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Re: "positivist-empiricist?"

Posted by Adam on November 22, 1999, at 23:05:30

In reply to Re: "positivist-empiricist?", posted by Bob on November 22, 1999, at 16:25:42

>Empiricism is one of the philosophic cornerstones of the natural sciences, something truly held as axiomatic.

There are many philosophical “cornerstones” to the natural sciences, which could be described as “axiomatic”
during their periods of greatest popularity; don’t forget there were always rival camps. If there were ever
bitter fights that the empiricists fought, it might be with Descartes and the other European rationalists,
who valued deductive reasoning informed by intuition (not to be mistaken with instinct), a concept the
empiricists firmly rejected. I guess for the most part the empiricists won out, but one might find in modern
physics a hint of rationalism. I can think of no better example than what Steven Weinberg describes as the
need for scientific theories, especially the unifying theories of physics, to be “beautiful”. This “beauty”
is a quality of successful fundamental theories, and it is the apprehension of beauty that guides many in their
quest for the finest mathematical expression of the “final theory.” Weinberg argues for such an aesthetic
judgement because, as a guiding principle, it works. One might debate that the concept of “beauty” in this
context is more inductive than deductive, that clever minds well-versed in the most complex mathematics become
so wired as to feel the presence of “beauty” when exposed to the best equations for the particular application,
and hence Weinberg is still an empiricist. I don’t know. All such arguments demonstrate to me is the uselessness
of old philosophy, except to provide modern philosophers with examples of what tautological arguments not to
repeat, or whatever. If there is any axiomatic underlying priniciple that endures, it is the scientific principle:
Observe, hypothesize, test, report. Repeat until dead, or at least until tenured. Whether this falls under the
catagory of empiricism I can’t say, and I can’t see why any scientist should think about it.

>it fit quite well with the natural sciences (except for when you start figuring in chaos, probability, and
>other quantum weirdness) -- but worst of all, it totally hijacked American psychology and was the perfect tool
>for the behaviorists. In the mean time, Sir Karl Popper came along and pointed out that scientists do NOT verify,
>they falsify -- something that just about killed positivism.

As for what did in positivism, I think it may have been the work of Hempel (who just died a few years ago, I
guess) that contributed as much as anything. Logical Positivism didn’t really clash with probability or its
implications. Where the positivists went wrong was not so much, as Hemple pointed out, in their trust in
scientific “truths” but in their innapropriate use of the word. The idea that theories could be proven true or
false through observation in a positivist sense struck Hempel as wrong because any expression of a new theory was
dependant not on the observation but on old theoretical terms. These terms must then be seen as “true”. But
such a reliance on old theory is unscientific, because all scientific theories are, by definition, falsifiable,
and therefore contain no “truth”. Positivism relies on the idea that theories have observational content. Hempel
denies the existence of theory based on observation.

Maybe Hempel was right in his criticism of positivists. I don’t know. Maybe Popper is right in his criticism of
positivism by saying that all scientists do is refute the theories of old scientists and thus don’t prove anything,
they just disprove.

I say, from a scientific perspective, who the hell cares? The positivists and rationalists and empiracists and
mechanists and atomists and monists can keep debating for all I’m concerned. Maybe I resemble one or the other
sometimes, maybe not. If I spent time thinking epistemologically about my education and ontologically about my next
experiment I’d get nothing done (gee, I put some restriction enzyme in a tube of DNA, but I can’t actually SEE them,
I’m just supposing they are based on what someone told me, and how do they know? Anyway, even if they’re there,
in the end I’m just observing a glowing band of something on a gel, and my theory that this band is the product of an
enzymatic reaction is based only on some other theories, and those on other theories before that in a long line of
theories which just use observations to justfy their a priori veracity so what on Earth is it that I’m REALLY doing
anyway and maybe I should just go home and THINK real hard about this surrogate religion science I’m bowing to and
make no assumptions at all about anything...)

>I have a healthy amount of skepticism and a willingness to suspend disbelief when warranted, but I accept nothing
>purported to be scientific on faith.

I can think of no useful philisophical argument for or against the appropriateness of science as a guiding principle
and a worthy pursuit. I can think of all sorts of useful things that scientists do on a daily basis by practicing the
scientific method. Leave “truth” to the metaphysicists. How about “realiability”, “reproducibility”, “consistency with
observation”, “applicability to known phenomena”. If some better theory comes along, why shouldn’t someone still have
confidence in the process? And why equate that confidence with “faith”? Confidence gives scientists the ability to do
work without having to prove every underlying principle themselves. It does not make them less skeptical. If scientists
practiced faith, they’d cling to old theories despite all evidence of their unreliability. I guess some scientists do
this, but as soon as they walk that path, they cease to be relevant.

>positivism's cult-like, covert adherence in the social sciences is what Stephen Jay Gould calls "physics envy".

Well, leaving positivism, what’s wrong with “physics envy”? I have it all the time as a biologist, and I think this is
healthy. It means you hold yourself to a certain standard of confidence; black boxes should only be allowed to exist if you
do not have the time or the money to probe them further at this very moment. Why accept an id or superego or collective
unconscious or animus if you can’t break it down to the observable interplay of physiology, biochemistry, and environment?
Why favor a notion, say, that there is some inscrutable gestalt of the mind, that “physics envy” couldn’t lead one to discover
the basic principles of consciousness and describe them in physical terms, no more special than a hurricane or a speck of dust?
Oops, I’m being a reductionist.




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