Getting Streven with the Fundamentalists

In an essay in Philosophy of Science in Practice, Michael Strevens defines 'fundamentalism' as the notion that "Everything is made up of a single kind of stuff and everything that happens is directed solely by fundamental laws of physics that, depending on the configuration of stuff at one moment, determine its configuration at the next" (69). He goes on to claim that fundamentalism implies that all sciences really should just operate by showing how, say, mate selection in bower birds, or the nature of parliamentary institutions in Medieval Europe, can be derived from the laws of physics alone. The program to make all sciences a branch of physics goes under the name "unity of science."

Strevens backs his fundamentalist faith with the claim that "the empirical evidence for fundamentalism has accumulated swiftly" (69). But he presents no such evidence, for, truth be told, there is none: instead, as he admits, "Real science is not only largely disunified; it is largely content to be disunified" (71). He readily confesses that Nancy Cartwright has shown that not only are all other sciences not being reduced to physics, but even within physics, a plethora of sub-studies are not being reduced to "fundamental" physics. But like a good Biblical fundamentalist arguing away the dating of dinosaur bones, Strevens argues that this massive evidence against fundamentalism is actually just what we should expect if fundamentalism is true.

Tellingly, the one field Strevens can cite as energetically pursuing the unity of science project is "cognitive neuroscience," a pseudo-scientific discipline -- and please, don't think I am dismissing neurology, a genuine and important science, along with its ill-bred half-sibling! -- the entire reason for being of which is the assumption of physical fundamentalism!

Comments

  1. The fact that historians have not yet explained the nature of parliamentary institutions in Medieval Europe in terms of physics and that even physics itself has not yet developed a unified theory may well be explained by the complexity of the task in-hand rather than the falsity of the 'fundamentalist' theory.

    Can you give an example of something that has come out of either physics or other science that would count as the 'massive evidence' you claim against the view that 'everything that happens is directed solely by fundamental laws of physics that, depending on the configuration of stuff at one moment, determine its configuration at the next'?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not hostility rob, it's "massive" frustration, because you ask "Can you give an example of something that has come out of either physics or other science that would count as the 'massive evidence'..." And the thing is... I already did!

      '"Real science is not only largely disunified; it is largely content to be disunified" (71). He readily confesses that Nancy Cartwright has shown that not only are all other sciences not being reduced to physics, but even within physics, a plethora of sub-studies are not being reduced to "fundamental" physics.'

      This 'unification' project has been the materialists wet dream for a century or two, and yet the scientists *just aren't doing it*. *Even in physics* they aren't doing it!

      But if you'd like, comfort yourself by saying the reason scientists are indifferent to this goal is "complexity." And the reason the dinosaur bones appear to be really old is God planted 'em that way, right?

      Delete
    2. Well, first thanks for explaining in more detail than usual why you found my comment off-base.

      I believe you are saying that the fact that there has been slow progress towards proving the 'fundamentalist' theory correct counts as 'massive evidence' against it. To me this sounds equivalent to saying that if someone had proposed the theory of relativity in 1687 we would have deemed the fact that by 1887 it still could not be proved as "massive evidence" against it.

      I think the body of evidence against the "young earth" theory is qualitatively different to that.

      Delete
    3. Right Rob, and there has been “slow“ progress in showing that the dinosaur bones are only 6000 years old.

      In fact, rather than “slow“ progress towards the unity of science, there has been a tremendous move in the opposite direction: sciences keep splintering off, and getting more diverse and specialized. You are claiming that the climb up Mount Everest is a sort of “slow“ progress towards the bottom of the ocean

      Delete
    4. I don't think I follow why the fact that 'sciences keep splintering off, and getting more diverse and specialized' is in anyway a refutation of a theory that claims 'everything that happens is directed solely by fundamental laws of physics that, depending on the configuration of stuff at one moment, determine its configuration at the next'.

      That would be like saying that because there are biologists separately studying the evolution of different species the theory of evolution itself should be called into question.

      Delete
    5. See, after a couple of these, I find myself thinking, "rob holds a job that requires intelligence: he really *must* just be trying to taunt me with these replies!"

      Because, you really think that a situation where scientists keep coming up with *new theories and models* to study particular special areas is "like" a situation where scientists are using a single theory and applying it in lots of areas?

      And furthermore, I am not recommending that quantum mechanics or relativity be "called into question." I am calling into question the faith-based, scientistic belief that these disciplines will explain everything.

      So here's what it's "like": It's like a fictional scenario where there is declared to be a *single* "theory of evolution." But instead of seeing scientists applying this single theory to different species (like we see in the actual world) instead we see scientists developing a *brand new theory of evolution* for each species.

      And we see believers in the single theory asking, "But why would that be evidence against our belief?"

      Delete
    6. Again, thanks for taking the time to explain your views in more detail.

      You say: 'So here's what it's "like": It's like a fictional scenario where there is declared to be a *single* "theory of evolution." But instead of seeing scientists applying this single theory to different species (like we see in the actual world) instead we see scientists developing a *brand new theory of evolution* for each species.'.

      Assuming this relates to your statement in the post 'He readily confesses that Nancy Cartwright has shown that not only are all other sciences not being reduced to physics, but even within physics, a plethora of sub-studies are not being reduced to "fundamental" physics. ', can you give examples of what theories these 'plethora of sub-studies' are developing that disprove the 'fundamentalist' theory of 'Everything is made up of a single kind of stuff and everything that happens is directed solely by fundamental laws of physics that, depending on the configuration of stuff at one moment, determine its configuration at the next'?

      (This is a real question by the say - they may well have theories that undermine the 'fundamentalist' theory for all I know - I just would like to know exactly what these theories are. I think this was the question I started out with).



      Delete
    7. In other words: Either these 'plethora of sub-studies' are consistent with the fundamentalist theory or they are not. If it is being claimed that they are not consistent with it (or even disprove it some way) it seems reasonable to ask for details on this.

      Delete
  2. In short, if someone does not see why sciences splintering off and diverging should be a challenge for a theory that claims all sciences should be converging on a single grand theory, well...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gene,
      I think its pretty clear from my comments that I understand your argument and that I have tried to show why I find it to be weak and invited you to supply a stronger one.

      Delete
    2. Bo rob, it's absolutely clear from your comments that you don't have a clue what is going on here, despite my repeated attempts to explain it to you! And of course, like every web troll ever, you will now post, "Ooh, you just can't stand views that oppose yours!"

      Delete
  3. A fictitious "unity of programming language" project: "All programming languages are really one language called... Clojure(?), and they will all gradually converge and turn into that language."

    Reality based objector: but, in fact, we see ever more programming languages arising, displaying ever-greater variety!"

    True believed in the "Unity" project: "Ah, just what we predicted!"

    ReplyDelete
  4. How about a more reductionist idea for programming languages? All programs can be reduced to Turing machines. Equivalently they can all be reduced to lambda calculus.

    The EQUIVALENCE part is a theorem. But the claim itself is Church'e Thesis. There are no known counter examples, and no mathematican or computer scientist I know of thinks there will be. But nobody rewrites flight simulators in lambda calculus.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes Ken, that's why I deliberately phrased my example as I did: the "unity of science" project doesn't just say that all sciences theoretically *could* be just physics, it says they all *should* be converging on that goal.

      And they aren't!

      Delete
    2. But the unity is reducibility to a core, not convergence in methods. No-one is claiming biologists will use cloud chambers. The claim is biological laws are the manifestation of chemical laws, and so on, down to the Turing machine that is the quantum theory. So your Clojure analogy is a weak one.

      Delete
    3. Ken, the "unity of science" movement believed that all sciences would gradually converge on physics, and to whatever extent they remained separate it would just be that they would show how the supposedly special chemical and biological laws could be translated into physical laws. The fact that the exact opposite has happened -- more and more special sciences keep arising, and they make no effort to show how to map their content to physics -- is a severe challenge to the unity of science project. And what's more, Strevens, an enthusiastic "fundamentalist", *quite explicitly recognizes this is a problem for his view* and attempts to work around this problem. I am quite certain you and rob are missing the point here, because I have just read the paper of a "fundamentalist" and a professional philosopher of science who freely admits, "Gee, the facts look bad for my side, but..."
      He is at least honest enough to admit this, but you and rob won't even honestly contemplate the situation enough to even *admit* that the facts look bad for your side!

      Delete
  5. rob, forget it: there's only so much deliberate obtuseness that this one man can take.

    ReplyDelete
  6. So here's what we've got: I just read a paper by an honest-to-goodness philosopher of science who is committed to "physics fundamentalism" and who admits, "Yeah, these facts pointed out by Cartwright present a real problem for my view, but let me try to explain them."
    And when I post this, two non-philosophers of science repeatedly try to tell me that I am being ridiculous for thinking these facts are evidence against fundamentalism!
    Sorry, I will simply repeat you guys just don't get the issue, and Strevens, an actual fundamentalist philosopher of science, does get it, and he is anxious to defease what he recognizes is evidence against his view.
    So a professional *on your own side* is my best witness that you guys just don't get what is at issue here.

    ReplyDelete
  7. And furthermore, while I am willing to debate Strevens, who actually realizes why the actual course of science over the decades since the "unity of science" is problematic for his fundamentalist belief, I am a busy man, and can't spend hour after hour debating people who refuse to even admit the evidence is a challenge for their view.
    It is like a physicist who keeps getting blog posts from people who have designed a perpetual motion machine: at some point, he has to just say "I'm done!"
    And of course, at that point, the perpetual motion cranks will say, "See! He had to shut down debate because he couldn't answer our challenge!"

    ReplyDelete
  8. So Strevens is like a defense attorney who says, "Yes, I admit it looks bad for my client (physics fundamentalism): his finger prints are on the gun, he was seen arguing with the victim 20 minutes before the shooting, and he fled when the police showed up at his house. Nevertheless, I assert he is innocent because..."

    rob and Ken are like defense attorneys who say, "Evidence? What evidence? Why is Gene so stupid as to think these things are evidence against our client?"

    The first attorney is serious. The latter two, well...

    ReplyDelete
  9. So this certainly helps explain your frustrations. But I would say that my position as a defense lawyer would be "The prosecution is claiming massive evidence against my client - but I will show that it is circumstantial at best. I invite them to come up with something more solid than that. If they can't then my client is clearly not guilty". I think all my comments are consistent with that view.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I just read the Strevens paper. It a wonderful example of academic writing at its best - taking the most generous reading of the opposing view and addressing it head-on. I know this is only a blog post but to dismiss it as the intellectual equivalent of the young earth theory seems totally unfair to me.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Central Planning Works!

Our precious