February 27, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Philosophy Roundup

Philosophy of science is a broad discipline incorporating many sub-disciplines such as intellectual history, sociology, ethics, rhetoric, logic, demarcation of science from pseudoscience, classification, discovery, verification, explanation and more.  A dozen recent news stories discussed some of these topics.

  1. Medical ethics:  PhysOrg reproduced an AP story about medical research on humans in the US in the 1940s to 1960s.  The details are quite shocking and were “unusually unethical, even at the time.”  They included giving diseases to prisoners and the disabled.  The news media largely ignored these stories, the article said.  This entry touches on the need to set ethical limitations on scientific inquiry.
  2. Futurism, ethics, and health:  Should genetic interventions be used to create healthy babies?  This sensitive question, behind which lurks the ghost of positive eugenics, was discussed cheerfully in Science Magazine (25 February 2011: DOI: 10.1126/science.1204088) on the 10th anniversary of the Human Genome Project.
        “Genetics is a way of thinking.  Genomics is a set of tools,” Mary-Claire King wrote, glossing over the potential for abuse of thinking and tools.  “If we think rigorously about genetics and use these tools well,” she said, “the resolution of inherited disorders on behalf of our patients will be bounded only by our imaginations.  One healthy infant at a time is not a bad way to begin.”
        But how will babies born without genetic intervention be treated by society?  King assumed universal agreement on the meaning of well and spoke of rigor, good and bad as if bounded only by human imagination.  A quick look back at the 20th century shows some not-so-cheerful ways our predecessors applied their imaginations using thinking and tools.
  3. Philosophy of discovery:  A story on PhysOrg exemplified how, in the philosophy of science, discovery is distinct from explanation.  Some mathematicians at Emory University were on a nature hike when a “Eureka!” moment hit them.  “So what is an ‘aha’ moment?” the article asked.  “The way I see it, it’s not something that happens to you instantly,” said Ken Ono.  “It just happens to be the moment that you realize the fruits of all your hard work.”  Article includes a video clip of Ono telling his story on the trail.
  4. Paradigms and models:  Some European philosophers have tried to put Thomas Kuhn on a chip.  In “Emergence and Decline of Scientific Paradigms” described on PhysOrg, they produced a mathematical model showing how scientific paradigms rise and fall.  “Although many factors influence the emergence and decline of such scientific paradigms,” the article said, “a new model has captured how these ideas spread, providing a better understanding of paradigm shifts and the culture of innovation.”
        Like some meta-theory on theories, or observation of observers, their mathematical model had all the coldness of monitoring bacteria in a Petri dish.  Paradigms mentioned included “climate change, nanotechnology and chaos theory”.  Not apparent was how their model intersected any conception of validation, verification, or truth.
  5. History of science:  An article at PhysOrg might be enough to make a modern scientist scream.  Dr. Lawrence Principe, historian of science at Johns Hopkins, is defending alchemy as legitimate research for its time.  In “Why many historians no longer see alchemy as an occult practice,” Phillip Schewe wrote that “the scholars who write the history of science and technology no longer lump alchemy in with witchcraft as a pseudo-science.”  Instead they view it as a precursor to chemistry.
        Alchemists, they said, should not be dismissed solely for failing their main mission to turn base metals into gold; “Alchemists … were active in assaying metals, refining salts, making dyes and pigments, making glass and ceramics, artificial fertilizers, perfumes, and cosmetics” – i.e., skills useful for the emerging science of chemistry.  Famous practitioners of alchemy included Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.
  6. Design detection:  “How nature’s patterns form” was the headline of a short article on PhysOrg.  With an image of a Fibonacci spiral pattern leading the story, the article mentioned how many universal patterns, seen in sunflowers, galaxies, animal coloration or sand dunes are the result of “some kind of stress, applied stress.”  Alan Newell at the University of Arizona was telling a meeting of the AAAS that “biological forms are controlled more by the laws of physics than by evolution,” i.e., “the products of physical forces, rather than evolutionary ones.
        Further, “Patterns arise when the symmetry of a system is broken, Newell said.  The similarity in patterns from system to system occur when the systems have similar symmetry, rather than because the systems are made from the same materials.”  Newell believes patterns are impressed on nature mechanically, but as “a consequence of biochemically and mechanically induced pattern-forming instabilities” that can be described in mathematical models.
        The short article did not address why natural laws and instabilities should be symmetric, or finely tuned to reproduce a Fibonacci series, or why the human mind finds these patterns beautiful.  Newell did end, though, on a poetic note: “Mathematics is like a good poem, which separates the superfluous from the essentials and fuses the essentials into a kernel of truth.
  7. Verification and falsification:  Nature News reported that the Apex Chert in western Australia, thought to be evidence for the oldest life on the planet, may have formed by inorganic processes.  This incident touches on several areas in philosophy of science: verification, interpretation of evidence, ethics, and history of science: “Twenty years ago the palaeontological community gasped as geoscientists revealed evidence for the oldest bacterial fossils on the planet,” the article said.  “Now, a report in Nature Geoscience shows that the filament structures that were so important in the fossil descriptions are not remnants of ancient life, but instead composed of inorganic material.”
        This appears to be a case of scientists who “wanted to find life so badly that they ignored the obvious,” the article said.  Olcutt Marshall opened some philosophical cans of worms with his remark, “There is a willful blindness about these structures that sometimes has more to do with local politics than global truth.”  See also the PhysOrg write-up.
  8. Paradigm backlash:  As successful as Newtonian mechanical philosophy was in the 17th and 18th centuries, it produced a backlash, wrote George Rousseau in a book review in Nature (24 Feb 2011, doi:10.1038/470462a).  Commenting on Stephen Gaukroger’s new book The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1680�1760, Rousseau noted that while most scientists are aware of Newton’s achievement, “Less familiar is the philosophical phase that followed – sensibility, the view of humans as organic creatures, incapable of reduction to the sum of their mechanical parts, especially in the affective, moral and political realms.”  Accordingly, “Stephen Gaukroger explains how the philosophies of mechanism collapsed over eight decades, to be replaced by a more sensory view of nature.
        The review warned of simplistic views of mechanical philosophy (sometimes abbreviated mechanism): “Mechanism was never a single set of principles about machine-like systems,” he said.  “It comprised an array of disparate beliefs, experiences and practices that were followed in far-flung places and presided over by its principal architects: Ren� Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Newton.”
        Sensibility, likewise, “is a vague term,” he said.  According to Gaukroger, sensibility “allows connections to be made between natural-philosophical and moral, political, and psychological theories in a new way, shaping a new field of the moral sciences.”  While a strict mechanist or 20th-century positivist might take issue with that phrase as an oxymoron, the definition points out the necessity of philosophical judgments on the nature of science.
        The 1760s, the review said, was a watershed decade and the start of the so-called Romantic era with roots in sensibility stretching back a century or more:

    Imaginative literature, later codified as ‘Romantic’, also drove nails into mechanism’s coffin by postulating that matter was more complex than the mechanical natural philosophers thought.  A human is not a mere machine; a fly is much harder to study than a pebble.  By focusing on human nature rather than physical matter, the language of the new literature helped to alter the way scientists conceived their models, and enabled modernity to commence its work.

    It is ironic that the reviewer shares a surname with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), an icon of Romanticism.

  9. Search for extra-terrestrial science:  Can scientists justify their work based on what they expect to find, rather than what they have found?  Rowan Hooper on New Scientist recouped the latest scoop on planet counts from the Kepler spacecraft, then launched into some philosophy: “Exoplanet findings spark philosophical debate,” he titled his article, noting that “What were once speculative and philosophical questions are now being tackled with real data, generated by NASA’s planet-hunting space telescope, Kepler.”  The word data is a philosophically-loaded question.  To what extent does data about extrasolar planets apply to the question of extraterrestrial intelligence?
        Hooper heard two speakers at the recent AAAS meeting discuss how Christians and Muslims might respond positively to detection of aliens.  “Both their arguments amounted to the (to my mind) rather dubious claim that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would pose no challenge or crisis to terrestrial religion.
        Then he heard talks about the possibility of life detection by a pessimist, Howard Smith [Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics] and an optimist, Seth Shostak [SETI Institute].  Worried that it might take 100 generations to get in touch with aliens, Smith coined a new phrase: “the misanthropic principle says that intelligent life is so unlikely to evolve that we might as well accept that we’ll never know if we are unique or not.”  Hooper seemed to prefer Shostak’s enthusiastic prediction of successful detection within 24 years, even though it was couched in a philosophical statement, “Believing there aren’t ETs is believing in miracles.
  10. Demarcation:  According to Research Professional John Beddington, the President’s science advisor, made waves by calling for scientists to be “grossly intolerant” of what he perceives as pseudoscience.  As for what constitutes pseudoscience, Beddington referred to “the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.”  Particularly, he had in mind “politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense.
        Beddington apparently does not realize that the demarcation problem and the scientific method are issues that loom large in philosophy of science.  The assumption that science can be reduced to a bias-free method apparently motivated his sermon for scientists to be as grossly intolerant of that sort of thing as they are of racism or “homophobia.”  He views religious or political influence as “pernicious,” but he left begging the question of whether secular consensus science itself is free of such influences.
        Sensing a little unease with his own moral plea, Beddington told his audience, “I’d urge you, and this is a kind of strange message to go out, but go out and be much more intolerant”  That is clearly a moral judgment, not a scientific finding.  Beddington also did not distinguish “morally … motivated nonsense” from his own moral judgments.  Whether or not one agrees with his opinions, the story illustrates how science is inextricable from moral values.
  11. Sociology of OOL:  As a reporter at a recent conference of origin-of-life researchers, Dennis Overbye, writing for the New York Times, seemed amused by the curious sociology of his subjects:

    Two dozen chemists, geologists, biologists, planetary scientists and physicists gathered here recently to ponder where and what Eden might have been.  Over a long weekend they plastered the screen in their conference room with intricate chemical diagrams through which electrons bounced in a series of interactions like marbles rattling up and down and over bridges through one of those child’s toys, transferring energy, taking care of the business of nascent life.  The names of elements and molecules tripped off chemists’ tongues as if they were the eccentric relatives who show up at Thanksgiving every year.

    While not unkind to their ramblings, Overbye found plenty of confusion, disagreement, and ignorance to showcase.  His last quip was about Craig Venter’s intelligent design project to create synthetic life: “And so his genome is now in the process of acquiring its first, non-Darwinian mutation.”

  12. Science and Meaning  What does science mean?  In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson discussed information theory and the history of science under the headline, “How We Know.”  In the body of his book review of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick, Dyson, while trying to clear up some misinformation, exposed some embarrassments in science that call into question not only how we know, but what we know:

    The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths.  In fact, science is not a collection of truths.  It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.  Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries.  Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain.  Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate.  The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all.  The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness.  We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.
        Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries….

    Scientists get a kick out of the endless quest: “The vision of the future as an infinite playground, with an unending sequence of mysteries to be understood by an unending sequence of players exploring an unending supply of information, is a glorious vision for scientists,” he said, but not to artists, writers, and ordinary people.  Dyson worried about the flood of information around us being separated from meaning.  “Now we can pass a piece of human DNA through a machine and rapidly read out the genetic information,” Dyson noted, “but we cannot read out the meaning of the information.  We shall not fully understand the information until we understand in detail the processes of embryonic development that the DNA orchestrated to make us what we are.
        Claude Shannon, who felt “Meaning is irrelevant” to his information theory, started a “flood of information in which we are drowning,” Dyson said.  Is our fate to look out upon, as Jorge Luis Borges portrayed the universe in 1941, a “library, with an infinite array of books and shelves and mirrors,” never knowing what it all means?  “It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland,” Dyson concluded.  “As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.”
        While Dyson examined the definition of information in detail in his review, he left dangling an even more important definition: the meaning of meaning.  Is meaning defined by the individual artist, writer, or ordinary person?  Who decides when something is meaningful?  Are islands of meaning grounded on a continent of truth, or are they adrift in an infinite sea of meaningless information?

For a look at some of these issues from proponents of intelligent design, see an examination of Freeman Dyson’s article by Denyse O’Leary on Uncommon Descent, another O’Leary article on Uncommon Descent about origin-of-life science, a treatment of Beddington’s outrage against pseudoscience on the blog Darwin’s God by Cornelius Hunter and O’Leary.  In a subsequent post on Uncommon Descent, O’Leary quoted Frank Furedi who views Beddington’s intolerance as a fast-backward to the Middle Ages.
    There’s a new anthology of essays by creationists that calls into question the objectivity of science.  The description of Sacred Cows In Science: No Objectivity Allowed, Norbert Smith (ed.) on Amazon.com states,

Science was at one time defined by its method.  Carefully controlled experiments, provisional conclusions, and considered debate once defined the field.  But those days have passed.  Today, science is defined by public policy statements, consensus, and a set of metaphysical assumptions that cannot be directly tested.  Students are told that science is in conflict with “faith” or, worse yet, that faith operates in a different “magisterial” [sic]with no real application to the world we inhabit.

Chapters include material on life sciences, physical sciences, and behavioral sciences.  The first reviewer agreed, “Science should be a discipline based on dissent, but as more and more science becomes publicly funded, ideas become entrenched, and outside ideas are no longer heard.”

This is all interesting material with too much to comment on in each article.  Readers are encouraged to become knowledgeable about these controversies with the Baloney Detector in good working order and refine their philosophy of science in light of these real-world issues.  Science is what scientists do – unless they can defend aspiring to an unattainable goal.
    One overriding theme in all the above is how science and philosophy are both human enterprises, subject to all the biases, assumptions, limitations, mistakes, and changes of mind connected with any other human activity.  One can hope to approach limitations with more clarity in a systematic way, but they are still limitations.
    One thing we need more than science or philosophy is wisdom.  The writer of Psalm 119 offered a way up: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.” (verse 99).  Indeed, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), and of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).
    Why is the fear of the Lord essential?  Why is it the beginning of wisdom and knowledge?  Because without it, science is impossible.  The Lord is the source of the morality, integrity, and wisdom needed to even hope for a clear scientific understanding about any subject – or a philosophy of anything.
    Atheists may do science, but they cannot justify what they do.  When they assume the world is rational, approachable, and understandable, they plagiarize Judeo-Christian presuppositions about the nature of reality and the moral need to seek the truth.
    As an exercise, try generating a philosophy of science from hydrogen coming out of the big bang.  It cannot be done.  It’s impossible even in principle, because philosophy and science presuppose concepts that are not composed of particles and forces.  They refer to ideas that must be true, universal, necessary and certain.
    It’s time science gets back to the beginning of wisdom.  You can help by rapping a scientist’s knuckles every time he steals from the Christian smorgasbord of presuppositions.  While bandaging his knuckles, encourage him with the upside of a scientific revolution based on the Bible: it makes genuine scientific knowledge, if not exhaustive, at least possible.

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