Monday, September 7, 2009

Mario Bunge on Science and Pseudoscience

It must be sad when a philosopher of science has to resort to Skeptical Inquirer to get a popular audience. Popper and the apparently immortal logical positivists rule the day. That same issue the Quincey recension of Feynman's QED had a fascinating article by Bunge on pseudoscience. Not quite fascinating enough for prompt reply in a letters column. That couple of years, on checking, is literally three years. It was the July/August issue of 2006!

Scientists like Feynman are fond of believing that if they refuse to explicitly or consistently think about philosophy they are rising above it. This is folly. As Bunge points out, concepts like reality, time, causation, truth are also philosophical concepts. Indeed, well known philosophical topics as the nature of mathematical objects are directly relevant to science. An even better example is the notion that cognitive neuroscience can study mind by studying the brain. The implicit assumption that mind is ultimately a material phenomenon requires using scientific method instead of speculation.

Scientific investigation he holds assumes that the facts of some domain of investigation are material, lawful and scrutable. Personally I would phrase this as saying the universe is consistent and intelligible. According to him, the scientific method is a fairly typical (and correct) sequence of choice of subject; discovery of problem; hypothesis; experiential test (observation/measurement or experiment); evaluation of results of experience; necessary corrections (to principles of subject, to the hypothesis, to the experimental technique); emergence of new problems. As always, it should be added that this is a collective process, not an individual one. An individual may do merely part of a single step, and knows nothing about order. Bunge correctly adds that speculation is a necessary part of the hypothesis process. The key point is that at some point, the results must match reality, which is to say, be true, another philosophical concept. It also assumes, a good point for Bunge to emphasize, that scientific hypotheses and explanations (theories) are logically valid, although it is rare for scientists to explicitly analyze logic. He notes unbridled speculation is for art.

As a collective process, practice of the scientific method means that the science changes with the discoveries and the formulation of new concepts that lead to new discoveries; a continuity with knowledge from other sciences, accepting their contributions and positing no contradictions; overlapping areas of interest with other sciences; scientific community. To rephrase, the first means science is knowledge because it is based on facts. When additional facts or refutation of incorrectly accepted false statements as facts requires change in the science, it changes. The notion that if it can change it wasn't knowledge implicitly assumes some sort of supernatural aspect to Truth, that it must be unchanging, eternal, ideal, etc. Theological concepts never change, they merely go in or out of fashion, which shows how unlike science (knowledge) theology is.

The continuity with other science, as in signals cannot travel from one mind to another at a speed greater than light (a stumbling block for "parapsychology" and a sign said field is a pseudoscience,) and the overlap with other sciences, like physics and chemistry in physical chemistry, are consequences of the unity of nature. For the first, what is true in one science must be true in all. For the second, since there is really one one subject, nature, the individual subjects called branches of science must inevitably collide. And last, the existence of scientific community is the collective way that testing of hypotheses and deduction of consequences of principles and formulation of explanations is conducted. But all that is the operation of the scientific method.

Pseudosciences lack one or more of these characteristics of science. It may be formulated in vague or even contradictory terms. It may aassume facts without empirical justification. It may accept the existence of immaterial entities or postulate that reality may not be described by laws. It may ignore other knowledge from other scientific fields. Its experimental methods may be deeply flawed or it may even dispense with empirical tests completely. It may examine only partial evidence (which is a more general way of saying it doesn't use control groups.) For these reasons, pseudoscience doesn't make new discoveries.

Bunge identifies the specific philosophical ideas in science as logical consequence/consistency; meaning and truth; fact and law; knowledge and test; intellectual honesty; community. The way he rephrases all this is: "Because scientific researchis, in a nutshell, the honest search for true knowledge about the real world, particularly its laws, with the hlep of both theoretical and empirical means--in particular the scientific method--and because every body of scientific knowledge is expected to be logically consistent and the subject of rational discussion in the bosom of a community of investigators."

Expanding, he notes that
logically, science accepts analogy and induction as speculation but denies a priori validity;
semantically, science sees meaning as denotation together with connotation but not extension and truth as correspondence to fact, not coherence;
ontologically, science is materialistic (metaphysically, not spiritually, meaning made of matter following laws, whether mechanical or stochastic) with all material things in flux and part of systems making their ideal descriptions (created by phyical processes in brains) fictions, whether they accurately describe portions of the truth or not, with phenomena emerging from systems, which their components lack;
epistemologically, science is realist because reality is intelligible (at least so far and presuming it isn't is unfounded by any evidence,) skeptical in that it can change (but it is meaningless to insist that there is all concepts are equally doubtful,) empirical in that its propositions must be testable (but experience can provide both positive and negative evidence,) rational in that it advance by making deductions from laws (which are then tested by experience, whether observation or experiment,) and scientistic, in that scientific knowledge is to be regarded as the best form of knowledge;
ethically, science is secular and humanist;
sociologically, science is what he calls epistemic socialism, which seems to be what I would call a kind of technocracy where the experts prosper with their followers.

The last is directly specifically against Marxists and post-modern social constructivists. Existentialists get short shrift, but Marxists, logical positivists and the Popperians have contributions acknowledged. Bunge's desire for a unitary philosophy of science including ethics is interesting. It grounds philosophical critique of some practices, I would think, but intellectual property law is not a topic he addressed.

Bunge notes the tendency of pseudosciences to accept the idealist philosophical presuppositions of religions: idealist ontology (supernatural entities really do exist and do not obey natural laws);
idealist epistemology (some people have superior knowledge, by divine revelation or other unexplained gift, or just because they're better, more sensitive people); heteronomous ethics (they are not required to justify their beliefs with evidence nor does God have to justify Himself.)

"In short, tell me what philosophy you use (not just profess,) and I'll tell you what your science is worth. And tell me what science you use (not just pay lip service to,) and I'll tell you what your philosophy is worth."

Fascinating, even if buried in a fringe magazine.

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