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.

Final Theories for Ultimate Problem

Part of the series, “Thoughts about a Final Theory of the World”

Theories are only produced by humans. This may change in future, during the age of robotics and AI (artificial intelligence).

Each theory consists of a set of ideas about things and matters, i.e. is about something. Theories have content. Theories need not cohere, may conflict mildly or may even be irreconcilable. Many are. This is how it has been in the past and is likely to continue to be in future. Some writers have regretted that this is so, and have tried to reconcile conflicting theories, usually without success. I suspect it is a trend that will continue, but may not be more successful than previously.

We don’t know who created our first theories, when this happened, or what prompted them. It is like asking about the origin of the mind. Since there are no written records older than c.5000 years, we can only surmise what early theories were like and what was covered by them. Presumably such theories were very elementary, and far too general. The earliest written records refer to management/administrative topics, not to matters of literary, ethical, or religious interest, and not to what today would be referred to as concerned with problems of knowledge, specifically about what we know and how we have gotten to know about ourselves or related matters.

Pictorial records go back further than written records, about 40,000 years, whereas the age of homo sapiens has been estimated to be close to 200,000 years, and could be even older. Related species, like homo neanderthalensis, are older. In summary, specific knowledge about our own origins continues to be sparse, although our knowledge about more general matters is relatively substantial and falls under the rubric of cosmology. “Man, know thyself” remains a prescription.

The current rate of the growth of knowledge is prodigious. In the nature of the case, we cannot know who, when, and where a final theory will be formulated, if ever: it depends among other things on whether humans continue to be around, whether they will self-destruct, become extinct, or whether perhaps humans move to another planet and/or become a new super-human species.

Perhaps humans will invent devices which will replicate what we currently call creating ideas. The eminent physicist and writer Stephen Weinberg has written about the idea of a final theory — without claiming however, as some of his physicist predecessors did, including Newton and Einstein — that we were close to developing a theory which would “explain everything”, and in this limited sense would also be “final” (S. Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory, 1992. Pantheon Books, NY)

For several reasons, I think this is unlikely to happen. How would we actually know which of a number of entries to a competition to create a final theory will be “final”? A sounder reason is that theories contain speculations about an admittedly finite universe, beyond whose current limits we, as theorists, continuously aim to expand. In other words, those who speculate beyond what is known at present thereby declare that there is no final theory. In this manner we could fashion a universe which is beyond our immediate knowledge. A final theory would simply curtail further speculations — which is not the aim of the game of theory-construction.

It would be fairer to state that we continue to be committed to the idea of extending our current knowledge. For this to happen we should be willing to both add and to abandon ideas. This requires that selected 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 “extant raw data”, that is, materials previously gathered and collected during “research” episodes, but which have not yet been methodically and systematically processed and sorted.

Given that our research methods are highy varied, are growing prodigiously, and that our methods are often unusual and “esoteric” — like when we use sub-atomic particle colliders like CERN — the data produced is correspondingly difficult to understand by the average person, unschooled in current techniques. Ordinary people don’t have the time or training to keep up with developments in the increasing number of different disciplines which have found a place in our universities and research institutions. Many have difficulty keeping abreast of developments in their own spheres (bubbles?) of interest.

Most of us therefore follow a path of least resistance, the path also taken by most of our predecessors, and leave those things which are beyond our own understanding to latter-day experts. Not priests (God forbid!) but people steeped in their realms of knowledge. Even if all experts in different domains agree amongst themselves, it is possible that the next expert, perhaps from some new domain, will not. This reality excludes finality — but also ensures continued progress in our expanding spheres of study.

Good Theories?

Not all flights of fancy, old or new, qualify as “good theories”, or as constructive proposals. There is however much at stake in producing better theories than those currently available. So-called “good theories”, including those which address social and practical problems and which may have a reasonable chance of yielding outcomes that meet some of our common needs, meet our ethical standards and social aspirations, but exclude self-immolation and the destruction of our species (and with it our civilizations).

I plan to add additional comments on these topics shortly. There is much to write about!

Truth and Truth Claims

E&E 1
The epigrammatic nature of my blog post Character of Science calls for elucidations and exegeses — E&Es — this being the first of several.

TruthMy initial comments in Character of Science are about the interpretation of the much used, but greatly abused term *truth* (see this post for the meaning of the asterisks). When we say, “This is true,” we imply that what this statement asserts is defensible, or reliable, and therefore should not be questioned.

The term *truth* qualifies a statement. I wrote as if to suggest that there is a use of *truth* which makes what is claimed incontrovertible, whereas I think this is not so. Claims are always either strong or weak, justified or unjustified, supportable or insupportable. Indeed, every statement which assigns a quality to an object, or which describes an event, does so only to some extent. Even when we don’t make this assumption explicit, we are aware that this is so and that others share this assumption. We therefore should not use the term *truth* in an absolute, unqualified manner but speak only about making “truth-claims.”

*Truth*, I therefore submit, is not an object, not a substance, but refers to the quality of a statement one has made about something, a statement about some object or event.

The statement “elephants are memory deficient” is an example. It describes and assigns a quality to a familiar object, the elephant, and makes a claim which can most assuredly be investigated — although perhaps with some practical difficulty, much patience and considerable ingenuity.

Modern writers often refer to “degrees of truth,” just as they would to “degrees of pain” or “degree of sweetness.” In the example given, any answer to whether elephants are memory-deficient would need to include details of the degree to which this is so, as well as to the procedure used to establish the factual basis of this unusual claim. Therein lies part of the fun of being an investigator, a searcher after “the truth,” a scientist or insatiably curious but not afraid of what one finds.

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.

Humans as Bats: Induced enhancement of sensory capacities — fact or fiction?

More than 50 years ago Tomas Nagel 1 challenged us in a philosophical paper to think about “what is it like to be bat”. The paper had an enormous impact and is frequently cited and reprinted. An answer to some of his questions may be in the works!

Science recently published a joint report from the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, University of Mississippi, the Department of Artificial Intelligence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology , and the Darwin Laboratories, University of Cambridge (UK), about a series of discoveries made over the last 19 years. The report is dated 15th January 2049 and covers research completed under joint grants of NASA, The Institute of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, The Templeton Foundation and the Medical Research Foundation, UK on new genetic modifications of Humans in an effort to enhance and extend their sensory capacities.

Briefly, the research followed a suggestion by Professor Joshua Zangmeyer of Cambridge, head of the Gregory Research Laboratories, that it may be possible to genetically engineer a human embryo so as to add sensory capacities which would enhance its visual and auditory sensory range and competencies throughout life. The idea was to develop two separate mechanisms: the first, a neural switching element which would increase sensitivity to infrared radiation, during periods of low illumination, specifically during dusk and night periods, and concurrently reduce sensitivity to strong illumination. One proposal investigated was whether in addition to rods and cones new neural receptors could be developed well as a central selector device or processor which would “read” illuminations in the environment before switching from one set to another.

During daytime conditions the individual would be tuned as now, whereas during dusk-to-dawn periods the individual’s sensitivity to illumination and hue conditions would be decreased. The current proposal is that during “night time” conditions the perception of color is relatively unimportant and could be sacrificed.

Sensory adjustments to sound are also being explored. One proposal is to develop echo-location mechanisms which become operative during dusk-to-dawn period so that humans would be programmed like bats. Dr. Umberto Gabrielli of the Baroque Hearing Labs at the University of Padova is exploring the possibility of developing ear-posturing central mechanisms which would facilitate humans to automatically cup ears to monitor sound sources during low illumination periods. The idea came to Dr Gabrielli watching his grandparents as they were chatting with their hearing-impaired fellow residents in the local infirmary in Padua.The research is at an advanced stage.

There are now five exemplars of humans who have undergone these genetic transformations; two young men and three young women. Outward appearances belie the genetic transformations achieved! As explained in Professor Zangmeyer’s brief report, the five subjects of these experiments – whose names are being withheld – are leading normal lives despite their superior sensory equipment.

The laboratories are currently testing five subjects by extensively mapping brain-activity following a suggestion that presently under-used areas of the sensory areas of the brain could become empowered to achieve these sensory enhancements. Also, a group of Cambridge and IT philosophers are currently studying the effects of sensory enhancements on the development of language and on what is known as the emergence of “epistemological lexicons “ that is, on how these new versions of “Homo Sapiens” will modify their language to reflect the fact that they have developed additional sensory inputs with which to construct their knowledge of the external world (see B. Russell2)

These “new” artificially produced members of Homo Sapiens have been given the sub-species name of Homo Seymor, or simply Seymors, in honor of an early pioneer (c.1948) of the long term effects of sensory deprivation.

(1) Thomas Nagel: “What is it like to be a Bat,” Philosophical Review (1974). See also Block Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology, 1980. Cambridge.
(2) Bertrand Russell: Our Knowledge of the External World(1914), Routledge Classics, 2012.