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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Part 8.5: Science Thinking

Much of the science of thinking or epistemology comes from the study of thinking in science. That is, scientists reflecting on their method.

My introduction to the science of thinking about science came from Bernard Lonergan's Insight: A Study of Understanding followed by Karl Popper Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge and Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Lonergan laid out the process of thinking scientifically in stages, which while not exactly accurate in fact*, is great pedagogically for understanding elements of the thinking act not only in science but in all thinking. Experience, Understanding, Judgment. He describes the experiential moment that sparks the question. The question that promotes the finding of relationships and relationships of relationships in the experience. The Insight that puts forth a theory or formula by which the relationships are understood as an explanation. And then putting forth that explanation into the public forum where it can be tested through further experiments and judged as a verified theory or a scientific law or submitted for a better explanation.

Popper demonstrates that if a scientific statement cannot be tested for verifiability and so cannot be falsified, then it is no scientific statement at all. To say gremlins are what is making my television work, but that they disappear when I look to find them, is a statement that cannot be falsified. To say that the gods started the universe, but you have to take it on faith and have no way of disproving it, is not only a bad explanation but a meaningless one.

Lonergan also discussed what he called "higher viewpoints" when we encounter a conflict in ideas at one level and go to a new level of abstraction in order to come up with a more fruitful model for explanation. David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity) has argued that science could not advance until there was developed a "culture of criticism" whereby a large population sought to expand knowledge through ongoing inquiry and critiquing the answers that were previously given to explain things as occurred in the Enlightenment.

Historian of science Thomas Kuhn has argued that scientific revolutions occur when incremental answers to problems become inadequate and inconsistent in explaining things so that a new broad idea rearranges the existing system of ideas to accommodate what we already know but solve some their problems. He called this a "paradigm shift"--itself a sort of paradigm that was not well understood, but is now almost a cliche.

"Model-based realism" is the philosophy of science that Steven Hawking proposes. Knowing reality means providing a model that is elegant, consistent, comprehensive and predictive, Elegance is simplifying complexities, consistency is having few adjustable elements, comprehensiveness is accounting for all known observations and theories, and predictive means that the model can predict outcomes that can be used to falsify the model.

Contrary to Hawking however, there is no end to the inquiry because every explanation at one level will create problems, e.g. complexities, inconsistencies, and new unknowables that need to be solved at a higher level of abstraction.** However, there does occur what David Deutsch calls "a jump to universality" when explanations develop the tools not just to solve a problem in the concrete now, but for everywhere and anytime. The creation of an alphabet based language and a mathematics based science are instances of this.

Lonergan attributes the progress in science to "the unrestricted desire to know" and Deutsche to the "beginning of infinity" which occurred when humanity developed the capacity to think and began exercising it.

Science aims to explain reality and thus provide the answer to the question "why" and "how" of all things. The desire to know reality and understand the world has been stimulated in us by our nature when our species evolved the ability to symbolize. It is also stimulated, if we are fortunate, by our nurture through a critical culture and open society that values knowing and the education that encourages knowing. We have a drive for meaning.

But we have seen that there are other ways of knowing that also provide meaning. Common sense, art, religion, and philosophy are ways of thinking that can be distinguished from science and each other in order to understand them better.

Our day to day living is guided by what we call "common sense." This is the knowledge contained in aphorisms, maxims, proverbs that apply to immediate and parochial situations. "Why reinvent the wheel," "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," "a stitch in time saves nine," "seize the day" are not, and are not intended to be, universal laws. Indeed they often contradiction each other, but are often useful for particular situations. They can be informed by science and often need to be challenged and adjudicated by science when they get in the way of advancing our knowledge.

Art I have argued is placing, arranging, exploring patterns in our experience. And the aesthetic sense is delighting in those patterns. Those patterns can be criticized, modified, supplanted by other forms though they are built upon the precedent ones as jazz builds on classical music while introducing Asian and as pop art builds on impressionism that builds on romanticism. Science requires the aesthetic imagination to develop new models of explanation and feeds back new experiences and ways to imagine the world.

Religion since the scientific revolution, including its use of myth, art, and ritual, has four functions in its relation to humanity's advance through thinking. It does not determine the laws of reality; it does not explain the origins of the universe, the world, life, and humanity. But it does:

1) Affirm that there is a meaning to life and human existence, even in the face of seeming absurdity, by helping in the creation of the overall narratives and belief systems that encourages our ongoing search, i.e. transcendence.

2) Counsel faith and optimism as we keep trying to solve our problems, moral, social, economic, political and to do so scientifically, i.e. with openness, critique, evidence, community.

3) Connect us with others including strangers across all boundaries so that we see all persons as thinkers, full participants in our human endeavor, and creators of our community and our world.

4) Teach us to reject iconoclasm and idolatry--both the destruction of symbols and artifacts that helped humans in diverse situations look for higher meaning as well as reifying symbols, words, and doctrines as absolutes that cannot be criticized and surpassed.

Philosophy is the scientist, citizen, artist, and believer reflecting on his or her activity and its products, critiquing them to design them better, relating those activities to each other.  Philosophy centers more on the activity as it is being carried out and attempts to describe and explain human existence in general within all these activities. Philosophy also inquires into the expressions or products of these activities and their organization in culture as well as the political economy of that culture. It is the tool of human thinkers and actors, us, to reflect on and criticize ourselves as a way of choosing who we want to be and what kind of a world we want to inhabit.


*Lonergan's stages can give the mistaken impression of empiricism in the first stage (experience itself reveals the form in matter), instrumentalism in the second stage (what we come up with as an answer is totally relative and does not relate to objective reality, and positivism in the third stage (everything needs to be observed to be scientific reality). Recognizing experience, understanding (including question, insight, concept), and judgment (critique and verification) as dimensions or interacting moments or elements of science is more helpful for me.

**Hawking in his quest for the Unified Theory of Everything speaks in his Brief History of Time and Grand Design as though we will then come to the end of science. He says metaphorically that we will know the mind of God.

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