Scientism and Paths to Knowledge, Understanding, and Truth


Thank you, now I have a much better understanding of what you meant. You are saying that there are some examples of people doing “science” in such a way that it relies on math without having any empirical basis or sometimes even any falsifiability. I agree.

This is especially troubling when there are cases of people doing abstract modelling and then assuming that the abstract model exactly captures the facts of the real world without actually doing any empirical checking. I see it as being most egregious in economics where these freshwater economists will create elaborate models based on an idealized self-interested actor and then assume that reality exactly conforms to it and then make the argument that they can’t possibly be wrong because the math is irrefutable. They just skip the part where we recognize that people are not idealized self-interested actors.

I’m still trying to work out what people mean exactly by “scientism”. There seems to be at least two senses of the word being used in this thread.

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I don’t think it would be the internet if we all understood what each other meant.

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So you would say that knowledge is perception?

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Are you painting the picture in order to generate such evidence? of course not. The real question is why would you paint a picture of a dragon

Isn’t this just saying yes with extra steps?

I mean, since a painting of a dragon cannot be evidence of a dragon then said painting is really just paint applied on a canvas in a pattern we would call dragon? The intention of drawing a dragon just an illusion of the painter? How are these phenomenon not knowledge by your definition?

I know it’s not what your you are saying but it seems as if you are arguing that one painting of a dragon is as good as another because evidence already exists of the phenomenon of dragon painting so no new knowledge is being generated.

Also, knowledge as evidence for something in and of itself seems problematic given our ability to misinterpret things as you say.

I’m aware that it almost seems as if I’m preparing to make the argument you refer to here:

I’m not, though it would be useful to distinguish between the good and bad faith form of the argument. I can say “science isn’t the only way of knowing” in order to dismiss that which challenges my wolrdview, a bad faith argument, and I could also say “science isn’t the only way of knowing” in order to refute a worldview that dismisses faith and gut feeling as things not worth entertaining, an argument that can be made in good faith.

I defend neither here.*

I make a distinction between what is the scientific method and knowledge derived from the scientific method. That we only derive knowledge from the scientific method that we care to look into or think we can make use of is one of many limitations that prevent us from using scientific knowledge as the only things worth knowing or the only valid ways of knowing.
Knowledge as evidence is a fine heuristic for guarding against woo, but lacks nuance for discussions such as this one where metaphysics is involved.

* For the record, my position is that being able to distinguish gut feeling from fact does not diminish the role of the phenomenon known as gut feeling as irrelevant or inherently untrustworthy, and that anybody claiming to not rely on gut feeling in their decision making could stand to be more self aware. Lookup “alexithymia and decision making” for some evidence of my position.

Again, the point of math is to work through the consequences of its rules, just as the point of Chess or other games are. The conclusions can only be true or false within the context of the rules and not the real world, although if the rules are specified in a way that resembles the real world, they may suggest something that is worth investigating in reality (like how the motions of the inner known planets suggested to astronomers that something like Neptune had to exist before anyone discovered it). But Herschel had to still show Neptune existed in reality.

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But even in a multiverse, the “platonic” “true” math system would still be one per verse, no? But the problem with the whole Platonic idea is the same problem of so many philosophical musings like whether we are just brains in vats – there’s no way to test it, so it is ultimately intellectually empty.

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Did they use similar techniques for constructing mobile goalposts?

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Not to be overly facetious, but do you have a testability-ometer? If not, then I think your claim that ideas are untestable is outside the realm of science and into the realm of philosophy. Of course I agree with you that the brain-in-a-jar stuff - as a truth-claim - is definitely untestable, but it appears you are saying that that brain-in-a-jar stuff is intellectually empty and the idea that it is intellectually empty is intellectually empty.

The practical problem with that from a science perspective is that what appears untestable at one time might turn out to be testable at another. Sometimes people have to come up with new idea that we can’t test in order to be inspired to figure out how to test them (or to inspire someone in the future to figure out how to test them).

I’d argue that another problem is that untestable ideas aren’t “intellectually empty”. They can instead be totally functional in a scientifically verifiable way. Functional to talk about if not functional to actually test the truth value of. A discussion about being brains in jars might really discussion about anxiety about a person’s place in the world.

Whether or not we have a purpose is, to my mind, probably a scientific question that we don’t yet have the apparatus to confront (someone else may argue it’s just a non-scientific question). But whether or not a belief that we have a purpose has an effect on mental health is well studied - it does.

Anxiety is real. We can see it (or something highly correlated to it) on FMRI scans. (Aside: this is a good example of something that would have been thought of as untestable a hundred or two hundred years previous - not untestable as in “we can’t test it yet” but untestable as in “it’s utterly inconceivable that this could ever be tested; if this could ever be tested my entire idea of what reality is would crash down around me”). So now that “intellectually empty” is dismissing people addressing real health issues. Because processing their emotions through metaphor works. Therapists use metaphors to help patients talk about feelings all the time, and they developed that technique by trial and error, by notes, by experiment, etc., that is, through science.

Which, to go back to the topic of the thread, is I think why people get annoyed with what they perceive as “scientism”. The issue is that someone can take the idea that we can only have knowledge of testable hypotheses, apply it, and end up saying that someone taking physically measurable actions (such as communicating to a friend through compressions in the air) that have a physically measurable effect on the functioning of their brain (e.g. whether their auditory processing works properly or produces hallucinations) and say that nothing is happening there, that it’s empty, that it is outside of science.

It’s not that science dismisses those things or diminishes them. It’s that some people cloak their dismissal of those things in science.

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Again, what do you make of probability theory?

But more to the point, of what importance is the real world? Are we not always dealing with a series of hypothetical worlds, whether modeling from what we observe or modeling from logic to predict what we will observe? There is more to both math and science than real-world applications.

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@Humbabella

Not to be overly facetious, but do you have a testability-ometer? If not, then I think your claim that ideas are untestable is outside the realm of science and into the realm of philosophy.

No, but I don’t need one. It’s not my responsibility to find a way of testing whether we are brains in jars, or if there’s a monster living in Loch Ness, or if various deities exist. Instead, the people promoting these truth of these statements need to present evidence of how they tested these extraordinary claims. This is real problem: lots of people use the argument that “science can’t disprove X” to imply X is a reasonable belief without any way to test the truth of X. If even the supporters of an idea can’t come up with an way to test it, calling it “untestable” is a reasonable summary of the case.

@Jesse13927

Again, what do you make of probability theory?

I thought I covered this. It’s just a branch of math no different from any other one, originally created to understand dice, but applicable to other cases. What are you trying to get at?

But more to the point, of what importance is the real world? Are we not always dealing with a series of hypothetical worlds, whether modeling from what we observe or modeling from logic to predict what we will observe?

As George Box famously wrote, “All models are wrong but some are useful”, meaning that all mathematical models are (by design) oversimplifications of the real world, but they often produce results that are still close enough to real world measurements to still use them to make useful predictions. Sometimes they don’t and we have to create a better model that incorporates some of the stuff we ignored.

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So you are saying that science attempts to understand objective reality while mathematics does not rely on, or even really need, any sort of objective reality to make sense?

Fair enough. I would say that you are putting too much emphasis on objective reality (I personally think it’s overrated), but that is more of a philosophical issue. I simply do not believe that something has to be real to be valid (and vice versa), but I see your point now. Science is always looking at something that exists and mathematics can just as easily look at things that don’t exist.

My only reason for bringing up probability theory is that one can do experiments and obtain empirical evidence in that field of mathematics. By contrast, one can not do experiments in astrophysics (I should have been more clear than simply referring to astronomy…), and a lot of the empirical evidence that we have in the field is based on assumptions about how things should move, though I suppose that you can say that there are things that are moving and that’s what matters.

But again, “it’s not your responsibility” isn’t a statement of testable fact. It’s a statement of belief or values, you know, things you called “intellectually empty”.

Choosing not to do something doesn’t require denying the value of a broad category of behaviour that includes the thing you don’t want to do. Calling the act of thinking about untestable ideas “intellectually empty” looks to me like the product of an essentially dualist view of the world where truth and ideas exist in a magical world that isn’t this one. When we think about things we physically rearrange our brains to be better at thinking about those things. It’s the equivalent of saying that weight-lifting is “physically empty” because it doesn’t do any real work that needs to be done.

Some people are really annoying. Some people are con artists trying to sell something. Some ideas aren’t worth our time. We can deal with all of those problems without denying the reality that examining ideas that we believe to be untestable can be a worthwhile activity.

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I think you miss the relevance of the ‘brain in a jar’ thought experiment.

Given that your arguments that anything that cannot be tested is irrelevant and that the only path to knowledge is via evidence of ‘real world’ outcomes, how do you square that with your view that the brain in a jar hypothesis cannot be tested - and therefore neither can the «we are not brains in a jar but are actually perceiving the ‘real world’« hypothesis?

If you cannot “test” the reliability of your sense experiences, how can you reliably test anything else?

As has been said above, these are not new debates and so far as I know no one has been able to answer it satisfactorily. The best we have been able to do is various versions of “we can’t usefully do anything other than assume our senses tell us something useful about the real world at least some of the time”.

But that is hardly approaching the intellectual rigour you are trying to insist upon.

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We are brains in a jar-the jar just happens to have various outside sensors attached to it, and have a mobile chassis.

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Do I know that the entire field of epistemology will not be settled in a BBS thread?

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It depends entirely on how much more I decide to post. :slight_smile:

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So you are saying that science attempts to understand objective reality while mathematics does not rely on, or even really need, any sort of objective reality to make sense?

Yes.

My only reason for bringing up probability theory is that one can do experiments and obtain empirical evidence in that field of mathematics.

Not really any more than other branches of math that model reality. Yes, you can roll dice and show the results (in the long term) are what probability theory predicts, but that isn’t doing anything more than showing that probability theory was well designed for what it was created for. Similarly you can measure the area of your room empirically and compare it to what geometry says based on the shape and sides of the room, but that’s because measuring areas in the real world is what traditional geometry was designed for, although people like Euclid and others were interested in the geometry for its own sake.

By contrast, one can not do experiments in astrophysics (I should have been more clear than simply referring to astronomy…),

Many nuclear bomb designers have backgrounds in astrophysics because those big fusioney things in space aren’t all that different from the smaller ones we can create on Earth (even if we thankfully have mostly moved away from dangerous physical tests of them). So, in a sense we can do experiments in astrophysics.

But that’s beside the point because while it is true that we can’t do experiments in all sciences, either because they are historical sciences like paleontology, or because of ethical issues (we can create mutant flies to study genetics, but can’t ethically create human mutants). But designed experiments aren’t the only way to do science. We can, for example, take advantage of “natural experiments” where datasets naturally take the shape of test and control groups.

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Given that your arguments that anything that cannot be tested is irrelevant and that the only path to knowledge is via evidence of ‘real world’ outcomes, how do you square that with your view that the brain in a jar hypothesis cannot be tested - and therefore neither can the «we are not brains in a jar but are actually perceiving the ‘real world’« hypothesis?

No. The problem with this is exactly the same thing where theologians assume the existence of God and say that atheists have to show that He doesn’t. The “brain in a jar” hypothesis requires us to accept there are being(s) who created these jars and who are feeding us information. These things need evidence.

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I see what you are saying now, but would it not also be true to say that, although science attempts to understand objective reality, it (or rather we) can only really do so through imperfect models of reality?

The way I see it, the distinction blurs in fields of mathematics that are highly based on reality and in fields of science that are highly theoretical. I am sorry that my examples of such fields were poor, but that is what I was going for. Would you say then that science is a process of discovering reality while mathematics (can) define the boundaries of that process but cannot directly undertake that process?

If you don’t mind my asking, are you a mathematician who sees your field as unbound by reality or are you a scientist who sees mathematics as a tool in your field? Your initial remark comparing math to chess at first seemed dismissive, but I see now that you had no such intent. I only ask because I have had this conversation with both mathematicians and scientists (I am sadly neither) before and have heard a range of opinions on the matter

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