Tag Archives: Richard Feynman

What is life?


I am being purposely provocative here – and who else provokes better that Richard Feynman.

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The scientific method – what about the philosophical method?

I enjoy the In Our Time Podcasts with Melvyn Bragg. The subjects are very wide-ranging and always informative.

His last one was on The Scientific Method. It basically discusses the evolution of scientific methods from a philosophical viewpoint. The participants were:

  • Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge;
  • John Worrall, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the LSE and
  • Michela Massimi, Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at University College London.

Personally, I would have welcomed inclusion of a practising scientist to bring some practical insight into the discussion. Still, I did find the historical survey of philosophers ideas on the scientific method interesting. But it got me thinking – these philosophers seem so concerned about the scientific method – and yet no one talks about the philosophical method!

What is the philosophical method?

What methods do philosophers use? And how have these evolved over time? And why do we never come across critiques of philosophical methods? Is this because philosophers are happier critiquing other areas and avoid their own?

For example. While I thought this discussion did treat the subject fairly the descriptions of scientific method offered by various philosophers over the years do strike me as “just so” stories. I get the feeling that the philosophers concerned are presenting their pet model. Evidence quoted is usually anecdotal, more for example rather than support. The Copernican revolution, or the evolution of Einsteinian mechanics out of Newtonian mechanics are used to illustrate a thesis, rather than testing the hypothesis by analysing the data from the history of a large number of scientific theories.

Now, I could never have got any of my research results accepted for publication with only anecdotal and illustrative evidence. Good data, statistically analysed to show significance for claims, was always expected. The standards for philosophical theories seems to be a lot lower. How many philosophers really take data collection and analysis seriously?

The other thing that strikes me about these “just so” stories are that they always seem to ignore the human factor. Scientific method is often presented as an algorithm or flow chart – scientists behave this way and they produce hypotheses which are checked experimentally, etc.

But scientists are humans. They are just as prone to emotions as any other people. And in fact current scientific understanding of decision-making indicates that emotions are very much involved in our seemingly rational considerations. Where else do scientists get the passion for the work they do? Creativity does not come from mechanical application of methods. And scientists are also prone to prejudice, fantasy,  attachment to preconceived ideas, and confirmation bias as anyone else. The possible consequences of this need to be recognised and scientific methodology must compensate for it.

That’s why I like Richard Feynman‘s description of scientific method as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” This is a better description of the human reality of scientific research than any descriptive, or prescriptive, flow diagram of “scientific method.”

Why does this matter?

Well, for two reasons:

1: How often does one read material from opponents of science using pop versions of scientific method and philosophy of science to justify their rejection of, or denial of, scientific knowledge?  Creationists and climate change deniers will often talk about Kuhnian “paradigms” or Popperian “falsification” to justify their rejection of whole fields of science. We even have the ridiculous example of a climate denier group in Australia naming itself The Galileo Movement! They are equating acceptance of the current scientific understanding as equivalent to belief in a geocentric universe! (See “Galileo Movement” Fuels Climate Change Divide in Australia).

2: Post-modernist and ideological motivated concepts of the philosophy of science do get circulated in academic circles.  In the past I have heard some of these descriptions presented by local science managers and suspect that these ideas can influence management and human resources teachings via philosophy of science and sociology of science inputs. The danger is that this influence decisions on science funding and investment.

Maybe some of the cock-ups we have seen in science management and New Zealand over the years could be traced back to ideology and misunderstanding about the nature of scientific research picked up by managers during their training. Maybe not all these mistakes were due to incompetence.

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Limits of logic

I have commented before on the limitations of deductive logic – see “Other ways of knowing” – some sense at last). And how easily people manipulate logic by faulty reasoning and by assuming shonky premises. Very tempting for someone with a predetermined conclusion they wish to “prove.”

This brings to mind William Lane Craig who relies on such manipulation of logic for his debating prowess. This became an issue in his recent debate with Lawrence Krauss on evidence for existence of gods. Krauss describes how Craig  “systematically distorted” facts in his “continual effort to demonstrate how high school syllogisms apparently demonstrated definitive evidence for God.” (see Lawrence Krauss vs. William Lane Craig @ Pharyngula).

It is this distortion of logic which really puts me off any debate in which Craig participates. And I don’t think debates are useful anyway as a way of conveying information anyway. So I am not tempted to waste time viewing the video.

However, I did find the comments made after the debate by Krauss, and by Craig and one of his avid supporters, interesting.

Typically Craig provides a self-congratulatory analysis after each of his debates, declaring how clever he is and how silly was his opponent. In this case (see  A brief post-mortem) Craig claimed Krauss’s understanding of cosmology was “superficial” and declared himself “frankly flabbergasted by Krauss’s opening salvo attacking logic and the probability calculus.”

One of Craig’s avid supporters attributed to Krauss the claims that “logic doesn’t work,” “2+2=5, and we don’t know anything.” This Fan’s conclusion: “Rather than acknowledge the existence of God, to which logic and sound reasoning continue to lead us, atheists reject logic and sound reasoning. Krauss, to his credit, did manage to demonstrate this with profound success: atheism is irrational!”

I have often noted that religious apologists have a problem with honesty!

However, to get back to the issue of logic and its limitations. Here is how Lawrence Krauss puts it in his comments on the debate:

“Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe. If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles. Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by ‘nothing’, from empty space, to the absence of space itself.”

Krauss the author

Krauss is a great populariser of science and has written a number of popular science books. His latest one, out last month, is Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science . I am looking forward to reading this – especially after Chris Mooney‘s recent interview of Krauss on a Point of Inquiry podcast (see Lawrence Krauss – Quantum Man Mar 28, 2011). The author’s enthusiasm for his subject is obvious.

And talking of books – this last comment from Lawrence Krauss in his report on the debate looks interesting:

“I have taken great effort to describe our actual understanding of the Universe and its implications for understanding how it might be possible for something to come from nothing, i.e. non-existence, in my new book, which will come out in January of 2012.”

Looking forward to that book.

See also: This video of a talk by Krauss is relevant:

‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009.

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A physicist comments on science and morality

Another video from the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right
from Wrong?”
(See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this
debate and workshop).

This time a physicist, Lawrence Krauss. He is always a stimulating speaker.

He starts by claiming that it is impossible to tell right from wrong without science. And then goes on to explain. I find myself agreeing with a lot he says.

Listen for his explanation for the intriguing slogan on his T-shirt.

Again, only 14 min long.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: Lawrence Krauss, posted with vodpod

Lawrence Krauss is a Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Physics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He also is director of the ASU Origins Project. He is the only physicist to have received the highest awards from all three major U.S. professional physics societies. His popular publications include The Physics of Star Trek,” “Quintessence,” “Atom : An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond,” “Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, from Plato to String Theory (by way of Alice in Wonderland, Einstein, and The Twilight Zone),” and due out in 2011,Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (Great Discoveries) and “A Universe from Nothing.”

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