Monday, 12 July 2004 15:58

Hard Science and Philosophy

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Hard Science and Philosophy

Is it even possible for scientists and mathematicians to understand or appreciate philosophy? Do they lack a neccessary nimbleness to discern philosophical questions or the impact of such answers? For many (most) among the "harder" sciences, philosophy shares a stage with religion, art, or fantastic child-like whimsy. Why is this? Could it be they are too judgmental or inflexible in their beliefs? Might they be too acquisitive to be distracted by the philosophical implications of their work? Are they not clever enough to understand it? Perhaps they are too shallow to even grasp fundamental questions?

Mike Alder (a mathematician) explains why practicioners of hard science don’t like philosophy but discretely pursue it anyway. He offers explination to explain why scientists and mathematicians are inclined to be dismissive of the subject. Additionally, Mr. Alder explains how and why they still explore philosophy pseudonymously.

The scientist’s perception of philosophy is that a philosophical analysis is a sterile word game played in a state of mental muddle. When you ask of a scientist if we have free will, or only think we have, he would ask in turn: “What measurements or observations would, in your view, settle the matter?” If your reply is “Thinking deeply about it”, he will smile pityingly and pass you by. He would be unwilling to join you in playing what he sees as a rather silly game.

Scientists: "truth about how the universe works cannot generally be arrived at by pure reason. The only thing reason can do is to allow us to deduce some truth from other truths. And since we haven’t got many truths to start out from, only provisional hypotheses and a necessarily finite set of observations, we cannot arrive at secure beliefs by thought alone."

Most scientists are essentially Popperian positivists – they take the view that their professional life consists of finite observations, universal general hypotheses from which deductions can be made, and that it is essential to test the deductions by further observations because even though the deductions are performed by strict logic (well, mathematics usually), there is no guarantee of their correctness.

How did it come about that anyone could imagine that pure reason, to use Kant’s term, could inevitably lead to truth about the world?

  • Socrates doesn’t actually give a proof; instead he draws one out of the slave by asking questions (and if you want to see if you have the mathematical skills of an Attic slave, you can scrutinise Socrates' diagram and see if you can prove it).
  • In Euclid’s Elements, there is remorseless deduction of mathematical propositions from a ridiculously small number of axioms, you cannot help but be impressed by what can be done by persistent and careful thought.

To many of the Greeks, the connection with reality was too tenuous to be worth bothering about. Axioms were regarded as ‘self-evident truths’, dredged by pure thought from reality, and the philosophers didn’t believe the axioms could be other than they were.

There are two basic reasons why mathematicians and scientists generally reject Platonist methods. One comes from Euclidean geometry. The axiom of the parallels was given by Euclid and asserts that through a point, parallel to a given line, one line and only one can be drawn. A great many people felt unhappy about this axiom. It didn’t seem to them to come under the heading of a proper axiom, because they didn’t find it self-evident.

The second reason for rejecting Platonist methods was the revolution in philosophy made by Sir Isaac Newton. You can see what it amounted to by reading De Rerum Naturae by Lucretius, a gentleman who wrote a long lyrical poem about science (as he conceived it) which discussed among other things the question of whether we see things by something coming off the objects we see and coming into our eyes, or whether our eyes reached out in some way to touch the objects and grapple with them. Compare this with Newton’s Opticks, and you notice some substantive differences. Lucretius was a philosopher, old style. Newton was undoubtedly a philosopher, but he had a different and non-Platonist method.

Newton made his philosophical method quite clear. If Newton made a statement, it was always going to be something which could be tested, either directly or by examining its logical consequences and testing them. The first question the Newtonian philosopher asks is: What set of observations do you consider would establish the truth of your claim? If the answer consists of some definite set of observations and these are in fact made and produce the results required, the next step is to demand that the logical connections between the observations and the claim be provided.

There are, of course, a lot of pre-Newtonian philosophers around. People who might Newtonians of neglecting the study of vitally important matters such as ethics and the nature of mind. Newtonians simply reply that there is little constructive to say about such matters because, to be honest, Newtonians find them irreconcilable and therefore not understandable. That said, Newtonians are observed exploring these question, albiet differently. Ethics may be approachable through a study of evolution and repeated games theory. And the mind is being explored through Cognitive Processing, Biology, Chemistry, and Mathematics.

Such then is a view of the majority of practising scientists. They believe they have elevated philosophy to new heights, incorporating mathematics and reasoning to levels far past anything Plato mastered -- so the best one might hope for from the hard sciences is an acknowledgment that Plato was alright for his day, but that his day is long past. Scientists and mathematicians are indisputably trying to understand the universe, and a lot of thought goes into such efforts. They believe they are actually employing (natural) philosophy. But few would dare call it philosophy these days for fear of being mistaken for the sort of philosopher who is prepared to settle hard problems about minds and brains and computer programs with only the most tenuous knowledge of how minds and brains and computers actually work.

This is an abstract from the original publication. The original author goes much deeper into detail that I have shared here. Please visit the source for the full article if this has interested you.

Author: Mike Alder is a mathematician at the University of Western Australia. He has published in the philosophy of science although he is currently working on pattern recognition. He holds degrees in Physics, Pure Mathematics and Engineering Science.

Source: >Newton's Flaming Laser Sword - Philosophy Now (Issue 46)

Read 1287 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 March 2015 16:31
Rich Wermske

My pedigree and bona fides are published elsewhere. That said, I respect that a few may wish to learn more about the private person behind the writing.  While I accept I am exceptionally introverted (tending toward the misanthropic), I do enjoy socializing and sharing time with like-minded individuals. I have a zeal for integrity, ethics, and the economics of both interpersonal and organizational behavior.

The product of multi-generational paternal dysfunction, I practice healthy recovery (sobriety date December 11, 2001).  I am endogamous in my close personal relationships and belong to a variety of tribes that shape my worldview (in no particular order):

☯ I participate in and enjoy most geek culture. ☯ I am a practicing Buddhist and a legally ordained minister. I like to believe that people of other spiritual/faith systems find me approachable.  I am a member of the GLBTQA community -- I married my long-time partner in a ceremony officiated by Jeralita "Jeri" Costa of Joyful Joinings on November 18, 2013, certificated in King County, Seattle WA. We celebrate an anniversary date of February 2, 2002.  I am a service-connected, disabled, American veteran (USAF).  I am a University of Houston alumnus (BBA/MIS) and currently studying as a post baccalaureate for an additional degree in Philosophy and Law, Values, & Policy.  I am a retired Bishop in the Church of Commerce and Capitalism; the story arch of my prosecuting and proselytizing the technological proletariat is now behind me.  I am a native Houstonian (and obviously Texan).  At 50 years old, I am a "child of the sixties" and consider the 80's to be my formative years.

As I still struggle with humility, I strive to make willingness, honesty, and open mindedness cornerstones in all my affairs. Fourteen years of sobriety has taught me that none of "this" means a thing if I'm unwilling, dishonest, or close minded.  Therefore I work hard on the things I believe in --

  • I believe we can always achieve more if we collaborate and compromise.
  • I believe that liberal(ism) is a good word/concept and something to be proud to support.  The modern, systematic corruption of liberal ideas is a living human tragedy.
  • I believe in a worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. The pragmatism of this site and my journey is rooted in both classical and social liberalism.
  • I believe in democratic elections and institutions including a media free of commercial and governmental bias.  Liberty and equality perish when a society becomes uneducated and/or ill-informed.
  • I believe in diversity of life and ideas.  Life and ideas can only flourish when the gene pool is vast and abundantly differentiated.
  • I believe in advancing balance in civil, social, and privacy rights such that all of humanity is continuously uplifted.
  • I believe in separation of church (spirituality) and state (governance) -- with neither in supremacy nor subjugation.
  • I believe in private (real or tangible) property explicitly excluding ideas, knowledge, and methods; such non-tangibles, by natural law, being free for all humanity and emancipated at conception.

While change and the uncertainty of the future may be uncomfortable, I do not fear the unknown; therefore:

    • I believe I must be willing to make difficult choices, that those choices may not be all that I desire, and that such may result in undesirable (or unintended) consequences;
    • I believe we must be willing to make mistakes or be wrong; and I am willing to change my mind if necessary.
I undertake to abide the five precepts of Buddhism; therefore:
  1. I believe it is wrong to kill or to knowingly allow others to kill.
  2. I believe it is wrong to steal or to knowingly allow others to steal.
  3. I believe in abstention from sexual misconduct.
  4. I believe it is wrong to lie or to knowingly allow others to lie.
  5. I believe in abstention from non-medicinal intoxicants as such clouds the mind.

Suicide, major depression, borderline personality, and alcoholism are feral monsters ever howling at my doorstep. However, despite my turbulent and tragic past, rare is the day where I have to rationalize, defend, or justify the actions of that person I see looking back at me in the mirror...

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