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Posted by Harvey on April 23, 2002 21:31:16 UTC


***You are mixing things. The EM radiation is a fact, the Big Bang is a theory designed to explain that fact. If it were a solid theory I wouldn't be playing the fool arguing its value, but the fact is that you can fill the grand canyon with the assumptions built into the theory. Some of those assumptions are reasonable, many amount to little more than wishful thinking.***

I agree that there are many assumptions built into theory (including the big bang theory). But, this also includes supposed scientific facts that you perhaps would agree are facts. For example, don't you agree that it is a fact that there was an Ice Age on earth? Don't you agree that it is a fact that the stars of Alpha Centuri are a little more than 4 light years away? I could go on and on about supposed facts, but they are facts for the same reason that the big bang is considered an apparent fact. Evidence of the theory leads to a certain confidence in a belief (hypothesis), and that hypothesis becomes considered a fact of science (confirmed theory). I don't see what criteria you are using in your demarcation between fact and silly belief. There is no demarcating piece of evidence other than having enough subtantial reason to accept certain events as scientifically necessary to understand all the evidence. Inference is inference. It works in determining distances to other stars, it works in construing geological events, and it works in determining astronomical events.

***I see part of science being turned into this silly business of filling the vaccum in our knowledge with sheer speculation. I always thought that was the role of religion.***

All the experimentalists and theorists I know are very careful people (more so the experimentalists). There really isn't as much room for doubt as you suggest. The only doubts are the kind that we must all accept about any scientific inference (e.g., Hume's problem of induction, underdetermination of theories, etc). I consider these issues as ones that make science a fallibist enterprise, but not so much that we throw our arms in the air and say "we have no idea let's just believe this". We have successful prediction and control of the natural world that give us strong reasons to accept the pragmatic successes of science. This is not true of any other method of discovery. Most other methods (e.g., numerology) are not consistent in their predictions and their control is often one of misled interpretations.

***H: In fact, we can even see early galactic formation with Hubble's Deep Field project. Soon, we might even see pre-galactic structures. I'm sure that won't convince you, will it? A:Nay. Ya know, here in good ol' Arkansas we rely on God' word, and God's word only. If it ain't in the Good Book then it ain't true.***

I was being serious. You have pictures that actually show what the theory says should be the case. Why doubt these pictures when you'll accept pictures of earth from space? If you say people have actually come from space, then an overly skeptical person of science can chalk that up to a good government conspiracy. Obviously, pictures are as good as it gets when it comes to confirmation of theories.

***H: There is no means to know if something is an illusion or if something is a fact. A: I'm confused. I always thought that if a = 0 and b = a then it's absolutely true that b = 0. Are you saying that could be an illusion? Wait, let me answer for you: Harv: no, that is not an illusion, we do know some things for sure.
Aurino: thank you! Can we talk about those things now? or Harv: yes, that could be an illusion too.
Aurino: well, this conversation could be an illusion too, in which case I might as well forget about it. See you in Nirvana!***

If you've ever been fooled by an optical illusion (even once) then you must admit that our perceptions are fallible. The question is how fallible? In your example, I'll ask if it is possible that the a=0 (zero) and the b=O (the letter 'O')? Could you or I mistake an O for a 0? Yes! But, does that mean that our conversation is meaningless. No! We can deal with what we have to deal with and try to form a consistent picture of the universe using our best means to do so. This is what science tries to achieve. It does such a good job that most of us have little doubts about scientific inferences (e.g., distances to other stars) except when science says something that causes us concern (e.g., we evolved from primates, the universe originated in a big bang, etc). But, it is the same process of inference that is being used to determine all of these bits of knowledge of the universe. There's no valid reason to accept one group of inferences and reject the other. The same methods of science were used to do the inferring.

***H: We can only guage information about the world through our perceptions, and those perceptions are fallible. A: How exactly do you know that your perceptions are fallible? Do you know that for sure, or is that just a belief?***

I once reached in a pool to grab a quarter, but the quarter was in a different spot than I thought it should be. My perceptions were fooled.

***H: Hence, 'facts' are beliefs. Belief meaning any opinion that we hold to be true but cannot absolutely prove. Science is fallibistic, so the 'facts' of science are also beliefs. Some facts are apparently more fallibistic than others, but that doesn't change the inherent nature of a 'fact'. A: I don't know about the "lesser" sciences, but what you wrote above doesn't apply to physics. All of physics (the serious portion of it, anyway) works on a very simple and extremely efficient mechanism called logic. Good physicists think this way: if "this" is true, then "that" must necessarily be also true. Whether "this" is true or not does not concern them, it's an issue for philosophers. But philosophers don't understand physics, and they tend to think that once a valid logical relationship has been established between "this" and "that", then chances are "this" is really true. They got it backwards, but nobody is worrying about it as long as they're making money selling books.***

I've met plenty of physicists that accept that they develop models and not 'truths' of the universe. In fact, I would say that the majority of physicists in their more honest moments would agree that they are limited to good model making and not any ultimate truths of the world. I have never met a physicist who thought of science as infallible. The 'this' then 'that' is all based on logical implications of their models. However, even physicists will allow the possibility that the laws of physics are not constant throughout time(e.g., a variance in the fine-structured constant).

***H: Facts are a certain kind of belief. All facts are a subset of all beliefs. However, not all beliefs are a subset of all facts. So, it can be rewritten as: "beliefs(1) are often beliefs(2)". A: You're still missing the most important point. Even if a fact is just a different kind of belief, which to me is just a linguistic issue philosophes love to get lost in, it's still different and should be treated differently.***

I agree that facts should be treated differently than beliefs, but only to the degree of confidence that we have in each. That is, we have some beliefs (or facts) that the degree of confidence is almost unshatterable (e.g., believing that the world exists around us), other beliefs with a lesser degree of confidence because we must infer those beliefs even though we cannot experience those observables directly except through the help of instruments, and yet even less confidence in unobservables that we infer from observables are there (e.g., quarks), and so on.

***I still think you are smart, but your refusal to accept the validity of logic as the supreme intellectual tool makes my position impossible to defend. I'm not saying you're right or wrong, it's just that without a common language dialogue is impossible.***

I accept logic as the supreme logical tool to develop a pragmatic understanding of the world. I don't accept human logic as the supreme order of the world. However, I have a hunch that logic or something very similar to it (that we would easily recognize) is a very fundamental set of rules to the universe. Unfortunately I don't know exactly what those rules are, nor do I think I can know it.

***Look at how, despite not having a lot in common with Dick, communication between us is extremely productive. With you, I often find myself banging my head against the wall, in complete despair.***

I'm somewhat following the communication between you and Dick. I agree that both of you approach the issues of knowledge along very similar lines, but there's dramatic differences (and do I dare say inherent inconsistencies) in not only your views, but even within your own views. That is, I see both of you guys as being terribly inconsistent. But, I'm sure you feel that way about me. I guess I am the eternal pragmatist and everyone who departs from that framework I tend to see as espousing inconsistencies.

Warm regards, Harv

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