what i learned today

[here goes nothing.] My little girl is at least a stubborn as her mother. Maybe as stubborn as her father--and nearly as apoplectically cautious. HPS 562, History of 20th c. science: During World War I, a strange thing happened to science in America. Chemists who developed nerve toxins that killed or maimed hundreds or thousands of soldiers were vilified as international criminals. The same men who actually did the developing also received huge grants from the government and private foundations to continue doing research "for the sake of science." The model scientist held up for professional Americans to emulate after WWI was the chemist, closely followed by the physicist. During this same time, physicists were building the atomic bomb, knowing more or less full well what kind of power they were dealing with. I can't figure this paradox out: we hate the progress of science that leads inevitably toward war but we continue to beg the government and industry to fund it. Good friends are hard to come by and, if they're really good friends, hard to lose. PHIL 560A, Science and Social Values: One of the reasons we think science has something to offer society is because it provides things that actually work. Bridges stand up; satellites rotate around the Earth; toothaches get taken out. Sub-atomic particles and eclipses and fossil beds and chemical interactions can all be predicted with some accuracy. But why do we buy the theories behind these things? Is it just because they work? No...many theories that fit the data reasonably well get rejected (e.g., cancer was originally thought to be a virus and the proof that it wasn't a virus didn't come until after biologists had rejected the idea that it was viral). Why is this? Can we say that acceptance or rejection of a theory is determined merely by social convention, power relationships between funding agencies and science producing agencies, or some other non-empirical reason? This seems not to be the case because if things were only based on social factors, they likely would be very wrong much of the time. If both social/non-empirical and empirical/workable ideas have some impact on science, how do we choose between all of them? HPS 664, Natural Theology: Why do theologians, historians, and scientists now say that natural theology actually undercut Christianity from the 1500s to the 1850s? Was Darwin actually doing a version of natural theology? Was Pascal predicting the downfall of the "design argument" from a Christian point of view in the 1600s? Why do Christians not read Pascal very much anymore? No one I know can sustain page-a-minute reading speed for very long when looking at academic material unless: (1) they've had a lot of coffee (1) they've had a lot of coffee (2) they're skimming, (3) they aren't reading to actually retain anything, (1) they've had a lot of coffee, (d) they have a presentation to do in an hour and they haven't read any of the material. But coffee makes you really jittery when you're reading 17th century French philosophers and 20th century history of science. I have no idea how to fix roof leaks...especially when the pitch of my roof is 45 degrees and the hole is on a section of roof 30 feet in the air. I have no idea how I could do grad school without my wife.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Science constitutes a logical system of thought which is in a state of evolution, whose basis (principles) cannot be distilled, as it were, from experience by an inductive method, but can only be arrived at by free invention. The justification (truth content) of the system rests in the verification of the derived propositions (a priori/logical truths) by sense experiences (a posteriori/empirical truths). ... Evolution is proceeding in the direction of increasing simplicity of the logical basis (principles). .. We must always be ready to change these notions - that is to say, the axiomatic basis of physics - in order to do justice to perceived facts in the most perfect way logically." (Albert Einstein, Physics and Reality, 1936)


3/24/2005 9:53 AM  
Blogger Scott Sloan said...

E, I have a friend that argues the same thing about science as the only methodology of proving truth. He states that only things proven based on empirical means can reveal truth or not. My friend will always reject not empirical ideals (social/theological, metaphysical, or other explanations) as non-truth.

Also, how much coffee does it take to read over 400 pages a day?

3/24/2005 10:45 AM  
Blogger e said...

R--See the problem with what Einstein says there is that not even physics (especially not quantum physics) works that way. There nearly ALWAYS is a gap between the theories/hypotheses and the evidence that they explain. For instance, special relativity was built from "field theory" developed by a bunch of British and German scientists in the 1890s. But field theory couldn't account for all of the phenomena. Einstein wrote special relativity (and then general after that) to try to account for those gaps. The problem was that, as smart as Einstein was and as good as his theories were, even THEY can't account for every observable phenomena. But they can account for many of them, so we still hold it to be true, with some exceptions. What makes up the difference between what we can't account for and the theory itself? This is where non-empirical values enter in. They're necessary to bridge the gap.

S--and this is why anyone who says "only things proven based on empirical means can reveal truth or not" is fooling themselves. This is why the positivist project of the 1920s-50s ultimately failed. We all base at least some of our assumptions on non-empirical data. That doesn't mean that these non-empirical things are false, bad, or need to be eliminated from science. We just need to know that they're there.

And for your last question, it depends on what you mean by "read." If it means detailed study of every sentence, then I don't know, cause I can't sustain that kind of reading in one day. My eyes would explode.

Thanks for your great comments!

3/24/2005 10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if by 'non empirical values' you mean 'what we don't fully understand about the universe and ourselves' then, yeah. although we shouldn't leave out creativity and improvisation either, for they are the very things that render absolutism as an obsolete concept. which it is.. or at least should be.


3/24/2005 11:30 AM  

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