He concedes that William A. Wilson makes some good points at First Things but …
A truly excellent article on the metaphysics underlying the scientific enterprise. Every debate on MN needs to begin with this essay. I know the first paragraph sounds very post-modern, but by the time you reach the end of the essay, I think you will see it isn’t post-modernism that is the enemy–it’s the false idol of Enlightenment objectivity.
While it is true that we are drowning in data and filter it to just the relevant aspects before we construct a theory, it is not true that the data itself is biased. Data is objective, and therefore is some metaphysical sense, objective science is possible the closer one comes to the data. Or to say the same thing, data is not subjective, it is not a person, it does not lie or hope or dream or even say anything. It just sits there like sheep and ignores us.
While I agree with 98% of this essay, namely, that objectivity is a false idol whose death should not be mourned, there are a number of theoretical criteria that support the objectivity thesis. His neglect of supporting information not only gives the battle over to the post-modernists too easily, but it also distracts from many important aspects of all theories–prediction, power, and theology.
1) While it is true that we are drowning in data and filter it to just the relevant aspects before we construct a theory, it is not true that the data itself is biased. Data is objective, and therefore is some metaphysical sense, objective science is possible the closer one comes to the data. Or to say the same thing, data is not subjective, it is not a person, it does not lie or hope or dream or even say anything. It just sits there like sheep and ignores us.
Wilson … by implication suggests that there can be no rule applied to metaphysics, no criteria to judge between metaphysical solutions. So if a feminist wants to advocate “Modified Newtonian Dynamics” because Newton was a sexist, white-privileged racist, then Wilson can say nothing.
Well then, if we love objectivity, why don’t we just stop theorizing and move into the barn with the animals?
Because we are not sheep and content with our daily task of eating grass. We want to know where the grass is taller and greener; where tomorrow’s grass will come from; and what to do about those pesky wolves.
In principle, contra Wilson, a science that sticks close to the data IS objective. Probably the most objective science the world has known are recipes. And this is the point that Stanley Jaki makes about the difference between alchemy and chemistry–alchemy was only recipes, chemistry was science.
According to Wilson, they both had the same set of ingredients, they both had the same set of glassware, they even had the same set of customers, so in our post-modern world, they should both be called science. Why then is the difference between them such a classic textbook example of the rise of Science?
The answer lies in the power of a theory.
That is, theories are not simply AI “deep learning” applied to data sets. “All sheep have four legs” is not a theory, though it might be an AI conclusion. Inductive reasoning is one aspect of theorizing, but it is inadequate for an AI “theorizer”. Something else, some metaphysics is necessary to finish the job. This was Einstein’s comment, Planck’s comment, and the conclusion of Wilson’s piece.
Wilson stops there, and by implication suggests that there can be no rule applied to metaphysics, no criteria to judge between metaphysical solutions. So if a feminist wants to advocate “Modified Newtonian Dynamics” because Newton was a sexist, white-privileged racist, then Wilson can say nothing.
But this is what he should have said:
2) Some theories are better than others. Some metaphysics are better than others, where “betterness” is generally called “explanatory power”.
“Ahh”, I can hear the post-modernist protest, “How do you know your criteria of “betterness” is valid?”
Simply by noting that the objection already has assumed a comparison and a criteria. The mere fact that two theories can be compared, and that two theories can be evaluated suggests that the existence of criteria is a shared assumption. If you don’t believe in criteria, then you have no objection to make.
Then what criteria should we use?
The time-honored traditional one, going back to Moses, is “prediction”. Something that has not happened yet, is predicted by two competing theories, and the one that comes closest gains a point. Put them both in the ring, and may the best theory win.
While metaphysics is not objective–in the sense that it depends only upon our five human senses–neither is it entirely subjective or simply a matter of “taste.”
Another time-honored criterion is “post-diction”. Gather a larger dataset than the one that went into the original theory, and see how well each theory explains the new data. For example, if Newton and Einstein both have a theory about gravity, ask whether the observation of an eclipse in China in 1064 is closer to Newton or Einstein’s calculation.
A third, somewhat more exotic test, is to ask whether a theory generalizes to a wider set of objects than originally proposed. If Newton’s gravity theory has a 1/r^2 dependence, does this generalize to Coulomb’s law for electric charges? Does Newton’s law explain how “action at a distance” must drop in intensity like the ratio of the surface area to the volume of an expanding sphere because gravity is “diluted” by space?
This last criterion is heavily metaphysical, but the point is that the theory has more explanatory power if it works in completely unrelated areas, if it works “better than it should” because it has stumbled upon some enduring metaphysical structure, some hidden stud in our little room in the cosmos.
For while metaphysics is not objective–in the sense that it depends only upon our five human senses–neither is it entirely subjective or simply a matter of “taste.”
3) And finally the third thing missed in Wilson’s fine essay is something I call midrash–the willingness to let several theories coexist side-by-side, even contradictory theories. It is the view that every verse in Scripture can have multiple subjective meanings without detracting from the objective existence of the verse itself. The data is objective, our theories subjective. But we can objectively compare our subjective theories, as long as we don’t succumb to the temptation to adjust the data. That is the greatest sin and the cause of incalculable suffering.
How is it possible to objectively view our subjective selves? It is the great mystery of self-consciousness. It is the foundation of deepest theology. It is why good science reflects good theology.
O’Leary for News: Here’s a third view (mine): Maybe we are all missing the point. The social justice warriors, having nothing to offer but destruction, are on the move. They have exhausted the opportunities for plunder in destroyed arts disciplines and so now they turn their attention to sciences.
Put another way, if the output of the Grunge Feminist Collective is equivalent to that of Jane Austen, the situation can only benefit the Grunge, not Austen. And of the two, who has mattered more to the public?
So, no surprise, Grunge has decided that science needs to be liberated from sexist objectivity. What happens next should reveal a lot of agendas.
See also: Another view: Objectivity is a myth. Bring the social justice warriors into science!
Nature: Stuck with a battle it dare not fight, even for the soul of science. Excuse me guys but, as in so many looming strategic disasters, the guns are facing the wrong way.