Quid Pro Quo
September 07, 2006
We have already seen how Popper suggested
that we could erect a boundary between science and metaphysics at the point of
falsification, but the implications of this choice reach further than might be
expected. If we choose to enforce Popper’s milestone, then Intelligent Design
has absolutely no business claiming to be part of science – but there are many
ideas currently considered science which must equally be excluded in this
scenario. We will find ourselves faced with a difficult choice – enforce Popper’s
milestone and science must ‘clean house’ and set aside anything that belongs in
metaphysics, or else follow Feyerabend’s lead and accept that there is no
viable boundary condition for science.
Remember Popper’s argument that a universal theory can be falsified by disconfirming evidence, and that a theory that cannot be falsified is therefore metaphysics and not science. Clearly, in the case of Intelligent Design there is absolutely no question at all of falsification, and therefore ID belongs in metaphysics and not science by Popper’s milestone. It is also worth noting that ID is couched in terms of an ‘ultimate cause’, and the idea of assigning such an ultimate cause has classically been the domain of metaphysics and not of science.
(Note that I feel that there may be a case for ID to be taught in US schools – but as philosophy, not as science. I was delighted to hear Robert T. Miller, in his criticism of Intelligent Design, advance the same argument!)
But before those against Intelligent Design leap too willingly in support of Popper’s milestone, we must be clear that it cuts both ways. There are many things currently discussed as science which are not testable (and hence not falsifiable) and as such must be considered metaphysics by Popper’s criteria. I would go so far to suggest that the very reason that Intelligent Design has been proposed at all is because careless scientists with no understanding of philosophy have been gradually trespassing on religions home turf (metaphysics and ethics) and claiming to have universally True answers. But there are no universally True answers in metaphysics! Metaphysics is always a matter of belief.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the
dozens of quantum interpretations that now exist. These include the Copenhagen
interpretation, which claims that the waveform collapses at random; the Bohm
interpretation, which posits a non-local universal waveform that allows distant
particles to interact instantaneously; the Transactional interpretation, which
views interactions as the product of dual waveforms moving both backwards and
forwards in time; the “Observer Created Reality” (OCR) interpretation beloved
by mystics, whereby the conscious observer is responsible for the collapse of
the waveform; and the Many Worlds interpretation (or MWI) beloved by science
fiction writers, which attempts to resurrect determinism by positing the
existence of multiple “branching timelines” during waveform collapse.
Now we are free to interpret quantum mechanics however we wish, but the various quantum interpretations provide no means of distinguishing themselves from each other, and are not falsifiable in any demonstrable way. I shall focus on the Many Worlds interpretation, but it should be understood that the criticisms of this are equally applicable to any of the quantum interpretations.
It is presumably immediately clear why Popper’s milestone places MWI in metaphysics – the very formulation of this interpretation postulates mutually unobservable branching histories. Since these branching histories are not observable, they are not testable, can never be falsified and therefore lie clearly inside metaphysics. Hugh Everett, who formulated the original relative state model that gave rise to MWI claimed that it was falsifiable because any observation that falsified quantum mechanics would also falsify MWI. It is not at all clear why he believed that such a vacant tautology would be sufficient justification, since any interpretation of quantum mechanics can make the same claim.
The Israeli physicist Asher Peres was one
of many outspoken critics of MWI, most notably in his book Everett’s
Interpretation and Other Bizarre Theories. He questioned whether MWI was
really an “interpretation”, and even asked (not unjustifiably!) whether
quantum interpretations were needed at all. For science and technology, the
interpretations add nothing whatsoever to the body of knowledge. All they add
is a metaphysical component, and as such we are all free to choose which
quantum interpretation we wish and incorporate it into our belief
What of the suggestion that at some future point we might, for instance, be able to travel between the different timelines suggested by MWI, as happens so frequently in science fiction? Well, even if this speculation were later to be instantiated, this would not rescue MWI from being metaphysics now. After all, certain religious figures claim that at some future point God will reveal itself to mankind directly – but we're not going to let God out of metaphysics, and equally we should not be deceived into believing that MWI is anything other than a metaphysical belief.
Neither are quantum interpretations the
only metaphysical entities lurking inside science. In physics, we must also
accept that a great many astrophysical cosmologies provide no testable
basis. In biology, we need to recognise that the majority of teleological
claims cannot be tested – as Stephen J. Gould observed, we cannot know what
aspects of an organism conferred a selective advantage and what is a random
artefact of evolution. In chemistry, the periodic table has a metaphysical
component because its arrangement is partially subjective and cannot be tested.
(Note that this does not invalidate the periodic table, which after all is
simply a means of teaching chemistry, it just means that no-one can point to a
single periodic table and claim “this is the real periodic table”).
There is, was, and always will be a vibrant exchange of ideas between science and metaphysics, whether or not we agree to enforce Popper’s milestone. We are free to adopt whatever metaphysics we wish to inspire and guide our scientific investigations, but if we wish to use Popper’s criteria as a boundary condition for science we have an obligation to distinguish between that which is testable and that which is metaphysical. We should not be shy of this obligation, as it allows us to significantly clarify our thinking on a great many different topics.
Alternatively, we can reject Popper’s
solution, which in any case can only work if we mutually agree to uphold it, leaving
us facing Feyerabend’s position that there are no lasting boundary conditions
to science (or indeed to any human endeavour), in which case the whole
Intelligent Design debacle becomes a debate between people with
different metaphysical frameworks, with little hope of resolution. The fact
that one side of the debate rejects the scientific status of the other is of
little consequence, because without a boundary condition to assert there is no
way to say what “is science” and what “is not”.
I prefer to follow Popper’s suggestion, as it not only keeps religion out of science, but it keeps science out of religion. If we keep these two domains of human experience separate, we will be in a significantly better position to understand the universe through the exploratory mechanisms of science, carefully delineated from metaphysics of all kinds, as well as being able to foster a more tolerant and progressive society in which we acknowledge people’s absolute right to hold different metaphysical viewpoints without feeling the need to attack people’s beliefs solely for being different from our own. It remains to be seen if such a state of affairs can be achieved.
The opening image is Quid Pro Quo, by Gary Pruner, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied and I will take the image down if asked.
In an ironic (almost Godelian) way, it strikes me that since Feyerabend provides an alternative to Popper's milestone, the concept of the milestone itself enters the realm of metaphysics through its own argument, which in turn reinforces Feyerabend.
But here's a thought: if Feyerabend's argument can be taken as a law (say the Law of Conservation of Human Uncertainty), then in a sense it forms a paradox, sort of like Russell's paradox of infinite sets (was it infinite sets? Some class of sets, anyway). Since if there are no boundary conditions in science, we cannot claim finality of any scientifitc theory or argument (since to do so would introduce a boundary of finality), and must accept that given enough time all science will be reformulated. But this implies Feyerabend's Law must also change, which allows some arbitrary boundary condition to be introduced, invlaidating the Law.
Of course, its all just playing word games :D
Posted by: zenBen | September 07, 2006 at 08:47 PM
Chris: "(...)I would go so far to suggest that the very reason that Intelligent Design has been proposed at all is because careless scientists with no understanding of philosophy have been gradually trespassing on religions home turf (...)"
Oh yes, and I would add (if you look at clubs like the Edge.org crowd) that they do so with the arrogant posture of "the avantgardist of the second enlightenment" - carelessness or lack of education in philosophical and historical fields, lack of insight into or genuine ignorance of social and political matters etc.
Posted by: translucy | September 07, 2006 at 09:13 PM
Chris: "(...) , as well as being able to foster a more tolerant and progressive society in which we acknowledge people’s absolute right to hold different metaphysical viewpoints without feeling the need to attack people’s beliefs solely for being different from our own (...)"
What you seem to be reaffirming here is the age-old insight that the "epistemological dilemma" or the "paradox of the radical skeptic" (the "Erkenntnisproblem") cannot be resolved by reason alone, but has to be resolved by finding an ethically and mutually sustainable "way of life" or "modus vivendi". (Kant anyone?)
It's at this point that *meta-physics* needs to be turned into *meta-ethics* - an insight that at least in some societies was not only understood and but also recorded in written as well as practiced tradition so many years ago that the very fact seems simply too embarrassing for many westerner to acknowledged today (esp. if you are hooked on tech kool-aid - all they get out of it is eso-web 3.0 ...)
Posted by: translucy | September 07, 2006 at 09:24 PM
I'm going to diverge and defend memes briefly.
Memetics may very well be another metaphysics since the precise unit, though qualifiably defined (broadly as an electrical pattern) is extremely difficult to measure in a qualitative manner. On the other hand, what differentiates memetics from every other philosophical categorization is that memetics admits any model of memes is itself a vacant construct, merely a physical pattern in a brain trying to represent physical patterns. In other words, the metaphyiscs of memes is contigent on the notion that there is no metaphyics.
Think about that shit next time you're blazed (which I'm guessing will be sometime in November).
Posted by: Patrick | September 08, 2006 at 12:15 AM
Thanks for the comments everyone! This 'campaign' has been building up to this post, as I've now covered just about all I have on metaphysics for the time being, apart from a couple of follow up posts on specific points which I'll aim to do next week.
ZenBen: Feyerabend didn't like his ideas to be presented as Laws, and saw them simply as observations. :)
"we cannot claim finality of any scientific theory or argument (since to do so would introduce a boundary of finality), and must accept that given enough time all science will be reformulated."
I completely agree with this statement! This is why I sometimes make the ironic point that the stereotypical Skeptic in trying to avoid being "wrong" during their lifetime has chosen a belief system which is definitely "wrong" in some important ways, but which we cannot know *how* it is wrong until some time in the future. :) If one wishes to avoid being wrong, the only safe course of action is agnosticism! :D
Patrick: you have so much more fun with the notion of memes than I ever do. :)
translucy: I thought you of all people might appreciate this post. :) And as you say, this is the end of the line for my metaphysics for the time being - now I must head for ethics. My copy of Arendt arrived earlier this week; I'm looking forward to reading it when I finish the Wu Wei Wu I'm currently reading.
Best wishes to you all!
Posted by: Chris | September 08, 2006 at 08:02 AM
"the stereotypical Skeptic in trying to avoid being "wrong" during their lifetime has chosen a belief system which is definitely "wrong" in some important ways, but which we cannot know *how* it is wrong until some time in the future. :)"
Yup. Whether this is, overall, a help or hindrance to the skeptic is open to debate, I think. But I'd hope that a well-informed skeptic would accept that point.
Now an interesting point. Let's rephrase that slightly as follows: "the stereotypical non-Skeptic has chosen a belief system which is definitely "wrong" in some important ways, but which we cannot know *how* it is wrong until some time in the future." Does this ring any more or less true to you than Chris' point about the Skeptic? And out of the populations of Skeptics and non-Skeptics, in which population would the members be more likely to accept the criticism? (I don't know the answer to the second; I have my own answer to the first)
Posted by: Peter Crowther | September 08, 2006 at 01:00 PM
I'm not sure what a 'stereotypical non-Skeptic' would be... the class 'Skeptic' seems more clearly defined in terms of sterotypicality than its negation. :)
The average person on the street probably has fewer testable beliefs (with beliefs such as the superiority of their sporting team, or belief in God, or faith in their own nation), so I would suggest the negated point rings marginally less true.
Anyway, please remember that my comment was ironic (I even said as such!) :D It wasn't meant to be an attack on your belief system - I consider you to be a pretty good advertisment for Skepticism, actually. :)
Posted by: Chris | September 08, 2006 at 01:48 PM
Chris - I don't consider your comment an attack, in fact you might notice that I agree with it!
As a skeptic (is the small-s relevant?) and more particularly as a professional programmer, considering negated classes and negated points is part of my stock in trade. Framing a question is incredibly important, as drafters of referendums have discovered over the years. "Do you want to abolish the Pound?" and "Do you want to join the European-wide community of Euro users?" are the same question in the UK, but I suspect the phrasing would make a significant difference to the outcome of a poll. Often, examining the negation of a point will bring a new view; sometimes it will indicate that the question is poorly framed or indeed poorly formulated. If the question is intended to be a razor of some kind, it's quite common for me to find that I've phrased it so that the razor is in the wrong place!
Anyway, this is drifting off the topic of this discussion. A common problem for me.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | September 08, 2006 at 06:29 PM
Drift where you like, Peter. :)
My capital 'S' suggests to me I might think of Skepticism as a nonreligion. There doesn't appear to be an ethical dimension, nor much of a mythology/central narrative, which would appear to be a counterargument. As a practicing (s/S)keptic, what do you think about this?
Posted by: Chris | September 09, 2006 at 09:22 AM
Peter: "If the question is intended to be a razor of some kind, it's quite common for me to find that I've phrased it so that the razor is in the wrong place!"
This not at all OT! Rather it's another important angle on the meta-physics-ethics-complex.
The importance is this: use negation on people's beliefs in order to test whether the belief they hold makes any difference to the question at hand.
So in the case of "skepticism": in which area is the difference between skeptic/non-skeptic relevant to further rational discourse?
My answer: in the _way_ skeptics and non-skeptics try to justify and further re-adjust their ethics, morals, politics!
Look at the fine-grained details e.g. "this ought to be donebecuase it was revealed by Jesus to us" v. "this ought to be done becuase it was discovered in a brain scanner". What are the pratical day-to-day differences resulting from those types of justifcations?
Posted by: translucy | September 09, 2006 at 11:56 AM