Friday, May 29, 2020

Believing Everything Or Nothing

As we have possibly seen so far (and the examples can be multiplied, of course) truth is a difficult, although not impossible, thing to seek. Truth is probably more elusive than science would have us believe, but hopefully is less elusive that some of the extreme versions of postmodernism that exist would have us think.

In the previous posts we have travelled a long way in one sense, but not very far in another. We have suggested, for example, that science does not lead us towards the truth particularly more than any other subject, because the truthfulness of science, or at least physics, depends on an arbitrary metaphysical truth that, say, forces used in calculation are ‘real’. While this is generally accepted to be the case, we have to concede that it is not necessarily so.

Another approach, which appeals to some minds, is to doubt everything. The master of this was Descartes, who doubted everything and anything until he came to something he could not doubt. The presentations of his senses, famously, were doubted, as he could be a brain in a vat and the sensations could be being fed to him by an evil demon for its own amusement. Memory also plays us false, as we know. It is well known that Descartes came up with the idea that what could not be doubted was the fact of his thinking ‘I think therefore I am’.

This expression (or its Latin form: cogito ergo sum) has resonated down the philosophical centuries. Some have accepted it, some rejected it, and some tried to modify it. Hence we can find criticisms that Descartes, in fact, assumed too much. Perhaps, it is suggested, Descartes could only say ‘There is thinking going on’ – the cogito assumes the identity of the thinker. Again, perhaps, as someone once suggested to me, he lacked enough doubt, and should have said ‘I think I think, therefore I think I am, I think’. But maybe we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope here.

The physical sciences rather follow Descartes’ method. Nothing is accepted except what can be shown to be the case. Reductionism (for that is what the physical sciences do) aims to reduce things to their components, understand them and then reconstruct the original, more complex structure. It sort of works; we can try to understand an electron in free space, and then an electron in an atom. The two in fact behave very differently, and so reductionism only sort of works. But we can proceed to atoms as a whole, molecules and hence organisms. At each level, however, extra phenomena occur which cannot be explained by the components of that level alone. Hence biology is biology and not a branch of chemistry; chemistry is chemistry and not a branch of physics.

The other issue with Descartes is that we do not actually strip most things down to their essentials, or to things we cannot doubt. As children we learn from the things we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste and so on. We do not doubt what is presented to our senses and work on how they fit together – that which glows is hot for example, or that knives are sharp and can hurt. Reductionism only takes us so far.

The other end of the telescope to peer down is perhaps best described by Newman: ‘I would rather have to maintain that we ought to begin with believing everything that is offered tour senses, than it is our duty to doubt of everything’ (Newman, J. H., An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Assumption Press, 2013 [1870]) p. 246, or p. 377 in the original).Newman argues that believing everything until shown otherwise is the true way of learning – we discover the truth and discard errors along the way. Thus a child on a train might discover that when they stick their thumb in their mouth the lights go out as the train enters a tunnel. Repeated experiments may convince the child that the original observation was a coincidence.

Newman’s point is thus at the opposite end of seeking truth than Descartes’. Our senses are, on the whole reliable, according to Newman and we can arrive at decent understandings of that which is the case via them. Descartes disagrees: our senses, which can be unreliable, therefore cannot be relied upon and we have to find another basis for our beliefs and ability to live in the world. Descartes has to seek a ‘bridge’, a means of getting from the reliable ‘in here’ self to the real ‘out there’ world without using the senses. His answer, famously, is God who is ultimately reliable.

Newman’s point is, perhaps backed up by Plantinga who argues that there is an evolutionary reason why our senses are reliable. Our sensing of human-scale objects is, on the whole, reliable. After all, if early man had to consider the reliability of her senses before running away from the sabre-toothed tiger, they would probably have been a lot fewer early people around. Similarly, if we had to justify every memory of a large cat type creature with big teeth before recognising it as a sabre-toothed tiger and taking appropriate action, the tiger would have been far better fed. As Plantinga comments ‘Beliefs about where I was yesterday are ordinarily far more likely to be true than the latest high-powered scientific theories.’ (Plantinga, A., Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Nature, and Naturalism (Oxford: OUP, 2011), p. 313).

The point is this: at human scales, our senses, memories and so on are likely to be reliable, and we tend to assume they are (even Descartes ate and drank without too much interrogation) . If they prove not to be we are surprised and might seek a reason – a cleverly drawn picture, for example, is an optical illusion. When we spot the way it is drawn, we have an explanation. At the scales of the very big and very small or very complex (galaxies, atoms, the internal workings of organisms, for example) our senses prove to be inadequate and need augmenting. That is not the fault of our senses, because in day to day life the very big, very small and internal do not worry us particularly.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Postmodernism and Relativism

‘It is,’ some folk will say, ‘all relative.’ This is something to do with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, rather vaguely deriving from an almost equally amorphous movement in modern thought, postmodernity. The usual understanding of the postmodern is that there are no over-arching narratives which are valid. Thus, for example, the late Victorian idea of ‘progress’ is dismissed as imperialism, colonialism and anti-environmental industrialisation which exploited the poor, rather than raise them from poverty. The ideas of ‘progress’, ‘empire’, ‘improvement’ and so on become relativized, along the lines of ‘if it works for you then do it (or believe it)’.

There are a number of issues that arise here, more than could possibly be encompassed in a text of this nature, but let me have a go at starting, at least. Firstly, I think we need to separate postmodernity (or, if you prefer, ‘late modernity’) from pure relativism. Relativism is quite easy to show to be fallacious. There are, after all, plenty of counter-examples to the assertion that everything is relative: try driving your car along the wrong side of the road and see what your insurers, other motorists and the law enforcement officers think of your claim that it is all relative and therefore you were doing nothing wrong. Or consider adding two and two and making five, because the answer is relative and if you believe it strongly enough it will be true.

The silly examples, of course, are simply reflections that the world is not relative at all, and that that is not what postmodern means. The assertion of relativism, ‘it is all relative’ is in fact self-stultifying. If everything is relative, then the statement ‘it is all relative’ is also relative, and therefore is as groundless as the next statement. I may believe that it is all relative, but in fact, I believe that everything is relative except the proposition that ‘it is all relative’. Why should you, or I, or anyone, privilege that statement among all the others?

Pure relativism therefore, does not work and cannot work. Postmodernism, however, is a lot more complex and really does not affect our chances of being right or finding the truth. What, in this context at least, postmodernism does do is indicate that truth is a lot harder to find, a lot more difficult to be sure about, than we might once have thought as a society.

It is very easy to criticise historians of a previous age. They found a set of documents in an archive and read what they said and reported it as fact, or at least, as ‘what happened.’ They asked questions of their sources in what today might seem like a rather naïve manner. Of course, they asked questions from their own context, such as ‘How did Great Britain come to rule the world?’ This is not a question which would arise in our own context, where Great Britain clearly does not rule the world, but from the viewpoint of the 1930s, or 1900s or similar, the truth of the standpoint was more or less unquestionable.

Our context therefore does condition the questions we can ask and the answers we can found. Classical scholars, for example, have spent some effort in recovering ideas of homosexuality in the ancient world. This was not done before, even though works like Plato’s ‘Symposium’ were clearly known about. Homosexuality was, however, legally suppressed in many countries (in the UK until the 1950s, I think) and so no-one interrogated the sources with questions about homosexuality in mind.

In a similar vein, it is often reported that the Athenians, both male and female, exercised in the gymnasium naked. Now it may well be that I am naïve here, being no classical historian, but often it is reported with a degree of frisson, or at least as a note to get people interested in the Ancient Greeks. It was not until I (reluctantly) started to take some exercise that I realised what seems to be the true reason for nude gymnastics: Greece is a hot country, and exercise makes you sweat. Sweaty clothes smell. Therefore, if your culture and environment allow it, exercising naked saves washing clothes.  

Whether that is correct or not, it illustrates my point. The questions we can ask depend on our context. Without taking some exercise the point about sweaty clothes would not have occurred to me. Because my context changed, I could ask the question and find some sort of answer. The Greeks were not necessarily parading naked bodies around for fun, but to save effort. In that context, who can blame them?

In this sense, then, our view of the past is mediated by our present. We ask questions that our grandparents could not have done. We can read their answers to the questions they did ask, of course, and agree or disagree with their answers, but in doing so we ask questions of their context and understandings from our own. On this basis, we see the past through a complex of lenses, not ‘as it was’.

Physical science does not work like that. The questions asked are contextually driven, but the answers we obtain are not usually accepted to be driven by what we want to find out about. As Richard Feynman once observed ‘Nature cannot be fooled.’ We might want to travel to the furthest stars, but physics, at least as we know it, does not permit it. We might make discoveries about the physical world which might permit interstellar travel, but they will also encompass our current theories and experimental results about the universe.  Einstein’s relativity theories did not replace Newton’s laws; they encompass them as low energy approximations. Quantum mechanics did not replace dynamics, it encompasses it as what happens at large scales. You cannot negotiate with the laws of nature as you might be able to argue against a historical hypothesis.

Postmodernity then, in its less silly forms, is not opposed to us finding the truth, nor does it claim that truth is impossible to find. It simply observes that finding the truth is hard and contingent.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Berkeley’s Instrumentalism

One of the roles of philosophy is to clarify the concepts that are used in other subjects, as well as its own subject. Thus, when there is a breakthrough in, say, physics, there is usually a period of controversy as the new ideas sink in and are assimilated. Thus there were arguments over the ‘meaning’ of Newtonian mechanics, and similar discussions about the meaning of quantum mechanics.

Often philosophy follows quite carefully the ideas of the sciences. Philosophers, as I mentioned, usually see themselves as clearing away the intellectual clutter preventing or confusing ‘progress’. Not all philosophers, or physicists for that matter, follow the current scientific trends, however. A few are critical of new ideas, not because they are new, but because they do not make a lot of sense as originally put forward.

A case in point is George Berkeley (1685 – 1753). He is best known for an immaterialist philosophy (also known as ‘naïve idealism’), which no-one, I imagine, really believes today. However, he is interesting:

Virtually none of us are Berkeleian idealists but we love teaching Berkeley because he is a brilliant, mad Irishman who contrives wonderful arguments in support of (prima facie!) crazy conclusions. (Baber, H., The Trinity: A Philosophical Investigation (London: SCM, 2019), p. 5).

Berkeley, however, was also a critic of the new (for his day) Newtonian mechanics. In 1721 he published De Motu which, essentially (and as far as I understand it) has a go at the ideas of force, gravity, attraction, impetus and so on. It is important to understand that Berkeley was not guilty of the crime against progress which are often (wrongly) laid at the door of religious believers in general, that is dismissing something new because it is new, or because it does not fit with a particular set of religious doctrines. Berkeley’s objection is to these obscure ideas which seem to inhere in objects which are otherwise passive.

Berkeley does not dismiss Newtonian dynamics as false, of useless. He does not argue for a ‘better’ theory, one which removes these occult activities in bodies. What he does is question whether they are anything except useful calculational devices. That is, he has no objection to working out the trajectory of one billiard ball struck by another by means of resolving the forces on it onto a frame of reference and deducing the direction in which the second ball will move. What he does object to is the idea that these forces are in any sense real. They are calculation devices, to aid us in working out what is going to happen.

In this view, then, Berkeley is an instrumentalist. He views things like forces and attraction in gravity as a means of obtaining results, not as real objects in the world. He does have a point: try pointing to a force in the physical world. It always comes attached to a physical object and, if we did not simply accept that it existed, would be a weird concept which floated unattached in the world.

For Berkeley, a law of nature is a generalised principle, and explanation arises when phenomena follow the generalisations. Newton’s laws are therefore laws of nature because we can deduce from them regular phenomena which physical bodies experience – billiard balls bouncing off each other, for example. But the descriptive content of the laws are not, to Berkeley, important. What matters is the application of those laws, not how the results are calculated. We do not have to believe in forces, attractions, gravity and so on to use the laws and make predictions:

As for attraction, it is clear that this was employed by Newton, not as a true and physical quality, but only as a mathematical hypothesis. (De Motu section 17).

According to Berkeley, then, science aims at a sort of understanding of nature, a useful understanding, similar to that we obtain by studying the grammar of a language. Scientific laws are the grammar of phenomena, and we can use them to construct instances and cases in the real world. According to Berkeley, we go astray when we start to assign causes to physical objects. Causes, at least efficient causes, for Berkeley, should be assigned to incorporeal agents; in his case the agent is the Agent, God.

We do not have to buy into the whole or Berkeley’s metaphysics in order to get the point I am trying to make here. Nor is the point, in fact, about belief in God. Berkeley did believe in God – he became a bishop in the Church in Ireland – but that is not the point here. The point is that we do not have to believe that forces and so on are real, in the world, objects. They are, in Berkeley’s view, simply useful ideas to have around to calculate things with.

Whether you think that forces (etc.) are real or occult, however, is not something you can decide scientifically. Berkeley accepts the results of Newtonian dynamics, and, in fact, has no problems with the dynamics at all. He expresses scepticism about the existence of the concepts used to obtain the results but does not object to using the concepts to obtain the results. The results are the same whichever way you look at them. Newtonian realism or Berkeleian instrumentalism becomes a matter of choice, here. The calculations are the same, the mathematical derivations are the same and the experiments undertaken to verify the laws are the same.

I doubt there are many physicists or philosophers, or indeed anyone else, who would really doubt the existence of ‘real’ forces, but claims to experience forces do tend to drop away when you look at them in any detail. I may well feel the force of a wind, but that is because I am being bombarded by small particles at high velocity (and also pressure waves) and feel that. There is no ‘force of the wind’ per se. I feel a cumulative effect of it.

The fact is (and you might consider it a sad one, possibly, if you do not have a metaphysical bent) that when you drill down far enough, most scientific laws are grounded on a metaphysical choice, not on a set of hard facts. Some people would claim that the laws of physics are just brute facts about the universe, and they may be right. But such a claim is a metaphysical one, and cannot be proved from within science. Ultimately, the choice is a human one.

For more information (and with thanks to): Downing, L., 'Berkeley's Philosophy of Science', in Winkler, K. P. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), 230-265.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The History of Philosophy

It is one of the quirks of the history of philosophy that philosophical reflection has tended to get dragged along behind the sciences. Somehow, philosophy (or rather, philosophers) has been so entranced by the development of a particular science that they have believed that their own thinking or perhaps, the thinking of humanity in general, should proceed along similar lines.

The phenomenon is not new of course. Descartes was a mathematician as well as a philosopher and thought that philosophy should proceed mathematically. Famously (or perhaps infamously) Spinoza thought that ethics could be done geometrically. He was not, of course, daft enough to suppose that you could draw ethical diagrams and work out angles, but axioms and inferences are to be found in his work. Locke understood what he was doing as clearing away the undergrowth for natural philosophy – Newtonian science in his case – to prevail. Hume thought that he could reduce morals to a science, and so on down the line. The reputation of science for being a paradigm of human thought and clarity has a long history.

Other subjects have followed suit, of course. We have historical sciences, economic sciences, social sciences and so on, all trying possibly to accrue some of the impacts that the sciences, usually understood as the physical sciences, have on the world. People have said to me of their social science projects when I have shown them how to obtain a full set of data “That is more scientific”. I am still trying to work out what that means, but then I am not a social scientist.

Theology, of course, is not immune to this movement. Recently there has been a spate of concepts flying around to use some of the approaches of science to a method in theology – a scientific theology. This stuff is interesting, but it is a little difficult to see exactly how it helps. Theology, thinking about God, is not science, where science is thinking about things in the world.

It is possible that there is a link between the doing of science and the doing of other subjects. The people who consider that science is a paradigm of human thought have something of a point but not, perhaps, in quite the way they might have expected. The link is, of course, the human mind and brain. I do not want to get into the debate as to the difference or identity of the human brain and the human mind, but just to say that whatever it is, the same thing does the thinking behind science, history, theology and everything else. If (and it might be a sizeable if) the physical sciences give a paradigm of how we think, then we might be able to think a bit more clearly about other subjects.

To be fair to the philosophers I have mentioned above, and to everyone else who has trodden his path, I doubt if anyone was naïve enough to believe that the problems of philosophy could be solved by applying particular scientific or mathematical methods. It was the regularity, the testing, the clarity of thought and derivation that they were all after. We cannot clear away the undergrowth of thought without clarifying our understandings, our concepts and our knowledge of how we came to be here, in our current intellectual climate. Physical science, it is thought, does away with the fuzziness.

Unfortunately, my experience of doing physics is that in a research context at least, fuzziness is the norm. True, we attempt to work our way through things, to chop up the bits we do not understand into bits that we do and then reassemble them, but if things were easy or clear, there would be a lot less research around. Isaac Asimov once said the most powerful words in science are not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’, and he has a point. Scientists at least should be confident to say ‘I don’t know’, but that is often not how science and its progress are viewed.

The acclaim which scientific advances have accrued over the centuries have affected the self-confidence of other subjects. True, by comparison with mathematics and physics, the social sciences are new kids on the block, but, on the whole, most subjects are either cowed by scientific method or claim to use it for themselves. Interestingly, as a physicist, I do not remember ever having a lecture on ‘The Scientific Method’. The nearest I recall was a principle investigator calling a slightly naïve research student a clot for changing two variables in an experiment at a time and thus not being able to say which had caused the difference in the result. In other subjects it seems, research methods are widely taught.

The upshot of this accumulation of glamour to the physical sciences is that other subjects either retreat into themselves, arguing more and more over finer and finer points of nuance, or they subjugate themselves entirely to (mis-)understandings of science and what it can achieve. This is true of some trends in theology, where misreadings of relativity and (more often) quantum mechanics can lead to some very strange views about spirituality and truth claims. Fortunately, the mainstream of the subject has largely recovered from such weirdness, but they still happen (and, even more oddly, get published).

The physical sciences, however, are not quite as arrogant or all-conquering as views of them (or views put forward by some scientists) would have us believe. They may well be paradigms of how humans can think, intentionally, about a particular subject or problem. By this I mean that a lot of the things we do in science relate to problem-solving, from the simple (‘Where is the leak in my vacuum system?') to the more complex (‘How do I integrate this equation?’) and beyond; the most famous in modern physics would be Einstein’s wondering what it would be like to sit on a photon. But, as I have tried to suggest, this is not the whole arena of human thinking. We do not spend our entire time problem solving, even as working scientists. There is a lot more to life than science.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

All you touch and all you see...

Are all your life will ever be
(Roger Waters, ‘Breathe’, from Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, 1973).

The problem with empiricism and with logical positivism (or logical empiricism as some would have it called) is exactly the one referred to by Pink Floyd. According to empiricism, all we touch, and all we see, hear and smell is all there is. It is not possible for there to be anything else, and everything we think about is derived from these things. We start as a blank canvas, as new-borns, and that canvas is filled in by our senses and then our memory.

In fairness, there is a lot to say for this point of view. Much of what we do know comes about from the senses, enhanced, one way or another, by tools. An experiment in physics is really a way of looking at the world enhanced by a set of tools, usually called apparatus. Whether the world acts as it does when we look at it at other times in, strictly, a bit moot. Experience tends to suggest that it does – the sofa in the living room will still be there when I return in the evening, as it was this morning.

There is a great deal that empiricism cannot cover, of course. I have mentioned such speech-acts as ‘I will pay you back the money tomorrow’. This may or may not be true. Your decision as to whether it is a truthful speech-act is based, in the now, on a variety of factors such as my reputation, reliability, general honesty over the time you have known me and so on. You do not really know whether the speech-act is true until I arrive tomorrow brandishing the money. You might believe I will come, and that belief might be well-grounded, but you do not know.

There is a clear link between knowing something and believing something, and whether it is true, but they are not the same. As I mentioned, a definition of knowledge is that it is justified true belief. There are holes in this definition, but it passes for everyday use. To borrow an analogy from Alvin Plantinga (and to make it relevant to a more international readership) I may believe that Northampton Town will win the FA Cup next season. You, of course, knowing the relative position of the Cobblers in the league, their lack of money and so on, will not think that this counts as knowledge; it is simply an ungrounded wild hope.

Suppose, however, that by some freak of the draw, of the results and so on, Town does win the FA Cup. Does my initial claim at the beginning of the season now count as knowledge? Of course not; my initial claim just happens to have been true, it was not foreknowledge. The belief, as it turned out, was justified and true, in that the world worked that way. It could not have counted as knowledge. After the fact, the statement ‘Northampton Town won the FA Cup’ is knowledge, it is a true belief, justified, if nothing else, by the club’s name on the trophy.

Something clearly was missing from my initial claim even though it was a justified true belief. Plantinga calls the missing bit ‘warrant’. Warrant, in this argument, is the missing bit between a justified true belief and its being knowledge. I have no warrant for my claim that the Cobblers will win the FA Cup. After the event, of course, I do. Something changed, in this case, the events of Northampton winning all their cup matches.

Plantinga’s argument is, of course, a great deal more complex and subtle than this example. But his point remains: we believe things as being true even if we cannot claim them as knowledge in any conventional sense. Plantinga’s main aim is the Christian faith. He argues that we can know that God exists without having to prove it. There is no reason for someone to have to provide arguments for the existence of God if they believe that God exists. In the jargon, belief in God is properly basic in the sense that we believe that two plus two equals four, and in the sense that we don’t believe that 1764 is the square of 42 (because most of us would have to sit down and work it out, rather than immediately believe it to be true).

Similar sorts of issues pervade life, of course. Physicists believe that electrons exist even though we cannot see them. They just make a lot of sense out of disparate data. I have no a priori argument for the existence of electrons; I cannot produce an argument that they exist. I can produce a whole load of data which suggests that they do exist, that physics since the beginning of the Twentieth Century has not been suffering a massive delusion, but so far as I know there is no argument starting from nowhere which proves that electrons are necessary. In that sense, they might well be properly basic beliefs in physics.

Is a properly basic belief in electrons the same as a properly basic belief in God? Here, of course, it depends on what you might count as evidence. There is a lot of experimental evidence for electrons existing, even though, in fact, alternative explanations for it exists in the annals of the philosophy of science (for example, the electron is just an organising ‘jingle’ for humans, not a real object in the world). Similarly, people can adduce evidence for the existence of God. As Plantinga notes, whether you can it as evidence for the existence of God tends to depend on your ‘pre-philosophical commitments’, that is, whether you already believe in God or not.

Is the existence of the electron true? We believe, at least as Twenty-First Century physicists that it is. Will Northampton Town win the FA Cup next season? Unlikely but not impossible. Does God exist?

For Plantinga see, among others:
Plantinga, A. (1981) 'Is Belief in God Properly Basic?', Noûs, vol. 15, no. 1, pp 41-51.
Plantinga, A. (2000) Warranted Christian Belief, New York; Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...