How to think about science.

The physicist Arthur Zajonc provides us with his view of science that gives me hope for the future

Science can lead us away from reality into abstractions. It is too easy for the model to take over from the reality it is supposed to represent. The lived experience of the phenomenal world often takes a back seat. Zajonc gives us a couple of examples where the model dominates. The genetic code is one, and the neuroscience of the brain as a representative of the mind is another. If we are not careful our models become idols and the living reality is forgotten.

From a radio documentary featuring Arthur Zajonc he gives his views on Goethe’s science:

If you look at the actual practice that he undertakes it is I think faithful to the core principles of science, namely, it is empirically grounded, it proceeds from one methodical experience to the next, and it comes to a kind of insight, a moment of aperçu, of discovery.

He thinks that all good science proceeds in the way Goethe describes. It begins with insight. An example of which is Newton connecting a falling apple with the movement of the moon.

Here he discusses the relationship between spirituality and science and our understanding of knowledge.

He believes that spirituality should be a part of science just as it is found within religion.

We believe that some significant aspect of “spirit” actually resides on and activates both sides of this mapped polarity…

The polarity he is talking about is that between reason/knowledge/science on one side and faith/belief/religion on the other.

He states further:

For us, spirituality is a term which bears on the most encompassing view of life and human engagements. Our objective is therefore to provide an account of how this may be so. Following advice given by Owen Barfield, we seek to distinguish, but not to divide. (Barfield, Owen 1971)

IMO the practice of science is becoming too compartmentalised, too specialised, where the specialists become something akin to high priests of their selective knowledge.

Our children need to be educated in a scientific method in which all can participate and learning can be seen as an ongoing, enjoyable experience which fills them with wonder, not as a set of hurdles to jump over in order to secure a job at the finish line.


74 thoughts on “How to think about science.

  1. Erik: Buddha. But he was all about insight, and probably not up to date with your kind of science, so forget it.

    Am I right in suggesting Buddhists sidestep the infinite regress to “why there is a universe” as they believe the universe has always existed and will continue to exist for ever?

  2. Just for the record, here are some science books that I use in my philosophy:

    A Natural History of Human Thinking and The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Tomasello)
    Making Up the Mind (Frith)
    Surfing Uncertainty (Clark)
    More Than Nature Needs (Bickerton) (Just started this one yesterday!)
    The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Gibson)
    Action in Perception (Noe)
    Radical Embodied Cognitive Science (Chemero)
    How Brains Make Up Their Minds (Freeman)
    The Evolved Apprentice (Sterelny).

    Some of these are philosophy of cognitive science, so they straddle the border nicely.

    Philosophically, the main works I keep returning to again and again are

    Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty)
    Making It Explicit (Brandom)
    Science and Metaphysics (Sellars)
    Mind and World (McDowell)
    Mind and the World Order (C. I. Lewis)
    Experience and Nature and The Quest for Certainty (Dewey)
    Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel)
    Negative Dialectics (Adorno)

  3. Kantian Naturalist: The Buddha was the world’s first phenomenologist.

    In terms of world’s first, he is that in several ways. In many ways, if you keep reading stuff into it.

    Alan Fox: Am I right in suggesting Buddhists sidestep the infinite regress to “why there is a universe” as they believe the universe has always existed and will continue to exist for ever?

    No, only as long as there are unilluminated beings. Which, yes, is forever, from the unilluminated point of view.

  4. Alan Fox:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    No Rorty? I’m shocked!

    Rorty (and Dennett) are important influences on me, but at the end of the day I find them too limited. Dennett’s rejection of qualia leads him to reject the distinction between experience and judgments, and that’s philosophically unacceptable. I also find the idea of a “stance” in Dennett too thin, though arguably it can be made defensible. I don’t have Dennett’s physicalist scruples that prevent him from understanding how original intentionality can be a natural phenomenon. Rorty I also find deeply problematic, both for his premises (e.g. that Quine and Sellars are compatible) and his conclusions (e.g. that we should doing epistemology). And Rorty’s peculiarly American version of postmodernism trimmed to suit the needs of Cold War liberalism does not sit well with me at all.

  5. Alan Fox: ETA* “better” in this sense means “more accurate”

    I’d prefer “more precise”.

    In normal parlance, “more accurate” means “closer to truth”. But we don’t actually have a standard by which we can talk about closeness to truth. Scientific practice does allow us to reliably predict and measure to a higher precision.

  6. Kantian Naturalist: Phenomenology describes what we experience as we experience it. Some phenomenological truths:

    1. All intentional thoughts involve an intentional act and an intentional content.
    2. The kind of detached speculation characteristic of theorizing presupposes a more basic engaged coping with the world.
    3. The world as it is experienced by us as unified is inseparable from our experience of the self as able to experience a unified world. (This is actually Kant, but phenomenology makes more clear why this must be so.)
    4. All perception of the world as unified necessarily involves a capacity for bodily movement.
    5. One’s perception of bodily movement as perception of a unified world that is objective-for-us is inseparable from one’s awareness of other embodied subjects who are also perceiving a world that is objective-for-them.

    Hardly a one of these truths seems comprehensible to me. I thought one of the purposes of philosophy was to clarify language. Perhaps all they need is a bit of unpacking, but at the moment it isn’t clear to me that any of the truths is true.

  7. John Harshman: Hardly a one of these truths seems comprehensible to me. I thought one of the purposes of philosophy was to clarify language.

    LOL. Yes, philosophers also indulge in internal talk. It can take effort to work out what they are saying.

    In any case, here’s a rough translation of what KN just said:

    “All that stuff that scientists take for granted — they are right to take it for granted.”

  8. Joe Felsenstein: Well, that thoroughly refutes everybody here!

    I have seen it too long.
    its a humbug.
    Science doesn’t exist. its just people thinking about things.
    Then they say/strive that their conclusions are based on a higher standard of investigation.
    The standard, I insist, is still under human competence spectrums.
    Science at best is someone doing a more careful job befopre drawing hard conclusions.
    So its dumb turning it into a species of human(tailless primate) otherness in thought.
    This is also why there is so much error. its just a curve on the graph of less error but not the non existence of it and a lot.
    Evolutionism is just another case of error in small circles only lately more effectively being debunked by a slightly bigger circle.
    Maybe SCIENCE can’t be wrong but people can.

  9. Erik: Goethe and Newton had a dispute concerning the theory of colours. Wikipedia has a nice comparison of the differences

    The most important difference between their theories is this: Newton’s theory is still appreciated by modern physicists. Goethe’s theory fell out of favor among scientists, but the little tools Goethe made to illustrate his theory are used in art education. Newton’s theory is worthless for art students.

    The question one might ask, if empiricism matters, which one is more hands-on empirical, art or science? Goethe was undeniably rigorously empirical.

    Newton’s colour theory had been in existence for over a century when Goethe decided to borrow a prism and make his own observations. The analytical mathematical approach of Newton and the holistic, phenomenological approach of Goethe are seen clearly in the different ways that they go about their experiments. Newton is aiming for objectivity and Goethe is of the opinion that the observer is an important part of the experiments.

    In his conclusion to Holism and Reductionism in the Entwined History of Light and Mind Zajonc writes:

    Quantum holism demonstrates to us the essential holism that pervades our world. This is not merely a philosophical viewpoint or Romantic desire, but rather a hard­won experimental deduction about the nature of our universe. Physicists now work actively to understand this holism more thoroughly and billions of dollars in research has and will be spent trying to harness this new resource in quantum computation, cryptography and communication. But quantum holism only gets us half way to true holism. It does not speak to the holism of human experience. For this we need a new method, one that appreciates the role of models and theories of science but does not fall into idolatry, worshiping them and putting them in place of the direct experience, of the aperçu, or of genuine insight. Goethe was a pioneer in the development of a phenomenal holism. Through a science that grounds itself on his phenomenological methodology we can find ways of not only thinking wholes but of perceiving them. In my view it will only be through phenomenal holism that we can hope to make real contact with the aesthetic, moral and spiritual dimensions of life. Only in this way will science find its right relationship to civilization.

    Light becomes paradoxical when considered from our reductionist, mechanical viewpoint. Goethe did not think in this way. Unlike Newton who regarded light as being composite, Goethe regarded light as being primal and colour as being the effects of the interplay of light and darkness. Here I side with Goethe. Newton set up his prism experiment by projecting a beam of light through a hole in his window slats via a prism onto the opposite wall. He then observed that the light was split into what he regarded as primary colours red, yellow, green, blue, and violet-purple. Goethe proceeded differently. He looked through his prism and discovered that colours appeared at the boundary between light and darkness and he observed a second dark spectrum where red and blue-purple overlap to produce magenta. Light itself is invisible and non-material. Goethe uses the boundary colours he sees to explain features such as the blue of the sky, red sunsets and the colours of a smoke filled room.

  10. Neil Rickert: LOL.Yes, philosophers also indulge in internal talk.It can take effort to work out what they are saying.

    In any case, here’s a rough translation of what KN just said:

    “All that stuff that scientists take for granted — they are right to take it for granted.”

    I don’t think that’s quite fair. It would be better to say that any kind of inquiry, whether empirical or formal, presupposes certain conditions about the kind of experience that a cognitive agent must be able to have in order to carry out any inquiry, whether empirical or formal.

    Phenomenology is a method for specifying those conditions.

    If doing that isn’t your thing, then OK, that’s cool. It’s not for everyone. But let’s avoid mocking what we don’t understand, eh?

  11. CharlieM,

    OK, but nothing in that contrast establishes that Goethe’s phenomenological approach to color gets deeper to the truth about color than Newton’s mechanistic approach.

    It could still be the case — as I think it is — that scientific explanations (whether mechanistic or not) are just a different approach than phenomenology, and that neither gets any deeper to “the truth” than the other.

    More specifically, I think that whereas the sciences give us a special kind of objective truth — namely, testable models of causal structures — phenomenology gives us another kind of truth — namely, truths about ourselves as experiencers.

  12. CharlieM: Light itself is invisible and non-material.

    Charlie, can you explain what each of those adjectives means in that sentence? I would have thought that if light is invisible, then nothing is visible. And light is certainly non-material given a particular definition of the word, but I do wonder if that’s the definition you are using.

    One more question: how does one know if his insight is genuine? Are there non-genuine insights?

  13. Kantian Naturalist: It’s not for everyone. But let’s avoid mocking what we don’t understand, eh?

    Sorry. It wasn’t intended as mockery. I was trying to say that your statement wasn’t something that should be of particular concern to most scientists.

  14. CharlieM: Light itself is invisible and non-material.

    I see that John questioned that.

    Actually, I almost agree with CharlieM on that point. I say “almost”, because I really don’t know what “material” means, so it is hard to say whether light is material.

    To say it is invisible seems right. Light acts on our sensory system. But in using light, we are seeing other things. We aren’t really seeing the light itself. We cannot shine a spotlight on a laser beam and thereby see the laser beam.

  15. My goodness e are word lawyering tonight. I would say we can see only light, and from the pattern of photons triggering protein activity in our retina, we infer external objects.

    We do not directly see the objects.

  16. Neil Rickert: To say it is invisible seems right. Light acts on our sensory system. But in using light, we are seeing other things. We aren’t really seeing the light itself. We cannot shine a spotlight on a laser beam and thereby see the laser beam.

    If light is invisible, what is visible? The spotlight on a laser beam seems nonsensical to me; the reason it doesn’t work is that laser beams don’t reflect [fill in the blank].

  17. Kantian Naturalist:

    CharlieM: What is bad is not the fact that the model dominates, it is the fact that the model is taken for the reality.

    That doesn’t sound like a problem with what science does, but a problem with how we think about what science does.

    Science does nothing, people do things. People carry out research using the scientific method. And the standard scientific method is analytical. The objects under investigation get dissected, probed, isolated, and their constituent parts get examined in great detail. This was and is necessary for our understanding, but it needs to be taken further.

    As Goethe said:

    To gain knowledge of the world we must first dismantle it, but then we must reassemble it to return it to its true context.

    Goethean science is an addition to the current methods of science. IMO this is the type of science that must be carried on into the future if we are to understand reality and not get lost in abstractions. We need to take note of how human senses and insight affect scientific experiments. We are the most necessary part of the investigative instrumentation.

    Kantian Naturalist: I tend to think of the sciences as social practices for constructing testable models of various aspects of the causal structure of reality. (There’s lots of room for doubting that all these diverse models can integrated into a single coherent model, though.) The models are explanatory insofar as they can tell us why observable regularities obtain, to the extent that they do, and also why we observe the irregularities that they we do. So there’s a tension between descriptive accuracy and explanatory adequacy that drives science (or, if you’re a Kuhnian, ‘normal’ science).

    We only need to look at relativity and quantum mechanics to see that models conflict, so I agree with you there.

    Models can explain the phenomena to ourr satisfaction without necessarily being true.

    Kantian Naturalist:I don’t see it as a problem with science that it omits phenomenology. That’s just a different project, though one equally important to us.

    The neglect of phenomenology would be a problem for science if one wanted to take the sciences as determining one’s metaphysics.

    But my thought that metaphysics itself should be scientific does not mean that we can get all of our metaphysics from the sciences. It means rather than the sciences should constrain our metaphysical speculation, precisely because the sciences do (ideally) force us to put our assumptions to the test against reality.

    It was Goethe’s aim to keep metaphysical speculation out of his methods. His ideal was to make no assumptions but to let nature to speak to him through his observations.

    Andy Blunden writes

    There were a number of reasons for Goethe’s hostility to what I will call ‘positivism’, so as to avoid misuse of the name of Isaac Newton.
    Firstly, and above all, the description and supposed explanation of a phenomenon in terms of some imperceptible force or ‘vibration’ is a form of metaphysics in that it makes something beyond perception into the cause and explanation for what is given in experience.[2] The same criticism could be made of Kant’s split between thing-in-itself and appearance. Goethe wanted to obliterate this gulf between idea and image because, as he saw it, understanding of Nature came from the study of Nature itself, not by looking for supernatural or metaphysical forces.
    Secondly, mathematical representations of natural processes make the study of Nature the domain of a specialist elite. Goethe saw natural science as a public and collaborative enterprise, from which those who participated enjoyed a spiritual benefit. It was therefore important to use means of representation of nature which were accessible to the lay person and made sense to those without specialized training.
    Thirdly, experience of Nature was, in Goethe’s view, primarily about qualities, and quantities were obtained only by abstracting from these qualities. While there was a place for quantitative science, first place should be given to qualitative science. Goethe was concerned with the intensity and quality of our experience of Nature, therefore science required, not only training of the intellect and in the use of instruments, but training of the senses and the imagination.

    Over and above his literary work, Goethe invented the science of morphology, and studied all the leading sciences of the time: mineralogy, geology, botany, comparative anatomy, osteology, psychophysiology, zoology, meteorology, and was at the cutting edge of the science of his day.

    I don’t know much about Blunden other than he is a Marxist philosopher, but he does seem to have a good understanding of Goethe.

  18. John Harshman: I don’t listen to long audios, and usually not short ones either, though this guy is certainly longwinded. I note that what you copied says absolutely nothing about the genetic code other than “The genetic code would be a kind of contemporary example”. But what does that mean? How is it an example? What does he think our view of the genetic code is, and what view would be better?

    If you can’t explain, perhaps you shoudn’t mention such things.

    What exists in reality is a complex of nucleic acids, proteins, lipids and the like. Human experimenters isolate what never actually exists as such in nature. The model of the genetic code has changed over time from a simple plan where one string of dna translates into one protein to the current model of alternative splicing, methylation etc. The model of the genetic code is constantly changing and will continue to change as it becomes evident that reality is vastly more complicated than our models suggest. Models simplify reality in order to aid understanding, that is their purpose.

  19. CharlieM,

    Charlie, was that your response or was it Zajonc’s? At least one of you seems not to know what “genetic code” means. The genetic code is the mapping between mRNA triplets and amino acids during translation in the ribosome. It resides in tRNAs and their aminoacyl synthetases. As such, it’s exceedingly simple, not complicated at all. It has nothing at all to do with a complex of nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids, or with “one gene, one enzyme”, or with alternative splicing, methylation, and probably with whatever you intended to imply by etc.

    So, was that you or Zajonc? Whichever it was, your moment of aperçu seems to have failed you there.

  20. petrushka:
    My goodness e are word lawyering tonight. I would say we can see only light, and from the pattern of photons triggering protein activity in our retina, we infer external objects.

    We do not directly see the objects.

    I think this is not quite right.

    We (and other sentient animals) do directly perceive features of our environment (largely, those that are motivationally salient), and that the kinds of features that an animal can perceive are usually (but not always) those that are relevant to satisfying its biological goals.

    I say that this perception is “direct” because there is no inference at the personal level from sensation to object. The inferential strategy of science (“there is an observable regularity here-and-now, so there is probably an unobserved posited entity that is causing that regularity”) is nothing at all like perception. To perceive is not to reason, “there is a sensation here-and-now, so there is probably an unobserved entity that is causing that sensation”).

    It could be — actually, I think it quite likely — that what brains do is generate predictions about expected signals and then correct those predictions if the prediction errors are unacceptably high.

    But that’s fine — since it is not brains that perceive, but animals. It is by way of how brains causally process information that animals directly perceive environmental features.

    That said, it is also true that no animal (not even us) directly perceives the underlying causal and modal structure of reality that constitutes those perceivable environmental features. (There’s an ambiguity in “object” here.) The underlying causal and modal structure of reality is knowable by creatures like us only insofar as it is carefully modeled by experimental sciences.

  21. It’s a definition game.

    I would prefer to say we construct objects and interactions from photons and such that impinge on our senses. The construction is generally pretty effective and stable, but it remains a construction.

    Color, for example, is a construct. there are any number of ways to induce perceptions of color that differ from instrument measurement of wavelength.

    Virtual reality has a way to go, but it is already “real” enough to frighten people silly.

    The only reason we cling to the notion that objects are real is that the assumption survives many kinds of testing and probing. The evidence for real things is rich and consilient. Unless, of course, we have a brain disorder. Then all bets are off.

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