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Philosophy of Science 2003 Forum

Comments are posted in the order in which they are received, with earlier postings appearing first below on this page. To see the latest postings, click on "Go to last comment" below.

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Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-01-13 11:49:10
Link to this Comment: 4216

Welcome to the on-line forum area for Philosophy 310. Think of this as a place where we can continue conversations between class meetings, a place to leave thoughts in progress that might be helpful to others and to read thoughts in progress from others that might be helpful to you. Its also a place where the conversations we're having can be seen by others and so contribute to wider conversations about the significant issues posed by philosophy of science. Read, think, write, enjoy.

first meeting
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-01-21 14:01:19
Link to this Comment: 4219

Enjoyed/was stimulated by our opening conversation on the nature of science and its relation to philosophy. Hope you all were too. Among the things that stick in my mind for further discussion

Things that didn't stick in my mind but did in yours? Thoughts/reactions to any of the above? Looking forward to next week.

second meeting
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-02-03 10:16:44
Link to this Comment: 4364

Enjoyed very much MK's characterization of a Popper/Kuhn polarity along the lines of a "realist"/constructivist (social) dichotomy. Is very rich, reminds me of the "two cultures" dichotomy originally characterized as science versus humanities but which turns out to occur internally within most disciplines (see The Two Cultures: A Conversation).

The other issue that caught my fancy was whether Popper actually "needs" his "realist" posture for the particular arguments he wants to make about science (which are, as we talked about, very similar to the ones we talked about the previous week). My suspicion is that he doesn't, which raises some very interesting issues, both philosophical and social/intellectual. If he doesn't need that posture, why does he adopt it?

third meeting
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-02-09 10:20:00
Link to this Comment: 4484

Rich ... am getting to expect it. Thanks all. And particularly to Shannon, whose dissection of Popper was comprehensive, clear, and raised very much the same questions I had in mind going into the session. MK and I had an interesting brief conversation on the way out about the personal/social/cultural context within which Popper was working and the possible impact of that on his philosophical analyses. Popper as a "methodological constructivist but a metaphysical realist"?

The other thing that sticks in my mind was the issue of the charge on an electron, whether that is an essential property of an electron or instead a characterization of its relations to other things. Indeed, the whole "essentialist/relativist" issue seems to me very much worth further exploration, unpacking in its own right and in relation to the two cultures issue (on my mind from last week) ... and in relation to a much larger array of "dichotomies" (self as essential or relational?). Is it possible that anything/everything is ALWAYS amenable to two different but (in some sense) equally good descriptions, one essentialist and the other relativist?

Along these lines, I cheated a bit and started reading Kosso. Very nice book, very relevant. Looking forward when we get to it to taking about whether spatial location is best thought of in essentialist or relativist terms.

Another theme I think we'll want to come back to is the issue of whether "discovery" depends on being a "metaphysical realist". Are there ways to evaluate "progress" without presuming a stable world out there which one is "discovering"? And how does that relate to the issues of symbol usage, of emptiness, of "intentionality"?

02.10.03 Monday
Name: Hannah Wil
Date: 2003-02-10 16:26:19
Link to this Comment: 4512

Today in class, we were talking about how a constructivist view of the world can seem very arrogant. Why should we describe ourselves as creating the world, when we don't say that it can also be created by flowers and flowerpots?

I don't think constructivists have to be arrogant. Even though we describe the birth of a symbol system as an act of "creation," it doesn't have to be *conscious* creation. I think all living things can be described as having a symbol system, which they use to interact with their surroundings.

I would also argue that by using the word "input", Goodman didn't become a realist. The "surroundings" (above) aren't real. This makes sense if you agree that if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it, it didn't make any noise.

Name: Tegan Geor
Date: 2003-02-19 21:58:00
Link to this Comment: 4686

But Hannah, I think the tree falling alone in the woods made a sound, even if no one heard it.

Trees falling
Name: Hannah Wil
Date: 2003-02-21 19:48:54
Link to this Comment: 4743

Yes, Tegan, I'm beginning to think that you're right. I go to school in order to learn to do physics problems that seem to presuppose things like "sound waves (and therefore sound) exist, even if nobody notices them". Maybe I'm just being seduced by constructivism because it seems so fashionable.

I think it is important to realize that constructivists aren't necissarily megalomaniacs, though.

But I *am* beginning to be very worried about this problem of the "surroundings". If people recieve some kind of input from somewhere, that they use to construct symbol systems, does that mean the input comes from *reality* ?

Are there any constructivists out there who have a way around this?

trees plus ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-02-22 11:52:12
Link to this Comment: 4753

Sorry to have missed our monday conversation last week because of the snow, but pleased to find Hannah and Tegan joining the conversation here. Noticed that you can get an email when new postings are made by clicking on "Keep me posted" at beginning or end of the forum? Means you don't have to remember the URL or keep checking back to see what's new.

The issue of the tree falling in the woods is an important one, and one we'll certainly take up toward the end of the course (when we get to the brain). To anticipate a bit, I'll come down on Hannah's side: no "noise" if no one there. The point is a lot like whether "redness" is an intrinsic property of an object, and here there is a quite clear and compelling (I think) argument from what we now know about the brain that the answer is no (cf. The argument readily generalizes to sound and beyond (cf. The Brain's Images: Con-Constructing Reality and the Self.

I think its interesting/noteworthy that constructivists are challenged as "arrogant", whereas in my experience it is actually realists who actually most frequently display that characteristic. To the extent that constructivists don't assert that they "make reality" but only that "reality" is at best an hypothesis, it seems to me that constructivists are actually more humble than realists ... both metaphysically and politically/psychologically.

I enjoyed our last meeting (two weeks ago) to which, of course, all this is related. Interesting to discover that the class was pretty evenly divided among constructivists/realists/fence sitters, with maybe an edge to the first. Willing be interesting to see whether/how this changes (and maybe how our sense of what each term means changes) as the course goes on.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-03-02 21:09:38
Link to this Comment: 4901

Good conversation last week, as always, and looking forward to seeing your first papers.

A couple of thoughts from the conversation and Miriam's nice presentation. I was struck by the idea that one can't get rid of the concept of "external reality" without also giving up the idea of "truth". But maybe that's not a bad thing? Could we just go with "coherence" as a criterion, without needing either metaphysics or "truth"? Seems to me that doing so might not only simplify matters but have some moral benefits as well.

As we were walking out of class Michael accused me of keeping a hidden hole card in the conversation to date. Actually, I hinted at it in my posting last week. If all that we do (both science and philosophy) is done by the brain, and we know that all the brain does is to attempt to make sense of signals in its peripheral nerves, what happens to the idea of "truth" or of "external reality"? I don't want to distract anyone from the very interesting issues to date or at hand (Kosso/Kuhn), but the brain hovers in the background ... to get to later in the course.

Questions...questions that need answers
Name: Maryam
Date: 2003-03-03 16:03:44
Link to this Comment: 4910

I hate to beat a dead horse here, but I am so utterly stumped by Goodman's claim that we MAKE worlds rather than interpret them. Relativists argue that we don't NEED to posit a metaphysical reality to form a comprehensive picture of the world that works. I just can't find the reasoning behind this. Why make the claim that we MAKE the world this way, rather than UNDERSTAND it this way. Just because humans have limitations in the way they can understand things doesn't impose these limitations on the world itself. Could someone who understands this and is really patient please help me with this?

and it goes on...
Name: Maryam
Date: 2003-03-05 00:21:32
Link to this Comment: 4947

To add to my question above, Goodman writes that his "arch enemy" is the "mystic" the "anti-intellectual" who, when confronted with our inability to assume a God's eye view of the world, bemoans the "travesty" of our descriptions of the world, descriptions that can never be "faithful" to the world as it is. (see page 4 of Starmaking) Aside from the fact that this seems an unnecessarily negative depiction of the view point, how on Earth is the contention that there IS a world out there and that we have different ways of perceiving it MORE "mystical" and "anti-intellectual" than Goodman's proposal that we interpret something that isn't there?

Truth and Coherence
Name: Maryam
Date: 2003-03-05 00:26:53
Link to this Comment: 4948

I really do not see how Coherence can save us from radical subjectivism without first establishing (or assuming) a foundation that is not version dependent. Coherence is a virtue onto itself? How is this different from truth in the first place?

continuing the conversation
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-03-08 13:11:30
Link to this Comment: 4995

First, to Maryam, apologies for misspelling your name above. And then many thanks to you (and others in class) for helping to sharpen the issues.

Let me take a quick crack at the issue that Maryam posed, and then add some comments on related things. Will try to be "really patient". Here's the deal. I think that (whatever Goodman says, or others say he says) it is misleading and confusing to focus initially on the claim that "we MAKE worlds rather than interpret them". The point here is that the very phrasing of that assertion contains the assumption that there IS a world out there (whether independent of our inquiry or dependent on it), and hence that we HAVE a way, at least in principle, to KNOW whether we, on the one hand, "make" it or, on the other, "interpret it".

Goodman's starting point (or, perhaps more accurately, a starting point with which I can be comfortable, and therefore am inclined to presume on Goodman's behalf) isn't that we make worlds as opposed to interpreting them but rather that we don't and can't KNOW with certainty whether there is or isn't a world out there, and therefore the issue of whether we make or interpret the world isn't in any absolute sense answerable. What IS answerable is the question of whether the sense we make of any hypothetical world out there is at any given time created by us. The answer to THAT question Goodman asserts (and I agree) is clearly yes. It is in this sense that Goodman means (or, again more accurately, I HOPE he means and in any case I mean) that we make worlds. (For the sake of the record, I suspect, but can't prove, that there IS a world out there, and further that we BOTH interpret it AND make it, the latter in large part as a by-product of our efforts to interpret it).

As for the "mystic" and "anti-intellectual" arch enemy, here too I think you are taking the end of Goodman's argument as the beginning, and getting confused by that (maybe I should again say that I may be defending myself here rather than Goodman). Goodman is NOT asserting (or, at least, I'm not asserting) that "we interpret something that isn't there", but only that since we have no way of ever knowing what may or may not be there, we cannot use the idea of a correspondence to what's there as an argument for the validity of our beliefs/assertions. Hence, at a purely methodological level, we need some way to proceed other than the "correspondence" theory of truth. Those who continue to use it are indeed in some sense (at least in my mind) being "mystical" (by presuming that there is indeed a god-like Truth to be revealed) and "anti-intellectual" (by refusing to wrestle with the very real methodological problem inherent in the human condition of not knowing or ever having any way to know whether there is a stable/knowable "reality" out there). What is "arrogant", both philosophically and politically/morally (Two Cultures or One?), is not a recognition of the genuine limitations of the human condition, but rather the claim by some people that they, as opposed to others, already know/have the route to Truth.

What all this means, from my point of view, is that the fear of "radical subjectivism" (by which I assume you mean complete solipsism, a total inability to make meaningful comparisons between alternate views/"worlds") is not an adequate basis to reject constructivism. It is instead a problem that constructivists need to confront and deal with (and one that "realists" conveniently but inappropriately ignore ... perhaps in part at least out of fear?). And it is a fear that can indeed, I believe, be successfully confronted and dealt with. I'm not entirely convinced that "coherence theories" have yet done this to my complete satisfaction (though this may be because I'm new to this literature), but I'm fairly sure that some form of coherence theory can in fact do this. We'll get to my own previous thinking about this in more detail later in the course, but the rough idea is that one can indeed make distinctions in the relative value of various constructed "stories" by asking how effectively they summarize how many observations: the more the better. And one can make "progress" in science simply by continually "getting it less wrong", ie by always seeking/making new observations which require modifications of the existing story (in a way that continues to account for all previous observations as well). This was the thrust of my argument in the first session of our course, as developed earlier in other contexts (see links from the previous and, for example, Philosophies of Science: A View From the Brain).

Catherine Elgin's "True Enough" talk last week (and the distributed reading, Chapter 4 of her Considered Judgement) helped me see more clearly the relation between this "getting it less wrong" idea of scientific stories and evolving "coherence" theories. Elgin talks of "fictions", stressing the important idea that many of the individual parts of scientific "stories" are not in fact subjected to "truth" testing independently of one another but that, instead, one asks how effectively the edifice constructed from the assembly of them "works". The issue for her, as for me, is the pragmatic concept of whether the story continues or fails to continue to provide an adequate summary of new observations. What was new for me, but what I readily recognize, is the idea that science is not a body of assertions each of which has separately been "tested" for "truth"; it is instead an interdependent set of assertions (a "reflective equilibrium") which collectively do or do not "work". My sense is that this is a necessary ingredient of an effective "coherence" theory, and one with important implications for their further development (eg, how does one decide which assertion(s) to modify when a story fails? how many stories are there which would get it "less wrong" in any particular case?).

Onto other (related?) fronts. I found Liz/class discussion/Kosso very useful in, among other things, making it clear that science can indeed develop stories "deeper than appearance". This is an explicit case (for me at least) of "progress" in science (ie of developing stories which account for greater numbers of observations). The question that remains is whether such "improved" stories are closer to "truth" or "reality". And, even more deeply, whether one NEEDS the idea of "truth" or "reality" to motivate such retelling of stories. I continue to think one doesn't; one needs only the motivation to find some observations that illustrate the wrongness of the current story. Emily's discussion/critique of Kuhn was equally thought-provoking and related, for me at least. The general issue she raised (as I heard it) was whether one needs "reality" in order to prevent constructivism from simply settling into its current story. To put it differently, where is the force that decoheres the coherence at any given time? "Reality" could certainly serve this function, at least for a while (until we've finished interpreting/revealing it); and the "reality" I hypothesize certainly does. But I wouldn't be at all inclined to put ALL the weight there. Humans are, I think, both creative enough and obstreperous enough to create a motivating decoherence all by themselves. Indeed, that's part of why I think we are as much creating "reality" as we are interpreting/revealing it.

Hope everyone has a good spring break, and is also looking forward to continuing this conversation (as I am).

and on ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-28 16:30:16
Link to this Comment: 5535

Rich last class session today (as they have all been); thanks to all.

Was particularly struck by the issue of "comfortable" (which, if I heard Cheng properly is NOT the same thing as safe/secure/cozy ... the latter may make one UNcomfortable), and the related issue of whether science is or is not supposed to make one "comfortable". See for my version of Michael's "science isn't supposed to make one comfortable"

It is not the business of science to affirm or comfort or "fix". The latter
may occur as a by-product of science (and frequently has), and the first two may perhaps as well, but the primary business of science is to question and challenge. It is dishonest, and will ultimately be counter-productive, to try and "sell" science any other way.

Note though that I allow the possibility that science might in fact "comfort" as a by-product. The issue here (further discussed in the paper) is whether one might perhaps regard science as more than simply a way of "finding out things".

The other issue that I at least will give some more thought to is the matter of "progress", which oddly played relatively little role in our conversations until today. What intrigues me is a possible argument along the lines of the following. Kuhn provides no basis for presuming (to say nothing of evaluating) "progress" across revolutions (only during periods of normal science); this is part of why he can be read as a "social constructivist" with a hazard of endorsing group conformity. Similarly, Popper, despite his realism, in fact provides no way to assess/evaluate progress, since one cannot measure increasing proximity to an ideal which is not itself accessible (one can only, contra Totturno, rely on "authority"). One CAN, however, as Liz says, evaluate progress (contra Liz, INDEPENDENT of the presumption of reality) by whether one achieves a solution to a previously unsolved problem, or by (as I said at the beginning of the course) establishing that a given "story" accounts for new observations as well as previous ones. This is the core of the "getting it less wrong" idea, which is fundamentally a pragmatist notion. Don't WORRY about whether one is "right" or whether what one says is "True". Just focus on noticing and correcting errors/inadequacies.

Another way to view the thing came up in a faculty brown bag discussion recently. The driving force and check on science is not "Truth" or "Reality", which Thomas Nagel refers to as the "view from nowhere" (ie stripped of all particularities/idosyncracies of perspective). It is instead the desire to achieve the "view from everywhere" - the view which successfully incorporates all possible perspectives. This is, of course, not achievable in finite time, but does give both usable/meaningful directionality (unlike realism) and a significant but importantly egalitarian (as opposed to authoritarian) check on the process.

I trust no one thinks we've settled matters, but that everyone has (as I do) a sense that we've helped specify what positions we don't want to adopt/defend. Looking forward to continuing conversation, here and elsewhere.

Philosophy of science
Name: Onwueme An
Date: 2003-10-19 10:51:05
Link to this Comment: 6918

Please if Philosophy is science what is meant by Philosophy of science

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