The Modeling of Nature

As the new millennium approaches, our scientific knowledge of the universe surpasses that of any previous age. Yet, paradoxically, the philosophy of science movement is now in disarray. The collapse of logical empiricism and the rise of historicism and social constructivism have effectively left all of the sciences without an epistemology. The claims of realism have become increasingly difficult to justify, and, for many, the only alternatives are probabilism, pragmatism, and relativism.

But the case is not hopeless. According to William A.Wallace, a return to a realist concept of nature is plausible and, indeed, much needed. Human beings have a natural ability to understand the world in which they live. Many have suggested this understanding requires advanced logic and mathematics. Wallace believes that nature can more readily be understood with the aid of simple modeling techniques.

Through an ingenious use of iconic and epistemic models, Wallace guides the reader through the fundamentals of natural philosophy, explaining how the universe is populated with entities endowed with different natures – inorganic, plant, animal, and human. Much of this knowledge is intuitive, already in people’s minds from experience, education, and exposure to the media. Wallace builds on this foundation, making judicious use of cognitive science to provide a model of the human mind that illuminates not only the philosophy of nature but also the logic, psychology, and epistemology that are prerequisite to it.

With this background, Wallace sketches a history of the philosophy of science and how it has functioned traditionally as a type of probable reasoning. His concern is to go beyond probability and lay bare the epistemic dimension of science to show how it can arrive at truth and certitude in the various areas it investigates. He completes his study with eight case studies of certified scientific growth, the controversies to which they gave rise, and the methods by which they ultimately were resolved.

The Modeling of Nature provides an excellent introduction to the fundamentals of natural philosophy, psychology, logic, and epistemology.

William J. Murray has repeatedly questioned the prevalent materialist epistemology evident here at TSZ.

But are the sciences as a whole without an epistemology, and why?

What could possibly ground an epistemology of science?

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29 thoughts on “The Modeling of Nature

  1. An anyone name a scientist from the last 100 years that cited philosophy as the inspiration for a research program. This is not a rhetorical question. I’d really like to know. I’m looking for something before the fact.

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  2. petrushka,

    A better question might be “can anyone name a scientist from the last 100 years who brought a philosophical viewpoint to his or her scientific work?”

    My answer would be “all of them.”

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  3. keiths: My answer would be “all of them.”

    I phrased that badly. I mean how many cited epistemology in a famous paper? As part of their formal reasoning.

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  4. petrushka,

    I phrased that badly. I mean how many cited epistemology in a famous paper? As part of their formal reasoning.

    I suspect that few of them actually mention epistemology in their papers. But again, that seems far less interesting a question than this one: How many of them employ(ed) epistemology in their scientific work?

    I would answer “all of them”. Do you think it’s possible to be a scientist without having answers (even if only provisional) to questions like “How do I know X?” or “How can I find out if Y?”

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  5. Dropping the snide, the paper is interesting, but I see nothing added by the philosophical jargon. I think it could be paraphrased in one-fifth the space with no loss of content.

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  6. William J. Murray has repeatedly questioned the prevalent materialist epistemology evident here at TSZ.

    This claim is not even wrong, since Murray has utterly failed to demonstrate that anyone here is a “materialist” in his stipulated sense. But that doesn’t matter. Murray believes that we’re all materialists, and he’s made it clear that he doesn’t need evidence for his beliefs, so it doesn’t matter to him that there’s no evidence for his belief that we’re materialists. All that matters to him is that we’re irrational for not believing what he believes we would be believe if we actually believed what he believes we do believe.

    But are the sciences as a whole without an epistemology, and why?

    No, they are not. Not only is neo-Aristotelianism undergoing a nice revival in the ontology of powers (Powers and Capacities: The New Aristotelianism, but there’s also the turn towards realism via emphasis on experimentation (Representing and Intervening), the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science), agential realism (Meeting the Universe Halfway), and the view I myself find most congenial, an emphasis on scientific practices (How Scientific Practices Matter).

    What could possibly ground an epistemology of science

    Notice that if epistemology is “first philosophy” — if there’s nothing more foundational than epistemology — than epistemology of science isn’t grounded in anything else. That’s just what it is for something to be foundational — it’s not grounded in anything else. It is the ground.

    However, if one rejects foundationalism, then one might have some room for grounding epistemology in metaphysics and grounding metaphysics in epistemology (as indeed Aristotle does, and later, Hegel and pragmatism). The unmoved mover of Aristotelian metaphysical theology is the final cause of all things insofar as our desire for knowledge is fully satisfied when we experience within ourselves the identity of our own intellect with that of the unmoved mover, but the process of inquiry begins with sense-perception. (That’s why Aristotle remarks that we begin with what is first in relation to us and end with what is first in itself.)

    That said, I think the opposition between pragmatism and realism is vastly overstated and that the prospects for a pragmatic realism, especially as a philosophy of science, are quite good.

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  7. But are the sciences as a whole without an epistemology, and why?

    The epistemology of science is mathematics. And it works very well, thank you.

    What could possibly ground an epistemology of science?

    The measurement practices of scientists.

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  8. Scientist have never had a need for the philosophy of science. Competent people in any field always find the best way to think about and advance the field they’re in without reference to philosophy, though very often they recapitulate what the philosophers come up with without knowing it.
    Philosophy is the study of how to think without thinking of anything in particular.

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  9. petrushka: I phrased that badly. I mean how many cited epistemology in a famous paper? As part of their formal reasoning.

    Well, maybe philosophy was not directly part of the formal reasoning, but this paper seems to have been driven by philosophical commitments to locality (but maybe ontological more then epistemological) Can Quantum Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? by that Einstein fellow and others (who he brought in to fine tune his English).

    Lots and lots of citations to that one in both science and philosophy. It reflects another “blunder” by Einstein that turned out to be very fruitful (like the cosmological constant).

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  10. I was thinking of that paper too, Bruce. Not sure if the question was intended to include economists, but I think there are also a bunch of epistemological remarks in stuff by Arrow and Pigou.

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  11. I’m sure that Wallace’s arguments are very interesting, but why did he start it with this:

    “…Wallace guides the reader through the fundamentals of natural philosophy, explaining how the universe is populated with entities endowed with different natures – inorganic, plant, animal, and human..”

    Why is human set apart from animal?

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  12. I have no doubt that scientists philosophize. I suspect they do more of it in retrospect than in prospect.

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  13. Yes, scientists are famous for writing awful philosophy books–especially when they’ve passed their prime. The first one I ever looked at was by Max Planck. Really bad. Not sure there’s ever been a good one, but I haven’t read too many, so maybe that’s unfair.

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  14. Mung: Why does it have to be a famous paper? Is it only famous papers that should be taken seriously? Seriously? Surely you can do better.

    Slightly OT, but since you’ve expressed an interest in hylomorphism, you may want to look at some of the papers by Jaworski, one of which is in the “New Aristotelianism” book KN references.

    As best I can tell, he a non-reductive physicalist (or as close as a Thomist can be to that). I have his textbook (see the web page) and it is a nice intro to the Phil of Mind, but with an unhidden agenda to justify hylomorphism as the best approach.

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  15. Acartia:
    I’m sure that Wallace’s arguments are very interesting, but why did he start it with this:

    “…Wallace guides the reader through the fundamentals of natural philosophy, explaining how the universe is populated with entities endowed with different natures – inorganic, plant, animal, and human..”

    Why is human set apart from animal?

    Because Wallace is a Thomist, and philosophizing about science from within the intellectual resources of the Thomistic tradition. The distinction between the different natures or kinds of beings as inorganic, plant, animal, and human is taken directly out of Aristotle’s De Anima.

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  16. The difference between opinion and science, or epistemic knowing, assumes importance in contemporary philosophy because of a serious situation that has developed regarding the natural and human sciences. Part of the problem derives from the Scottish empiricist David Hume, who embraced a type of skepticism that denied to the human mind the ability ever to grasp a causal connection. Part of it derives from the German idealist Immanuel Kant, who extended Hume’s line of reasoning to propose a more extreme agnosticism: the human mind is radically incapable of knowing things as they are in themselves. Both positions are difficult to reconcile with the advances made in the study of nature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and yet whole generations of philosophers have found themselves blocked by Humean and Kantian aporiai. As a consequence, in the present day there are few proponents of a realist epistemology that is capable of vindicating science’s knowledge claims. The logical empiricist phase of the mid-twentieth century registered the most serious failure in this regard. Perhaps it is not surprising that relativism and pragmatism have now become the dominant movements, with science seen as “justified belief” at one extreme or as myth and rhetoric at the other, but with all agreed that it can no longer be differentiated from opinion. Science too is fallible and revisable, ever incapable of arriving at truth or certitude.

    – The Modeling of Nature, p. xii

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  17. As a consequence, in the present day there are few proponents of a realist epistemology that is capable of vindicating science’s knowledge claims.

    That’s ridiculous. Believe it or not, there really aren’t that many strict Humeans or Kantians running around loose these days.

    …with all agreed that [science] can no longer be differentiated from opinion.

    Not sure that is intentionally misleading or just foolishly so. It reflects the error of confusing the scientific opinionating with the science (the scientific propositions) being opined, a mistake that I’m constantly complaining about here–and one that I’ve mentioned that you’ve made in two recent posts.

    Yes, the science must be revisable, since people are not omniscient. But any scientific statements that are actually true are such that, if you revise them in certain ways, they’ll no longer be true. That’s (metaphysical) realism in a nutshell, and most philosophers are realists.

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  18. In the passage quote above, Wallace makes several errors — some minor, others perhaps not.

    Mung: Part of the problem derives from the Scottish empiricist David Hume, who embraced a type of skepticism that denied to the human mind the ability ever to grasp a causal connection. Part of it derives from the German idealist Immanuel Kant, who extended Hume’s line of reasoning to propose a more extreme agnosticism: the human mind is radically incapable of knowing things as they are in themselves.

    Neither of these is quite right, about Hume or Kant, and the details matter.

    Hume’s argument isn’t that “the human mind can’t ever grasp a causal connection”, per se — his argument is that if all cognitive contents are derived from sense-experience, then we cannot conceive of “necessary connexion”, because there is no “impression” of necessity. This doesn’t undermine causation per se — as Hume himself showed — but it does undermine certain uses of the concept of causation, namely in metaphysics and theology.

    Kant agreed with Hume, and against the whole premodern tradition, that there is some fundamentally important distinction to be drawn between science and metaphysics.

    (It is my personal take on the history of modern philosophy that the distinction between science and metaphysics was invented by Leibniz in order to prevent a deterministic science from resulting in a fully deterministic metaphysics, as we saw happen in Spinoza. This is a controversial claim and the history of modern philosophy is not my area of specialization, though I am well-trained in it and I’ve taught it many times.)

    However, Kant also sees that the distinction between science and metaphysics cannot be drawn exactly where Hume wants it drawn, because science makes use of the same a priori concepts that metaphysics does. Hence Kant has to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of the same concepts. His solution lies in specifying the conditions of application for a priori concepts in order for the concept to represent an actual state of affairs and not a merely possible one. To do that, Kant recognizes that the concept must be indexed to a spatio-temporal region.

    Now, one might ask, why can’t things-in-themselves (noumena) also be spatial and temporal? Why are space and time merely “ideal”, mere “forms of sensible intuition”? There are various reasons, tut it’s generally accepted that the most important reason why Kant rejects the spatio-temporality of things-in-themselves is this: doing so would eliminate the metaphysical possibility of human freedom. This is because empirical knowledge — knowledge that is indexed to spatio-temporal regions — reaches its highest development (for Kant) in Newtonian mechanics, and that is fully deterministic.

    I think it is a real problem that Wallace doesn’t appreciate the historical moves here: firstly, the rise of mechanistic physics and the demise of teleological physics threatens us with a fully deterministic metaphysics — a bullet that Spinoza was the first, but not the only, person to bite — and thereby making human freedom, as traditionally conceptualized by clergy, legislators, and moralists, impossible. Spinozism was a threat to church and crown, then and now.

    This defined the agenda of the early modern period: how to accept a realistic interpretation of mechanistic physics without undermining the legitimacy of entrenched political and religious institutions? Kant’s distinction between phenomena (which are knowable, because concepts are spatio-temporally indexed) and noumena (which are thinkable but not knowable, because concepts are not spatio-temporally indexed) is his attempt to do just that.

    Both positions are difficult to reconcile with the advances made in the study of nature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and yet whole generations of philosophers have found themselves blocked by Humean and Kantian aporiai.

    Without knowing a lot more, it’s impossible to see just what scientific advances are difficult to reconcile with either Hume or Kant. Interestingly enough, Wallace does not mention that phenomenalism became a widely-held doctrine — Mill, Huxley, Mach — precisely because it allowed philosophers to accept the methods and achievements of science without endorsing “materialism”, which would undermine religious and political hierarchies.

    By the way, it’s a nice slide from how Hume and Kant obstructed science in the first sentence there to how they obstructed philosophers in the second. But in fact they did no such thing. It’s simply false that “whole generations of philosophers have found themselves blocked by Humean and Kantian aporiai.” Philosophers who worked their way through or around Hume and Kant include: Reid, Peirce, Hegel, James, Bergson, Nietzsche, Dewey, Marx. I would conjecture Wallace is just taking the analytic philosophy he learned in grad school (Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic is the obvious text) and assuming that that’s the whole of the Hume-Kant lineage

    As a consequence, in the present day there are few proponents of a realist epistemology that is capable of vindicating science’s knowledge claims.

    And here the real bait-and-switch is about to begin . .

    The logical empiricist phase of the mid-twentieth century registered the most serious failure in this regard.

    I’m actually not all that surprised that Wallace fails to note why logical empiricism failed, or that the failure of logical empiricism did indeed lead to a resurgence of scientific realism. Wallace doesn’t want to admit that scientific realism is undergoing a renaissance — as should have been evident by 1996, when Modeling of Nature was published — because the resurgence of scientific realism was the wrong kind of realism. We are about to see why.

    Perhaps it is not surprising that relativism and pragmatism have now become the dominant movements, with science seen as “justified belief” at one extreme or as myth and rhetoric at the other, but with all agreed that it can no longer be differentiated from opinion. Science too is fallible and revisable, ever incapable of arriving at truth or certitude.

    This is the smoking gun: “Science too is fallible and revisable, ever incapable of arriving at truth or certitude”. In context, it is clear that Wallace is opposed to this attitude. He doesn’t want science to be infinitely fallible and revisable; he wants certainty.

    And now we can see a bit more clearly that Wallace is deceiving us in a very important respect: the contrary of pragmatism and relativism is not realism, but rather absolutism. That’s what Wallace wants — not realism, but absolutism. It’s the loss of absolutism — a loss that did indeed begin with Hume and Kant! — that he laments and regrets. He doesn’t mention other kinds of scientific realism because none of them are absolutist, and only a particular version of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics will do.

    As a neo-Scholastic defense of scientific realism, perhaps Wallace’s text is perfectly adequate; I wouldn’t know. But I do think, based on what little has been quoted here, that Wallace is engaged in some intellectual dishonesty: he rightly sees that the demise of logical empiricism and phenomenalism motivates the renaissance of realism, but wrongly assumes that realism is incompatible with pragmatism and with relativism, and thereby covertly identifies the only kind of realism worth having with the absolutism he sets out to defend. I think that neo-Scholastics like Etienne Gilson, Wallace and Ed Feser make things far too easy on themselves by never confronting (so far as I know) non-Aristotelian realism.

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  19. Nice post, KN. Really interesting and thorough discussion of the issues Wallace gets into in that passage. Thanks.

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  20. Kantian Naturalist:
    The history of modern philosophy is not my area of specialization, though I am well-trained in it and I’ve taught it many times

    I’ll echo walto’s thanks for this post.

    Do you ever post your course teaching notes, assuming they are computerized? I looked at your current university web page and the academia.edu web page but did not see them.

    ETA: On the off chance you missed it, Brandom is interviewed in recent 3AM.

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  21. BruceS,

    I don’t keep teaching notes because I very rarely lecture. My students don’t have the attention span, and most don’t know how to listen to a lecture and take notes at the same time. So my teaching style consists of in-class exercises and facilitated discussion.

    I did see the Brandom interview — but thank you!

    On a different note, I’m now reading Hart’s “The Experience of God”. About 1/2 done. Not bad at places. I’m beginning to understand the criticism of naturalism.

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  22. Well KN, the first six chapters of The Oxford Handbook of Causation go like this:

    The History of Causation
    The Ancient Greeks – Sarah Broadie
    The Medievals – John Marenbon
    The Early Moderns – Kenneth Clatterbaugh
    Hume – Don Garrett
    Kant – Eric Watkins
    The Logical Empiricists – Michael Stöltzner

    How should we classify Hume’s theory of causation?

    While I have quoted only from the Treatise, similar passages supporting each of these three interpretations [projectivist, reductionist, realist] occur in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding as well – sometimes with even greater frequency. The apparent dialectical stand-off among these interpretations has led some to conclude that Hume has no consistent theory of causation at all, but only a confused and contradictory collection of remarks.

    Should we classify Hume’s resulting theory of causation as projectivism, reductionism, or realism? If the interpretation offered here is right, then he concedes something to the motivations of each of these packages, and he could with some justice be classified as subscribing to any of them, or all of them, or none of them – depending on the details of the more specific definitions that might be proposed for them.

    – Don Garrett. Hume. The Oxford Handbook of Causation.

    The sense I get from this is someone could refute any causal notion of Hume’s using Hume himself.

    If you care to answer, what was Hume’s ‘principle of imagination’ and how does it relate to his views on causality? Put another way, for Hume, is causality a product of the human mind? I think it is this that we are trying to get to here as the crux of the matter.

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/hume-ima/

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  23. Kantian Naturalist:
    I think that neo-Scholastics like Etienne Gilson, Wallace and Ed Feser make things far too easy on themselves by never confronting (so far as I know) non-Aristotelian realism.

    I’d like to hear more about this. What is it that distinguishes “Aristotelian realism” from “non-Aristotelian realism”?

    As a potential starting point:
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/realism/

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  24. I’ll happily bow to Garret’s authority on Hume — he’s a bona fide Hume scholar, and I’m not.

    I think of Hume as believing that (1) our knowledge of causation is the result of (a) the “constant conjunction” of sensible events and (b) the expectation or association between those events; (2) there could be a “secret connexion” in reality ties together the sensible events; (3) we can have no knowledge of that “secret connexion”. (I’m basing this on my knowledge of the Enquiry and Galen Strawson’s The Secret Connexion.)

    If we regularly experience events of type B as following (in a temporal order) events of type A, then whenever there is a A-type event, we will expect a B-type event, and that the former is the cause and the latter is the effect. So our knowledge of causation is due to how we associate events that come to us in a regular temporal order.

    As has been pointed out by many scholars — beginning with Kant himself — this view of causation makes it impossible for us to take about synchronic causation, which in fact we do perfectly well all the time. The desk is causing the coffee mug to not fall to the floor, etc. Hume also can’t explain the role of subjunctive conditionals in empirical vocabulary; Brandom makes a huge deal out of what he calls ‘the modal Kant-Sellars thesis’ in his new book — BruceS has the interview above — and I think Brandom is clearly right about this.

    As for “non-Aristotelian realism”, I meant only that one can easily affirm that there are mind-independent objects, structures, patterns, processes (whatever one likes) without thinking any or all of the following:

    (1) that to be an object is to have a top-down order in which a unifying structure imposed on a disparate mass of stuff;
    (2) all change is a teleological movement from potency to act;
    (3) every object is an instance of a kind or type;
    (4) kinds or types are themselves hierarchically organized;
    (5) the hierarchy of kinds is ontologically real;
    (6) kinds or types are immutable; all change is at the level of the objects belonging to a kind or type, but the kinds or types are fixed;
    (7) every object has its own intrinsically correct place in the cosmos by virtue of the kind to which it belongs;

    — and that’s not intended to be comprehensive, but only what struck me as most salient for the time being. And that’s not even addressing Aristotelian hylomorphism with regard to perception and conceptualization!

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