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Monday, July 07, 2008

Aargh!

Philosophers of science have known for decades that there are no such thing as "the plain facts" apart from theories. But the naive view that, say evolution is "just a theory" and not a fact (or the opposite view that it is now a fact and therefore no longer a theory!) p-ersist. One place they do is in detective fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously had Sherlock Holmes resist "theorizing in advance of the facts." Maybe OK in 1890, but there is no excuse for P.D. James, writing in 2005 (The Lighthouse) to say something like "You were supposed to be giving the facts. You've strayed into supposition." Facts are just suppositions we believe in very strongly, while suppositions are just tentative candidates to be facts. The idea that a detetive (or a scientist) could wander around collecting the "facts" about a case in the absence of any theory is absurd. The very decision as to what a "fact about the case" is is a theoretical decision -- otherwise, the detective would have to just collect every fact about everything -- Carl Yastremski's lifetime batting average, the height of the Washington Monument, the effective dosage of LSD, the name of Jefferson's children, the number of traffic lights in New York City, etc. -- and hope a theory just pops out of the jumble.

16 comments:

  1. Fact: Humans will all die from global warming in the next 30 years.

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  2. BTW, it's Yastrzemski, not Yastremski.

    Facts are NOT suppostions we believe in very strongly. Facts are facts, whether we "believe" in them or not.

    Forming a theory to determine what facts apply in a given situation, is not the same thing as requiring a theory for the fact to exist.

    For example, to know Carl Yastrzemski's batting average, the fact that he did kielbasa television commercials is a fact but a useless fact for finding out his batting average. However, it is still a fact.

    ReplyDelete
  3. RW,

    You are adopting a type of Ayn Randian realism here, but I think Gene is right. I remember he brought this up once on the Mises listserv and I was one of his few (lone?) defenders.

    You don't even know that there was such a person as Yastrzemski. For all you know (literally), the rest of us are playing a prank on you. And you certainly don't know the name of the 3rd president of the United States--at best, you think you remember reading that in many different books, and you have theories about how books are printed etc. and so have a high degree of confidence in the assertions of some of them.

    Even if you want to weigh something, you haven't established a fact of the matter. The scale could be defective, and moreover you could be hallucinating when you think you are weighing something.

    ReplyDelete
  4. So at what point do we know anything any facts? Or are you saying we never do?

    I'm pretty confident there was a Yastrzemski. Growing up outside of Boston, I personally saw him hit a few Fenway Park home runs.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yastrzemski is, within certain circles, a synonym for an impressively large bowel movement.

    i'm not proud of this, just reporting the ..umm facts.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Robert, you're supposing:
    1) you did not hallucinate this;
    2) that really was Yaz, not some body double;
    3) it was really a kielbasa commercial and not subliminal programming;
    4) etc.

    I'm not saying there IS no fact about the matter, just that any human proposition about what that fact is is only a supposition.

    ReplyDelete
  7. So you are suggesting that you just replied to a hallucination that you possibly had, and that maybe you didn't even reply to me, and that what you are reading right now cold be a hallucination, and that the only thing your brain can determne at this point is that you are possibly hallucinating?

    ReplyDelete
  8. No, Robert, I'm NOT suggesting that -- that's not the theory I hold. The theory I hold is that you are a real person and I am not hallucinating. I really don't see what that has to do with the truth that all facts are "theory laden" (as Popper put it).

    This becomes even more important in science than in daily life, however -- but I think that deserves another post.

    ReplyDelete
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