Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge

scientism A common criticism of science is that it must make foundational assumptions that have to be taken on faith. It is, the critic asserts, just one world view among other, equally “valid”, world views that are based on different starting assumptions. Thus, the critic declares, science adopts naturalism as an axiom of faith, whereas a religious view is more complete in that it also allows for supernaturalism.

This argument assumes a linear view of knowledge, in which one starts with basic assumptions and builds on them using reason and evidence. The fundamentals of logic, for example, are part of the basic assumptions, and these cannot be further justified, but are simply the starting points of the system.

Under scientism this view is wrong. Instead, all knowledge should be regarded as a web of inter-related ideas, that are adopted in order that the overall web best models the world that we experience through sense data.

Any part of this web of ideas can be examined and replaced, if replacing it improves the overall match to reality. Even basic axioms of maths and logic can be evaluated, and thus they are ultimately accepted for empirical reasons, namely that they model the real world.

This view of knowledge was promoted by the Vienna Circle philosophers such as Otto Neurath, who gave the metaphor of knowledge being a raft floating at sea, where any part of it may be replaced. As worded by Quine:

Otto Neurath

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

In this scheme, doctrines such as naturalism are the result of adjusting the web to match reality, rather than being foundational axioms that cannot be questioned. Any idea within the web can be questioned; one does that simply by substituting its negation into the web, and seeing whether that improves or reduces the web’s explanatory and predictive power.

You cannot throw everything up in the air and reconsider the whole ensemble at once — you would have no footing to do so — but you can, piece by piece, re-consider any part of the web and so gradually adjust the web towards a better fit to empirical reality. And that is exactly what science does.

On Scientia Salon recently, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, said to me:

I like the web metaphor too, but that’s all it is: a metaphor.

That got me thinking, and I concluded that, no, the web is not just a metaphor, it is real. I argue here that this “web of ideas” can be identified with the web of neural connections that each of us have in our brains.

First point: where are our ideas encoded? Let’s take basic ideas such as 1 + 1 = 2, or the axiom of logic modus tollens. They are encoded in the neural network in our brains. They may be written down on paper, but symbols on paper only have meaning when interpreted by our brains.

Second, consider how brains first evolved. They would have started, deep in our evolutionary past, as simple logic-gate circuits, doing things like: “if light-sensitive cell A is active, then fire up cilium B to move in that direction”. As animals evolved the processing of information and the decision-making got more complicated, to the extent that humans now have a network of 1011 neurons with about 1014 neural connections.

Neurons

All the ideas we use to reason and make decisions must be encoded in that web of neural connections — there is no other place. Thus, to the extent that we use maths, logic, critical thinking, and to the extent that we interpret information and then use reasoning to come to conclusions, all of that is in the web.

The patterns in the web will result from a mixture of: (1) evolutionary programming, now encoded by natural selection into the genes; (2) the development of our brain as a foetus and child, though the interaction of the genetic recipe with its environment, and (3) sensory information received over our lifetimes, and interpreted by the learning mechanisms resulting from (1) and (2).

Our world view, the set of ideas we use to interpret information and to form opinions, is thus encoded in that neural web. Quite literally, our “web of ideas” is a real, physical web, located within our skulls. If you were to employ certain principles of logic and reasoning to arrive at a conclusion, what is actually happening is that electrical and chemical signals are whizzing around in particular patterns within that web.

Evolution will have programmed the web to be a pretty good match to reality, since the whole point of a brain is to make decisions that help propagate the genes, and a brain will be best at that if, overall, its processes are a pretty good model of the external world.

For that reason, natural selection will have continually adjusted the web’s recipe to make it better match reality (at least, the range of reality that we would have experienced in everyday life over evolutionary history). What science tries to do today, adjusting the web of ideas to best match empirical reality, is exactly what natural selection will have done by trial and error over evolutionary time.

Indeed, when explaining evolution in The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins used a metaphor akin to Neurath’s raft. Dawkins compared our set of genes to a rowing crew, each member collaborating and contributing to the team effort. A coach could swap out any crew member in order to improve the overall result. No crew member is an unquestionable “axiom”.

Hence, what we regard as basic truths of logic and other “a priori” truths that seem obvious to us, will have been produced by evolution precisely because they model the world we live in. We can thus ask, are any beliefs foundational, in that we cannot challenge them? From evolution’s point of view, no there aren’t. The recipe for the web is under genetic control, and evolution just makes random mutations to the recipe and tries them out, seeing whether they produce better or worse results. Evolution can swap out any member of the rowing crew.

Any basic belief might be replaced by a mutation turning into the negation of that belief, and if that worked better then it would tend to result in more descendants and so would prosper. Otto Neurath’s idea that science can challenge and test any and all aspects of the web of ideas, swapping alternatives in and out, is exactly what evolution will have been doing over eons.

By the time we get to adulthood our brains will have become more fixed, and it may be that by adulthood many of our beliefs are — quite literally — hardwired into us. Thus we might find it near impossible to even imagine alternatives to, say, modus tollens, or to ideas such as 1 + 1 = 2. But those beliefs will still have been arrived at as a result of the reality-driven genetic recipe and the empirical environment in which we developed and grew up. Indeed, the whole evolutionary point of the brain is to produce a model of the local environment for use as a real-time decision maker.

Whenever we conceive of a “foundational axiom”, we can question it. All we have to do is ask what the consequences would be if it didn’t hold. To do that we substitute the negation of that axiom into the web, and see how the modified web does for explanatory and predictive power. Most likely, replacing basic axioms with their negation would produce nonsense, or all possible outputs, or something else equally useless. The explanatory and predictive power of the web would likely fall apart. If that happens then we have verified the original axiom as matching empirical reality. Absolutely nothing about the web of ideas is unquestionable — save only, perhaps, if we lack even the imagination to question it.

There is one way in which identifying science’s “web of ideas” with someone’s brain breaks down. Science is a cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people, and any one person can know only a tiny fraction of today’s science. Thus we need to extend the picture to a web of webs, an interacting network of people’s brains, each exchanging information with others in the web. (Similarly, one should regard evolution as operating on the gene pool of the species, not just the genes in any individual.) This extension, though, only reinforces the evolutionary explanation of the origin of our basic ideas.

The above view roots a “metaphysical” view about epistemology, about how we know things, in the scientific understanding of where we humans came from. It thus aligns the epistemology firmly with scientific truth. The web-of-ideas is not “just a metaphor”, it is firm reality existing physically within each of us, having originated in our evolutionary past. And that consilience gives confidence that it is the right idea. In essence, our scientific understanding now settles our metaphysics. But then to a scientismist those were never separate domains anyhow.

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43 thoughts on “Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge

  1. Phil

    Hi Coel, you said….

    “Evolution will have programmed the web to be a pretty good match to reality, since the whole point of a brain is to make decisions that help propagate the genes, and a brain will be best at that if, overall, its processes are a pretty good model of the external world. ”

    This seems too sweeping, imho. It is perhaps more precise to assert that evolution will have programmed the web you so articulately reference to the segment of reality which must be navigated to reproduce.

    We might be wary of confusing local scale (what we can see and know) with infinite scale (all of reality). We can’t credibly make a leap from one to the other because we don’t know what our sample size is. We don’t know the relationship between what we can observe and understand, and all that is. What we can observe may be highly representative of the whole, or not hardly at all. No one knows.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,
      Yes, I agree with you on that (indeed I put that caveat in at one point, though admittedly not in the paragraph you quoted, saying: “For that reason, natural selection will have continually adjusted the web’s recipe to make it better match reality (at least, the range of reality that we would have experienced in everyday life over evolutionary history)”).

      Another caveat is that we wouldn’t expect the model to be a perfect match to the local environment, since it is optimised for utility, not for truth. While, in general it will be the case that a near-true model is the most useful, we’d also expect biases. For example, we seem to have a bias to an over-active pattern-recognition detector, and many other cognitive biases that likely result from being optimised for utility, not truth.

  2. Phil

    Thanks for the engagement Coel.

    I am very interested in built-in biases which may exist in the web you reference, or more precisely, in the medium the web is made of.

    Briefly, we could propose that thought is inherently divisive in nature, whereas reality is not a collection of things, but one big thing. If true, the information medium we are made of may be imposing an apparent division upon our observation that isn’t really there.

    If distortion exists at such a fundamental level, not just in particular data but in the medium itself, using that medium to address the issue may become suspect.

    This may be related to your thoughts above, or perhaps just a pet rant. 🙂 Your blog, you decide, thanks.

    Reply
  3. Mark Sloan

    Coel, I found much to like here. I particularly like that the scientism view is not a linear one constructed from premises, but the view produced by the network of ideas that best explain our sensory data.

    Does this imply that the so defined scientism view would not always have necessarily been a naturalistic one? Prior to there being any explanations for our moral sense except supernatural ones, perhaps supernatural explanations regarding our moral sense best explained our sensory data? So, rather than “no supernatural explanations” being a premise, “no supernatural explanations” is now a conclusion justified by best explanation of our sensory data.

    This view of scientism might also be useful to improve communications between scientists and philosophers. For example, the physicist Richard Feynman who said “If you want to do science, the last person you want to talk to is a philosopher of science.” Taking your view of scientism, rather than philosophers going on about scientist’s “unstated, unexamined, premises” or “failure to show falsifiability”, perhaps philosophers could make a more useful contribution by pointing out premises and positions on falsifiability that actual do aid in finding what ideas best explain our sensory data.

    On the other hand, doesn’t your view of scientism here contradict your view expressed elsewhere that the most useful definition of an “objective morality” is that it necessarily must include innate bindingness regardless of human goals and desires? So far as I know, our universe is such that any such bindingness (at least as I understand it) would have to be supernatural. Would not a definition of objective morality without any necessary innate supernatural bindingness be a more useful log in scientism’s raft dealing with our moral sense and moral codes?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      So, rather than “no supernatural explanations” being a premise, “no supernatural explanations” is now a conclusion justified by best explanation of our sensory data.

      Yes, exactly.

      Would not a definition of objective morality without any necessary innate supernatural bindingness be a more useful log in scientism’s raft dealing with our moral sense and moral codes?

      My view is that it’s best to simply ditch the idea that morality is objective, and accept and embrace the idea that it is subjective. I don’t see any way of making any objective scheme coherent.

  4. Pingback: Science is a collective enterprise: its models are cumulative, interconnected and coherent | Science or not?

  5. Mark Wallace

    The foundational axiom of your approach seems to be that “Evolution will have programmed the web to be a pretty good match to reality”. Wouldn’t widespread religious belief contradict this, as, according to your view, it doesn’t match to reality at all? Maybe it’s evolutionary beneficial to be deluded and obtuse?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      The “match to reality” that evolution programs will only be approximate. We humans have lots of biases and foibles, some of these will (as you say) be evolutionarily beneficial, and others can propagate so long as they are not actually harmful.

  6. Phil

    Great point Mark Wallace, I think you’re really on to something here. Another way to put this might be…

    The needs of the body require an accurate model of reality, best developed by reason and science etc. I suspect just about everybody agrees on this, including most theists.

    There may be an unwarranted, and even unexamined, leap from that agreed upon fact to an assumption that the needs of the mind are best pursued in the same manner. The pervasive persistent influence of both religion and art argue against such a notion. Even common sense will do.

    In an accurate reality, I’m some nerdy old gray haired geezer pounding away on a computer keyboard. In a creative conjured reality, I am dating Diane Lane and we’re skinny dipping together on the beach at Malibu under a full moon. Which would you pick?

    Even ideologies explicitly and adamantly opposed to fantasy are drenched in it. Moving along quickly….

    The future of humanity will be dominated by a deep dive in to a virtual reality realm where fantasy reigns, and the full creative potential of the human mind is unleashed. We’re already well on our way with today’s primitive technology.

    That coming fantasy world will be invented and designed by scientists, but it will be best explored by those unchained to facts.

    Reply
  7. PeterJ

    Phil – “The needs of the body require an accurate model of reality, best developed by reason and science etc. I suspect just about everybody agrees on this, including most theists.”

    It does not need an accurate model, and nor does it have one, just one that works. We’d all agree about this. What we wouldn’t agree about is which model is correct and which is not and thus leads us to behave irrationally. .

    Nor do I think that a retreat into fantasy is a good idea, despite the popularity of this approach in the sciences. To unchain oneself from the facts is usually called insanity. .

    Mark – “Maybe it’s evolutionary beneficial to be deluded and obtuse?”

    I’m very sure of it at the level of the phenotype. If ‘beneficial’ means more procreation it almost goes without saying. Whether the direction this deluded and obtuse evolution takes is ‘beneficial’ would be another question. .

    Coel – The problem of whether an ethical scheme must be subjective or objective can be solved by breaking down this distinction, as we see in the ethical scheme of mysticism. Either extreme view does not work, as I think you’d agree.

    Reply
  8. Phil

    Hi again Peter, you said…

    “To unchain oneself from the facts is usually called insanity.”

    The fact is, we are insane. 🙂

    We don’t want to be a tiny powerless entity in an unfathomably enormous reality we have no hope of ever truly controlling. We want to rule as gods over a world where we can design a reality customized to meet our every psychic need, the symbolic realm. We’ve been reaching for this since the very beginning, when the first cave man told his friends the first story around the campfire. The goal has always been the same, only the methodology changes. The methodology has now changed sufficiently that the path can increasingly be perceived by popular culture, and so we get movies like The Matrix.

    It is insane to retreat from the real world, that is the correct meaning of that word. But such a retreat is also highly rational, because only in the symbolic realm can we be gods. Science is just the boat we use to cross the river. Once we get to the other side it will be abandoned. Facts generally suck, who needs them? 🙂

    Reply
    1. PeterJ

      Ha. Yes, we are insane. Might as well accept it. But I cannot agree about science and abstractions. . Only in the real world can we be God, where a large number of meditative practitioners and philosophers and even Erwin Schrodinger say this is exactly what we are. Bear in mind that The Matrix is based on the Buddhist description of reality, albeit in a muddled way.

      The idea that science will cross any rivers for us is a not-starter in my book. It cannot even swim as far as metaphysics. By definition it is the study of what lies on this side and can go no further. Science can look highly unambitious from a certain perspective.

  9. Mark Sloan

    Coel, Quine is a new hero-philosopher for me. I had not known there was a philosopher who ever said anything so sensible as:
    “And philosophy in turn, as an effort to get clearer on things, is not to be distinguished in its essential points of purpose and method from good and bad science” Quine Word and Object

    And I really like the web of ideas – raft metaphor for scientism. Thanks for your post and interaction.

    However, in your above comment, you said,

    “My view is that it’s best to simply ditch the idea that morality is objective, and accept and embrace the idea that it is subjective. I don’t see any way of making any objective scheme coherent.”

    if by this you mean that morality’s bindingness is subjective (mind dependent), then I agree of course.

    But if you mean that there is no underlying objective principle (specifically, overcoming the cooperation/exploitation dilemma) that explains our moral sense and past and present moral codes, then you are advocating leaving a huge hole in your network of ideas about the universe.
    How big is this hole in your philosophical (and scientific) raft of understanding? The missing (big) logs coherently explain our moral sense, past and present moral codes, and provide an objective basis for a cross species universal moral code defined by its function – overcoming the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

    Where do you find any hint of incoherence in this objective morality?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      if by this you mean that morality’s bindingness is subjective (mind dependent), then I agree of course.

      Yes, that’s what I mean. The “oughtness” of morals is essentially a subjective feeling and opinion. I do agree with you that the *existence* of morality is objective, and the reasons that evolution programmed it into us are objective facts. The objective/subjective distinction is usually meant as applying to the bindingness of morals.

  10. Mark Sloan

    Coel, I agree that “The objective/subjective distinction is usually meant as applying to the bindingness of morals.”

    Unfortunately, this perversely defined meaning is also a serious error in the sense of obscuring the underlying nature of morality as a cross-species natural phenomena. It makes invisible a large hole in our raft.

    Reply
  11. PeterJ

    I think my main problem with the thesis of the post is that it dismisses metaphysics as nonsense, thus leaving science to roam free of any anchor in what is actually the case. The idea seems to be that we should just give up on philosophy and let science create a ‘web of beliefs’ (or world-view) without any reference to the world itself beyond whatever scientific facts we happen to have stumbled on. This is an intellectual free-for-all that can only lead to, well, scientism, just as we see it does. It would be the final victory for dogmatic materialism and scientific arrogance, and it would mean the death of intelligent thinking about the nature of reality.

    Science is a very limited method of investigation and on this approach it might as well be a pair of blinkers. It is, frankly, dull as ditchwater from a philosophical perspective and can be largely ignored, along with its practitioners. Science is a sub-category of philosophy, not the reverse. Philosophy is where all the action is unless one is interested in poking things with sticks.

    This deification of science mystifies me. It looks like a conscious decision not to face the wider facts or even admit there are any.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      … it dismisses metaphysics as nonsense, …

      Not really, rather is sees both as part of the same ensemble of trying to find things out.

      … thus leaving science to roam free of any anchor in what is actually the case.

      But the only “anchor in what is actually the case” is that provided by science. We have no other way of knowing about reality.

      Science is a very limited method of investigation and on this approach it might as well be a pair of blinkers.

      I guess this is where we disagree.

      This deification of science mystifies me. It looks like a conscious decision not to face the wider facts or even admit there are any.

      How do we find out any “facts” other than by the methods of science — by which I mean a broadly-defined science as encompassing all empirically gained knowledge about the world?

  12. Phil

    Whoa, beware of PJ the Impaler! 🙂

    To be fair, there are many different flavors of the human mind, and it’s common for folks to worship the slice of reality that appear most prominent to them. Artists see art everywhere they look, philosophers see ideas, mechanics see a mechanical universe and so on. A lot of debate boils down to everyone arguing that what they see through their particular lens is not “a view” but “the view”.

    My whiny complaint is that both philosophers and scientists often seem so overwhelmingly obsessed with the content of thought, the data, this idea vs. that idea, that they typically completely ignore the nature of thought. Simply including the phrase “nature of thought” anywhere in a post seems to guarantee it won’t be read. To me, this is like being so focused on the fish in the sea that one loses interest in the water they swim in and are largely made of.

    The accuracy of Coel’s web of ideas can only be as good as the information medium that web is made of, thought. Any distortion which exists within that medium will infect every corner of the web. Thus, it seems rather important to have some idea what those distortions might be.

    And then there’s the issue that we ourselves are made of thought. And so there is no outside observer who can examine thought objectively from a distance, such as we might inspect a telescope for dust on the lens.

    To me, the three word phrase “I am thinking” reveals a clue about the nature of thought. We can observe how “I” has been divided from “thinking” conceptually, when in reality there is only “thinking”. If such a simple common statement can be so distorted by a fantasy division, I’m guessing pretty much everything in thought is being affected in a similar manner.

    If true, then while Coel’s web of ideas is clearly indisputably useful, it’s also fundamentally fantasy, an inaccurate representation of reality.

    Reply
    1. PeterJ

      Great stuff Phil. The Impaler – I like that.

      I’d agree with your thoughts on thoughts. This is a crucial issue for meditation practice – learning to think in an ideal manner without the ego distorting the entire process for its own ends.

      To build a model of the world in our thoughts based only on the scientific data would be like building a house without a foundation and only half a blueprint. and to build it without examining the nature of thought would be to leave off the roof.
      . ,

  13. Phil

    In re-reading Coel’s post, one part that resonates here is his insight that the web of ideas, ie thought, has tangible material substance. This seems a useful point as we may typically imagine ideas in a vague sort of way as being somehow ethereal, maybe because in every day life we can’t observe the brain directly. Perhaps we might pretend ideas are made of wood, a common physical substance we can hold in our hands and examine. Using that fiction might help us get in the habit of investigating the properties of the medium all ideas are made of.

    Reply
    1. PeterJ

      Subtle matter? Hmm. I tend to think it’s the structure of thought that makes it interesting rather than the material, but maybe you have a point. .

  14. Phil

    Coel says, “Evolution will have programmed the web to be a pretty good match to reality.”

    What I see is that every species is expert within it’s niche, or it wouldn’t be there. On the other hand, every species is also largely blind beyond it’s niche, as it has no need for that information. I am suspect of a possible unwarranted leap from the fact that our niche is wider than other species on one little planet, to the notion that therefore our web is a pretty good match to the totality of reality, a phrase we casually use, but can not even define.

    As example, for most of our history we had no clue about the microscopic, sub-atomic, or quantum realms even though they can not be separated from the day to day human scale realm. Only 100 years ago we didn’t see the 99%+ of reality discovered by Hubble. Of course these realms beyond human scale were discovered by science, which does convincingly prove that science has remarkable abilities, and that the power of reason exceeds what was once believed.

    But I don’t see how it automatically follows that therefore the totality of reality can be known by science or any other process within the human mind. It still seems more likely to me that our ability to map reality has profound limits, just like every other species ever discovered.

    If it is true that our web can only match a fragment of reality, like every other species, then we are back to the kinds of questions long asked by religion. What is our relationship to all that which we can not comprehend?

    Reply
    1. PeterJ

      Just have to say how much I agree with you Phil. Your second para. seems completely crucial.

      This web of beliefs appears to be what is meant by ‘world-view’. If we limit our world-view to what we can learn from science then our world-view will consist mostly of question-marks and guesswork. For anything worthy of being called a world-view we cannot divide up knowledge into compartments like a university since the whole idea idea would be to join up all the dots. Then we can weave a web that can catch flies instead of being a few unanchored threads holding together a lot of holes.

      I have no beef with science, its methods and theories, albeit its ethics are a constant source of despair, but the idea that single-handedly it can bring us to an understanding of reality is absurd and does it no favours. Metaphysics comes before and after science, standing like a barrier between science and reality. As any world-view worth having must have a metaphysical foundation we have no choice as researchers but to venture beyond the limited domain of the natural sciences.

      Coel talks of a ‘foundational axiom’ as necessary for a healthy web of ideas and thoughts. This seems exactly right to me. But no such axiom emerges from science and it never will. It emerges from metaphysics, which is the discipline that deals with these things. Which is presumably why so few scientists have any idea at all what such an axiom might look like.

      The mystic knows the correct axiom, or perhaps actually ‘is’ the correct axiom. In metaphysics we can at least work it out, Or so I would argue and constantly do.

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      I am suspect of a possible unwarranted leap from the fact that our niche is wider than other species on one little planet, to the notion that therefore our web is a pretty good match to the totality of reality, …

      Yes, I agree with you. The evolutionary programming will likely do a good job with the basics of the reality that we met over our evolutionary past, but it will not do a good job with the wider reality. That is why things like quantum mechanics and relativity are so counter-intuitive and hard to arrive at.

      But I don’t see how it automatically follows that therefore the totality of reality can be known by science or any other process within the human mind.

      True, but I made no such claim. Science is always limited and provisional. It is our best attempt at understanding reality, and it is the best that we humans can do. But there is no claim that it is *better* than we humans can do nor that it is perfect!

    3. Coel Post author

      Coel talks of a ‘foundational axiom’ as necessary for a healthy web of ideas and thoughts. This seems exactly right to me.

      Well, no, the whole point of the article was to reject the idea that “foundational axioms” are necessary.

      But no such axiom emerges from science and it never will. It emerges from metaphysics, which is the discipline that deals with these things. … The mystic knows the correct axiom, …

      So can you tell us what these axioms are, how metaphysics arrived at them, and how we know they are correct?

  15. Paul Braterman

    I think your thesis fails both because evolution does not generate perfection, and because so many of the facts of mathematics do not correspond to true statements about the world as we can experience it.

    We suffer from well-known conceptual illusions, such as the tendency to see patterns where there are none. This has obvious survival value (seeing absent perils is better than missing those really present). A propensity to religious beliefs may be another such, because of the survival value of the resultant bonding. I regard such imperfections as exactly what we would expect from the historically contingent processes of evolution.

    And what fact of experience is there to correspond to the mathematical fact, known since early classical times, that the square root of 2 is irrational; or to the more recent discovery that without leading to contradiction, the number of real numbers (C) can be assumed either to be, or not to be, the smallest infinity greater than aleph(null)?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Paul,

      I think your thesis fails both because evolution does not generate perfection, …

      That would only be a problem if I were claiming that the web was a perfect match to reality, or that science had arrived at infallible truth. But science is always provisional, it’s a matter of the best we have done so far, not a claim to perfection.

      … and because so many of the facts of mathematics do not correspond to true statements about the world as we can experience it.

      I’d say that only a small proportion of maths does *not* correspond to the way the world works. Nearly all mathematical axioms are arrived at and adopted because they model the way the world is.

      And what fact of experience is there to correspond to the mathematical fact, known since early classical times, that the square root of 2 is irrational; …

      The fact that sqrt(2) is irrational results from axioms, where those axioms were indeed adopted as modelling real-world behaviour. Much of such maths came about from drawing on pieces of paper (or clay tablets or whatever) and applying the results to the real world, such as getting buildings square.

      The claim is not that every individual piece of knowledge is adopted individually and directly from empirical experience, it is that we build a web of ideas in order to model the world of experience. That web includes basic axioms of maths and reason, and then the web *produces* results such as “sqrt(2) is irrational”.

    2. Paul Braterman

      We can more or less cobble together agreement on the question of our knowledge of the world; the world is what it is, and our knowledge of the world has withstood scrutiny by methods that largely correspond to reality, or we would not be here. There remain questions about how we know that illusions *are* illusions, and about the difference between truth and survival value (there have been and still are places where accepting religious beliefs has extremely strong survival value), but these perhaps are secondary.

      I find your account of mathematics, however, completely unsatisfactory. All mathematical truths are of the form “From axioms A and transformational rules T, we can/cannot derive results R”. These are not statements about the material world, although it is a statement about the material world that some set of objects provides a representation of a particular set of axioms, and we then call those axioms “useful” in that context. Thus counting arithmetic is useful for keeping track of one’s cattle. But arithmetic is not falsified by the fact that the correspondence is imperfect – that cattle sometimes die, or give birth – and so its truth could not have depended on the properties of the cattle flock in the first place. So I maintain that the extent to which a set of objects obeys the laws of counting arithmetic is a question about the world, but whether 6 x 8 = 8 x 6 is not.

    3. Coel Post author

      All mathematical truths are of the form “From axioms A and transformational rules T, we can/cannot derive results R”. These are not statements about the material world, although it is a statement about the material world that some set of objects provides a representation of a particular set of axioms, and we then call those axioms “useful” in that context.

      We can say exactly the same about physical “laws of nature”. For example, we can say that *from* Newton’s laws L and transformation rules T we can derive results R about how objects behave. We can then separate out the question of whether Newton’s laws provide a good model of the world such that those laws are “useful”.

      The structure is the same for the two. The only difference is that for maths we tend to use the term “axiom” whereas for physics we use the term “laws”.

      When it comes to physics we would, though, immediately ask, but why *those* laws, you adopted them because they model the world didn’t you? To which the answer is yes. And that means physics gets classed as “empirical”.

      But, for some reason, people are reluctant to ask the same question about axioms of maths. If they did the answer would be the same, the axioms were adopted because they model the world.

      Thus counting arithmetic is useful for keeping track of one’s cattle.

      Exactly!

      But arithmetic is not falsified by the fact that the correspondence is imperfect – that cattle sometimes die, or give birth – and so its truth could not have depended on the properties of the cattle flock in the first place.

      Yes it does! It’s just that the properties of the world that lead to arithmetic are so basic and fundamental that it is hard to even conceive of them not holding. Suppose we put one apple in a bag followed immediately by another apple. There are now two apples in the bag. So we have 1 + 1 = 2.

      If putting one apple and then another in the bag resulted in there being three apples in the bag, then we’d have 1 + 1 = 3. If you think that this couldn’t happen, then indeed, that’s not how *our* world works, which is exactly the point I’m making and exactly why your brain thinks like it does in adding 1 + 1.

      … is a question about the world, but whether 6 x 8 = 8 x 6 is not.

      But there again, the reason why we have arithmetic in which 6 x 8 = 8 x 6 is because that models real-world behaviour! If the real world didn’t work like that then arithmetic would have developed to reflect that.

      Indeed, there are scenarios in which such commutation doesn’t hold in the real world, and for that we do indeed adopt maths in which operators do not commute, which we do in quantum mechanics.

      If you’re interested, I’ve argued this about maths at length:

      Defending scientism: mathematics is a part of science

      And:

      The unity of maths and physics revisited.

  16. Phil

    I think we all agree that Coel’s web of ideas is always being tested and edited by evolution, with survival being a “fundamental axiom” of sorts. It also seems beyond dispute that this evolutionary editing of our web, now accelerated by science, has succeeded to a remarkable degree in arming humanity with the necessities of life such as food, shelter, medicine etc. So far, so good.

    Given these huge accomplishments, it is surely reasonable to celebrate the process that delivered them, though perhaps less reasonable to worship that process as a “one true way” as it appears scientism is attempting to do. Ah the so very human irony of an explicitly anti-religious ideology emerging as a new kind of religion.

    Anyway, anyway, let’s get back to the bottom line of survival. Now that our web matches reality sufficiently that we can confidently provide life’s basic necessities, what is the challenge to survival at this point? What is the next test for our web?

    Many propose the biggest threat to human survival today is humanity itself. You know the story, so I won’t rant on about species extinction, global warming, nuclear weapons etc. All I’ll say is that such challenges should raise the question of whether humanity is mature enough to successfully manage an ever accelerating development of knowledge, and thus power. Is our maturity ever accelerating too?

    If it is true that the primary threat to human survival is now humanity itself, we might explore together why the overwhelming vast majority of scientific endeavor is aimed at topics other than enhancing human maturity. Rational?

    Want to convince me that science should be worshiped as the new “one true way” religion? Here’s how. Make science rational. Forget about silly things like Higgs boson, and use science to make us sane. Use science to address the survival threat we now face.

    If science can not edit our web to meet that challenge, evolution will likely erase it.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I think we all agree that Coel’s web of ideas is always being tested and edited by evolution, with survival being a “fundamental axiom” of sorts.

      Well no, in my scheme there are no “fundamental axioms”.

      Want to convince me that science should be worshiped as the new “one true way” religion?

      No thanks, I don’t. Being continually critical and examining claims is at the heart of the scientific approach.

  17. Phil

    Hi again Coel, you said….

    “Being continually critical and examining claims is at the heart of the scientific approach.”

    Does this help? We are perhaps discussing two different things, data and methodology, and sometimes getting them confused?

    As best I can tell, we enjoy wide agreement that science excels at critically examining data and replacing it with new data as needed, the editing of the web as you put it. No debate here.

    What’s less clear is the degree to which science is willing to critically examine science itself, or more generally reason is willing to critically examine reason. I don’t see this more fundamental form of critical examination in either your blog, the scientific community at large, or most of the wider culture. Perhaps the problem is mine for not looking in the right places?

    What I see is all of us racing full speed ahead based on a now outdated “more is better” relationship with knowledge. That relationship was entirely rational for eons when knowledge was very hard to come by, but seems due for critical examination in a modern era characterized by a knowledge explosion. A problem here is that those who excel at critical examination would seem to have an understandable built-in bias against challenging the fundamental assumption all of science is built upon, a more is better relationship withe knowledge.

    Thus, I proposed a compromise of sorts. We might continue to race full speed ahead for more and more knowledge, but targeted at what now matters most, developing our maturity.

    I don’t rule out that science alone may be able to get this job done, which if true would support your faith in it. As just one example, if there was a pill that would fill human beings with a sense of inner peace, without creating more problems than it solved, that might be a huge step forward. A purely mechanical fix, which science excels at.

    If we had such peace, from whatever source, then when a question such as nano-bots comes up, we could meet that question with a rational mature response such as, “This is a big decision, let’s take a century and give it careful thought”.

    Without such a maturity, we are like lemmings racing blindly towards the cliff, while patting ourselves on the back for our genius.

    Reply
  18. Phil

    Paul articulately penned…

    “We can more or less cobble together agreement on the question of our knowledge of the world; the world is what it is, and our knowledge of the world has withstood scrutiny by methods that largely correspond to reality, or we would not be here.”

    We are here because we have sufficiently understood the extremely tiny slice of reality that the survival of our physical bodies requires. Thus, if by “the world” you mean the human scale component of planet Earth, no debate. If by “the world” you are referring to a far more sweeping realm such as “reality”, that’s different.

    The squirrel you see looking out your window has survived in your backyard because he has mastered the extremely limited segment of reality we call your yard, while simultaneously being profoundly blind about everything else.

    Point being, our being here doesn’t say much about how well our web matches the “infinite scale” realm that religious and anti-religious claims are attempting to address, questions about the fundamental nature of EVERYTHING. When we get to that scale, it’s mostly just an emotion fueled battle between two faith based fantasy knowings.

    I’m not sure this is even an argument with what you have wrote, and if not, I apologize for sloppy writing which may give that impression.

    Reply
  19. PeterJ

    Coel – pardon me. I missed an earlier post. I want to pull it apart.

    Me – … it dismisses metaphysics as nonsense, …

    You – Not really, rather is sees both as part of the same ensemble of trying to find things out.

    Me … thus leaving science to roam free of any anchor in what is actually the case.

    You – But the only “anchor in what is actually the case” is that provided by science. We have no other way of knowing about reality.

    Me- This dem9onstrates that despite the protests you dismiss metaphysics as nonsense. This leaves you with the idea that science the only way of knowing about reality, and deafens you to the metaphysical truth that science does not even make contact with reality.

    Me – Science is a very limited method of investigation and on this approach it might as well be a pair of blinkers.

    You – I guess this is where we disagree.

    Me – It may be exactly the point of disagreement. The evidence seems pretty clear.

    Me – This deification of science mystifies me. It looks like a conscious decision not to face the wider facts or even admit there are any.

    You – How do we find out any “facts” other than by the methods of science — by which I mean a broadly-defined science as encompassing all empirically gained knowledge about the world?

    Me – There you go. Direct experience is dismissed, along with the use of our reason. With these dismissed we can say that prodding things with a stick is the only method available and thus it triumphs over all. Standard stuff for scientism.

    I’ll be honest, Coel, and say you seem too bright to fall for all this nonsense. Do you really believe think that nobody has ever known more about reality than can be learnt in the natural sciences? Hell, if I knew no more than that I wouldn’t be posting on your comments section.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Peter,

      Do you really believe think that nobody has ever known more about reality than can be learnt in the natural sciences?

      I don’t take a narrow interpretation of “natural sciences”, as in the last comment it “encompasses all empirically gained knowledge about the world”.

      Direct experience is dismissed, …

      Not at all. “Direct experience” is part of our empirical contact with the world. I don’t see how else we can “experience” something. If we hold something in our hand and look at it, we are gaining information empirically.

      … along with the use of our reason.

      No, I don’t dismiss that either. But our reason is also one of the things that I see as deriving from our contact with the world, as argued for the in the OP. We don’t have reason a priori, we have it as a result of having developed a model of the world over evolutionary time.

      With these dismissed we can say that prodding things with a stick is the only method available and thus it triumphs over all. Standard stuff for scientism.

      Saying “science includes X” is not the same as saying “science dismisses X”.

    2. PeterJ

      Thanks for the enjoyable chat folks, but I shall probably leave it here.

      Coel – I leave feeling that you think in a rather strange way, but then I suppose you think the same of me. At any rate, the divide seems too difficult to cross in a comments section. I would agree with Phil about most things and he speaks more clearly. In particular I’d agree that there need be no conflict between mysticism and science, properly practiced, I see science as a way of verifying Buddhist doctrine and think it’s doing a great job. Not, however, an important one except for prosaic utilitarian reasons.

      Not sure this is enough to win the word count competition, but I may come back if there’s a prize.

  20. Phil

    Does this help at all?

    Both science and mysticism are based on observation of reality. The difference is in their relationship with observation.

    Science uses observation as a means to the end of developing theories and conclusions, that is, symbolic objects.

    Mysticism uses theories and conclusions as a means to observation. The mystic may approach the investigation with a pile of theories, but eventually discards them to the degree possible in favor of observation, which is valued for itself.

    The scientist is concerned with the creation of symbolic objects, knowledge. The mystic is concerned with keeping their focus on the real world.

    Mysticism is not a good method for developing knowledge, as the whole point of it is to step outside of the symbol making process. Science is not a good method for observing the symbol making process at arm’s length, because science is itself that symbol making process.

    Never leaving the symbol making process (ie. thought) might be compared to the person who has been wearing tinted sunglasses their entire life. They don’t see the distortion being introduced by the tool they are using to conduct their investigations, as they have nothing to compare wearing tinted sunglasses to.

    Never leaving the observation process will reduce the mystic to a starving beggar who will soon be swept aside by natural selection. 🙂

    A conflict between science and mysticism is unnecessary. One is inside the symbol making machine, and one is outside. Both perspectives on the situation have value.

    I don’t think anyone here is arguing against science. Perhaps we are arguing against a perceived assertion that science is sufficient unto itself. We are perhaps declining to enter in to the same kind of relationship with science that characterized our relationship with religion for too long.

    But the main thing is, my central point, the bottom line, is that whoever types the most words wins. 🙂

    Go!

    Reply
  21. Imad Zaheer

    Interesting article but I think your view falls slightly closer to Susan Haack than Quine (even though she would argue against your scientism in some respects). Her metaphor of crossword puzzle and combination of foundationalism and coherentism into foundherentism is very similar to the ideas you describe. I would recommend checking out her book “Defending Science: Within Reason”. She also talks about metaphysics as well as science in that book but how metaphysics too is a combination of rational and empirical inquiry, not just some form of naive empiricism nor an a-priori rationalism.

    Reply
  22. oogenhand

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    “This argument assumes a linear view of knowledge, in which one starts with basic assumptions and builds on them using reason and evidence. The fundamentals of logic, for example, are part of the basic assumptions, and these cannot be further justified, but are simply the starting points of the system.

    Under scientism this view is wrong. Instead, all knowledge should be regarded as a web of inter-related ideas, that are adopted in order that the overall web best models the world that we experience through sense data.”

    The counter to Cornelius Van Til.

    Reply
  23. Pingback: Contra theologian Roger Trigg on the nature of science | coelsblog

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