Tag Archive: explanation

Explanatory reductionism

This reductionist idea is interesting and important; and whenever we can explain entities and events on a higher level by those of a lower level, we can speak of a great scientific success, and can say that we have added much to our understanding of the higher level. As a research programme, reductionism is not only important, but it is part of the programme of science whose aim is to explain and to understand.

However, do we really have good reasons to hope that a reduction the the lowest level will be achieved? [18]

The rationality principle

To say that someone did something because he is a madman is to confess that we cannot really explain it at all. This is the fundamental insight, and the methodological point, behind the rationality principle.

The rationality principle is not the empirical hypothesis that each person acts adequately to the situation. That hypothesis is clearly false. It is, on the contrary, a methodological principle that places restrictions on what will and will not count as a rational explanation. It says that if we want to explain a social event rationally, then we must assume that the people in it acted adequately to the situation, or, at the very least, that they acted adequately to the situation as they saw it. [405]

The thousand-fold experience of induction

I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifi­cations of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ‘un-analyzed’ and crying out for treatment.

The most characteristic element in this situation seemed to me the incessant stream of confirmations, of observations which ‘verified’ the theories in question; and this point was constantly emphasize by their adherents. A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation—which revealed the class bias of the paper—and especially of course what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their ‘clinical observa­tions’. As for Adler, I was much impressed by a personal experience. Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analyzing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. ‘Because of my thousandfold experience’, he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: ‘And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold.’ [45-6]

The social character of scientific method

The sociology of knowledge is not only self-destructive, not only a rather gratifying object of socio-analysis, it also shows an astounding failure to understand precisely its main subject, the social aspects of knowledge, or rather, of scientific method. It looks upon science or knowledge as a process in the mind or ‘consciousness’ of the individual scientist, or perhaps as the product of such a process If considered in this way, what we call scientific objectivity must indeed become completely ununderstandable, or even impossible; and not only in the social or political sciences, where class interests and similar hidden motives may play a part, but just as much in the natural sciences. Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring. If scientific objectivity were founded, as the sociologistic theory of knowledge naively assumes, upon the individual scientist’s impartiality or objectivity, then we should have to say good-bye to it. Indeed, we must be in away more radically sceptical than the sociology of knowledge; for there is no doubt that we are all suffering under our own system of prejudices (or ‘total ideologies’, if this term is preferred); that we all take many things as self-evident, that we accept them uncritically and even with the naive and cocksure belief that criticism is quite unnecessary; and scientists are no exception to this rule, even though they may have superficially purged themselves from some of their prejudices in their particular field. But they have not purged themselves by socio-analysis or any similar method; they have not attempted to climb to a higher plane from which they can understand, socio-analyse, and expurgate their ideological follies. For by making their minds more ‘objective’ they could not possibly attain to what we call ‘scientific objectivity’. No, what we usually mean by this term rests on different grounds. It is a matter of scientific method. And, ironically enough, objectivity is closely bound up with the social aspect of scientific method, with the fact that science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method. But this social aspect of science is almost entirely neglected by those who call themselves sociologists of knowledge.

Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and com­petitors; rather it challenges them: they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes. (I may remind the reader that I am speaking of the natural sciences, but a part of modern economics may be included.) They try very seriously to speak one and the same language, even if they use different mother tongues. In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it. In order to avoid speaking at cross-purposes, scientists try to express their theories in such a form that they can be tested, i.e. refuted (or else corroborated) by such experience.

This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself. In spite of this, there will always be some who come to judgements which are partial, or even cranky. This cannot be helped, and it does not seriously disturb the working of the various social institutions which have been designed to further scientific objectivity and criticism; for instance the laboratories, the scientific periodicals, the congresses. This aspect of scientific method shows what can be achieved by institutions designed to make public control possible, and by the open expression of public opinion, even if this is limited to a circle of specialists. Only political power, when it is used to suppress free criticism, or when it fails to protect it, can impair the functioning of these institutions, on which all progress, scientific, technological, and political, ultimately depends.

In order to elucidate further still this sadly neglected aspect of scientific method, we may consider the idea that it is advisable to characterize science by its methods rather than by its results.

Let us first assume that a clairvoyant produces a book by dreaming it, or perhaps by automatic writing. Let us assume, further, that years later as a result of recent and revolutionary scientific discoveries, a great scientist (who has never seen that book) produces one precisely the same. Or to put it differently, we assume that the clairvoyant ‘saw’ a scien­tific book which could not then have been produced by a scientist owing to the fact that many relevant discoveries were still unknown at that date. We now ask: is it advisable to say that the clairvoyant produced a scientific book? We may assume that, if submitted at the time to the judgement of competent scientists, it would have been described as partly ununderstandable, and partly fantastic; thus we shall have to say that the clairvoyant’s book was not when written a scientific work, since it was not the result of scientific method. I shall call such a result, which, though in agreement with some scientific results, is not the product of scientific method, a piece of ‘revealed sicence’.

In order to apply these considerations to the problem of the publicity of scientific method, let us assume that Robinson Crusoe succeeded in building on his island physical and chemical laboratories, astronomical observatories, etc., and in writing a great number of papers, based throughout on observation and experiment. Let us even assume that he had unlimited time at his disposal, and that he succeeded in constructing and in describing scientific systems which actually coincide with the results accepted at present by our own scientists. Considering the character of this Crusonian science, some people will be inclined, at first sight, to assert that it is real science and not ‘revealed science’. And, no doubt, it is very much more like science than the scientific book which was revealed to the clairvoyant, for Robinson Crusoe applied a good deal of scientific method. And yet, I assert that this Crusonian science is still of the ‘revealed’ kind; that there is an element of scientific method missing, and consequently, that the fact that Crusoe arrived at our results is nearly as accidental and miraculous as it was in the case of the clairvoyant. For there is nobody but himself to check his results; nobody but himself to correct those prejudices which are the unavoidable consequence of his pecu­liar mental history; nobody to help him to get rid of that strange blindness concerning the inherent possibilities of our own results which is a consequence of the fact that most of them are reached through comparatively irrelevant approaches. And concerning his scientific papers it is only in attempts to explain one’s work to somebody who has not done it that we can acquire those standards of clear and reasoned communication which too are part of scientific method. In one point—a comparatively unimportant one—is the ‘revealed’ character of the Crusonian science particu­larly obvious; I mean Crusoe’s discovery of his ‘personal equation’ (for we must assume that he made this discovery), of the characteristic personal reaction-time affecting his astronomical observations. Of course it is conceivable that he discovered, say, changes in his reaction-time, and that he was led, in this way, to make allowances for it. But if we com­pare this way of finding out about reaction-times, and the way in which it was discovered in ‘public’ science—through the contradiction between the results of various observers—then the ‘revealed’ character of Robinson Crusoe’s science becomes manifest.

To sum up these considerations, it may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science. [ch. 23, 488-92]

Decision-making: choosing explanations

To choose an option, rationally, is to choose the associated explanation. Therefore, rational decision-making consists not of weighing evidence but of explaining it, in the course of explaining the world. One judges arguments as explan­ations, not justifications, and one does this creatively, using conjecture, tempered by every kind of criticism. It is in the nature of good explanations – being hard to vary – that there is only one of them. Having created it, one is no longer tempted by the alternatives. They have been not outweighed, but out-argued, refuted and abandoned. During the course of a creative process, one is not struggling to distinguish between countless different explanations of nearly equal merit; typically, one is struggling to create even one good explanation, and, having succeeded, one is glad to be rid of the rest. [341]

Measurement in science

[I]n genuine science, one can claim to have measured a quantity only when one has an explanatory theory of how and why the measurement procedure should reveal its value, and with what accuracy. [317]

Probability and justificationism

Since explanationless prediction is actually impossible, the methodology of excluding explanation from a science is just a way of holding one’s explanations immune from criticism. [316]

Proof theory is computer science

So, a computation or a proof is a physical process in which objects such as computers or brains physically model or instantiate abstract entities like numbers or equations, and mimic their properties. It is our window on the abstract. It works because we use such entities only in situations where we have good explanations saying that the relevant physical variables in those objects do indeed instantiate those abstract properties.

Consequently, the reliability of our knowledge of mathematics remains for ever subsidiary to that of our knowledge of physical reality. Every mathematical proof depends absolutely for its validity on our being right about the rules that govern the behaviour of some physical objects, like computers, or ink and paper, or brains. So, contrary to what Hilbert thought, and contrary to what most mathematicians since antiquity have believed and believe to this day, proof theory can never be made into a branch of mathematics. Proof theory is a science: specifically, it is computer science.

The whole motivation for seeking a perfectly secure foundation for mathematics was mistaken. It was a form of justifi­cationism. Mathematics is characterized by its use of proofs in the same way that science is characterized by its use of experimental testing; in neither case is that the object of the exercise. The object of mathematics is to understand – to explain – abstract entities. Proof is primarily a means of ruling out false explanations; and sometimes it also provides mathematical truths that need to be explained. But, like all fields in which progress is possible, mathematics seeks not random truths but good explanations. [188-9]

On the is–ought canard

Certainly you can’t derive an ought from an is, but you can’t derive a factual theory from an is either. That is not what science does. The growth of knowledge does not consist of finding ways to justify one’s beliefs. It consists of finding good explanations. And, although factual evidence and moral maxims are logically independent, factual and moral explanations are not. Thus factual knowledge can be useful in criticizing moral explanations. [120]

Don’t panic!

Nor will we ever run out of problems. The deeper an explanation is, the more new problems it creates. That must be so, if only because there can be no such thing as an ultimate explanation: just as ‘the gods did it’ is always a bad explan­ation, so any other purported foundation of all explanations must be bad too. It must be easily variable because it cannot answer the question: why that foundation and not another? Nothing can be explained only in terms of itself. That holds for philosophy just as it does for science, and in particular it holds for moral philosophy: no utopia is possible, but only because our values and our objectives can continue to improve indefinitely.

Thus fallibilism alone rather understates the error-prone nature of knowledge­-creation. Knowledge-creation is not only subject to error: errors are common, and significant, and always will be, and correcting them will always reveal further and better problems. And so the maxim that I suggested should be carved in stone, namely ‘The Earth’s biosphere is incapable of supporting human life’, is actually a special case of a much more general truth, namely that, for people, problems are inevitable. So let us carve that in stone: PROBLEMS ARE INEVITABLE.

It is inevitable that we face problems, but no particular problem is inevitable. We survive, and thrive, by solving each problem as it comes up. And, since the human ability to transform nature is limited only by the laws of physics, none of the endless stream of problems will ever constitute an impassable barrier. So a complementary and equally important truth about people and the physical world is that problems are soluble. By ‘soluble’ I mean that the right knowledge would solve them. It is not, of course, that we can possess knowledge just by wishing for it; but it is in principle accessible to us. So let us carve that in stone too: PROBLEMS ARE SOLUBLE.

That progress is both possible and desirable is perhaps the quintessential idea of the Enlightenment. It motivates all traditions of criticism, as well as the principle of seeking good explanations. But it can be interpreted in two almost opposite ways, both of which, confusingly, are known as ‘perfectibility’. One is that humans, or human societies, are capable of attaining a state of supposed perfection – such as the Buddhist or Hindu ‘nirvana’, or various political utopias. The other is that every attainable state can be indefinitely improved. Fallibilism rules out that first position in favour of the second. Neither the human condition in particular nor our explanatory knowledge in general will ever be perfect, nor even approximately perfect. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity. [64-5]

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