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Re: "positivist-empiricist?"

Posted by Scott L. Schofield on November 23, 1999, at 13:48:40

In reply to Re: "positivist-empiricist?", posted by Adam on November 22, 1999, at 23:05:30

I don't know anything about all this intellectual stuff, but it seems like one hell of a forest to have to navigate through.

> >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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