Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wikipedia on Physical Law!

Under the entry for "Physical Law":

In essence, modern science aims at minimal speculation about metaphysics. This results in spectacular efficiency of science both in explaining how universe works and in making our life better, longer and more interesting (via building effective shelters, transportation, communication and entertainment as well as helping to feed population, cure diseases, etc).

Modern science does such a great job because it studiously avoids metaphysics as much as possible, which has (insert metaphysical/philosophical judgments here)!

Science "builds effective shelters"? It makes "entertainment"? Is "science makes our life better" a scientific, metaphysics-minimizing claim?

It so often seems like the biggest boosters of science are the ones most dissatisfied with it - and they show their dissatisfaction by pretending "science" is doing what something else (usually an unreflective and simplistic philosophy or metaphysics) is actually responsible for.

And it also seems that one could make quite an interesting argument that "science" has done next to nothing for humanity. Engineering, on the other hand, has done some tremendous things (and to be fair, not all of them great.)

Of course, that argument should spook any science-booster, since it threatens to make engineering do to science what science supposedly did to metaphysics. Somehow a Futurama quote seems apt: "I'll build my own theme park! With hookers! And blackjack! In fact... forget the theme park!"

7 comments:

The Phantom Blogger said...

Francis Bacon who is considered my many to have created modern scientific methodology, began with a revolt against the (what he seen to be) over philosophising of the Scholastics.

Bacon criticizing the middle ages said : "Men have sought to make a world from their own conception and to draw from their own minds all the material which they employed, but if, instead of doing so, they had consulted experience and observation, they would have the facts and not opinions to reason about, and might have ultimately arrived at the knowledge of the laws which govern the material world."

His work, develop what was refereed to as the Baconian method (or later just refereed to as the scientific method), consisting of procedures for isolating the form, nature or cause of a phenomenon, employing the method of agreement, method of difference, and method of concomitant variation that had been devised by Avicenna in 1025. With this he established and popularized deductive methodologies for scientific inquiry. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.

I think that Bacon's (brilliant, revolutionary and consequential) insight was that if (those who would later be refereed to as) scientists simply ignored ultimate questions like final cause, and other metaphysical questions about substances and reasons, then this, mixed in with new methodological advances, could lead to a lot more practical scientific progress.

The problem here is that people completely forgot that these questions hadn't been answered or didn't believe that these questions needed to be answered, science is the key to all knowledge they thought and these questions are meaningless. This thought process is especially popular today and we are still suffering the consequences of it.

I think the triumph (I don't mean triumph as a compliment) of the enlightenment was not in naturalism (or at least the idea that all things had natural explanations) triumphing over superstition as it is popularly portrayed, but the triumph was in the idea that physical explanations alone could explain everything worthwhile, and this overrode any need for a metaphysical one. It was now considered that everything useful and worth while to be knowing about a thing or phenomena could be explained solely through physical processes. There was no longer any need for metaphysics, in fact to metaphysically analyse something was now seen as irrational, and was seen as to mystices it needlessly.

Crude said...

I think the triumph (I don't mean triumph as a compliment) of the enlightenment was not in naturalism (or at least the idea that all things had natural explanations) triumphing over superstition as it is popularly portrayed, but the triumph was in the idea that physical explanations alone could explain everything worthwhile, and this overrode any need for a metaphysical one. It was now considered that everything useful and worth while to be knowing about a thing or phenomena could be explained solely through physical processes. There was no longer any need for metaphysics, in fact to metaphysically analyse something was now seen as irrational, and was seen as to mystices it needlessly.

Well, the problem I'm having is that yes, there's a number of people who take these tacts superficially ('All we need is science! All we need is physics!'), and then turn right around and start engaging in metaphysics - unknowingly - left and right. Or in another vein, yelling about how all we need is science, science, science - and it's no surprise they think so, because they'll seemingly call any result or effect they favor 'science'. Again, science makes entertainment? Science alone tells us what results are 'better'?

As Ed Feser has said, doing metaphysics is unavoidable. The question is whether people are going to realize they're engaged in the act or not - and what the quality of their metaphysics will be if they don't realize just what they're doing.

Another problem, one I hope to get into later, is that 'naturalism' and 'physical' have been drained of meaning in devastating ways. The latter has been revised so deeply and so recently (the early 20th century) that it'd be downright unfamiliar in fundamental ways to early materialists, and current 'physicalists' are so spooked - not only by the definite changes of the past, but the very real prospect of more changes in the future - that they've left the "physical" door open enough to include just about anything. (See section 11.3 of the SEP entry on physicalism) Is it really physicalism when everything from neutral monism to panpsychism to quite possibly (judging by that SEP article) Berkeleyan idealism can conceivably count as "physical"?

The same goes for "naturalism". Chalmers explicitly denies materialism, but he insists he's a naturalist - just as how Galen Strawson asserts panpsychism, but calls it real materialism. Believe we're living in the Matrix? Well, you're still a naturalist apparently. And the funny thing is, it's hard to find anyone calling them on this and saying 'No, you're not a naturalist! Naturalism requires (X)!' And I suspect that, in the end, the only unspoken commitment that 'naturalism' really requires anymore is a disbelief in God. In fact, even that may be going too far.

The Phantom Blogger said...

I agree with you that the words themselves have become debased and meaningless but none of the people who use them seem to have noticed.

Feser's critique of John Searle was interesting because Serle said he didn't believe in materialism and came up with some brilliant arguments against it, but then asserted that his truth belief was biological naturalism, which for all intensive purposes is a form of materialism.

Feser covered it well here:

I also argued in TLS that the application by biologists, physicists, and other scientists of concepts like “algorithm,” “information,” “software,” “program,” etc. to the natural world evinces a tacit recognition of the reality of teleology or final causation. The reason (set out, again, in detail in TLS) is that the sort of directedness-towards-an-end that these concepts entail just is the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of final causality.

The point is rather that Darwinism claims to identify an “algorithm” by means of which natural processes generate new species. And if this “algorithm” talk is taken seriously, then (to put things more strongly than Manzi does) it necessarily entails, given the nature of algorithms, that there is an end-state towards which the processes in question point – not, to be sure, the generation of some particular species (human or otherwise) at some temporal culmination point, but rather the (in principle non-stop) generation of species after species meeting certain abstract criteria of fitness.

As I argue in TLS, all the computer science talk physicists, biologists, and other contemporary scientists have taken on board with such gusto really isn’t compatible with the “mechanistic” or anti-teleological conception of the material world to which they are still officially committed. Hence one either has to agree with the judgment of thinkers like John Searle that talk of “information,” “algorithms,” etc. is at best a misleading set of metaphors and at worst a complete muddle; or, if one thinks such talk is indispensible (and there is good reason to think it is) one must acknowledge that something like the Aristotelian conception of nature is correct after all.


The problem as Feser shows here, is that they are totally unaware of there own use of metaphysics in there ideas or arguments and also incapable of seeing the limits of there methodologies.

Crude said...

Well, Ed's TLS blew me away precisely because of observations like that. The accusation that 'materialists' are proposing things that really aren't 'materialist' (so to speak), and that this confusion is precisely where their views tend to draw their persuasiveness from, was like a thunderbolt to me.

One thing I'm suspicious of, however, is the idea that 'none of the people who use [those words] seem to have noticed' the deflation of their words' meaning. I'm sure some are ignorant - all one has to do is ask "Just what IS the supernatural anyway?" or such to start quite a fight half the time. But I also suspect there's a sizable amount of conscious bias. (A good example of that is seen in Kuttner and Rosenblum's "Quantum Enigma", where they flat out accuse fellow scientists of knowingly downplaying the findings of quantum physics precisely because they're spooked at how the 'average man' will take it.)

The Phantom Blogger said...

Searle on Naturalism:

In earlier generations, books like this one would have had to contain either an atheistic attack on or a theistic defense of traditional religion. [. . .] Nowadays nobody bothers, and it is considered in slightly bad taste to even raise the question of God's existence. Matters of religion are like matters of sexual preference: they are not to be discussed in public, and even the abstract questions are discussed only by bores.

What has happened? [. . .] I believe that something much more radical than a decline in religious belief has taken place. For us, the educated members of society, the world has become demystified. . . . we no longer take the mysteries we see in the world as expressions of supernatural meaning. We no longer think of odd occurrences as cases of God performing speech acts in the language of miracles. Odd occurrences are just occurrences we do not understand. The result of this demystification is that we have gone beyond atheism to the point where the issue no longer matters in the way it did to earlier generations.


Searle puts it in his earlier Rediscovery of the Mind:

Given what we know about the details of the world — about such things as the position of the elements in the periodic table, the number of chromosomes in the cells of different species, and the nature of the chemical bond — this world view [naturalism] is not an option. It is not simply up for grabs along with a lot of competing world views. Our problem is not that somehow we have failed to come up with a convincing proof of the existence of God or that the hypothesis of an afterlife remains in serious doubt, it is rather that in our deepest reflections we cannot take such opinions seriously.

This is an example of what I mean, for these people nothing other than naturalism is an adequate explanation, you can poke holes in the theories and ideas all day, but it isn't enough to disprove it for them. Naturalism has to be true and anything that contradicts it must be wrong by default. Now the reason for this may be as you claim a deliberate hiding from the truth (and I'm sure in many cases this is whats happening) but it seems to me that they just keep extending what naturalism is and how pretty much anything and everything is natural, in order to cover over the problems, without realising the new problems that have arisen (or if they do realise the new problems, they yet again just change the definition and the rules of naturalism again to cover over it) through there new application and extension of it.

Crude said...

You've always got access to quite some pertinent quotes, I notice. :)

I'm not sure how to take Searle on this, though, at least going by those quotes - the latter seems to conflict with the former in a way. Though the latter seems to be along the lines of what I'm saying here: 'Naturalism' has been redefined to a point of meaninglessness. Now full-blown dualists are naturalists. Panpsychists are naturalists. What would be called gods in any other place or time in human history are now called natural beings (I'm thinking here of guys like Bostrom discussing simulation theory). Someone recently told me that Plantinga himself joked about how naturalism has become so loose a word that he's half-tempted to present his arguments for God as a naturalistic one.

And frankly, Searle himself is arguably not only guilty of this sort of word game, but he's practically the poster child for it in a sense. Again, Ed Feser's useful here: See his paper on Searle's denial of being a property dualist. How does Searle deny being a property dualist? Apparently, just by calling "property dualism" physicalism.

And as I've said, if we're extending 'naturalism' that far, screw it. Ed Feser's a naturalist. So's the Pope. And so am I. All without changing any of our actual respective views.

IlĂ­on said...

"As Ed Feser has said, doing metaphysics is unavoidable. The question is whether people are going to realize they're engaged in the act or not - and what the quality of their metaphysics will be if they don't realize just what they're doing."

Exactly.

Years ago (before I really followed all this) I encountered a quote, my memory (rightly or wrongly) links it with Aldous Huxley, which went something like this: “The question is no whether we shall engage in metaphysics, but whether we shall engage metaphysics well or poorly.