Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beyond Scientific Inquiry (False Intuitions of Science II)

In part 1 of this series of posts, I outlined a few intuitions that are often assumed as part of the scientific mind-set. In this post, I will discuss the first intuition:

* As its domain is all observable phenomena, science provides the only valuable explanations of the natural world, and any non-scientific pursuit must be grounded on non-observability and supernaturalism.

First and foremost, this intuition contains a subtle fallacy, which is the idea that science must be the exclusive method for understanding its domain. That is, even though science may rightfully claim the entire universe as its domain of study, it does not necessarily preclude other methods of inquiry or understanding. The idea that science excludes other methods of inquiry would only be correct if science is assumed to provide a complete account of its domain. If that were true, then other methods of inquiry would in fact either be superfluous (or reducible to science) or else be based on the dubious non-natural world. It suffices to prove the intuition false by showing that science does not in fact provide a complete account of its domain and that other approaches can shed understanding on the parts that science does not.

The wikipedia article for scientific method explains: "To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses." As a result, the scientific method can only produce explanations in term of externalist categories. That is, the process of observation and measurement must abstract its subject's existence to that part which effects physical causation on other entities. As a result, if entities do possess an "inner world", then science cannot in fact provide a complete account of its domain. In The World-Knot p.54, David Ray Griffin explains, "If the world contains experiences, points of view, beings that it is like something to be -- and we know that it does -- then every purely externalist description will necessarily leave something out."

One could argue furthermore that the realm of pure abstract reasoning is also beyond the domain of science as defined above. Although the number "2" ingresses upon the world and our experiences in various ways, never do we encounter the pure number in any observable manner. Its existence is purely conceptual; its ontology and status for knowledge a purely philosophical question.

One discipline that combines both of the above areas of non-science (first, concerned with subjective experience and secondly, based in non-empirical reasoning) is the Austrian tradition of economics. This tradition does not "observe" humans acting and model it with equations but rather uses self-evident axioms and verbal logic to deduce what must necessarily be true as humans act. According to this tradition, an economic law like that which says additional units of a good contribute decreasing marginal utility is neither empirically derived nor subject to falsification through experiments. As such, the Austrian tradition is better considered a philosophical discipline than a scientific one, and yet many (including myself) believe it accounts for a better and more truthful understanding of human action than its more scientific rival schools of thought.

Perhaps some would object to the characterization of mathematics and philosophy as non-science. Perhaps they prefer a less rigid definition of science that includes any approach that uses reason. For example, such people might define economic science as any study of economic phenomena and include the Austrian tradition under this umbrella. But then this recasting of what science really is would make any knowledge scientific knowledge. This is a devious form of the No True Scotsman fallacy, where when presented with a counter-example of a claim, one shifts the definition to include the counter-example. Besides, if one is to take all branches of philosophy as actually imparting scientific knowledge, what would one make of theology?

And that question takes us to the real crux of the matter, which has heretofore been avoided. This is that the intuition that science provides the only valuable accounts of the world is not really directed against philosophical disciplines but rather against religious ones. It is argued that rather than being based upon observation and reason, religion is based upon fantasy and faith, largely the product of wishful thinking. Religious explanations are therefore to be always avoided and perhaps even ridiculed.

While I agree that much religious belief may be based in wishful thinking and not have much basis in actual experience, I would also point out that this "scientific" belief is not based on reason but rather fearful thinking. Exponents of the anti-religious worldview view science as a sort of safe-haven of thinking and fear any other way of thinking. According to this line of thought, once you leave science, you leave the reservation. Once you seek such an explanation, you might as well join the Scientologists or some other cult. The irony of such dogmatic thinking is always lost on those who promote it.
In fact, the domain of religion is largely what has been abstracted out of the world by science; the inner life. The questions it seeks to answer have to do with subjective existence, purpose, and decision-making. Religion seeks to account for the meaning of man in the universe in a way that is to guide one's actions.* What is the meaning and purpose of my life? How I ought I to live? How ought I act towards others?

Furthermore, these religious questions are faced by everyone. Everyone acts, so everyone must decide for what they act and how they will act. And just like philosophy, one can consciously develop and explicate religious principles, or one can let them grow organically.

* According to this view, there may be much overlap between religion and philosophy, especially as many great philosophers have developed a conception of God and the moral life of man. However, religion tends to explain not only the nature of man's purposive role in the universe but provide practice for seeking greater understanding and the true inner life.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The False Intuitions of Science

A purely pragmatic view of science is that it is not concerned with whether it imparts understanding of the universe but instead is entirely concerned with delivering models that may be used to predict the results of experiments. In fact, if we limit science exclusively to the formulation of models, it can convey no meaningful explanation of observed phenomena. The reason is that the answer to "why" something exists the way it does is immediately circular because models are constructed empirically. That is, if Newton saw an apple fall from the tree and jotted down a description of what he saw, it doesn't very well help to say the apple falls "because" the model predicts it. The model is just a correlation with no explanatory power in itself.

Now, no practicing scientist or student actually takes the above view of science, even if it is a safe fall-back position to give when asked to provide a philosophical interpretation of a theory (most notably, quantum theory). We must believe that theories impart some real insight or knowledge into the nature of the universe.

We need philosophy to move from theory to understanding, or alternatively one might posit that a theory is part model and part philosophy. The trouble is that we rarely consciously develop or explicate this philosophical component. The philosophy instead grows organically as we "do science" and develop intuitions based on how we practice and study, and in my experience this led to several intuitions about the world that were assumed but never fully analyzed. While not every student will develop the exact same set of intuitions, my interactions with scientifically-minded people and reading of various literature leads me to believe that the modern scientific mindset is largely defined by these intuitions:

* As its domain is all observable phenomena, science provides the only valuable explanations of the natural world, and any non-scientific pursuit must be grounded on non-observability and supernaturalism
* The history of scientific theories is to march incrementally toward a complete and truthful account of the universe
* Universal laws (the discovery of which is the task of science) dictate the behavior of all things
* Physics serves as the ultimate science that all phenomena (including consciousness) can ultimately be explained in terms of and that all other sciences are reducible to

These intuitions correspond to a mechanistic view of the universe; one composed of stuff blindly bouncing about according to fixed rules.

In future posts I will explain why each of these intuitions is wrong.

UPDATE: I've linked the bullet points above to their respective posts.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Moral Hazard of Contract Enforcement

One allegedly necessary function of government is to enforce contracts. For this, some sort of court-and-thug system is necessary; the court to rule on cases brought before it, and the thugs to carry out the court's decisions.

However, such a system necessarily poses a moral hazard problem, for now the participants in a contract do not have to bear the costs of enforcement. "If he doesn't follow through," one thinks, "I'll just take him to court." The fact that there is a government backstopping all contracts results in people participating in more risky behavior. They don't perform due diligence on the people with whom they are transacting, or they do not structure a deal to maximize incentives for a deal's completion.

The typical anarcho-capitalist solution for government courts is to replace them with private courts (or for a libertarian, a court that enforces only "just law" and only funds itself through "just means"). Many anarcho-capitalists argue that a court-and-thug system could be provided by the "free market", and there might even be competing systems. However, while such courts may largely address the moral hazard problem (depending on how they were structured), I believe that such arguments are just a way to slip a government in through the back door. Enforcement of laws is, in my opinion, the primary characteristic of government.

There is an alternative to the dubious solution of restructuring existing court systems. This solution is to reframe how we think about contracts. Rather than thinking of them as a metaphysical transfer of property, think of them as an investment.

In an investment, you recognize that there is risk. The risk is that the investment fails, and you recognize going in that you would have no recourse in such an event. An investment is ultimately a claim on future events, and the future is inherently uncertain. It is this claim on future events that also characterizes contracts. One or both parties could be promising future cash flows, repayment, or labor.

No claim on a future event can truly be guaranteed. In one sense, then, a system designed to enforce contracts is a revolt against this "unfairness" of nature. Isn't it better then to recognize that any contract carries risk and treat it as an unenforceable investment, than to pretend there is no risk because you can always appeal to Daddy Government to bail out your poor decisions?