Monday, October 14, 2013

Generalizing Science: Beyond Test Tubes and Springs

The easy end of science

In many ways I agree with evangelical atheist Larry Moran’s concept of science as an embracing method that covers all our attempts to get at valid knowledge. But I think I’m going to have to qualify this statement!

I’m always suspicious of dichotomies and even worse those polychotomies where concept categories are multiplied into a complex of sharply defined distinctions. Much better, I feel, if catch-all categories can be defined which effectively identify very common or even universal features of our experience. For example, when it comes to epistemic method one sometimes hears the view that there are different epistemic domains called “magisteria”. The implication is that there are irreconcilably different ways knowledge is acquired. This take on epistemology fails to do justice to important commonalities of method that exist between so-called “magisteria”.  In contrast I prefer the sentiments that Larry Moran expresses when he says (See here):

I think that science is a way of knowing based on evidence and logic and healthy skepticism. I think that all disciplines seeking knowledge use the scientific approach. This is the broad definition of science used by many philosophers and scientists

Are there any knowledge questions that science (in the broad sense) can't address? I don't think there are. I think "science" covers all the questions even though it doesn't (yet) have all the answers.

There aren't "two magisteria" but only one. Unless, of course, someone is willing to propose a successful non-scientific way of knowing. I have asked repeatedly for examples of knowledge ("truth") that have been successfully acquired by any other way of knowing. So far, nobody has come up with an answer so we can tentatively conclude that science (in the broad sense) is the only valid way of acquiring true knowledge.

Moran also quotes philosopher Martyn Boudry:

I have expressed little confidence in the viability of the territorial demarcation problem, and even less interest in solving it. Not only is there no clear-cut way to disentangle epistemic domains like science and philosophy, but such a distinction carries little epistemic weight

Moran on Boudry:

Boudry says that the distinction between the ways of knowing used by biologists, philosophers, and historians are meaningless and there's no easy way to distinguish them (territorial demarcation).

I would more or less agree. These quotes are part of an endeavor to come up with what Larry Moran refers to as the broad definition of science used by many philosophers and scientists.  As I have said before (see also my side bar) science in its broadest sense is the attempt to resolve the tension between our experience and the theoretical narratives we use to understand our experience. This activity is so general and comprehensive in definition that I’m unable to see what it fails to cover.*

But in our epistemic efforts we find there are at least two variables:

1) Although broadly speaking our theoretical opinions are formed in the caldron of everyday experience, the standards of formality and rigor with which this is done varies considerably.

2) A variable beyond our control is the epistemic tractability of the ontology we are trying to come to grips with. Some ontologies present a harder scientific problem than do other ontologies. In fact some ontologies may never yield all their secrets to science.

This latter variable is most significant and affects the former variable. Although I would agree that the interplay of narrative and observation is the essence of all human epistemology, one finds that epistemic formality and rigor varies from discipline to discipline in a way that depends on the epistemic tractability of the ontology a discipline has to handle. This is because there is a trade-off between epistemic rigour and epistemic tractability: The more intractable an ontology becomes the less amenable it is to the minutia of formal rigour. Therefore the outcome is that with disciplines dealing with less epistemically tractable ontologies formal rigor may be sacrificed for progress (albeit less assured progress). It is the differential in epistemic tractability and the impact it has on epistemic rigor, methods and conventions that produces the appearance of distinct “magisteria”, although in fact the essential activity of juxtaposing observation against narrative is the common scientific theme in all “magisteria”.

Those physical scientists who are used to dealing with the relatively simple ontologies of the spring extending and test tube precipitating kind may find themselves making heavy weather of those disciplines in the humanities that try to make sense of far less amenable ontologies. Biochemist Larry Moran says above that science doesn’t yet have all the answers; we may have to settle for the statement that science may never have all the answers. Going right back to 2007 I used comment on Larry Moran’s blog. At that time I tried get across the message about degrees of epistemic tractability, although I saw no sign that the concept was taken onboard; I’ve never seen him admit that some ontologies are less amenable to science than others – to him it all seems to be homogeneous “science”. Below I’ve compiled a list of some of the things I have said in the comments section of Larry Moran’s blog.

Like all graded phenomena epistemology slowly and imperceptibly shades over from hard science through soft science to the wild imaginings of conspiracy theory. In this spectrum sharp lines of demarcation are difficult to discern. The apparently reasonable assumption that our world is rationally readable, an assumption needed to get hard science going is, paradoxically, the thin of  the imaginative wedge for conspiracy theory! (See here

I have a suspicion that evangelical atheists like Larry Moran are after well-defined criteria separating out the sheep from the goats that they can then use to police human epistemic efforts. It is ironic that the Biblical literalists, who are also in the business of policing human epistemology (by using shouts of "heresy!"), have long since beaten the evangelical atheists to the post on this one with their bogus distinction between “observational” and “historical” science!

Relevant links:

Footnote :
* Religious Gnostics and fideists will of course claim that they have a superior “supernatural epistemic” and that it doesn’t classify as science. But the fact is their epistemic boils down to incorporating their claimed special experiences into a narrative of explanation. Their reasoning may be ropy and their claimed “inner light” experience suspect, but nevertheless one can observe the amusing paradox of those who claim to be above reason, wrapping narrative round their experiences and thus falling into the catchall of generalized science!
* The philosophy of science is a kind of science of science whereby theoretical narratives are developed around observations of human epistemic efforts.

See below for some of my comments about epistemic tractability taken from Larry Moran’s Blog:

26/9/2007: The ontology of some objects, especially if they are bound up with the particularities of history, makes them epistemologically less tractable than others. Evolution with its crippled snail’s progress not to mention its dependence on the vagaries of historical and aleatory events is less epistemologically tractable than say molecular objects. Evolution therefore provides much more scope for variations of opinion that, as already been hinted above, may well be informed not just by differences in experience but also differences in ulterior ideology. The suspicions engendered by the ‘hidden variable’ of ideology leads to distrust. Hence, rather than agreeing to differ, malign motives and devious machinations are ascribed followed by impugning of characters.

22/10/2007 Does the Universe have purpose? Theism posits an outer context that is intermediate between the extremes of randomness and simplicity, namely that of personality and deity, which presumably has the property of aseity. The loss of scientific tractability in theism is compensated for by a gain in meaning as it seeks to illuminate the human predicament in terms intelligible to human personality: namely justice, love, mercy, sacrifice, intension, providence, and, of course, purpose. That’s what they call theology. You take it or you leave it.

16/11/2007 Judgement Day: Science vs. Religion? I’m always suspicious of black vs. white renderings of reality, especially the social realities to which these subject domains pertain. Life is seldom that simple. True, a single battlefield with just two opposing sides reduces the focus fragmentation overhead as the single-minded (simple-minded?) can support one or the other sides. But if games theory has taught us anything then life seldom throws up two opposing sides with diametrically opposed interests; the more realistic picture is of various parties with blends of interest.
Moreover, I don’t think we have this clear-cut domain called ‘science’. Different objects of different complexity have different levels of epistemological tractability; that’s why I doubt that the historian’s methods are as clear cut and unambiguous as say the methods of the particle physicist.  Although for both workers empirical evidences are relevant (documents for historians, experimental ‘protocols’ for the physicists – and both use texts in their research), the logical and ontological complexity of history gives for a far great margin of ambiguity.
Although I agree that empiricism is a general method that covers the whole of life, the conceptual constructions with which we attempt to make sense of the empirical are not subject to a naive falsification view of science. The open endedness of reality ensures that falsification methods are only going to be effective in degrees depending on the objects under study. For example, in a police or historical investigation, ultimate falsification of a variety of scenarios may be impossible; in fact cases may remain unsolved. Therefore a more general empirical epistemological theory is required, especially when those complex objects we call ‘world views’ are at stake.
Even when it comes to something like God which you might think to be beyond the empirical, it is clear that people make observations about the world that are relevant to the question of deity: For example, whether or not evolution is a fact or whether a omnipotent personal God would preside over a world of suffering.
I am not sure I agree with Miller’s dichotomization of the supernatural and natural (once again this seems to me to be a suspicious black vs. white rendition of reality), but leaving that on one side let me say that I deeply respect Miller’s faith and his abilities and feel we need people around like him to show us that the debate on theism and evolution doesn’t easily reduce to an ‘us vs. them’ contention. This isn’t one of your straightforward battlefields Larry.

19/12/2007 What is ID creationism? Hi Lim, I don’t really want to interrupt this discussion of biological realities with philosophy, but let me just say this:
An anonymous commentator on this blog once said that evolution successfully ‘joins’ the dots of observation (and, one hopes, predicts dots as well!). I would certainly want to concede that. In fact one might say that all science does this to a greater or lesser extent depending on the epistemological tractability of the object in question: some objects, particularly complex objects like evolution, history, human beings and social realities in particular, present far less accessible dots in relation to their size and complexity than say relatively simple objects like springs obeying Hooke’s law. To cut a long story short let me just say that for me personally it is this spectrum of epistemological tractability by which theism gets through the net!

06/01/2007 National Academies: Science Evolution and Creationism: I don’t accept Gould’s idea of NOMA but (and this is the big but) I accept that reality presents us with diverse ontological categories with differing levels of epistemological tractability, therefore demanding different standards of practice in investigation: history, sociology, economics, archeology, meta-science (philosophy of science), evolutionary theory all proceed with less ease and formalization than say solid state physics, whose objects are relatively ‘simple’ in character. This spectrum of ontological categories, with simple objects giving way to increasingly complex and exotic ontological objects allows theism to ‘sneak’ in at the upper for people like myself.
Ken Miller has remarked on the possibility that the Divine will might exploit the apparently random perturbations on a chaotic reality to encode His will. This allows a subtle theist like Miller to be both an interventionist and a deist at the same time – he can have his cake and eat it! These theists can be crafty!
The existence or non-existence of Diety (or at least the Deity of the Judeo-Christian kind) is a question that does impinge upon observation: e.g. the issue of evil and suffering. Tell you what Larry, why not try praying for something and see if you get an answer? This video of one your usual suspects should give you some hints on how to pray.

13/04/2008: Complicating matters still further is the fact that the ontology of the cosmos doesn’t make all objects equally as epistemologically tractable and it is often difficult to determine whether a lauded ontology is the result of some deep emotional complex driving a theorist into a kind ‘theoretical delirium’ or due to genuine epistemological difficulties seriously compromising empirical rigor: the Martian ‘canal’ debacle is a case in point.

In defense of myself I have to reaffirm that from my perspective all theoretical constructions look to be part the same class in that they are all attempts to make sense of our basic ‘protocol’ perceptions. However, they do differ very widely in the quality of attitude, mental discipline, background ontological paradigm (or what have you) that has created them and the epistemological tractability of the objects in view. Moreover, as direct perception forms such a small window on the cosmos these theories and their ‘confirming’ observations arrive at our door for evaluation via The Text. 

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