Part 1: Science does not prove — only declares

Note: Herewith several related comments on the role of “proof” in the contemporary natural and human sciences. A critical comment on the title of a recently-published book by A. Aczel — which carries the confusing title Why science does not disprove God (2014) — is also included. The first of my comment deals with what it is that “scientific activity” produces. The heading “Science does not prove — but only declares” summarises my conclusion. In brief, that the outcome of scientific inquiries are a series of declaration on our current knowledge about “our world” which together constitute a comprehensive representation — a momentarily authentic picture of what the world is like.

columbus-egg 2What is commonly understood by *submitting a proof* and its opposite, *submitting a disproof*? When someone submits a proof they are said to demonstrate to others how a conclusion they themself (privately) reached was obtained. More specifically, how they arrived at the conclusion by entirely logical means, and not by empirically demonstrations.

If they told us that they just “felt that the vase they had unearthed” was a Greek urn which had once contained the ashes of a fallen warrior, we would call it a “guess” but not a true discovery unless the claim was supported by much more evidence or provenance! If they “show” that something they had foretold had materialized, like that a gesture made towards heaven produced a hail of manna, that is not a proof, but only a demonstration: it shows that their prediction on this particular occasion worked! Such predictions were once made routinely by reputed “wise men” but none have been recorded reliably for the past few hundred years.

A proof, on the other hand, refers to a post-facto event which states that whatever was initially said about a matter followed logically from some earlier explicitly-cited assumptions. For example, that 2 of anything added to 3 results in 5 items. In this case there is no doubt about the existence of the numbers cited, or that the number 5 can be generated in a different ways. The assumptions may not be empirically true — often they are not! What we have here is a calculation which involves abstract, not empirically true events. Two goats standing in the meadow and three sheep grazing nearby make five animals. Contrast this to the claim made that “When I put a match to this spout of a bottle a flame will emerge”. The answer to the question “how is this possible?” will require, amongst others, a reference to specific, well-attested laws of chemistry, rules about what substances are flammable and which are not.

A proof, in short, refers to the outcome of clearly-stated logical operations. Such operations are traditionally performed only by humans — although many psychologists and biologists have argued that it is also found in some non-humans, but only in those species whose nervous system have similar features to ours, containing, for example, neural circuits, a hemispheric brain, cortex, areas which have become centres of control for specific outcomes or operations.

Much has been written and speculated about the relation between the brain as an cohesive organ, as a processor of information and how such information may eventuality translate into states of awareness and also of actions — but it is an ongoing, not a completed story — part of a book with many chapters of which only the first few have been written so far. The future, we predict, will surely offer many additional surprises, and these will be related to the fact that with time and much effort we may get to know more and more about the functional and structural properties of the brains of different species.

One enduring (and thus far unsolved) problem has been to account for corrections which are made by an individual member of a species as a result of their experiences in the past — and how this could be forwarded (transferred) to their descendents to facilitate the behaviour of unborn generations. Are there some aspects of our experiences which are coded so as to become transmittable from generation to generation, just as many bird-song do? The empirical answers to such questions will most likely emerge within the foreseeable future, but in the meantime we can only create increasingly better and superior questions and suppositions of what goes on within creatures which reflect changes in their daily lives, specifically how they come to predict some future events on the basis of their earlier experience or perhaps even by virtue of cross generational transmissions. I could imagine, for example, a mechanism whereby a set of experiences could be transmitted to several future generations so that traces of former experiences would wane and disappear. One may need to exclude carry-overs from the immediate past because these changes may only reflect temporary matters, which traditionally were covered by the term *habituations*, i.e. transitional intra-organic changes which left very few — or minimal enduring residues, for transfer to off springs.

When I state — as in the title of this blog — that “Science does not prove but only declare,” I mean that the fruits and outcomes of scientifically conducted investigations take the form of declarations which one has presented to oneself. Modern science is a communal activity whose traces are found in a group of cohorts and which usually demand that anyone who makes and accepts a new claim can and will defend it publicly in person — as at a scientific conference — or by circulating a documentary report of their investigations in a publicly available journal where it can be criticized by others!

One communicates one’s claim by issuing statements, which may contain abstract formulae that summarize both what one has done to secure the information, but also what one has concluded from such earlier work. It is a declaration of the truth as seen by oneself which is made publicly known so that it can be openly viewed and, if so deemed, criticized! The declarer admits that they could be mistaken about some or even all the summary conclusions presented, but hopes that little of what they claimed has to be withdrawn or revised as a result of criticism.

The popular statement that the “proof of the pudding lies in its eating” is therefore incorrect. The proof of an argument in particular lies in the correctness of its logical derivation, something which requires that the steps taken accord to well-stated rules. The rules predate investigations, research. One assumes that all the assumptions made in an extended argument are necessarily correct, and do not contradict other explicitly made arguments. To be correct therefore assumes that what a statement declares is independently defensible, and therefore does not depend on the correctness of an individual’s perception only. It is assumed to rely on the verification by everyone involved or concerned with the argument, that what has been claimed can also be independently supported by applying common method to the claim.

For example, several claims have been made throughout the last 1500 years that the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped after his body was taken from the cross — data which is not doubted by most — was subsequently found and is now available for public display and examination. However, each shroud so far examined (there have been several) has failed to stand up to all the tests applied, including tests of their reputed age. Thus the hypothesis that the original shroud had been found has not been supported, and cannot be affirmed with confidence, but seems to be based on a wish to believe that such a shroud exists.

Of course, such wishes have no permanent place in scientific investigations but have to be abandoned regardless of their origins. (I’m sure the priests in Egypt believed their stories of the origins of humanity, just as the early priests of Judaism believed in their, may I add, fanciful account of the origin of women! Evidence cited to support a “position” is often viewed as a distraction in such cases since nothing is stronger than the wish to believe.

My preference, therefore, has been to view each declaration in Science as a temporary, time-bound claim only. All these and similar claims are ultimately disputable — and are more than likely to be. The claims may therefore need amendment(s) or may de facto be discarded under the heading, “was of one-time interest because its claim accorded with other plausible pictures or representations available at the time.”

Research Episodes

In an recent blog I commented that:

…we continue to be committed to the idea of extending our current knowledge. For this to happen we should be willing to add but also to abandon ideas. This requires that some old ideas, no matter how venerable or favoured, get replaced. The criteria would be that the replacement-ideas are expected to do a better job of explaining what we call our “current raw data”, that is, materials previously gathered and collected during “research” episodes, but which have not yet been methodically and systematically processed and sorted.

There are several ideas here which merit further discussion.

Foremost is the notion of a *research episode*, which I view as a prolonged and systematic inquiry into one or more well-articulated problems, and where each problem studied relates to some earlier research. There are many examples which could be cited, for instance the many cited in Hawkings A Brief History of Time (1988), but my own research was heavily influenced by two newcomers in the early 1950’s, by ethology (a form of studying animal behaviour: Niko Tinbergen, A Study of Instinct, 1950) and the study of operant behaviour as advocated by B.F. Skinner in his book The Behaviour of Organisms (1938).

I often met Tinbergen on his regular visits to lunch with my friend and colleague B.M. Foss at Birkbeck College; I met Skinner in 1951 in Sweden at the International Congress of Psychology and thereafter every few years. We stayed in contact for the next 35 years. Both had founded new schools of research which reached far beyond Oxford and Harvard and each gave birth to distinct “schools” of thought which led to significant research efforts by others throughout the world and which expanded into fields of study other than the “Herring Gull” or the pigeon in its “Skinner box” pecking at discs. Both men deeply influenced the way we in the 20th century thought about our world.

I use the term *research episode* in a wide sense, as not confined to a short period of time, or as associated with a particular individual, but as a period within an existing science which may develop considerable momentum as new problems are explored by an increasing number of investigators (often on a cross disciplinary basis). The methods and ways of thinking about problems is influenced as new frontiers of inquiry are reached and breached. Such episodes may start as a distinct, even limited form of inquiry, and then may expand either slowly or rapidly to cover more and more “problem areas” as also inadvertently “invade” other territories.

The ethology of Tinbergen, or “instinct theory” as it was often referred to in its early days, had a profound impact on comparative neurophysiology — and continues to influence it. It extended and dated the earlier concepts of Pavlovian neurophysiology which had started almost three quarter of a century earlier. Pavlov’s thinking itself was influenced by the notion that the nervous system was a direct extension of the reflex-arc and was influenced by the idea that all neurological systems were built on a similar, closely related architecture. Differences were attributed to levels of complexity and eschewed the idea that levels of complexity could be the source of irreconcilable differences in nature itself.

What is research? The term *research* is well established. In English it comes from the verb “to search”, to look into and to look for. It covers trivial efforts — like the birth date of a favorite composer or author — to issues which require prolonged investigation, e.g. how honeybees return to their hives after foraging, or informing other bees on their return from a location of a flower patch recently visited. Doing research invariably involves that one identifies a specific problem or set of problems and follows each of these to the point when most central questions seem satisfactorily answered.

In practise the original issues which first aroused one’s interest become modified en passant, are reinterpreted and as a result of such reinterpretations the conceptual net often becomes larger. It seems that two separate tasks are involved in research: the first requires much skill in asking questions. This has to be learnt and is skill honed through experience. One has to learn how to ask the right questions, something which nay require a long apprenticeship. The second requires that one learn how to move from translating a question — however it was initially stated — into a method of discovery, a method of enquiry.

The first example refers to something done quickly, in a jiffy so to speak! Today all one needs is a computer with Internet access and the know-how about how to search for answers in Wikipedia or similar sites. Most kids in my neighbourhood know how to do this. Some are wizards at this even at a tender age! No need for them to know anything more than how to approach a computer and ask questions, or so it seems. No need to memorize answers when it is so easy to access the memory of a computer! The “search” episode can therefore be very short, whereas understanding answers discovered may take long! It is different with questions about how honeybees communicate the direction and distance from hive to food source and then return! Do bees learn by their mistakes — like we do — or is there little tolerance for those who pass on misinformation to their hive-mates? Furthermore many questions cannot be answered by referring to the work of one’s predecessors. One enters the forrest alone, without companions, and with luck or skill exits at the other side.

Every doctoral dissertation supposedly consists of a new contribution to knowledge. New? The true story is that one asks questions which invariably lean on the work of others. Of course, one may lean on a house of cards or neglect the work of unknown predecessors. One may avoid errors by acquiring extensive knowledge of the history of a problem, yet errors and ommissions are unavoidable, although one can learn to reduce these in time.

Yet asking questions such as those already mentioned take place in a context. Broadly speaking the context is the culture of the petitioner(s). Although each question follows a string of earlier questions, the sequence is not necessarily orderly. The logic also is not rigid but is often a heavy mixture of materials drawn from earlier periods which themselves are infused with analogical materials, like what if all animals are like the branches of a tree, a common trunk from ground to sky, which branch out in familiar fashion? There is also often some element of “serendipity” which helps to uncover clues en passant — often rather unexpectedly.

These clues can dramatically change the order of discoveries made. Wrong leads are familiar to most experienced researchers. However orderly sequences do occur, as during conversations between like-minded people, or when one person instructs another in a teacher-pupil relationship. One guides the other. Conversations between colleagues also keep a discussion on track and encourages each discussant to follow implications of their thoughts. Some discussions are guided by appointed chairpersons, other move along and therefore have less structure, but may nevertheless reach comparable conclusions.

Conference organizers often try to follow this model. Left on their own most people — even disciplined, somewhat compulsive and single minded professors — “skip” from topic to topic without raising questions in a coherent manner, as if questions can be peeled layer by layer like the wrappings of a Christmas present, no matter where you start! The more wrappings the greater the excitement! Ultimately the core is exposed.

*Culture* is a flexible concept. Applied to a modern community it covers the idea of a mix of micro and macro cultures. But there is a significant difference between a group — viewed as an aggregate of individuals — and a culture. A culture involves a group of individuals, marks them as belonging together by virtue of common interests, not common physical markings. What is it that individuals prefer, what draws them to each other, what holds them together over time despite diversity of experience, physical dissimilarities? Those who are devoted piano players of Mozart or attend exhibitions of Picasso are already on board — as it were — and have cultural affinities. Whatever binds their interests and commitments may be limited, but forms a common ground.

In time, three men in a boat will form a community, functional or dysfunctional. In short, although there may be significant differences in the affiliations of individuals who form a group — the Thursday evening concert goers, say — these serve as the bricks from which a modest dwelling can be built. Thus individuals are viewed also as a member of a smaller community whereas none are likely to be members of all groups which make up the society as a whole.

What about “new arrivals” i.e. immigrants? These go through an acculturation period and process which can vary from one generation to another. At first each is reared as members of several small social groups, but this changes so that mature adults often become members of several quite distinct groups with interests and interactions shared some, but not all, of their time.

Take a standard example of how we may come to get involved in a problem and in attempts to find its solution. The problem may be complex, may not have a single solution but be a multiple problem with solutions for one but not for all aspects of the original problem. “Why did the hen cross the road?” This event happens all the time in country lanes, but never — as far as I know — on Bloor Street in Toronto, or Hyde Park Corner in London. What catches our attention and arouses our curiosity most often are what to us are unusual happenings: hens crossing city roads being one.

Take another example: I visit a learned friend’s home for the first time and note that his opulent library is arranged with books placed on the shelves in order of size, not colour, not content, not alphabetically or thematically. My initial shock turns into curiosity. Why do it that way? I sense a problem and I rummage for ideas I have had about organizing my own library, about what we know about the psychology of collectors, about library science. I do so for two related reasons: I wish to explain to myself what I have seen and perhaps share my explanation with friends and colleagues! There is a leap from individual perplexity — based on personal ideas about what is normal and what people do routinely — to an awareness of a general problem, that my problems are prototypical of those of others.

This general problem can be expressed in the following manner: what leads people to organize their phenomenological experiences into categories, and what consequences follow from adopting a “grouping routine” developed by an individual and by a group of cohorts?

In both examples the initial question represents the first step to what could turn out to be a long series of successive steps. Each answer is likely to lead to additional questions, then to more enquiries. Had I asked a pedestrian question, like who designed and built the St Paul’s cathedral in London, an answer would be available readily, by consulting an on-line (internet) encyclopedia. To help distinguish between these two types of inquiries it is fitting that we give each an appropriate name. I suggest that the term “research episode” be used for those many cases where the answer to a question (a) is not already readily available; or (b) where the search for an answer to a question requires that one pursues several different alternative hypotheses, which developed during the search. Some of these hypotheses will be rejected but others may serve as stepping stones, or toeholds, to additional answers and wider, perhaps newer areas of research.

I believe that formal concept of a “research episode” is new. It is categorical — not canonical — the sense that the concept helps us to organize what is already known independently, prior to the application of the category to the material. These categorical concepts may in time be elevated and become canonical, that is, become part of an established religion! An example may help: suppose you are given a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle and several possible blueprints? One way of tackling this frustrating task is to conjecture an idea of what it is — a painting by Picasso or Turner perhaps — or work on an entirely different presupposition, namely that the puzzle will form a square or oblong picture, or perhaps a round or oval one. On what basis are thee suppositions made? What clues were used, if any? If one were told in advance the identity of the painter, or perhaps the topic of the painting, the task would be easier. (Note: we rarely enter such tasks naked; we usually get a chance to prepare ourselves — and this illustrates the importance of approaching any task with some preparation and about what is likely to happen once we start our journey of exploration.)

Suppose you find only 100 pieces of a puzzle. If told that the completed puzzle is a rectangular picture you that you need only 4 right angles pieces to form the corners. So the chances of an error in detecting a corner pieces are now 1:25, better by far than 1:5000 ! “Detect corner pieces” and “detect those right-angled pieces which define a corner” are procedural imperatives which are categorical, and may lead to the solution of the task. But if the picture is oval? Heaven help you — you will have to start by gathering together pieces by colour matching.

No Free Ride to Certainty

Earlier I wrote (Nov. 2013) that,

“Science should not be likened to a bound hard-cover volume, a collection of unchallengeable, incontrovertible truths. It is more like a loose-leaf folder in which our latest insights into nature, into aspects of ourselves and the accumulated wisdom of past learning are stored.”

The implication: science is more like a soft-cover book. A better analogy would be that science has the features of a loose-leaf file which is appropriately date stamped on every page. Its pages can be removed — but not trivially discarded. Continuity is an important factor in understanding!

What I therefore reject is the notion that a record of what we see has especial epistemic validity. Rather, it is a moveable decision that a “claim of particulars ” has been registered; may be only one of an evolving series. Such a claim is in a position to be challenged, and can continue to being challenged for ever and a day. It is a falsifiable hypothesis which could be overturned by a single negative instance. It cannot be reinstated except by re-writing the “terms of particulars”, as when we change the claim “all swans are white” and replace it with “except those (many) which originated in Australasia”.

“Seeing” here refers to a preferred method of personally checking the status of our claim. Reading a dial, or confirming by noting the change of a beep emitted regularly by an auditory monitor, i.e. hearing, is an alternative method. It is not seeing — the visual act — that leads to believing, but it is the testing of a hypothesis which is critical, no matter how done.

There are many other things which could be done to falsify a hypothesis, although we often let some position die through neglect and then no longer defend it. Hypotheses can become trivialized, and lose their interest and sway over us. For example, a dark, black area in the sky is not “empty space” to an astronomer. He may only see black areas — as do others — but these are not necessarily signs of emptiness! The microbiologists is in a comparable position: he may not see anything — but may add that this may be due to the weakness of the current microscope, then get another or invent a new one.

But what is at peril is the idea that belief is based on experience and furthermore that experience does not lie but is sacrosanct. Experience — note — is our way of expressing the idea that our specific claims have risen beyond reasonable doubt. It is however itself a claim, has to be viewed as such and therefore what we see can be doubted.

Nota bene: There is no free ride to certainty. Each of us has to learn how to maintain doubt during our most perilous moments.

Controvertible, Incontrovertible, and Truth

E&E3. This entry is an elucidation and exegesis on Character of Science (November 2013)

Living and Dead Sciences

Sky-BoxLiving Science is like a loose-leaf folder in which our latest insights into every aspect of Nature are temporarily stored. The folder is part of our font of knowledge and therefore contains all sorts of bric-a-brac, including recently acquired knowledge and items of information which have been handed down to us over generations. They are often treasured, mainly for that reason, not because of they have much truth-value.

The collection is highly correctable and in recent years has often been revised and re-edited, like items in Wikipedia. Every now and then the folder is emptied out — a phenomenon now known by the memorable title of a “Scientific Revolution”. The implication is that there are “living sciences” but also several dead sciences.

If science is characterized as consisting of several bodies of knowledge it follows that several exist cheek-by-jowl, concurrently, as it were. It would therefore be appropriate to refer to a library of such folders as the library of living sciences — and to refer to those not in good standing, as a library of dead sciences. Dead sciences often retain their shine and continue to be valued by many, but do not serve as they once did, as launching pads for new discoveries and important insights.

Comments on the meaning of *Incontrovertible*

In the folder-library of living science is a collection of separate areas of concern. Some are more related to each other than others, like chemistry and physics once were. It is assumed that each folder contains a collection of truths, which I described earlier as have the status of a collection of incontrovertible truths. These are treasured by readers of these folders.

How do we define *controvertible*? The word is rarely used. I have seen it defined as, “To raise argument against; to voice opposition to something claimed.” *Incontrovertible* expresses the idea that a claim is beyond, or above challenge and is widely used in that sense.

For me the notion that something is not challengeable is odd indeed. On the other hand I accept the idea that there should be a pay-off to a challenge. The best pay-off would be to demonstrated that a received opinion or entrenched view rests on shaky, insubstantial foundations, that a previously impenetrable position had fault lines, that there were chinks in its armour, that a firmly held “truth” had been dislodged from its premier position and was obliged to cede some of its sovereignty. It is not merely a native iconoclasm that moves me. Experience is my teacher. Time and again I have found that views firmly and fervently held by others and by myself, were inadequately supported by evidence.

Incontrovertible Truths, or Truth in a Box

What is an incontrovertible truth? It is a truth-claim which cannot be challenged without also challenging the set of assumptions which were used to establish these truths.

Strictly, *incontrovertible* means that what is stated cannot be argued against since to assume that something is not true means that one can state what the world would look like without the truths which have now been denied. It is like sitting in a box, climbing outside it to see whether the box is white or black. To *controvert* means to hold a different opinion to an existing one — which is entirely possible — whereas to state that something is incontrovertible is to say that something cannot be conceived in other terms than those already used. It sets limits.

But setting limits has two implications: specifically (1) what is deemed incontrovertible is also axiomatic and therefore cannot be challenged; (2) whatever lies outside / beyond the limiting lines is also beyond being accessible (is inaccessible).

The second of these meanings permits us to claim that what is incontrovertible is only so within a frame of reference; but it is entirely possible to step over the line(s) of the framework and to redefine everything by taking into account that the range of items enclosed by the new space has been enlarged! The net has widened and new items have been encompassed. When this happens we are forced to re-evaluate each item in its relation to others in our collection, in our net.

The upshot is that when someone claims that some truths are incontrovertible they claim not only that they these marked truths must be accepted as basic, as self-evident, as not requiring justification, but that such truths cannot be challenged because the frame-work as been permanently fixed, moulded in concrete, not in sand.

Truths-in-a-box can be repackaged and are highly controvertible.

Character of Science

Science should not be likened to a bound hard-cover volume, a collection of unchallengeable, incontrovertible truths. It is more like a loose-leaf folder in which our latest insights into nature, into aspects of ourselves and the accumulated wisdom of past learning are stored.

This creates a highly correctable collection of items, not a book of ultimate truths. Our folder has inestimable value in a world which too often is haunted and harassed by self-righteous humans touting their own brands of Truths and Virtues.

I should add that although the collection itself consists of items we may regard as self-evident, it also contains much that is highly speculative. To sort this out is a daunting, unfinished business.

Two or More Cultures?

My earlier entry on Clarification and Definition is one of many which reflect my long standing interest in philosophy, particularly how my own major discipline, experimental psychology, has been influenced by ideas of Western philosophy.

Now that I am retired and have no laboratory to retreat to and no white-coated laboratory associates to hang out with, I spend much of my time writing about issues which have always interested me, yet which are often broader than those dealt with in a research setting. These interests stretch over a wide range: art, theatre, music, cultural history, as well as the natural and the human and behavioral sciences. I have never been a “one culture” person, as outlined in C. P. Snow’s celebrated BBC Reid Lectures of 1959 on “The Two Cultures,” but like so many others of my generation I combined a strong dominant interest in my profession as well as in aspects of the general culture of which I am a part. I see no conflict between being intensely interested in modern technology and its sister, contemporary science, and retaining a healthy passion for traditional cultural activities and its wondrous artifacts.

Image: Matt Collins, see below for credit

A strong interest in both cultures therefore seems to me to be perfectly compatible with living in the 21st century. One can keep in step with both worlds and accommodate to the extent that is possible with the rapid changes in the world of science and the increasing pace in all aspects of our culture. I often feel like a child in a toy-shop waiting for the toy-maker to bring out more from his presumably messy workshop. The old is being eroded and the face of the new barely distinguishable through the dust of our old demolished Europeanized world. We face not one or two cultures in the future, but a multiverse. It may be something to look forward to for those brave enough to face the choices.*

C. P. Snow, whose novel The Masters was a brilliantly vivid portrait of the life of Oxonian an Cambrian academics and its students before “the Fall” shows how significantly changed we have become since the collapse of Europe. Our universities are in disarray and our vertical culture, too. “Downton Abbey” is down, shabby, and condemned to extinction as are all who lived in it. A terrible culture when looked at through the naked eye, a monster when viewed through critical eyes. Is this the culture which I see before me whose virtues are praised in much of the literature during the rule of the last century? Are we not misguided to hanker after a culture whose greatest achievements for three hundred years was nationalism and colonialism and endless wars? Undoubtedly Science, Literature and the Arts emerged in splendour out of this troubled sea – like a Botticellian Venus — but did so with heavy price.

We need a better understanding of ourselves and our world to get to the other side of this great divide between our past and our future. Can we do so by learning from past errors? I evidently think so. It involves clarification, analysis and criticism and this in turn requires us to hanker after brave new worlds, not dilapidated chintz. One cannot predict visions of the future: children’s comics do so but combine fascinating possibilities with monstrous visions of barely imaginable mayhem. The comics for adults only increase the mayhem but also reveal the vivid blend of the imaginable with the real. We are remarkably good at creating monsters, at depicting the faces of evil — but we also have an aptitude for implying what is wholesome, what should be selected from all the visions we have created of the future. We define future possibilities, as Hieronymous Bosch, Jules Verne, or Mary Shelley did, but we also clarify which of these options are desirable and achievable. That is the job we will always have to do; it is the price of being creative and inventive.

* These lectures were later published in book form under the title The Two Cultures and a few years later in 1963 in revised form as A Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1963).

**The image of C. P. Snow atop a bridge between the cultures is from a 2009 Scientific American article, An Update on C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, by Lawrence M. Krauss.

Philosophy is not Science

Philosophy is not Science. Most philosophers are not scientists by inclination or training. Some may have studied science subjects at school or university; others may have backgrounds in the liberal arts or mathematics, or they may have just drifted into philosophical studies and later became totally absorbed in it. It was not always thus. In earlier times there were those who called themselves natural-philosophers because their primary interest was in the study of natural phenomena: physics, chemistry, botany, anatomy, whereas others were content to be grouped with theologians, or with students of language, the law, the classics or were clerks or politicians in their daily life.

If Philosophy claims the same status as a Science, it is bad philosophy. It then confuses the diner with the dinner. To stretch this analogy: one may select a menu fix but one does not eat the menu, only the dishes described on the menu.

Philosophers change the world when they prescribe how we should describe it. Thus, they both prescribe and proscribe – habits learned during the long period when philosophers served at the court of princes and popes. They in effect then say to us that we – the non-philosophers – have described the world incorrectly so far and that we should re-describe it according to principles that they have laid out for us. This wanton act authorizes and legitimatizes certain methods, i.e. preferred ways and means of conceptualizing our world. We are being told, often very politely, that we have so far incorrectly described our experiences, and that our descriptions may be replete with unwarranted assumptions. If this is true, who do we blame, but our previous teachers?

Fortunately philosophers tend to disagree more among each other than with those of us on the outside: this saves us all from inevitable perdition.

Fractionation: A Late Reply

The following is a reply to Sean’s comment on “Fractionation and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge”, posted March 2011.

zooming2Two years is a long time to get an answer to one’s mail but it often takes even longer to think through the implication of a counter-proposal or expansion to one’s ideas. That said, let me answer Sean (March 29, 2011) who suggested that one could view the divisions within science that take place over time, and with increasing frequency as well severity, a case of zooming. *Zooming* is not a common term applied to the expansion of disciplines, but is itself a neologism. It means that when all our knowledge is taken as a whole it is possible to focus on a section of it, zooming on a speck of this to the exclusion of all else. The effect is to give this section clarity whereas other matters become in-articulated, nebulous, even frozen for the time being.

Now if this is the case – and we must keep in mind that we are speaking in analogies – the greater clarity of the focal area, on which we have zoomed, will be at the cost of increasing opaqueness of all neglected areas, those which lie outside the focus. From my viewpoint this has the net effect of creating a chasm between the focus of the zoom and matters lying on its periphery, that is, out of focus. As Sean states it so well and succinctly “the details of any specific discipline (lying out of focus).. .. are no longer accessible”.

This situation would create an enduring tension between different disciplines. If, for example, discipline A – the focus of our attention – relies on pressupositons borrowed from discipline B, changes in B would undermine some of the positions taken within discipline A.

I think this is what happens. At the present time the new discipline of neuro-psychology – call it discipline C – depends heavily of two areas of psychology and at least two in neuro-physiology. The areas of psychology are studies of cognition and studies of learning. Each of these are themselves fractionated, have their own theories, their own data and often are in stark conflict with each other. This state of affairs make discipline C much less firm than one would wish it to be, and the theories emerging within C, he field of neuropsychology, will be less staunch than is claimed.

So zooming creates problems for those who hold that scientific knowledge integrates and will ultimately achieve the end-result wished for by earlier advocates of the “unity of science”. The growth of knowledge therefore refers literarily to the increased understanding of smaller segments of our knowledge without guaranteeing that these can be completely integrated in manner which will yield a comprehensive “picture” of our universe.

The universe is an idealized picture of what could be – but isn’t.

Fractionation and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge

During the past 75 years departments in major universities have increasingly divided or split into separate units, a phenomenon I term “fractionation”. Fractionation is not confined to the “mature” disciplines in the natural sciences, Physics, Chemistry, or Biology, but seems to apply generally.

There is some informal preliminary evidence that before a new discipline joins the community of sciences as an independent unit – a process which may take many years – it may already possess a solid theory and may even have impressive supporting data for it. The major attribute of such a new discipline would be its power to stimulate intensive research and its ability to gather much additional “confirming” data (i.e. knowledge).

This brief sketch of how contemporary science may be producing new knowledge disagrees in many respects with those accounts which are primarily based on case histories from the period from Copernicus to Einstein. But science in all its forms has become heavily institutionalized during the past century and it is entirely possible that this has also changed the character of science and how science is done.

Under what historical conditions has this happened? How does the process of fractionation affect the emergence of new theories and consequently the production of data? Does it change the dynamics of the growth of scientific knowledge? By pooling resources from sociology, history and the philosophy of science, I hope to explore and attempt to answer these open questions.