Monday, October 30, 2006

Science, Metaphysics, and Their Lack of Trustworthiness

{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 3MB; 3.5min} I think people are easily exasperated with metaphysical discourse, because there's no way to show such talk to be false -- it is not 'defeasible' to use the technical term -- so they think such talk can lead to nowhere trustworthy or useful.

In contrast, people enjoy science discourse; since, they rightly note, it leads to practical technology; moreover, science discourse is defeasible. Indeed, even when science discourse is downright bamboozling, people will put up with it. Again, not so with talk of metaphysics. (For the moment, I’m excluding religious metaphysics, for lots of people seem perfectly happy to endure that kind of unfalsifiable discourse.)

The irony is that the execution of the scientific enterprise presumes many metaphysical assumptions. Here is a short list:

* Generalized claims can be made from observations.
* Observation tells us something about reality.
* Reality is ordered.
* Events in the future will occur with like resemblance to events in the past.

This presents an odd sort of dilemma: The scientific enterprise is based on metaphysical assumptions. Now anything based on metaphysical assumptions is based on non-defeasible assumptions. But being so-based, and reasserting the popular exasperation with metaphysics noted above, forces a surprising conclusion: that the scientific enterprise leads to nowhere trustworthy or useful.

So initially science is understood to be trustworthy and useful; but, upon careful inspection, science should ultimately be understood as lacking these desirable traits.

Perhaps, in the face of this dilemma, non-defeasible assumptions are best accorded as useful afterall! Whether such assumptions are trustworthy is a very difficult question, but they are certainly practical; for, when they are posited, certain conceived and desirable goals are implemented as actions with desirable results. This kind of practicality is the force of argument for religious doctrine: thinking about the world in a certain way, taking certain metaphysical assumptions about God’s existence or non-existence (and so forth), in a phrase “having faith”, allows one’s conceived and desirable goals to be implemented as actions with desirable results. Metaphysical thinking, therefore, has practical value.

As for the trustworthy nature of metaphysical statements, I have little to offer. There is a very weak sense of where a metaphysical assumption is trustworthy – i.e., so long as there is no detected contradiction[1] with another metaphysical assumption (e.g. one can't rationally claim, "Matter exists, and nothing exists." "Tom was born earlier than Jim, and Tom never existed." etc.) Some stronger sense than “no detected contradiction” does not seem available. Being trustworty -- i.e., “worth trust” -- looks like there is a comparison of one thing with another, where something gets some degree of “worth” from the comparison. But there is not some degree of trustworthiness between bivalent values, between true or false. What would it mean, for example, to say that “something is barely not nothing?” However, care must be exercised, since natural languages can fool people with their flexibility. One can give some sense to saying “Tom almost never existed,” but what could it mean to say, “Tom barely never existed.”?

The metaphysics of science has now exasperated me.


[1] The axiom or law of thought that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time, or a thing must either be or not be, or the same attribute can not at the same time be affirmed and and denied of the same subject; also called the law of the excluded middle. ["Principle of Contradiction" The Free Dictionary (Accessed 10/21/06)]



At 9:12 PM, Blogger SpockTheSecond said...

Hello Dr. Montgomery,

I was introduced to this site last year but never got around to reading it or musing on it much. Mr. Pope has somewhat reintroduced me to it, so I thought I might stop by and leave a few of my thoughts:

I have also considered in a broad sense the framework of science and its purpose, especially along the lines of the progression of scientific knowledge through time. After reading this post, it got me thinking, "could all scientific law be classified as metaphysical assumption?" Both are unfalsifiable in a sense, but scientific law is constantly being refined. For example, Newton's laws were found to be true in all conditions--up until 1905, when Einsteinn expanded upon the idea and formulated more detailed laws. Newtonian physics was not proved false persay, but only that they were limited.

I suppose, looking at it another way, Newton based his conclusions on the metaphysical assumption of the invariance of time for all observers, which was later proved false by Einstein (Einstein showed that the speed of light, not time, was the invariant). Of course, the technology and appropriate knowledge didn't exist in Newton's time to study the effects of relativity, so the idea of the invariance of time was to remain an assumption and could not conceivably exist as experimentable element. Perhaps similar conditions apply for any metaphysical assumption. Certain assumptions that would appear unfalsifiable today might not be in the future.

I came up with an interesting analogy when discussing this very same topic with Pope over an unusually satisfying Sodexho dinner. Think of all scientific law and metaphysical assumption--everything which we currently hold to be true in the universe--as a wagon, into which certain amounts of weight are being loaded. These "weights" are all practical applications of science which we use to gather and analyze data and come to conclusions.

Every once in a while, the wagon breaks from all the weight that was loaded into it. Those who load the weight in the wagon are able to see where and how the wagon broke, and they use this information to construct a sturdier wagon that is not only able to hold all the weight of the previous wagon, but additional weight as well, after a certain amount of time (and weight), this wagon might also break, and the process is repeated. The ultimate goal is to build a wagon that is able to hold any amount of weight.

Now we can view those who favor metaphysical discourse as the wagon-builders, and those who favor scientific discourse as the weight-loaders (Of course, there are some who are both weight-loaders and wagon-builders). Wagon-builders can't figure out how to build a better wagon unless the weight-loaders fill the wagon with weight, and weight-loaders can't load weight unless wagon-builders build them a wagon. Thus, they are dependent upon and useful to each other, despite the fact that the physical labor involved in "weight-loading" might seem more practical and useful than the more analytical approach taken in "wagon-building." Moreover, they share a common goal--that "ultimate" goal previously mentioned. The same idea exists between science and metaphysics. Since they are mutually beneficial, they are both practical and useful, and will continue to be more so as we continue to refine our knowledge and understanding of reality.

Well, I'll stop there, because I have to do some "weight-loading" myself (General Physics homework...sigh). This was definitely a welcome respite however, and I hope to return here soon and often.


At 9:14 PM, Blogger SpockTheSecond said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:13 PM, Blogger brinticus said...

Mr. Cabe:

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. When you wrote that, "Perhaps similar conditions apply for any metaphysical assumption. Certain assumptions that would appear unfalsifiable today might not be in the future," I found myself in agreement. Sometimes what appears as a metaphysical claim eventually turns out to be testable. In this way, any sufficiently abstract scientific position might appear to a conceptually primitive people as metaphysics. It's hard to know ahead of time, however, which scientific posits are truly metaphysics, and which one's are not.


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