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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Theory-Laden Facts, Part II

Robert took great exception to my recent post that all facts are "theory laden." He claimed that, when his senses are working properly, if he says "I see an apple," he sees an apple, and that's that.

Scenario: Robert and I are walking in the forest. He says, "Do you see that slug there?" I, an accomplished naturalist, say, "That's not a slug."

"Well," he responds, "it certainly is a very slug-like creature."

"No," I inform him, "that's not even a creature. In fact, it's a collection of slime mold cells, which, generally speaking, live on their own as single-celled organisms, but, when nutrients run short where they are, gather together and crawl to a better place in a slug-like shape." (In fact, they then form something that looks just like a mushroom, a thing that Robert would say "plainly" was a mushroom!)

What we "see" is determined by our theories of what we might see and by our theories of what categories to put those things into. Even Robert's apple judgment could be wrong: It could be a very realistic wax apple, or a new peach genetically engineered to look like an apple. His judgment (for it is a judgment, and not any sort of "direct perception") "that is an apple" is based on a theory that anything that looks like "that" must be an apple.

17 comments:

  1. Good post -- it's very hard to notice the framing you bring with you to interpret situations.

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  2. Yeah, I liked these examples better than the "How many planets are there?" Because I think that example might have just made RW think you were talking about labels, when your points is deeper than that.

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  3. Anonymous12:13 AM

    why do I feel like Silas meant to end his comment with "..."?

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  4. Thanks, Silas -- I'm nearly overwhelmed that you lauded a post of mine... aw, jeez, why don't we just... never mind!

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  5. Yeah, who coulda thunk? I base my comments on the merit of what I'm responding to, not the extent of my vendetta against who made it. Shocking!

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  6. If I say,"Do you see that slug there?" and you reply, "That's not a slug. That's not even a creature. In fact, it's a collection of slime mold cells, which, generally speaking, live on their own as single-celled organisms, but, when nutrients run short where they are, gather together and crawl to a better place in a slug-like shape."

    How could you prove this to me? Through showing me what I think is a slug and by pointng to me what I should observe through my senses.

    Thus, you used no theory, since your superior knowledge of nature enabled you to correctly identify the object, which, indeed, factually was a collection of slime mold cells.{Note: you slipped in a theory of why they clumped together, but even if this theory is wrong, and it is a clump of cells, you are correct about that fact.

    I on the other hand thought I recognized a fact, when in actuality I had a bad theory.

    Further, how is your correct identification "theory laden", since you seem to want to call correct labeling, theorizing,let's let that be still for the sake of argument, but what other theorizing are you doing? Are you claming all correct sensual observation of the slime are separate theories?

    Thirdly, your defintions of fact and theory fly in the face of common usage:

    Theory: (from dictionary.com) a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena: Einstein's theory of relativity.

    Fact:(also dictionary.com)1. something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
    2. something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.
    3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.

    Also note the origin of fact
    (dctionary.com again)
    [Origin: 1530–40; < L factum something done, deed, n. use of neut. of factus done, ptp. of facere to do1]

    My theory would be that the orign is "done" since it is a fact whch means it is no longer a theory. It is done, we know what it is.

    Note the orign of theory[Origin: 1590–1600; < LL theōria < Gk theōría a viewing, contemplating, equiv. to theōr(eǐn) to view + -ia -y3]

    Not done but, viewing and contemplating, thus the sense that we are not "done" wth vieweng, contemplating to call it a "fact".

    I rest my case.

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  7. Yes, Robert, I am certainly disputing the everyday usage of the terms -- but so what? The whole point of the many people who have said what I'm saying here, such as Quine, Duhem, Popper, Kuhn, Polanyi and many others, is that common usage is misleading.

    You're idea that recognizing the slime mold doesn't involve theory is wrong at every step of the way. To give just one example: How am I going to show you that this "slug" breaks up into a multitude of pieces? Well, I will need a microscope. But why should you believe that what you see in the microscope is really there? The only good reason to believe that is a theory of optics!

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  8. Yes, if we need a microscope, that would make it a theory, for both of us, in that we can not directly observe without an assist for our senses.

    I do not dispute that there are theories as to what some objects are. I dispute that in all cases, we are dealing with just theories. If we label somethng based on our senses (without assist, from say a microscope)we are dealiing with a fact. If we can not ourselves fully observe something, we may theorize, but it can not be classfed a fact.

    That the earth revolves around the sun is a theory, that there is water on earth is a fact.

    By what thought process would consider the statement, "There is water on earth," a theory and not a fact?

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  9. "If we label somethng based on our senses (without assist, from say a microscope)we are dealiing with a fact."

    As I've pointed out:
    1) This is a theory: our senses give us direct access to indisputable facts; and
    2) It is incorrect: much of science has consisted in correcting our naive sense impressions, that, say, the earth is still, the earth is flat, heavy objects fall faster than light ones, whales are fish, etc., etc., etc.

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  10. RW,

    I can't believe you're hanging on this long. You've seen The Matrix, right? There might not even be such a thing as water. There might not even be planets. Everything your "senses" tell you could be the result of the cable attached to your spinal cord.

    All you can be sure of at any moment is your conscious experience at that moment. It's even a theory you have that "I am seeing things" etc., if by that you mean anything more than, "I am experiencing visual sensations."

    Also, I am sure that even your mental experience of visual stimulus is shaped by your experiences and hence by your theories (broadly defined).

    To repeat, I am not (and I don't think Gene is either) saying that facts do not exist. Yes there is an objective world (or at least, I think there is!!) "out there." But we can't go grab a bunch of facts about that objective reality. Everything we can try would get filtered through theories we hold.

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  11. Ok guys,

    You seem to want to label everything a "theory".

    Thus, I will approach it this way.

    1. What is your definition of the word "fact"?

    2. Is there anything we can call a "fact"?

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  12. I'm not sure if this is the definition, but a necessary attribute of a fact is that it is true. And just about everything you are sure is true, could in fact be false.

    So it is a fact that I exist (Descartes). The sensory perceptions I am experiencing right now are facts, i.e. "I am experiencing these things I am experiencing right now."

    If you wanted to be liberal you could say it is a fact that 2+2=4 etc. Even here though, I could be a real stickler and say no, maybe it just seems that those a priori demonstrations of arithmetic etc. are valid.

    In other words, I can certainly make a mistake in my reasoning, and think I've "proved" something in geometry when really I haven't. So by the same token, maybe 2+2 doesn't really equal 4, it's just we all keep hallucinating every time we check in our minds that two things next to two things is the same as four things.

    But I probably shouldn't have pushed it that far, since now you'll think I'm just being silly. The threshold for whether you call mathematical propositions "just a theory" is of course a lot harder than the other stuff, like, "That thing over there is an apple."

    Note that Gene may think I've totally dropped the ball on the above; I'm not sure how he would answer your latest.

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  13. Gene, there's more to belief in microscopic vision than a theory of optics. If you introduce a dissecting needle onto the microscope stage and push the stuff around, the resulting "feel" of hand-eye coordination will be utterly familiar, and very convincing.

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  14. 'You seem to want to label everything a "theory".'

    Robert, neither Bob nor I ever said there are no facts, only that facts depend on theories. "There is water on earth" is a fact, which depends on theories like, "When I see this water, I am not dreaming/hallucinating/being deceived by the Matrix, etc."

    "What is your definition of the word "fact"?"

    A fact is a conclusion of a theory.

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  15. "Gene, there's more to belief in microscopic vision than a theory of optics. If you introduce a dissecting needle onto the microscope stage and push the stuff around, the resulting "feel" of hand-eye coordination will be utterly familiar, and very convincing."

    Wabulon, I didn't make my "only" clear -- I meant that only after one has a theory of optics can one be confident of what one sees in a microscope, not that that was the only theory that helped here! After all, the little things we see can, e.g., make us sick.

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