Rebirth of Reason


The Three Central Tenets of an Objective Philosophy of Science
by Ed Thompson

This essay will briefly examine how scientific progress is to be validated; how philosophy—by offering contextually-absolute definitions—provides unity, order, and clarity to science; and how philosophy helps to get the special sciences off the ground in the first place.

We all rely, and believe we should rely, more on well-attested laws or theories than on new or refuted ones. A century of electromagnetic theory has transformed radio from the merest speculation to the firmest of facts. A modern Moore could as well have appealed to radio waves as to hands to show the existence of the external world. No contractor whose transmitter fails can get away in court with a Popperian defence of its failure as merely demonstrating the scientifically falsifiable character of the bold conjectures underlying its design.    —D.H. Mellor (1977)

Here, Mellor claims that scientific progress is so real that one can assign culpability to those who fail to exemplify its advancements in the goods they produce. He also alludes to a type of court where science itself is to be put on the stand and questioned. What would this court look like? Who would sit on the jury? What kinds of arguments would the lawyers make, and how would they lay out their cases? I will attempt to provide some answers to these questions.

I argue (sometimes in an admittedly wily manner) for three central tenets of an objective philosophy of science—that is, three things that philosophy must do in order to generate, or sustain, the special sciences. These three things are:

1) To provide statements of contextually-absolute factual relations (also called "definitions")—in order for scientists to thoroughly understand how the entities (which they're studying) are integrated into the rest of existence

2) To constrain unbounded possibility (that is, arbitrariness) by outlining "what has to be true of everything that exists" (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 293)—in order for scientists to limit their conjecture to that which does not contradict the axiomatic concepts of 'identity' and 'causality.'

3) To outline "the rules by which you can claim knowledge" (ITOE p. 293)—in order for scientists to exercise appropriate restraint regarding the adoption of possibly-nebulous theories, and to harmonize their chosen research methods (to select their methods and means) with the realities of human consciousness—in a way which affords knowledge

Definitions (Tenet 1)

Precisely defining one's terms is a prerequisite to making progress. One recent study shows that scientists are incompetent and impotent without a proper philosophical base (I will return to this example in Tenet 3). In this study, a group of researchers conducted a study on an herb that supposedly helps fight infections by stimulating the human immune system.

In short, while they got the herb's genus (echinacea) right, they chose a poor species (angustifolia), and brazenly generalized their findings to all species of this genus, including the most utilized species (purpurea) which, incidentally, had been better researched and documented. To add insult to epistemological injury, the researchers used a dose of 900mg per day, less than a third of the most utilized and most-prescribed dose, 1000mg taken three times daily. Understanding definitions (as genus and species; or genus and differentia) is a simple tool that can be productively utilized by straight-thinking researchers.

The error here could have been avoided if only the researchers would make the minimal mental (read: philosophical) effort of restraining themselves from attempting to generalize from a single species up to the genus encompassing that species. What is true of a genus is true of those species which are referents of that genus, but not vice-versa.

Axiomaticity vs. Arbitrariness (Tenet 2)

In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (293), Rand disparagingly speaks of "the current theories about a particle that goes from one place to another without crossing the places in between." Instead of rehashing this familiar theme, I've chosen to use the Problem of the Two Tables in order to illuminate how axiomatic concepts are necessary for us to think straight about any given subject.

In a sea storm of oft-arbitrary conjecture (a practice common in theoretical physics), axiomatic concepts are like lighthouses that let you know where the shore is—so that you don't wind up epistemologically shipwrecked. Here is A.S. Eddington (1882-1944) on the Two-Tables Problem:

Yes; there are duplicates of every object about me—two tables, two chairs, two pens. ... One of them has been familiar to me from my earliest years. ... It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial. ... Table No. 2 is my scientific table. It ... is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself. ... I need not tell you that modern physics has by delicate test and remorseless logic assured me that my second, scientific table is the only one which is really there. ... On the other hand I need not tell you that modern physics will never succeed in exorcising that first table—a strange compound of external nature, mental imagery and inherited prejudice—which lies visible to my eyes and tangible to my grasp.

The problem has now been stated. Common-sensers argue that tables are that which you can bump into. The theoretical physicists argue that it is the rushing electrons which have the 'primacy' of existence—and that visibility and tangibility are like ripples in the water, that our apprehension of these ripples merely hints at the 'true' existence of these electrified 'skipping stones.' Perhaps, as Aristotle said of mathematical objects, they exist in a special way and therefore do not exist without qualification. For 'exist' has many senses.

The standpoint of the observer is critical for epistemological context, and the inescapable fact is that things are always and only viewed from the standpoint of a conscious being (consciousness is identification). Note how this validates mathematics as a non-arbitrary epistemological method.

And this point about judging what it is that exists—always and only in the context of a conscious being focusing awareness on a selected aspect of reality—was not lost in P.F. Strawson's defense of identification. This defense, incidentally, solves the Two-Tables problem:

Those very things which from one standpoint we conceive as phenomenally propertied, we conceive from another as constituted in a way which can only be described in what are, from the phenomenal point of view, abstract terms. "This smooth, green, leather table-top," we say, "is, considered scientifically, nothing but a congeries of electric charges widely separated and in rapid motion." Thus we combine the two standpoints in a single sentence. The standpoint of commonsense realism, not explicitly signalled as such, is reflected in the sentence's grammatical subject phrase, of which the words are employed in no esoteric sense. The standpoint of physical science, explicitly signalled as such, is reflected in the predicate. Once relativity of description to standpoint is recognised, the sentence is seen to contain no contradiction; and if it contains no contradiction, the problem of identification is solved.

So, in the battle of the Two Tables then, the 'Primacy of Existence Award' goes to ... context. (Sorry folks, that's as good as it gets!) The metaphysical nature of these two levels—or modes—of existence is subordinate to the epistemological nature of our only means of awareness: volitionally-conscious focus. If we focus on the macroscopic level, then the commonsense table has a 'primacy' of existence (and buzzing electrons would have this primacy, if focus was redirected to the atomic/sub-atomic level).

Knowing How You Can Know Things (Tenet 3)

Back to our herb researchers once again. The intervention with the other-than-commonly-utilized species, at the lower-than-commonly-utilized dose, failed to produce statistically-significant differences between treatment and placebo. (Go figure.) At this point, there is actually no harm, nor foul. It is perfectly fine to study different herbs at different doses. The epistemological shipwreck occurs when the researcher is asked to comment on this 'negative' finding (which is actually 'no finding'—that is, no finding of a statistically-significant outcome).

The researcher concludes that this failed finding decisively overturns previously documented findings of treatment effects from this herb! Apparently, knowledge is determined by whatever has been most recently found and, when contradictions are noted, then recency is the standard, and all prior knowledge is to be "committed to the flames" as mere sophistry and illusion!

It is important that we know how we can know things. The empirical lack of a positive finding is not the positive finding of its metaphysical nonexistence. All theory must stem from—and be validated by—that which is self-evident in perception or reason. This simple rule proscribes the 'fallacy of overconfident truth-possessing' which has clearly infested the mind of our wayward professional researcher.

Again, the epistemological hoop we all must jump through—in order to truly know that we know something—is validation via (regression to) the self-evident, whether it be what is self-evident to perception or self-evident to reason. This concludes Tenet 3.
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