Thursday, July 29, 2010

Science and metaphysics

It is uncontroversial — or at least correct — to note that scientific naturalism requires some metaphysical structure. It not the case, however, that the specific idea of causality is part of that metaphysical structure. And not only is induction not part of the metaphysical structure of science, it is not even a valid inference rule in scientific naturalism.

Popper* gives us a useful definition of "metaphysical" in the Logic of Scientific Discovery. A metaphysical statement is a meaningful statement that is not in principle falsifiable by experience. Not all unfalsifiable statements are metaphysical — some are simply meaningless — but all metaphysical statements are, by definition, unfalsifiable. Note that this definition is itself metaphysical: the definition is (or at least appears to be) meaningful, but there is in principle no empirical observation we could make that could falsify it.

*I invoke Popper here not to establish authority but to give credit.

Another example of a metaphysical system is the set of rules that define the game of chess. There is no empirical observation that could, for example, falsify the rule that bishops must move diagonally in a straight line. If we observe a player move his bishop horizontally, we can conclude only that either the player has made an error or that she is not playing chess. (Note that the statement that "human beings consider chess to constitute thus-and-such rules" is a scientific statement: we can observe how human beings define chess, and in principle falsify the statement.)

Popper departs here from the Logical Positivists, the latter assert that all statements neither verifiable nor falsifiable by experience are not meaningful in any sense. Popper in contrast admits that unfalsifiable statements can be meaningful.

Popper departs as well from a common theme in philosophy, the theme of metaphysics as a synonym for ontology. In his demarcation criterion, Popper establishes a metaphysical "rule" of scientific naturalism: unfalsifiable statements are ontologically meaningless. If a statement is empirically unfalsifiable, is is for that reason categorically not a statement about the world. If it can be charitably interpreted only as looking like a statement about the world, then it is nonsense — "not even wrong" — having at best only the appearance of meaning. This principle does not deny all meaning of unfalsifiable statements, only a specific kind of meaning.

In a similar sense, the statement, "The bisectors of two angles of a triangle intersect inside the triangle," is a meaningless statement of Euclidean geometry. It's not true, it's not false. Specifically, the word "inside" is a term without referent anywhere in Euclid's axioms. We have to create a different context — e.g. analytic geometry — to make the statement meaningful and true.

Thus scientific naturalism — being itself metaphysical — is not a statement about the world. It is, in essence, a language game we play. One is free to play any language game one chooses, including religious language games and the language game of calling religious people jackasses whose views on reality and morality are at best ridiculous and at worst malevolent.

Popper's construction gives us a metaphysical framework to rigorously discuss meaningful ontological statements — i.e. statements about the world — that are not directly empirically observable. We cannot, as Hume noted, observe causality: all we can observe is that one event usually or always follows another in time. But we can falsify a causal hypothesis: We can hypothesize that event X causes event Y, i.e. that event Y will always follow event X. If we were ever to empirically observe that event Y did not follow event X, our hypothesis would be proven false; we must change something: the hypothesis itself or something in its theoretical framework.

Scientific naturalism does not deny the meaning or truth of statements that in a sense transcend empirical observation, i.e. statements whose truth or falsity we cannot directly determine by observation. Scientific naturalism not only admits statements that "transcend" empirical observation, but gives us a rigorous way of determining which transcendent statements are meaningful and a rigorous way of at least rejecting meaningful empirically transcendent statements as definitely false.

Of course, scientific naturalism does deny the meaning of statements that transcend empirical observation in a different sense, i.e. statements interpreted as about the world that cannot in principle be falsified by empirical observation.

Intelligent Design is an excellent example. At first, to their credit, cdesign proponentsists ID advocates proposed empirically falsifiable statements: there were structures — the bacterial flagellum, for example, or blood clotting mechanisms* — that could not have evolved (except perhaps through wildly improbable coincidence) through the unintelligent, purposeless and intentionless mechanisms of uncorrelated heritable variation and natural selection. However, as the candidate structures have been shown to have a plausible evolutionary history, ID advocates have retreated to unfalsifiability: perhaps there is an intelligent designer whose work cannot be empirically distinguished in any way from the work of unintelligent mechanisms. To the scientific naturalist, such a statement is not just outside the boundaries of science, it is outside the boundaries of meaning. It cannot be a statement about the world, it is not even wrong, it is no more meaningful than the assertion that all gnorts are kerfibble.

*The triviality of the proposed structures is itself suspicious.

Scientific naturalism excludes some statements as meaningless, statements that appear to have meaning, that are grammatically correct, that do indeed activate our minds in interesting and complicated ways. Perhaps it's the case that scientific naturalism is simply limited, in the same sense that Euclidean geometry is limited and cannot discuss concepts such as "inside" or "outside". There's no way to prove that scientific naturalism is not limited, that statements rejected by scientific naturalism cannot have meaning and truth in some other system.

The best we can say — and it's pretty good — is that scientific naturalism has in a couple of centuries given us a profound understanding of the physical universe from the cosmological to the subatomic, a technological civilization that can feed, clothe and house more than six billion people and has at least the potential for real humanistic justice and universal prosperity, and is beginning to crack the mysteries of consciousness and human behavior. In contrast, after more than two millennia religion has given us nothing but mystical mumbo-jumbo, ridiculous self-serving and self-aggrandizing fairy tales, repression, oppression and the near-constant support of even the most monstrous and abhorrent ruling classes that would maintain the privilege and status of the priesthood.

10 comments:

  1. As Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind". The gap between the science and the religions is reducing continually and hope there will be a day where both the religion and science are synonyms to each other

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  2. A few doubts about your final paragraph:

    '...scientific naturalism has in a couple of centuries given us a profound understanding of the physical universe...'
    Why not simply say that SCIENCE has given us a 'profound understanding'? What does naturalism have to do with it?

    'mystical mumbo-jumo... ridiculous... self-serving... self-aggrandizing fairy tales...'
    If you ask me, none of this actually means anything. Calling something 'mystical', 'ridiculous' or 'self-serving' isn't a real objection, even if the thing you're trying to object to is itself objectionable. It's not like you'll find these terms in a logic textbook, is it?

    '...the near-constant support of even the most monstrous and abhorrent ruling classes that would maintain the privilege and status of the priesthood.'
    So what? Even if you're correct that 'religion' (whatever that is) has made bad stuff happen, I don't see how that casts any doubt on whether 'religion' (broadly speaking) is true.
    Consider: If a group of mathematicians instigated some kind of oppressive ruling class tomorrow, would that cast any doubt on the truth of mathematics?

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    Replies
    1. Why not simply say that SCIENCE has given us a 'profound understanding'? What does naturalism have to do with it?

      Methodological naturalism is an intrinsic part of science.

      Calling something 'mystical', 'ridiculous' or 'self-serving' isn't a real objection, even if the thing you're trying to object to is itself objectionable.

      You can read this as an opinion if you like. It's in the conclusion, not the body.

      Even if you're correct that 'religion' (whatever that is) has made bad stuff happen, I don't see how that casts any doubt on whether 'religion' (broadly speaking) is true.

      I am not arguing in this post for or against the truth of religion. However, you omit an important qualification in my statement: "religion has given us nothing but . . . [emphasis added]." While not an argument against the truth of religion, it is, I think, an argument against the value of religion. However, again, since it's in the conclusion, you can read it as a statement of opinion; the argument of the main post has nothing to do with the truth or value of religion.

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    2. If all you were trying to do was give 'an opinion' and you were 'not arguing... for or against the truth of religion', then I have no further objections to that. It sure sounded like you were trying to give some kind of argument, but hey.

      'Methodological naturalism is an intrinsic part of science.'
      How so? I've heard this line before but I've never head an explanation. Was, say, the Moon Landing simply not possible without methodological naturalism? If the scientists involved had been using a rival metaphysics would that not have happened? I don't see how, do you?

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    3. It sure sounded like you were trying to give some kind of argument, but hey.

      I was trying to give some sort of an argument, just not the particular argument you were addressing. I've written a lot here; I have plenty of stuff directly arguing against the truth and value of religion.

      If the scientists involved had been using a rival metaphysics would that not have happened?

      I think you are confusing methodological with metaphysical naturalism. A good place to start is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Naturalism.

      A lot of philosophers use methodological naturalism, science, and scientific naturalism as near-synonyms.

      I'm not sure what your fundamental objection really is. I don't think it's a particularly controversial objection that philosophers often use terminology in confusing and contradictory ways. Otherwise, I don't feel confident trying to identify your substantive objection.

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    4. I suppose my 'fundamental objection' is that I don't see any reason to credit 'naturalism', specifically, or even 'science + naturalism' with the success of science. Why not just say that 'Science' has given us an understanding and leave it at that? What's all this talk of naturalism and the natural got to do with anything?

      You tell me that naturalism is 'an intrinsic part of science', but what you've said doesn't seem to explain why, or even what 'naturalism' is. What 'part' of science are we talking about?

      Indeed, your link to the Stanford Encyclopedia only reinforces what I already thought; that 'The term "naturalism" has no very precise meaning'. Given that, how could it meaningfully be credited with anything, scientific success included? How could it meaningfully be a 'part' of science?

      I'm suspicious of all this because the term 'naturalism' is clearly being used to do some kind of conceptual work; presumably you included in in the original post for a reason and not just as verbal flavouring.

      I suppose it's meant to set up Science as an alternative to 'the supernatural', or something? But if 'natural' doesn't mean much, presumably 'supernatural' doesn't either.

      If 'naturalism' means something, I'd like to know what, because it sure sounds important. If it doesn't, I wonder why it's such a widely-used term in the first place.

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    5. Thinking on it further, I think what's making me suspicious is that it looks like a naturalist metaphysics is being pushed over alternative metaphysics.

      However, other than telling me that naturalism is a necessary part of science, I don't see any reason why this is being done.

      Moreover, your claims about naturalism seem to contradict each other. Some of the time you're telling me that 'naturalism' 'has no very precise meaning', other times you're telling me that it's really important, and an 'intrinsic part of science'.

      Elsewhere in the OP you've even claimed that 'scientific naturalism', like other metaphysics, is only 'a language game we play'. But how could a flimsy language game be an 'intrinsic part of science'?

      The more I think about it, the more your views on metaphysics seem rather muddled. Am I missing something?

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    6. Why not just say that 'Science' has given us an understanding and leave it at that?

      Dunno. Why not? What about "naturalism", other than that different philosophers use the word with different meanings, do you object to?

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  3. My objection is that your views on metaphysics and its relationship to science seem to contradict each other in a few places. I've already mentioned a few things in the above comments, but just to summarize them...

    You tell us that:
    1) 'scientific naturalism' (a.k.a. 'Science', apparently) requires some metaphysical structure. Thus, you imply that at least some metaphysics is meaningful. You also say that naturalism is 'an intrinsic part' of science.

    Your claims seem coherent so far, but then you go on to tell me that:

    2) 'The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning' and that 'scientific naturalism' is only 'a language game we play'. But doesn't that mean that it's merely conventional and, thus, not necessarily real?

    It seems to me that these two attitudes to metaphysics contradict each other. How could a merely conventional language-game, at the same time, be an essential feature of science? How could naturalism provide us with 'metaphysical structure' if doesn't mean anything? Indeed, if metaphysics is just a flimsy language game, what's to stop scientists combining Science with any metaphysics they choose?

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  4. 'The term ‘naturalism’ has no very precise meaning'

    You are, I think, misreading the SEP article; they assert that many different philosophers have used "naturalism" in different ways.

    'scientific naturalism' is only 'a language game we play'. But doesn't that mean that it's merely conventional and, thus, not necessarily real?

    "Only", "merely", and "flimsy" are gratuitous here. Most everything that human beings do -- literature, mathematics, science, culture, etc. -- is one sort of a language game or another. Furthermore, language (and convention) are real languages and real conventions, but language has no independent reality. It is not, for example, in any sense objectively true that "cat" *is* the one and only correct symbol that refers to the small furry creatures that inhabit my house (and "dog" refers to the large furry creature); these symbols really refer to the creatures only by convention.

    On my view, (conforming, I think, to Popper's) a metaphysical system is just a system of rules for playing a particular language game. In a similar (albeit trivial sense), the rule in chess that a bishop may move only along a diagonal is a metaphysical statement. It is metaphysical because it has meaning (I can tell if a move conforms to or violates the rule), but it is not falsifiable by experience in its sense as a rule. (This is a different situation than the empirical observation that many human beings play a game they refer to as "chess," and we can observe that they have an intersubjective convention restricting bishops to move only along the diagonal.) The notion of whether or not "in chess, bishops may move only along the diagonal" is objectively true, independent of what conventions people actually hold about the game, in incoherent, in the same mode that the statement that (absent relativistic corrections) "two bodies are attracted towards each other in direct proportion to the product of their masses and in indirect proportion to the square of the distance between them" is objectively correct regardless of any linguistic convention.

    In this view, "science," or "scientific naturalism" is a language game scientists happen to use to investigate the world. In just the same sense, "Peano arithmetic" or " Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory" are language games we use to talk about mathematics, and "United States Law" is a language game we use to resolve (some) conflicts between United States citizens and the government. We can play whatever language games we choose, and scientists have chosen a particular game to investigate the world. It's pretty successful, so they tend to stick with what works.

    You may be confusing metaphysics with ontology; hardly a discredit, as many philosophers do not distinguish between the two. I do, however, preserve this distinction: metaphysics refer to language games; ontology refers to how the world actually is.

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