Tag Archive: evidence

Ever since Galileo

I have described Galileo’s new conception of our relationship with external reality as a great methodological discovery. It gave us a new, reliable form of reasoning involving observational evidence. That is indeed one aspect of his dis­covery: scientific reasoning is reliable, not in the sense that it certifies that any particular theory will survive unchanged, even until tomorrow, but in the sense that we are right to rely on it. For we are right to seek solutions to problems rather than sources of ultimate justification. Observational evidence is indeed evidence, not in the sense that any theory can be deduced, induced or in any other way inferred from it, but in the sense that it can constitute a genuine reason for preferring one theory to another.

But there is another side to Galileo’s discovery which is much less often appreciated. The reliability of scientific reason­ing is not just an attribute of us: of our knowledge and our relationship with reality. It is also a new fact about physical reality itself, a fact which Galileo expressed in the phrase ‘the Book of Nature is written in mathematical symbols’. As I have said, it is impossible literally to ‘read’ any shred of a theory in nature: that is the inductivist mistake. But what is genuinely out there is evidence, or, more precisely, a reality that will respond with evidence if we interact appropriately with it. Given a shred of a theory, or rather, shreds of several rival theories, the evidence is available out there to enable us to distinguish between them. Anyone can search for it, find it and improve upon it if they take the trouble. They do not need authorization, or initiation, or holy texts. They need only be looking in the right way – with fertile problems and promising theories in mind. This open accessibility, not only of evidence but of the whole mechanism of knowledge acquisition, is a key attribute of Galileo’s conception of reality. [94]

The dragon delusion

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. [171]