A blog about belief

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of science’

Speaking objectively

In Philosophy, Science on November 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm

The “plain style” of speech that has just about completely supplanted the “high” rhetoric of the past is in part a remnant of an early version of the scientific method that claimed to root knowledge in objective observation.  The ideal of dispassionate language has persisted even as this interpretation of scientific practice has given way to more sophisticated ones, and I’m not sure of the extent to which we ought to hold on to it.  One thing that I’ve learned from Twentieth-century philosophers of science like Karl Popper and W.V. Quine, who have more in common with post-structuralism than anyone wants to admit, is that science works because observation is subjective, because there is no way of reporting what we see that cannot be disputed by someone who sees it differently.  Every act of perception is an act of interpretation in terms of a particular doctrine, and this is a good thing, because discovery occurs at the points at which our doctrines come into tension with what we perceive, at which, that is, there is something that we just can’t make fit with our present beliefs.  Objectivity is the process in which we actively seek this sort of tension.  It’s not the opposite of subjectivity, it’s what happens when subjectivity runs up against the world.

The thing is, this process only works if the doctrine in terms of which one interprets things is in a certain sense rigid.  If the associations that constitute one’s beliefs are flexible enough, then one can finagle any sensory data one comes across to fit them; I have called this, in another post, paranoia.  The purpose of the sort of formalized language that Quine takes such pains to develop is not to be transparent, but to be sufficiently rigid for science to work.  It is to make the relationships between different statements clear enough that when contradictions arise – when things don’t line up properly – the tension is manifest.  A language made rigid in this way looks quite similar to the “plain” modes of speech advocated by the early Royal Society empiricists, but the theoretical basis for it is very different from what led, for instance, Thomas Sprat to decry “figural” language as a cause of pointless contention.  There is a legitimate place for this formal sort of language, although not for the reasons that Sprat gives.  It facilitates both experimentation and productive debate.

But rigidity is only one of the prerequisites of objective discussion as I have defined it.  The other, the contingency and changeability of the systems of doctrine by which we make claims, would seem to be best served by a type of language that looks quite different from the traditional scientific plainness, and I’m not convinced that the particular formalization that Quine comes up with doesn’t falter in this regard.  Despite the theoretical motive to the contrary, Quinean language still looks like it’s meant to be transparent, if due to historical association alone.  An ideal sort of language for an objective discourse would be right up front about the fact that each individual statement in that discourse represents a particular, contingent, subjective viewpoint, while still providing as little give as possible when the discussion runs up against one of these viewpoints’ limitations.  This is doubly important in literary criticism, where it’s always import to keep aware of one’s own cultural position, and how that might impact one’s understanding of a text.

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Debunking vs explaining

In Art, Philosophy, Science on October 23, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I’m often surprised how many smart people I encounter who think of science as some kind of beauty-destroying machine.  This is a particularly common reaction to the attempts of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to understand how people relate to art.  I appreciate the need for different ways of talking about things, particularly when it comes to things as slippery as aesthetic responses, but there’s an anti-intellectualism I can’t abide in the idea that coming up with an explanation for something diminishes it.  There is no reason why our more subjective ways of thinking can’t stand alongside scientific theories, although perhaps science might prod us to adjust them a bit so that they’re less likely to lead us to bad decisions.  If science finds a way to reduce spiritual feelings to the workings of our brain, that doesn’t invalidate them or drain them of their power.  If anything, it validates them by providing evidence for their consistency with the way of looking at the world that’s proven most practically successful for us.

In that last statement I have tacitly given science a privileged position over other forms of knowledge.  I will not recant on this point, but I stop short of imputing that spirituality needs the validation of science.  That, I admit, gets us into worrisome territory.  I do suspect that some people who claim they’ve had a spiritual experience are kidding themselves, but there is a major ethical problem in calling someone else’s claim to have had such an experience bullshit, even if we’ve got MRI scans to back us up.  If someone says they’re experiencing a vision and our cognitive models of spirituality say otherwise, that means that either their claims are false or our models are flawed, and there’s no clear way to decide this.  The scientific standard of truth and those proper to spirituality need not overlap, and an attempt to use a scientific model to debunk something that was developed to sufficiently different ends can be backed up by nothing other than power.

That is, I suppose, the standard postmodern criticism of science.  But using theoretical models in the way I’ve described is not doing science.  Despite the popular image to the contrary, the driving purpose of science is not to debunk.  It is to explain.  Debunking only comes into play when the ideas in question contradict the best scientific models with respect to predictions that can be objectively tested; in that case and only in that case is it in science’s province to investigate who’s right.  Homeopathic medicine is something that’s ripe for refutation, and that’s good, because it causes objective harm.  Sudden irruptions of spiritual knowledge are generally not something that science could coherently debunk, and that’s great, because that sort of experience has resulted in some of the most astounding poetry humans have produced.

It’s because of this that I don’t think scientific investigation is anathema to art, even if we direct it towards art – even, further, if we direct it towards our apprehension of those spiritual sorts of truths that science can’t make heads or tails of.  If we approach the phenomenon of spiritual knowledge empirically, which I think we might as well, we cannot rightly treat that spiritual knowledge as a rival theory to science; instead, we must treat it as something to be explained.  The fact that it has to do with truth of another sort doesn’t mean that science can’t deal with it in that way, and the fact that science might be able to fully explain it doesn’t mean that it can’t still serve as an explanation in its own right.

Quine as literary theory

In Literature, Philosophy on September 22, 2011 at 11:27 pm

W.V.O. Quine’s project in Word and Object is the derivation of a formal language suitable for scientific hypothesis in a way that does not rely, like logical positivism, on protocol sentences that are taken to communicate observations in impartial and objective terms, or the existence of “meaning” independently from language.  Instead of building his system from the ground up out of logical primitives, Quine derives something quite similar to the language of propositional logic from empirically-testable regularities in our natural ways of speaking.

What’s crucial to Quine’s project is the idea of paraphrase.  In Quine’s terms, we accept a sentence as a paraphrase of what we’ve said not because the two sentences express the same underlying meaning, but because we judge that the second would have served whatever our purpose was just as well.  Quine sets out in detail a procedure for transforming arbitrary sentences into clear logical form using only operations that normally, at least when we are trying to speak objectively, produce acceptable paraphrases.  The operations he chooses to use are not meant to apply with certainty in every single case, but their applicability is supposed to be empirically testable in a reasonable range of circumstances.  As I’ve noted before, Quine emphasizes that it’s the original speaker who must finally judge whether a paraphrase is acceptable.  Any supposition we might make about what the other person is getting at can ultimately be no more than an educated guess unless we ask them and have reason to trust in the truthfulness of their answer.

Since Quine’s primary interest is science, he proceeds in his regimentation of language by using operations that he thinks would normally produce acceptable paraphrases in scientific discourse.  What happens if we apply a similar approach to literature?  A canonical form that arises out of, say, poetry, might look quite different from what Quine comes up with for science.  I don’t have the space to try this out in this post, but I will sketch out how the process might go.

First off, arguments about authorial intent would have to be off-limits in a Quinean approach to literature.  The theory that Quine sets out puts the focus on the speaker, but he expects that, if we are in doubt of what someone’s getting at, we can actually ask them to confirm our paraphrase.  To apply his approach to literature, we would have to set the standard for paraphrase in reader-centric terms based on the effect that the work has on us, so that we have a reasonable epistemic standard.  An acceptable paraphrase of a poem, then, would be one that produces approximately the same response in us as the original.  With this definition in mind, we would proceed by examining what changes we could make that produce acceptable paraphrases, looking for regularities in the sorts of operations that tend to leave a poem’s effect intact and perhaps learning something, thereby, about how a poem does what it does.

Those who’ve made a fair effort at understanding both analytic and continental philosophy won’t be surprised that, by applying Quine’s approach to literature, we’ve gotten quite close to deconstruction.  Both approaches avoid having to talk about meaning by focusing on the relationships between different pieces of language.  There is a difference in valence, though, and I think the Quinean approach has an advantage – it would, I think, be able to avoid making everything look like a “surface.”  The question that a deconstructionist asks is what difference it would make if another word were used in a particular spot – she aims to get everything she can out of the little textual details, with the assumption that every word has an equal chance at significance.  Instead, we would be looking for changes that wouldn’t make much of a difference, with the aim of stripping out all but a skeleton.  In the process we would be building a logic of poetry in terms of connectives and quantifiers like the structuralists tried to do, but we wouldn’t be building them from the ground up.  We would be enmeshing our theory with a living body of poetry.

This approach has an obvious affinity for the Imagists, and in particular the eliminative editing style of Ezra Pound, but I don’t think it would take us back to the Modernist distinction between surface and essence that has been rightly criticized from so many quarters.  Instead, it provides an explanation of what Pound was doing if he wasn’t finding poetry’s essence.  It would also provide, if it were to succeed, a class of literary universals that consists not of supposed “objective correlatives” between image and emotion, but, instead, of invariancies under transformation.

Realism

In Philosophy on September 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I’ve been reading Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects, which Bryant and his publisher have kindly made available for free online ahead of print.  I’m generally sympathetic to the speculative realist movement’s opposition to what they call correlationism, the belief that objects only exist insofar as we think them or posit them through language, but I haven’t yet been won over by any of the widely divergent ontologies that the prominent thinkers who are associated with the movement – Bryant, Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, etc. – offer as alternatives.   The argument Bryant adapts from Roy Bhaskar in section 1 is promising:

Bhaskar argues that the condition under which science is possible is the existence of what he calls “intransitive objects” which are real structures that exist independently of our minds and that are often “out of phase” with actual patterns of events. As Bhaskar articulates it,

…the intransitive objects of knowledge are in general invariant to our knowledge of them: they are the real things and structures, mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world; and for the most part they are quite independent of us. They are not unknowable, because as a matter of fact quite a bit is known about them… But neither are they in any way dependent upon our knowledge, let alone perception, of them.

The claim that intransitive objects are invariant to our knowledge of them is not equivalent to the claim that intransitive objects are invariant. Rather, the point is that these objects would do what they do regardless of whether anyone knew about them or perceived them. The claim that intransitive objects can be “out of phase” with actual patterns of events is the claim that these intransitive objects can act or be dormant, thereby not producing certain events that they would produce in other settings or contexts.

Put simply, science cannot be possible unless this claim is true, because the practice of experiment depends on the existence of “hidden or disguised powers of objects” which only become realized as actions or relations under conditions that can be created artificially.  I need to dig deeper to confirm that this argument really works, but it aligns with my intuitions about “what the world must be like for science to be possible”.  However, I am fairly certain that the argument with which Bryant follows this one is wrong.

A second line of argument holds that it is impossible to intelligibly think a world without men because, in the very act of thinking such a world, we are picturing ourselves as present to this world. The thesis here is that every picturing of the world includes ourselves in that picture. However, as Quentin Meillassoux has convincingly argued, such a line of argument leads to the conclusion that the thought of our own death is unintelligible or that we are necessarily immortal. For if it is true that we cannot think the world without thinking our presence to the world, then it follows that even the thought of our own death requires the presence of our thinking, thereby undermining the possibility of dying. As Meillassoux formulates this line of argument, “I can only think of myself as existing, and as existing the way I exist; thus, I cannot but exist, and always exist as I exist now”.

I will not push the point that it is apparently impossible to think the subjective experience of death, because it could still be possible (as it seems to be) to imagine the world after our death.  But I do think that when we imagine this, we must necessarily do it from the perspective of another human subject, if only an assumed one.  If this is true, then it does not, as Bryant seems to think, follow from the conceivability of a world without oneself that it is possible to conceive of a world without any subject at all.  We can think of the state of the world after the extinction of human life, but it seems to me that we can only do so as if from the perspective of, if not necessarily a human, a being with similar sensory apparatus to ours.  This doesn’t mean that Bryant’s conclusion is wrong, but I don’t think an argument from conceivability is the way to get there.

Quine and “Quine”

In Philosophy on August 27, 2011 at 9:09 pm

I’m working my way through Word and Object. I’m finding it frustrating in some ways. What drew me to Quine is his idea of the “web of belief,” a brilliant image of how a conceptual scheme for the world could work without an a priori foundation, but, however much it’s been discussed in commentary on Quine, it seems to be little more than a footnote in his actual work. There’s barely any explicit discussion of this metaphor in The Web of Belief, despite the title, and when it comes up in Word and Object Quine finds it sufficient to quote a paraphrase by Virgil Aldrich rather than bother with the exposition himself (12). Instead of backing up the idea with evidence and working out its implications for cognition, Quine spends a good portion of the book speculating about language acquisition (in the comments section of this New APPS post Jon Cogburn talks about Quine’s “weird a priori stories of language acquisition”) in a way that is, for someone so expressly concerned with science as Quine, strangely lacking in concrete evidence.

Someone recently quipped (I can’t find where) that the significance of Quine’s ideas comes through better in “cover versions” of his philosophy by others than in his own work. I certainly think this is the case with Word and Object. Buried in Quine’s regimentation and speculative psychology are some ideas that are highly relevant today, but they are relevant mostly in areas that Quine had little interest in exploring.

There are, though, some moments in Word and Object that can be quite readily construed in ethical/political terms. The way Quine writes about “native languages” in his section about radical translation has dated poorly, but the section does touch briefly on the ethics of anthropological research. Quine opposes the “doctrine of ‘prelogical mentality'”, in which the anthropologist carefully avoids the assumption that “natives” follow any particular rules of logic, because, Quine argues, we can’t be sure we’re understanding them correctly unless we assume they’re being consistent. “Better translation,” he writes, “imposes our logic upon them” (58). A postcolonialist might bristle at this, but the lack of determinate meaning in Quine’s theory of language places a limit on that imposition:

The speaker can be advised in his paraphrasing, and on occasion he can even be enjoined to accept a proposed paraphrase or substitute another or hold his peace; but his choice is the only one that binds him. A foggy appreciation of this point is expressed in saying that there is no dictating another’s meaning; but the notion of there being a fixed, explicable, and as yet unexplained meaning in the speaker’s mind is gratuitous. The real point is simply that the speaker is the one to judge whether the substitution of S’ for S in the present context will forward his present or evolving program of activity to his satisfaction. (160)

To assume that someone is being logically consistent is to impose on them a set of rules for how logical connectives in a language must work. But if we don’t take speech as the transmission of a “meaning” that exists apart from language, we can infer nothing about what they actually believe with these rules. All we can do is infer, on some hypothesis about their purpose in speaking to us, to what other sentences they might give assent, and in this we can assume neither that they are being honest with us nor that their purpose is fixed. It would take more than just a reading of Quine to develop this line of thought fully, but in his work we have the seed of a rational choice assumption that doesn’t actually assume much about what it means for another person to be rational.

The “interplay of chain stimulations”

In Mathematics, Philosophy on July 3, 2011 at 10:00 pm

In Word and Object, W.V.O. Quine talks about the way in which the mind revises its web of beliefs as if this process occurs in an unconscious way:

[…]  Prediction is in effect the conjectural anticipation of further sensory evidence for a foregone conclusion.  When a prediction comes out wrong, what we have is a divergent and troublesome sensory stimulation that tends to inhibit that once foregone conclusion, and so to extinguish the sentence-to-sentence conditionings that led to the prediction.  Thus it is that theories wither when their predictions fail.

In an extreme case, the theory may consist in such firmly conditioned connections between two sentences that it withstands the failure of a prediction or two.  We find ourselves excusing the failure of prediction as a mistake in observation or a result of unexplained interference.  The tail thus comes, in an extremity, to wag the dog.

The sifting of evidence would seem from recent remarks to be a strangely passive affair, apart from the effort to intercept helpful stimuli: we just try to be as sensitively responsive as possible to the ensuing interplay of chain stimulations.  What conscious policy does one follow, then, when not simply passive toward this interanimation of sentences?  Consciously the quest seems to be for the simplest story.  Yet this supposed quality of simplicity is more easily sensed than described.  Perhaps our vaunted sense of simplicity, or of likeliest explanation, is in many cases just a feeling of conviction attaching to the blind resultant of the interplay of chain stimulations in their various strengths.  (§5)

Mercier & Sperber’s argumentative theory of reasoning could offer an answer to this conundrum.  To be sure, Quine is not suggesting an argumentative theory – by “story” he means theory, not argument.  But he is only able to hesitantly claim that the conscious part of cognition has the function of preserving the simplicity of theories.  Even this operation appears to occur at the level of intuition, and what purpose conscious reasoning has left is unclear.  In the argumentative theory of reasoning, the “interplay of chain stimulations” by which contrary evidence tugs at our theoretical ideas would be a part of the intuitive track of cognition.  The function of conscious reasoning would be not to oversee this intuitive process, but to come up with good ways of verbalizing its results.  Conscious reasoning would not, in the normal course of things, involve changing the web of belief at all – instead its purpose would be to look for paths along the web that link the particular beliefs one anticipates having to defend to sentences that others might be willing to take as premises.

The argumentative theory claims to explain the confirmation bias by thus reconceiving the function of conscious reasoning, but Quine suggests (in the second paragraph I quoted) that a confirmation bias of sorts can occur in what I have assigned to the intuitive track of cognition as well.  Sometimes our theoretical ideas have become so ingrained that we “excuse” contrary observations.  As far as I can tell, Mercier & Sperber’s argumentative theory would not explain this sort of confirmation bias.

To the extent that it serves the preference for simplicity, an intuitive confirmation bias is not fundamentally irrational, because at least in certain situations selectively ignoring evidence in the name of simplicity can result in better predictions.  This has proven true experimentally in the field of machine learning.  Suppose that we have a plane on which each point is either red or green.  Given a finite number of observations about the colors of particular points, we wish to come up with a way of predicting the color of any point on the plane.  One way of doing this is to produce a function that divides the plane into two sections, red and green.  If we can draw a straight line that correctly divides all of our observations, red on one side and green on the other, then we have a very simple model that, assuming that the set of observations we used to derive it is representative and sufficiently large, is likely to work well.  However, if it is necessary to draw a very complex, squiggly line to correctly account for all of the observations (if we are required to use a learning machine with a high VC dimension), then it is often better to choose a simpler function even if makes the wrong prediction for a few of our observed cases.  Overfitting can lead to the creation of models that deviate from the general pattern in order to account for what might actually be random noise in the observational data.  In the same way, if we attempted to account for every possible bit of contrary evidence in the revision our mental theories, our ability to make useful predictions with them would be confounded.  We will always encounter deviations from what we expect, and at least some of these will be caused by factors that we will never come across enough data to model correctly.  In such cases, we are better off allowing our too-simple theories to stand.

Believing in evolution

In Philosophy, Science on June 29, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Via Language Log: A Philadelphia Inquirer article questioning whether “Do you believe in evolution?” (asked of Miss USA contestants) is the right question to be asking.

“I have attempted, largely through spurring on from several colleagues . . . to never use the word belief in talks,” said Arizona State University physicist and writer Lawrence Krauss.

“One is asked: Does one believe in global warming, or evolution, and the temptation is to answer yes,” he said, “but it’s like saying you believe in gravity or general relativity.”

“Science is not like religion, in that it doesn’t merely tell a story … one that one can choose to believe or not.”

I agree that what science asks of us is not belief and that talk in those terms can therefore be misleading, but I don’t think this means that the concept is inapplicable to scientific claims. To believe something (a proposition, a story, etc.) is to be in a condition in which one is compelled to act on its implications, which can, but which doesn’t necessarily have to be a consequence of holding the thing to be true. In many cases, I think that it’s good to believe (in this sense) the things that science tells us, in addition to knowing them in the way appropriate to scientific claims. Do I myself believe in the theory of evolution? I would say that I do, since I care about it and am willing to incur costs in order to defend it politically. It’s just that “it’s good to believe this” is a non-trivial statement, and one that’s outside of science’s domain.

As a result, it might indeed be best that science avoid referring to belief in its public face. This does not, however, mean that science education should have nothing to do with belief. Education is about the formation of persons, not just the transfer of information, and an important part of the schoolteacher’s job is to encourage students to develop an active interest in whatever subject they teach. This doesn’t mean that schools can try to force all students to believe in the value of science, but at least they have the responsibility of making sure that the beliefs students end up with are based on correct information.