I think one of the reasons I got tired of doing stuff recently is that I’ve done a bunch of stuff this year. You know how that works—at a certain point, after travelin’ and writin’ and sittin’ around and readin’ and thinkin’ and writin’ some more, you say, “OK, that’s enough stuff for now.” And you say, “you know, now seems like a really good time to order this thing from the Internets and watch the Canadiens-Soviet Army game from New Year’s Eve 1975.” Why the Canadiens-Soviet Army game from New Year’s Eve 1975? Because it is Classic, that’s why, and because in the course of writing an essay about hockey last month, I wound up reading Ken Dryden’s The Game, also a Classic, which I barely looked at 25 years ago when it was published (1983 was just about the low point of my interest in hockey—I had just started graduate school and had given away all my equipment) but which turns out to be crazy good. I mean, just crazy good. You’ll probably be hearing more about it on this humble blog in the future, so keep your RSS feeds tuned right here! And then I started reading Vladislav Tretiak’s autobiography, which a friend gave me ten years ago, and, well, what better way to keep the train of thought going than to watch Tretiak and Dryden in their classic showdown on December 31, 1975? It was Classic, don’t you know. A brilliantly played 3-3 tie, with goals by a couple of the best players in the world, guys like Yvan Cournoyer and Valeri Kharlamov. Tretiak stopped an amazing three hundred and eighty-seven shots in that game! And Dryden stopped ten. (One of these figures is slightly false.)
I have no idea why this boxed set of the greatest games in Montreal Canadiens history does not include the amazing seventh game of the 1970-71 Stanley Cup finals against Chicago, in which the Canadiens rallied from a 2-0 deficit thanks to two extraordinary third-period goals by Henri Richard (hey, check out my “away” link at the top left of this blog to see a pic of me and Richard not long thereafter) or the equally amazing second game of the ‘70-’71 quarterfinals against the heavily favored Boston Bruins, in which the Canadiens rallied from a 5-2 deficit—also in the third period. Can someone on the Internets fix this? Because that’s just silly. Thank you.
Anyway, that’s not what I’m blogging about today. I’m blogging to let you know that back when I was doing stuff, earlier this year, one of the stuffs I did was this review essay on Alan Sokal’s new book. It is my very first-ever appearance in American Scientist, for although I am an American in American Airspace, I am not a Scientist. And it represents the very first-ever time I have managed to come up with a “clever” punning title for an essay all by myself. In Latin! I knew that Jesuit high school education would pay off someday. And handsomely, too.
So if you have a second, give the review a look and let me know what you think in comments. Just be sure that all your claims are empirically grounded! No, wait, I close the review by rejecting the whole empirical-grounding-of-belief thing. So never mind. Alternatively, those of you who insist on making empirically grounded claims may feel free to weigh in on an argument begun last week by Scott Lemieux: was Tony Esposito a better goaltender than Ken Dryden?
Very nice stuff. I’ve used some of your previous Sokal Hoax material (plus some Rorty) to launch a few entertaining discussions with several of the more thoughtful engineers at my place of work.
However, I am studying on the epistemological status of this statement: The recent revival of his blog has occasioned wide rejoicing among its many readers.Posted by on 12/19 at 02:15 PM
JP, I think that statement has roughly the same epistemological status as that of “in the frozen land of Nador they were forced to eat Sir Robin’s minstrels; and there was much rejoicing.”Posted by on 12/19 at 02:20 PM
I think that what’s happened is that really there were two hoaxes that matter in this context. The first was Sokal’s. The second was Bush’s. In the middle of the Bush years was when “social construction of science” philosophers, like Bruno Latour, seemed to wake up to the reality of what their theories were being used as a stalking horse for. Yes, fundamentalism, not obscure philosophy, was the threat. But fundamentalism is perfectly capable of seizing on an elite justification for why it was as good as anything else.
On the whole I have to score this one for the scientists. Sure, there may have been a bit too much pseudo-positivist overreaction in terms of people talking about ethical realism. But the abiding political sin that leads to is not fundamentalism, but technocracy. We could use a little more of that right now, of people who know how to redesign social infrastructure and do emergency response to natural disasters, that kind of thing. I’m not worried at this time that it’s going to lead to another era of the best and the brightest thinking they know what’s best for everyone else.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 12/19 at 02:37 PM
(The first that finally made me overcome my fear of the word “epistemology” and actually look it up.)
My favorite part of the article was your implication that people on the left have come to naively associate positive feelings with anything “local.”
As a proud leftist myself I can only chuckle in recognition (especially since Obama has me in the mood to trim the fat off of progressivism.)Posted by Daniel Cardozo on 12/19 at 02:56 PM
Moloch save us from scientists who dredge of 1940s philosophy of science and announce it as THE way to understand science.
Does Sokal ever explain the difference between the context of discovery and the context of justifcation? How does he deal with induction? Suppose he hits himself on the head with hammer a number of times. In so doing he DISCOVERS that hitting himself with the hammer hurts. But, if we are to take the two-context distinction as meaningful, he must now come up with an independent JUSTIFICATION for that belief that does not rely on how he discovered the fact.
Good luck with that.
And, is he aware that for the philosophers who created the two-context distinction, it would be entirely irrelevant if SCIENTISTS thought they had justified beliefs, the only important thing would be if the PHILOSOPHERS could logically justify the beliefs. Scientists were not qualified to judge if their science was justified or not.Posted by on 12/19 at 03:13 PM
fardels bear, hitting yourself with a hammer causes physical damage, which is detectable. Bad choice of examples. But it’s a good choice of examples from my point of view, because it illustrates just what people always laughed about with this kind of philosophy—the idea that a hammer in the head only hurt you because you believed that it did.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 12/19 at 03:20 PM
Esposito was a *shorter* goalie than Dryden. That much can at least be empirically verified. The rest is metaphysics and should have no place in any respectable hockey discourse.
Captcha: “stage” as in “all the world’s a”Posted by John Protevi on 12/19 at 03:21 PM
Thanks for the link, and it’s good to know that Steve Fuller occupies a necessary structural slot. Perhaps we invented him.
1. Is the problem made too easy if we sweep objects of knowledge into two piles, natural facts like photosynthesis on the one side and pure social facts like Jefferson’s utterance on the other? What of mixed knowledge-objects, like K-12 education or historic hockey games? That is, I sympathize with the division, but putting it this way makes me see why people like Sokal or Rorty want everything in one pile or the other, because the middle gets weird.
2. While I lack the science-theory chops to do it, surely the discovery/verification split that you and others rely on can be challenged, and that loops back to (1).
3. I’m wondering, clumsily, about scales. Even on your account, what theories of social justice share with natural science, if not grounding in ontic universality, is still an orientation toward the broadest possible communities of interpretation and broad application. But there are smaller-scale social facts of the kind that cultural anthro brings out—even when people speak in the idiom of widely-shared ideas like justice or responsibility or sin, those ideas are given shape and substance in smaller, denser contexts. The social world is also shaped by patterned ignorance and not-knowing. I’m trying to state this without falling into the “local knowledges” ideology you mention, which is really a thin modernist universality with a universally-romanticized category of the local.Posted by on 12/19 at 03:24 PM
How do you know that hitting yourself on the head causes detectable physical damage? Because it always did in the past--we are generalizing from those past examples to the present one. We understand causality only through induction, which I think was Hume’s basic point about causal reasoning wasn’t it?
My point is that you cannot simultaneously hold onto the two-context distinction and justify anything inductively because, with induction, the method of discovery IS the method of justification. Thus Sokal’s insistence that we keep them strictly separate is hard to understand, or nonsensical.
Sokal’s mistake is that the two-context distinction was not supposed to be a separation of temporal processes ("First we discover, then we justify"). Indeed, the inventor of the two-context distinction, Hans Reichenbach introduced in a book wherein he laid out a defense of induction as a justifiable scientific method right after he called for a separation of the two contexts. The two-context distinction was meant to separate the PHILOSOPHICAL task of justification from the activities of scientists: scientists discover philosophers justify. It was a logical distinction, not a temporal one.Posted by on 12/19 at 03:46 PM
In the physical sciences (I can’t speak for the social ones) the rules governing hypothesis generation are extremely loose. Maybe you come up with a hypothesis through some sort of rigorous logical procedure or maybe it comes to you in a dream...whatever.
When it comes too convincing the rest of the scientific community that your hypothesis is correct, however, the rules are much more strict. There are definite restrictions on what sort of evidence counts and what doesn’t (and contrary to what the many careless readers of Kuhn seem to think, these rules are not simply arbitrary nor can the be changed on a whim).
It depends on who’s speaking, but many people use the term “discovery” to refer to initial hypothesis formation, which might or might not be the result of an initial experiment. I see a certain pattern of peaks in my gizmotron and conclude that they are due to a particular type of, say, chemical reaction taking place.
Convincing the rest of the people in my field that this reaction actually occurs will require a lengthy process involving many additional experiments. But if the reaction ultimately turns out to be real, most people will date its “discovery” as the moment I first saw the peaks and said “Hey, that’s chemical reaction x-->y!”.
I’m not sure how this relates to what fardels bear is on about, but when I read things like:
“the only important thing would be if the PHILOSOPHERS could logically justify the beliefs. Scientists were not qualified to judge if their science was justified or not. “
I have to wonder why scientists are the ones that are always being called arrogant.Posted by on 12/19 at 03:47 PM
Well, let me make clear that I am not agreeing with the logical positivist regarding philosophical justification, only noting that it was the point of the two-contexts distinction. Here is Reichenbach in 1938:
“Even the way of presenting scientific theories do not always correspond to the exigencies of logic or suppress the traces of subjective motivation from which they started. If the presentation of the theory is subjected to an exact epistemological scrutiny, the verdict becomes even more unfavorable. For scientific language, being destined like the language of daily life for practical purposes, contains so many abbreviations and silently tolerated inexactitudes that a logician will never be fully content with the form of scientific publications.”
Hence, scientific justification was not philosophical justification. I agree with AL about arrogance, however, Reichenbach knew physics. He arrived on these shores bearing a letter of recommendation from Albert Einstein.Posted by on 12/19 at 04:02 PM
It’s really not induction, fardels bear. Through the science of biology, you can demonstrate that application of a certain amount of physical impact will cause damage, not because it’s happened that way 100 times in the past, but because of how cells and anatomy are. That’s just as provable as anything is. Calling it “induction” really brings you straight to the point where everything is induction, which is really kind of silly.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 12/19 at 04:05 PM
Great article, Michael. I like that you pick on Thomas Jefferson for his “self evident” comment, but couldn’t we also take him to task for the equality comment? I mean, he did not mean ALL men were created equal (certainly not his slaves or those bothersome “merciless indian savages” that he mentions in the Declaration of Independence). Talk about relativism. I’m also glad someone brought up Latour above, because he (in my mind at least) is precisely the prototypical philosopher of science that Sokal seems to be talking about (I did catch your reference to Laboratory Life).
Rorty is an interesting way to balance that argument… I like that he relates pragmatism not to initial discovery, but that repetition of verification. That is he says that the job of pragmatists, as philosophers too, is to say things over and over again until someone hears them (grossly oversimplified). Of course, that is problematic, too, since that was the Bush admin’s PR strategy all along. Of course, the History and Philosophy of Science as a discipline was birthed in the same era as the PR industry--at least in America.
It certainly is a strange time for those of us in Science Studies right now. I’m guessing you are aware of it already, but John Horgan maintains a rather interesting blog about various topics (a lot of which might feed into this discussion).
Finally, if only for the following section:
“In other words, it makes great good sense to be a historical relativist with regard to the context of discovery; after all, Isaac Newton himself believed in God, and even Sokal, who regards such a belief as delusional, acknowledges that people of different times and places have different means of coming to conclusions about how the universe works. But properly scientific belief is distinguished from all other forms of belief precisely by its insistence—one might want to call it a metabelief—that justified true beliefs can be validated only by rigorous rational inquiry. Sokal attempts, here, to give philosophers of science their due”
I will have to read the book. This kind of historical relativism is entirely misleading, especially when people extrapolate backwards. It was not LEGAL for Galileo or Kepler to NOT believe in God, and they needed to make special exceptions for Newton (whose belief in God was offensive to the majority) to live and work in the midst of the Anglicans. Why don’t these factoids get notice? Because, RELATIVELY, they don’t matter to philosophers who have other plans for sciencePosted by Derek T. on 12/19 at 04:10 PM
I suppose I shouldn’t have made that aside about Kuhn. I’d hate to be confronted by our host brandishing a broken wine bottle.Posted by on 12/19 at 04:16 PM
I enjoyed the review, which prompted a few thoughts. I won’t be able to develop them, thanks to the pile of students’ essays that still sits in front of me. But here goes:
As a rough-and-ready distinction, separating the context of discovery from the context of justification is a reasonable pragmatic move. But doesn’t it beg the question to posit that “the determination of the existence of x rays or of the precession of Mercury’s perihelion does not and cannot depend on factors extraneous to the scientific evidence relevant to the determination”? A big part of the work of science includes determining exactly which factors should count as scientific evidence, and how much of that evidence is necessary to affirm, tentatively, a proposition. Witness Cesare Cremonini’s alleged refusal to even look through Galileo’s telescope, on the grounds that if what it shows contradicted the established science of the day, there must be something wrong with it.
When people in science studies talk about “local epistemologies,” they do so most usefully as a way to underscore the importance of community norms in the production of scientific knowledge. Those communities might be limited to one laboratory, in the early stages of developing a new theory, or they might extend to an international subfield. But the epistemological rules are still local, and their members must be trained in how to work with them. It’s interesting to study how local contexts are multiplied as scientific fields develop and spread, and the limits to that multiplication. There, social factors play an undeniable role.
The idea of local epistemologies is not incompatible with moderate realism. After all, one of the most striking aspects of modern science is the high value that it places on empirical data. For a historian like me, whose goal is not to praise or blame science but to understand how it came to be, that’s an important point to emphasize. But we can’t simply assume that scientific empiricism is a natural trait of humans. Some empiricism, sure; otherwise we’d probably not survive childhood. But scientific empiricism is not simply common sense writ large. I think that some critics of science studies believe that science IS just common sense writ large, and they base their critiques on that presupposition.Posted by Brian Ogilvie on 12/19 at 04:19 PM
I don’t remember the Canadiens game against the Soviet Army, at least not in the visual terms I remember the 1972 series of Canadian all-stars against the Soviet all-star team. During that ‘72 series, when it had moved over to Moscow, I remember being in a building in Montreal and looking down at deMaisonneuve, something like 6th Avenue in Manhattan, and literally seeing no one walking on the sidewalks and no cars on the street. Sure, I’m exaggerating. One or two cars went by per minute. The attention was that great. It was daytime Montreal time on a weekday.
The Soviets were an incredible revelation to Canadians. They were easily better skaters and passers than the Canadians. The imbalance in shots on goal (of course the exaggerated Canadiens figure is wrong) was a necessity in that the Soviets made almost every opportunity to score a score. In Canadian hockey a two on one break (two offensive skaters moving against a sole defensive player - besides the goaltender) usually resulted in a goal one out five times or even less. With the Soviets it was more like nine out of ten. The Canadians (or Canadiens, whichever was the team involved) had to play the strictest hockey ever seen. Katy bar the door was pointless. Defense wasn’t just from the blue line in.
You mention Kharmalov and Cournoyer. Kharmalov was a remarkable player. Likely the best in the world. I remember with shame the pride hatchet man Bobby Clark took in taking a two handed slash at Kharmalov’s ankle. Canadians were the dirty players and the Soviets were the pure hockey players. Skate, pass, shoot. “Head man the puck” in ways Canadian hockey had never seen effected so perfectly.
Cournoyer was in the later years of his career and therefore somewhat a surprise at his effectiveness against the Soviets. He did what they did. He played the turnover as they played the turnover, exploding to the red line the instant the defense got the puck and taking a deep zone pass at full speed at that line. That was the Soviet style that the Canadiens had to learn to counter, playing the lanes and positions religiously and blocking the red line turnover long pass. But Cournoyer turned the Soviets game on them and they, the Soviets, admired him for his ability to do just that.
As for Dryden and Tretiak, my memory was that Dryden was psyched by the Soviets, playing far below his usual level. Tretiak had not been considered the best Soviet goalie by the European teams that were far more familiar with Soviet play. But against the Canadians he was a marvel. He, in those years, had the ability to “go down” without really going down on the ice and losing mobility, still maintaining a vertical position with stick and glove ready. He would go down on his knees, forming an upside down “T” with his shins (and huge pads) splayed out to the side. There were films showing him practicing that quick drop and then stand up. He could block ice level shots without giving up much on lifted shots. That flexibility apparently didn’t last long as I remember his not doing it just a few years later.
Henri Richard, the “Pocket Rocket.” Probably as tough a hockey player as there ever was. Tough as in able to take whatever an opponent could give and still play hockey at top level. My memory is of a playoff series against the Bruins, where he was playing opposite Derek Sanderson, another “blade” man. As the series went on Richard would regularly have to leave the ice to be stitched up. His face began to look like Gerry Cheevers’ mask, except the lines representing missing stitches were the real thing. He would miss a shift and be out there the next outplaying the much younger opponent who dominated the other Canadien centers, especially at face offs. But not Richard.
Haven’t really watched hockey since the late ‘70s, the last of the Montreal golden years. Not as central a subject here. Certainly not as it was then in Montreal.
Oh. What the hey. My only handy photo of the old (then newly rebuilt) Montreal Forum.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/14060984@N05/2813773603/in/set-72157607041296423/Posted by Amos Anan on 12/19 at 04:33 PM
Hockey, Epistemology, Verbosity,: An Eternal Happy Vortex.Posted by on 12/19 at 04:42 PM
"All men are created equal”. Jefferson borrowed the expression from an Italian friend and neighbor, Philip Mazzei, as noted by Joint Resolution 175 of the 103rd Congress as well as John F. Kennedy in “A Nation Of Immigrants.”
It was self -evident to those philosophers from the Age of Reason/Enlightenment as a response to royal absolutism. It is more of a psychological paradigm shift rather than an original concept, and one that can be supported empirically (until you add the phrase starting"that they are endowed by their creator...).
I have the same objection to your use of the concept above as a form of Deus Ex Machina as I do to Pirsig’s Zen/MM and his struggle to define “quality” as a springboard to a mental breakdown. Surely Pirsig and his Phaedras character can recognize a properly vague term that cannot be defined without modifiers. Jefferson’s statement was not new as a concept, and certainly not revolutionary to the intellectuals of the day, but it was somewhat blasphemous and treasonous to Church and State, and angst-inducing to those who had been trained to “know their place” in the social order.
Just as atheism was never fully a “new” concept, it has always been a dangerous one for those who would propose to any and all Theocrats that they were, for all intents and purposes, naked as the proverbial Emperor. In effect, despite your wonderful writing, I think you’ve based your reduction on a flawed concept.Posted by on 12/19 at 04:51 PM
Dang, I leave the house for the first time in three days (it’s snow, ice, and sleet right now—just lovely) and the comment section explodes with really smart comments. Thanks! I’ll do my best to catch up.
Fardels bear: as I mentioned last time around (and in San Diego), the discovery/ justification confusion is all mine. And in response to Brian @ 15:
doesn’t it beg the question to posit that “the determination of the existence of x rays or of the precession of Mercury’s perihelion does not and cannot depend on factors extraneous to the scientific evidence relevant to the determination”? A big part of the work of science includes determining exactly which factors should count as scientific evidence, and how much of that evidence is necessary to affirm, tentatively, a proposition.
my answer is yes, it does beg that question, and for precisely that reason. If the margin had been large enough, I would have offered a most dazzling discussion of how the determination of “factors extraneous to the scientific evidence relevant to the determination” is infinitely recursive, as people—be they scientists or philosophers—try to figure out why their predecessors adopted an inverse square law instead of an inverse cube law, or what’s going on with those oscillating neutrinos. And as they go about that, they revise their and our understanding of how discoveries are made and scientific communities come to adopt them, etc. But they don’t conclude that their predecessors adopted the inverse square law or neutrino oscillation (a) simply because these things were true, end of story (naive realism), or (b) because they were members of a certain church or beholden to certain funding priorities (naive social constructionism). That’s what I was trying to get at.
Amos Anan, thanks for picking up the hockey thread. The Summit Series was indeed the thing that, how shall I say, shattered the paradigm within which Canadian players were working, and Dryden’s comments on the aftermath are crazy good. He also historicizes the Canadian game, arguing that Canadians never broke the patterns they’d developed back when hockey was an onside game in which the forward pass was forbidden. But more about this in future installments. In the meantime, yes, Clarke’s butchery of Kharmalov should have been a moment of national shame.
Colin @ 8 and Derek @ 13, I’ll get back to you in a bit. Much food for thought. E. V. @ 18, thanks for the info, but did you really think I was suggesting that “all men are created equal” was a kind of deus ex machina? I’m merely saying that it wasn’t—and isn’t—self-evident.Posted by Michael on 12/19 at 05:49 PM
Sorry Michael , but I hold Jefferson’s use of “self-evident” as a rhetorical device or a logical fallacy used to sway the masses just as lawyers and pundits do today, as in: “Surely, you and I both know that PZ is evil incarnate, it is self-evident.”
(and deus ex machina was a terrible choice of a metaphor on my part, and only meant in the way you used it in the article as uniquely insightful and a radical departure from contemporary thought of the 1700s. I think your use of Jefferson’s equal/self-evident idea as a neologism cannot bear the weight of countering the arguments alone.)Posted by on 12/19 at 06:48 PM
Obviously, I’m not an academic, and I don’t want to come off as insulting. So please don’t take my comments as an affront to your intellect.Posted by on 12/19 at 06:57 PM
When I hear the term “Western Science” I wonder if it has any meaning or relevance at all. Science is not a western construct. For that matter I believe it is not even a human construct. Should humanity be wiped out by a giant asteroid or by it’s own hand, the inverse square law of gravitational attraction would still hold.
By introducing the term western science into the discussion, I fear you give it credence as a possible world view, albeit one which I suspect you disagree with.
To my mind there is simply no such thing.
But were the term Western Science to surface, I would not think of Hiroshima, Bhopal etc. I would, as you might imagine, think of turtles.
captcha “number” as in mathematics the underlying language of sciencePosted by on 12/19 at 07:17 PM
John Protevi @7: That is Espositomology, which is a form of metahockey.Posted by jazzbumpa on 12/19 at 07:23 PM
Michael: thanks for the reply @ 5:49. You’re right that if a modern scientist is being honest, funding source or religious affiliation won’t influence the way that technical problems are solved. Their effects are much more perceptible in how problems are framed or which problems get attention. I have my students read John Heilbron’s book The Sun in the Church, on Renaissance Catholic astromers’ use of cathedrals as solar observatories, to drive home that the technical development of Catholic astronomy was, in a certain respect, a consequence of Galileo’s condemnation: the condemnation directed astronomers’ research into theologically safe areas, which they proceeded to master.
Then there’s the related question of the role of metaphor in scientific understanding, which does bring in ideology in subtle and interesting ways ("laws of nature,” for instance). But it’s a two-way street. But now, time for some practical chemistry in the kitchen.Posted by Brian Ogilvie on 12/19 at 07:24 PM
As you know, Michael, I have expounded before on your doctrinal errors and called for repentance; but alas, I was all-too-typically unclear on that occasion, and my clumsy efforts garnered only a few brief paragraphs to that effect, appended to the bottom of a post on someone else, as part of your quick housecleaning on the way out the door before the Gojirapocalypse. Now you’re back (yay!), and you’re at it again. Let me just cut to the admittedly dogmatic conclusion.
I generally agree with your nicely moderate reply to fardels bear; but when, in the service of that admirable strategy, you concede “modest realism” to Sokal, you are giving away the metaphysical cow for a handful of useless epistemological beans. This is fatal for our side (i.e. pragmatism). Our concern is, or should be, (what Putnam calls) “metaphysical realism,” whether in the case of fact or value. Thus Putnam’s attack, as the title of one of his later books has it, on “the fact-value dichotomy”: the idea that an objective realm of brute fact can save us from “relativism”, preserving a not-quite-so-objective realm of “social fact” safe for a distinct, hermeneutic form of inquiry.
In some contexts, I grant, something like that will be a quick-and-dirty way to put certain postmodern-relativist distractions to one side; but then that free pass given to “[brute] factual objectivity” will allow realists to claim (or assume without further argument) that that contextually useful distinction has metaphysical significance. (Rorty is intermittently okay on this in his reply to Searle, in Truth and Freedom). This will cause unsightly dandelions to re-sprout and mess up our nice green hermeneutical lawn.
To use another folk-tale analogy: when relativists reject universal claims as dogmatic, to allow this sort of “modesty” as a corrective is merely to throw Searle and Sokal into the proverbial briar patch, where they now get to trot out a properly scientific “skepticism” – which then reinforces their metaphysical realism on the cheap (wheels within wheels ... ). In the relevant sense, Sokal’s and Searle’s realism isn’t “modest” at all: it’s the same old metaphysical realism combined with epistemological skepticism – which is all that realists have ever had to give us.
We’ve been here before. This is the “Cartesian phase” of contemporary philosophy. The best of Rorty’s critics (e.g. McDowell) see Rorty’s antipathy to the natural Kantian corrective to this bunch (toss Stroud and Nagel in here too) as leaving him recoiling into (the bad kind of) idealism, where they themselves are trying to move us past our “Kantian phase” to a “Hegelian” one (and then beyond?).
But that’s another story for another day, thank goodness.Posted by Dave Maier on 12/19 at 07:28 PM
@Elliott Tarabour: If humans were wiped out, I believe that gravity would continue to function. (Collective solipsism doesn’t make much sense.) Does that mean that the inverse-square law would still hold? Insofar as the law is a human proposition, and not even true for that matter in an Einsteinian universe, I don’t think it would exist.
As a historian, I find it important to distinguish between nature, the way things are, and science, a human activity that aims to understand nature. Science is no more nature than entomology is insects or historical research is the past.
But now it really is time in snowbound Massachusetts to rustle up some dinner!Posted by Brian Ogilvie on 12/19 at 07:31 PM
Michael, you write that Jefferson “invented” the idea that “all men are created equal.” He didn’t; George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, of June 1776, says:
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
The basic idea had been around at least since the English Revolution, among the Diggers and the Levellers and the Quakers.
And the idea that equality is evident in itself is found in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689), para. 5, in which Locke writes of the theorist Richard Hooker:
“This equality of men by nature, the judicious Hooker looks upon as so evident in itself, and beyond all question, that he makes it the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men, on which he builds the duties they owe one another, and from whence he derives the great maxims of justice and charity.”
That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that it’s obvious that people are not equal in any literal sense.
Literally, equal means identical with respect to some relevant quantity. Two fives equal a ten. It’s not relevant that two fives are twice as many pieces of paper as a ten; they represent the identical amount of money.
Metaphorically, equal means the same with respect to some relevant quality. Chess players are taught that a bishop equals a knight; the loss of one diminishes one’s chance of winning about the same as the loss of the other.
So what is the relevant quality when Jefferson says that it’s evident all men are created equal? You argue he didn’t mean to be claiming an actual relevant quality at all - he was merely proposing a useful concept in political theory. You say that he was lying, in a nice way. He was like the uncle who finds a nickel in your ear.
But I think Jefferson was being serious: in spite of our differences, it is evident that other people are equal in the relevant quality of being thinking, feeling, beings, to the same degree as we are. It’s self-evident because, as science has recently discovered, our brains contain “mirror neurons” that allow us to feel the emotions that we perceive in others. We have not only evolved to read other persons’ emotions from their facial expressions. We have evolved to experience the emotions that we perceive, as if they were our own. Evolution has made it self-evident to us that other people are equally conscious, equally feeling, equally capable of joy and pain. Jefferson didn’t know how he knew that other people were equally as human as himself, but he knew that he did know it, and he was right.Posted by on 12/19 at 08:28 PM
Hockey! Verbosity! Pistolmology!Posted by Chris Clarke on 12/19 at 08:38 PM
Speaking as a mere American scientist (who actually subscribes to American Scientist), I have to admit that I don’t understand what you people are talking about, though I admit you sound pretty smart talking about it. I read Michael’s essay, understood most of it, and agreed with the parts I understood. Social “truths,” including those to which both Tom Jefferson and I subscribe, are not empirically based; I’ll buy that. Human societies are governed largely by rules and (what do you guys call ‘em...mores? still use that one?) notions of right and wrong that are clearly human constructs. They vary from society to society and time to time, etc. yet are nevertheless de facto “truths” in context, if that makes any sense.
Which it may not, as I am way out of my bailiwick here. I do know that my science is not a human construct; at least the data are not, and I’d argue that the interpretations and conclusions aren’t either. Believe it or not, I study turtles, specifically their physiology and ecology (seriously...Chris Clarke* can vouch for that), and I must insist that my students and I are learning true things about turtles that would be demonstrably true to anybody, any time. So please keep your postmodernist sophistry away from my graduate students until I can get them to finish their damn theses...thanks!
About hockey, I got nothin’. Go Pens, I guess.
*(who is, as demonstrated empirically just above, some kind of genius)Posted by on 12/19 at 08:58 PM
"If humans were wiped out, I believe that gravity would continue to function. (Collective solipsism doesn’t make much sense.) Does that mean that the inverse-square law would still hold? Insofar as the law is a human proposition, and not even true for that matter in an Einsteinian universe, I don’t think it would exist.”
Brian, this seems overly cloudy. I guess it’s good that you’re willing to say that gravity would still function, but that of course means that the inverse-square law would still hold, in every important sense. Let’s leave out the part about it not being true in an Einsteinian universe; people brought up the phrase as a convenient abbreviation. And really, that’s what it is, even if you more carefully included Einsteinian effects. When scientists talk about the inverse-square law, they know that human understanding is imperfect—but so what?
Science doesn’t make sense unless reality exists. I don’t really understand what Dave Maier is going on about, but insofar as I do, it would seem to remove the basis for science. Which scientists can only respond to with a shrug, because it doesn’t seem to matter what philosophers think about this to science qua science. It matters politically—people can fuzz up the issues so that everyone’s opinion about matters of fact is just as good as anyone else’s, and so that certain inconvenient truths can continue to be ignored. But otherwise, what does it matter?Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 12/19 at 09:23 PM
I don’t really understand what Dave Maier is going on about
A common affliction. I should learn to write clearly sometime. (Sorry for that last paragraph.)
but insofar as I do, it would seem to remove the basis for science.
I agree: you don’t understand what I’m going on about. What you say to Brian is fine with me. Pragmatists’ philosophical opponents are just those people who disagree with us when we say that, as you put it (I’ve strengthened it a bit), “it doesn’t [...] matter what philosophers think about this to science qua science”. That is in fact what Rorty says to Searle, who thinks instead that to say what pragmatists do (or should, as Rorty, and Michael following him, mess up by my lights) say about objectivity somehow threatens science, which it bloody well does not, and so requires us, in saving it from relativism, to hold ever more tightly to realist metaphysics, even while making soothing epistemological noises. They should not be allowed to get away with this. What Michael says, in showing his anti-relativist bona fides, lets them off the metaphysical (i.e., ontological) hook.Posted by Dave Maier on 12/19 at 10:14 PM
@Sven: ten thousand years ago there was no science. There was nature, and it behaved more or less like nature does now, but there was no science: no scientists, no scientific institutions, no laboratories, no theories, no hypotheses. Over the last five thousand years there have been many claims to a systematic understanding of nature. Some of those claims have been radically at odds with one another. As a historian, I find that the claim that more recent knowledge is simply more true than older knowledge does not get me very far in understanding why things change.
@Rich: I don’t think we disagree about whether scientists can more or less accurately understand the world, but rather, about the ontological status of those understandings. The world is regular, but we take a number of shortcuts to understanding that regularity. Some of those shortcuts are imposed by the limitations of our tools: for instance, the proof that the period of a pendulum is independent of the amplitude of its swing, which depends on the approximation that sin(x)=x for small values of x. Does the “law” of pendulum motion exist independently of Galileo, who first observed it, and those who proved it? I don’t think it does, because the law is a proposition, and propositions don’t exist in nature. Galileo was able to claim that they do because he thought that God had written the Book of Nature in the language of geometry, so he was able to dismiss any deviation between his laws and the behavior of real objects as due to the inherent imperfections of matter.
The position I’m coming from has a number of sources, but for me one of the most important is Nancy Cartwright’s book How the Laws of Physics Lie. “Lie” is a strong word, but Cartwright’s basic point is that modern physical laws state how things would act ceteris paribus--"other things being equal.” The problem is that other things are never equal. The laws are powerful abstractions of nature, and they approximate its behavior amazingly. But it seems to be a category error to say that the laws themselves--those powerful abstractions--exist independently of the human beings who poured immense energy and resources into inventing, testing, and refining them.Posted by Brian Ogilvie on 12/19 at 11:38 PM
E.V. @ 20: Sorry Michael , but I hold Jefferson’s use of “self-evident” as a rhetorical device or a logical fallacy used to sway the masses just as lawyers and pundits do today, as in: “Surely, you and I both know that PZ is evil incarnate, it is self-evident.”
I hear you and agree with you. It was indeed a rhetorical device, and PZ is indeed evil incarnate. My point is simply that such rhetorical devices do not have to seek empirical justification.
Bloix @ 27: Michael, you write that Jefferson “invented” the idea that “all men are created equal.” He didn’t
I stand corrected! Sorry about that. Between you and E.V. @ 18, I got schooled. That’s what I get for being one of those people who sits around thinking of imaginary gardens with real toads in them! When I was writing the essay, I kept thinking of Frost’s “The Black Cottage”:
Her giving somehow touched the principle
That all men are created free and equal.
And to hear her quaint phrases--so removed
From the world’s view to-day of all those things.
That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn’t true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.
And Dave Maier, believe me, I thank you for your patience with my doctrinal errors. I know it has been two years now, and I must appear to you to have learned nothing. (I actually thought of you when I wrote “why so many people in the ‘postmodern’ humanities and social sciences have been so hostile to the idea that the context of justification for scientific knowledge might in fact involve a form of epistemological realism” and said to myself, “Dave Maier is gonna skewer me for this one.") I take your critique of my reliance on Searle’s brute fact/ social fact distinction to be saying that I cut a few important corners when it comes to figuring out how people determine what counts as “scientific” knowledge of the world of brute fact, and I give short shrift to the difficulty of the hermeneutic process scientists engage in. (This also has implications for Colin’s remarks about the brute/ social division of labor, as well.) All I can say for now is that despite the evidence afforded by this review essay, I really am still thinking about your remarks from two years ago, and still trying to take them in. It’ll be a while yet. I still want to believe, however, that when the difficult work of interpretation and laboratory living and revision and reinterpretation reaches a certain point, we really do have an understanding of a natural phenomenon like neutrino oscillation, a phenomenon which has nothing whatsoever to do with any social formation we humans might inhabit.
As for the brute/ social distinction itself— of course, I think of it as a blunt instrument: after all, I’m the pain-in-the-ass guy who asked Searle whether the distinction between brute fact and social fact was itself a brute fact or a social fact (and who believes it’s the latter), and who credits Searle for throwing up his hands and refusing to declare whether things like color and mathematics are brute facts or social facts. So it’s not like I really think we can sweep these things into two neat piles. All I want to do, in engaging with Sokal’s work, is to insist that the kind of knowledge of the natural world one obtains from disciplines like physics should not be taken as a model for the kind of knowledge of the social world one can obtain from the humanities and social sciences. But I suppose I made that clear enough already. Colin’s third point about scales—hmmm, still taking that one in too. It’ll be a while yet.Posted by Michael on 12/19 at 11:41 PM
I was a young man of 20 when I bought The Game as a present for my dad, and then promptly read it before he could get his hands on it. It was a stand-out book, full of intelligent writing coupled with an insider’s view. In other words, nothing that I expected from a sports book. I’ll have to get it and re-read it, I think.
Dryden has proven to be a thoughtful if somewhat flawed politician these past few years. Some people have commented that the fact that he’s a better writer than speaker ruined his chances at becoming leader of the Liberal Party, but that is of course nonsense, based on some of their other choices (Chretien, Dion). But he’s to be admired for believing that he owes society a debt and wishes to pay it back the way he knows best.
Dryden was better at his peak, but Tony O had more staying power. For some reason I recall being a Parent fan in those days, though.
DPosted by Derryl Murphy on 12/20 at 12:24 AM
Not sure I entirely agree with you, Brian, on the “ten thousand years ago there was no science” assertion.
I suppose it depends on your definition of science, of course: if it presupposes grant proposals it’d only reach back to the Medicis.
But in the sense of a systematic framework of knowledge about the natural world, I’d suggest that science predates human history. The pace of scientific *advancement* may have been rather slow during the Pleistocene, but science there was nonetheless, to my thinking: natural history in all its forms is, after all, a science.
The process of study through experimentation is shared with some of our closest cousins, too. One could argue that science predates genus Homo. Sentience almost certainly does.Posted by Chris Clarke on 12/20 at 12:57 AM
We simply disagree. We could go round and round and probably each of us would not budge. I claim that e=mc^2 was true and existed independently of any human thought before Einstein wrote it down. It would have been difficult for the sun to shine without it. And I believe it was shining before the 20th century.
But if your in Mass, you are probably digging out from the storm that hit Chicago last night.
Stay warm.Posted by on 12/20 at 01:00 AM
Fair enough. But let’s leave it at “some form of realism” (i.e., not “epistemological”: realism is a metaphysical issue). Incidentally, as I think I’ve mentioned, fellow pragmatist Joseph Margolis (who needs an editor even more than I do, if you can believe it) urges us to accept “a form of relativism compatible with realism”. So there are all kinds of terms for our moderate position. It’s just that I don’t think that Sokal and Searle (and Haack – there’s another one) get to be “moderate” too simply because of their “modesty.”
In any case, I do hope, if not to convince you of the importance of those corners you cut, at least to make clearer what it is that I mean in saying so. Part of why I jump into these things is to get worked up enough to write something new on the matter for myself (I haven’t been posting much lately). Maybe I’ll do so this time. In the meantime read your late-80’s/early-90’s-era Davidson! And check this out (holy logic puzzle, Batman!).Posted by Dave Maier on 12/20 at 01:43 AM
Oh, and w/r/t that other issue: I became a hockey fan just in time for the Habs to win four straight Cups, so for me Dryden was and is the man. (I understand that Tretiak was some kind of superhuman, though.) Thanks to Amos Anan for that knowledgeable and eloquent post.
Correction: it was to Brian @15 that you said some good stuff in #19, not fardels bear, who only gets the first sentence of that paragraph.Posted by Dave Maier on 12/20 at 02:03 AM
i think one of the reasons i got tired of doing stuff recently is that i’ve done a bunch of stuff this year.
if by “doing stuff” you mean “blogging,” then i’m right witcha.Posted by skippy on 12/20 at 02:17 AM
Michael, I didn’t mean to school you. I got carried away with that bit. I did have something important I was trying to say, but being a born smarty-pants I had to start with the one-upmanship. Beg your pardon.
And begging your indulgence, I don’t believe that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” is mere rhetoric. (Well, “self” is rhetoric - there isn’t any difference between self-evident and evident, but with “self” the line is in iambic pentameter, which makes it more true.)
I think that Jefferson really did think that the equal humanity of other people is self-evident. That it doesn’t require proof, or even thought. And he wasn’t alone - after all, the good burgers of the Virginia House of Delegates, slaveholders to a man, had voted their agreement the month before.
Was they all deluded? I don’t think so. I think that we do recognize a fundamental sameness among people - even those who enslave and kill some others and exalt other others as God’s anointed recognize that there is a human identity that is common to everyone.
And I think that science is getting around to explaining how it is that we recognize that sameness. That’s why I brought up mirror neurons - because I think that the sciences, evolution and neurology in particular, are beginning to have a lot to tell us about the answers to political and ethical questions. We evolved as social creatures for whom the recognition of the equal humanity of others benefited our chances of survival, and so we developed the brain structures necessary to form that recognition.
So when Jefferson said that equality is self-evident, he meant that his senses could perceive, without the intervention of reason, that other people were equally as human as he was. He was right about that - he was literally correct that his sensory system, in its ability to read emotion on another’s face and reproduce that emotion in his own consciousness, detected the humanity of others without any need for the intermediation of reason.
And science is now getting to the point that it can explain how Jefferson directly perceived the humanity of others. It’s not a rhetorical device - it’s not pulling a nickel out of your ear and pretending it was always there - it’s a literal scientific truth that is out in the world, ready to be discovered.
I do agree that, today, “things like “theories of social justice” are indeed socially constructed.” Lots of theories that are now science used to be socially constructed- like, why it rains, and why people die. But I also believe that many socially constructed theories are just false. And I am not at all sure about whether, some day, the human understanding of social justice will have a scientific grounding. At the very least, scientific discoveries in cognition, emotion, memory, and consciousness will have to inform future theories of social justice if they are to be more than false ideologies.Posted by on 12/20 at 05:28 AM
I think Bloix is getting us back round to the point, and in my earlier comment I did not mean to imply that there was an irony to Jefferson’s statement that he would have perceived. I’m sure he really DID mean that ALL men were created equal, but in his mind the antagonists of that “pesky Indian problem” were not men. In that statement, we see the idea of sovereignty in all its glory: and Native Americans, Jeffersons slaves, etc. are those reduced to bare life (in Agamben’s terms). Thus, they don’t count and Jefferson and the other “founding fathers” may displace and terminate them as easily as the Nazis the Jews. But Bloix has also brought us around to the participation of religion in this conversation (not faith, but the political institution).
When I cited the declaration of independence, in which Jefferson names the “merciless Indian savages,” I meant to point to the originary religious character of social categories of exclusion. These we can study...we have the data and, unfortunately, it is human lives. How many people have died from being branded savage, barbarian, pagan, monster, heretic, contumacious, etc. (all terms that various religio-political institutions have used to exclude individuals or groups) throughout history? My earlier point was precisely that any social theory of justice is ironic until we take this rather bloody history into account.
But that’s not going to happen, but Michael, I don’t think we need to pander to the philosophers of science that don’t want that to happen. Yes, at some point we can state an understanding of a neutrino oscillation, just as we can at least pretend to an understanding of Jefferson’s “self-evidence that all men are created equal,” be it in the idea of sovereignty or of religio-political exclusion. Just because laboratories have a life and we can acknowledge an isolated instance of their textual production, does not mean that experiments aren’t repeated until an understanding is achieved (that old mainstay of the scientific method). What the theologically trained Bruno Latour does to interpret science is precisely to fit it into HIS OWN process (of social understanding ?!?!).
Brute fact and social fact are not polar opposites of one another, regardless of the advantage making them opposites gives to historical relativists. They exist together in a rather beautiful irony. What I mean is that, of course our world is interpreted in our act of understanding (through language or whatever) and of course some facts are socially constructed. However, when we take humanity out of the equation (as historical relativists do) in the name of relativism (as one of those pesky details), we return to that central irony of Jefferson’s statement--that ALL men are not important in his statement. And that is what I originally meant above with regard to Galileo and Kepler and Newton… historical relativism lives to serve those who would rather forget about the very real troubles faced at a social level by certain human beings.Posted by Derek T. on 12/20 at 12:31 PM
I think every discussion of the Sokal hoax needs to include a discussion of (or at least mention) the Bogdanov Affair.Posted by wolfgang on 12/20 at 01:22 PM
Re: Sokal’s hoax, I agree with Michael that the initial responses of Ross, Robbins and Aronowitz were more damaging than the acceptance of the article itself.
Several journals were involved in the Bogdanov scandal. In the cases of Classical and Quantum Gravity and Annals of Physics (I don’t know about the others), the editors issued forthright statements to the effect: “This reveals a flaw in our refereeing process, we’re reviewing our standards, we apologize to the physics community.”
Granted there are differences in that the physics journals had formal peer review procedures and Social Text didn’t. Still, I think there’s a lesson in there for any editors who might be hoaxed in the future.Posted by on 12/20 at 01:41 PM
Thanks to Brian @15 and Michael @19 for more on the hypothesis/verification split.
Sven, I think Michael’s distinctions clear plenty of room for your grad students to finish their theses and more!
Thanks Michael for the responses. 2 questions.
1. Is there a hypothesis/verification distinction for social facts?
2. How well does the category of social fact stretch from Jefferson’s utterance to questions like what determines the wage share of national income, or how a particular kinship system organizes inheritance?Posted by on 12/20 at 03:12 PM
Dave Maier: “Pragmatists’ philosophical opponents are just those people who disagree with us when we say that, as you put it (I’ve strengthened it a bit), “it doesn’t [...] matter what philosophers think about this to science qua science”. “
All right, we agree on that. But it still matters politically what philosophers think about science, because philosophical ideas are routinely dumbed down for political ends. Pragmatism tends to sound a whole lot like—hmm, what the name for the Bush science doctrine?—clap-your-hands relativism. perhaps. The idea that scientific ideas are socially determined, and can in fact be assigned to be whatever the ruler finds to be most pragmatically useful for the ruling class.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 12/20 at 03:28 PM
You make it sound like what we have agreed is that it doesn’t matter that pragmatist philosophers are relativists/instrumentalists because, well, who cares what philosophers think (an idea which you then qualify, rightly FWIW).
But pragmatists aren’t relativists or instrumentalists. How many times do I have to say it? (I’ll stop after this one anyway.) What the ruling class thinks, or what would be to their advantage, has nothing to do with how things are. Nobody thinks otherwise: me, Michael, Rorty, anyone (not even Derrida, AFAICT).
The sense in which “philosophy doesn’t matter to science” is this. Pragmatists believe that “metaphysical realism” (which I will not define here) is an incoherent philosophical doctrine. What would happen to science if we gave it up? Nothing – it doesn’t matter to scientists qua scientists. They don’t need that doctrine. All they need is the commonsense idea that the world doesn’t depend on what we think of it or say about it. That idea remains in place when the philosophical cancer is removed.
Might not people get the wrong idea though? Of course they can. (Evidently.) But that’s always true. In any case pragmatists (and Wittgensteinians) try less to replace faulty doctrine with true (see, my initial reference to Michael’s doctrinal errors was kind of a joke) than to dispel the confusion which keeps us from seeing common sense practice as swinging free of the sort of philosophical “grounding” which most other philosophers (realists, for example) think it requires. But it doesn’t.Posted by Dave Maier on 12/20 at 05:48 PM
Don’t you philostophers like to start discussions by “defining our terms”? My favorite definition of “science” is that of ecologist Robert MacArthur:
The only rules of scientific method are honest observations and accurate logic.
The rest--hypothesis, experiment, measurement technology--is elaboration on that minimalist framework. Under that definition, I think Chris is correct that there was science 10000 years ago. It might even be argued that crows do rudimentary science, and I have no problem with that. What makes science an effective epistomology (and I make myself uncomfortable just typing that word) is that it is gradually self-correcting: mistaken observations that cannot be replicated are gradually abandoned, and logic is incrementally improved. In that sense, I don’t see how it could not be true that, for the kinds of questions science can address, we are closer to true answers now than ever before.
What are the assumptions of this approach? 1) That there is an external reality that humans can observe without affecting it; and (pace Heisenberg) at all but the tiniest and weirdest physical scale this seems to be true (in biology, the fossil record seems adequate justification). 2) That logic is trustworthy and not some misleading quirk of primate neurological wiring or language (which also seems likely given the international character of modern science and its impressive consilience among disciplines).
In any case, I require very little philosophy beyond MacArthur to do my daily work: I catch turtles, make the same measurements over and over until I can trust the grad students to make them over and over and over; I plot the data and try to suss out what they might mean; I write down my interpretations and subject them to the vicious criticism of my peers (returned in kind); I publish, and move on to another question. It’s just turtles, observations, and logic all the way down. Of course, I have the “luxury” of working in an esoteric-enough field that only me and a couple of dozen other people worldwide really give a shit; if I was investigating basic questions of cosmology and the reductionistics of existence, the philosophy thing might seem more pressing.Posted by on 12/20 at 06:51 PM
- Posted by Someone had to on 12/20 at 07:17 PM
Anyway I think you said what i was trying to say but much more coherently.Posted by on 12/20 at 07:54 PM
"What the ruling class thinks, or what would be to their advantage, has nothing to do with how things are. Nobody thinks otherwise: [...]”
I don’t really get that, either. If anything at all is socially constructed, then the ruling class has to have at least some influence on it.
But to return to philosophical “grounding”—the problem is that outside grounding really is important, not to science, but to beliefs. For example, Christianity really is in trouble because people now know about evolution. The ones who say that isn’t, that opposition to the teaching of evolution by Christians is irrational, are deluded. Galileo really was a threat to the Catholic church. Theologians come up with a lot of subtle reasons why it doesn’t matter that science contradicts the holy books, but they only have done so under duress: religious ideas can’t have the same authority or hold on people that they would if people thought that they were really true.
So it’s difficult to say that there’s a common-sense belief in reality that doesn’t require philosophical grounding. In the same way that some people in this thread have taken “the inverse square law” to stand for “the idea that gravity will continue to occur as it does whether we understand it fully or not, and whether a human being experiences it or not”, people take “realism” as meaning “the idea that the physical universe actually exists”. It’s not a matter of technical philosophy, clearly.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 12/20 at 09:04 PM
Well, I certainly agree that people do take “realism” that way. After 350 years, the Cartesian picture is pretty well entrenched in our language. That’s why it’s so hard to advance a different picture - everything you say sounds funny. So you have to make your points in a number of different (presumably complementary) ways, and you end up sounding inconsistent or worse. No way around it really. Some people bail and go write literature, but you *really* don’t want to read my (non-existent, I assure you) novel.
I’m not getting your point about Christianity. Sometimes what seems “subtle” to some is crashingly obvious to others, and I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to divine the motivations of theologians (or believers, for that matter). But let’s not get into that.Posted by Dave Maier on 12/21 at 11:43 AM
Bloix @ 40: I think that science is getting around to explaining how it is that we recognize that sameness. That’s why I brought up mirror neurons - because I think that the sciences, evolution and neurology in particular, are beginning to have a lot to tell us about the answers to political and ethical questions.
Thanks for the reminder, Bloix! Last time around I forgot to say how very skeptical I am about this line of argument. But it’s complicated. One of the papers I’ve been giving/ revising lately involves disability and animality and Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, which makes much of the intersection between the ethical and the neurological. So my thoughts on this are still under construction. But here’s where they are for now: yes, I grant that there’s a weak sense in which (almost) all humans are created equal: (almost) all of us have the same architecture. (The (almost) is in there because you don’t—at least I don’t—want to wind up kicking some humans out of the club if their mirror neurons don’t work so well. Unlike Singer and McMahan, whose work I’m still working through, I think it’s OK to value species membership—just so long as that valuation ("we’re all equally members of homo sapiens sapiens") doesn’t get bundled in with the devaluation and destruction of everything else on the planet. But I don’t see that any of our species commonalities—users of language, drinkers of water, adepts at facial recognition—automatically provide the basis for a recognition of our moral or political “equality.” The last time I ventured into these alien waters at Crooked Timber, Harry referred me to Jeremy Waldron, who apparently is working on this question from another angle, and whose stuff I’ve been reading slowly over the past few months. Since I see you at CT now and again, I thought you might be interested in Waldron as well.
Colin @ 44: 1. Is there a hypothesis/verification distinction for social facts?
2. How well does the category of social fact stretch from Jefferson’s utterance to questions like what determines the wage share of national income, or how a particular kinship system organizes inheritance?
Hey, this is a version of your “scales” question @ 8, isn’t it? Because, as you put it, “there are smaller-scale social facts of the kind that cultural anthro brings out—even when people speak in the idiom of widely-shared ideas like justice or responsibility or sin, those ideas are given shape and substance in smaller, denser contexts.” If that’s the case, and I think it is, then the only answer I can imagine is “it depends.” (Oh noes! Local knowledges again!)
To take the Searlean example: there is no hypothesis/ verification distinction for things like $20 bills. I don’t sit down and think, “hmmm, I wonder if these things are legal tender for all debts public and private,” pull one out, read the front, and say “eureka! hypothesis verified.” Then there are things for which (imho) the hypothesis/ verification distinction seems kinda irrelevant, like “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Because even if I manage to disprove this by way of a few telling counterexamples, it’s still worth taking seriously. ("All men are created equal” falls into this group as well, at least on my account.) And then we get into things like the wage share of national income, or how a particular kinship system organizes inheritance. Or, for that matter, whether Tony Esposito was a better goaltender than Ken Dryden. (I wasn’t being facetious about this: on one of the hockey blogs I’ve been reading lately I came across this discussion of the relative merits of Terry Sawchuk and Jacques Plante, and the blog as a whole is like a treasure trove of empirical measures of goaltending success and failure.) Empirical evidence in support of X or Y proposition about these things seems critical, does it not? Housing bubbles are social facts as well, but they are the kind of social facts about which one can have hypotheses that are or aren’t verified.
What we need, apparently, is a comprehensive classificatory scheme for social facts, from kingdom and phylum down to genus and species. And a much larger margin.Posted by Michael on 12/21 at 01:04 PM
Dave, maybe you should try a post for the novice—or direct me to it, if you’ve already written it—that tries to explain what you mean as simply as possible.
As a TA, I sometimes had to have a go at explaining quantum physics to freshmen. Are you referring to something analogous? I used to tell people that QM didn’t mean that matter didn’t exist, or that Newtonian physics didn’t work for most ordinary situations, and so on, it’s just that there was another layer underneath that didn’t work as expected. Does the “common sense practice” that you refer to occur the space of Newtonian physics in the analogy? Or is it supposed to be a free-standing, unsupported sort of thing that isn’t grounded by philosophy at all? Because I don’t believe in the second one, absent some better idea of what you mean.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 12/21 at 05:57 PM
That should be “occupy the space of” , not “occur the space of”, above.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 12/21 at 05:58 PM
As you know, I am a lifetime fan of the b-b-et-r in Bruinsland. I remember listening to that series with the Soviet Army on some French-language station from Montreal. (The 1971 Cup series against the Bruins was a great time for me, I can tell you. ) I am envious of that new boxed set, and of the Tretiak bio, of which I had not heard. What’s his take on being pulled in the 1980 game against the US, one of the greatest overcoaching moves of all time, IMHO. Both he and Dryden were the coolest hands in net I ever saw. (Roy was more gifted, I think, but he was plainly nuts.)Posted by on 12/21 at 07:41 PM
I found myself nodding at Harris’ arguments all the way through The End of Faith until his final chapter, when I banged into his claim (p. 221) that “Mysticism is a rational enterprise,” and wondered whether I’d misunderstood by presumption his definitions of any other words he’d used along the way. “Weird” might be the word, yes.
I’m not a literary theorist, but reading your review of Sokal’s book it struck me that I would have to really scratch my head to think of another scientist who would share Harris’ view that the definition of empirical verification includes purely subjective experiences like meditation. Timothy Leary comes to mind, I suppose.
And this, after noting that ‘pragmatism’ can be directly opposed to ‘realism’, is which again? If I find something inside my own head, did I discover it, invent it, or both?Posted by on 12/22 at 02:02 AM
Brian, Michael recommends Ian Hacking’s dolomite piece, but the discussion of the DOD and lasers (I forget whether that’s Hacking’s work or the work of others-- probably others) is probably closer to the solar observatory development you mention.
Sven, if it’s any comfort to you, historians are worse at navel-gazing than scientists. At least scientists have Karl Popper.Posted by Sherman Dorn on 12/22 at 04:52 AM
Now that Mr. Pierce is here, perhaps we can finally address the pressing philosophical problem of what the hell is the deal with Bergeron.
And, er, mostly what Mr. Puchalsky said. That’s how I would have responded to Mr. Ogilvie, only I would have been less coherent and more profane, as is my wont. To be fair, though, I think Mr. Ogilvie founders on the use of “Law,” which is a common pitfall. The inverse-square “law,” as something written down in equation form and described in terms of forces and other flibber-flabber, could be considered a construction of humans. The fact that bodies move as if under the influence of a force that falls off with the square of distance is not a human construct. Unless planets didn’t move in elliptical orbits, or distance didn’t exist, before hominids came along and started hurling thighbones in the air. And, well, even if that is the case, I’m going to carry on as if there were an objective reality obeying scientific laws, because it works out so well when I flip a light switch.
I therefore think there might be something to what Mr. Maier is saying in response to Mr. Puchalsky, so I hope they don’t talk past each other too much. Pragmatists seem to share my confidence in the outcome of flipping light switches.
or what’s going on with those oscillating neutrinos.
Bérubé, you magnficent bastard, you read my master’s project! I contemptuously throw over Chris Clarke, and seek to bear your children… Hang on…
But they don’t conclude that their predecessors adopted the inverse square law or neutrino oscillation (a) simply because these things were true, end of story (naive realism),
Er, well, not simply, but “true, to the limits of current observation” is in there somewhere, right? (Though I’d agree that the neutrino thing is much more dependent on abstract models than the dance of the celestial spheres is.) Nevertheless, perhaps I shouldn’t be so hasty. Um, Chris, there was never anyone else.Posted by on 12/22 at 10:13 AM
Sven@47, Thanks for the MacArthur “simplified” definition, a nice succinct characterization.
In any case, I require very little philosophy beyond MacArthur to do my daily work
That is undoubtedly true. However, I would think it completely uncontroversial to note that at any given time a snapshot of the corpus of scientific knowledge, as well what questions are being pursued is to a significant degree influenced by social facts. An example from the past would be the relative lag in the early 18th century understanding many basic concepts in geology and the life sciences relative to physics. Today’s lacunae will probably only be clear in hindsight. This can be the case despite there not being any question about the correctness or objective reality of any of the accepted positions within the corpus at the time. (Although it can get right into the middle of the acceptance of the “knowledge” itself, such as the widely divergent estimates of the age of the earth in the late 19th century.)Posted by on 12/22 at 11:51 AM
"Kharmalov” looks wrong to me. You sure it’s not “Kharlamov”?Posted by on 12/22 at 01:48 PM
What, did I say Kharmalov? My bad. Fixed now!
Captcha: game.Posted by Michael on 12/22 at 02:43 PM
Maybe one of the real scientists can help out. Have the neutrino oscillations led to definitive predictions of neutrino mass(es)? If so is this sufficient to account for dark matter or ruled out by 1) total mass being too small or 2) behavior characteristics of neutrinos don’t track with DM?Posted by on 12/22 at 02:52 PM
Neutrino oscillation experiments themselves only provide a way to narrow down mass differences. Other experimental and cosmological considerations (that this comment box is too small to contain) lead to teensy upper bounds on neutrino mass that would require them to be so-called “hot dark matter” in order to make a substantial mass contribution. Cold dark matter models fit observed large-scale structure of the universe better, so neutrinos are unlikely to be the dark matter magic bullet.
So, um, obviously gravitation is a much better subject for discussing scientific empiricism.
(Take all of this with a grain of muons; my particle physics is years out-of-date. Come to think of it, if I had been any good at it, why wouldn’t I still be doing it?)Posted by on 12/22 at 04:00 PM
if I had been any good at it, why wouldn’t I still be doing it?
One of the reasons I left theoretical particle physics was that it was full of self-important wankers, with a few notable exceptions. There are less of them in (the lower strata of) the corporate world. Much nicer.Posted by on 12/22 at 04:15 PM
Today’s lacunae will probably only be clear in hindsight.
We’ll see. Or, more likely, we won’t.Posted by on 12/22 at 06:47 PM
Rich, I don’t know your background or what exactly your concern is with these matters, so I’m not sure what to tell you at the moment. (I’m working on another reply to Michael, whose motives I think I do understand.) Your QM analogy is reasonably congenial, although I think there are some disanalogies there too. You might as well think about it that way for now. In any case I don’t think that common sense is a universal faculty the deliverances of which are ipso facto free from revision, if that’s what you were worried about. After all, what is considered “common sense” has changed considerably over the centuries, some of that change indeed powered, even forced, by scientific discoveries. In general I’m not sure what sort of “philosophical grounding” you think is necessary - though of course as a philosopher I do think that my concerns are not simply trivial! We can get into that some other time, I imagine.Posted by Dave Maier on 12/22 at 10:10 PM
“common sense” has changed considerably over the centuries, some of that change indeed powered, even forced, by scientific discoveries. In general I’m not sure what sort of “philosophical grounding” you think is necessary - though of course as a philosopher I do think that my concerns are not simplyPosted by Cheap Evening Dresses on 04/12 at 07:50 AM