Friday, 1 January 2010

Objecting to objective reality.

A recent discussion led me to considering why I find philosophical objections to scientific methodology utterly unconvincing and even being applied out of its league. And here are my thoughts;

Science doesn't claim; that objective reality certainly exists and that no other possibilities exist.
It simply makes the practical assumption that objective reality exists. If science is wrong about that then that should be seen in its products.

Science demonstrably works so its assumptions must be true at least in certain contexts (i.e. not necessarily absolutely true since that is indeterminate).

The problem with approaching science with a philosophical mind is often that we stop talking about science and start talking about the underpinning philosophy of science. Some may say this is equally important, but I put it to you that once something is developed and works one doesn't need to show that the tools used to produce it were valid, because you could quite easily say "the proof is in the pudding".

In other words, we tend to forget that science demonstrably works and that it doesn't presume that it can find everything (scientists may, but they are not the formal methodology). In fact, science by its very formulation can never know everything; there is no way to scientifically demonstrate that all is known - as we will always have to assume there is more to find out, even when there isn't. That's how rigorous science is, it's never satisfied.

I often feel people are attacking common opinion and scientists rather than science itself. The methodology stands without scientists and can hypothetically be determined true or false on its own merits, so ad hominems have no place in the direct critique of science as a methodology.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Invisible Trigger Fingers: Part 1

People don't like to think. In general, that is.

I don't know many people for whom this doesn't apply, and even those who are thoughtful do not like to think about things which challenge certain beliefs they hold. I've even caught myself doing it, so I'm by no means claiming to be exempt of this, i.e. There is no ego trip here, just pure thinking out loud.

So, why does this happen? I'm sure most people have their own cliché ideas as to why, but I am not interested in such passé explanations: I am much more interested in practical substance than fantastical comforts. In fact, this serves as a rather good first example:

Take the fact that some people are content to say such as, "Well, people don't like to think because people are lazy." I would typically point out to these people that their justification is both lazy and unthought out - an amusing, and equally troubling, irony. They are commiting the very thing they are attempting to explain, what's worse is that they are effectively dismissing the issue and writing off the people who don't think as simply lazy. I think this example excellently shows how transparent our own inconsistencies can be to us - they must be for people to so absolutely critisise the very thing they are doing at that moment!

So, back to the initial question; why does this happen? In the given example several points have been highlighted:
  1. Transparency; we are often blissfully unaware of our own hypocracies and shortcomings, even when we are directly observing them in other people. We know from neuroscience that contradictory structures can be mutually inhibitory, i.e. neither are engaged simultaneously and as such the hypocracy is never observed by the individual.
  2. Dismissal; when we are satisfied with an answer, for whatever reason (be they valid or invalid), we tend to dismiss the root question as having been answered - or at least not worthy of further contemplation. We may even dismiss a question as unworthy of consideration by dismissing its premises.
  3. Comfort; it seems the most important factor in all this is comfort: Comfort in one's own knowledge, comfort that other people respect and acknowledge one's knowledge and understanding of things, and comfort in validating and justifying one's own life choices. I believe the latter is the most important here.
It would seem to be the case that one or more of the above points are why people use clichés without due thought as to what is being said.

Where am I going with this? Well, now I've elaborated how generally poor we are as critical thinkers I want to draw attention to a common format of presumption held by many people; and it comes in several forms, many of which are implicit and unspoken. Some examples include concepts such as "as one person I cannot make a difference", "I am responsible for myself and my immediate 'family' only", "things that do not threaten me directly are not my concern", etc. Now, I'm sure most people will exclaim that it is "a matter of opinion" and that I am entitled to mine and people who think such as above are entitled to theirs. I would strongly disagree.

The three statements above are in the format of closed factual statements; in that they are presented as absolute claims about the nature of reality. As such, unless they are indeed absolutely true any argument they may premise is rendered null.

I started this post thinking it wouldn't take long, but I was mistaken. I'm now running out of steam and have decided to call it a day for now. I will explain the heading in due time.

If you have been, I hope you enjoyed it and I thank you for reading.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

We're all doomed! But wait, don't panic!

Now all of you Dad's Army fans have finished having a little chortle at the play on words in the title (You're not laughing? Well, at least I tried) I would like to draw your attention to the common question we've all asked ourselves at least once: Are we all as good as screwed or is everything going great?

I was mulling over this today, sort of in the back of my mind since I was conversing with a friend. You see I recently watched TheAmazingAtheist's interview with PaulsEgo on YouTube, and I was particularly interested by what they had to say about humanity, and what is to become of humanity. They both seem to have a slight disconnect in that they can concede things are better now than they were in the past, but they are still insistent that things are getting worse due to human nature (something we have no reason to think has changed all that much during the period of our 'moral ascent'). These guys tend to be well spoken and justify what they say reasonably well, so it got me thinking why they didn't see this blatent mismatch between their analyses and conclusion.

So, through a bit of amateurish logic, I realised that there is something we all tend to overlook, and it is something akin to the anthropic principle used by physicists as an explaination for the condition of our universe (specifically that the universe is suitable for our existance). By this I mean that we can imagine two possible futures (extremes); the first is a future where everything is fine, things continue to get better and humanity develops and thrives; the second is a future where everything is in decline or humanity is either extinct, or on the brink of being so. We can attribute a few properties to these possible futures based on what we understand of natural processes:

A developed future would require a high social drive for change and development. We know from biology and history that necessity tends to drive biological, social and technological evolution - so it stands to reason that development will generally be the result of a driving force which imposes the necessity to change and develop. To see an example of this one only has to briefly look over the technological advances made over the course of the two World Wars.

A future in decline would either have undergone some immense disaster (which is somewhat irrelevant to the argument here) or experienced a lack of drive for change and improvement. Many endangered species of animal are highly adapted to their immediate environment, they are said to have reached an evolutionary steady state - as such the range of environments they can live in, as well as their evolvability (potential for evolving so as to adapt) is compromised. You could almost describe such species as evolutionary stagnant, destined to one day become extinct in the face of inevitable environmental changes. The point of this biological example is that systems not being driven to change and adapt will tend to stagnate and become brittle in light of sudden environmental changes.

Now, what do we see in our world? The vast majority of people, to some extent, think that we are in a perpetual state of moral decline, and a notable amount of people think there is little to no hope for us. Far from saying this gives everyone the drive to strive for change and improvement, all I am saying is that without such a drive even the few people who are motivated to improve conditions would probably not feel any need to bother. This is what we do see, many people are indifferent, but there are many who perceive decline and are motivated to do something about it.

I'm sure you can all see why I think this is good news, since if we did not think things were getting worse there would be no reason - let alone drive - to change anything. Seeing cynical people like TheAmazingAtheist and PaulsEgo is something we should rejoice about and find hope in. It's seeing air-headed, postitive, "it'll be alright on the night" types that should concern you.

If you have been, thanks for reading, good-night (or whatever) and god-less.