The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

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The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#1  Postby Ecurb » October 31st, 2017, 12:13 am

I read a couple of short essays in "The Stone Reader in Modern Philosophy". One set of essays is an argument between Timothy Williamson (Professor at Oxford) and Alex Rosenberg (Professor at Duke) about the flaws (or lack thereof) of Naturalism.

Rosenberg describes himself as a Naturalist: "Naturalism is the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and the scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge." He goes on to state that science uses, "experimental / observational methods".

Williamson's objections (some of which mirror my objections in the other thread) include:

1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."

2) Williamson quotes Rosenberg as saying, "We should be confident that it (physics) willdo better than any other approach at getting things right." "What things?" asks Williamson. "If he (R) means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies (it).... But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" W. adds a literary example. Isn't knowing whether Mr. Collins is the "hero" of Pride and Prejudice a form of knowledge? Every normal reader who has read the book has the critical expertise to answer this question. But the question is metaphysical, depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature. Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.

3) Williamson points out a paradox inherent to Naturalism. "If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science.... But, 'Are all truths discoverable by hard science?' is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true." W. goes on to say, "Such problems pose far less threat to more moderate forms of naturalism...... But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science recognizes. (How can) we establish in any remotely scientific way that reality contains only those things we are capable of recognizing at all?"

4) From another essay in the same book: Suppose there was a color blind scientist, who saw the world only in black and white. Further suppose that said scientist was an expert in the cognition of color, a science which, because the scientist lived in the future, was so highly advanced that she knew everything science can know about color recognition in humans. Now suppose the scientist has an operation which cures her color blindness. The bandages are removed, and she sees "red" for the first time. Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color that she did not know from her scientific research. We can gain scientific understanding about perception, or love, or pain; but this understanding is different in kind from the knowledge we gain by experiencing color or pain or love. Therefore, naturalism -- effective as it may be in gaining some forms of knowledge -- can never be the "best" way of gaining knowledge about certain things. There will always be knowledge -- even "facts" -- with which it cannot deal.
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The Weaknesses of Naturalsim



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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#2  Postby Steve3007 » October 31st, 2017, 4:07 am

On just the first couple of points for now:

1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."


I'm surprised about this particular one, because I don't know of anybody in the modern world who believes mathematical proof to be a reliable route to knowledge. The natural sciences use logic, as expressed in the language of mathematics, to establish patterns in observations. Without those observations the patterns mean nothing. So I think to say "Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment" seems to be a misunderstanding of how mathematics is used.

2) Williamson quotes Rosenberg as saying, "We should be confident that it (physics) willdo better than any other approach at getting things right." "What things?" asks Williamson. "If he (R) means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies (it).... But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" W. adds a literary example. Isn't knowing whether Mr. Collins is the "hero" of Pride and Prejudice a form of knowledge? Every normal reader who has read the book has the critical expertise to answer this question. But the question is metaphysical, depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature. Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.


Again, I don't know of anybody who knows anything about physics who would deny that physics sits at the very bottom of a hierarchy of complexity. It can tell us very precise things about very, very simple systems. As you move up the hierarchy, away from physics, you trade that precision for the ability to deal with a more and more complex world.

Here's one version of the standard physicists' joke which demonstrates recognition of this:

boingboing.net/2010/10/30/a-science-jok ... for-y.html

All physicists know that they are assuming that the horse, and the characters in Pride and Prejudice, are all spheres in a vacuum.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#3  Postby Londoner » October 31st, 2017, 6:42 am

Ecurb wrote:2) Williamson quotes Rosenberg as saying, "We should be confident that it (physics) willdo better than any other approach at getting things right." "What things?" asks Williamson. "If he (R) means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies (it).... But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" W. adds a literary example. Isn't knowing whether Mr. Collins is the "hero" of Pride and Prejudice a form of knowledge? Every normal reader who has read the book has the critical expertise to answer this question. But the question is metaphysical, depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature. Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.


In the case of Gettysburg, how would we judge whether 'history' had got it right? Presumably by comparing it to what physical facts were available. In making that comparison, we will be accepting the basic tenets of physics. I could argue that Gettysburg never took place, that all the physical evidence it did was created by God, but history - like science - does not address that sort of explanation (although it cannot disprove it).

Regarding Pride and Prejudice, if 'every normal reader has the expertise to answer the question' that would be to say that the answer is to be found - not in the book - but in the reader. Which is what W goes on to say; 'depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature'. In that case, any 'knowledge' about the hero of the book would be sociological; it would be a fact about people's opinions, not about the book.

4) From another essay in the same book: Suppose there was a color blind scientist, who saw the world only in black and white. Further suppose that said scientist was an expert in the cognition of color, a science which, because the scientist lived in the future, was so highly advanced that she knew everything science can know about color recognition in humans. Now suppose the scientist has an operation which cures her color blindness. The bandages are removed, and she sees "red" for the first time. Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color that she did not know from her scientific research. We can gain scientific understanding about perception, or love, or pain; but this understanding is different in kind from the knowledge we gain by experiencing color or pain or love. Therefore, naturalism -- effective as it may be in gaining some forms of knowledge -- can never be the "best" way of gaining knowledge about certain things. There will always be knowledge -- even "facts" -- with which it cannot deal.


I do not agree that 'Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color'. A fact is something I can share with other people, but I cannot share my subjective experiences; I cannot say my own subjective experience of 'red' is 'true' and yours is 'false'. Again, as it goes on to say, our subjective experiences are a different sort of 'knowledge'.

But that wasn't what the discussion was about. Rosenburg doesn't claim physics is the only way of thinking that we might call 'knowledge'. He says it is 'our most reliable source of knowledge and the scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge'. The problem with non-scientific knowledge is that it is neither reliable or effective. That isn't to say it isn't real, it just isn't useful.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#4  Postby Ecurb » October 31st, 2017, 9:17 am

Each of the essays in my book is only three pages long -- there are four of them, two by Rosenberg and two by Williamson. Regarding Math, Williamson writes: "(The scientific method) involves formulating theoretical hypotheses and then testing their predictions against systematic observation and controlled experiment."

He goes on to say, "When mathematicians assess a proposed new axiom, they look at its consequences within mathematics, not outside." In other words,they do not rely on the "scientific method". The problem this presents is twofold: first, if mathematical "knowledge" can be considered "knowledge", then the scientific method is NOT the only (or even "best") route to this knowledge. Second, since so much of science (especially physics) relies on math for its theories, deductions and proofs, it is relying on something non-scientific (or non-naturalistic). This is a problem for those (like Rosenberg) who want to claim that naturalism is the "most reliable" path to knowledge. Rosenberg acknowledges this. His defense: although we can't defend mathematics with naturalistic methods YET, that does not mean we will never be able to do so. Some day (he suggests) Naturalism will be able to justify math.

As far as history, or literary theory, or "experiential knowledge" are concerned, we need not quibble about definitions. "Facts" may have been the wrong word, but "knowledge" (a more general term) is surely applicable. The person who sees "red" has "knowledge" about the color that the color-science expert does not have. The person who can ride a bicycle has "knowledge" about how to ride a bike that the physicist who understands the physics of bike riding might lack.

It is true, of course, as Londoner points out, that some forms of knowledge are "cultural" rather than "physical". Mr. Collins is not the hero of "Pride and Prejudice" -- and it would be "useless" to complain about getting a D- in your "Regency Literature" course at the University by arguing that this is not a real "fact". IN addition, I cannot agree with Londoner that culturally constituted knowledge is "useless". Math is clearly useful, as is language. There is no scientific reason why one group of sounds or letters should have a particular conventional meaning, but without a cultural agreement language could not exist. In addition, knowledge of language (like knowledge of math, which is a language with it own grammatical rules) is essential to the scientific method (and, indeed, to human thinking in general). Newton could not have "stood on the shoulders of giants" if said goliaths had not expressed their findings in words or mathematics. Perhaps knowledge about Mr. Collins may seem trivial and useless, but the same arguments about cultural agreements could be made about language -- except that it would be difficult to conclude that knowledge of language is "useless", or is not "knowledge".

I'm a supporter of science and the scientific method. However, it seems to me that in general our love of science has led us to disrespect other forms of knowledge. In our courts (for example) forensic evidence is now considered the sin qua non of proof, whereas eye witness testimony used to be so considered. Of course, I agree that eye witnesses can be mistaken, but so can the inferences drawn from physical evidence. Eye witnesses are equivalent to historical evidence; forensics to scientific evidence. We all believe that Anne Boleyn was beheaded (in your home town, Londoner), whether or not there is archaeological (scientific) evidence supporting that "fact".
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#5  Postby Londoner » October 31st, 2017, 10:03 am

Despite various well known problems, I would go with 'justified true belief' for knowledge, so I wouldn't count being able to ride a bicycle as 'knowledge'. We do not 'know' how to ride a bicycle in the sense of having a belief about bicycles; my brain is involved in being able to ride a bike, but so are my eyes and legs. Similarly, language is certainly useful, but I do not think it is true. It is a means to an end; if I am in Italy then I will need to know Italian, but that isn't because other languages are false.

Regarding literature, you say that it would be "useless" to complain about getting a D- in your "Regency Literature" course at the University by arguing that this is not a real "fact". But equally, if I thought that the events in 'Pride and Prejudice' were real facts, I would be thought mad. If the course was set by the Philosophy Department I would have to consult Russell on the way propositions are understood to refer when being used about fictional beings.

Regarding history, certainly we can use eye-witness evidence, but how do we know that it is eye-witness history? We expect somebody who claims to be a witness to be able to show they were in the right location at the right time. If we found some contemporary documents recording the execution of Anne Boleyn were written on a computer we would be suspicious. In other words, we expect them to be like reports of scientific-like observations (as distinct from reports of people's subjective feelings).

I would suggest that the fundamental core of science is that it only deals with what is objective and can be measured, i.e. is repeatable. By being limited in this way it gains the ability to produce a reliable and effective account of the way the world works - at the cost of leaving out all the subjective side of experience. I am OK with giving science the credit for what it does. But it does not follow that all the areas that science does not address are therefore 'less real' or less important.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#6  Postby Ecurb » October 31st, 2017, 10:17 am

As I'm sure you are aware, "objective" is a difficult concept, and nothing is actually "repeatable" (only approximately repeatable). I agree with you, however, that the scientific method is reliable and effective, although its reliance on math and language presents some (minor) philosophical difficulties for Naturalism.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#7  Postby Consul » October 31st, 2017, 12:37 pm

Londoner wrote:Despite various well known problems, I would go with 'justified true belief' for knowledge, so I wouldn't count being able to ride a bicycle as 'knowledge'. We do not 'know' how to ride a bicycle in the sense of having a belief about bicycles; my brain is involved in being able to ride a bike, but so are my eyes and legs. Similarly, language is certainly useful, but I do not think it is true. It is a means to an end; if I am in Italy then I will need to know Italian, but that isn't because other languages are false.


There is a distinction between propositional or theoretical knowledge ("to know that…"), agential or procedural, or practical knowledge ("to know how to…"), and experiential or phenomenal knowledge ("to know what it is like to…"). For example, to have theoretical physical knowledge of colours is one thing, and to have phenomenal knowledge of what it's like to see, to have subjective visual impressions of colours is another. Phenomenal knowledge of colours isn't implied and cannot be inferred from physical knowledge of them (in terms of electromagnetic radiation, wavelengths, etc.), because it can only be acquired (introspectively) from the first-person perspective.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#8  Postby Chili » October 31st, 2017, 1:09 pm

1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."



The practice of science is to make observations and correlate them mathematically. There is an under-structure of assumptions which cannot be proven logically or empirically. You can find more and more that the laws of physics seem to hold everywhere you look, but how will you find proof that they are the same everywhere? Naturalism cannot be used to prove the reality of the world, or the existence of other minds, or other things we care about the most.

2) Williamson quotes Rosenberg as saying, "We should be confident that it (physics) willdo better than any other approach at getting things right." "What things?" asks Williamson. "If he (R) means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies (it).... But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" W. adds a literary example. Isn't knowing whether Mr. Collins is the "hero" of Pride and Prejudice a form of knowledge? Every normal reader who has read the book has the critical expertise to answer this question. But the question is metaphysical, depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature. Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.



As for Gettysburg, it is an event, and in our fantasies, we may hope to encounter forensic evidence, and our computers can get better and better at recreating events based on data points. Our brains are part of the physical universe, presumably obeying physical laws, and greater information about those brains at the moment would be the best evidence if we could get it. See the sci-fi book "Macroscope" by Piers Anthony.

Evolutionary psychology has much to say about evolved homo-sapiens and how and why they may come to embrace the concept of "hero" and what traits a hero should have.

3) Williamson points out a paradox inherent to Naturalism. "If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science.... But, 'Are all truths discoverable by hard science?' is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true." W. goes on to say, "Such problems pose far less threat to more moderate forms of naturalism...... But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science recognizes. (How can) we establish in any remotely scientific way that reality contains only those things we are capable of recognizing at all?"



If one can accept the sensibility and practicality of increasingly accurate pictures painted by science, one need not make the perfect the enemy of the good by insisting upon "proof" aka "knowledge" from science.

How to establish it - ideally science can recreate whatever one wishes to understand in a computer simulation. Does one simulation cover everything that one can measure, see, and feel? If not, keep working. If so, then you may be content to shrug off questions about pixies dancing on the head of a pin that don't end up affecting anything.

4) From another essay in the same book: Suppose there was a color blind scientist, who saw the world only in black and white. Further suppose that said scientist was an expert in the cognition of color, a science which, because the scientist lived in the future, was so highly advanced that she knew everything science can know about color recognition in humans. Now suppose the scientist has an operation which cures her color blindness. The bandages are removed, and she sees "red" for the first time. Her experience of "red" clearly has taught her a fact about color that she did not know from her scientific research. We can gain scientific understanding about perception, or love, or pain; but this understanding is different in kind from the knowledge we gain by experiencing color or pain or love. Therefore, naturalism -- effective as it may be in gaining some forms of knowledge -- can never be the "best" way of gaining knowledge about certain things. There will always be knowledge -- even "facts" -- with which it cannot deal.



Other minds don't come up in pure science. A separate scientist can watch all of this take place, see the smile, the utterances of "now I understand red for real" and measure everything taking place in that brain, perhaps understanding most (all?) of that very well. Are these other minds' experiences facts? If you are using science to define facts, then no.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#9  Postby Consul » October 31st, 2017, 2:34 pm

Ecurb wrote:Rosenberg describes himself as a Naturalist: "Naturalism is the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and the scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge." He goes on to state that science uses, "experimental / observational methods".

Williamson's objections (some of which mirror my objections in the other thread) include:

1) Mathematical proofs do not rely on observation or experiment. If mathematical proof is "a (reliable) route to knowledge", this would seem to suggest limits (at least) to Naturalism. Williamson says, "since the natural sciences depend upon mathematics, Rosenberg desires to find a place for it, but admits he doesn't know how."

2) Williamson quotes Rosenberg as saying, "We should be confident that it (physics) willdo better than any other approach at getting things right." "What things?" asks Williamson. "If he (R) means questions of physics, what reasonable person denies (it).... But if he means all questions, why should we be confident that physics will do better than history at getting right what happened at Gettysburg?" W. adds a literary example. Isn't knowing whether Mr. Collins is the "hero" of Pride and Prejudice a form of knowledge? Every normal reader who has read the book has the critical expertise to answer this question. But the question is metaphysical, depending on agreed definitions of "hero" and shared perceptions of literature. Physics (or science in general) cannot speak to them.

3) Williamson points out a paradox inherent to Naturalism. "If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science.... But, 'Are all truths discoverable by hard science?' is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true." W. goes on to say, "Such problems pose far less threat to more moderate forms of naturalism...... But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science recognizes. (How can) we establish in any remotely scientific way that reality contains only those things we are capable of recognizing at all?"


* First of all, what Rosenberg calls "naturalism" is actually scientism or scientific empiricism. And there is a narrow version equating scientism with natural-science-ism and a broad one referring both to natural science ("hard science") and to non-natural empirical science, i.e. empirical social/cultural science.

* If empiricism is defined as the view that all synthetic knowledge of concrete reality is (ultimately) based on experience, and scientific empiricism is defined as the view that all deep synthetic knowledge ("deep" in the sense of going beyond our ordinary common-sense or everyday knowledge) of concrete reality is (ultimately) based on scientific observation or experimentation, then this is consistent with (purely) mathematical knowledge being non-empirical/a priori knowledge; for (purely) mathematical propositions are arguably non-synthetic.

* The argument that empiricism is self-refuting is very old: The proposition that all synthetic knowledge is based on experience is itself a synthetic proposition which is not based on experience; so if it is true, it cannot be known to be true.

"…what I shall call 'the empiricist hypothesis', namely that what we know without inference consists solely of what we have experienced (or, more strictly, what we are experiencing) together with the principles of deductive logic. But we cannot know the empiricist hypothesis to be true, since that would be knowledge of a sort that the hypothesis itself condemns. This does not prove the hypothesis to be false, but it does prove that we have no right to assert it. Empiricism may be a true philosophy, but if it is it cannot be known to be true; those who assert that they know it to be true contradict themselves."

(Russell, Bertrand. Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits. 1948. Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge, 2009. p. 161)

Does this mean that empiricism in general and scientific empiricism in particular are unjustifiable and that we really "have no right to assert it"? No, it doesn't! An empirical "retrojustification" of it is possible:

"The substantive picture of nature’s ways that is secured through our empirical inquiries is itself ultimately justified, retrospectively as it were, through validating the presuppositions on whose basis inquiry has proceeded. As we develop science there must come a 'closing of the circle.' The world-picture that science delivers into our hands must eventually become such as to explain how it is that creatures such as ourselves, emplaced in the world as we are, investigating it by the processes we actually use, should do fairly well at developing a workable view of that world. The 'validation of scientific method' must in the end itself become scientifically validated. Science must (and can) retrovalidate itself by providing the material (in terms of a science-based world-view) for justifying the methods of science.
The rational structure of the overall process of justification accordingly looks as follows:

1. We use various sorts of experiential data as evidence for objective fact.
2. We do this in the first instance for practical reasons, faute de mieux, because only by proceeding in this way can we hope to resolve our questions with any degree of rational satisfaction.

But as we proceed two things happen:

(i) On the pragmatic side we find that we obtain a world picture on whose basis we can operate effectively. (Pragmatic revalidation.)
(ii) On the cognitive side we find that we arrive at a picture of the world and our place within it that provides an explanation of how it is that we are enabled to get things (roughly) right—that we are in fact justified in using our phenomenal data as data of objective fact. (Explanatory revalidation.)

The success at issue here is twofold—both in terms of understanding (cognition) and in terms of application (praxis). And it is this ultimate success that justifies and rationalizes, retrospectively, our evidential proceedings. Though the process is cyclic and circular, there is nothing vicious and vitiating about it. The reasoning at issue is not a matter of linear sequence but of a systemic coherence prepared to accept the circles and cycles of cognitive feedback.
We thus arrive at the overall situation of a dual 'retrojustification.' For all the presuppositions of inquiry are ultimately justified because a 'wisdom of hindsight' enables us to see that by their means we have been able to achieve both practical success and a theoretical understanding of our place in the world’s scheme of things."


(Rescher, Nicholas. Reality and Its Appearance. New York: Continuum, 2010. pp. 60-62)
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#10  Postby Ecurb » October 31st, 2017, 9:55 pm

Thanks for the feedback. I vaguely remember your distinct types of knowledge, Consul, from Philosophy 101, which I took my freshman year. It continues to be my only academic exposure to Philosophy, and occurred so long ago that my teacher, Dr. Care, strode nervously in front of the class, smoking a pipe while he lectured. That, thank God, would no longer be allowed.

Thanks for the feedback. I think most of you (and I) agree more with Williamson than Rosenberg, who overestimates the all-encompassing value of Naturalism (both he and Williamson distinguish it as being not quite so bad as Scientism). The scientific method is clearly an excellent approach to promoting knowledge; it is not the only approach, or even, in some limited cases, the best approach.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#11  Postby Steve3007 » November 1st, 2017, 3:06 am

Ecurb (quoting Williamson):
"(The scientific method) involves formulating theoretical hypotheses and then testing their predictions against systematic observation and controlled experiment."


Before formulating these hypotheses there is initial observation. You can't have a hypothesis about nothing. You observe the world. You think you've spotted a pattern (i.e. a thing that can be expressed using mathematics). You think about what would be observed next if that pattern continued. You look to see if it is.

He goes on to say, "When mathematicians assess a proposed new axiom, they look at its consequences within mathematics, not outside." In other words,they do not rely on the "scientific method". The problem this presents is twofold: first, if mathematical "knowledge" can be considered "knowledge", then the scientific method is NOT the only (or even "best") route to this knowledge.


It is the best route to knowledge about our observations - about the empirical world that we propose is the cause of those observations.

Second, since so much of science (especially physics) relies on math for its theories, deductions and proofs, it is relying on something non-scientific (or non-naturalistic).


The mistake here is in thinking that science is just observation. It is not. It is also patterns in observations. The language in which the patterns are described is mathematics.

This is a problem for those (like Rosenberg) who want to claim that naturalism is the "most reliable" path to knowledge.


Knowledge about our observations.

Rosenberg acknowledges this. His defense: although we can't defend mathematics with naturalistic methods YET, that does not mean we will never be able to do so. Some day (he suggests) Naturalism will be able to justify math.


We can defend it because it has worked so far. As soon as it stops working - as soon as it stops being handy for using apparent patterns in our observations to predict future observations - we will no doubt stop using it. No further defense needed.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#12  Postby Consul » November 1st, 2017, 10:58 am

Ecurb wrote:Thanks for the feedback. I think most of you (and I) agree more with Williamson than Rosenberg, who overestimates the all-encompassing value of Naturalism (both he and Williamson distinguish it as being not quite so bad as Scientism). The scientific method is clearly an excellent approach to promoting knowledge; it is not the only approach, or even, in some limited cases, the best approach.


Apart from the question whether there is such a thing as the scientific method,…

"It should be obvious from the role of experiment, observation, data collection, etc. in science that some type of empiricism is the 'default' or 'official' epistemology of science."

(Rosenberg, Alex. Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. p. 10)

Let's call this scientific empiricism, and define it as the view that all deep synthetic knowledge of concrete reality is ultimately based on scientific observation or experimentation.

David Armstrong, a naturalist and materialist like Rosenberg, says the following about the scope of our knowledge:

"I'm in a position to put forward a hypothesis about the scope and limits of human knowledge. My suggestion is that what I have gone through: the Moorean truisms (with a little trimming to exclude false truisms), the proofs that mathematicians (and logicians) come up with, and, finally, the securer results of the natural sciences, give us the totality of our knowledge. Philosophy, religion, the pronouncements of mystics, other systems of belief, may be fine things to have and engage with. But, I suggest, none of them contain anything beyond belief. Or, to be on the safe side, if they do contain any knowledge, it is not reliable knowledge in the sense that it is not socially identifiable in the way that knowledge in the rational and the empirical sciences is identifiable. For instance, just maybe you know that God exists, or just maybe I know that God does not exist (we can't both be knowers in this matter of course), but, situated as we are, there is no way to settle the question between us. Neither of us, I think, can rationally claim to have knowledge, even if one of us does have it."

(Armstrong, D. M. "The Scope and Limits of Human Knowledge." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 84/2 (2006): 159–166. p. 164)

"Here, then, in Moorean knowledge, in what has been proved in mathematics and logic, and in what is known or rationally believed in the natural sciences, we find our proper epistemic base. I do not believe that we have any other knowledge of a reliable sort. Here there is what we might call the (current) rational consensus."

(Armstrong, D. M. Truth and Truthmakers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. p. 32)

I would add "…the securer results of the natural sciences and of the (empirical) social/cultural sciences" & "…what is known or rationally believed in the natural sciences and the (empirical) social/cultural sciences".

As for what he calls "Moorean knowledge" (named after G. E. Moore), he's referring to our ordinary, common-sense, everday, "life-world" knowledge, the acquisition and possession of which doesn't require scientific research.

"The term 'common sense' must be treated with caution. Many will hasten to point out that the common sense of mankind has been mistaken in the past on particular occasions and will undoubtedly be mistaken again from time to time. It was once part of common sense to think that the world is flat, that the sun literally rises and sets every day, and that simultaneity is an absolute conception, and so on. Here common sense was wrong.
But I am thinking of what perhaps may be called bedrock common sense. (And I think that is what Moore himself was thinking of.) Human beings have heads on their bodies, and hands and feet. They eat and drink, reproduce and eventually die. They live in a world that contains, besides man-made things, other objects such as trees, rivers, mountains, winds, fires. These are general Moorean truths, and a good rough test for the members of this class is that it is almost embarrassing to mention them outside the context of philosophy. Each person, furthermore, has a stock of particular Moorean truths that do no more than overlap with the Moorean truths of others. It is a Moorean truth, part of my secure knowledge, that as I type these words it is late morning in Australia, in the suburb of Glebe in Sydney to be precise, and there are English words in front of me on a computer screen.
All Moorean knowledge is in many ways vague and imprecise. From the point of view of scientist or philosopher it is truth that involves extraordinarily little analysis or system. It is surface truth. But it is epistemically fundamental. It is the epistemically basic part of whatever knowlege we happen to have, and at one time, back in the state of nature, it was all that humanity had by way of a reliable epistemic base."


(Armstrong, D. M. Truth and Truthmakers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. pp. 26-7)

Now, you write that "the scientific method is clearly an excellent approach to promoting knowledge; it is not the only approach, or even, in some limited cases, the best approach."

What sources of synthetic knowledge of concrete reality are there in addition to sensory perception and its sophisticated scientific form, i.e. scientific observation and experimentation? Well, there is introspection aka inner perception of one's mind/consciousness, in virtue of which we can have psychological/phenomenological self-knowledge. Arguably, introspection is to be regarded as an empirical source of knowledge.

Are there any other sources of synthetic knowledge of concrete reality? Candidates are extrasensory perception (e.g. clairvoyance, precognition, or telepathy), rational intuition, irrational intuition (mystical vision), and divine revelation.
My answer is no! Rational intuition does exist, but it can give us no more than analytic (logico-mathematical) knowledge; and all the other alleged "ways of knowing" postulated by theists, mystics, occultists, and parapsychologists just don't exist, being nothing but epistemological fictions.

"The doctrine of intuition is of one piece with a 'rich' strain in our modern empiricism, glorying in the belief that the heart has its reasons which the reason does not know and that along with the scientific intellect's way of apprehending reality there are the equally legitimate and much more 'concrete' and 'existential' ways of religion, art, morality, and friendship. This, I think, is confused and pernicious teaching. Religious enthusiasm, artistic ecstasy, moral anguish or complacency, 'the satisfied insight of personal love'—all these may be better than knowledge, more vital, nobler and 'thicker'; but they are not better knowledge than knowledge is. They are not even substitutes for knowledge or competitors of knowledge. They are things to be known about."

(Williams, Donald Cary. "The Innocence of the Given." 1933. Reprinted in Principles of Empirical Realism: Philosophical Essays, 159-176. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas, 1966. p. 169)

-- Updated November 1st, 2017, 11:02 am to add the following --

"[Scientism] is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science's description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when 'complete,' what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today. We'll often use the adjective 'scientistic' in referring to the approaches, theories, methods, and descriptions of the nature of reality that all the sciences share. Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about."
(pp. 6-7)

"If we're going to be scientistic, then we have to attain our view of reality from what physics tells us about it. Actually, we'll have to do more than that: we'll have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality. Why buy the picture of reality that physics paints? Well, it's simple, really. We trust science as the only way to acquire knowledge."
(p. 20)

(Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2011.)
"We may philosophize well or ill, but we must philosophize." – Wilfrid Sellars
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#13  Postby Ecurb » November 2nd, 2017, 8:30 am

Consul asked:

What sources of synthetic knowledge of concrete reality are there in addition to sensory perception and its sophisticated scientific form, i.e. scientific observation and experimentation?


I suppose I could respond (as did Williamson) that of course physics is the best way to answer questions about physics (i.e. "concrete reality"). But I won't. Although the ORIGINAL sources of knowledge may be sensory perception, in practice most of what we "know" (or think we know) is based on the observations, experiments, and analyses of other people. These observations are reported to us, mediated through the languages of human speech and mathematics.

After all, reading about the results of a scientific experiment in a Journal is essentially reading a history of the experiment. Therefore, it isn't much different from reading any other history. I'm neither a historian, nor a philosopher, nor a scientist, except in a strictly amateur and common sense way. Nonetheless, I think that Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate, because I read about it in Shakespeare, who read about it (I assume) in Classical Histories, or in modern reports about Classical Histories.

Consul Quoting Armstrong:
"I'm in a position to put forward a hypothesis about the scope and limits of human knowledge. My suggestion is that what I have gone through: the Moorean truisms (with a little trimming to exclude false truisms), the proofs that mathematicians (and logicians) come up with, and, finally, the securer results of the natural sciences, give us the totality of our knowledge. Philosophy, religion, the pronouncements of mystics, other systems of belief, may be fine things to have and engage with. But, I suggest, none of them contain anything beyond belief. Or, to be on the safe side, if they do contain any knowledge, it is not reliable knowledge in the sense that it is not socially identifiable in the way that knowledge in the rational and the empirical sciences is identifiable.


It seems to me that Caesar's assassination is "socially identifiable" as knowledge. At least, if you want to pass your high school history class, you are expected to "know" it. Of course the historians may be wrong - but, after all, scientists are wrong all the time. Much of what science proposed as "knowledge" in the past has been debunked, and we can assume that much of what it proposes today will be debunked in the future. That's how science progresses -- so we can hardly suggest that scientific "knowledge" is reliable. It certainly hasn't proven reliable in the past.

If we accept historical reports of scientific experiments, it seems we must accept other historical and eye witness reports as a potential route to knowledge. To do otherwise would be contradicting our faith in science. Of course scientists don't automatically accept historical reports about experiments; often, they try to repeat the experiments to see if they get the same results. Then they write the "history" or their efforts, whatever the results. But we lay people don't do this. We simply read the reports, and think we have gained some "knowledge". In addition, many scientific endeavors are not experimental or repeatable.

Let's take this line of reasoning a little further. Since, in order to accept scientific empericism as a path to knowledge we must accept history (the journal reports of experiments) as a path to knowledge, then we are accepting second hand (and third and fourth hand) reports based on what Consul calls "sensory perception and its sophisticated scientific form, i.e. scientific observation and experimentation."

When eye witnesses testify in court, their credibility can be called into question. Perhaps they couldn't see clearly. Perhaps they were mistaken. Perhaps they have a motive for lying. Of course the same is occasionally the case with scientists. Perhaps the new drug they are testing in a double-blinded study has the potential for billions of dollars in profits. Or (more commonly) perhaps the scientist has a better chance at tenure if his experiment yields publishable results. Nonetheless, most scientist probably do their best to be honest and fair, as do most witnesses in a trial. We can assess their credibility in a number of ways and determine whether we accept their reports as accurate.

My point: Human language, the printing press, computers, etc. have allowed us to learn about things that we haven't seen. We learn about them through (generally) language.

Such basically historical reports include:

1) The report about a double-blinded, placebo-controlled drug test.
2) A report about Caesar being assassinated in the Senate.
3) An eye-witness account of Lazarus being resurrected from the dead.

I'm not trying to sneak an argument in favor of religion into the discussion. I'm an atheist. Nonetheless, my point is that all are historical accounts, reputed to be (originally) from eye witnesses. Because the experiment is repeatable, perhaps a non-repeatable scientific observation would be more appropriate (there are many).

I argue that (as Armstrong suggests) there is a "social" or "cultural" component to "knowledge". Inasmuch as we live in a scientific age (rather than,say, a religious one), scientific knowledge is admired or accepted more readily than other forms of observational knowledge (like history). But we should recognize that scientific knowledge is dependent on historical knowledge, and that the evidence for the results of an experiment, the assassination of Caesar, and the resurrection of Lazarus is essentially of the same type. Although it is reasonable to accept one or two of these as "facts" and not the third, this acceptance is based not on a distinction in the kind of evidence, but on our preconceptions about reality, and on our judgements about which eye witnesses are reliable.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#14  Postby Chili » November 2nd, 2017, 1:00 pm

Given enough time, one could theoretically recreate basic scientific knowledge oneself, with no need for reports of others.
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Re: The Weaknesses of Naturalsim

Post Number:#15  Postby Consul » November 2nd, 2017, 8:52 pm

Ecurb wrote:Consul asked:

What sources of synthetic knowledge of concrete reality are there in addition to sensory perception and its sophisticated scientific form, i.e. scientific observation and experimentation?


I suppose I could respond (as did Williamson) that of course physics is the best way to answer questions about physics (i.e. "concrete reality"). But I won't. Although the ORIGINAL sources of knowledge may be sensory perception, in practice most of what we "know" (or think we know) is based on the observations, experiments, and analyses of other people. These observations are reported to us, mediated through the languages of human speech and mathematics.

After all, reading about the results of a scientific experiment in a Journal is essentially reading a history of the experiment. Therefore, it isn't much different from reading any other history. I'm neither a historian, nor a philosopher, nor a scientist, except in a strictly amateur and common sense way. Nonetheless, I think that Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate, because I read about it in Shakespeare, who read about it (I assume) in Classical Histories, or in modern reports about Classical Histories.


Physics isn't the only natural science, let alone the only empirical science, so scientific knowledge is more than physical knowledge; and in "concrete reality" I use "concrete" in the sense of "physical or mental" (inclusive "or", which doesn't exclude the mental and sociocultural forms thereof from being part of the physical).

You're right insofar as I didn't mention two other (natural) sources of knowledge: memory and testimony. These are derivative in the sense of being ultimately based on (perceptual) experience. For example, when my grandfather told me what he had experienced as a WW2 soldier, this is a case of memory-based testimony. Historical knowledge depends on memory and (oral and written) testimony, and also on (original) observational evidence such as archaeological evidence. (There even is such a thing as experimental archaeology.)

Ecurb wrote:Consul Quoting Armstrong:
"I'm in a position to put forward a hypothesis about the scope and limits of human knowledge. My suggestion is that what I have gone through: the Moorean truisms (with a little trimming to exclude false truisms), the proofs that mathematicians (and logicians) come up with, and, finally, the securer results of the natural sciences, give us the totality of our knowledge. Philosophy, religion, the pronouncements of mystics, other systems of belief, may be fine things to have and engage with. But, I suggest, none of them contain anything beyond belief. Or, to be on the safe side, if they do contain any knowledge, it is not reliable knowledge in the sense that it is not socially identifiable in the way that knowledge in the rational and the empirical sciences is identifiable.


It seems to me that Caesar's assassination is "socially identifiable" as knowledge. At least, if you want to pass your high school history class, you are expected to "know" it. Of course the historians may be wrong - but, after all, scientists are wrong all the time. Much of what science proposed as "knowledge" in the past has been debunked, and we can assume that much of what it proposes today will be debunked in the future. That's how science progresses -- so we can hardly suggest that scientific "knowledge" is reliable. It certainly hasn't proven reliable in the past.


Scientific knowledge is fallible, but "fallible" means neither "false" nor "unreliable". What was once socially regarded as knowledge but later turned out to be false was never knowledge but merely false belief mistaken for knowledge. The phrase "false knowledge" is a contradiction in terms.

Some scientific theories have turned out to be false, and it is likely that some scientific theories will turn out to be false; but there is a core body of indubitably reliable scientific knowledge which won't "be debunked in the future." For example, people living in the year 3017 won't read headlines such as "Scientists discover that water isn't H2O".

"While, however, we must remain alive to the possibility of radical changes in our scientific outlook, we must not exaggerate this possibility either. Consider a corridor which gives access to a number of rooms, in each of which there is a scientist engaged in fundamental research. In room number one there is a nuclear physicist, in room number two an atomic physicist, in room number three a classical physicist. In room number four there is a physical chemist and in room number five there is an inorganic or organic chemist. In room number six there is a biochemist, in room number seven a cytologist, and in room number eight there is a physiologist. It is likely that revolutionary changes made in room n will usually have very little practical effect on room n+1, and will probably have no practical effect at all on rooms n+2, n+3, etc. (I say practical effect, because I do not wish to deny that the changes in earlier rooms may have some effect on how the scientists in later rooms look at the world.) This relative independence of the various rooms from one another obtains because it is usually only the approximate correctness of the results got in room n that are needed by the man in room n+1, and an approximation to the results got in room n will pretty certainly be enough for the man in room n+2. Now a revolutionary theory will clearly have to predict, within the limits of experimental error, the results which constitute the evidence for the theory that it is meant to replace. Consider, for example, the general theory of relativity in its relation to the Newtonian theory of gravitation. Only in exceptional cases will the two theories predict different results, over and above the limits of experimental error. Most of the results that the man in room n+1 wants from the man in room n can be got from a rather old-fashioned theory on the n level, and in the case of room n+2 it is probable that all can. Still more is this so with rooms n+3, n+4, etc. It is, for example, extremely unlikely that revolutionary discoveries in nuclear physics will lead to any substantial modification of our beliefs about the physiology of respiration."

(Smart, J. J. C. "Philosophy and Scientific Plausibility." 1966. In Essays Metaphysical and Moral: Selected Philosophical Papers, 11-24. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987. p. 13)

Ecurb wrote:If we accept historical reports of scientific experiments, it seems we must accept other historical and eye witness reports as a potential route to knowledge. To do otherwise would be contradicting our faith in science. Of course scientists don't automatically accept historical reports about experiments; often, they try to repeat the experiments to see if they get the same results. Then they write the "history" or their efforts, whatever the results. But we lay people don't do this. We simply read the reports, and think we have gained some "knowledge". In addition, many scientific endeavors are not experimental or repeatable.


As I already wrote, I disagree with Armstrong insofar as he should have added "…and the securer results of the social/cultural sciences (including history)".

You're right insofar as e.g. there is no experimental astronomy, in the sense that we cannot do experiments with planets, stars, or galaxies.

Ecurb wrote:I argue that (as Armstrong suggests) there is a "social" or "cultural" component to "knowledge". Inasmuch as we live in a scientific age (rather than,say, a religious one), scientific knowledge is admired or accepted more readily than other forms of observational knowledge (like history). But we should recognize that scientific knowledge is dependent on historical knowledge, and that the evidence for the results of an experiment, the assassination of Caesar, and the resurrection of Lazarus is essentially of the same type. Although it is reasonable to accept one or two of these as "facts" and not the third, this acceptance is based not on a distinction in the kind of evidence, but on our preconceptions about reality, and on our judgements about which eye witnesses are reliable.


The social/cultural component is testimony (and memory in the form of tradition). For example, how do I know that water is H2O? I never chemically examined any mass of water myself. I was told in school that water is H2O.

"If our only sources of knowledge and justified belief were perception, consciousness, memory, and reason, we would be at best impoverished. We do not even learn to speak or think without the help of others, and much of what we know depends on what they tell us. Children in their first years of life depend almost entirely on others for their knowledge of the world. If perception, memory, consciousness, and reason are our primary individual sources of knowledge and justification, testimony from others is our primary social source of them. This is why it is a primary concern of social epistemology. The distinctive situations in which testimony yields knowledge and justification are social: in each case one or more persons convey something to one or more others. There are various kinds of testimony, however, and there are many questions about how one or another kind yields knowledge or justification."
(p. 150)

"Testimony is a pervasive and natural source of beliefs. Many testimony-based beliefs are justified or constitute knowledge. They may even constitute basic knowledge or basic belief, both in the sense that they are not grounded in premises and in the sense that they play a pivotal role in the life of the believer. We might thus say that testimony-based beliefs not only constitute some of our basic knowledge but also are psychologically and existentially basic. These beliefs are, however, not unqualifiedly basic epistemically. They are basic only in the sense that they are not inferentially dependent on knowledge or justified belief of prior premises. They are epistemically dependent, in a way perceptual beliefs are not, on one’s having grounds for knowledge or justification, and they are psychologically dependent on one’s having some ground—such as hearing someone speak—in another, non-testimonial experiential mode. Testimony-based beliefs, then, are not premise-dependent but do depend, for their epistemic or justificational status, on the basic experiential sources of knowledge and justification considered in Chapters 1–6 [= perception, memory, introspection, reason/intuition – my add.]. As a source of knowledge and justification, testimony depends both epistemically and psychologically on these other sources. This is entirely consistent, however, with its playing an incalculably important role in the normal development of our justification and knowledge."
(p. 167)

(Audi, Robert. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2011.)

Epistemological Problems of Testimony: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/testimony-episprob/

So, all in all, these are our natural sources of belief-justification and knowledge:

1. sensory perception
2. introspection
3. rational intuition/intellection (reason)
4. recollection (memory)
5. testification (testimony): communication of (semantic) information (that isn't mis- or disinformation)
"We may philosophize well or ill, but we must philosophize." – Wilfrid Sellars
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