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.”

The Fictions We Create 2: Totality of Facts

We speak as if the phrase “the facts” or “the totality of facts” suggest that there is (exists) such an entity as a totality of facts on the analogy of “all the king’s men”, not only “some”. There is no evidence to support this assumption. Once upon a time there were registers of men who served in the King’s army, but there has been nothing comparable for the kingdom of facts. However, once upon a time there was such a number of facts in a specific country during a definable period, during say the reign of James II, or Queen Victoria!

We should therefore think of a domain — rather than a collection — of facts, namely all those matters which could be assembled to reflect a present (current, or time-constrained) set of certainties, of strongly confirmed knowledge-claims which we could defend both logically and methodologically at a specific time. There are probably less of these than were once thought!

The expression “totality of facts” therefore refers to a category which has a limited membership compared to a category which is explicitly stated to be without limits, i.e. limitless. My reference it to “a flock of sheep in the field”: the field itself is bounded so it follows that the number of sheep are only those within that field. To talk about “countless sheep grazing in this field” would be an exaggeration since under suitable condition one could count these. At the end of the count there would be a finite number. The phrase “a countless number” therefore means that the number cannot be counted! But, we can also miscount. To over-count would be classed as an error of calculation. Errors don’t count.

A category which has no limited membership — and therefore is without restrictions — is like referring to “children yet unborn”. The phrase suggests that there are members which make-up this category, which belong to it, yet clearly it is only an estimate of a number. Whatever number is then submitted is therefore only conjectured and is not based on an actual count of instances — which is what was wanted! In short, there are things which can be counted up to an agreed (finite) limit, e.g. the current number of toothless men in Uruguay. But there are also entities (open categories) which defy such treatment, namely, the number of adults in Brazil who will die of apoplexy — which is an estimate.

What to do with the widely used expression “the totality of facts”? Should we agree to abandon it from ordinary use on grounds that the expression inevitably misleads, or that there are too many cases when an arithmetic total cannot be gotten? We could substitute something which gives the flavor of the expression, for example, “The sum of the evidence suggests…” or “In general the majority of cases indicate that…”, or “It seem highly likely that…” — that is, change a categorical statement to a probabilistic one.

It seems therefore that to refer to “totals” and to “totalities” is very often most legitimate but — not surprisingly — only in special cases whose character will need to be defined. In short, it is up to us to use these in a manner which could eliminate unnecessary arguments.

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.

On Collage: Valid Assumption and Post Hoc Analyses

In March 2015 I published a short note on Collage which introduced a term taken from the French, and suggested it deserves a place in Philosophy. I now add several additional notes, each of which explores this concept further and suggests how it may be used in discussing some philosophical issues. I have tried to write each note to be read and understood independently of others in the set. My thoughts about Collage developed gradually and this may have contributed to their piecemeal, stop—go/go—stop character. Please therefore read each section as if it was self—sufficient.

We make assumptions about many matters daily, but because these vary in credibility only some appear to need justification. Some assumptions appear bizarre and beyond justification. Others appear worth making but rather by others than oneself. So there is a wide spectrum — why, then, debate the issue at all?

What is a “valid assumption,” anyhow? Do I proceed to check out whether assumptions — which of those made — should be examined critically, and carefully, and appraised against some generally accepted criteria? Furthermore, how do I check out my assumptions against yours? We need consensus on such issues.

To take an example: if you and I decide to buy a walking-stick we have several options before we buy. Each of us visits a shop, selects a stick to our liking, assessing whether it is suitable, attractive, and the right height, and whether its hand-piece feels comfortable. You, perhaps, prefer turned wooden sticks, I prefer plain metal ones. But the shop has only one wooden walking stick and a number of acrylic ones. We each select a stick by applying our criteria to the available stock: you get your turned wooden stick, but I choose an acrylic.

Some other person, Jane Jones say, may now comment, when she sees us walking through the park, that the difference in walking sticks is not arbitrary but reflects our judgement, our styles, our tastes! She is making assumptions going beyond what she sees and speculates about the dynamics of choice. She may assume that I prefer acrylic sticks, or that our spouses selected them for us. But these assumptions would be incorrect.

Jane Jones’ experience is typical of what happens to most of us. She observed us correctly, but made incorrect assumptions about the reasons for what she observed. She supplied a reason for the occurrence of an event — and misdiagnosed the situation but fortunately there were no harmful consequences.

What Jane Jones attempted to do was to create a narrative for what she saw. This narrative consisted of an analysis which included a network of reasons of what-went-with-what. It was built on a primary deep assumption that there were causal connections between different aspects of what she saw. The causes themselves were interwoven, carried different weights. She assumed for instance that both I and my friend were carrying sticks which reflected our tastes, but in fact the truth was not well served by her assumption. There have been occasions in the past where she identified workable assumptions, but like others, she has shifted from making good assumptions to ones that are unjustified.

Our wishes in the matter — which were not made explicit and therefore unknown to Jane — were not fulfilled because the store was ill stocked with this commodity! Jane Jones could have created a narrative which could have included (a) the possibility that each of us had a choice to make in the store; (b) that the options to satisfy our choices were realizable; (c) that each acted on their choice and purchased the stick of his choice! But, in this case (b) was totally incorrect and the narrative collapsed.

Jane Jones’ assumptions would have been justified but for (b). A post-hoc analysis is required to create the correct narrative of what was observed in the park. However every post-hoc analysis involves a set of hypotheses whose correctness could in principle be established. *Correctness* assesses whether a description is sufficient for present needs. It is possible that we face several different versions of a situation; we need not determine which are true and which are false, but simply select one of these as adequate. A post-hoc analysis may identify several hypotheses which may not be verifiable: the case may therefore remain open, and should not be summarily dismissed.

Associative Nets

I am most grateful to Brian Kennedy for his detailed and insightful reply to my earlier blog Are there infallible facts. I’ve already followed up with the response Empirical vs. Ex Cathedra Solutions. Here is a second follow-up, selecting other points made by Brian, which certainly have taken the discussion beyond the limits of my earlier piece.

Brian pointed out that I had “exposed… that the noun *claims* is (often) subjected to more weight than it can bear”, but he also rightly pointed out that this is quite common in everyday language. He also makes the valuable point that ordinarily words reach over to connected with others, as when the term *claim* is associated with claimants, liabilities, and assets (especially in a legal context), although it is quite acceptable and common to use each of these terms without making explicit reference to any of these. Elsewhere — and more recently — I referred to this as cases where words are part of an associative-net.

brain-netWe can, for example, ask others to “free associate” by giving a starter-word only and asking someone to come up with as many words as possible for the next few minutes. In many cases the string of words each person presents during such serial association have significant overlaps. Wittgenstein talked about this phenomenon as terms having a “family resemblance”. It underscores that words or phrases should NOT be viewed in the manner suggested earlier, as independent items — a view proposed, for example, by an earlier Wittgenstein (c.1921, the author of the Tractatus) and also by members of the Vienna Circle (later knows as Logical Positivists), but that words reaches out to others, as it were (see Wittgenstein post-1940).

For example, we understand that *claim* as used by lawyers and accountants is viewed as something owed (liability) or owned (asset). Furthermore that where there is a claim there is also a claimant, a party making such a claim, whether as an individual or a group of people. Thus there have been two greatly opposed positions. One states that each word should be viewed as a separate, independent event, an item which is clearly demarcated from others. The second position argues that words, in general, are members of families, have resemblances and acted on behalf of other members of their family. A useful analogy to those of us who have families!

I generally take the position that in ordinary language we are best advised to assume the “family resemblance” stance. Most referential words and phrases follow the prescription that there is more than one meaning to a words and/or phrase, as demonstrates most clearly in any etymological dictionary, or in Roget’s Thesaurus. In current-day formal sciences, however, the rule is that each word or phrase should have a rigid definition (although this rule is often broken within a relatively short time). These two rules clearly conflict. But it is like a tennis player on a badminton court: he either has already learned separate sets of rules and uses these appropriately, as the occasion demands or, if he fails to do so, he will surely be asked to leave the court by some imperious judge!

Let us briefly look at a family of adverb-adjectives which are often reified and which thereby get transformed during this process. Thus *truly*, *true* and *truth* (see example 1 below) represents such a family: these items have family resemblance, i.e., they are related in meaning, but have different grammatical status. However *truth* — the third of these — overarches, literarily speaking: it is an abstract entity relative to the other two terms, and “sits above” them, as it were.

Example 1
Item: truly, true, truth
Over-arching: truth

Example 2
Item: factually, factual, fact
Over-arching: factuality

The further examples that follow are similar but include terms often used in philosophical discussions and are “noun-words”, which appear as if these are names of objects — which they are not.

  • really, real, reality
  • necessarily, necessary, necessity
  • logically, logical, logic
  • infallibly, infallible, infallibility

Why say, “facts [as items] are claims to truth [in the over-arching sense]”? Why not say instead, “truths [items] are claims to factuality [over-arching]”?

How is the *facts/factuality* cluster to be distinguished from the *truths/truthfulness* cluster? Which of these two clusters (if either) is logically/definitionally dependent on the other? In what do these dependencies consist? Do these two clusters constitute a distinction without a difference?

Furthermore, whatever a decision is reached in these matters, one should remember that these have a limited time during which they operate reliably. Our efforts to catch the world as “experienced”, on the fly, is a game with rules that we now know changes as we play.*

*Imagine playing a set of tennis during which the rules change! This has mattered little in the past, when games were long and players generally speaking did not outlast the set, as they do now. And don’t let’s even get started in games which we believe will continue “for all time.”

Empirical vs. Ex Cathedra Solutions

Blog reader Brian Kennedy began a comment – written in April, 2013 – with an apology for arriving late to the discussion on “fallibility.” It is now my turn to apologize. I started my reply several times but failed to meet self-imposed standards for clarity. My reply is spread over several entries done to preserve the blog-format which insists on short communications! Each reply is separately titled.

eelsFacts and their properties have occupied my thinking for much of the past year. I have suggested that our current term *fact* needs to be supplemented by terms that express the idea that many facts have lost their credentials and have been dishonourably discharged: what these assert no longer is so.

A famous case is the discovery (c.1886) that eels have sexual organs, i.e., reproduce in the “normal” manner! The discovery was consonant with Darwin’s view that fish reproduced sexually and were not worms reproducing through “spontaneous generation,” a view advocated by Aristotle two thousand years earlier. This discovery meant that statements supporting spontaneous generation as a mechanism for generating new life forms were considerably weakened to the point of extinction; these now joined the ranks of “factoids,” a part of dead science. In short, spontaneous generation was not an option to account for the emergence of new species. One-up for Darwin’s wild speculations?

Here then is a model for the transition of statements which describe the world in empirically false terms and how a new body of knowledge takes over. It wasn’t that the new theory was correct, but that the old one was faulty. Let’s not overlook that spontaneous generation was a plausible theory at the time – but in the end it was inadequate and rejected. Time to open a new bottle?

In summary, the challenge faced by biologists at the turn of the 19th century was to discover evidence which either supported an older theory of speciation (sanctified by Aristotle) or to find evidence which contradicted a theory proposed by Darwin and others, that speciation was an ongoing process powered by a combination of mutations in cells (about which very little was known) and the adaptation of such mutants to their ecological niche. These were different but complementary tasks: find supporting evidence for two conflicting positions about speciation and/or find evidence which contradicts one, or both, of the theories advanced to explain the large variety of species found and the source of their often small inter-species differences.

At the time these matters were debated microbiology and especially cell biology was in its infancy, half a century away from the great breakthroughs in the late 1950s. The initial problems were set by conflicting theories formulated during a time of inadequate, sketchy knowledge. We have here a case-history demonstrating how these problems were approached and resolved, step by step, through empirical investigations.

But the history of our knowledge about the world also records many cases where solution were adopted by ex-cathedra means, that is by declaring a solution to a problem which was based on arguments from first principles. If there was disagreement it was based on how well deductions had been made from the assumptions adopted. First principles are assumption which are not themselves directly challenged, but are assumed to depict a state of affairs either on the grounds of self-evidence, or because they appeared the best ones – the most rational – under the circumstances.

The most persuasive case of solutions reached in this manner is given by the proofs of Euclidean geometry, which assume that space is best represented by a one-dimensional linear surface. All the conclusions reached by Euclid and his successors hold when applied to what is basically a “flat earth” model: the conclusions do not hold for concave or convex surfaces, i.e., not for globes. The assumptions that the earth is flat, that the earth is stationary, that celestial objects move relative to the earth, that the movement of celestial bodies are uninfluenced by their proximity to the earth, that light and sound travel through a medium and specifically that light travels in a straight trajectory etc. were not questioned until much later.

When these assumptions were challenged one by one, exposed to experimental investigations, it also marked the end of solutions to problems using the ex-cathedra approach. Of course deductions from first principles were valid when done strictly according to the rules, but the deductions themselves could not answer questions about what was in the universe to start with and how things worked in the “post-creation” period! Such questions demanded empirical solutions, the use of investigative methods.

Once it was accepted that empirical investigations could reveal new facts it opened the door to the (dangerous) idea that old facts could be tarnished, even faulted, that new discoveries could be superior in some degree to old facts. To which old facts? All or only some? Those facts declared to be so by the first layer of assumptions made? A dangerous idea.

cometThe history of comets is a case in point. Comets had been reported for thousands of years by both Eastern and Western sky-watchers, but were thought to be aberrations from a pre-ordained order of things,that portended unusual events, like the birth and death of prominent people, (e.g., Caesar’s death, Macbeth’s kingship, Caliban’s fate – Shakespeare was well versed in the Occult), or generally boded good or ill. But where did comets come from, and how did they travel in the sky? This was a specially difficult problems to answer if one assumed – as was common for thousands of years – that celestial bodies travelled around the earth on fixed translucent platforms, perhaps on impenetrable glass discs, each “nailed” permanently to a wall in the sky.

There were other assumptions involved, layered at a different, more basic levels, for example the assumption that whoever created the world (the great mover, as assumed by some early Greek philosophers) this god must have created everything according to a perfect plan, using perfect forms e.g. perfect geometric forms and patterns.

Such assumptions had to be jettisoned before one could consider alternatives which dispensed with the notion that (a) there were perfect forms, (b) the creator had to use or was likely to use perfect forms in constructing the world from nothing or very plastic raw material, (c) anything imperfect had to be an illusion, a distortion, aberration and therefore was unnatural! Comets, according to ancient astrolomer/astronomers, priests, and others, were not natural phenomena at all, but a species of divine interventions in the normal, divine order of things. Divine aberrations.

The last few paragraphs illustrate quite graphically what I have tagged as ex-cathedra procedures, and demonstrate how a naturalistic philosophy (based on the assumption that knowledge by empirical discovery is superior to knowledge derived from first principles) works.

The issues have been debated by metaphysicians for two and half thousand years, a period for which we have far from complete records. But I suspect that it is not debate alone that is decisive. As our understanding deepens through debate, we have to remember that, underlying these, we see sizeable shifts in the way we see matters as a whole. Problems once vigorously debated have a history of passing into history and in current terms get exhaustively archived “in the cloud.” Future generation can read all about them, but we in the present can only speculate what such solutions will look like. The past is not a good guide to the future.

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.

Reply to Marc: Facts and Theories

E&E 2
This is my second Elucidation and Exegesis (E&E). In an earlier blog I wrote When we say “This is true” we imply that this statement is defensible, or reliable, therefore should not be questioned. I subsequently received a note from Marc that *defensible,* *reliable* and *unquestioned* do not mean the same. Here is one comment — others may follow.

From Fact to Theory

My earlier statement should be interpreted as saying that if a claim is defensible as well as reliable, it would be counter-productive to question it. What purpose would such a challenge serve?

To demand additional evidence for a claim (1) suggests that the claim — the assertion that such and such is the case — is inadequate and is deemed insufficiently strong, perhaps weak; (2) it also suggests that the case made does not fit snugly into a pre-existing theory. We seem to demand that every new claim falls comfortably into a theoretical place — enlightens but does not disturb our pre-existing vision of the world.

Let us examine each:

(1) Consider first the strength of support for our conclusion “that such and such is the case.” The reason we asked for additional evidence was that the statement went beyond data currently available. One could, in principle, strengthen the data on the basis of which our conclusion was reached by adding to the pile, as it were. But this would be foolish unless we also improved our the method data-collection: a matter of more and better sampling. Data — short for data-points — have to be gathered in sufficient quantity to justify any general conclusions, as for example, “The data can be stated as follows…”. Presenting only a summary of the data assumes that it is the best summary and that a closer examination of the data would not unearth new aspects of events. This assumption has been faulted time and again.

In many cases the strength of support for a conclusion is barely adequate — a discovery often made soon after it was “tabled”. In other cases the method of discovery used may seem “primitive” by current prevailing standards. It happens with alarming frequency, in step with our current technological revolution in the art of measurement. Strong support, on the other hand, leads one to conclude that a claim has sufficient merit — should be considered seriously — may therefore be tagged as factual in the traditional — even, in absolutist — sense. We would then readily concede that whenever a claim is deemed insufficient, adjunctive materials could remedy this and therefore requires to be gotten. If all goes in the anticipated direction — the claim could be moved to the positive side of the ledger. It is all very iffy and tangential. Note: a transition from “perhaps as claimed” to “most likely as claimed” — or some equivalent affirmation — is modal decision — not absolute.

From this perspective stating that “It is a fact that…” — and its milder form, “it could be that…” — reflect different degrees of certainty regardless of whether the method used to establish the conclusions can overcome critical objections. Let us label this our concerns about the adequacy of our investigatory techniques, as when medical researchers are required to run double blind controls to support their view that a drug has the effect claimed for it. Simply to claim that drug x has a lasting effect on the severity of, say, psoriasis is not enough. The claim needs to be underpinned with data gathered in a highly prescribed manner.

Looking over past claims it appears that (a) many, or most, conclusions based on “investigations” remain open to the criticism that the methods used to establish a particular (general) conclusion were inadequate as judged by current standards; (b) that conclusions which appear compatible with an extant theory and which derive their claim from this context operate under a double jeopardy: the one already mentioned (see (a) and the jeopardy that the theory itself may be wrong. To fit snugly into a faulty theory appears to me like catching double pneumonia.

(2) Fitting snugly. A claim, or assertion that such and such is the case has the earmarks of a fact, but it is also a claim that it fits snugly into a pre-existing theory. (Logically, if Tc is a current theory, Tb would be its predecessor. Presumably, the difference between Tb and Tc is noteworthy! If a reason has to be given for changing Tb to Tc it would include that Tc accommodates data which were excluded by Tb and could not be readily accommodated. Indeed — the theory Tc may make up for, or be deliberately used, to handle new data. I will examine this in more detail in a future blog.

Fitting into a Theory vs Finding a Theory to Fit into

If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated by the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base or axioms) of an extant theory. I am careful to distinguish between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory although is not always easy.

An extant theory is one that is in use at the time a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will have to be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating proposition p into a network. One requires, as a matter of course that the network has some “range,” covers several quite distinct phenomena, otherwise the theory would be solely constructed to accommodate a solitary particular and troubling fact: it is an unacceptable proposal. Even an ad hoc theory is marketed to cover more than one fact, but is so constructed that it aims to bring a particular fact into relation with others. It does so by exclusion: the ad hoc theory usually accommodates some older facts with the new fact, but does so by excluding other facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. It is a matter of compatibility. If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated, that is, the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base, or axioms) of an extant theory.

I draw a distinction between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory by assuming that an extant theory is one that is in use when a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating p — and related statements — into a network. The ad hoc theory is usually wily — it is deliberately constructed to accommodate some older facts with a new fact, but it does this by excluding those facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. An ad hoc theory invariably creates its own set of facts, and thereby relegates many older facts into the class of “factoids,” that is the class of have-been-facts, a part of “dead science.”

Fitting a finding into a theory is always and inevitably done during the process of publicizing a finding. It is therefore an inevitable consequences of the process of communicating a discovery to others, of stating it, of trying to relate a finding to other matters which are already known, matters which have their establish location in a “knowledge-system” or a “belief system.” One expresses a finding in words and terms which inadvertently position it in a familiar context and in doing so one frames the finding, gives it theoretical relatives.

This description of what happens when a finding is brought to our attention suffers from a major defect: it suggests that a finding is placed into a system, a knowledge or belief-system, like a card placed into filing-drawer, where it has its “proper place.” But — as I shall argue in more detail on another occasion — this is not so: the term “system” is quite misleading and more formal than deserved. It is part of wishful thinking: we like to think of ourselves as “systematic thinkers, as being “well organized,” as knowing where things belong. But this self-image is less true now than ever before: we organize knowledge in many ways, in bits and pieces, as chunks, in conveniently placed separate drawers. A veritable potpourri, but not a system — and we harbour the idea that one day, some day, these different items will all be brought together, like petals of a daisy or cherries on a cherry-tee. No one has succeeded so far, although many have tried: it seems to be a fantasy without end.

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.