Miscellany: questions concerning the philosophy of science

On gods as “explanations,” health, and science versus philosophy:

I wonder about whether the gods and spirits that peopled the cosmology of ancient cultures were really understood to be “explanations” by them or whether this is rather merely an example of another “just-so” story offered by modern anthropologists. You wrote, “Human beings did not look to the sun and just accept it as it was; they gave it a god, they gave it a name, they gave it stories.” I will try to convey the question that arises in me with this statement. When a person smiles at me, I don’t seek an explanation, exactly, by proposing some cause or explanation to account for it. Instead, my perception of the smile itself, as a smile, encompasses that it is an expression of that person’s affect or state of soul. I could, of course, propose physiological and anatomical causes for the contraction of facial musculature, but I would be changing the subject since I would be offering a description of the medium through which the smile expresses itself rather than the thing which expresses itself through that medium, which is what I had first set out to explain. I have proposed that, until the scientific revolution, “explanations” of the sort that the physical sciences are able to offer were considered incidental to the presences that manifested through material causes. The sun, for instance, was not seen as a physical object in space, whose shining was in need of an “explanation” any more than the smile on a person’s face requires anything more to be understood than a perception of the fact that it is an expression of her soul. Can you see what I am getting at here? 

You brought up the subject of health. “Heal,” “hale,” “whole,” and “holy” all drink from the same semantic well. One characteristic of modern scientific consciousness is that it has lost the intuitive perception of wholeness so it must attempt to arrive at it abstractly by bringing all phenomena under over-arching laws of physics. 

This is an intriguing aspect to the philosophy of science: is novelty an essential condition for science? The answer is, self-evidently, contingent on the definition of the term. One thing that differentiates science from philosophy is that it would not be feasible to say that philosophy demands novelty. Instead, every individual soul has to “wrestle with the angel” that will confer the title of “philosopher.” People ignorant of this difference will be wont to levy criticisms against philosophy such as “that it has failed to keep pace with the advances in science.” Stephen Hawking notoriously pronounced philosophy “dead” for this reason. It is somewhat of a sorry situation in which a person hailed as one of the greatest intellects of our time could have such a myopia of vision. I know I am liable to be criticised for partisanship with a statement like this but I think the statement speaks for itself.


On realism and instrumentalism in science:

It is a common refrain amongst critical and epistemologically-inclined philosophers and scientists in the tradition of Kant to question the reliability of our senses. One thing I have tried to argue is that the difficulty they are presenting might have less to do with the senses and more to do with the mind that perceives through the senses. We don’t say that a scale “can never apprehend the truth of things” because it is not really trying. It is simply conveying information. If I misinterpret what the scale says, or mistake a broken scale for a functioning one, then indeed I have strayed into error, but I should not blame the scale so much as my judgment. The fact that the sun looks bigger on the horizon is a faithful expression of the principles of optics and only becomes an error if I conclude that the sun swells up just before it sets. Can you see the distinction?

Now, please try to follow closely because this can be quite subtle and I am very curious as to how what I am about to write relates to your global scepticism in respect to “ever knowing the truth of things.” We have to think about what we mean by “truth.” It has become fashionable (largely since the technological advances in instruments of scientific measurement beginning in the seventeenth century) to conceptualize truth as “how the world is outside of human perception of it.” In principle, a theory of truth of this sort will ensure that it is not perceptible but that is not something that you discover. Instead it is something that you postulate: “truth is how the world is outside of human perception of it.” Suppose you actually discovered truth within human perception: what would you do? In fact, it follows self-evidently that this is impossible given the definition of the term “truth” and it was a trick question to show that the nature of the problem is not what many people take it to be. Do you think that the above is the right way to define “truth”? We can think this through much further but I don’t want to proceed without your company. I will add one further thought experiment. Suppose someone did in fact discover the truth. He may attempt to communicate it to his colleagues but he would be forced to express himself in language. Is this possible? Suppose he managed to do it but he only spoke Greek so no one could understand him. Think about what it means in respect to the question of “truth” whatever your answer to these thought experiments happens to be.

***

I think you did an excellent job grappling with this challenging issue. It might seem “academic” but I think that you and I both understand that this is really a question about what kind of place the world is, and I can’t think of a more significant question than that. Maybe I betray myself as a realist with this statement! Though I must say that I think “scientific realism” is untenable because it leaves no place for the reality of ideas, consciousness, love, subjectivity, virtue, God, etc. There is a classical form of realism, which hearkens back to Plato and Aristotle and which was perfected by medieval Scholastics like Aquinas and also later thinkers like Goethe and Rudolf Steiner that I think is true. Please consider the implications of these statements by these seminal figures in the development of physical science in respect to what they suggest about the relation between scientific realism and our actual experience:

I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned, and that they reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated 

Galileo wrote in The Assayer in 1623. Similarly, Descartes opined in 1644 that:

…it must certainly be concluded regarding those things which, in external objects, we call by the names of light, color, odor, taste, sound, heat, cold, and of other tactile qualities…that we are not aware of their being anything other than various arrangements of the size, figure, and motions of the parts of these objects which make it possible for our nerves to move in various ways, and to excite in our soul all the various feelings which they produce there. (Principles of Philosophy)

 What kind of “real world” do they really have in mind? Quantum mechanics has attenuated the substance of “reality” even further by replacing concrete numerical values with probabilities. It left David Wallace to conclude in 2011 that “Particles … are emergent entities in modern physics … the popular impression of particle physics as about the behavior of lots of little point particles whizzing about bears about as much relation to real particle physics as the earth/air/fire/water theory of matter bears to the Periodic Table” (A prolegomenon to the ontology of the everett interpretation) and Galen Strawson to observe that “What we have are particle-like appearances, produced by changing energy levels in the set of vibratory motions in fields, that are not well thought of as persisting things” (What does ‘physical’ mean? A prolegomenon to panpsychism).

***

Incidentally, most scientists I have spoken with or read appear to oscillate between realism and instrumentalism according to the circumstantial advantage of each. I think this is to be expected since a belief that “what one is researching actually exists” seems to be something like a tacit postulate of natural science since Galileo, as we briefly spoke about in class. That being said, when pressed about the difficulties inherent in a naïve realist view (e.g. like Kant’s problem of phenomena and noumena, or the problem of Darwinian evolution selecting for metaphysical veridity), my experience is that they will, as a rule, retreat into the safety of an instrumentalist view and dismiss “reality” as a metaphysical question and not a scientific one. Forgive the silly metaphor but now I am picturing a snail that may venture out as long as the coast is clear but will at once withdraw itself into its shell directly it is poked. I don’t mean to be overly-critical because I think scientists accomplish extraordinary things; just that as a rule they do it in fields other than philosophy. 


On Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

I think this is a very fine way of describing the situation. It brings to mind a dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis that is periodically shattered and then reconfigured in a different form. I briefly mention in class the “Duhem-Quine principle,” which is named after two philosophers whose work centered around the exposition of the near limitless ability for a theory to accommodate new, and apparently conflicting evidence. You alluded to this phenomenon in class when you brought up the flat-earth society. That is regarded by most people as pseudo-science but it  is crucial to observe that the same phenomenon holds in so-called “bona fide science.” This passage from W. V. O. Quine can offer a glimpse into his argument:

The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience… But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole…

A recalcitrant experience can, I have already urged, be accommodated by any of various alternative re-evaluations in various alternative quarters of the total system; but, in the cases which we are now imagining, our natural tendency to disturb the total system as little as possible would lead us to focus our revisions upon these specific statements concerning brick houses or centaurs. These statements are felt, therefore, to have a sharper empirical reference than highly theoretical statements of physics or logic or ontology. The latter statements may be thought of as relatively centrally located within the total network, meaning merely that little preferential connection with any particular sense data obtrudes itself.

As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported ,into the situation as convenient intermediaries – not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience. (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” 1951)

 Notice the idea of a theory’s ability to  accommodate apparently disconfirming observations is a rule rather than an anomaly since scientific laws must be formulated as generalities postulated to operate under specialized “ideal-conditions.” Observations, however,  are always particular and can never be performed under ideal conditions because, in principle, “ideal conditions” do not exist in nature. It is more a question of to what degree this elasticity should be tolerated rather than whether it should be tolerated in the first place because if the latter was to be answered in the negative, the scientific method would have to be re-imagined on a very fundamental basis. Does this make you more sympathetic with Kuhn? I know this can be somewhat difficult to grasp so please let me know if you have questions.

Now, to “take the bull by the horns,” as it were, and confront the question of whether the world changes following the rise to supremacy of a new paradigm: recall the observation that a phenomenon must be theoretically determinate before its status can be evidentially determined. Hence, the question is really meaningless until we have a determinate concept of what we mean by “world.” Failure to address this question outright likely accounts for the apparent oscillation that Kuhn displays in regard to whether it changes. Godfrey-Smith offers a more substantial definition of “world” to ground his defense of scientific realism, but the definition he offers renders his criticism of Kuhn rather moot and question-begging. In principle, if “the world” is defined as something stable that exists irrespective of, and in complete independence of human perception of it, then to assert that it does not change with the scientific paradigm du jour is a rather trivial entailment of his definition. But I don’t think this is the only way to think about “the world.” Kuhn, as I have understood his argument, makes it implicit that by “the world,” he is indicating something like “a coherent conception of what exists.” This is probably a more common usage of the term, since we say things like “the world of physics,” and “the world of today” and understand that, while some elements lend themselves to translation between these different worlds, others do not. Physics, for instance, is concerned exclusively with quantitative properties of abstract objects and particles and will be at a loss, therefore, to explain anything of moral significance or qualitative value which, in ordinary life, we take to be primary. Even in respect to seemingly simple elements like a hand gesture or the definition of the word “hand,” physics must remain silent. It could, of course, describe the gesture in quantitative terms like the vectors and acceleration of an abstract object with x mass, but that is far from a description of a gesture, which is essentially semantic. Otherwise it would not be a gesture but just the expression of a meaningless motor impulse. Godfrey-Smith is criticising Kuhn on the basis of a common theory of “world,” which they do not share so, again, I am less sympathetic to his argument than I might have been had he undertaken first to show that Kuhn concept of world was mistaken. Given that I don’t think it is, I also don’t think this would have been possible without resorting to tricks and sophistry but this is just my considered view on the matter and I don’t mean to attempt to persuade you on its basis. 


On the heliocentric doctrine and the myth of Copernicus’ oppression by the Catholic Church:

There is an extant letter from two officials in the Catholic Church to Copernicus who are importunate that he publish his heliocentric theory. Copernicus refrained from publishing it because he recognized, as anyone could have done, that his model, though geometrically simpler, was inferior to the one that it sought to replace in respect to the concrete empirical predictions it could make and thus Copernicus feared the censure of his fellow astronomers. As I mentioned in class, it was not for nearly 100 years that the heliocentric model was capable of offering better empirical predictions of planetary motions than the geocentric model, and Johannes Kepler’s work, rather than Copernicus’ was really the watershed moment for heliocentricism. You observed that “After Copernicus died people were burned at the stake for teaching about the heliocentric model, it was deemed heretical.” This is partly true but also somewhat misleading. It was never deemed heretical to teach the heliocentric theory as a model. Instead, it was deemed heretical to teach that a model was identical with the truth. This may seem like a quibble but its significance cannot be overestimated in respect to understanding the nature of the scientific revolution in the 17th century and the paradigm shift that it brought about for so-called Western civilisation. Finally, you wrote that “today we know that the planets do orbit the sun, and Copernicus was right all along.” Strictly speaking, this is also incorrect. Firstly, because the planets and the sun together orbit what is called the “barycenter,” which means the average center of gravity between massive bodies. This might seem like the same thing but that is only because the sun’s comparatively immense mass ensures that the barycenter that it shares with any given planet will lie within the surface of the sun and thus the sun will appear to orbit  itself. But Jupiter is sufficiently massive that it displaced the barycenter of its orbit with the sun outside of the sun’s surface. When Saturn and Jupiter are in conjunction, the displacement is augmented. 


On Helen Keller’s epiphany into language and the scientific method:

I think that Helen Keller’s epiphany into language serves to bring to light a fundamental element of sense-making that subtends and supports the entire edifice of science but which often goes unrecognized for just the reason that it lies at the very basis of everything else so it is “covered up.” 

You compared Keller’s epiphany to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” It occurs to me that, in this comparison, you are emphasising that the world outside of the cave is not so much a different world as an apprehension of, or insight into, the truth of the world we already see. Is this correct? This leads me to a question I have about the comparison. Before I pose it, however, I wish to remark that I think Plato was advancing a very similar thesis to your own with his parable but the interpretation of literal-minded people has misquoted Plato’s intention to make it seem like he is postulating a “Heaven of Forms” in outer space or whatever. My question to you concerns the explicit presentation of a world of reality and a world of simulacra in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” How does this dichotomy relate to epiphany, which, as you so felicitously put it at the end of your paper, stands guard at the portal between observation and understanding?

You observed that science seeks to grasp the world in “coherent terms.” I think “epiphany” is largely synonymous with “insight” and it seems to indicate the experience of perceiving essential relations between elements that before seemed to be unrelated, disparate, and even disorderly. “Sight” exalted by understanding becomes “insight” and this transforms incoherence into something intelligible to us. Is this how you see it? 

I also think it is necessary to acknowledge a counter argument to the statement that the scientific revolution inaugurated an era in which human beings could finally come to understand the universe in an objective and coherent manner. It is arguable that science invented “the physical universe” as something discrete and abstract from the moral universe, the aesthetic universe, and so on in the first place. In this way, the scientific paradigm arguably manufactures its condition of objectivity by refusing to allow into its consideration any elements of the world that do not lend themselves to quantification and representation in mathematical models and equations and achieves its veneer of coherence by ignoring any elements of the world that threaten this coherence.

You wrote that “Keller had her eyes opened to her without ever seeing the light of day.” It invites the question of whether “light” is ever something we see with our eyes. It might sound absurd but notice that we only ever see colour, which is to say, “modulations” or “darkenings of light.” Light as such, however, does not become visible until it is confronted by and dampened by opaque matter, at which point we see colour, which we ascribe to the surface of bodies. But we do not see the light. Light, instead, appears to be more of a condition for visibility rather than itself a visible thing. Moreover, how does light get into our brains, since our optic nerves are opaque? It may sound strange but I think Helen Keller might have been in a better position to see light than someone with a functioning visual apparatus. What do you think of this?

The phenomenology of insight is a source of infinite fascination. Incidentally, note that “epiphany” and “phenomenon” share a common Greek root. You described epiphany as the “gatekeeper between observation and understanding” and I think that is a delightful metaphor. It occurs to me, however, that we have to bring a gift to the marchwarden, as it were, and then await his judgment as to whether he will receive us. You used the phrase “putting the pieces of a puzzle together” and my amendment to your first metaphor was simply to emphasise the element that is spontaneous and more a gift of grace than something we can force. The experience is one of preparing conditions for something and then waiting for a “verdict” that comes from beyond. Do you see what I am getting at?

Finally, in writing this paper, did you have the inkling that you were doing a kind of scientific research into “epiphany”? That’s the role that the discipline of “phenomenology” was intended to play but it was never accepted into the mainstream paradigm. The paradigm of science is, to quote Kuhn, “the source of the methods, problem-field, and standards of solution accepted by any mature scientific community at any given time” and our contemporary paradigm would not think of “epiphany” as a scientific subject, though I think this may be in the process of changing, as I have suggested.  

***

Empiricism is not an adequate explanation for what is at stake when Helen Keller first apprehends “water.” The reason for this is that, if empiricism alone were a sufficient method of acquiring knowledge, Keller would not have required her teacher’s assistance. The nature of the epiphany was not sight (i.e. perception mediated by sense) but insight (i.e. perception mediated by intellection). It was not that she had never experienced the sensations correlated with water, but rather that she had never apprehended the idea or essence of water, which is to say, what those sensations meant. Can you see the distinction in this? Look how I use the word “see” here: I obviously do not mean to refer to stimulation of the visual apparatus but to insight. We see through our eyes but not with them; we see with our minds-intelligence-understanding.

In respect to your discussion of gravitational waves, you wrote “And just like that, the theory had both evidence and observation.” I see what you are saying here but again, I would like to stress the fact that the observation of gravitational waves would not have done any good without the theory of gravitational waves to organise and interpret this “observation.” I place the term in quote because at a certain level of technological mediation, the distinction between observation and theory seems to break down because (1) it is not clear that numerical values possess the same kind of perceptual objectivity that we ordinarily associate with observations and moreover, (2) the instruments of measurement that are employed to provide these “observations”  are specifically designed to confirm the theory that is supposed to be in question. If we grant that the above has not departed too far from the basis of the scientific method, then we can find a sort of paradigm or epitome of it in certain descriptions that Helen Keller provides of her experience of attaining knowledge. Keller’s epiphany in respect to water describes the archetypal process of perception. When the “theory” descended on her mind, her “observations” of water were suddenly shone through with its light and she was able to understand the essence of what she was observing.


On science and traditional ways of knowing:

I wish you would have developed some of the ideas a little bit more thoroughly and perhaps you will have a chance to do that on other occasions. Specifically, I would like to see you focus your inquiry around (1) the similarities and differences of the basic world-view of your culture and so-called “Western culture,” respectively, of which modern science is an expression and (2) the deeper intuitions and insights into the life of the world that have been “cast by the wayside,” so to speak, in Western science’s mad dash for progress at all costs and which your traditional culture may be able to teach. Perhaps you may see this twofold prompt from me as a “North-star” to guide your research through the remainder of this course, if you feel so inclined.

I hope you will take up this challenge because we need people today who are able not only to offer intelligent critique of science, but who are also able to offer an alternative. We really have an unhealthy (i.e. “lacking wholeness”) condition in Western culture today that is the result of traditional understandings of various peoples throughout the Mediterranean and Central and Northern and Western Europe being “gobbled up” by a totalizing materialistic (i.e. both in the sense that only matter exists and not spirit, and also in the sense of greediness) worldview that achieved a sort of regency in the century after the scientific revolution. The predictive and technological successes of the scientific method are largely responsible for its ascendancy. These people, my own ancestors included, lacked either (a) the spiritual fortitude to resist the temptation of material prosperity that new technology offered or (b) the physical fortitude to resist anyone who could overpower them with the aid of such technologies. We sometimes say “the donkey will go whether for the carrot or from the stick,” and in Spanish there is a very felicitous proverb that is “plata o plomo,” which literally means “silver or lead,” but which figuratively refers to money in the pocket or a bullet in the head. In any case, a sort of fallen angel that manifests itself through technology, lust for profit, and materialistic consciousness has come to exert a wide-reaching and deleterious impulse on Europe, America, and now by extension a great part of the entire world. St. Paul writes that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” and I truly believe that these beings must be opposed before the damage they do through groups of people who act as their mediums is irreversible.

The early Christians, whose religion would eventually inform the worldview of all of Europe and Eurasia for over 1,000 years, spent the first three centuries of their existence practicing their worship in the catacombs (underground networks of tombs and crypts) of Rome to escape violent persecution at the hands of the Roman, who would massacre them for public sport. As Jesus said, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” Your own people, who have been largely marginalized for several centuries, are perhaps among those who are best poised to lead the world in the time to come. These are some reflections I have and perhaps they will be meaningful to you.

Returning to what I wrote at the outset of this email, I think it will be crucial that you develop a very clear conception of Western science so you will be able to recognize where it aligns with traditional wisdom and, perhaps more importantly, where it departs from such wisdom. You wrote:

There is cultural philosophy of science across the globe, there is not only the Western way. For instance, philosophy of science in my culture could be described as “yuguumalleq”. Yuguumalleq is living through the love of wisdom with everything structured and governed of our behaviors and relationships with everything around us; Creator (God), ancestors, helper spirits, animals, people, Mother earth, and Mother nature. In a more complex way of yuguumalleq, you must have certain behaviors and structures with the spirit world. You must understand how to practice the aglignalghii way of life. Aglignalghii (shaman) – the one who knows.

Strictly speaking, the comparison is not accurate. Traditional western thinkers have differentiated, at least since the time of Socrates in 450 B.C., between science and wisdom. Science has been associated with instrumental utility such as technology and craft as well as with what is perceptible to the physical senses and changeable. Wisdom, by contrast, has been associated with what is good and valuable for its own sake and not for the sake of utility towards some other end, as well as with truths that are perceived by the heart-mind and which are timeless. Philosophy has been translated as “the love of wisdom,” since philo indicates and inclination or striving towards something, as a flower for the sunlight, and Sophia is the Greek goddess of wisdom. In Latin, a distinction is made between scientia, “knowledge,” and sapientia, “wisdom.” Yuguumalleq strikes me as philosophy and not science. Aglignalghii strikes me as “a philosopher,” or perhaps somewhat more esoterically, “an initiate,” which is a term for someone who has experienced a sort of epiphany and established contact with the reality of higher worlds. I don’t think there is any correlation between science and wisdom. This is not to say that no scientist is wise, but only that I don’t think scientists are statistically more likely to possess wisdom than car mechanics or APU students. Do these distinctions seem correct to you? I hope this is helpful for your research. I have awarded you full marks for your paper and I look forward to follow and support your journey as you continue through this course.

I would like to offer a brief comment on something you wrote:

You must be in a state of mind as Goethe and to understand the way he saw things; you must experience it. I think if scientists studied my culture long enough, they would learn new methodologies from my people and I believe Goethe would have loved to do that.

I think this is just right. In my experience, the unfortunate truth is that many people are unaware of the distinction between the propositional content of knowledge and the state of mind that may give life to it. Ultimately, the secrets of the universe are manifest in every phenomenon that we encounter only we only come to recognize them by degrees. Goethe even wrote of “das offene Geheimnis der Natur” which means roughly “Nature’s open secret.” Bortoft makes a similar comment in the “Preface” to The Wholeness of Nature:

When I first came across Goethe’s scientific ideas, I immediately recognized in them the same kind of understanding of wholeness that I had encountered with Bohm (a quantum physicist who lives in the twentieth century who was also very spiritually and philosophically inclined). But from the beginning I saw Goethe’s way of science in practical terms, as something “do-able”…Because I had been taught exercises (i.e. meditative practices) in seeing and visualization…I was able to recognize what Goethe was doing instead of being limited only to what he was saying.

Am I correct to connect Bortoft’s statement with your own? I presume that your own background as an aglignalghii has fostered the capacity for inner vision that lies at the heart of Goethe’s approach. Regrettably, we will not be able to devote very much of this class to a study of Goethe’s methods but I think you will be able to help us enter into a new way of seeing.

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