Sunday, January 16, 2011

Truthmakers, Mythmakers, Falsifiers, Fairies… 

The Bode-Titius Law (BTL), which I cited in a recent post on Darwinism and morality, has been percolating in my mind since I encountered it in Stanley Jaki's The Relevance of Physics. It is a fascinating case study of the falsifiability of scientific claims, as well as of the question of how much heuristic 'slack' a theory should be given vis-á-vis empirical inconsistencies. Lately, the specific problem that has vexed my brain is this:

The falsifier of the BTL was the existence of Neptune, once discovered.

Yet, the (unrecognized) existence of Neptune was a truthmaking condition for the validity of the BTL.

Therefore, the existence of Neptune was both a truthmaker for and falsifier of the BTL.

(I'm not the only one who hears "B.L.T." whenever I read "BTL", am I?)

Images I have: Johann Elert Bode, with full confidence in its truth, successfully using the BTL to explain astronomical phenomena at the cutting edge of the science in his day. The planet Neptune, unknown, orbiting the sun in space, influencing the very motions of the planets being described by the BTL. Passage of time. The discovery of Neptune. The planet Neptune, now recognized, orbiting the sun in space, still influencing the motions of other planets in ways yet to be described by a later law.

If at some point humanity lost awareness of Neptune but somehow managed to salvage the BTL, would the BTL be true again? Was it ever true? Is any scientific equation ever true? Should we even speak of the Bode-Titius Law as a natural phenomenon if it could so easily be "repealed" by human cognition? If a scientific law can apply to the system called "the Milky Way", can another law not just as plausibly apply to a system called "the Milky Way without reference to this and that planet"? If laws can apply when restricted to a certain range of material objects, can they not also apply when restricted to a range of temporal units (e.g. could we not construct a "law of nature" which explains why I ordered a bacon waffle sandwich at 15:30 this afternoon but makes no mention of why anyone else ordered something nor of what I did before or after that time)?

I am, once more, a very diffident scientific realist.

1 comment:

Isaac said...

Hi Elliot,
I think you might be trying to push science and truth too closely together, or also likely I'm missing your point. As I see it science is the best way to describe, interact, and make predictions about the physical world around us. If we were to lose knowledge of Neptune and if discovery was to proceed as it had in the past than yes BTL would be "true" again. But all scientific truths are subject to change when presented with observations that no longer match the original theory. Be that from a better understanding of the concepts at hand, or more precise instruments that reveal inconsistencies with what was predicted as what might have been the case for BTL being discredited.
While it is true that it is exciting as a scientist to make a prediction that later comes true based on our current understanding of a phenomenon, I think it equally true that many if not more scientist are fascinated to find their prediction did not come true if for reasons outside of experimental error or poor design. As the later example has the potential to leading the scientist to either a more refined or perhaps even a new way of understanding how things work.
No scientific law is irrefutable, if presented with reliable data which challenges the theory and cannot be explained with the current law then work needs to be done to explain the data and if the law or theory turns out to be incomplete or just wrong then of course it should be modified to explain all things that it encompasses.
Regarding you last statement, unless you were ordering of the sandwich were encompassed into a larger phenomenon, then no I don't think there could be a scientific law about why that particular event happened at that one instance. Even if this behavior was ongoing this falls more into behavioral science and I don't see how a scientific law could be formed here. But I'm not familiar enough with behavioral sciences to know how they describe scientific laws or theories or behaviors particularly regarding a population of one.
;-) Hope all is going well.