Thursday, June 3, 2010

Science is as science does...

...but do we learn more about science by doing science or more about the world?

James Chastek at Just Thomism writes:

From a controversy now a few weeks stale, Sean Carroll defines his terms:

I want to start with a hopefully non-controversial statement about what science is. Namely: science deals with empirical reality — with what happens in the world. (I.e. what “is.”)

So why not trade out the finite verb for the participle or noun? This won’t change anything: if a guy says he studies what is living, this is the same as saying he studies life. So let’s make the substitution:

I want to start with a hopefully non-controversial statement about what science is. Namely: science deals with empirical reality — with what happens in the world. (I.e. being).

But it doesn’t take much reflection to know that this is pretty clearly false. What could be more absurd than flipping through scholarly scientific journals in search of an article on being? What great scientist has formulated a law of being? How does one run trials on or test for being?

Maybe it's most prudent for science-minded thinkers to say science is a systematic description of how the things we touch in turn touch the world. That is, science is a program for analyzing how various tools interact with various things we can reach with them. As physicalists--allegedly science's greatest advocates--like to tell us, the world is not "really" scented, or colored, or musical, and so on. All there is are fundamental particles in various attraction-repulsion arrays. As such, the colors and sounds we detect when we deploy various photoelectric and radiometric devices are not "really there," but are just emergent functions of how those devices filter and distort what they touch, in the same way we think the Vietnam Memorial is "smooth" (a property which can be quantified and graded) while a sugar ant crawling along it finds it awfully rough going, or how we detect the "sharpness" (another quantifiable, scalable property) of a pin but a dust mite can crouch in its dull, pitted tip. The Scoville Scale for spicy foods is coherent and mathematically graded, but it measures something ("spicyness") with little if any bearing on reality beyond human interests. If "reality" just is what is most basic, and if vibrating strings are what is currently held to be most basic, can we really say there are atoms? For, to a vibrating super-miniscule string, there can't be any such thing as an atom. Yet, presumably, our own devices demonstrate atoms are real.

What does science tell us about "the universe" (which is itself not a properly empirical object) that does not just tell us about ourselves? And what does this strange conceptual bind tell us about reality? If real knowledge is primarily and ultimately empirical, without any metaphysical grounding or inferences beyond the senses (broadly construed, i.e., including our tool-augmented sensory input), then science actually tells us nothing about the world and Ernst Mach was right after all. If, however, there is a power of insight in the mind which both transcends and really unites with the sensible world, then we have a means of getting past our tools. If the world is truly disclosed in the tools we use to probe it, then, by analogy, the essence of a thing is really present in the means we use to ponder it (i.e., the intellect).

Existence is not quantifiable and therefore not a proper object of science; yet existence is obviously real; therefore, science is not the only, let alone chief, means of knowledge in human discourse. Because existence--"is" per se-- I thought it would be fun to try defining science in E-Prime. According to Robert Anton Wilson in "Toward Understanding E-Prime":

E-PRIME, abolishing all forms of the verb "to be," has its roots in the field of general semantics, as presented by Alfred Korzybski in his 1933 book, Science and Sanity. Korzybski pointed out the pitfalls associated with, and produced by, two usages of "to be": identity and predication. His student D. David Bourland, Jr., observed that even linguistically sensitive people do not seem able to avoid identity and predication uses of "to be" if they continue to use the verb at all. Bourland pioneered in demonstrating that one can indeed write and speak without using any form of "to be," calling this subset of the English language "E-Prime." Many have urged the use of E-Prime in writing scientific and technical papers.

Wilson then invites us to consider "the following paired sets of propositions, in which Standard English alternates with English-Prime (E-Prime):

lA. The electron is a wave.
lB. The electron appears as a wave when measured with instrument-l.
2A. The electron is a particle.
2B. The electron appears as a particle when measured with instrument-2.
3A. John is lethargic and unhappy.
3B. John appears lethargic and unhappy in the office.
4A. John is bright and cheerful.
4B. John appears bright and cheerful on holiday at the beach.
5A. This is the knife the first man used to stab the second man.
5B. The first man appeared to stab the second man with what looked like a knife to me.
6A. The car involved in the hit-and-run accident was a blue Ford.
6B. In memory, I think I recall the car involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue Ford.
7A. This is a fascist idea.
7B. This seems like a fascist idea to me.
8A. Beethoven is better than Mozart.
8B. In my present mixed state of musical education and ignorance, Beethoven seems better to me than Mozart.
9A. That is a sexist movie.
9B. That seems like a sexist movie to me.
10A. The fetus is a person.
10B. In my system of metaphysics, I classify the fetus as a person.

Wilson then argues that the "A"-type statements (Standard English) "all implicitly or explicitly assume the medieval view called 'Aristotelian essentialism' or 'naive realism.' In other words, they assume a world made up of block-like entities with indwelling 'essences' or spooks- 'ghosts in the machine.'" By contrast, he says, "The 'B'-type statements (E-Prime) recast these sentences into a form isomorphic to modern science by first abolishing the 'is' of Aristotelian essence and then reformulating each observation in terms of signals received and interpreted by a body (or instrument) moving in space-time" (emphasis added). Wilson then makes an interesting defense of E-Prime, by saying, "Relativity, quantum mechanics, large sections of general physics, perception psychology, sociology, linguistics, modern math, anthropology, ethology, and several other sciences make perfect sense when put into the software of E-Prime. Each of these sciences generates paradoxes, some bordering on 'nonsense' or 'gibberish,' if you try to translate them back into the software of Standard English."

I will not elaborate on how grossly Wilson mischaracterizes Aristotelian essentialism, as if essences were "ghosts." Rather I will return to the portion of Wilson's comments above which I italicized. Despite the arguable semantic advantages E-Prime bestows upon its users, it, along with the de-ontologized scientism undergirding it, is a Pyrrhic victory. (Oops, not "is" a Pyhrric victory but "seems to," uh, "seems to exist-as-such".) Wilson admits that language "isomorphic to modern science" reduces to "signals received and interpreted by a body (or instrument) moving in space-time." In doing so, he forfeits the realism for which modern science strives. Wilson's signal-theory of scientific discourse unhinges it from "reality" (and indeed, Wilson denies reality is anything more than a function of social language programming, but that's a different topic) and plainly shows the operationalist face of science. I refer the reader to an older post of mine about Gordon Clark's operationist critique of science, "Science proves...".

In any case, here's a possible definition of science in E-Prime:

"Science describes how various pieces of equipment, in the hands of various users, react to unknown objects in what many people call 'the natural world.'"

(I admit that definition of science is not as sexy as scientismatics want it to be, but at least it's got humility on its side. Maybe all scientific reports should convert to using E-Prime, after all!)

The point is that if modern science is just a series of signals modulated by our tools, then it's hollow to boast about how "science" consistently and progressively "shows us reality" as opposed to how "religion" consistently blinds us with "socially conditioned fictions" and "linguistic confusion." By its very nature, an anti-essentialist theory of science denies it has access to what is, and therefore its depiction of reality is in fact just a presentation of its own signals--indeed, signals about signals, coming from who knows what.

E-Primers try to salvage existence by replacing "is" with "exists" or "seems," but the two replacements coalesce into the same vacuous placeholder for what normal language comfortably recognizes to be or not to be the case. What does "existence" mean in E-Prime? It can't mean "that which is" or "being," so presumably it means "appearing to an observer." In that case, however, the idealism of E-Prime is (er, seems) manifest. If a thing's be-ing is just a function of a thing's being-perceived-to-exist, and if a thing's existence is just it's being-perceived-to-seem, then E-Prime is the rankest idealism, along with any science based on the same semantic logic.

6 comments:

Crude said...

The "science proves" link does not work.

Crude said...

Some further, actual comments!

That Robert Anton Wilson was onboard with E-Prime should probably spook any booster of it who also wants to elevate science to some supreme position. At a glance, that way of speaking (and the way of thinking that goes with it) seems to have much in common with the hardest of the young earth creationists operationally: Reduce 'science' to talk of appearances.

"Science" stripped of "is" is science defanged. Meanwhile, other views and metaphysics can provide the "is", fangs and all.

And maybe that's the lesson here. Perhaps reducing "science" that much, to that level, is in order after all. We can still have 'is', and we can still have that realist science you speak of. We'd just have to admit Aristotle's (among others') presence in the room while doing so.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Hey, Crude:

I fixed the Clark link, thanks.

You'll notice the new post, which began as a reply to you here, but went for the big money on FCA.

James said...

Do the E-prime people deal with the problem of things that are defined by being apparent? Pump fakes, fools gold, poker bluffs, animal mimicry, forged bills, and temptations are all defined by appearing to be something- when put in E-Prime they all are ridiculous:

"fools gold is a metal that appears to be gold"
"Fools gold appears to be a metal that appears to be gold".

(if "appears" means the same thing in both, the statement is false; if it doesn't, then we understand a "appears" that is opposed to "really is" or "is in truth")

"A pump fake is an apparent pass"
"A pump fake appears to be an apparent pass"

(ditto)

James Chastek

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

James: "Do the E-prime people deal with the problem of things that are defined by being apparent?"

"Apparently" not! (rimshot)

It's a good question. My knowledge of E-Prime is still fairly superficial, but I did recently happen upon copies of Wilson's _Prometheus Rising_ and _Quantum Psychology_ for a couple dollars so I'll have a look at "the argument in full." E-Prime is a product of Korzybski's general semnatics theory, so I'm more interested in researching that and seeing how it addresses appearance and reality. It's semantic phenomalism, as far as I can tell. I first caught wind of Korzybski in some of Walker Percy's semiotic writings. Korzybski's big beef was with analogy and identity. "This book is a joke." If that's so, is a joke a book? And so on.

Have you engaged with Deely's semiotic Thomism at all? St. John of Poinsot, etc.

Best,

Crude said...

Just another aside as well.

Isn't an appearance an "is" statement itself? To use one example from the list..

"The electron is a particle"

becomes

"The electron appears as a particle when measured with instrument-1"

What if someone denies that an electron "appears as a particle" when measured with instrument-1? Maybe they have a different view one what a "particle" means (Is a "particle" the same actual thing to a Berkeleyan as to a Thomist or a Materialist?), etc.

"It has that appearance!" seems to carry the same problem that "is" does, unless - as I think you hint - the qualification goes all the way back to the person. I notice that almost halfway between the examples you gave, the person is snuck in. (There's no 'to me' or 'In my system of metaphysics' at 1AB-4AB, but at 5AB-10AB, that starts showing up.) Why the difference?

I have a suspicion of why.