, , ,

In making sense of things – of anything, really – there are at least three factors involved: logical coherence, empirical adequacy, and narrative intelligibility. The last item there, “narrative intelligibility,” is the tricky one, and the one that many people tend to forget about. So I will deal with that in a separate post. Not only are logical coherence and empirical adequacy rather more straight forward to deal with, I’ve already said a fair amount bout about logic as such and about methods of formal analysis in previous posts. Still, it would be worth while to say a few words about what is meant by “coherence” before addressing the topic of empirical adequacy.

“Coherence” is a fairly well-liked word in philosophical circles, but its meaning tends to be given short-shrift especially among logicians. For these latter, “coherence” is often treated as meaning nothing more than formal consistency, which is to say, if “p” is a proposition, then it cannot be the case that both p and not-p are true. While this is a valuable resource in formal arenas and in matters of mathematical proof, it is pretty weak-tea from a more general, philosophical perspective of coherence. Whitehead offers the following characterization:

Coherence … means that the fundamental ideas … presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless. This requirement does not mean that they are definable in terms of each other; it means that what is indefinable in one such notion cannot be abstracted from its relevance to the other notions.[1]

This gives us a sense of “coherence” where ideas and notions mean what they do in no small part from the thoroughly interconnected manner of their mutual relatedness: things mean what the mean from both the that and the how of their relational totality. This is more in line with what I am suggesting here. One should also note, however, that this is an ideal to be aimed at, not an accomplishment one should expect or assume to have in hand. But ideas, concepts, notions, etc., ought to connect with each other not just externally, as a pile of bricks make a pile, but their meanings should connect “internally” in such a way that they form a genuine whole – a house, as it were, rather than a mere pile. Thus, for example, many physicists object to the current standard model of micro physics on the grounds that many parameters have been introduced in a kluge-like manner (my phrase) to no other evident purpose than to make the model “work.”[2]

I’m hoping the above is enough to convey the sense of what I mean with, perhaps, one last note: I am a big fan of formal criteria, as anyone who knows me, or has simply read some of my previous posts, can easily discern. But I do recognize that there is more to the world and human experience than just and only formal criteria (see, for example, HERE and HERE.) So perhaps it will not come as such a shock when I insist that the above notion of coherence is an aesthetic criterion. It is not just about “A and B imply C,” it is about what is beautiful, related, and proportioned; what is genuinely and completely a whole. For this, it is not enough to turn just and only to the aggressively desiccated arcana of recondite abstractions. For this, we must turn – fully and genuinely – to experience.

“Empirical adequacy” is about the connection between what we claim about the world, and the world itself. Some thinkers have thought it possible to develop a substantial connection by means of abstract thought alone, but such positions have not ultimately stood the test of time and experience. And, of course, it is to experience that we must turn to discover and develop such connections. “Experience” is such a very large topic that it is almost impossible to say anything about it without saying something so narrow and specific – just to be able to say anything at all – that one ends up sounding downright foolish and provincial; or something so vague and general as to be guilty of vapid euphemism.

The areas of experience where empirical adequacy is focused are those that are of a more generically perceptual character. But it is a mistake to separate intellectual and perceptual functions too sharply. For example, Irvin Rock has argued that higher order intelligence may itself be a kind of “exaptation” of brain developments that were originally adaptations oriented around the refinement of perceptual abilities. Moreover, perception is, to a degree, trainable. There is a “learning to see” involved in a great deal of scientific investigation. Individuals in the course of studying a discipline must also engage in a kind of mentor-ship relationship with established researchers so that they (the students) can gain the necessary “hands on” practice in “seeing” the data in things like photographic plates, or rich landscapes where relevant details must be teased out with care.

The above might seem rather obvious, but there are disturbingly many places where it is attended to with rather less than full conscientiousness. In data-rich areas of study, such as evolutionary theory and climate change, the facts are trampled over with promiscuous disregard by ideologues pushing a political agenda. (References to creationists and climate change denialists are presumably to easy for the reader to look up for me to bother posting any.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum, data-poor but theory-rich physical sciences have righteously stampeded past the bounds of legitimate assertion. At the “micro” end of the physical spectrum, Peter Woit observes that string-theory is not a bad scientific theory, because it is not any kind of scientific theory at all (see note [2] below.) At the macro end of physical theory, in addition to my own gratuitous bit of self-promotion in note [2], Michael Disney’s remarks from 2007 remain apposite.

The fatuous twaddle spewed by “intelligent design” creationists &/or AGW denialists is easy enough to dismiss for no more effort than thinking. But seeing this kind of intellectual slight-of-hand, such as I’ve mentioned above, perpetrated by the leading gate-keepers of fundamental physics, is quite upsetting. Conan Doyle (in the voice of his character “Sherlock Holmes”) observed that, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”[3] This way of expressing things is wildly over-simplistic, since one cannot even begin to know what the evidence is in the absence of a significant, guiding theory. Nevertheless, as a slogan it does serve to highlight the problems currently facing fundamental physics. Unlike creationism and climate denialism, there is significant, peer-reviewed science that challenges the contemporary “standard models” of both micro- and macro-physics that the triumphalists like Stephen Hawking rather cheerfully ignore. (There are also significant philosophical problems which people like Hawking indignantly dismiss. For Hawking, the only task of philosophy is to be the chorus of praise for the triumphalists, while the logical and empirical issues of fundamental physics are not even admitted to exist.)

Looking at the above, the one might notice a connection to my previously discussed mantra: logic, principles, evidence, facts. Those forms of making sense that falls under the broad heading of “logical coherence” are most closely associated with the first two entries in that list, while “empirical adequacy” cuddles up closely with the latter pair. This provides a nice moment to pause, and notice the seemingly complete failure of the third part of the puzzle – narrative intelligibility – to even make an appearance. There is a reason why a demur making any comment on THAT topic until its own, independent post. It has been so long since we took narrative intelligibility seriously, that we scarcely know how any more …

Even though it is hands down the most important of the three …


[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Kindle edition, location 477.

[2] Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong. With regard to some of the problems with macrophysics, see Gary Herstein, Whitehead and the Measurement Problem of Cosmology.

[3] Quoted from A Study in Scarlet, but repeated many times, and in several variations, throughout the Sherlock Holmes corpus.