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Indefensible Position Of Realism

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Posted by Harvey on May 23, 2002 16:34:39 UTC

Hi Mario,

***So you think I'm copping out, not taking a stand?***

No. I think you hold an indefensible position.

***H: I'd like to have seen you combine this response with the 'Darwinian selection' attribute of theories.......if you base your reasoning mostly on the margin of error compared to observation, then you have no way to distinguish 'Darwinean selection' attribute of theories with approximate truth. All you can say, as far as I can tell, is that theories are keeping pace with observational sensitivity (i.e., fairly so). It doesn't tell you the latest theories are more approximately true than Ptolemy or Aristotle." M: Yes it does! Absolutely it does! Modern theories explain observed phenomena not explainable through Aristotlian or Ptolemic philosophy and physics. So the theory explains what P and A tried to, and encompasses more information, and does a better job of doing so. Therefore, it is more accurate. And I do combine my view with the darwinian selection attribute of theories, but not to the same degree. I don't toss out old theories as incorrect and embrace new ones as correct. I toss out old theories as less correct and embrace new ones as more correct. The more use statements and observations a certain theory satisfactorily accomodates, the more valid it can be said to be. You can't look at this from a black-and-white perspective. You're trying to seperate theories into two types: CORRECT and INCORRECT. This is unviable. I can tell you right now that the only theories mankind is likely to see fall into the INCORRECT category, relative to the total information in the universe. So you have to see the whole thing in shades of grey. I'm just trying to find the theories that are the least grey, I think it's futile to look for pure white, and I think that's where you're misunderstanding what I'm saying. I consider the amount of observational data that a theory describes to be a good test for a theory's 'shade.'***

I'm not saying that you are looking for 'pure white' truth. What I am saying is that you have no way of distinguishing theories that are approximately true from theories that are empirically adequate to satisfactory explain our observations. What is indefensible in your argument is that theories are approximately true. By saying "[m]odern theories explain observed phenomena not explainable through Aristotlian or Ptolemic philosophy and physics", this does not justify that you are talking in terms of truth. It only means that we found some empirically adequate theory that other theories in the past can no longer satisfy as adequately. In the future our current empirical adequate theories may fail to be empirically adequate. But, this doesn't mean we are moving to more and more toward some better approximation of truth! All that it means is that we are satisfying the empirical adequacy criteria of theories - nothing less and nothing more.

***H: "How can you justify that GR is an approximate truth versus more suitably selected for the current set of observations?" M: I hold that any theory that accurately holds for a set of observations has a real bearing in the outside universe. That is, any theory that can put use statements together is approximately true for the universe. And the degree of accuracy (how one theory can be held to be more valid than another) is decided upon by how the theory expands to deal with new use statements that the older one couldn't deal with.***

You may hold that position, but that position is indefensible. Why should I accept that perspective? I can think of more than a half dozen reasons why that position should fail. Here a list some of these reasons:

1) The human species is too primitive of a species to ever be able to know what holds approximately true. Maybe we need a few million years to begin to grasp the real meaning of this concept.
2) There is no such thing as approximate (or real) truth, it is purely a human invented concept that helps us promote our empirically adequate explanations to a higher status for ego purposes (and other self-motivating reasons).
3) The real state of affairs in the universe is entirely random behavior and we are just catching glimpses of where random sequences appear well-structured and law-like.
4) We only experience one very small slice of the real world, and the world is much too complex to establish approximate truths based on our small slice perspective.
5) We ignore critical information simply because we don't see the proper relationships, and therefore our conclusions are entirely skewed. For example, Aristotle ignored subtle facts of the world that make some of his conceptions as entirely false (i.e., not approximate truth).
6) We have too many prejudices and a limited conceptual framework that it prevents us from obtaining any approximate truth.

Some of these reasons overlap, but each of these reasons could be the fact of the matter, and those reasons could be used by our descendents to explain why we didn't have any concept of an approximate truth.

***H: "as the 'Darwinean selection' attribute of theories indicate, you cannot say you are talking about the way reality 'is', you are only talking in terms of our observational sensitivity." M: Yeah, I'm saying that the more observational data a theory can handle, the more bearing it has on how reality actually 'is.' Newton may have been less correct than Einstein, but he was right to a lesser degree. Since Einstein explained more phenomena, his theory is more valid. NOT correct, just better.***

Mario, just because you are saying it doesn't make it the case. You have to substantiate your position, which is exactly what I'm saying you cannot do with externalist views of truth and explanation.

***H: "Let's suppose that I walk in a room where people are playing poker. Upon walking around and observing closer, I see that they are playing 5 card poker, but upon closer examination I see that it isn't 5 card poker, but a game that is very similar to 5 card poker. Upon further examination I notice that it isn't a game at all, but rather it is some way that these people are making their living (like commodity trading). Upon further examination I notice that they are not making a living because I find that they are AI machines. Upon further examination by interviewing these AI machines I find that they have some sort of program that makes them appear to participate in that 'game'. Upon further examination I see that it is not a program running them, but some sort of wireless communication, etc etc." M: When you saw the people playing poker, your assumption that poker and playing cards and people were involved were basically false, constructs needed to support your theory (in the same way that Newton's approximately true theory had the false connotation that acceleration past the speed of light was possible, no time dilation, etc.) However, the building blocks of the theory, that there are a certain number of participants, that they are interacting with each other through a medium involving cards in one way or another, were approximately true.***

Not so. I could later find that they weren't holding cards. I could find out that the participants had something like a wave-particle duality going (i.e., they were 'wave functions' not having a specific location). I could even find out that their main interaction (from what I can tell later) is through gravitational wave communication. The point is that every argument that I have for supposing something to be approximately true, can be later shown to be basically false. The interesting point of science is that this is what has generally happened. Most of the past scientific beliefs of previous eras were later shown as basically false. This is very disconcerting since what holds evident from the past could hold evident in the future. The whole defense of scientific realism holds by a very thin thread if it is really the case that approximate truth is based on empirically adequate theories. That's why this is not a correct defense of realism.

***Would you suggest that the postulation "there are a bunch of wireless AI machines engaging in commodity trading" has NO more bearing on the truth than "A bunch of people are playing poker"? The most recent postulation may be wrong (and probably is) but it describes much more, and deals with more observation than the first. So, it's more valid. Since Einstein deals with observable time dilation and Newton does not, I consider relativity more accurate than Newtonian physics. Do you?***

Whatever we say doesn't make what we say equivalent with an approximately true statement simply because we find some explanations more suitable. We have to justify why a more suitable explanation is justification for believing the truth of the theory rather than accepting it as merely empirically adequate (but not necessarily an approximately true theory).

***H: "What is the difference between 'approximate truth' and our observations approximately matching with our best theoretical interpretation of the evidence?" M: Nothing, I'm saying that our observations have tangible bearings in reality, no matter how small. An external stimulus is required for our observation.***

This is the problem. You are saying is equal to it being a justified position. As I mentioned above, there are many reasons why it can be considered as an erroneous position.

***H: "If they are the same, how do you know that your theoretical interpretation is not just a pure human invention made from the millions of potential human myths that could fool us into believing that reality is approximately like the way our theory says it is?" M: Our theories are certainly human inventions. But since they (I'm arguing) have real sources in the external, objective universe, they have some claim on reality.***

This is the problem. Says who? Why can't they simply be empirically adequate with early 21st century observations and leave it at that? Why go further and say that it is an approximate truth? What is it that justifies an empirically adequate theory such that it should be considered more than just empirically adequate? How do you justify that position? That's the dilemma for scientific realism (and realism in general). There are two general explanations to justify realism. One is the externalist approach which you are using - that I believe provides an indefensible argument, and there is the internalist approach which I am using - that I believe is the only defensible argument in favor of realism.

Warm regards, Harv

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