideas!!

Oh yeah, what about Aristotle's effect on Democratis' ideas on matter? Hmm....

If there was no Aristotle, we'd have colonized the stars by now.

Bob

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Leave it to Bob to come out of the woodwork for macho smarm and put-downs, not for ideas.

I can't take this guy seriously for anything.

Michael

Plant sex

Inertia

Falling bodies

Heavenly bodies

Gallileo

Democritus

"not for ideas" Hmm....

Facts, those annoying facts and inconvenient evidence still causing you trouble in your fantasy world eh?

Answer this "idea". Did Galileo succeed in moving science a giant leap forward because of Aristotle, or in spite of him?

Which one is it?

Bob

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm so hurt....

I only responded because you were clearly wrong, but more importantly, you were snootily and erroneously complaining about snootiness. You know, the old "he doth protest too much" thing.

Just like you whine about bullying, while bullying.

You complain about lack of 'ideas' while ignoring ideas.

And this type of list is very long.

I don't like you one bit either - I'm sure you're shocked.

Bob

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Furthermore, I think he was right IF one is talking about the meaning of words rather than the referents of what Objectivism calls "concepts."

As a former translator, I have become weary of these thoughts.

In the discussions on epistemology I have read where certainty of words (or concepts) are dissected, the fact that there are many languages in the world is never mentioned.

That is something so in-your-face obvious that I am astonished it is rarely brought up by such intelligent people. (I say rarely because I know it must be out there somewhere, not because I have seen it.)

Sometimes there just isn't a word in one language you can translate to a word in another, so you have to opt for an explanation.

I find this is a big monkey-wrench in the epistemological machine of some of the stuff I have read, including Rand's.

Michael

In addition, each living language is in a process of permanent change: words become obsolete (often also because the concepts they stood for have become obsolete as well), neologisms are created, etc.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Xray,

That's correct.

There's also something a friend of mine used to call "the sprit of a language," which basically means (in his concept) the mainstream cultural associations that become associated with words and expressions.

I know first-hand of one: sex.

In Brazil, there is a mainstream celebration of the differences between masculine and feminine (just look at Carnaval! :smile: ) and a healthier attitude toward sex in general than here in the USA, where I often come across many negative vibes and a sense of smuttiness about sex. Sometimes it causes me discomfort.

Thus, things that would be a scandal here are laughed off down there. For instance, when Janet Jackson had her wardrobe mishap and showed her breast during the Superbowl, the media here went nuts. I was living in Brazil at the time and I all I saw in the press about this was about how crazy and uptight Americans are over nothing.

Same word (almost, i.e., sex and sexo). Same main conceptual referent. Big difference in meaning.

Michael

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Catholic Church was wrong about Aristotle causing much of the lack of progress Bob complains about. Aristotle was not the cause of the Catholic Church.

--Brant

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Dennis,

You have just shown how scientific bottom-up reasoning is good for collecting and manipulating data, but is a flop at coming up with wisdom (which is a top-down big-picture thing--looking at context, etc.).

It's easy to find tunnel-view scientists who will build a nuke for a common bloody dictator. And they won't have a clue about the evil they are engaged in. All the scientific learning in the world will not give such a person the horse-sense to evaluate the wisdom of what he is doing, nor, for that matter, how precarious his own situation will be after the dictator gets what he wants.

In my view, we need both wisdom and the detailed view.

It's not nice to say, but I get tickled when overly-scientific people try to examine issues where wisdom is necessary. They're just as silly as fundamentalist religious people explaining a technical issue like evolution.

And when they put on airs, like bad-mouthing Aristotle with an air of superiority, I call that snooty. Vanity is a poor, poor replacement for wisdom. But at least there's some entertainment value....

:smile:

Michael

Totally agree about the lack of wisdom and utter blindness regarding the ‘big picture,’ Michael. Reductionism of the kind that Bob advocates is clearly a form of overt mysticism, but he lacks the wisdom to see that. In a way, he is being just as irrational as any religious fundy.

The same exact principle applies here as with the ‘black swan’ example. Bob is basically saying that he has never observed anything that is not physical-material, therefore everything is physical-material. (He totally evades introspection and the non-material aspects of consciousness, of course.)

Here is a terrific quote from neuroscientist Robert Efron, writing in The Objectivist, February, 1968 (“Biology Without Consciousness—and its Consequences.”):

“The hard reductionist is an explicit mystic—mysticism being defined as the acceptance of an idea on faith and without logical evidence. His claim to know in advance that all the phenomena of life (including consciousness) will necessarily prove to be reducible to, explicable by, or expressed in terms of the laws of physics derived from the study of inanimate entities. Since we do not know that these phenomena will be reduced to the laws of physics until it is so proved, the hard reductionist is literally claiming omniscience.”

Not sure about the vanity component, however. I get called snooty all the time. If that many people see me a certain way, I figure it’s probably true. At any rate, it can’t be helped. Just my nature. So at some point I decided to start taking it as a compliment. :cool:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Dennis,

That quote is way cool.

I have The Objectivist (and all the others), but I never read Robert Efron's stuff. If I remember correctly, his essays are long and technical.

I'm going to dig it out, though. You have whetted my appetite.

btw - Is this the same guy?

Michael

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

We cannot reasonably conclude that all swans are white based purely on external observation. The only way to have any scientific basis for such a conclusion would be to use experimentation to connect the property of being white to the biological nature of swans (i.e., a causal connection). To assert that all swans are white simply because one had never seen a swan of any other color is a perfect example of dropping the scientific context.

And that connection is predicated upon a finite set of particular observations. The only way to get general principles from finite sets of particulars is by induction and abduction. Neither of which are guaranteed to be correct.

All science, however laden with general laws mathematically expressed is generated by observing finite sets of particular objects or events. To put a point on it, science is Bottom Up.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's absurd to blame Aristotle for holding back the progress of science; before him, there was no formal logic.

Quote from Wiki:

Since he was perhaps the philosopher most respected by European thinkers during and after the Renaissance, these thinkers often took Aristotle's erroneous positions as given, which held back science in this epoch.[22] However, Aristotle's scientific shortcomings should not mislead one into forgetting his great advances in the many scientific fields. For instance, he founded logic as a formal science and created foundations to biology that were not superseded for two millennia. Moreover, he introduced the fundamental notion that nature is composed of things that change and that studying such changes can provide useful knowledge of underlying constants.

You might as well blame Newton (since he was an alchemist), for holding back the progress of Chemistry. In any case, you can't blame Aristotle, but those who took his positions as given.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Michael,

Popper's ideas on science are a bit old-hat these days. Here's an extract from an article on Bayes' theorem which explains why aspects of his theory are incorrect.

The Bayesian revolution in the sciences is fueled, not only by more and more cognitive scientists suddenly noticing that mental phenomena have Bayesian structure in them; not only by scientists in every field learning to judge their statistical methods by comparison with the Bayesian method; but also by the idea that science itself is a special case of Bayes' Theorem; experimental evidence is Bayesian evidence. The Bayesian revolutionaries hold that when you perform an experiment and get evidence that "confirms" or "disconfirms" your theory, this confirmation and disconfirmation is governed by the Bayesian rules. For example, you have to take into account, not only whether your theory predicts the phenomenon, but whether other possible explanations also predict the phenomenon. Previously, the most popular philosophy of science was probably Karl Popper's falsificationism - this is the old philosophy that the Bayesian revolution is currently dethroning. Karl Popper's idea that theories can be definitely falsified, but never definitely confirmed, is yet another special case of the Bayesian rules; if p(X|A) ~ 1 - if the theory makes a definite prediction - then observing ~X very strongly falsifies A. On the other hand, if p(X|A) ~ 1, and we observe X, this doesn't definitely confirm the theory; there might be some other condition B such that p(X|B) ~ 1, in which case observing X doesn't favor A over B. For observing X to definitely confirm A, we would have to know, not thatp(X|A) ~ 1, but that p(X|~A) ~ 0, which is something that we can't know because we can't range over all possible alternative explanations. For example, when Einstein's theory of General Relativity toppled Newton's incredibly well-confirmed theory of gravity, it turned out that all of Newton's predictions were just a special case of Einstein's predictions.

You can even formalize Popper's philosophy mathematically. The likelihood ratio for X, p(X|A)/p(X|~A), determines how much observing X slides the probability for A; the likelihood ratio is what says how strong X is as evidence. Well, in your theory A, you can predict X with probability 1, if you like; but you can't control the denominator of the likelihood ratio, p(X|~A) - there will always be some alternative theories that also predict X, and while we go with the simplest theory that fits the current evidence, you may someday encounter some evidence that an alternative theory predicts but your theory does not. That's the hidden gotcha that toppled Newton's theory of gravity. So there's a limit on how much mileage you can get from successful predictions; there's a limit on how high the likelihood ratio goes forconfirmatory evidence.

On the other hand, if you encounter some piece of evidence Y that is definitely not predicted by your theory, this is enormously strong evidence against your theory. Ifp(Y|A) is infinitesimal, then the likelihood ratio will also be infinitesimal. For example, if p(Y|A) is 0.0001%, and p(Y|~A) is 1%, then the likelihood ratiop(Y|A)/p(Y|~A) will be 1:10000. -40 decibels of evidence! Or flipping the likelihood ratio, if p(Y|A) is very small, then p(Y|~A)/p(Y|A) will be very large,meaning that observing Y greatly favors ~A over A. Falsification is much stronger than confirmation. This is a consequence of the earlier point that very strong evidence is not the product of a very high probability that A leads to X, but the product of a very low probability that not-A could have led to X. This is the precise Bayesian rule that underlies the heuristic value of Popper's falsificationism.

Similarly, Popper's dictum that an idea must be falsifiable can be interpreted as a manifestation of the Bayesian conservation-of-probability rule; if a result X is positive evidence for the theory, then the result ~X would have disconfirmed the theory to some extent. If you try to interpret both X and ~X as "confirming" the theory, the Bayesian rules say this is impossible! To increase the probability of a theory you must expose it to tests that can potentially decrease its probability; this is not just a rule for detecting would-be cheaters in the social process of science, but a consequence of Bayesian probability theory. On the other hand, Popper's idea that there isonly falsification and no such thing as confirmation turns out to be incorrect. Bayes' Theorem shows that falsification is very strong evidence compared to confirmation, but falsification is still probabilistic in nature; it is not governed by fundamentally different rules from confirmation, as Popper argued.

So we find that many phenomena in the cognitive sciences, plus the statistical methods used by scientists, plus the scientific method itself, are all turning out to be special cases of Bayes' Theorem. Hence the Bayesian revolution.

If you're feeling strong, you might like to read the whole article. It isn't very technical, but it is long and you need to pay close attention and participate if you want to understand the ideas. You may hate equations, but if you only ever learn one in your life, in my opinion this should be it.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Davy,

Thank you.

I saved the site link in a special place and I will go through this in digestible steps appropriate for my boredom level. (I really will do that. I have already set aside the toothpicks to keep my eyes propped open. :) )

I was delighted to see that Eliezer Yudkowsky is a good writer. "Excruciatingly gentle introduction" is quite charming, so I read the introduction. This isn't going to be as hard as it seems ("I hope," I say as I wipe the sweat off my brow :) ).

Also, the name seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn't place it. So I looked him up.

Then the mystery was solved. I was also delighted to see that he was one of the founders of LessWrong, which I have visited a few times while looking at beliefs plus neuroscience plus changing habits, albeit I have only looked briefly at the Wiki so far (and, I liked them so much that I signed up for their email list when I first visited them).

Those folks at LessWrong have a lot on the ball. Just like I did with the Khan Academy, I have set their site in a special place as one of my online learning sites for topics that normally bore me into a state similar to what I imagine victims get into after a few hours under the Chinese water torture.

There is an interesting statement in your quoted passage from Yudkowsky: "For example, when Einstein's theory of General Relativity toppled Newton's incredibly well-confirmed theory of gravity, it turned out that all of Newton's predictions were just a special case of Einstein's predictions."

In other words, Newton was not wrong. It's just that his ideas were not applicable to all cases. But where they worked, they worked well.

I find this to be the case with some of Ayn Rand's ideas about human nature (for instance, getting the individualism stuff right, but ignoring the species stuff or blasting is as if it were collectivism--even as she defined man as a "rational animal"). I have called it a problem of scope. She was not wrong about these things, on the contrary, she offered some profound insights, but they are not the whole shebang as she tended to claim.

It's good to see a kindred spirit in this kind of approach in science.

Granted, there are some flat-out wrong things, too (with Newton and Rand). But I prefer to keep my big-picture focus on the good they provided and cherish it rather than bash them for their errors and blame them for the shortcomings of what came after them.

Michael

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Michael, as a prelude to Yudkowsky's article, a rather more accessible and 'top down' intro is given by atheist blogger Richard Carrier (no toothpicks required!) plus, you don't even have to read much, just watch and listen:

.

Lesswrong is a great site, I also visit it periodically. There is some really hard stuff to get your head around though.

Re Newton: yes, and the fascinating thing is that just as the equations of relativity 'collapse' to Newton's laws as speeds reduce to those well below the speed of light, so do the equations of QM reduce to the those which govern our familiar 'macroscopic' world as the size of objects increase beyond the atomic level. The process of science (ideally) is one of greater inclusion.

This doesn't seem so far from Objectivist Epistemology, as I understand it. So a newborn baby may distinguish between moving objects and stationary objects (e.g. furniture vs living things), and in time may further refine the classification of moving objects into 'human beings' and 'dogs', but this in no way implies that the earlier conception was wrong.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

We cannot reasonably conclude that all swans are white based purely on external observation. The only way to have any scientific basis for such a conclusion would be to use experimentation to connect the property of being white to the biological nature of swans (i.e., a causal connection). To assert that all swans are white simply because one had never seen a swan of any other color is a perfect example of dropping the scientific context.

And that connection is predicated upon a finite set of particular observations. The only way to get general principles from finite sets of particulars is by induction and abduction. Neither of which are guaranteed to be correct.

All science, however laden with general laws mathematically expressed is generated by observing finite sets of particular objects or events. To put a point on it, science is Bottom Up.

Ba'al Chatzaf

So you’re saying there’s no difference between constant conjunction of events and causality. There’s no difference between observing that one event follows another (the sun rises in the morning) and discovering causal connections (knowing that the earth revolves around the sun).

It may turn out that dead people can move just as well as people who are alive. Physical movement is just correlated to nervous system activity. When our muscles move, it may or may not require the firing of neurons across synaptic connections.

It may turn out that we can see just as well with our eyes closed. Experiencing visual images is merely correlated to having an exposed retina. When our brains receive perceptual images, it may or may not be due to nerve fibers in the retina carrying visual impulses to the brain.

It may turn out that overeating makes people skinny. Eating a lot is just correlated with being fat. When we consume more calories than we use, it merely appears that this makes people gain weight.

All apparent causality is merely accidental correlation, and all our observations could be shown to be false at any moment.

Isn’t it bizarre how some people who posture as defenders of science make science look like one giant crapshoot?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Dennis,

That quote is way cool.

I have The Objectivist (and all the others), but I never read Robert Efron's stuff. If I remember correctly, his essays are long and technical.

I'm going to dig it out, though. You have whetted my appetite.

btw - Is this the same guy?

Michael

Michael,

Yes, I'm pretty sure that the author of The Decline and Fall of Hemispheric Specialization is the same Robert Efron who wrote that article for The Objectivist.

Efron's article on reductionism is fairly technical but it is also extremely well written and easy to follow. He credits Branden with helping him to clarify the philosophical issues under discussion. Efron shows clearly why scientists who neglect philosophy often end up advocating notions that are fundamentally anti-scientific--like some people we see here on OL.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Re Newton: yes, and the fascinating thing is that just as the equations of relativity 'collapse' to Newton's laws as speeds reduce to those well below the speed of light, so do the equations of QM reduce to the those which govern our familiar 'macroscopic' world as the size of objects increase beyond the atomic level. The process of science (ideally) is one of greater inclusion.

This doesn't seem so far from Objectivist Epistemology, as I understand it. So a newborn baby may distinguish between moving objects and stationary objects (e.g. furniture vs living things), and in time may further refine the classification of moving objects into 'human beings' and 'dogs', but this in no way implies that the earlier conception was wrong.

That is absolutely consistent with Objectivist epistemology. It's the basic theme of Harriman's The Logical Leap.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The success of quantum theory and relativity did not consist of merely tweaking Newtonian Mechanics. It consisted of replacing them. The character of the successor theories is markedly different from the predecessor. Newton's notions of time and space were replaced in the entirety to make way for relativity. The inclusion of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle rendered meant that not all measureables could be measured with arbitrary precision. It was a completely different game that was being played.

The first breakdown came with electromagnetism. There is no way of modifying Newtonian mechanics which is Gallilean Invariant to mesh with electromagnetic fields which is Lorentz Invariant except by assuming the speed of light was infinite (which it isn't). Einstein was brilliant in seeing that, so he replaced Newtonian mechanics in the entirety. Linear momentum had to be redefined. Time was no longer the steady absolute thing that Newton postulated.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...