Within the limits of my own study, the idea of “data density” and its relation to science vs. pseudo-science, is not one that I recall having encountered. (And I freely admit that my studies are limited; the world is large, and human life is short.) I suspect that no small part of the problem is that we have only begun to slam into this wall in earnest in the last few generations. I wish to use this idea of “data density” here to compare two branches of scientific study. It is my thesis that the data in gravitational cosmology is especially “thin” and “patchy,” which makes the general lack of attention to alternative models to the standard one especially inexcusable.
It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.
– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet
There are scientific disciplines out there that are in a state of fundamental crisis. But unless you’ve a moderate degree of expertise in those fields, it is unlikely you know about such crises. I want to examine one such crisis here, and touch on its relation to a way of approaching the world that I’ve taken to calling “model-centrism.”
The Holmesian dicta quoted above is hideously simplistic (one must already have significant theoretical commitments in play before any evidence can make its appearance AS evidence. To decline to theorize entirely would not make one open to the facts and evidence, it would make one completely incapable of recognizing anything as a fact or as evidence.) Nevertheless, it touches upon an important issue with model-centrism, and model-centric thinking, namely the impatience for gathering data that leads some people to favor abstract theories without any regard for how such theories might be tested or validated.
I was looking at a picture that I had taken a few years back, of Thumb Butte, just outside of Prescott, Arizona, when the phrase “natural order” popped into my mind. What made this stand out (because words, phrases, and images are popping into my mind all of the time – it is like Tourette’s of the imagination) was the fact that it came to me flagged as ironic. What struck me as ironic, gazing with affection at one of my favorite places in the world, was how seriously disorderly nature really is. That’s what is so lovely about it – it shatters our boundaries with promiscuous abandon. And the only way we prevent such shattering is by murdering nature outright – which, of course, we are also working on with rather more energy and enthusiasm than we ought.
The natural sciences look to distill, while the engineering and technical enterprises look to impose, order from and upon Nature. And there are certainly good and thoroughly ethical reasons for all of these valuable activities. We live longer, healthier lives (certainly on average) than we ever did in the past. Further, the quest for knowledge is, at least arguably, one of the most singularly noble pursuits available to our imaginations. But I’d like to say a little about the negatives, from my version of a Whiteheadian perspective. Now, I am not anti-science; when I’ve criticized contemporary disciplines (see below) it is for their abandonment of real science. Nor am I any manner of luddite; I am composing this missive on a computer, I intend to post it on the internet; I’ve a library that would be the envy of even the wealthiest individuals from a century ago on my Kindle; even as an introvert, I have connections to the outside world far beyond the imaginations of all but the luckiest persons from previous centuries. But there are costs, and we ought to acknowledge that there might be such a thing as “too much.” I began wondering, looking at that picture of Thumb Butte, if that too much might be related to our simplistic notions of “natural order.” Continue reading
A recent interview on NPR, in their “Short Answers to Big Questions” segment, went to special extremes to demonstrate how monumentally bad science journalism is these days. My discussion here will come in two parts, one short, and one a great deal more detailed. The short part will be a quick debunking of supposedly scientific claims from a conventionally scientific standpoint. In particular, statements are made in this interview with absolute confidence that cannot possibly stand up to even the most basic grasp of physical science. The longer discussion will have to do with philosophical criticisms that run beyond most of contemporary science. This is because so much of that science has degenerated into pure model centrism, and consequently fails to ask any of the fundamental questions that need to be raised. The motivating idea behind all of this is the idea of “empty” space.
The offending NPR piece opened with a question about how empty a volume of space would be were there only (say) three atoms or molecules within a volume of about one cubic meter. After a few moments discussion about the volume of molecules of air in a cubic meter at sea level (a discussion that appears to contain an unimportant typographical error), the discussion moves out into space, into deep, deep space. The conversation leads to the following (slightly edited) highly problematic exchange:
if there are points in space with only three atoms per square meter, what fills in the rest? The answer is nothing…
for a physicist, the absence of matter is nothing. I mean there is still space and time there, but you know, there – the absence of matter we consider to be a state of, you know, zero matter, zero energy density, is a way of putting it.
The problems here come at two levels, one of fairly ordinary physics and the other at a deeper philosophical level. I’ll deal with both in turn. Continue reading
So, what is it that makes something true? (Trust me, this ties in with this post’s title.) If I say that “X is the case,” and it, indeed, turns out that X IS the case, then my saying so was true. Or, rather, the thing I said was true, and my saying it was said truly. (Actually, my saying it was said truly, because I truly said it, regardless of whether what I said was actually true.) But what establishes the connection(s) between my saying it is the case, and its actually being the case? Well, presumably it is reality that makes that establishment; but how is that reality, how is that establishment, established in experience such that the truth-saying and the truth-being converge in a truth making?
Because even as (and insofar) as “the truth is out there,” our having, getting, finding, or whatever, that truth involves a substantial amount of making. If you take the idea of truth seriously, then you must take seriously the fact that we have to go out and make that truth apparent through significant and substantive inquiry. Where this is going (and it will go fast) is that the maker that connects the truth as said with the truth as found, looks a lot like a successful “strategy” in a “game.” This is a formal, logical concept, which brings scientific inquiry into a dirty-dance with that part of formal logic known as model-theory. (Somewhere, somebody has sheet music on this stuff … ) Continue reading
Rather than allow the blog to languish entirely, I thought I’d put up this bit of organizational matter to defend the claim that I really am working on stuff. Below is the outline of the paper I’ll be delivering at the 2015 International Whitehead Conference in Claremont, CA, this coming June. (I’ll be presenting in Section IV, Track 2, Session 5.)
“Naturalism” is a term that is frequently bandied about with such carefree disregard for clarity and meaning that one is left rather breathless at the speed with which so many largely meaningless labels are confidently announced to the world. Naturalism is frequently associated with (physical) science. But regardless of how justified such an association is, it frankly tells us absolutely nothing about either nature or science. Scientific results only seem to tell us what nature is, in a pure and simple way, when the metaphysical presuppositions of science are thoroughly suppressed and the large-scale interpretive commitments that exercise their unexamined domination over the particular reading of this or that scientific theory are permitted to operate not only unchallenged, but altogether without so much as a first, much less a second thought. Scientific theories – most particularly those in theoretical physics, where abstract mathematics is so profoundly important and influential – do not come with their interpretations “on their sleeve,” as it were. I will be exploring this problem in greater detail in the not-too-distant future, when I spend a few posts on the problematic issue of what I call “Model Centrism.”
There is a hierarchy of relational structures involved in any rational inquiry. No step or stage of this hierarchy may be legitimately skipped, although in various contexts certain of them may be relatively invisible. As might be guessed by the title of this entry, that hierarchy is the one that runs between logic, principles, evidence and facts. In essence, this is a “meta-relation” between that which is universal – logic, that which is general (in the sense of genera) – principles, that which is specific (in the sense of species) – evidence, and that which is particular – facts. Now, anyone familiar with the works of Peirce and Dewey (see for example, HERE, HERE and HERE) will not find what I have to say in this post especially surprising. Nevertheless, the basic ideas presented seem like ones that deserve a broader audience than just and only scholars in American Pragmatism. And I have long found this litany – logic, principles, evidence, facts – to be a useful one, such that I am inclined to repeat it often enough that having a citable explanation will be of value.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson shares with Stephen Hawing a commitment to demonstrating that lots of schooling will never, by itself, equate to an education (a distinction I’ve explored in a variety of places.) For example, in a bromide from a few years back, Tyson not only dismissed philosophy as being of no value, but insisted that bright students should stay away from it as it is nothing more than a distraction.i Stephen Hawking, for his part, has maintained a long running snark-fest directed at philosophers, notable mainly in that Hawking’s petulance is only exceeded by his ignorance, and the indefensibility of his “arguments”. One must scare quote the word “arguments” in the preceding because neither Tyson nor Hawking have an actual argument, only ex cathedra pronouncements that are to be accepted without question, and in the complete absence of anything like logic, principles, evidence, or facts.
Thus, for example, Hawking vapidly legislates in his recent book, The Grand Design, that, “philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” What Hawking is, in fact, asserting here is that philosophy is only philosophy when it is doing physics. So when it fails to do physics (and actually does philosophy – a subject Hawking knows absolutely nothing about, and imagines himself virtuous for his willful lack of education) then this can only be because philosophy is dead. He declares (in Black Holes and Baby Universes), without a particle of evidence to support his claim that,
There is a subspecies called philosophers of science who ought to be better equipped. But many of them are failed physicists who found it too hard to invent new theories and so took to writing about the philosophy of physics instead. They are still arguing about the scientific theories of the early years of this century, like relativity and quantum mechanics.
and then goes on to pule that, “Maybe I’m being harsh on philosophers, but they have not been very kind to me.”ii This is the sort of childishness one might expect from a 3rd grader, not from a man who held the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University. In its way, however, it is perfectly representative of an attitude that has consumed much of physics, in which any attempts to ask deeper questions about the issues of contemporary physics are met with the dismissive command to just, “shut up and calculate.” Continue reading
Whitehead set out to make sense of things. After witnessing all of his attempts to point out how Einstein’s general theory of relativity failed to make the sense it claimed to make (and still fails to do so, but the model centrists won’t permit empirical evidence to get in the way of their clever mathematics), he arguably decided that he needed to step back from epistemology and philosophy of science, to present a more logically primary argument, in the metaphysical form of his “philosophy of organism.” Whitehead centered his argument on what I and Randy Auxier named “the quantum of explanation,” a logical (rather than ontological) center, around which Whitehead constructed his subtle and complex system of making sense. It has been suggested that Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality, is one of the five most difficulty works in the Western philosophical canon. I’m not inclined to argue with such a sentiment, since the most that could be credibly argued is that it might be knocked back to sixth place. For my part, I’m not sure what work could manage that feat.
One of the points that Randy and I tried to emphasize was that the process of “making sense” was itself a rather complex process, in which the most active word in the proceeding is process: this is not an object you hold, but an activity you engage in. So despite my habitual focus upon contemporary science &/or concerns, this is actually as classic an issue as you can find in the Western philosophical canon. (And I just don’t have the expertise to speak with even casual ignorance about the Eastern canon, a source of inestimable insight and subtlety. I am, however, inclined – ignorant as I am – to suspect that what I have to say here can find its analogs in that tradition.) Continue reading