ALL BLOG POSTS AND COMMENTS COPYRIGHT (C) 2003-2014 VOX DAY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRODUCTION WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Science and the problem of the hammer

Stephen Law not only points out that science is fundamentally incapable of answering many questions and solving many puzzles, but that it wasn't even involved in one of its landmark "experiments":
KEY POINTS ARE:

(i) this is not a puzzle that can be solved by empirical research.
(ii) It’s a conceptual puzzle that requires a conceptual solution. It’s a puzzle that takes armchair reflection to solve.

So not every puzzle is a puzzle that is best solved by empirical investigation. Some of the deepest and most baffling puzzles can, in fact, only be solved by armchair reflection.

In fact, all sorts of interesting discoveries can be made from the armchair. Mathematical discoveries, for example, can be made from the armchair. They can be achieved by pure thought alone – without doing any data collection or laboratory experiments.

We can also RULE OUT certain hypothesis from the comfort of the armchair.

Suppose an explorer claims to have discovered a four-sided triangle on their travels. Should we mount an expedition to go and check whether this momentous claim is correct? Of course not. We can figure out, from the comfort of our armchairs, that no such triangle exists. Triangles, by definition, have three sides. So a four-sided triangle involves a contradiction. It cannot possibly exist.

This is a rather obvious example. It’s obvious that four-sided triangles are ruled out conceptually. They involve a logical contradiction. But sometimes what is ruled out conceptually is NOT so obvious.

Aristotle claimed that objects of different mass will fall at different speeds. A large, heavy metal ball will fall faster than a small, light metal ball.

Back in the late 16thC, Galileo proved that Aristotle was wrong. Some say he did this by dropping two balls off the top of the leaning tower of Pisa. The two balls landed at the same time. Neil Armstrong did the experiment with a feather and hammer on the Moon

But actually, Galileo probably didn’t perform that experiment. He actually performed a thought experiment – one that he describes in his book On Motion. And of course thought experiments can be run from the comfort of ones armchair.

Galileo reasoned like so…

Imagine two balls, one heavier than the other, connected by a string. Drop this system of objects from the top of a tower. If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter ball drags on and slows the fall of the heavier ball. But the system considered as a whole is heavier than the heavy ball alone, and therefore should fall faster than the heavy ball on its own. So Aristotle’s theory, just like the claim that there exists a four-sided triangle, generates a contradiction. Galileo could establish that it is false from the comfort of his armchair.

True, this is a scientist doing a scientific thought experiment, but it illustrates the point that highly significant discoveries can indeed be made from the armchair.

Of course, philosophers need to be scientifically literate. Scientific discoveries can be of philosophical relevance. But, at heart, philosophy IS an armchair discipline. And it is none the worse for that.

Philosophy is about conceptual investigation and clarification. Philosophers make conceptual discoveries. I have illustrated how they tackle conceptual puzzles – puzzles that the scientific method just isn’t equipped to solve.

They also probe what we take for granted, our common sense assumptions, sometimes with dramatic results. Philosophers may reveal that what we believe has quite shocking unacknowledged consequences, for example.

This can lead to important breakthroughs. Particularly in moral philosophy. Many of the most important developments over the last couple of hundreds years or so have come about because of philosophical reflection – questioning of, and thinking through the consequences of, some of our most basic moral assumptions and principles.

So philosophy, it seems to me, is not just fascinating, it is also hugely valuable. Blah blah…

Richard Dawkins thought the mirror puzzle and solution was science not philosophy (really? - the last two papers I read on it were in philosophy journals, and I cannot imagine they'd be published in a science journal as they were purely conceptual and involved no empirical claims). Richard wondered why what I do is labelled "philosophy" at all. It's just thinking, he said.
It's been conclusively demonstrated that Richard Dawkins doesn't know much about history, theology, or philosophy. But I have to admit, I find it remarkable, bordering on astonishing, that he apparently doesn't even know what philosophy is. No wonder he doesn't believe in God, he doesn't even believe in philosophy when it is being performed right in front of his face.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that due to their enthusiasm for science, the scientific-secular faithful is like the proverbial man with the hammer, always searching for a nail.

Labels:

29 Comments:

Anonymous kh123 March 16, 2012 1:46 PM  

So it boils down to both science fetishists and philosophers telling one another, in effect, "Can't touch this".

Yeah, I can hear the groans already over that pun.

Anonymous Deckard March 16, 2012 1:46 PM  

Neil Armstrong did the experiment with a feather and hammer on the Moon...

They also probe what we take for granted, our common sense assumptions, sometimes with dramatic results.

Keep at it, Mr Philosopher.

Anonymous kh123 March 16, 2012 1:56 PM  

First science, then economics. At some point, there's going to have to be a cleansing of the primers in either of these areas.

What C.S. had stated several decades ago comes to mind, that it'd be interesting to see how long any area that professes logic (his example was scientific materialism) will last once those that practice it start breaking the rules, both of logic and of those that they set for themselves.

This kind of keeps with what you were saying this past week about reason either getting through to someone or their breaking down from the mental gymnastics employed to avoid the obvious. We seem to be seeing more of this as time goes on, esp. in economics and politics.

Anonymous Gen. Kong March 16, 2012 1:57 PM  

'Always searching for a nail' is an apt description of the sci-fetishists. When they actually find one (like the proverbial blind pig) the end result of their hammering is quite predictable.

Anonymous DrTorch March 16, 2012 2:48 PM  

Your last sentence cuts both ways. Aristotle was a philosopher, and he got it wrong. (Actually, I think he got most everything wrong. Why is he so popular again?)

One of the dangers of glorifying armchair thinking is it ignores the value of doing. People who read how something is done, think they know something, but they don't even have a shadow of true knowledge.

You see this in science classes all the time. Take a first year student and have him assemble a distillation column. It's so simple in the textbook, that it's trivial for our armchair scholar. But almost inevitably when he actually starts construction he'll be desperate to have 4 arms as he tries to keep all the glassware together and not drop any pieces and watch them break into shards.

Similarly, it's crucial in education. Pythagaros didn't discover that a 3-4-5 triangle has a right angle, rather it was known empirically to be so. Many proofs came about as the theorists took the empirically known and then proved it generally. But now much of mathematics is taught from the theoritical first...where many students struggle to see what's being discussed.

Philosophy is valuable. Empirical science is valuable. Why keep up the false dilemma of which is better?

PS Why call Dawkins a scientist? He mostly muses in his armchair about his theory. He certainly doesn't have empirical evidence to back it up.

Anonymous szook March 16, 2012 2:50 PM  

Searching for a nail....or a thumb....

Blogger RobertT March 16, 2012 3:24 PM  

"Galileo probably didn’t perform that experiment. He actually performed a thought experiment."

Not unlike Einstein's visualization of riding on a beam of light. Einstein's early work was all performed in his head without even the benefit of a University library.

Anonymous daddynichol March 16, 2012 3:29 PM  

Hawking, anyone?

Anonymous Acid Gay Facist March 16, 2012 4:12 PM  

So, do you think only empirical research is science?

Anonymous duckman March 16, 2012 4:26 PM  

Actually, I think he (Aristotle) got most everything wrong. Why is he so popular again?

His current popularity can be linked to his status as "father of empiricism".

Blogger Joshua_D March 16, 2012 4:43 PM  

I think that Dawkins must be insane, or simply a sociopathic liar. Of course, those are not mutually exclusive, so ...

Blogger Unknown March 16, 2012 4:55 PM  

Aristotle was a philosopher, and he got it wrong. (Actually, I think he got most everything wrong. Why is he so popular again?)

Actually, Aristotle got most everything right, along with a few well-known misses. OTOH, when discussing someone who wrote about almost literally the sum of human knowledge, I'd say it would be appropriate to cut the guy just a bit of slack. As for popularity, being kept steadily in print and continually under discussion for a couple of thousand years—well, I'm going to take a risky stand and call that popularity that never really went away.

Anonymous MrGreenMan March 16, 2012 5:12 PM  

PS Why call Dawkins a scientist? He mostly muses in his armchair about his theory. He certainly doesn't have empirical evidence to back it up.

A quick search on him yields results that he uses the appellation for himself as he believes it has some currency. His publisher calls him first "a preeminent scientist". He likes to start by calling himself an "ethologist", a certain type of butterfly collector.

Anonymous stevev March 16, 2012 5:34 PM  

Hope this doesn't display appalling obtuseness: Couldn't the mirror question be answered decisively both from the armchair thought experiment AND empirically? Thought exercises are dependent on agreed-upon base assumptions before consensus, whereas empirical solutions, especially expressed in mathematical knowns, aren't susceptible to 2+2=5 type assertions.

Blogger bethyada March 16, 2012 5:38 PM  

Mortimer Adler covers this in his popular book How to read a book published decades ago. He distinguish science from history from philosophy in his "theoretical" category of non-fiction.

Blogger bethyada March 16, 2012 5:44 PM  

The mirror problem in really just one of confusing relative positioning with absolute positioning. Up and down are shared between the object and the reflection (absolute), left and right and not shared (relative). East/ West or North/ South are not reflected.

Lie on your left side and look in the mirror. Left is down and right is up. In the reflection down and up have not changed, but left and right have.

(And this is not a scientific question, it is a philosophical one.)

Blogger bethyada March 16, 2012 6:03 PM  

DrTorch said...

Your last sentence cuts both ways. Aristotle was a philosopher, and he got it wrong. (Actually, I think he got most everything wrong. Why is he so popular again?)

One of the dangers of glorifying armchair thinking is it ignores the value of doing. People who read how something is done, think they know something, but they don't even have a shadow of true knowledge.

You see this in science classes all the time. Take a first year student and have him assemble a distillation column. It's so simple in the textbook, that it's trivial for our armchair scholar. But almost inevitably when he actually starts construction he'll be desperate to have 4 arms as he tries to keep all the glassware together and not drop any pieces and watch them break into shards.

Similarly, it's crucial in education. Pythagaros didn't discover that a 3-4-5 triangle has a right angle, rather it was known empirically to be so. Many proofs came about as the theorists took the empirically known and then proved it generally. But now much of mathematics is taught from the theoritical first...where many students struggle to see what's being discussed.

Philosophy is valuable. Empirical science is valuable. Why keep up the false dilemma of which is better?


Aristotle got deductive logic and some moral theory correct, he was mistaken when he tried to do thought experiments with inadequate observation, and the inductive method of science had yet to be invented.

The problem he had, and others still have is they are promoting or disparaging based on preference for empiricism (which they call science) or philosophising. But it is not which is better, it is which is appropriate.

Trying to solve a scientific question with pure philosophy, or vice versa is usually wrong headed.

Logical questions call for logical reasoning, moral problem for moral reasoning, physics problems for physics reasoning... the title of the post is about the misuse of hammers!

Further, that a scientist may reason doesn't make the problem philosophical, he uses logic and maths (which are branches of logic).

Anonymous DrewG March 16, 2012 6:07 PM  

From the Atheist perspective is Dawkin’s position not more sensible then Law’s?

If all that IS, is material, then all you really need to understand is the material, philosophy, religion, just man made BS, right??

Atheism and philosophy seems to be an odd marriage.

Brings to mind the Atheist ethicist that says children have no value till they are two and until that point the parents should have the right to kill the child. The Materialist understands that no life has any value, but the Atheist philosopher makes up some arbitrary rule (BS) and says life under two years old has no value, after two, value. Or if a being is self aware, then value, before self awareness, no value. While at the same time our (Atheistic) understanding is that “self” is an illusion and love, hate, whatever, are just chemical reactions in a brain, no more or less significant then that.

Given the Atheism they share Dawkin’s position seems to me the correct one.

Anonymous Bobo March 16, 2012 9:58 PM  

steve v said: whereas empirical solutions, especially expressed in mathematical knowns, aren't susceptible to 2+2=5 type assertions.

Could you tell me how you can know that something like 2+2=5 is an assertion? How do you know that empirical solutions are reliable? What empirical test proves mathematical knowns? What empirical test proves the scientific method correct? Could you tell me how you decide what empirical observations to look for and how to go about designing the experiment you're going to use to find them? What do you do with the data? How do you interpret it? How do you extrapolate that interpretation into generalisations? All of this is applied logic and philosophy (plus statistics). You can't do any science without philosophizing. Philosophy is thought which has been thought out well (logically). If you deny its reliability, you also deny all of science.

Anonymous Noah B. March 16, 2012 11:07 PM  

So Galileo invented string theory, too, then. The things I learn on this blog...

Blogger physphil March 16, 2012 11:16 PM  

The most amusing thing is, the scientists who are the noisiest against philosophy are usually of the armchair type themselves: Dawkins and Hawking are both theorists, not experimental scientists.

Anonymous 11B March 16, 2012 11:43 PM  

OT, The Patriot League bags another scalp.

Anonymous Outlax March 16, 2012 11:44 PM  

Vox

Never confuse science with modern science. Never compare Philosophy with modernism.

Anonymous Desiderius March 16, 2012 11:57 PM  

"You should by no means seem to approve, encourage, or applaud, those libertine notions, which strike at religions equally, and which are the poor threadbare topics of halfwits and minute philosophers. Even those who are silly enough to laugh at their jokes, are still wise enough to distrust and detest their characters; for putting moral virtues at the highest, and religion at the lowest, religion must still be allowed to be a collateral security, at least, to virtue, and every prudent man will sooner trust to two securities than to one. Whenever, therefore, you happen to be in company with those pretended 'Esprits forts', or with thoughtless libertines, who laugh at all religion to show their wit, or disclaim it, to complete their riot, let no word or look of yours intimate the least approbation; on the contrary, let a silent gravity express your dislike: but enter not into the subject and decline such unprofitable and indecent controversies. Depend upon this truth, that every man is the worse looked upon, and the less trusted for being thought to have no religion; in spite of all the pompous and specious epithets he may assume, of 'Esprit fort', freethinker, or moral philosopher."

Chesterfield, Letters To His Son

Anonymous Outllaw X March 16, 2012 11:59 PM  

I got a phone call yesterday three times while I was in bed. I today finally called them back because the new people don't know about the old.

I was asked to come down and solve the problem. I refused and told them to send me pictures and would recommend someone to so.

l have the the answer to the engineering problem not capable of taveling. I am done!

Anonymous Anonymous March 17, 2012 1:13 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger Ed Darrell March 17, 2012 2:00 PM  

Law doesn't really say science is incapable of solving the problems. He says thought, first, can offer solutions, too. Sometimes those solutions work (Galileo's two balls experiment), and sometimes they don't (Aristotle's two balls experiment).

50% accuracy is what Law offers Science generally does better than that.

Blogger Ed Darrell March 17, 2012 2:04 PM  

Law doesn't really say science is incapable of solving the problems. He says thought, first, can offer solutions, too. Sometimes those solutions work (Galileo's two balls experiment), and sometimes they don't (Aristotle's two balls experiment).

50% accuracy is what Law offers Science generally does better than that.

Blogger Galt-in-Da-Box March 17, 2012 6:48 PM  

So, if Dawkins is a scientist just by virtue of the fact every time he opens his mouth, he proves "an empty wagon rattles the most", what does that make him with a teleprompter?
OH yeah, President!
/s

Post a Comment

NO ANONYMOUS COMMENTS. Anonymous comments will be deleted.

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts