[Until I am fully recovered from vacation and get myself blogging again here shortly, I am re-posting this article from 2011 after reading “How Science Goes Wrong” in a recent issue of The Economist. I am re-posting it because as the New Atheist gains ever more ground, what these so-called rationalists will not admit is that science and rationality is not on much firmer ground than theism. This bothers me because I see such atheists becoming as arrogant and belligerent as the people, theists, who once and sometimes still harass them. I do not believe two wrongs make a right. Thus, I present the dark side of the Philosophy of Science.]
Controversy (in Philosophy of Science) by [author unknown] 2011
If argument is to provide sufficient reasons for accepting or rejecting a claim, then why is disagreement possible?
Agreement is valued everywhere: it sounds friendlier and builds communities of like-minded individuals. Valuing unanimity, we may accept tradition without asking too many questions. Agreement is easy, and invites acceptance of ideas without much thought, whereas disagreement is criticism, involving a great deal of creativity and willingness to go against the grain, and more often than not produces conflict. Kuhn advocated agreement in his ‘normal science’, knowing that science and a measure of dogmatism occur naturally: there are far worse traditions than science. There is an alternative to this admittedly irrationalist solution, namely a rational justification: as Bacon said, by far the best proof is experience. The problem then becomes how does experience justify theory?
This formulation of the problem of justification is problematic itself, for our justifications are always insufficient: in arguments, the dissenter objects to an assumed premise, stirring up controversy all over again. And how can one object to the dissenter? By appealing to the assumed premise? I think not. For instance, after agreeing on the nature of our collective experience, how does this then justify any theory over another? There are too many problems left: the problem of induction, underdetermination, etc., and there are many competing solutions.
After a group of scientists agree on a set of experiences, any theory with a logical content that is equal to or lesser than the logical content of the set of experiences already known is, to put it mildly, uninteresting to scientists. Therefore, the group of scientists ought to find some kind of interesting theory, one that transcends experience. And yet, any theory with a logical content greater than the logical content of the set of experiences must then necessarily not follow deductively from this set; therefore, even though it may be the case that experience may indicate that some theories, to use Van Fraassen’s phrase, are presently empirically inadequate, experience by itself cannot justify a theory if its logical content transcends present experience. It is trivially true that an infinite number of theories are also presently empirically adequate, for they need only have logical consequences that agree with present experience. Therefore, our experiences cannot single out one theory as true without the help of scientists employing some sort of method that improves on the early empiricists. This, of course, does not bring up the frequent event of someone disagreeing with a single observation report.
For instance, a scientist might object to an outcome of a crucial experiment: if the outcome of a crucial experiment and a theory contradict one another, then the outcome of the crucial experiment cannot compel a scientist to reject a theory and the theory cannot compel a scientist to reject the outcome of a crucial experiment. Experience and theory both suffer under the problem of meta-underdetermination: either the experience or the theory is wrong–or both. In other words, why should the scientist assume the meta-theory (M1) that experience is a reliable way to sort out true from false theories and not assume the meta-theory (M2) that theory is a reliable way to sort out true from false experience? All that can be determined is that the two contradict one another; however, even this may not be the case, for experience is theory-laden. Furthermore, experience and a theory that appear to contradict one another may in fact exist coherently if an auxiliary hypothesis is adopted, calling their very incompatibility into question. Therefore, argument does not, and cannot, compel one to accept a proposal, at least not in its original sense. One solution is to modify the role of argument so that it is now designed to provide insufficient, but compelling reasons. This modification has weakened the role of argument: why one finds the subjective state of certitude of merit after it has ceased to guarantee the truth, I cannot say.
The new problem is as follows: when two people mutually agree on all premises, there is no controversy. Yet, all that we have established is agreement, not the truth of the premises. From here, we are once again forced to deal with Fries’ Trilemma...
Theory Parker notes: How do we know any of our reasoning is faultless? How do we know the conclusions we make from inferences are correct? Example: We hold a ball in our hand and then let go of it. It falls to the ground. We do this over and over again. The ball falls to the ground every time. Is it reasonable to conclude that – based upon all the previous instances – that the next time we let go of the ball it will fall to the ground? David Hume might object on the grounds of The Problem of Induction, though he did say our assumptions in such cases are useful (or if you prefer, practical). But HOW do we arrive at the conclusion that the ball will fall, by the memory of our previous experiences? Memories are faulty which is why I suppose we record results. But, at what point do we start drawing inferences from our data? At what point does reasoning begin? Mustn’t reasoning begin from doubt; that is, mustn’t we figure what we cannot doubt first before moving forward? This is exactly what Descartes attempted and failed to do (which he either did not recognize or failed to publicize for obvious reasons). Although we do not doubt many things for the sake of practicality, that does not mean there is anything that is beyond doubt. If everything can be doubted, it seems there should actually be less disagreement – or less anger over disagreements – in the world as we all agree there is nothing that can actually be agreed upon! If everyone were to assume this as a metaphysical truism…wait, we cannot do this because such a truism is susceptible to doubt. Perhaps reasoning isn’t the end-all philosophers wish it to be.