Non-foundationalism for the layman.

William Brafford

William Brafford grew up in North Carolina, home of the world's best barbecue, indie rock, and regional soft drinks. He just barely sustains a personal blog and "tweets" every now and then under the name @williamrandolph.

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51 Responses

  1. Mike Farmer says:

    ” in which Kuhn put forward, among other things, the suggestion that there not be any sense in which we can say that modern science puts us closer to the truth than Aristotelian and Ptolemaic science.”

    The truth about what?Report

      • From page 2 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: “Simultaneously, these same historians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the ‘scientific’ component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled ‘error’ and ‘superstition.’ The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If those out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, than myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of knowledge quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter.”Report

  2. Rufus F. says:

    Good post!
    My sense of it has always been that, in terms of the truths that really matter, it’s the work of a lifetime. Some thinkers I’ve studied for half my life and barely scratched the surface. Some topics I study every day and my hope is that, when I’m about 75 years old, I’ll come to a bit of truth on them. In some ways, I see being an eternal layman, or a “non-foundationalist” as a healthy part of being a scholar.

    As for Allan Bloom, I’ve read Closing of the American Mind a number of times, but seem to get diminishing returns each time. Have you read Fellow Teachers by Philip Rieff? It talks about many of the same topics, but holds up better, at least for me.Report

    • I’ve never read anything by Rieff — is Fellow Teachers a good place to start?

      My encounters with Straussians left me respectful of and somewhat interested in the big names, but unconvinced of the total approach, probably because I was already into Alasdair MacIntyre before I met any Straussians.Report

      • Interestingly, that’s the second time I’ve heard MacIntyre mentioned in the last two minutes. As for Rieff, he’s sort of what you’d call a moral scourge. So, I think he’s good medicine to take when you’re overly optimistic about the state of the culture. But he can be much too gloomy to read everyday. A good place to start might be ‘Freud: the Mind of the Moralist’ and its sequel ‘The Triumph of the Therapeutic’. I personally enjoyed the essays in ‘The Feeling Intellect’- that might be the best place to start. I’d also note that I take Rieff with a very large grain of salt.Report

    • Mike Farmer in reply to Rufus F. says:

      So, you’re saying we always have more to learn? Hmmm, and right when I think I know it all. Can I just coast for a few months — long enough to get a tan?

      I think the question is whether a person believes that reality is what it is regardless of what we think about it or whether a person believes our thought and involvement can change reality — not rearrange or combine some parts, which are in themselves their own distinct reality, in order to create something new — and not just our perception of reality, which can be at variance — but actually change scientifically validated reality, change the “what is, is”-ness of reality, like sticking your unguarded hand in a fire without getting burned. Does anyone believe that future scientific methods will reveal that a hand doesn’t really burn when in contact with fire?

      A lot depends on whether we’re talking about scientifically validated knowledge, or whether we’re talking about what can’t be validated. Metaphysical search for the truth is something quite different, and unsolved scientific questions are different, but many pieces of knowledge are validated and we depend on the knowledge to survive, they are as true as they are ever going to be– we pay a price if we ignore this knowledge in favor of superstition or wishing or skepticism or a tendency to be too open-minded about certain stubborn realities.Report

      • Freddie in reply to Mike Farmer says:

        but actually change scientifically validated reality, change the “what is, is”-ness of reality, like sticking your unguarded hand in a fire without getting burned.

        I don’t know anyone who thinks that, outside of those What the Bleep Do We Know people who seem to flagrantly misread the quantum mechanics they’re invoking.

        For my part, I would just say that of course the hand will burn. It’s just that once we start talking about it (as we are here), we’re using word-substitutes (the word “fire”) and concept substitutes (the concept fire as a larger entity, apart from the particular fire we’re sticking our hands in), and that invites complication and distortion. Luckily for all of us, on the level of physical fires and physical hands, that distortion doesn’t make it much more difficult to operate on the level of hands and fires in a practical way. (My belief that the word “fire” can’t ever perfectly correspond to the fire-in-itself in a transcendent way has never caused me to abandon my dedication to not sticking my hands in fires!) Where those distortions become more difficult is as we move to more and more abstract concepts like truth, justice, morality….Report

        • Rufus in reply to Freddie says:

          I am fine with not sticking my hand in any fires out of certainty about what will happen. I think you’re getting at Kantian distinction between noumenon and phenomenon here. I certainly think that we can judge the later, even if we have to make assumptions as to the former. As you say: “My belief that the word “fire” can’t ever perfectly correspond to the fire-in-itself in a transcendent way has never caused me to abandon my dedication to not sticking my hands in fires!”Report

        • Mike Farmer in reply to Freddie says:

          “Where those distortions become more difficult is as we move to more and more abstract concepts like truth, justice, morality….”

          Yes, they are floating abstractions, but I’m fine with the concept of fire which is anchored to the reality of fire which will really burn my real hand. Science has nothing much to say about truth, justice and morality.Report

  3. Freddie says:

    One thing that is absolutely necessary for any discussion of such a topic is that people understand that the charge of self-refutation– that you can’t undermine truth claims because doing so itself requires a truth claim– are either found in examples you never actually encounter (“I non-contingently believe in the objective truth that there are no objective truths”), or are in fact the product of a tautology. Claims that skepticism towards truth statements are self-undermining are only valid if you assume the objectivist vision of truth in the first place. Not because there isn’t such a thing as a contradiction in skeptical visions of knowledge (even the most hard-core relativist believes in internal contradiction), but because saying “the truth is unknowable” does not necessarily mean “the truth is truly, objectively, atemporally and non-contingently unknowable.” It can also mean, “it is useful to consider that the truth is unknowable.” The self-contradiction charge is just another way to beg the question. Of course, there are people who argue for “postmodern” visions of truth that don’t understand that either, but then, the fact that folk relativism exists is no reason to doubt the use of more rigorous traditions.

    Incidentally, the charge that empirical skepticism, or whatever you’d like to call it, is disrespectful to science is exactly backwards; science is privileged by use theories of knowledge, because science is fantastically useful.Report

    • Paul B in reply to Freddie says:

      Quine makes this point really well in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (which, serendipitously, I just read this afternoon).

      He attacks the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths, and ends up with a scientific holism maybe even stronger than Kuhn’s (“Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system … Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision.”)

      But he comes down firmly for the pragmatic notion of science as “a continuation of common sense” — the idea is to streamline whatever system of knowledge we build, and make sure that it squares with our experience.Report

    • When I was younger, I used the idea that relativism was self-refuting as a way of assuring myself that the object of my search had to exist — that there was of necessity some way of getting it right.

      I want to go ahead and mention the Barbara Herrnstein Smith essays that you recommended. Both “Belief and Resistance” and “Unloading the Self-Refutation Charge” (from Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy) are lurking in the back of this post. The line “If the searcher is reflective enough to be aware of her own tradition — and searchers should be reflective in this way — then she no longer has to consider those outsider her tradition to be fools, liars, or makers of drastic mistakes” comes from her discussion of epistemological self-privileging.Report

  4. Michael Drew says:

    I’m probably way under-read to enter this conversation, but it strikes me that between “the kind of foundationalist epistemology that claims we can have objective certainty about our knowledge” and a belief that observations such as these that William quotes in his comment above:

    The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If those out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, than myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.

    …somehow undermine the basis for the belief that the rejection of propositions that seem to have been shown false on their own terms in favor of ones that have not represents movement in human knowledge toward “truth” (which itself as far as I can see can at best be understood and hence maximally explained in the social-scientific context only as limited by representative mediation, i.e. by the extent to which language and other representational schemes can construct analogies that reflect something real observed in the world), or even that they undermine the rejection of those propositions at all, must lie vast fields of potential for devising satisfactory resolutions to the basic epistemological problem — Is There Truth and Can We Know It?

    Surely there must be fertile soil for the cultivation of such resolutions between the extremes of the mere rejection of the notion that we can directly and fully Know Truth (rather a banal claim) and the idea that because inquiry is a process, and that process has led to beliefs we now see as mistaken, but led there legitimately and were earnestly held at the time, that that dissolves any possibility for a solid relationship between belief and truth, defined by reason and observation? Mustn’t there?Report

    • Freddie in reply to Michael Drew says:

      As you suggest, there are many, many interpretations of the broad questions involved here. Many are quite radical on the level of philosophy but very modest on the level of practical consequences. The most consistent consequence, and to my mind the best, is simply this: proceed with epistemological modesty. Beyond that, there’s all sorts of text that confront these questions, and many that confront how the conversation happens and to what effect.

      I do just want to suggest that, to me, for the questions “Is There Truth and Can We Know It?”– if the answer to the latter is no, then the former is irrelevant. Unless you believe in God, I suppose. Many of the times that I’ve had this conversation, people who begin very dedicated to the principles of objective human knowledge can usually come to see the many challenges to those principles, but still insist that even though objective meaning is permanently at a distance from human cognition, there is still an objective truth “out there.” I’ve never seen much use for that, and frankly I think it’s a case of looking for meaning out there in the stars.Report

      • Paul B in reply to Freddie says:

        Freddie, could you explain why you say this: “if the answer to the latter is no, then the former is irrelevant.”

        It seems like you’re making the same leap from anti-foundationalism to relativism as Bloom, although obviously you’re not as upset about it.

        But I’m pretty sure you’re comfortable with a pragmatic idea of scientific progress, so can’t we treat “it works” as a synonym for “it’s true?” Couldn’t we be content with a kind of epistemological version of Zeno’s paradox, whereby we’re always getting closer to truth without ever attaining it? Couldn’t we side with Dummett, who (I think, I’ve never read him) points out that we can be realists about somethings and anti-realists about others?Report

        • Freddie in reply to Paul B says:

          I think you’re assuming something more radical than what I’m saying. If we say that we are incapable of ever knowing that we’ve accessed an objective truth, what good is there in positing that such a truth exists somewhere? (Where could that “somewhere” be?) This gets back to a rather common phenomenon that you see in these discussions, legacies of theology. When people say that this truth is not located inside human consciousnesses but instead that it is somewhere “out there,” the only place it could be out there would be in some sort of God or other non-human transcendent intelligence. Which isn’t an accusation of secret religious belief, but rather I think the imprint of several millenia of human thought that was predicated on belief in a deity.Report

          • Paul B in reply to Freddie says:

            Yeah, from our first comments above it’s clear we’re in broad agreement. You’re surely right that confuse their metaphysics with metaphors with metaphysics, but I don’t see why that’s relevant. If we get rid of the transcendent “out there” in which to “locate” truth, can’t we just let the truth of any particular claim about any particular phenomena reside in either the claim or the phenomena?

            Anyway, gotta run, but thanks for the response.Report

          • Pat Cahalan in reply to Freddie says:

            > If we say that we are incapable of ever knowing that
            > we’ve accessed an objective truth, what good is there
            > in positing that such a truth exists somewhere?

            We can’t reach a limit expansion either, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get arbitrarily close to it. It’s sorta the whole foundation of calculus 🙂Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Freddie says:

        I agree that truth is irrelevant without potential understnading — truth is a quality of belief. Perhaps the question is better put, Is There a Determinate Reality, and How Well Can We Understand It?, and if your answer is that if the answer to the latter is “not perfectly” or “not very well at all” or even “not at all” then the former is irrelevant, then I have a pretty big problem with that, but not as big as if your answer were to continue on to say that the fact that it may be irrelevant also implies it is functionally not the case, and we should act accordingly.Report

        • Freddie in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Well, I would say quantum mechanics is very hostile to the idea of determinate reality, but I don’t think that’s what you mean.

          Certainly, I’m not doubting that my sensory apparatus informs me about a physical reality around me, and further that this information is consistent, which is the basis for all human empirics. I’m not the “is reality really out there” kind of guy, although I do think, on a purely logical/internally consistent way, the Matrix/brain in a jar thought experiments have a level of irrefutability. They just aren’t very interesting. So yeah, I think there’s a world out there, and I do because I perceive it, and more importantly, because I perceive it as being consistent in a way that supports the notion that it exists in some sort of way that transcends my subjectivity. (The lamest diversion in these kind of debates is when someone raps the table and says, “are you saying this table isn’t here? Huh?”)

          Where my critique of objectivist visions of truth comes in is that we don’t exist in that world out there unmediated, but rather perceive it and think/explain/describe it through intermediaries” consciousness and language, interrelated systems for negotiating our sensory perception. And those intermediaries present a whole host of complications to how well we can know the world out there, or how well we can describe it in a “true” way. I could name some, although it would go on for awhile.

          And, you know, those complications are increased exponentially if you believe in evolution. Natural selection doesn’t produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and gene transmission. You couldn’t say that this is deductively incompatible with an objectivist vision of knowledge/truth claims, but it makes the odds much lower.Report

    • Paul B in reply to Michael Drew says:

      You nailed it. The next couple of sentences of the passage you quote are important:

      If, on the other hand, [those out-of-date beliefs] are to be called science, then science has included bodies of knowledge quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter.

      Kuhn doesn’t argue for relativism, just a kind of scientific humility that recognizes (a) any current state of knowledge will never be complete and (b) we wouldn’t be able to be sure if it somehow ever was. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any progress — the whole point of shifting to a new paradigm is that it solves more problems than the one it replaces.

      Of course a lot of people read more relativism into Kuhn, which is why he famously said “I am not a Kuhnian!”.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Paul B says:

        Fair enough. I’m not sure, though, that I see what is even worth noting about the fact expressed in those lines if not to question the notion of a directional advancement in “science.” If it’s just to say, ‘we don’t have all the answers, and the ones we have are subject to further evidence,’ well, against whom is he pushing back?

        In my view, those who have over-claimed on behalf of truth-knowledge have almost always done so in response to attempts to smuggle parochial beliefs into the space that responsible claims about the extent of human knowledge have to leave between themselves and the absolute.Report

        • Paul B in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Kuhn and many others were pushing back against the logical positivists, who were very influential — at their most naive, their claims about the extent of human knowledge only distinguished between a rational/empirical/material unity of science on the one hand and nonsense, which they called “metaphysics,” on the other.Report

    • I think the complication is that the propositions being rejected aren’t always false in their own terms. They’re false when translated into the way that we think now. The difficulty that Kuhn ran in to as a historian of science was that discarded systems of thought didn’t just have different propositions: they had entirely different laws and definitions. “Mass” in Newtonian physics is, in a way, a different entity than “mass” after Einstein. The trouble isn’t that established propositions are false; it’s that the way of thinking hits a problem area that defies all expectations and attempts at explanation. Sometimes seemingly good explanations have to be discarded; as I mentioned below, one of Kuhn’s most interesting discussions concerns Newton’s inability to explain gravity. (Of course, this loss of theoretical explanatory power was made up for by an increase in predictive power, which is why Newton’s theory won out over competitors.)

      I have been doing some reading on the problems of epistemology, and it’s left me more confused that I was when I started. It seems that there are solid objections to every proposed solid relationship between belief and truth that I’ve seen. I’ve read strong-seeming arguments against correspondence theories and representation theories, but I haven’t yet given the arguments for them a fair shake. Paul B. seems to be much more on top of this stuff than I am!Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to William Brafford says:

        I don’t think (could be way wrong!) that most physicists would remotely say that Newtonian mechanics have been disproved in any but a few particulars in a way that is similar to the gross falsifications that have occurred in the course of a number of other revolutions in thought in other fields. It’s more that the story has been significantly complicated at levels of reality that leave at least, as you say, the predictive value but even also the descriptive value of the Newtonian system overwhelmingly intact in the physical realm it was devised to describe. Wouldn’t you say that Newtonian physics, despite the greatly complicated picture that has since been revealed, remains *on its terms* [bracketing the problems you soundly raise with that notion] one of the more durable scientific systems in the canon? It continues to be taught as pretty much the straightforward settled view of the field in the first half of first semester introductory physics around the world. (Not to obsess too much on just one example or anything…)Report

        • I hope you won’t think I’m trying to weasel my way out of anything if I dodge your question. You’ve just described the way that I have always thought about the relationship between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. I’m going to dodge a little because I am still processing whether Kuhn’s position is all that far from what we’re talking about here. Kuhn argues that Newton’s system is not just a special low-velocity case of Einstein’s theory in the way that logical positivists want it to be. (This is on pages 98-103 of my edition.) According to Kuhn, the positivists say that insofar as Newton’s theory was scientific, it consisted of a set of statements that are completely derivable from Einstein’s theory as we understand it. Kuhn says that this derivation looks like Newton’s theory but isn’t exactly the same since the definitions are different. But I don’t think you’re taking the positivist position as Kuhn describes it.

          There’s an essay by Alasdair MacIntyre called “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science” where MacIntyre interprets Kuhn as saying that a scientific revolution succeeds when its proponents are able not only to solve a problem that the old view couldn’t solve, but also to explain why the old view seemed to be right. This isn’t emphasized in Structure, but it’s not denied either. Einstein’s revolution is a case where much of the old theory can be reinterpreted and used in a new context, and so in a common-sense way Newton’s system is as you say it is. In other cases, as with the chemical revolution, scientists are able to explain both why something like phlogiston theory isn’t able to solve certain problems and why it previously looked so attractive. So the relationship between successive theories isn’t strict logical inclusion, there is a kind of explanatory progress. I like this essay by MacIntyre, but I need to read some of Kuhn’s later work to see if the interpretation is right. (It’s also been about a year since I last read it.)Report

        • Freddie in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Although I’m pretty passionate as an amateur student of science (and science philosophy), I obviously don’t have much standing to undercut what you’ve said, Michael. However, in my opinion, saying that Newtonian mechanics have merely been refined by relativity or (even more) quantum mechanics seems to me to stretch that vocabulary past its breaking point. This is actually a debate I’ve had before; there are a lot of neo-Aristotleans who are really committed to the idea that Newtonian physics has never been refuted in any real way, and only refined. But at the most elementary level of what is described, the way particles interact with each other in the material universe (whether their states are determinate or probabilistic) there is a fundamental disagreement. I just can’t square that with saying that QM isn’t a contradiction of Newtonian mechanics, but who knows.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Good points all. I don’t really have a committed position on the question; I was just expressing my sense, which as I indicated might well be off. Newtonian physics may simply be regarded as useful pedagogically and included in basic course for only that reason. In fact, my high school physics teacher said (approx.), “We’re going to lie to you a lot, and then we’re going to refine those lies somewhat.” On the other hand, my college physics professor made no such admission while teaching basically the same material.

          I will say that reductionism is no disproof to scientific analysis that is viable on the level at which it is intended. From the quantum perspective (and even the Newtonian), a ball flying through the air is no different from a bird flying through the air, except insomuch as the ball doesn’t have wings and feathers. That said, I definitely don’t claim to have anything like a defensible position as to whether newtonian physics remains viable science. It’s just my impression from my limited exposure that it still does within the field, despite having been largely reduced to more fundamental elements.Report

      • Paul B in reply to William Brafford says:

        For the record I’m in no way on top of epistemological problems generally, it’s just that my Saturday night happened to go: read Quine, have a couple of martinis, watch Tron, comment on this post.

        That and I had an undergrad “great books” instructor who was very enthusiastic about Kuhn.Report

        • I hear that Kuhn was the bee’s knees for a while there. But I went to college in the 00’s, and nobody ever tried to get me to read him: I only gave him a shot because I’m reading philosophy from the late seventies and early eighties.Report

          • Paul B in reply to William Brafford says:

            Hmm, I graduated in ’05. Kuhn definitely wasn’t on the standard syllabus (this was the Columbia Core Curriculum), but I got to read him because my teacher was some kind of post-doc in the philosophy of science. My friends in other classes got, I dunno, Fanon and Foucault instead.

            But still — let’s not overlook the fact that Tron raises some important epistemological issues, too.Report

  5. Surf says:

    You nailed it too Paul B!

    When you shift to viewing science as a process of cumulative problem solving that takes a position of humility to the truth, you can see its value as opposed to less successful institutions and practices.Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    I reckon that if you go to any society, at any point in time, and ask them how they’re doing compared to previous generations, they’d agree that those previous generations were soooo backwards and we’re so much more advanced. See, we use *TWO* rocks to tan hides. My grandparents talk about just slapping the hide on a rock for 8 hours after leaving it in a stream for a week! (And, of course, there is probably a subset of grandparents who complained about kids having it easy, why, they’re just sitting down hitting a hide with two rocks… sitting! We had to stand! And slap the hide on the rock! For 8 hours! Built character!)

    The problem with every generation thinking that they have it together and previous generations had it backwards is that, often enough, they don’t and they didn’t.

    I’ll bring up the practice of irradiating thymuses in infants (again). At the turn of the century, medical science tried to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by irradiating thymuses (thymi?)

    Read all about it here:

    This was all based on a fundamental error in assumptions that dated back hundreds of years, specificially, to the exclusive use of people from debtor’s prisons and other wards of the state as cadavers for medical schools. (Apparently, healthy infants have much larger thymus glands than infants born to folks in the squalid conditions that wards of the state had.)

    Everybody “knew” that a properly-sized thymus gland was smaller than the ones found in SIDS babies… and so they started irradiating babies.

    Thank goodness we’re not like that, anymore. Those people were so backwards. We’ve got it together.Report

  7. Will says:

    Brafford –

    Excellent post, and the accompanying comment thread is really fantastic. I suppose I should just go and read Kuhn, but until I do, I have two questions for you: Does Kuhn acknowledge or deal with the enhanced precision of modern science? To take Freddie’s example, you can describe the process of putting your hand in a fire with varying degrees of elegance and accuracy. Something similar could be said of the modern scientific method versus, say, Ptolemaic science: Neither can grasp the complete Truth of our existence, but one comes a lot closer than the other.

    My second question is related to the first: Modern science can lay claim to some pretty impressive empirical accomplishments that suggest it has a better grasp of Reality than its medieval or ancient precursors. What does Kuhn have to say about the internal combustion engine, for example?Report

    • Mike Farmer in reply to Will says:

      or radiation treatment for cancer?Report

    • William Brafford in reply to Will says:

      I just finished the text of Structure this morning, so I’m in no way a Kuhn expert, but I’ll take a shot at the questions.

      1. I wouldn’t underestimate the mathematical sophistication of Ptolemaic astronomy. But, yes, I think Kuhn does see modern science as generally more information-rich than ancient science. This is because a new scientific paradigm (Kuhn’s term), to be convincing, has to account for a good portion of the relevant information that the old paradigm covered, plus new information. The new paradigm reinterprets all the old data and opens up new areas for exploration. What’s really interesting is that some paradigm shifts lose explanatory power. For example, Kuhn argues that Galileo’s theory of motion explained gravity in a way that Newton’s theory didn’t — for Newton, gravity just is. But Newton’s theories ended up being much more useful for calculations, and eventually they became the established view. It wasn’t until Einstein that we recovered an explanation for gravity. In short, while enhanced precision isn’t the only possible reason for choosing one paradigm over another, in many cases it’s been the decisive factor.

      2. I think Kuhn sets applied science to the side for the purposes of this book. Science, as he discusses it, seems to be completely a project of explaining nature. There’s something to be said for the idea that modern science receives the funding and support it does because modern science promises to conquer nature. Which brings us back to Bloom, in a weird way. Let me think about this one a little bit more.Report

      • Will in reply to William Brafford says:

        Well, I don’t think you can conquer or exploit nature without a fairly sophisticated understanding of how it works in the first place. Applied science can’t really be divorced from our broader understanding of how the world works.Report

        • William Brafford in reply to Will says:

          Maybe. Nature does “shove us around,” as the hand-in-the-fire example demonstrates quite clearly. There are a lot of ways to say that one framework is better than another when it comes to helping us deal with nature and reality. But will we ever be able to construct a master framework that corresponds to nature’s structure, bottom to top? Should we hope to construct such a framework? Should we imagine such a framework and judge our current theories in relation to it? Kuhn says no.Report

          • Common sense says no. Look, we recognize that non-human cognitions have limits. What a chimpanzee is capable of, what his brain is capable of, is incredible. But it will never understand calculus. That’s simply asking too much. We recognize that there are intellectual problems which functional intelligences are incapable of solving, and many of them require more than the raw computational power that is available through computers. The continuing problem of string theory (and the debate over whether or not it really constitutes a theory!) is a prime example of a problem that seems to be limited by human inability to cognate a solution, but where merely more powerful computation wouldn’t seem to be what’s lacking. Skeptics tell me that in killing God, man has removed the idea that the earth is special (through the move towards a Copernican/Galilean model) and the idea that man is special (through evolution). Which I quite agree with; I just want them to go a step further. On the level of odds, I just find the chances that the human consciousness (a product of physiological systems) has the capacity to perfectly or correctly order all of the physical universe very low. There’s just too little evolutionary benefit to such systems existing, and too much room for mismatch between environment and organism that is nevertheless not a big enough problem to prevent survival and the propagation of the species. Nothing dispositive, of course, just my intuition and my perceptions.Report

            • Freddie in reply to Freddie says:

              Which isn’t an argument against materialism or science! Quite the opposite, or so it seems to me.Report

            • Bob Cheeks in reply to Freddie says:

              Man, as being, is either in a condition of immortalizing or else, rejecting that condition, and existing in an immanent reality. That’s, of course, your choice, and millions of our fellows have chosen the same existence. The problem arises when we recognize that the symbols of the act of immortalizing, while existing in the real or immanent world, relate or belong to a truth that is in the non-existent world. I think this may be related to Hegel’s call to escape from the “senselessness” of dogmatism and seek the experiential penetration of dialectical speculation (Phanomenologie). It is the same work the Bergson took up and in his study rejected the hypostatization of the immanent pole of existence.
              The point, and you seem to be expressing some sentiment of it, is that the task of re-establishing “contact with nonexistent reality” is very difficult; and to make this attempt in a social context (as among your friends here or elsewhere) is even more difficult.
              But, the knowledge of these experiences and their proper interpretation determines one personal and social existence because this understanding acts a significant component in the recapturing of order in existence.Report

          • “Should we imagine such a framework and judge our current theories in relation to it? Kuhn says no.”

            So what does Kuhn suggest we do? If you’ve stated this somewhere else, I apologize — I haven’t read all the comments.Report

            • p. 172 “The analogy that relates the evolution of organisms to the evolution of scientific ideas can easily be pushed too far. But with respect to the issues of this closing section it is very nearly perfect. The process described in Section XII as the resolution of revolutions is the selection by conflict within the scientific community of the fittest way to practice future science. The net result of such revolutionary selections, separated by periods of normal research, is the wonderfully adapted set of instruments we call modern scientific knowledge. Successive stages in that developmental process are marked by an increase in articulation and specialization. And the entire process may have occurred, as we now suppose biological evolution did, without the benefit of a set goal, a permanent fixed scientific truth, of which each stage in the development of scientific knowledge is a better exemplar.”

              Kuhn is suggesting that we don’t need a “pinnacle of evolution” in our understanding of organisms or in our understanding of science. If this strikes your interest, you might just want to read the book, which isn’t all that long (173 pages in my edition) or technical.Report

  8. Mike Farmer says:

    Yes, I wil read it. I suppose there is an ongoing tendency from generation to generation to think this is the pinnacle, when in reality we’re in a continuous process of change with periodic, revolutionary shifts.
    There’s also a tendency to believe that evolution is progessive and things will always get better — the possibility of the healthcare bill passing this week disproves that idea.Report