They’re bound to mess up

In his second commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge, Boethius argues that those who ignore the science of disputation are going to make mistakes (Patrologia Latina 64, 73A). He should have also pointed out that those ignorant of scientific disputations will likewise never learn the "incorrupt truth of reality." I think Stanley Fish falls somewhere in the middle: he's both ignorant of logic and science. He writes:

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who 'can't see' the evidence or 'refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,' but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share 'hope,' 'belief,' 'undoubtedly,' 'there will come a time' and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.'

The evidence for the theory of evolution, my science oriented friends tell me, is vast and testable. On the basis of this vast and testable theory, Dawkins makes judgments (perhaps erroneous ones–remember children, this is science, people are bound to make mistakes, that's the point) about things and events that fall within the purview of the theory, such as the behavior of biological creatures–i.e., living things, like human beings. He claims that as we learn more about the brain–that thing with which we think, and whose wisdom is impaired with chemical substances found in booze–we will probably come to account for more and more human behavior. Confidence or rather faith in such progress is one reason why the study of neurology continues to be funded. One problem with Fish's claim is that he sophistically equivocates on the words "believe," "hope," and so forth. The fact that believers and science types both "believe," "hope" and "have faith" in other words, tells you nothing about what they believe and how they believe, but a lot about the multivalent nature of words. All cognizant beings stand in some kind of relation to the objects of their judgments–but that doesn't mean the objects of these judgments are all the same.

31 thoughts on “They’re bound to mess up”

  1. I believe that I am typing right now. I also believe that Stanley Fish makes bad arguments.

  2. “All cognizant beings stand in some kind of relation to the objects of their judgments–but that doesn’t mean the objects of these judgments are all the same.”

    Nor does it mean that the ‘kind of relation’ is the same.

  3. I should clarify my above question (oh, whoops, I didn’t even put a question mark there). Let me rephrase as follows:

    Nor does it mean that the ‘kind of relation’ that all cognizant beings stand in with respect to any one object of judgment is the same, does it?

  4. What about the nature of the subject? Or do you say that for all subjects – given the same object – the nature of the relation must be identical.

  5. Obviously, particular subjects are unique in at least one way (numerically distinct), but must also share many characteristics with other subjects (namely, characteristics that make them all subjects). That said, what sort of object (of a judgment) is intransitive in its relation to any given set of subjects? I’m not sure how to answer that question. My first impulse is to posit the law of non-contradiction as an example, but then I get bogged down with trying to figure out what sort of judgment the law of non-contradiction is. Perhaps if the law were restated in this way it might fit the criteria:

    For all subjects, a subject who judges that A differs from ~A stands in exactly the same relation to the object of the judgment as a subject who judges that one stone differs from another stone, one cat differs from another cat, etc., where any noun can be substituted for “cat” or “stone” or “A”

    I couch it in these terms to bypass any knowledge criteria that might exclude some subjects from others, namely subjects that are versed in logic from subjects who are not. Reducing knowledge criteria to only immediate sensory data (like the ability to perceive difference in objects) universalizes the subject pool.

    So, the problem now is not the objects of perception, since they can be couched in any terms so long as they are being assessed in virtue of difference, but is the perception of difference. Do all subjects perceive difference in exactly the same way? I’m not sure.

  6. perhaps some of the problems would be ameliorated if the word “believe” was not used by scientists when they intend “I think”, “I hold”, “my opinion” etc.

    From the technical definition of the word “belief” it is clear that those who engage in “believing” things are akin to liars, which is, of course, the problem at bottom.

    This is not a difficult problem in the sense that “scientists” would do well to examine the rhetoric of religion and refrain from using words that allow the loophole of equivocation, and further, they ought to clarify the issues, especially when the dialog is exposed to the “ordinary” common joe/jane who has little experience [and even less skill] in examining syllogisms and conceptual premises. [especially false ones]

    This may be a superficial and obviously perfunctory assessment: the progenitors of religion get away with the manipulative use of semantics to obfuscate issues to stand, seemingly, on even footing with rationalists and one ought not allow that methodology when arguing against the religious position.

    “The god delusion” is not the issue: BELIEF IS THE ISSUE.

    Religion is a social psycho epistemological trap that neuters the human function of judgement and in its place leaves a psychological loop of “conceptual self abasement” which results in guilt leading to a dependence on leaders. In short religion is by design a mechanism to destroy individualism and integrity.

    No Virginia, there ain’t no santa claus.
    I don’t care what you believe: I KNOW things.
    knowing is not believing.
    belief is antithetical to reason.

    –verb (used without object)
    1. to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so: Only if one believes in something can one act purposefully.
    –verb (used with object)
    2. to have confidence or faith in the truth of (a positive assertion, story, etc.); give credence to.
    3. to have confidence in the assertions of (a person).
    4. to have a conviction that (a person or thing) is, has been, or will be engaged in a given action or involved in a given situation: The fugitive is believed to be headed for the Mexican border.
    5. to suppose or assume; understand (usually fol. by a noun clause): I believe that he has left town.

  7. Just because the human brain has evolved to classify and to interpret phenomena in terms of subject/object dichotomies does not mean it is necessary to do so, or that it is even the best way to do so, or that such dichotomies even exist .

  8. The big difference between how freethinkers and atheists “know” or “believe” something, and the way a fundamentalist faith-head “knows” or “believes” something, is that the atheist does not believe that a qualitatively greater form of “knowing” even exists — that is, the atheist does not subscribe to the concept of revelation, or of having the holy spirit imbue you with supernatural discernment powers when reading scripture, to know without uncertainty what to interpret literally and what to interpret figuratively.

    Atheists can claim all the confidence in the world. But ONLY that much. Deists, often, claim the confidence of the *next* world. How many Christians have you heard express the belief that “everybody really knows, in their heart of hearts, that Christ is Lord. People who reject Christianity are lying to themselves, and therefore are choosing Hell themselves.”?

    I don’t believe there is a magic man in the sky who whispers in my ear and makes sure I can claim 100% confidence in what I believe, because he’s keeping me righteous. So no matter how sure I am about something, I will NEVER be 100%. I could always be wrong.

    That’s my motto: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE; NOTHING IS 100%.

  9. Jem: I wonder if your analysis with respect to the nature of the subject is oversimplified.

    When Dawkins is confronted with questions pertaining to the development of moral sensibility in mammals (altruism, specifically), as he is by Fish in this article, he cannot predicate his thoughts upon empirical data in the way that he goes about addressing other physical processes. The reason is, of course, that scientists (specifically Biologists) do not have a comprehensive explanation for the physiognomy of morality. He offers the interlocutor with a possible Darwinian explanation, and his belief that such knowledge is forthcoming. Fish attaches the word ‘belief’ to this claim of Dawkins, in the way that it is applied to the theist’s claim of an omni-benevolent deity. Now the objects of both of their claims are entirely the same. Both the theist and the evolutionary biologist are making a judgement about the nature/development of morality.

    Yet, the two claims are far from level. Darwinian natural selection has been able to account for nearly every physical processes imaginable. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for Darwin for to come to his conclusion. Yet, the theist’s claim of a supernatural deity is predicated upon nothing more than authority. It would seem that the very nature of a theist’s framework (which is entirely based upon authority) compared to that of a scientist (empirical evidence) would generally give a greater deal of strength to the latter’s extension of a theory, then the former’s.

    It would seem then that the nature of the object is not enough to inform judgments. The nature of the subject (and the framework under which he makes such judgments) This might be a matter of perception, Jem, but I’m a little unsure.

  10. Full disclosure: I have not read Fish’s article, only this exerpt.

    I agree with Fish. For me the selling point is the statement “of whose truth he has been persuaded.” So the kicker with that statement is that Dawkins was persuaded by the massive amounts of evidence that support evolution. I believe in evolution, its hard not to be persuaded by an honest assement of the evidence. My complaint with Dawkins is his unwavering belief that evolution, particularly evolutionary psychology, are the be all and end all explanation of human behaviour. To put it another way, just so stories don’t have to involve a Thunder God. Try reading the introduction to “The Selfish Gene;” I found the triumphal tone off-putting. I personally think that Evolution and science are a perfectly valid way of looking at religion. To be truly secure in one’sfaith one must look at the critiques of science.

    However I don’t think one has to choose between a scientific world view and a religous one. Scientists describe things in different, and fundementally exclusive, ways. We know that classical mechanics is wrong, the computer we are using is a result of purely quantum effects. However scientist still describe things in terms of classical mechanics (ask your doctor how MRI works, he probably won’t go into the quantum) becuase it is a perfectly valid and useful way of understanding the world. Are we to totally excise classical thinking from science because it is “wrong?” Of course not, otherwise some fields would slow to a halt.

    Personally my understanding of the world, my place in it, and my ability to function in it are greatly aided by Religion, as is my understanding of certain physical phenomena is by classical mechanics. I have my issues (He did what after three days?) and I struggle with them, but there is nothing a scientist could say to keep me from showing up every Sunday morning. Likewise I know a classical description of atomic phenomena is wrong, however I could not do my job with out it.

    My point is that Dawkins’ fixation on Fundemental Truths (a red herring in my opinion) gets in the way of a more important concept, understanding. I think Fish’s point is that Dawkins’ “faith” in science eventually crosses over to a religous-like faith because he goes beyond what the evidence supports, and has faith that Evolution will (not can, but will) explain everything. Science, in principle, may be able to explain everything, but I don’t believe it ever will.

  11. Chip,

    I think I understand what you’re saying, but if my understanding is not horribly inaccurate then I have a few qualms about your reasoning.

    First, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate, and therefore not helpful, to write that Dawkins has an “unwavering belief that evolution…[is] the be all and end all explanation of human behaviour.” Perhaps he’s actually said that he does, but if he hasn’t then I think it’s unwarranted to say that his belief is unwavering. If Dawkins is like other scientists I know then I would be unsurprised if he said that a more accurate characterization of his evaluation of the theory of evolution by natural selection, is that he is “very confident” that it is the correct explanation for the properties and behaviors of living organisms on Earth. The difference between “unwavering belief” and “confidence” is that the latter admits the possibility of refutation, at least in principle.

    Second, if you’ll allow me to be charitable toward Dawkins then I might interpret his stance on evolutionary psychology in something like the following way: “Some people argue that altruism is evidence that life was created by a personal God. That argument rests on the often-unstated premise that a personal God is a necessary condition for altruism. In other words, no valid rational materialist argument (i.e., a scientific hypothesis) can account for altruism. I will test this premise. I will think of a possible, and perhaps plausible scientific hypothesis for altruism. I only need to think of something that’s possible (where “possible” means “not ruled out by physical evidence”). It doesn’t even need to be true. If I succeed then this negates the premise. Now suppose evolutionary psychology fits the bill (perhaps it doesn’t, but if so then that’s a different argument, based on the technical details of the hypothesis). In that case, the premise of one particular argument that tries to DEDUCE the existence of a personal God is shown not to be true.

    Third, and most important to me personally, I beg you not to write things like “classical mechanics is wrong” or “quantum mechanics is right.” Classical and quantum mechanics, like all other scientific theories, are human-constructed models of reality, with some ability to account for past observations and make testable predictions for new observations, within certain specified tolerances, and operating within specified physical boundaries. Furthermore, I request that these models be evaluated not by whether they are “right” or “wrong” (since it’s not clear what the operational definition of these terms would be or what would be the program to judge a model in these terms), but rather by how successful they are at accounting for observations, how simple, general, and aesthetic they are, and how useful they are. By these lights, classical mechanics is magisterial in its success, aesthetic beauty, and utility, within its domain of relevance. It so happens that quantum mechanics also is successful and beautiful, and technically more general than classical mechanics, while at the same time being laughably less useful for many kinds of physical systems.


  12. David,
    I think we are in agreement in most things.

    I think you are justified in objecting to my characterization of Dawkins’ belief in evolution. I feel somewhat justified in writing it as such because he never has presented a nuanced view in my reading of him. Try reading the introduction to “The Selfish Gene.” I found it triumphilist in tone and off-putting. I am sure there are quotes of his paying lip service to scientific uncertainty. However I still stand by that he has a certain unjustified faith in the ability of science and evolution to explain mental and moral phenomena. I would have fewer complaints with the man if he showed a little more uncertainty and less zealousness.

    That statement of Dawkin’s beliefs is reasonable but limited. It does disprove the strong statement that God is necessary for altruism, a belief not held by most sophisticated religious believers I would imagine. However I don’t think it justifies Dawkin’s zeal in attacking religion or in supporting evolutionary pyschology. He has come up with a different just-so story. Until he comes up with better evidence I will keep disagreeing with him. I personally don’t think we will find better evidence, not to say Dawkins’ intution is wrong. And don’t even get me started on any attempts to deduce God’s existance. . .

    My statement that Classical Mechanics is wrong was purposely extreme. I agree that these are just models, one being able to explain more phenomena than the other. I used the dualistic language of right and wrong to parallel the language used in most discussions of science and religion. To discard religion because it is “wrong” or mythic in certain respects (How did he part the red sea agin?) to my mind would be committing the same mistake as throwing out classical mechanics because it makes demonstably false statements (But things don’t have a fixed posistion and momentum!). These “false statements” are different from unresolved areas of research. Sure quantum mechanicshasn’t explained everything just yet, but there is no fundemtal reason (as far as I know) why some form of it cannot. I’ve read my Kuhn and understand the tricky nature of assessing a theory’s validity, but in naive manner classical mechanics is wrong. These subtlties concerning right and wrong versus valid or invalid are thrown out when it comes to religion. People miss the fact that religion isn’t just a bunch of dogma, as science isn’t just a bunch of facts. They are both ways of interpreting and functioning in the world. Like classical and quantum mechanics it would be wrong to think they are both mutually exclusive.

    I feel like I may have wandered from the point of the quote of Fish. I think Dawkins’ belief in evolutinary psychology is misplaced. Just as I wouldn’t turn to Quantum mechanics to explain all physical phenomena, although in principle it could, I wouldn’t turn to science to explain all moral phenomena, although it may fundementally (very debatable) be able to.

    Thanks for the comments,

  13. “First, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate, and therefore not helpful, to write that Dawkins has an “unwavering belief that evolution…[is] the be all and end all explanation of human behavior.”

    From the materialist’s perspective (or that of science), all human behavior is the direct result of various patterns of neurological firings in the brain. Thus, neurological states are the explaination for human behavior. Which is why I believe Chive might have simply miscommunicated. Dawkins does not contend that Darwinian Natural Selection is the sole explaination for human behavoir, but rather, that it accounts for the development of all human traits and faculties. In that sense, Dawkins does hold an absolutist view.

    “In that case, the premise of one particular argument that tries to DEDUCE the existence of a personal God is shown not to be true.”

    In the absence of empirical evidence for altruism, you could not deduce a Darwinian cause for it’s development, either. Dawkins will admit that the scientific community has yet to come up with an understanding of the physiognomy of morality in mammals. From his own experience (and that of others), of the amazing power of natural selection to account for all sorts of genetic mutations, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to extend the theory to one other aspect of human physiognomy. That is why Dawkins, as a scientist, does not posit his explanation of altruism as rooted in scientific evidence.

    To deduce the existence of a supernatural deity because of a gap in scientific inquiry is completely dumbfounded. Often, people such as Fish, seem to misconstrue where the burden of proof lies (the theist or the atheist). They look for one element of human nature that cannot be readily explained by biologists and believe that to be enough to posit the existence of a God. It’s not for Dawkins and other skeptics to demonstrate God’s nonexistence completely, because they are not making a positive claim. Desprepancies in evolution, just like those in classical mechanics do not provide a deductive groundwork for the existence of God. The theist makes the positive claim about the existence of God, and must demonstrate how his conception is deductive.

  14. Chip,

    I apologize for leading us off-topic, but since we are (off-topic) I assure there is no evidence to support the contention that quantum mechanics could “in principle” explain all physical phenomena, just as there is evidence to support the contention that quantum mechanics, in its current formulation, does not explain all physical phenomena. Q.M. by itself makes no prediction (not even a false one) about special relativistic effects, for instance. And in the general relativistic interior of a neutron star, it falls apart.

    But anyway….
    Thanks to you for your comments.

  15. Interesting discussion on a number of points everyone. I have just a few points—that perhaps no one cares about–that I’d like to make. They are not really directed at anyone specifically.

    1) Wow, there are more scientific anti-realists here then I would have expected. I wonder if the full implications of this view are being appreciated. What’s even more interesting is it seems that Chip is advocating a kind of theological anti-realism.

    2) I have previously understood classical mechanics as referring exclusively to Newtonian mechanics and not to Einstein’s theories of relativity (general and special). I believe that most would agree that Einstein’s theories of relativity have replaced Newtonian mechanics because they explain the same phenomena and more (e.g. it accounts for the orbit of Mercury while Newtonian mechanics gets it wrong). A scientific anti-realist would not use the word wrong to describe Newtonian mechanics. They could say a number of things given the exact kind of anti-realism they subscribe too (an instrumentalist would say that it just does not explain the known phenomena as well as Einstein’s theories). However, a scientific realist would say that Newtonian mechanics is wrong. This does not necessarily imply that relativity is right.

    But, if classical mechanics is supposed to include both Newtonian mechanics and relativity, then a comparison to quantum mechanics isn’t going to work very well. Since, as has been noted, they do not explain the same phenomena, though there is some overlap. However, David was correct to point out that there is no completed physics. At a minimum we don’t know how to work gravity into QM. I believe there probably are more problems then this, but I’ll be charitable.

    3) A note on altruism: There has been an argument given that shows that altruism occurs naturally and could be explained through evolutionary processes (more than just natural selection). The argument is supposed to contrast to the argument Dawkins gives in “The Selfish Gene.” The book is called “Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior” by Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson (Harvard University Press, 1999). Sober is one of the more important philosophers of biology.

    4) A note on evolutionary psychology: One could argue that the current paradigm in evolutionary psychology is poor science, but this would not necessary speak against the possibility of producing good evolutionary explanations for our psychology. That’s exactly what David Buller argues in “Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature” (M.I.T. Press, 2005).

    5) A note on Dawkins: Dawkins does seem to present his material (in his popular books) in a rather pompous, off-putting manner. It is possible that he holds the strong belief that science is our best or only way of knowing the world (reality). However, he could have a justification for holding this view. If he does, then it is no longer mere belief (or even faith), but justified belief. I won’t go so far as to say knowledge, since it seems that knowledge needs at least one other condition beyond justified belief in order to be knowledge (e.g. non-Gettiered, or no defeaters). However, I don’t believe that this justifies having such a negative attitude towards other people. I wonder if he has a similar tone in his scientific writings (I’m guessing that he doesn’t).

    6) A note on faith: There was a major (and good) discussion on faith on this blog a few months back if anyone cares to check. In that discussion I promised a paper on the epistemic status of faith. I have completed that paper if anyone wants to read it. It’s about 3400 words. However, because it is a paper I am considering submitting to conferences I would need to include my full name and school affiliation, which could break some of the anonymity of the blog. The title gives away the conclusion: “Faith Cannot Provide Epistemic Justification.” It is a fully analytic style argument, which could turn some off. I’ll send the paper to jcasey and if deems it worthy he could send it along to anyone who cared to read it. My argument would obviously speak against the view that Fish is arguing for.

  16. David,
    Is there any evidence that a paradigm shift on the scale of that which Planck initiated would be necessary to allow quantum mechanics in some form explain these things? I am aware of quantum mechanic’s limitations. People didn’t throw Newton out when they couldn’t explain Mercery’s excess precession, and likewise these limitations aren’t enough to think QM will never explain them. Certainly current theory is lacking in many respects but it is reasonable to think it could remain fairly intact when a Theory of Everything is discovered. I don’t think we will ever find a TOE. I think it is a waste of time since all theories are underdetermined by a set of facts and therefore a TOE wouldn’t have any impact on a philosophical justification for believing it is “right.” In principle, though, I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that Quantum Mechanics is “right” where Classical mechanics is “wrong.” We have evidence that a classical formulation of position, momentum etc simply isn’t right because of Bell’s inequality. However no such simple test has been developed to show that QM is a dead end, it is just a work in progress.

    Matt K, I appreciate your description of my stance as being “Theological Anti-Realism.” Although I have not conveyed my personal scientific beliefs here I think it is fair to call them anti-realist. I’ll have to dust off my old philosophy of science text to (re)learn all the implications of that statement.

    And Further off topic we delve. . .

  17. Typically, anti-realists in science pull away from the notion of truth. Things like electrons cannot be said to exist, they are merely useful fictions. However, one could simply reject that scientific theories are true or false, but accept the existence of some theoretical entities. This view is known as limited or entity realism. I’m not sure if there really is anything wrong with being a scientific anti-realist, it just is surprising since over the last decade there has been a major shift back (in both philosophy and natural science) to realist theories. There are still plenty of anti-realists around though.

    I find the apparent anti-realism in theology to be a bit more problematic, as many people would have trouble being anti-realist when things like their eternal salvation could be at stake. It would seem that either you are saved or you are not. However, if your theology had no connection to an afterlife, then the problem would probably drop back to the level found in the sciences.

  18. Chip,

    I submit that the purpose of communication is to reproduce in another person’s mind ones own understanding of some thing (as the purpose of false communication or “lying” is to generate a different but useful understanding…but I digress) as accurately as possible. Human language is a clumsy tool and English especially so, which makes argumentation difficult to do well, and which opens up to charges of pedantry those who try to do it carefully. If you write that Q.M. is “right”, then even if you mean something more nuanced, I think what it’ll conjure in the minds of most people is the idea (or a rough version of it) that Q.M. has explained all phenomena and that no other model explains all phenomena (I pray I don’t have to go into why these are untenable conclusions). If you write that Q.M. accounts for certain specified observations better than C.M. does, then by being more precise, albeit more modest, you increase the likelihood that your audience will accurately understand your meaning. This is why I beg you not to write that Q.M. is “right.”

    Matt K,

    I’m unfamiliar with the term “anti-realism.” Is it a term used among scientists, or is it a term used by philosophers when discussing scientists? I don’t know if it’s related, but “Bell’s Inequality”, which Chip mentioned, combined with certain observations, supplies evidence against local realism, which in physics at least is the idea that particles actually have certain definite intrinsic properties (location, momentum) even if we can’t accurately measure them.


  19. David,
    Fair enough. I agree with your contention that my statements lacked subtlety. I am used to having these sorts of conversations over a beer, where it is easier to elaborate on provacative comments.

    I am curious, though, as to whether you think there is any justification in saying there is more truth (yes I do think truth comes in shades of grey) in QM than in CM? I think they both are not completly true, however I think they are untrue in different manners.

    CM is demonstrably, falsifiably untrue via Bell’s Inequality. This is a relatively recent development as, if I recall correctly, those experiments were not run until the early 80’s. This is long after most people had given up on any hidden variable theories and most were working in the QM paradigm.

    QM is incomplete and contradicts relativity. These facts show that it is still a work in progress, but they do not falsify QM as has been done with CM. I still hold that, in principle, QM in some form could explain all physical phenomena (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it ever will!). My sloppy word choice didn’t make this clear and like most philosophy this boils down to semantics. I find it interesting how I have switched from right/wrong to true/false. Next time I comment on this blog I’ll be much more aware! This is/has been a wonderful discussion and I am very curious to know what you think of the above statements.

    Matt K,
    I am not going to say I ascribe to anti-realism just yet, but I think I could, with some caveats, buy into it. I remember being not partial to it when I was first exposed to it, but that was a while back and thoughts change.

    My “Theologial Anti-realism” is personal and heterodox. Although a Christian, the ideas of salvation and the afterlife are not important to me. I feel like my actions in this world are motivated by the fact that I only have threescore and ten years in this life. Moving on to another (after)life would require such a shift in “being” that I have no idea what relation the “Chip of Now” would have to the “Chip of Then.” The concept of heaven is nonsensical to me. Personally I would find it just as comforting to cease to exist as to go to heaven, since I think heaven would require just as radical an alteration of my ego. Salvation isn’t worth fretting about. I don’t think God is willful, but even if He/She were we have no way of discerning what His/Her will might be. Wow, really off topic. . .

    Thanks for the criticism guys!

  20. Chip,

    I confess some ignorance of the details of “Bell’s Inequality.” I last took quantum courses as an undergrad 16 years ago, and I only know of Bell’s Inequality from John Gribbin’s nontechnical book “Schroedinger’s Kittens” (which is delightful, by the way), so I can’t write knowledgably about its relationship to classical mechanics. I beg you not to go into it though (we’re already deep in the weeds of a different, if interesting, conversation). We can save that for another time. What I want to say is this.

    First, consider the impact of writing that C.M. is “wrong” or “untrue” because it makes predictions which, evidently via Bell, Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen, are falsified. The Ptolemaic model of the Universe, with its circular orbits and network of epicycles, also made predictions which were falsified, so it too would be “wrong” and “untrue”. But this, by itself, places C.M. in the same category as Ptolemy’s Universe, which really is unfair to C.M. C.M. is simple and unchanging, yet is fantastically good at accounting for a vast array of phenomena. The theory of epicycles was complex, demanded frequent tuning, and in the end was fantastically bad at accounting for even a narrow range of phenomena. So, to answer your question, I would say it’s more useful and more illuminating, not to say that there’s more “truth” in Q.M. than in C.M., but rather that Q.M. is more successful at accounting for observations than is C.M. Oh, and that epicycles blow.

    Second, suppose I grant that Q.M. has made no prediction which ever has been falsified, while also granting that Bell+EPR “falsify” C.M. It’s possible this difference is due to a qualitative and fundamental difference between Q.M. and C.M., that the former is “untrue” while the latter is “true”. Is it not also possible that this difference is temporary, that some new observation or some new brilliant deduction (or some combination of the two) will someday reveal a defect in Q.M.?

    Third (and related to the second), suppose I again grant that Q.M. never has made a false step, and suppose it never does. Does that exclude the possibility that other, different models could not be constructed, which account for the same observations and also never makes a false step? Suppose that unlike its (fictitious) rival, Q.M. is the real McCoy, that more than being a model of reality, it IS reality. Given that no observation could distinguish the two (that’s a given, because it’s one of my premises), how would anyone demonstrate that Q.M. is “true”?

    Just some thoughts, while I avoid doing work… 🙂

    Again, thanks for the stimulating discussion, Chip.


  21. P.S. I accidentally transposed “true” and “untrue” in the 2nd sentence of the 3rd paragraph.

  22. Dear David:

    You wrote:

    >I’m unfamiliar with the term “anti-realism.” Is it a term used among scientists, or is it a term used by philosophers when discussing scientists? I don’t know if it’s related, but “Bell’s Inequality”, which Chip mentioned, combined with certain observations, supplies evidence against local realism, which in physics at least is the idea that particles actually have certain definite intrinsic properties (location, momentum) even if we can’t accurately measure them.

    I doubt that would be a term used among scientists. “Anti-realism” denotes any of the myriad thousands of views in the philosophy of science (and in philosophy in general) that deny our statements about the world (and the theories constructed with them and so forth) really tell us anything about the world. To put it crudely, the statements are only about other statements. This ought not to be taken to mean that anti-realists deny the value of science, they just recast the truth conditions of scientific claims.

    But perhaps Matt K might have more intelligible things to say about “anti-realism.”

  23. David,
    I love Gribbon, I recommend him to my non-technical friends. I read over the wikipedia article on Bell’s inequality and it is more accurate than I could ever be. Suffice it to say that EPR and Bell’s Inequality are intimately related.

    1. I agree with the general thrust of your first point. I like the language of truth because of its impact. It is a harsh assessment of CM to put it in the same category as Ptolemaic theory or phlogiston, however CM does share some qualities with these theories that, as of yet, QM does not. The language of truth helps capture this fact, although it does not capture the wonderful utility of CM or CM and QM’s bastard child semi-classical mechanics.

    2. Yes, and I put the chances of that happening close to 100 percent. However I don’t think there will be a paradigm shift on the order of Planck’s. I very well might not be justified in believing that.

    3. You couldn’t. Any set of data underdetermines an explanation. One data set can lead to multiple theories. Thats why we make recourse to Occam’s Razor or aesthetics to evaluate theories. The possibility of QM or one of its descendents to explain “all” physical phenomena seperates it from CM.

    Get to work! I think we’ll end up flogging a dead horse if we go any further.

  24. Chip,

    What’s your occupation, if I may ask? Are you a scientist?


  25. David,
    I am a grad student in chemistry. My research is physical chemistry so I work with QM a fair amount. I’ve been running experiments for the past two days so I’ve had plenty of down time to respond as we acquire data, hence the long winded posts.

  26. I quote Eddie Broquell (please forgive the spelling)….
    “Philosophey….is a walk on the slippery rocks
    Religion ….is a smile on a dog”
    Prove to me that the world I precieve is not a construct of my own conciencesness. The rest is banter.

  27. “Prove to me that the world I precieve is not a construct of my own conciencesness.”

    If everyone’s perception of something is the same then one may conclude that that something is not simply the result of your (or any one person’s) consciousness.

    Unless, of course, all the people you percieve are a construct of your consciousness.

  28. For reference, her name is spelled Edie Brickell…
    As for my take on this whole thread….I take the side of Albert Einstein…
    The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature.  For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exist as an independent cause of natural events.  To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with the natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.  But I am persuaded that such behavior on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal.  For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress….
    If it is one of the goals of religions to liberate mankind as far as possible from the bondage of egocentric cravings, desires, and fears, scientific reasoning can aid religion in another sense.  Although it is true that it is the goal of science to discover [the] rules which permit the association and foretelling of facts, this is not its only aim.  It also seeks to reduce the connections discovered to the smallest possible number of mutually independent conceptual elements.  It is in this striving after the rational unification of the manifold that it encounters its greatest successes, even though it is precisely this attempt which causes it to run the greatest risk of falling prey to illusion.  But whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain is moved by the profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence.  By way of the understanding he achieves a far reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason, incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man.  This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life.
    Albert Einstein, Science, Philosophy, and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941

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