Tag Archive: fact

Freedom: making decisions for which we are responsible

Nature consists of facts and of regularities, and is in itself neither moral nor immoral. It is we who impose our standards upon nature, and who in this way introduce morals into the natural world, in spite of the fact that we are part of this world. We are products of nature, but nature has made us together with our power of altering the world, of foreseeing and of planning for the future, and of making far-reaching decisions for which we are morally responsible. Yet respon­sibility, decisions, enter the world of nature only with us. [ch. 5, 67]

The ‘scientism’ smear

The charge levelled at the New Godless is that, with their rigorous reasoning, testing and experimentation, they are making a religion out of the scientific method. “It’s an all-purpose, wild-card smear,” retorts Dennett. “It’s the last refuge of the sceptic. When someone puts forward a scientific theory that they really don’t like, they just try to discredit it as ‘scientism’. But when it comes to facts, and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town.”

Science and truth

There is … an infinite number of true statements about the world that no empirical science would ever, or should ever, take notice [of]. [403]

The foundations of ‘truth’

There are three points to observe in the attempt to discover the nature of truth, three requisites which any theory must fulfil.

(1) Our theory of truth must be such as to admit of its opposite, falsehood. A good many philosophers have failed adequately to satisfy this condition: they have constructed theories according to which all our thinking ought to have been true, and have then had the greatest difficulty in finding a place for falsehood. In this respect our theory of belief must differ from our theory of acquaintance, since in the case of acquaintance it was not necessary to take account of any opposite.

(2) It seems fairly evident that if there were no beliefs there could be no falsehood, and no truth either, in the sense in which truth is correlative to falsehood. If we imagine a world of mere matter, there would be no room for falsehood in such a world, and although it would contain what may be called ‘facts’, it would not contain any truths, in the sense in which truths are things of the same kind as falsehoods. In fact, truth and falsehood are properties of beliefs and statements: hence a world of mere matter, since it would contain no beliefs or statements, would also contain no truth or falsehood.

(3) But, as against what we have just said, it is to be observed that the truth or falsehood of a belief always depends upon something which lies outside the belief itself. If I believe that Charles I died on the scaffold, I believe truly, not because of any intrinsic quality of my belief, which could be discovered by merely examining the belief, but because of an historical event which happened two and a half centuries ago. If I believe that Charles I died in his bed, I believe falsely: no degree of vividness in my belief, or of care in arriving at it, prevents it from being false, again because of what happened long ago, and not because of any intrinsic property of my belief. Hence, although truth and falsehood are properties of beliefs, they are properties dependent upon the relations of the beliefs to other things, not upon any internal quality of the beliefs. [87-8]

The testability of facts

Higher level empirical statements have always the character of hypotheses relative to the lower level statements de­ducible from them: they can be falsified by the falsification of these less universal statements. But in any hypothetical deductive system, these less universal statements are themselves still strictly universal statements, in the sense here understood. Thus they too must have the character of hypotheses—a fact which has often been overlooked in the case of lower-level universal statements.

I shall say even of some singular statements that they are hypothetical, seeing that conclusions may be derived from them (with the help of a theoretical system) such that the falsification of these conclusions may falsify the singular statements in question. [55]

The problem of the empirical basis

[I]n the practice of scientific research, demarcation is sometimes of immediate urgency in connection with theoretical systems, whereas in connection with singular statements, doubt as to their empirical character rarely arises. It is true that errors of observation occur and that they give rise to false singular statements, but the scientist scarcely ever has occasion to describe a singular statement as non-empirical or metaphysical. [21]

Science is a way of thinking

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. Its goal is to find out how the world works, to seek what regularities there may be, to penetrate the connections of things—from subnuclear particles, which may be the constituents of all matter, to living organisms, the human social community, and thence to the cosmos as a whole. Our intuition is by no means an infallible guide. Our perceptions may be distorted by training and prejudice or merely because of the limitations of our sense organs, which, of course, perceive directly but a small fraction of the phenomena of the world. Even so straightforward a question as whether in the absence of friction a pound of lead falls faster than a gram of fluff was answered incorrectly by Aristotle and almost everyone else before the time of Galileo. Science is based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is. Accordingly, science sometimes requires courage—at the very least the courage to question the conventional wisdom.

Beyond this the main trick of science is to really think of something: the shape of clouds and their occasional sharp bottom edges at the same altitude everywhere in the sky; the formation of the dewdrop on a leaf; the origin of a name or a word—Shakespeare, say, or “philanthropic”; the reason for human social customs—the incest taboo, for example; how it is that a lens in sunlight can make paper burn; how a “walking stick” got to look so much like a twig; why the Moon seems to follow us as we walk; what prevents us from digging a hole down to the center of the Earth; what the definition is of “down” on a spherical Earth; how it is possible for the body to convert yesterday’s lunch into today’s muscle and sinew; or how far is up—does the universe go on forever, or if it does not, is there any meaning to the question of what lies on the other side? Some of these questions are pretty easy. Others, especially the last, are mys­teries to which no one even today knows the answer. They are natural questions to ask. Every culture has posed such questions in one way or another. Almost always the proposed answers are in the nature of “Just So Stories,” attempted explanations divorced from experiment, or even from careful comparative observations.

But the scientific cast of mind examines the world critically as if many alternative worlds might exist, as if other things might be here which are not. Then we are forced to ask why what we see is present and not something else. Why are the Sun and the Moon and the planets spheres? Why not pyramids, or cubes, or dodecahedra? Why not irregular, jumbly shapes? Why so symmetrical worlds? If you spend any time spinning hypotheses, checking to see whether they make sense, whether they conform to what else we know, thinking of tests you can pose to substantiate or deflate your hypotheses, you will find yourself doing science. And as you come to practice this habit of thought more and more you will get better and better at it. To penetrate into the heart of the thing—even a little thing, a blade of grass, as Walt Whitman said—is to experience a kind of exhilaration that, it may be, only human beings of all the beings on this planet can feel. We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy. [15]

Facts do not a science make

Even a science is not merely a ‘body of facts’. It is, at the very least, a collection, and as such it is dependent upon the collector’s interests, upon a point of view. In science, this point of view is usually determined by a scientific theory; that is to say, we select from the infinite variety of facts, and from the infinite variety of aspects of facts, those facts and those aspects which are interesting because they are connected with some more or less preconceived scientific theory. [ch. 25, 535-6]

The continuum of philosophy and science

Wo aber heute noch Erkenntnistheorie im alten Sinne auftaucht – zum Beispiel in analytischer Maskerade –, da sucht sie sich oft scharf von den Realwissenschaften abzugrenzen, und zwar mit dem Hinweis, daß sie im Gegensatz zu die­sen Sinn- und Geltungsprobleme behandle, während diese es nur mit Tatsachenproblemen zu tun hätten. Im Grunde genommen hat sich hier die auf Hume und Kant zurückgehende scharfe Scheidung von quaestio juris und quaestio facti, deren Berechtigung ich hier keineswegs bestreiten will, in eine Bereichsabgrenzung zwischen reiner Philosophie und Realwissenschaft umgesetzt, die die Möglichkeit einer sauberen Arbeitsteilung suggeriert, aber es mitunter schwer macht, wichtige Zusammenhänge zu erkennen. [8]

Gould on fact and theory

Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of in­creasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” does not mean “absolute certainty.” The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms. [254-5]

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