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Philosophy of Science 2005 Forum

Philosophy of Science 2005 Forum

Welcome to the on-line forum for a course in Philosophy of Science at Bryn Mawr College

Comments are posted in the order in which they are received, with earlier postings appearing first below on this page. To see the latest postings, click on "Go to last comment" below.

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welcome ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-01-21 16:03:58 :
Link to this Comment: 12142

Here's our on-line forum for Philosophy of Science spring semester 2005. Like all Serendip forums, this is a place for public informal conversation, a place to leave thoughts/questions/ideas that others (in our class and elsewhere) might find useful and to find ones that you might find useful.

Enjoyed/learned from/was stimulated by our first meeting. Hope you all as well. Like posing the issue of "an accomodation between realism and constructivism" in the broader context of the traditional philosophical distinction between ontology and epistemology, with explicit notice that the contrasts (in both cases?) may not be as sharp as is sometimes portrayed. Intrigued as well by how few avowed "realists" we seem to have in our midst, am looking forward to seeing whether/how that changes. Particularly if we throw a little evolution, brain, pragmatism, and story-telling into the more traditional mix of Popper, Kuhn, and physics.

But that's then, and this is now, and there's no way to know where we'll get to until we see where we are and get started going. So add your thoughts and let's see what happens ...

week 2
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-01-28 17:18:41 :
Link to this Comment: 12292

Rich conversation. Thanks to Liz/all. A few thoughts for myself and whatever use they might be to others ...

I think the distinction between Popper's ontology ("realism") and his "methodology" is an important one. I find compelling re methodology Popper's argument that induction can't in principle establish the validity of universal claims, and recognize/accept that science is largely a process of falsifying univeral claims rather than proving them to be so (cf. Science as "getting it less wrong and A Vision of Science ... ).

I think Popper's account of methodology is incomplete (for reasons we will come to later in the course, having to do with the significance of non-falsifiable accounts and the role of culture, both of which in turn created an opening for Kuhn). But what is immediately more interesting is the relation between Popper's methodology and his ontology. It is simply not clear to me that the latter "entails" the former, ie that there is any necessary relation between "realism" and the methodology. My sense, in fact, is that Popper never seriously examined the implications of his appropriate correction of a previous methodological flaw and, had he done so, he could have saved us all from the resulting problems created by a "realism"/"constructivism" controversy. If Popper really denied the defensibility of realism as an ontology but asserted its significance nonetheless he was in fact, unbeknownst to himself, an "idealist".

For some related thoughts along these lines, see The Bipartite Brain, and Thinking About Science: Evolving Stories.

week 3
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-02-01 16:46:20 :
Link to this Comment: 12421

The issue of the status of scientific statements is, I hope to no one's surprise, a practical problem as well as a philosophical one. For an instance in another classroom context today, see on stories and story telling.

A few thoughts from our classroom today (thanks Christina and others) ...

I think we developed even more evidence that Popper's "realism" actually hides a more fundamental "idealism" tempered by pragmatism. But, at the same time,I think I better understand the relation between Popper's methodology and his sense of a need for "realism". There is the issue of a correspondence theory of truth, and the necessity of "realism" to achieve that. But I think there is something deeper, a concern that inquiry needs a motivator and a controller, something to get it going and something to keep it from going off track. My hunch is that both "realism" and the associated concept of "truth" served those functions in Popper's mind.

So, can one conceive of ways that inquiry might be motivated and constrained in the absence of "reality"/"truth"? An exercise for the student (myself included, but see Emerging Emergence) ....

week 4
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-02-13 21:14:08 :
Link to this Comment: 12858

Yeah, its a little lonely here but, what the hey, idealists get what they deserve. And, at the very least, this helps me keep track of what's going on for me. So, some things sticking in my mind from Molly's talk and associated discussion (thanks to all) ...

I'm still mulling this issue of falsification and infinities (last week or this week?). I think it really does matter whether one presumes a finite set of possible understandings or an infinite set. We'll come back to this issue later. It connects patterns of change in biological evolution and to the funky figure I drew on the board suggesting that Popper saw only one path to the present state while Kuhn was more interested in the underlying complex patterns of diversification and convergence. And it connects as well to the singularism/multiplism issue. Could it be that science could at any given time have equally well traced a different path to the present coming to a quite different but equally viable set of understandings? Would the exclusive use of the "falsification" criterion tend to keep one in a restricted area of a much larger search space?

Do, on way to there, think Kosso important. To say that there is a context/perspective for scientific observations and stories is NOT to say that one is STUCK with any particular perspective. One CAN recognize particular perspective dependencies and "correct" or "remove" them. The issue, remaining unsettled in my mind pending further discussion of, among other things, the speed of light, is whether one can every eliminate ALL perspective dependencies (or, alternatively, amalgamate ALL perspectives (see Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, 1986; Arthur Miller, Einstein, Picasso, 2002).

Do also think the contrast/lack of contrast between Popper and Kuhn also important (DID Kuhn stake a claim with regard to "realism"?). If for no other reason than the "demarcation problem". Kuhn would allow for relevant things going on other than "falsification". This is sometimes seen/heard as a problem for science, a loss of objectivity. Might it actually be a benefit in some sense? Another issue to return to. Along with interesting question of whether science is episodic and, if so, why?

Patricia Disgruntled
Name: Patricia P
Date: //2005-02-16 22:52:57 :
Link to this Comment: 12951

I too am very interested in making a distinction between finite and infinite realities. I think that alot of quantum physics deals with that aswell, although I'm not very well versed in those theories of thought, but I find the whole distinction to be very key. Are we seeking to close in on the fact of reality? Not only are we having a hard time deciding which method is best to close in on this reality, but we can not even place our hands on the very notion of reality at all. We still are in the air about the subject for which we are debating methodologies to tackel. I liked Kuhn's imput on the matter very much, but he too left me high and dry on where he really stands on reality (finite vs. infinite.) Popper implied finite, but insists on choosing an ontology completely free from the contraints that he places the rest of the practicing world upon when we are to look into them with our methodology. I would really be so pleased if we could have some painfully (slightly) off-topic talk concerning what support there is for a finite reality, and what support is out there that suggests that the worlds reality is ever evolving, and therefor infinite. I feel we are moving past major issues in order to move onto the next writer's perspective on the subject. Where does our class stand on this. Do we think Popper's asomtote holds any water. Do we think that Kuhn would say that these paradimn shifts are closing in on a fixed and correct perspective of reality? Anyone feel free to answer?

My thoughts
Name: Liz
Date: //2005-02-17 22:09:03 :
Link to this Comment: 12993

Hi everybody,

In response to Patricia's comment, I just wanted to give some thoughts about my own reservations to Popper...

The major reservation I have with Popper's methodology and his realism is that he believes that falsifying theories can lead perhaps, "closer" to the truth. However, he also states that no theories can ever be validated so how are we to know if the falsification of current theories in favor of new ones is approaching anything at all??

-just my thoughts,


week 5
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-02-22 12:30:30 :
Link to this Comment: 13134

Delighted to have some company, not only in this particular virtual space but in the larger conceptual space as well. Share, as scientist, Liz's immediate concern: "how are we to know if the falsification of current theories in favor of new ones is approaching anything at all?" and, as philosopher, Patricia's wish for "talk concerning what support there is for a finite reality, and what support is out there that suggests that the worlds reality is ever evolving, and therefor infinite". Think the two are related, and not at all "off topic".

Have in fact been thinking a lot since our last conversation (thanks Courtenay and all) about how much some conceptions of science do in fact depend on a "finite" universe presumption and what the implications of giving that up might be. Even within the finite universe presumption, there are some interesting problems with the "falsification" methodology, akin to problems recognized in "hill climbing algorithms" by those who use them in artificial intelligence work. And I suspect that both these and the infinite universe possibility might be dealt with by something along the lines of recognizing the value/usefulness of "incommensurable" stories/descriptions and perhaps building an account of science out of that?

A few other random things, for myself and whatever use they might be to others. Am intrigued by Liz M's characterization of modern physics as motivated more by "ideas" (ie symmetry) than by observations. And the practical issues re "falsifiability" I alluded to can be found in "pros and cons of falsifiability, and of caution" and the following postings there.

week 6
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-02-28 19:29:02 :
Link to this Comment: 13308

Moving along nicely, I think. Thanks to Liz/Heather for latest episode. Think it VERY important to recognize that Einstein COULD have presumed that Maxwell's equations would vary in in different inertial frames OR that they would be invariant (symmetric) across variations in inertial frame. AND that he was "right" in betting on the latter (ie that subsequent observations turned out to be those predicted by his bet). What's important is TWO things, that one makes bets puts not on observations but on "intutions" or "story telling styles", and that what is being tested is in fact not simply the "nature of things" but inextricably that and the story telling styles one changes to make sense of them. To put it differently, Einstein bet that there was a "reality" that had a particular kind of character ("symmetries") and bet well. That is, however, NOT the same thing as establishing that there is a "fact of the matter". Using the "symmetry" story telling style has been productive; for how long it will continue to be remains (as for all things in science) an open question. So too does the issue of whether there is some other story telling style (proceeding, for example, from the observations that the speed of light varies in different media) might have been equally generative of interesting questions/predictions in the past (or in the future). In short, as I think Michael put it, saying something is independent of "frame" is not the same thing as saying it is independent of "conceptual framework". The former can be established with reference to a particular know ensemble of frames. The latter requires a demonstration relative to ALL (uncountably infinite?) conceptual frameworks and so may not be?/is not? achievable?

apologia and update
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-03-26 09:59:51 :
Link to this Comment: 14026

I seem to have fallen behind a bit in recording my thoughts in progress here. We're heading into week 10 (ignoring spring break) so missing are weeks 6-9. I'm going to add them in below from my notes, so the next three postings are ... quasi-real and in sequence, despite the fact that the postings dates are all today.

week 7
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-03-26 11:11:54 :
Link to this Comment: 14029

Thanks Putnam, Garth, et al. The beginnings, perhaps, of a way to get out of/beyond the "realism" vs "constructivism" problem (and perhaps the "realism" vs "idealism" problem as well?)? But one that raises its own problems too?

So, "internal realist" acknowledges dependence on a reference frame and preserves "common sense" and "reality" by appealing to coherence within a reference frame. In these terms, one can, if I'm understanding it correctly, have "incomensurability" (Kuhn) without "contradictory". But all this, of course, raises a number of questions about what creates a reference frame, how stable a reference frame is, whether a reference frame needs a reference frame to be defined within, what accounts for similarities among different people in descriptions of what is "out there". And about "science" and the relations of its descriptions of what is out there to what is experienced (is "red" out there? is describing how one comes to experience it equivalent to experiencing it?). It also raises, again, the amusing question of why one feels the need to appeal to an "out there" or "ding und sich" or "noumen" or "reality" at all.

Maybe an important way into all of this is the amusing confusion/ambiguity about "intension" and "intention"? An "extensional" description/definition? is of something "out there" (water molecules), whereas an "intensional" description is of one's experience of it ("wetness"). Which in turns implies an "intentional" agent, ie one whose descriptions of things include a component of relation to self and its purposes? If so, a necessary component of the program of an "internal realist" would need to be to provide an explanation of "self" and "purpose" which would in turn speak to the issues above about the origins and nature of reference frames? And, as well, a consideration of whether inquiry is "discovery" or "creation". How many ways are there that a set of experiences can be made sense of? How many patterns are there "discoverable" in a random sequence of ones and zeros?

week 8
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-03-26 13:46:15 :
Link to this Comment: 14031

This time thanks to Gupta, Harrison and Hannah, Kathleen, and the rest of the normal cast. Seems to me the key notion here (at least along the path to finding a way out of the realism/constructivism box) is the idea of "relationalism", the notion that things we talk about are not properties of things "out there" but are instead characteristics of relations between ourselves and things out there that don't even exist as "things" unless/until they are in relation to us (or, perhaps more appropriately, in relation to other things?). We don't CREATE the "out thereness", but it is inchoate, propertyless, even thingless, except insoar as it is brought into relation to something else (there is a close relation here, I think, to the quantum wave function and its collapse). H and H seem to me to complicate, rather than help, the matter with their notion of a triadic relationship, but that may have to do with my general preference for two interacting elements and the relationship between them as the third part of a triad. In any case, what's "out there" is in some important sense "undifferentiated", ie differently interpretable because differently "useable". This brings us (again) into an interesting pragmatic realm, one where the nature of the inquirer again becomes relevant. On the flip side, though, there is the issue of what would go on "out there" (has gone on "out there") in the absence of a human interpreter. And the notion that the "out there" must, at least, have the property that it is humanly interpretable.

Where we are ... "a realism minus absolutism and a constructivism minus projectivism"? An "idealist sitting on the back of a pragmatist"?

week 9
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-03-26 14:43:41 :
Link to this Comment: 14032

And here with appreciation to Davidson, Krausz, Zach, et al involved as per usual. Davidson (like Rorty) addressing the deep question: can we get away with abolishing "reality/noumena/out there" all together? Both absolutism and relativism presume a scheme/content distinction, a "fact of the matter", argue only about whether "fact of the matter" is one thing or several different incomensurable things. Argues that "conceptual scheme" is an incoherent concept in the absence of a fixed something to use to establish that any given thing is a "conceptual scheme". Therefore if no "out there" no conceptual scheme. But (treating language as parallel to conceptual scheme) a bilingual person can say what is translateable, what is not, and therefore distinguish between conceptual schemes in the absence of a fixed something. Conceptual schemes can be defined relationally, rather than absolutely.

Is particularly relevant in re a possible disagreement between Krausz/self on whether to do philosophy "in long run" or in "short run", ie whether there is or is not a place for "transcendentals" in philosophy and, if there is, what their standing should be. If there is "only what's in the brain" what is the origin and status of "ideals"? Is the world "out there" a "useful" ideal, or something that can be dispensed with? Is it there at all? Is it there to "measure against"? Does it serve any other function? And where does the presumption of a scheme/content distinction come from anyhow?

So ... we're up to date, and ready to try getting at some of these questions from a different starting point, following a different tree branch, reclustering ones and zeros in an infinite/random? sequence, using a different conceptual scheme?

week 10
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-04-03 11:39:51 :
Link to this Comment: 14231

With thanks to Patty et al, for rich conversation about evolution, its possible significance for helping one see philosophy as "context dependent" and evolving ...

First, from Zach/Davidson/preceding, some fairly solid points (I think) and some interesting open issues ...

Evolution as conceptual scheme "incomensurable" with Popperian "realism"? perhaps somewhere between "realism" and "idealism" (not imputational but Platonic?)


week 11 (a little belatedly)
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-04-13 07:51:09 :
Link to this Comment: 14537

Rich discussion of emergence. Thanks to all. See Emergence Working Group for related discussions in another venue.

Some high points, as I recall them ....

The idea that things evolve, as per atomists, simply because of motion and their own properties, with new combinations appearing all the time, some more stable, some less so. And that different forms of stability are "incomensurable", ie are "equally good" but not translatable (except by historical description of antecedents. MK put this in an interesting way in the following sesssion: things have properties that were not present earlier (eg wetness not present in hydrogen/oxygen but only in combination; there WAS no property of "wetness" until that combination occurred).

The idea prepared for development in next session that "word", "notion", "meaning", "purpose" are outcomes of evolution, rather than antecedents. But once existing they became, as earlier became model makers, causally significant for previously existing forms of organization.

An understanding that neither the mission nor the task of people interested in emergence as an explanatory framework is to disprove the existence of blueprints, planners, conductors, or gods. The question is not what is "real" but rather whether an adequate story can be offered in lieu of presuming such things. Doing so is not a "disproof" of their existence.

More generally, an understanding that one is here (and in intellectual activity in general) working in a space of "incomensurables", ie that the value of one story does NOT depend either on proof of it NOR on disproof of others. The task is to create "good" stories, with the relative validity of such stories being assessed only by their future generativity (in parallel to biological evolution).

week 12
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-04-17 21:00:09 :
Link to this Comment: 14657

And on, to the brain. With substantial help from Garth. Thanks to him, and everyone for interesting/productive conversation.

Good starting points from MK, that world can't be "singularist" if there is, for humans, no reality beyond sensation which itself is product of multiplist brain, that if brain is a "materialist thing" then at least something is a materialist thing (ie subject to a singularist interpretation) and therefore other things MIGHT be. I accepted the first (at least for the moment) and conceded the second, with the understanding (see last week) that the task is not to come up with ultimately "defensible" stories but rather with ones that work in the present and, still more importantly, are productive in the future. It was also agreed that the brain perspective takes as a likely possibility that there is SOMETHING out there, but does not require that it be amenable to description as a "fact of the matter".

Garth laid out an argument that asserted, in essence, that there is a distinction between cultural things, about which "reality" is subservient to interpretation, and "real" things about which statements are always "testable". A challenge was offered to the concept of "testability" along the lines of earlier notions that, in an absolute sense, this requires a presumption of a finite number of possible statements. It was agreed to stay with the brain for this session and take on the question of "science" and its relation to culture/interpretation in the next.

The key elements of the discussion of the brain updated went beyond the inherent ambuity in input to the suggestion that the bipartite character of the brain brings into existence most of the concepts that are fundamental to traditional approaches to philosophy of science, including that of "reality" and the "fact of the matter". While these MIGHT have some correspondence to what is "out there", this is not a "testable" matter and so descriptions of science should be understood to use "reality" not as something stable to test things against but rather as an "ideal" generated inside the brain that may or may not continue to be useful for further inquiry and that in any case co-exists with other "ideals" generated by other minds with which it is "incomensurable" but not provably false.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-04-18 08:14:27 :
Link to this Comment: 14665

Interesting, relevant bit about the hill-climbing problem. Model builders fully capable of finding local improvements but need "story" to avoid myriad local minima. "Story teller" (module 2 of bipartite brain) originates in evolution as solution to that problem? And hence brings into being "stories", "ideals" that become causally significant in further exploration? Along with "conflict" (intra and interpersonal) that itself becomes a driving force for continuing exploration?

current news ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-04-20 07:39:00 :
Link to this Comment: 14746

Apropos of our discussion yesterday, the NY Times on Monday quoted Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Bendict XVI, as saying in a homily during a mass prior to the papal election conclave

"A dictatorship of relativism is being built that recognizes nothing as definite and which leaves as the ultimate measure only one's ego and desires."

In a Tuesday article, the NY Times a commentator on the election, George Weigel, as saying

" I think this represents a recognition on the part of the cardinals that the great battle in the world remains inside the heads of human beings - that it's a battle of ideas."

That is to say, of "incomensurables"? How one conducts a useful process of exploration/discovery in such a context is an interesting question (cf Writing Descartes). Must it be a "battle"? In any case, its nice to know that our conversations have implications beyond the academic.

taking philosophy public?
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2005-04-22 08:06:35 :
Link to this Comment: 14782

Seemed to me worth trying. Have a look at "Fundamentalism and Relativism", join in discussion there in associated on-line forum?