Miscellany: “Observation and evidence…and theory”

I was especially moved by your conclusion, which I read as an appeal to people to attempt to trace their standpoints “upstream” as it were to discover the original understanding that was their source and which precipitated down into each of these various positions. I have thought of this often: that even if someone disagrees with my standpoint, if he can give reasons for his opposition, then at the very least I may develop respect for it because I will recognize the same “logos” or critical thinking in him that is (one would hope) responsible for my own view. It reminds me of a quote from Heraclitus, who was perhaps the first philosopher to speak about the logos in this way:

“Although this Logos is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it – not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time … though all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos, men seem to be quite without any experience of it … My own method is to distinguish each thing according to its nature, and to specify how it behaves; other men, on the contrary, are as forgetful and heedless in their waking moments of what is going on around and within them as they are during sleep.”

Naïve people imagine that evidence is just lying around waiting for us to notice it, but it is not that way at all. Instead, in the manner that you described, evidence only presents itself in light of a given theory or argument which it can be evidence for.

***

I think that invoking the scientific method provides a very handy example of critical thinking and how it organizes the relation between data and evidence. I think it is a very insightful observation that the virtue of the scientific method lies in its inherent disposition towards the falsification of its own prior hypothesis. It bears emphasis that this renders it self-correcting, in principle at least. At the same time, I think it also bears emphasis that science is only self-correcting if scientists are and this often appears more the prescription of an ideal to strive for than the description of any concrete scenario.

***

I think this is a very eloquent way to articulate the nature of evidence:

Evidence(x) is something which provides support to a claim (y).  

Naïve people imagine that evidence is just lying around in wait for them to collect it. But it is not that way at all. You mentioned “active learning” and it is clear that for mere data or information to become evidence, it demands an activity on behalf of the researcher. This can, in part, be described as “the conscious ordering of data towards a given theory or claim.” In fact, Rudolf Steiner advised against the translation of his work, whose original title way Die Philosophie der Freiheit, into “The Philosophy of Freedom” in English despite that it would appear to be a very straightforward choice. His reason for discouraging it was that he believed English speakers—at that time he had in mind Englishmen and Americans—believe freedom is a sort of God-given, de facto condition. Steiner wished to emphasise the activity inherent in critical thinking and cognition and he feared that “freedom” leaves people who have grown up in the Liberal tradition of Locke and Hobbes and Hume and Smith etc. with a sense of complacency. So Steiner thought the English title of that work should be “The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity.” Obviously it is not the most felicitous title but I think the sentiment behind it is important to recognize if we wish to understand both our own thinking and Steiner’s purpose for writing that book, which are the same. The most recent translation of the work has opted for the even more cumbersome title “Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path.”

***

Our ability to entertain a concept or idea that is adequate to the information or data before us transforms this information or data into evidence for “the existence of an instance of this concept or idea.” Thinking, as a verb, orders these data toward their corresponding idea and this is what the transformation consists in.

In a legal proceeding, most information or data is simply ignored as noise. For instance, the barometric pressure is usually not considered to be relevant. Specific information is gathered according to whether it can be ordered towards a given conclusion. It then ceases to be mere information and instead is regarded as evidence. If the evidence is deemed adequate to establish the likelihood of its correlative conclusion “beyond reasonable doubt,” then a conviction will likely follow and counter-evidence will be rejected as accidental.

***

I thought the illustration of contradictory evidence through the dice was very helpful. If I rolled straight sixes over and over, I might take it as evidence for something unusual. Perhaps the die was loaded or something. And I think it would be reasonable to suspect something out of the ordinary. But at the same time, it is not logically impossible that I could have got the same results by sheer coincidence. In this case, the same information could also, and perhaps should also, have served as evidence for something contradictory to the notion that the die was loaded. I think the important point to notice is that evidence is always a function of some kind of active theorizing or thinking on our part, which simply a coefficient of the world’s intelligibility. In other words, this kind of theorizing or thinking is not something we could cease doing and still expect to make sense of our experience. Your example serves as a good reminder to remain active and critical in this theorizing.

***

The example you gave of contradictory hypotheses—

An example is how was the earth made? Some believe in strictly evolution, and others believe it was created by God. Perhaps neither one of these hypotheses have been totally proven, but in the end only one can be true.

—struck me as very probable until I reflected on the fact that nothing in the concept of God, in principle, contradicts the truth of evolution. I don’t see a reason that evolution should not be the means that God devised to accomplish whatever end he may have in mind. What do you think of this? I understand what you are getting at but perhaps the example is not the best.

I have an interesting morsel for us to chew on that I think will be pertinent to this week’s topic, which I tried to outline in the lectures as well. This is from Stephen Hawking’s 2010 book The Grand Design:

Although it is not uncommon for people to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong, that is not true…one can use either picture as a model of the universe…the equations of motion are much simpler in the frame of reference in which the sun is at rest…If there are two models that both agree with observation, then one cannot say that one is more real than another.

Do agree with Hawking here that there is no way in which celestial bodies actually move outside of our theories about them? This is a standard view amongst physicists. What implications does this have?

***

We have access to terrabytes of information through our smartphones. But it is not evidence by itself. To transform any of this data into evidence would demand some that we perform research and undertake some cognitive exertion in order to gather, assemble, and order that information in support of any particular thesis.

Here are two lectures on a related theme:

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