On the importance of the philosophy of science

Many people lie in a casual ‘I’ll recognise it when I see it’ relationship with science. That ambiguity gives room for any interlocutor to add sudden vagaries to their criteria, hurriedly adding and removing things from their definition of science to suit their needs. Science can suddenly need to be given a ‘direct observation’ criteria because someone doesn’t like a particular scientific principle, ignoring the fact that this throws out all of forensics, for example. Having this relationship with science is ― as we shall discuss ― degenerative. And so this is an exploration of one more steady idea of science; not something you can recognise after the fact, but actively hunt for.

The purpose of this post is to take you on a small journey from an entry level concept within the philosophy of science to one of the more nuanced (but less well defined) ideas that are built upon it.

There is a well heard of (but less well understood) demarcation to delineate science, Popperian falsification. And that acts as a good rule of thumb, but there is a lot more to say about defining science than just that. It has its weaknesses and a lot of development has happened based around this early idea. One of those developments (as well as encompassing other elements of the philosophy of science) is Lakatos’ programs of science, and it includes a broader definition of science.

This breadth is alluded to when Sam Harris tries to point out there is no demarcation between science and philosophy. Instead, Harris believes there is a demarcation between rational projects and pseudorational projects, and that science should not be considered an endeavour distinction from the rest of human rationality. That demarcation is whether one is making “valid claims” about reality (Harris, 2014). There is a lot to be said about this broader definition of science, and understanding why and how it applies to modern disciplines is vital for having the more nuanced conversations about the power and limits of science.

A “valid claim” would appear to be one that is supported by specific empirical data, consistent thinking and good reasons more generally. The validity of claims are evaluated in a knowledge-centric context, because reality-centric contexts are impossible to use; knowledge-centricism is as close as we can get and as available to us as reality gets.

When I say ‘specific empirical data’ I allude back to falsification, where there must be a difference in the data one expects if a hypothesis or idea is true or not. But there are problems with falsification.

Falsifying a theory is easy. All one needs is a slightly erroneous conception of the model, or dishonest scrutiny, or an experimental design flaw, or a mistake, or an honest-to-goodness anomalie. Valid falsification of an actual theory is slightly harder. That is why there are a number of philosophies of science that take the spirit of Popperian falsification but reject the strict letter of it.

Deutschian fallibilism (Deutsch, 2011) encompasses all that I have discussed here. It is knowledge-centric and relies on building conjectures out of existing data to make predictions about future data. It’s about creating explanations that hold up against scrutiny, and holding them as provisionally true.

This is an element of the philosophy of science I was to briefly look at, for its initial detraction from what science of often thought as, but its subsequent very powerful very of what science is and the blurred demarcation between science and nonscience. It is Hungarian philosopher Imre Lakatos and his programs of science I want to look at (SisyphusRedeemed, 2017a, 2017b, 2017c)

Lakatos’ programs of science are well illustrated by Hawking and Mlodinow, talking of the fact that a ‘Grand Unified Theory’, or theory of everything, may actually consist of a number of overlapping ‘maps’, a granulated theory of everything. The idea is that many programs can share an intellectual space, so long as they are “progressive programs” (I’ll get to the definition soon). For example, psychology can be populated by many explanatory programs: cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology and behavioural psychology. The programs do not compete with each other; so long as they function, they are defensible human rationality.

Lakatos’ programs have two key features that allow it to circumvent some of the concerns with falsification, like data not always being reliable and a body of contradictory data may exist merely as a consequence of a large volume of investigations, some proportion of which were anomalous or poorly designed, or smaller and nonessential elements of a theory being attacked which don’t necessarily justify throwing out the whole theory.

This first feature is that the program has a conceptual anatomy: there is an essential core that defines the program, and there are supporting bridges, which are more flexible. In evolution, for example, the core is concepts like descent with modification and common ancestry; the support bridges are things like natural selection. If natural selection were found to be lacking ― say, because microbes are so sensitive to mutation and variation that a great deal of their features were better explained by non-deleterious variation than survival ― or if genetic variation were found to be less important than epigenetic pressure, then those supporting bridges would either be adapted or abandoned, or more bridges added. The core idea ― genetic changes across a population or common descent ― doesn’t need to change. Under Popper’s falsification all of evolution would have to be thrown out, instead of developing and refining the idea.

The second feature is that Lakatos’ programs don’t rise and fall based on their ability to account for existing data. Existing data may well be wrong. It rises and falls based on its ability to make predictions. A good program is one that is “progressive”, which means it can make specific predictions and when a supporting bridge is attacked it is refined in such a way that improves its predictive ability. The program is progressing.

By contrast, a degenerative program is one that loses its ability to make predictions by becoming either increasingly vague or increasingly wrong as it adapts to criticism. Marxism is a good example of this, as one of the supporting bridges of Marxism predicts that the first class revolutions would happen in industrialised states, but the first major one happened in the mostly agrarian Soviet Union. To make sense of this, Marxism had to be adapted and forms of Marxism no longer make reliable predictions; it has degenerated. (That is not to say it can’t be saved, and that class struggles really are the best predictor of socio political situations, but the prediction has to be made before the event.)

One of the consequences of this is that it is not possible to tell what programs are ‘progressive’. It is possible to tell that a program has been progressive, but a current adaptation of the program may have destroyed that; it is only possible to tell that historical programs have been progressive. Lakatos doesn’t accept the idea of an instant recognition of rationality, but instead offers us a retrospective rationality. However, it is possible to say that peer review will slowly strip away any degenerative variation to an otherwise good program.

To answer the title of the post, it is important to understand some of the philosophy of science to recognise that science is not some perfect and discrete entity. Lakatos would, no doubt, agree that the program of science has been progressive and has found defensible facts and models and programs of reality. But it requires scrutiny. It requires attention. Its boundaries are blurred.

(If any one else would like to write about a philosophy of science, I’m interested in hosting a guest writer for that.)

Deutsch, D. (2011) The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. (no place) Penguin.

Harris, S. (2014) Our Narrow Definition of ‘Science’. Available from: https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/our-narrow-definition-of-science/ [Accessed 24 March 2017].

Post-Kuhnian Philosophy of Science: Imre Lakatos (1 of 3) (2017a) [online]. Directed by SisyphusRedeemed. (no place) Youtube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VExVaR8S_wQ [Accessed 24 March 2017].

Post-Kuhnian Philosophy of Science: Imre Lakatos (2 of 3) (2017b) [online]. Directed by SisyphusRedeemed. (no place) Youtube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezJH8MTgTxQ [Accessed 24 March 2017].

Post-Kuhnian Philosophy of Science: Imre Lakatos (3 of 3) (2017c) [online]. Directed by SisyphusRedeemed. (no place) Youtube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UBP06tK2g8 [Accessed 24 March 2017].

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15 thoughts on “On the importance of the philosophy of science”

  1. This post is much ado about nothing.

    Modern science has proven the existence of God by the very standards that science uses to prove the existence of dark matter and gravitational lensing.

    The atheist doesn’t care; God does not exist PERIOD.

        1. Allallt,

          I just did.

          You lack understanding of science.

          It isn’t the job of science to prove the existence of God.

          It is up to people who understand science to make the connections.

          You can’t make the connections because you are a liberal arts major, not someone who has been steeped in science, mathematics and engineering.

        2. Really, you claim to know my education?

          You’re not bright, you understand that, right? You refuse to present an argument, meaning there is no rebuttal except to say you haven’t made a case, just an extraordinarily vague proclamation. You’ll claim, now, that I’m not paying sufficient attention and that is a symptom of the brain of an atheist. That rhetoric is all you’ve had for years.

          And this post, again, wasn’t even about God.

        3. Allallt,

          You don’t know what you are talking about.

          That is an argument you make against yourself.

          I know you don’t know what you are talking about because I’m as educated as you are.

          You are accustomed to dealing with students who have been prepped for you by the public school system.

          Additionally, I have made the arguments you ask for.

          You just haven’t taken the time to look at them.

          I’ve posted time and again how science has proven the existence of God.

          My last post explained the matter using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool derived from the immune system of the E. coli bacteria.

          I even included an analogy that used the Gilgamesh story which was originally written in ancient Akkadian.

          That you never take time to read opposing arguments is prove you, yourself provide that you don’t pay attention and that atheism has diminished your brain capacity.

        4. Allallt,

          You go find the links yourself you lazy old coot!

          You people are a complete waste of time.

          You are dumb as door nails and choose ignorance willfully.

        5. Oh, great. You’re referencing contents you never made to me and asking me to scour the internet looking for them.

          Also, what’s your MSc in?

        6. Allallt,

          You asked for references you’ve always had ever since I started commenting on your blog.

          An MSc is unimportant since the scientific proofs of the existence of God are taught in any good freshmen biology class.

          But I was able to make the connection because I knew what to look for.

          Most college students, especially most freshmen, are just trying to get through the day.

        7. Here’s a quick breakdown of your input to this post, thus far:

          This post is much ado about nothing.

          It’s nice to know that you’re default response to a post that references Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos (and thus — by inference — Thomas Kuhn) and discusses philosophy of science is, to you, much ado about nothing. It seems apparent to me that you can’t tell the difference between ‘much ado about nothing’ and ‘something about which you know nothing’.

          Modern science has proven the existence of God […]

          God is not mentioned in this post. It is not a subject of this post; It is not an object of this post; It is not what this post is about.

          […] by the very standards that science uses to prove the existence of dark matter and gravitational lensing.

          What are these standards? Gravitational lensing is a prediction of Relativity, the effects of which have been directly observed. In what sense is God a prediction of a scientific theory, observed empirically?

          The atheist doesn’t care; God does not exist PERIOD.

          That doesn’t describe my atheism, nor the professed atheism of anyone who comments on this blog. I’m merely saying that if you’ve got a claim I want you to back it up.

          I then asked your for a citation, to which you replied:

          Citation not needed.
          Knowledge of science needed.

          And that seemed most queer, because scientific knowledge can normally be encapsulated in some reputable citations. Those citations, in turn, would flesh out your comments: provide methods, data, analysis and conclusions. These are all topics you fervently avoid. That is why no one — not even other religious commenters — take you seriously.

          I then asked you to explain the previous comment, and you replied:

          I just did.

          You did not. You said knowledge of science, independent of scientific knowledge or philosophy of science (both of which could be referenced), was needed. There is no flesh to that comment. It’s vacuous.

          You lack understanding of science.

          I’ll permit you abductive reasoning, if that’s what it takes: how have you come to that conclusion?

          It isn’t the job of science to prove the existence of God.
          It is up to people who understand science to make the connections.

          There is no distinction between science and how humans join the dots. It’s not like analysis and conclusion are some extra-scientific step; they are integral to science. So, if the honest interpretation of the data — the sincere connections — really lead the honest enquirer to God, there would be a reputable citation to offer.

          You can’t make the connections because you are a liberal arts major […]

          My education is irrelevant. Either my points are valid, or valid points can be made to the contrary. That is to say, it’s not an analysis of my education (which would be an ad hominem argument), but a discussion of the points that credits or sinks the post.

          […] not someone who has been steeped in science, mathematics and engineering.

          Ignoring that my Bachelors and my Masters and my personal interest are all of science, that’s simply irrelevant.

          You don’t know what you are talking about.
          That is an argument you make against yourself.

          Err… okay. It’s like talking to a chatbot: you’ve ejaculated that sentiment in the hope it sticks, but it doesn’t seem to relate to the converation or any of my comments.

          I know you don’t know what you are talking about because I’m as educated as you are.

          Given that you just said I am a Liberal Arts major, I doubt you can know that.

          You are accustomed to dealing with students who have been prepped for you by the public school system.

          I’ve never attended a public school.

          Additionally, I have made the arguments you ask for.
          You just haven’t taken the time to look at them.
          I’ve posted time and again how science has proven the existence of God.
          My last post explained the matter using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool derived from the immune system of the E. coli bacteria.

          In your last post, where? Certainly not a comment to me. And your last post on your blog is about Gay Rights. So, that’s just patently wrong. I’ve never seen an argument from you that actually cites science at length.

          I even included an analogy that used the Gilgamesh story which was originally written in ancient Akkadian.

          Oh me, oh my: literary work? Whose the Liberal Art major now? There’s nothing wrong with a liberal arts education, except that its content has no bearing on this conversation. And, again, no such comment has ever been made to me.

          That you never take time to read opposing arguments is prove you, yourself provide that you don’t pay attention and that atheism has diminished your brain capacity.

          That I have not yet paid attention to arguments no one has provided to me, and the authors of the related science don’t accept, and that you are put out by this, only serves as evidence that you may be dementing.

          I then asked for links to where you have uttered this stuff, and you replied:

          You go find the links yourself you lazy old coot!

          There’s a YouTuber called PotHoler, and he has a video called ‘How to Argue with Assholes’. In it, he points out a great way of spotting an ‘asshole’ (as he defines it, in the context of intellectual debates). Refusing to provide source material is one of those clues. And, that is what you are doing here. You frequently call me lazy for not looking for the secret link you know about. If you want to have a discussion, you cite your sources.

          You people are a complete waste of time.

          Well, then, fuck off. You’re frequently among the first 3 people to comment and you never have anything of substance. And when I ask for something of substance you dodge and tell me I’m wasting your time. Don’t comment here, then. You’re wasting your own time.

          You are dumb as door nails and choose ignorance willfully.

          No, you’re dumb as door nails and willfully ignorant. Now that we’ve both made an unsupported ad hominem comments, can we try to stick to substance.

          I pointed out to you that you are referencing nothing, and asked you to actually reference something, and you replied:

          You asked for references you’ve always had ever since I started commenting on your blog.

          If that were true — that the references were readily available — you’d have provided them and joined the dots from the data to your conclusion. If I remember correctly, you’ve been commenting here since at least 2011. That’s 6 years where you’ve refused to offer me references using the excuse that I already have them. If you had these references, you’d have provided them. You haven’t.

          An MSc is unimportant […]

          I agree. Education is not relevant. An honest discussion of the points is relevant. I’m still waiting for yours.

          […] since the scientific proofs of the existence of God are taught in any good freshmen biology class.

          Science doesn’t do ‘proofs’. If you think you’ve got all the premises you need to argue God’s existence from a biology class, then your reasoning is faulty (or your facts are skewed). We could investigate them if you ever actually put your cards on the table. But you haven’t, and I’ll wager you won’t AND that you’ll claim you already have.

          But I was able to make the connection because I knew what to look for.

          You started with the conclusion? Why look for the evidence if you’re starting with the conclusion? I mean, it’s not science by any stretch of reasoning. But what does science matter to you if you’re starting with the conclusion?

          Most college students, especially most freshmen, are just trying to get through the day.

          It’s not just college students. It’s also university students. And lecturers. And publishing scientists. Oh, and the intellectual rigor (or otherwise) of ‘most college students’ is irrelevant.

          So, let’s get this straight: if you won’t put into writing what your argument is, I don’t care. If you want me to randomly search for your argument, there’s a reason I won’t do that: I’ll find something, rebut it, and then you’ll claim that’s not the argument you meant and still won’t tell me what argument you do mean. You’re vague and meaningless references to ‘science’ and ‘freshman biology’ are empty and vacuous. Your utterances outline your ignorance of science in general and the data specifically.

  2. I think you are overstating Popperian falsification. Science is messier than we would like it to be. In any case there was a concept applied to research that enthralled me and that is of elegant experiments. No experiment is done unless the research knows quite well what is likely to happen. An elegant experiment is one in which a few measurements are made but quite a few significant conclusions can be drawn. I suspect these kinds of experiments are few and far between and a great many of any allotment of them have already been done in most sciences, they being the low hanging fruit (biggest results for least effort). Subsequently, the other kind of experiments, the ones with lots of data and massaging statistics are what are left to use and so experiments that can clearly refute a whole theory are really not to be expected. In order to take down a theory, one needs one hell of a lot of data contradicting major parts of the theory. Plus, theories die hard. People will patch them and patch them to avoid having to scrap the whole thing.

    1. Not to mention that one one theory dies and a new theory takes it’s place, all the old data that the death theory was propped up on needs to be conserved

    2. I agree completely that science is messier than we wish it was… A pollution of human error, observation bias and nature only being revealed one experiment at a time. I’m sure my post alludes to that quite strong.
      However, I’d appreciate if you could tell me where I’ve put to much faith in Popper and falsification.

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