Thursday, July 21, 2011

Scientific Method in Practice (Pt. 7)

In this series of posts, I'm re-reading Hugh G. Gauch, Jr.'s philosophy of science textbook Scientific Method in Practice (Google Books).

[Series Index]


The term 'worldview' has been defined in various ways, but essentially it has to do with beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality and one's place in it. It's a bit like 'religion,' but doesn't necessarily include divine spirits, and worldviews may be significantly different among people in the same overall religion. The idea that the world is getting better would be part of a worldview, as would the idea that the world is getting worse...or the idea that these labels are inappropriate. Worldviews may include both descriptive elements (the way things are) and normative elements (the way things ought to be). It's a very broad and loosely defined term that's used to indicate major differences in people's views of the world.

What relationship does science have with worldviews?

Let's look at two popular answers in western culture...
[T]he Christian worldview, which believes that God created the world with natural "laws" and orderliness, is what undergirds the entire scientific enterprise. For example, inductive reasoning and the scientific method are based on the assumption of the regularity of the laws of nature. This means that scientists assume that water will boil tomorrow under the identical conditions that it does today. Without this kind of regularity, we could not learn from experience, including the experiences of scientific testing. This also helps to explain why in cultures where creation is said to be an illusion or disorderly chaos because it was not created by an orderly God, the sciences have not historically flourished; indeed, the scientific method depends on the kind of underlying worldview that a creating and providentially ruling God of the Bible provides.1
Science in general does not so much reject the supernatural as ignore it. Science cannot incorporate the supernatural into its methodology; it could not function if it had to contend with occasional violations of natural law, but must instead assume that nature is regular and repeatable. This assumption is known as methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism is not a choice; science cannot function if it is not empirical, that is, ultimately based on experiment and observation. Science necessarily restricts itself to purely naturalistic explanations.2
So in one answer, science must assume a certain kind of God created and rules over the physical world. In the other, science must assume everything that happens in the physical world has a non-supernatural explanation. I contend — along with Gauch — that both of these answers are wrong.

Necessary and Unnecessary Presuppositions

Instead of focusing on the differences in the two answers above, consider the common ground: an orderly physical world in which experience counts toward understanding how it functions. Sound familiar? This common ground matches the fundamental presupposition of science featured in Part 6 of this series:
The physical world is orderly and comprehensible.
Both answers above make the mistake of adding a reason why the physical world is orderly and comprehensible. The physical world could be orderly because an orderly God made it that way, or because an orderly nature explains it all. Either worldview can supply the necessary precondition.

In fact, most actual worldviews can. The real enemy to scientific method is not any popular worldview; it's radical skepticism. This might come in the form of philosophical worries about sense data being systematically unreliable, a religious conviction that God planted intentionally misleading evidence 'to test our faith,' or any other variant which goes against the fundamental scientific presupposition above.

In an excellent journal article on the topic, Gauch summarizes the dangers of putting worldview-specific restrictions on science:
Unnecessary presuppositions of science can hinder discussions of important issues from progressing, erode the proper influence of evidence, blur the distinction between presuppositions and conclusions, undermine science's status as a public endeavor, and pick needless fights regarding religions and worldviews.3
But methodological naturalism IS worldview neutral!

...or so the argument goes, usually from those who hold a naturalistic worldview. Since my own worldview is naturalistic, let me share a few considerations which changed my mind on this point.
  • If Deism were true, i.e. if God created an orderly physical world and doesn't intervene further, there wouldn't necessarily be any way for us to find out. The world might be completely indistinguishable from a naturalistic world. Therefore, 'methodological Deism' could serve just as well as 'methodological naturalism.' Would naturalists accept this terminology as non-biased toward 'philosophical Deism,' the belief that Deism is true? I sure wouldn't.
  • Conducting science under an 'as if' methodology produces 'as if' results. Anyone who doesn't accept naturalism — most of humanity! — would rightly question whether scientific results are true, or merely would be true if naturalism were true.
  • It is more sensible to understand science's wariness about supernatural explanations as a matter of historical experience, not an in-principle exclusion. I highly recommend Boudry et al.'s paper on re-construing methodological naturalism in a defeasible role, rather than as a hard restriction on scientific method.4
Science is at its most universally relevant if the only presuppositions it needs are embraced by nearly everyone. Proponents of methodological naturalism have misidentified the (near) universal presupposition that the physical world is orderly and comprehensible as the (minority) belief that everything has a natural explanation. It may be true that everything has a natural explanation, but evidence used to argue for this conclusion must be gathered in a way that doesn't beg the question.

1. Driscoll, M. and Breshears, G. (2010). Doctrine: what christians should believe. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. p. 80
2. Young, M. and Strode, P.K. (2009). Why evolution works (and creationism fails). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 40
3. Gauch, H. G., Jr. (2006). Science, worldviews and education. Science & education, 18(6). Also see the book of the same name.
4. Boudry, M., Blancke, S., and Braeckman, J. (2010). How not to attack intelligent design creationism: philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism. Foundations of science, 15(3). [copy here]

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Scientific Method in Practice (Pt. 6)

In this series of posts, I'm re-reading Hugh G. Gauch, Jr.'s philosophy of science textbook Scientific Method in Practice (Google Books).

[Series Index]


Scientific presuppositions are about leaving certain philosophical debates to philosophers by assuming common sense answers instead of expecting scientists to either:

1) Solve these debates for philosophers, or...
2) Conduct scientific inquiry in a way that doesn't take sides.

That second option might seem fair and reasonable, but we're talking debates like:
  • Does anything exist outside of our minds?
  • If event A happens a million times in a million opportunities, is event A more likely than not to happen at the next opportunity?
  • If multiple explanations can fit the facts, is it ever reasonable to prefer one over the other?
The common sense answer to all three is: yes. (And I don't just mean 'common sense' as naive prejudice; practically everyone lives their life under these assumptions.) Let's look at how the supposed virtue of staying open on these questions leads to a very strange approach to life in general, and how presupposing their common sense answers helps to address the issues raised in Part 5 of this series.

If multiple explanations can fit the facts, is it ever reasonable to prefer one over the other?

Your cellphone has gone missing. One explanation might be that you put it down somewhere and forgot about it. Another explanation might be that a team of foreign spies stole it while you were in the shower. Yet another explanation is that a time traveling alien collected it for a museum.

All three explanations fit the facts. As far as purely deductive logic goes, there is no reason to prefer one over the other. Yet we aren't paralyzed with indecision every time someone points out an outlandish, alternate explanation that could possibly be true. We prefer simple and ordinary explanations.

Remember the problem of underdetermined theory from last time? Same thing. It may be possible to think of outlandish alternatives for any set of observations, but it's inconsistent to let this paralyze scientific inquiry if we accept the notion of explanation-preference in general.

If event A happens a million times in a million opportunities, is event A more likely than not to happen at the next opportunity?

To reuse an example, suppose you have a small bag of marbles from which you keep drawing one marble, checking its color, and putting it back into the bag. After a million times, every drawn marble has turned out to be red. Is the million-and-first marble more likely to be red than non-red? Nearly everyone would answer 'yes!' because we think repeated trials count for something. Maybe not certainty, but surely they count for probability, right?

Or consider traffic lights. We trust that traffic light controllers are reliable enough that a green light on our own street almost certainly means a red light on the cross-street.

Yet Karl Popper's falsification only view of scientific learning denies any probability-increasing role for repeated results.

Does anything exist outside of our minds?

I don't need to explain how strongly we assume things exist outside of our own minds, which is why I find the popularity of Thomas Kuhn's incommensurable paradigms portrayal of science so puzzling (pun intended)!

If you'll recall, Kuhn portrayed scientific progress during normal periods as being judged against a set of puzzles scientists happen to be interested in at the time. After a paradigm shift, the puzzles and the way of judging can be so radically different there is no way to say science has progressed overall.

But if there is a mind-independent reality, we do have something to serve as a 'common measure' for scientific beliefs across history. Progress is a matter of how true these beliefs are.

A Fundamental Assumption
The physical world is orderly and comprehensible.1
This may be the only basic presupposition (or pair of presuppositions) science needs. It implies a world 'out there' which we are capable of understanding. This wouldn't be possible if our senses were utterly unreliable, or if past experience didn't count for anything, or if every logical possibility were on equal footing.

Taking Aim at Science

If a philosopher questions science's ability to get at the truth, the first thing to do is ask whether the presuppositions above are being challenged. If so, then science is not the primary thing under attack.
Science begins with the presumption that the physical world is comprehensible to us [....] Therefore, any argument that assays to take down common sense and thereby to establish radical skepticism is simply outside science's purview. Science has many theoretical and practical tasks, but refuting skepticism is not one of them. A legitimate attack on science's rationality must target science alone, not science and common sense both.2
So while science does require presuppositions, they aren't controversial ones. In fact, failing to make these basic assumptions would be far more questionable. Gauch sums this up neatly with his 'reality check':
Moving cars are hazardous to pedestrians.3
Do you accept this statement as objectively true and knowable? If so, you already accept the kind of mundane assumptions science needs to get started.

1. Gauch, H. G., Jr. (2006). Scientific method in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 138
2. ibid. p. 106
3. ibid. p. 134

Sunday, July 10, 2011

NRA Fearmongering

Dear Friend in Freedom,

The U.N. is conspiring to destroy your gun rights. And Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are using the U.N. for their "under the radar" program for gun control in America.1
I'm writing today in response to a sky-is-falling email alert I received last week which opened with those lines. Why did I even get this alert? Because I'm a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). I've used hunting rifles since elementary school (though not at school), and I'm currently licensed to carry concealed handguns. What formal training I've had has been through the NRA. And I concur with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller,2 i.e. the Constitution provides an individual right to keep and bear arms, without requiring military service.

This personal background is important to show that I'm offering constructive criticism from the inside.

Lack of References

The email only mentions a "Small Arms Treaty." This is not the correct name, and it's incorrect in a somewhat misleading way. I had to do my own sleuthing through the U.N.'s terribly maintained website.

Short version:

Back in 2006, the U.N. passed a resolution (A/RES/61/89) titled "Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms."3

After a few in-between documents, the most up-to-date resolution is A/RES/64/48 "The arms trade treaty"4 from January 2010. I'll be detailing some of that in a bit.

This week, the U.N. will be holding its third meeting of the Preparatory Committee for an Arms Trade Treaty (aka PrepCom). All of this is preliminary work before hammering out a draft of the treaty itself. I think the plan is to do that next year.

A simple mention of A/RES/61/89 and the correct name "Arms Trade Treaty" would have allowed recipients of the NRA email to more easily check things out themselves.

Drawing Conclusions without Facts

Nothing from the U.N. documents themselves are quoted. Instead, the main argument seems to be that President Obama and Secretary Clinton are for it, so NRA members must automatically be against it. It doesn't matter what 'it' is. This is a pure appeal to prejudice, without even giving NRA members the courtesy of sketching the facts before telling them what to think.

Let me remedy this with a a couple of relevant quotes from Resolution 64/48:
Acknowledging the right of all States to manufacture, import, export, transfer and retain conventional arms for self-defence and security needs and in order to participate in peace support operations,
Acknowledging also the right of States to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through national constitutional protections on private ownership, exclusively within their territory,
Unless the treaty itself completely reverses the current intent, neither the overall military defense of the United States nor our individual constitutional right to keep and bear arms is under threat.

I certainly understand why the NRA would be interested in monitoring the situation. There could be undesirable side effects created by the specifics of the as-yet-unwritten treaty. I want the NRA to serve as a watchdog group, but I don't want it constantly barking at the wind.

1. Copy of the email viewable here:

Monday, July 4, 2011

American Aristocracy

I've been reading/listening to a number of important documents in American history lately. This has given me a growing sense of disappointment in my grade school classes, though I suppose I might not have been as interested back then if they had taught these topics. Today's remedial history lesson will be on Federalist #10 by James Madison (Wikisource Text).

Historical Context

1774 — First Continental Congress meets to complain about the British Parliament
1775 — Revolutionary War begins; Second Continental Congress convenes
1776 — Declaration of Independence approved by Congress on July 4
1781 — Articles of the Confederation ratified; War effectively ends
1783 — Treaty of Paris officially ends the war
1787 — Constitution ready; Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers begun
1788 — Constitution ratified

The Federalists argued for ratifying the Constitution; Anti-Federalists against ratification.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States of America was a 'league' of sovereign governments. The new Constitution would create a new federal government over the state governments. Those opposed to this mainly did so because they were afraid the federal government would become too powerful (hard to argue against that one in hindsight!) and because the Constitution lacked a bill of rights (later corrected, thankfully). However, the federalists made very persuasive points about the benefits of making the United States into one nation (many of those predictions came true as well).

Protecting Rights and the Public Good

People aren't always interested in doing what's best for the whole group. A shocking truth, I know! Madison wasn't so much worried about individuals as groups or factions with interests detrimental to other groups of citizens, or the nation as a whole. So he considers the options:

1. Removing the causes of factions.
2. Mitigating the negative effects of factions.

Madison rejects (1) by further breaking it down into two fixes: either destroying liberty or giving everyone the same desires. He calls the first a remedy 'worse than the disease.' The second simply ignores human nature. We will disagree over practically anything if given the chance.

This leaves (2) as the only realistic option. If a faction is in the minority, the majority can keep it under control. The really tough question is how to keep the majority from oppressing the minority or harming the nation as a whole.
To secure the public good, and private rights, against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular Government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
Again, he breaks the solution down into two fixes (call him James 'Binary' Madison). The first is to make sure there is never a majority of people interested in the same thing. Unrealistic. So the answer is to somehow keep the majority from being able to 'concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.'

A Democracy or a Republic?

You'll never guess how many forms of government Madison considers for the task of keeping the majority reigned in. That's right: two!

A pure democracy — or 'direct democracy' — features citizens making all government decisions directly. Imagine if all laws were passed by ballot initiatives.

A republic — or a 'representative democracy' — features elected representatives who stand between the people and the governing process.

Madison believed direct democracies are dangerous to rights and the public good:
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.
A republic is therefore the cure to the ailment of factions. Hopefully, the process of having elected officials run the government will be to "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."

Elected officials are intended to be wiser and overall more fit for governing than the average citizen. Hence the word 'aristocracy' in this thread's title, which means rule of the best [people]. An elected aristocracy (periodically) answerable to the people is no doubt better than a hereditary aristocracy, but there's still a risk of officials gaining power under false pretenses then 'betray[ing] the interests of the people.'

Big Nation or Small Nations?

Madison argued that a larger, more diverse federal government could guard against this risk more effectively than could independent state governments. ...and gave two reasons:

I. Representatives from a larger, more diverse nation are are less likely to share interests — or, conversely, more likely to represent all interests — than smaller, less diverse nations. In contemporary terms, this is Blue State and Red State elected representatives keeping the country as a whole somewhere between Red and Blue ideals.

II. Representatives drawn from a larger nation are more likely to be fit for the duty. Same reason why large countries win more Olympic medals.

So there you have it, folks. The United States was intended to be run by a diverse group of elite citizens drawn from a large population to make better decisions for everyone than everyone would make as a group. How is it working out?