What do scientific theories actually tell us about the world?

One of the things that’s exciting about learning new things, is that often a new understanding in one area sheds light on what might seem like a completely separate topic.  For me, information about how the brain works appears to have shed new light on a question in the philosophy of of science, where there has long been a debate about the epistemic nature of scientific theories.

Spacetime lattice Image credit: mysid via Wikipedia

Spacetime lattice
Image credit: mysid via Wikipedia

One camp holds that scientific theories reflect reality, at least to some level of approximation.  So when we talk about space being warped in general relativity, or the behavior of fermions and bosons, there is actually something “out there” that corresponds to those concepts.  There is something actually being warped, and there actually are tiny particles and/or waves that are being described in particle physics.  This camp is scientific realism.

The opposing camp believes that scientific theories are only frameworks we build to predict observations.  The stories we tell ourselves associated with those predictive frameworks may or may not correspond to any underlying reality.  All we can know is whether the theory successfully makes its predictions.  This camp is instrumentalism.

The vast majority of scientists are realists.  This makes sense when you consider the motivation needed to spend hours of  your life in a lab doing experiments, or to endure the discomforts and hazards of field work.  It’s pretty hard for geologists to visit the antarctic for samples, or for biologists to crawl through the mud for specimens, if they don’t see themselves in some way as being in pursuit of truth.

But the instrumentalists tend to point out all the successful scientific theories that could accurately predict observations, at least for a time, but were eventually shown to be wrong.

The prime example is Ptolemy’s ancient theory of the universe, a precise mathematical model of the Aristotelian view of geocentrism, the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe with everything revolving around it.    For centuries, Ptolemy’s model accurately predicted naked eye observations of the heavens.

But we know today that it is completely wrong.  As Copernicus pointed out in the 1500s, the Earth orbits around the sun.  Interestingly, many science historians have pointed out that Copernicus’ model actually wasn’t any better at making predictions than Ptolemy’s, at least until Galileo started making observations through a telescope.  Indeed, the first printing of Copernicus’ theory had a preface from someone, probably hoping to head off controversy, saying the ideas presented might only be a predictive framework unrelated to actual reality.

For a long time, I was agnostic between realism and instrumentalism.  Emotionally, scientific realism is hard to shake.  Without it, science seems little more than an endeavor to lay the groundwork for technology, for practical applications of its findings.  Many instrumentalists are happy to see it in that light.  A lot of instrumentalists tend to be philosophers, theologians, and others who may be less than thrilled with the implications of scientific findings.

However I do think it’s important for scientists, and anyone assessing scientific theories, to be able to put on the instrumentalist cap from time to time, to conservatively assess which parts of a theory are actually predictive, and which may just be speculative baggage.

But here’s the thing.  Often what we’re really talking about here is the difference between the raw mathematics of a theory, and its language description, including the metaphors and analogies we use to understand it.  The idea is that the mathematics might be right, but the rest wrong.

But the language part of a theory is a description of a mental understanding of what’s happening.  That understanding is a model we build in our brains, a neural firing pattern that may or may not be isomorphic with patterns in the world.  And as I’ve discussed in my consciousness posts, the model building mechanism evolved for an adaptive purpose: to make predictions.

In other words, the language description of a theory is itself a predictive model.  Its predictions may not be as precise as the mathematical portions, they may not be currently testable in the same manner as the mathematics (assuming those mathematics are actually testable; I’m looking at you string theorists), but it will still make predictions.

Using the Ptolemy example above, the language model did make predictions.  It’s just that many of its predictions couldn’t be tested until the availability of telescopes.  Once they could, the Ptolemy model quickly fell from favor.  (At least it was quick on historical time scales.  It wasn’t quick enough to avoid making Galileo’s final years miserable.)  As many have pointed out, it wasn’t that Copernicus’ model made precisely right predictions, but it was far less wrong than Ptolemy’s.

When you think about it, any mental model we hold makes predictions.  The predictions might not be testable, currently or ever, but they’re still there.  Even religious or metaphysical beliefs make predictions, such as whether we’ll wake up in an afterlife after we die.  They’re just predictions we may never be able to test in this world.

This means that the distinction between scientific realism and instrumentalism is an artificial one.  It’s really just a distinction between aspects of a theory that can be tested, and the currently untestable aspects.  Often the divide is between the mathematical portions and the language portions, but the only real difference there is that the mathematical predictions are precise, whereas the language ones are less precise, to varying degrees.

Of course, I’m basing this insight on a scientific theory about how the brain works.  If that theory eventually ends up failing in its predictions, it might have implications for the epistemic point I’m making here, for the revision to our model of scientific knowledge I think is warranted.

And idealists might note that I’m also making the assumption that brains exist, that along with the rest of the external world they aren’t an illusion.  I have to concede that’s true, and even if this understanding makes accurate useful predictions, within idealism, it still wouldn’t be mapping to actual reality.  But given that I’m also assuming that all you other minds exist out there, it’s a stipulation I’m comfortable with.

As always, it might be that I’m missing something.  If so, I hope you’ll set me straight in the comments.

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69 Responses to What do scientific theories actually tell us about the world?

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    I think you are trying too hard to put people in boxes. I am a scientist and in many areas I am an instrumentalist, while with regard to others I am a realist. Just what exactly is electromagnetic radiation? It certainly is not a wavy line as is often used to illustrate it. What is a gravitational field? What is a field? We really do not know exactly. Just as Heisenberg eventually came to accept electrons only as a set of equations as he had no mental/physical construct that was helpful, sometimes we are in one box and sometimes in another.

    Maybe we need a quantum theory of categorizations.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Good point. As I said in the post, it’s important to be able to put on the instrumentalist cap. Although one physicist once quipped to me that he was a realist about his own theories and an instrumentalist about everyone else’s.

      The more I learned as a layman about quantum physics, the more instrumentalist I became about it, nervous that all the “interpretations” were merely attempts to map the quantum world to the metaphors and analogies that work everywhere else. (Which actually matches the sentiment of some versions of the Copenhagen “interpretation”.) It seems like there are some things we just have to accept on their own terms, no matter how much they violate our intuitions.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Steve Morris says:

    I think you are broadly right. There is overlap between realism and instrumentalism. Every scientific theory is necessarily tentative – as long as it makes predictions that match observations, it remains in vogue. If it fails, we know it is wrong in some way, even if we don’t know how.

    Few physicists think of fundamental particles as being anything as simple as either particles or waves – we know that they are mysterious entities that no metaphor can adequately describe. Most physicists behave like instrumentalists in this regard – they calculate, using the mathematics. Any attempt to explain the mathematics in words always fails – you cannot hope to fully grasp quantum theory unless you study the equations and their solutions.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Steve. I promise I didn’t read your comment before my reply to Steve Ruis, but as I noted, learning more about quantum physics (I won’t pretend to understand the math) has made me more inclined toward an instrumentalist type attitude toward it. From what I read about the Copenhagen interpretation, that’s largely its original sentiment, that any attempt to map what’s happening at that level to classical reality is probably a refusal to accept it on its own terms.

      Still, I don’t encounter too many physicists who wouldn’t say that fermions and bosons exist in some way, that their interactions aren’t happening in some manner. And some seem borderline religious about their preferred interpretation.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. keithnoback says:

    The epistemology of our phenomenology. On average.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael says:

    Hi Mike,

    I think that your distinction between mathematics and the English language is an arbitrary one. They are both languages, with rules and grammar, and both rely on those rules to produce structures of logic that have consequences. When we explore an idea through the framework of any language, some of the consequences that are tenable within the structure of that language may be unexpected, and some may not be permitted.

    My thought for a long time on this is that both the mathematical and spoken language descriptions of phenomena are incomplete. There is also purely conceptual thinking, which is wordless, and which may precede or stand alongside of both mathematical and spoken language descriptions, In general I think people in any field have a hard time commuting their conceptual understanding into words or variables of equations, and likely in both cases they might say what is on the paper feels like a very distorted version of what they “saw.”

    Math by itself is not meaningful. You have to have some sense of what the quantities represent in order for it to be useful. For instance, the equations of power flow through DC circuits apply perfectly well to the calculation of conductive heat transfer through brick walls and ski parkas, so unless one knows what one is trying to represent with the mathematical variables, the equations are not specifically meaningful on their own. So I don’t think an underlying conceptual understanding can be removed from either method of describing reality.

    The Copenhagen interpretation, I thought, was suggesting that there was no deeper or broader layer of order. Another way to say it would be that there is no deeper layer of order that preserves classical assumptions, but this hardly means quantum physicists don’t have some idea of what the variables in the equations represent. If the point of instrumentalism is to suggest that what those variables seem to represent–say a particle, or the density of a fluid, or the local orientation of an electric field–are all non-existent and conventions to give the user of the mathematics a meaningful orientation, then I think I agree with that.

    It seems to me that one can be both a realist and an instrumentalist if one accepts that there may be something seemingly real corresponding to the equations and the variables and constants they contain, but that it is only a part of something much larger. So the realist and the instrumentalist can both be valid perspectives at the same time, in most any scientific theory. Whether the patterns conceived of or identified in nature are pictures (realism) or words (instrumentalism), they are only patterns that present themselves. It seems to me that in order to say definitively one was right and the other wrong would require complete knowledge of the universe, which we don’t have.

    So in the meanwhile isn’t it all just models, regardless of this distinction?

    Michael

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Michael,
      On the distinction between mathematics and language, actually that’s largely the point I was trying to communicate. They’re both predictive models, or aspects of an overall predictive model. So, I agree.

      I would note however that I don’t think the distinction is entirely arbitrary. Mathematics really are more precise, and language really is less so. (The math might be precisely wrong, but it is more precise.) And I’m a bit leery of the idea that there are some things that can’t be expressed mathematically. For example, the statement “all swans are white” could be written as NumWhiteSwans = NumSwans. The only language statements that can’t be expressed mathematically are ones that are inherently ambiguous, such as “many people have lots of doubt”. (Although who knows what symbolic tools a determined mathematician might come up with.)

      That’s interesting on the electrical flow equations matching heat flow. My language interpretation is that the relationship between the entities are the same. But if you increased the scope of the equations to include details of the entities, they’d start to diverge. (Although ultimately, all entities are composed of fermions and bosons, so in principle they should eventually all converge again into one theory-of-everything equation.)

      The thing about the Copenhagen Interpretation is that there appear to be several versions. The one I learned, and I suspect the oldest one, is encapsulated by the phrase: “shut up and calculate”. In other words, we can’t really know what the underlying reality, if any, might be, and speculating about it is unscientific. We have a theory that can predict, as far as the physics allow, what will happen. Positing anything beyond the observations and predictive mathematics is undesirable.

      Of course, generations of physicists have found that utterly unsatisfying. Which is apparently why interpretations abound. Lots of people have their favorite interpretation, which they strongly feel is the only right one, but as far as I know, none of them have any evidence unique to that interpretation. (Which I guess is why we call them “interpretations” instead of “theories”.)

      Definitely, it’s all models. Even the conceptual thinking you were talking about. The basic ingredient of our mental models are raw sensory or emotional experience. Language is only a collection of symbols that we substitute, either for other language symbols, or instances of that experience. So we affix the label “purple” to an aspect of visual experience. But “purple” is a meaningless sound to a non-human animal, and a completely abstract concept to a human born blind.

      And all models are predictive. That appears to be their purpose. At least unless we can find models that appear to exist for something other than prediction, but I’m not aware of any. (Some people might say art, but even the models communicated in art make predictions, even when we know it’s play predictions.)

      Not that all models make good predictions.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Michael says:

        Hi Mike,

        Part of my comment above that I don’t think I made clear was this: in your article it seemed to me you were making a distinction between the mathematical part of a physical theory, and the language description that goes with it–as if they could be considered separately. My contention is that it is not reasonable to think they–the language description and the mathematical equations–can be teased apart or discussed on relatively separate terms. I think it is incorrect to think that one can test the mathematics of a theory without testing its underpinning conceptual understanding, and vice versa, it is not possible to test the conceptual understanding without utilizing the mathematical description. A physical theory must have both or it is not a theory at all. An instrumentalist may not be attached to a conceptual model behind the equations, but the terms in the equation must mean something that correlates to physical measurement, so there is always a need for both a mathematical description and a conceptual understanding.

        To just say, “F=ma” doesn’t mean anything on its own. I could be describing the way a mass accelerates when acted upon by an external force, or the exact same mathematical statement could be used to describe the tension a spring of a specific stiffness would develop when stretched a given amount. (F=kx). Since letters in equations are basically arbitrary, mathematically these are identical. The only difference is the meaning we assign the terms in the equations.

        A physical theory is only able to make predictions successfully when the mathematical description and the conceptual understanding that go with it work together to yield meaningful statements. When an experiment fails there can be many reasons: 1) the conceptual understanding is right, but the mathematical description used to describe it was not correct; 2) the conceptual understanding is wrong to begin with; 3) the mathematics was correct for the physical measurements involved, but the conceptual understanding itself was wrong, e.g. remains incomplete or overreaching in some way, and of course countless other reasons such as misinterpretation of the experimental apparatus and what the instrument data physically represents that a good experimentalist must consider and definitively rule out. Nevertheless, in every case, the mathematical descriptions must be correlated to conceptual understanding in the minds of the scientists, and those conceptual understandings must represent “something” in the real world, even if the full nature of that something remains unknown. So I agree with your premise on the distinction between realism and instrumentalism being artificial, but I guess what I didn’t understand was why you wrote about separating theories into mathematical and language descriptions?

        Returning to your statement from the original article, “This means that the distinction between scientific realism and instrumentalism is an artificial one. It’s really just a distinction between aspects of a theory that can be tested, and the currently untestable aspects.” I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Are you saying realism is not testable and instrumentalism is? I would say instrumentalism and realism are opposite ends of a single spectrum, but BOTH require a conceptual entity or object that is represented by the mathematics to function as physical theories. In a theory like quantum mechanics where the language component is quite minimal and refers only to abstract, measurable quantities that are likely incomplete descriptions of what is being measured, then it makes sense to suggest our experiments are not weighting heavily a validation of the conceptual understanding; nevertheless, an appropriate conceptual understanding is vital to utilizing the equations of quantum mechanics experimentally to make actual measurements, and it was this rewriting of conceptual understanding early on that made the equations useful I think. So I simply think that in scientific theory we are always testing, simultaneously, the validity of integrated mathematical-conceptual understandings.

        I think our challenge with quantum mechanics is that it is nearly impossible to imagine conceptually what the successful mathematical statements describe. And I think the reason is that the reality is of course very different than what we see at the macroscopic level. In particular, the idea that we can form meaningful conceptual models by imagining the interaction of discrete, independent objects breaks down. Reality does not appear to be a volume of space populated by independent entities as we classically thought.

        But I found this article at here that gives an interesting description of the inherent and minimum conceptual understanding that underpins all physical theories. The “pre-scientific” understanding described below is part of the bare minimum conceptual understanding I was trying to describe. We just can’t get away from a theory that is rooted in mental concepts of reality.

        The interpretation of a physical theory has to rely on an experimental practice.

        2.The experimental practice presupposes a certain pre-scientific practice of description, which establishes the norm for experimental measurement apparatus, and consequently what counts as scientific experience.

        Our pre-scientific practice of understanding our environment is an adaptation to the sense experience of separation, orientation, identification and reidentification over time of physical objects.
        This pre-scientific experience is grasped in terms of common categories like thing’s position and change of position, duration and change of duration, and the relation of cause and effect, terms and principles that are now parts of our common language.
        These common categories yield the preconditions for objective knowledge, and any description of nature has to use these concepts to be objective.
        The concepts of classical physics are merely exact specifications of the above categories.
        The classical concepts—and not classical physics itself—are therefore necessary in any description of physical experience in order to understand what we are doing and to be able to communicate our results to others, in particular in the description of quantum phenomena as they present themselves in experiments;

        Michael

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Michael,
          The point I was trying to make in the post, which I appear to have not made well, is that the distinction between the mathematical part of the theory and the language narrative isn’t really a valid epistemic divide. The real divide is between the predictions that have been tested (mathematical or not) and those which haven’t or can’t (mathematical or not). Now, in many cases the division may fall along the math / language line, because the math is what we tend to be able to test most directly, but it doesn’t have to.

          Most theories are considered indivisible until some of their predictions start to fail, which can mean the whole theory is in jeopardy, some portions of it, or that it’s just a special case of a broader theory. Often we can’t imagine how a theory could be divided, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t.

          “I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Are you saying realism is not testable and instrumentalism is?”

          I’m saying that there is no such thing as an understanding of reality which is not, ultimately, an instrumental model. We only understand something by building predictive models of it. We can do nothing else. Someone asked me if I was advocating for “universal instrumentalism”. My answer is that universal instrumentalism and universal realism are epistemically one and the same thing. Any purported distinction between them assumes that there such a thing as an understanding of reality which is not a predictive model. (That said, if you can think of such an understanding, I’d be very interested in knowing about it.)

          On the Copenhagen interpretation, I think a key line of the Stanford article you linked to is “The Copenhagen interpretation is not a homogenous view.” The version I favor is the one agnostic about the underlying reality. The versions that make judgments about that reality, if any, are less compelling to me.

          I think all the interpretations that make those judgments have to be regarded as separate theories in an of themselves. The mathematics of QM has apparently been tested more than any scientific theory in history. There’s little doubt it’s correct as far as it goes. From what I understand, some of the interpretations have been ruled out over time, but the main ones can’t be tested. Until they are, I’m skeptical of any confident assertions about any of them.

          I do agree with you about our challenge with quantum physics. For most scientific theories, we can use metaphors and analogies with the everyday world to understand what is happening. But quantum mechanics simply doesn’t appear to map well with any of them.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael says:

            Thanks, Mike. In understanding this better I think it makes a lot of sense–this idea that we can only really understand reality through model building. Thanks for the follow-ups. I caveat my agreement by noting that I agree when I also accept the notion of reality as I’ve come to understand you use it here. It also seems to me model building can cover quite a vast territory with regards to suggesting how things will behave or respond, but it can never quite enable comprehension of what reality is. But I think this may have been part of this piece as well, right? That models are all we can ever really have?

            On the quantum mechanics thing I wasn’t arguing for any particular interpretation, only noting that in those six bullet items (that didn’t come through as well as I had hoped), the necessity of a pre-scientific description of reality exists. The implication is that every theory must have some points of contact with physical reality. I don’t think you disagree with that–the question is whether we ascribe to those points of contact a more detailed conceptual model to connect those dots (like realism might), or just accept those minimal dots without projecting some greater shape or geometry or mechanism to them (like an instrumentalist might). As you noted, this distinction is largely moot, as there is some form of model-building in either case.

            Michael

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting thoughts on instrumentalism and realism. I think I’m seeing your point, from a certain abstract POV, but my sense of it is that instrumentalism seems a bit more humble in its epistemic claims, which seems only fair when it comes to sciences that are by their nature always in progress. To me it seems strange to be so committed to some controversial theory or theory-in-progress, going so far as to use the metaphorical language in a non-metaphorical way, as if such entities were obvious or facts. I tend to be skeptical of such language, but without knowing what’s going on in the math, I can’t argue or even have much to say about it. It puts me in a position somewhat similar to when someone tells me the latest diet fad, like “Don’t eat eggs,” or whatever. There may be some truth to those claims, and there might be an even greater truth that makes more sense (like, “Don’t have high cholesterol”) or it may come to nothing. Maybe if scientific claims were a bit toned down, there would be no need for the instrumentalist-realist distinction? Of course, these sort of claims tend to come from popular articles, which aren’t exactly the best sources.

    “Emotionally, scientific realism is hard to shake”—so true. Not for me, as you can imagine, but I’ve seen this this discomfort in person, in a class on the scientific method. The philosophers in the room had no problem with the implications of what you’re talking about here with the Copernican revolution (both theories saving the appearances equally at a certain point in time) but the scientists were very unhappy, including the Physics professor, who ended up having to apologize later for throwing a tantrum. There is a strange divide here, and I think you hit the nail on the head in saying it’s hard to devote your life to anything less than reality and truth. On the other hand, that might not be nearly as difficult for philosophers, who ought to be used to having the rug ripped out from under their feet.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think most scientists do try to be careful with their claims. If they engage in speculation, they’re usually careful to label it as speculation. But as you note, a lot of times the press isn’t so cautious. In some ways, it’s inevitable. After all, it’s often the implications of scientific findings that make them so interesting.

      And scientists generally try to adhere to Occam’s razor, to prefer the theory with the least number of assumptions that matches the data. But often we have assumptions that are so tangled up with our worldview, that we don’t even perceive them as assumptions. The example that always comes to mind for me are 19th century anthropologists who were so embedded in the pervasive racist ideology of that period, that they couldn’t see how it tainted their understanding of what they were finding.

      On scientists and philosophers, my experience is that both intellectual flexibility and rigidity exist in both fields. And often a person who is flexible in one area can be rigid in another. The prime example is Einstein, whose willingness to deal with the implications of the results from late 19th century experiments revolutionized physics, but whose inability to accept quantum indeterminacy mostly left him sidelined in his later career.

      But many philosophers have their own hangups. I think a good deal of what is written in the philosophy of mind is worse than useless, refusing to engage with what science is actually learning, focusing instead on rationalizations for why some flavor of dualism (rarely explicitly labeled) is still true. Not that some scientists aren’t just as guilty.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Jeff says:

      rung2,

      I’m not sure what you mean by devotion to truth and reality. Are these not conceptual terms that we’ve come to accept as having some kind solid counterpart such as a realm, an end point, a conclusion? Isn’t that what most people ‘think’ reality and truth are? Like a mind, is there any solidity to truth or reality? Are we even talking about the same thing in most cases? The Christian reality, the Hindu reality, a scientifc reality. We speak as if these things actually exist somewhere. All this thinking and nothing really to show for it. Is this a David Mamet show? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t have any nailed-down definition of truth in mind in that context, but I suppose I meant the sort that some might call absolute, or, as you say, correspondence to a ‘solid’ counterpart such as a realm. Of course there are other theories about what truth is.

        As for reality, to be honest, I’m not sure what that would constitute in a scientific framework these days. I tend to think of scientific reality as empirical, although there’s obviously a lot more to it than that.

        “Are we talking about the same thing in most cases?”

        I think in most ordinary situations, yeah. But only insofar as we steer clear of the university philosophy building. 🙂

        Like

  6. ratamacue0 says:

    My thought at the mement (held loosely) is that on general, when models demonstrate their accurate predictions over and over and over, and others build on them and they stand the tests of time and rigor, and there is no competing contradictory model, then they almost certainly do actually describe reality – though perhaps imprecisely. How could it be otherwise?

    For instance, Newtonian physics isn’t wrong – it’s just imprecise and incomplete. Relativity came along and clarified it, but it wasn’t overturned.

    In cases where we have multiple interpretations off something and reasons to be unsure that they match reality, sure, instrumentalism makes sense. But are you suggesting that a sort of “universal instrumentalism” is reasonable?

    If so, it’s an interesting thought experiment, but I don’t think it is reasonable. What makes it any different from the “brain in a vat” concept?

    Liked by 2 people

    • ratamacue0 says:

      ^ Hopefully I made some sense there…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well said. I agree.

      On your universal instrumentalism question, my broader point is that the distinction between realism and instrumentalism is an artificial one. All theories are predictive models, and our only measure of their correspondence with reality is how successful those predictions are. But that applies to every model we hold, including the ones we used in our day to day lives. So, you could call that “universal instrumentalism” or “universal realism”, or just realize that the labels aren’t useful.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. ratamacue0 says:

    BTW, why is string theory “theory”?

    So many people in the scientific and skeptic/atheist communities make a big deal of explaining how the scientific meaning of “theory” differs from colloquial usage (especially as it relates to evolution). Doesn’t string theory break that rule? Shouldn’t it be string hypothesis, string interpretation, string conjecture, string model, or some such?

    Liked by 4 people

    • In truth, the way that many skeptics / atheists argue about hypotheses and theories is misguided. It’s pushback against the creationist propaganda that evolution is “only a theory”, or conservative propaganda against climate change.

      But in historical science discourse, a theory can be a speculative untested model, or it can be one with mountains of evidence supporting it. The word carries no more inherent certitude than the word “model”. Usually “theory” refers to an overall model, and hypothesis refers to a specific untested prediction of a theory. But rigid definitions of these words won’t cover the range of their historical usage.

      It is true that most successful theories are formed based on extensive existing scientific data. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a theory from the day he published it.

      Liked by 4 people

  8. Steve Morris says:

    Not all science involves such abstract notions as fundamental physics (which, by intent, questions the most fundamental building blocks of reality.) Consider the theory that food poisoning is caused by bacteria. No one doubts that the single-celled organisms are real. They are not just parameters in a predictive model.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steve, what about them do you think makes them more than parameters in a predictive model? For that matter, what about your mental model of your home makes it more than a predictive model?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Steve Morris says:

        The fact that you can see them with a microscope. Regarding the home, I get sensory feedback from items I see and touch. With models of the solar system, we don’t have the same direct validation of our models.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Steve,
          So, I get that that makes them feel more real, less abstract. You validate your model of your home by sensory perceptions. We validate our model of bacteria by sensory perceptions aided by equipment.

          But don’t we also validate our model of the solar system, or of particle physics, by sensory perceptions aided by equipment? Granted, the equipment is more sophisticated for particle physics than a simple microscope, and we depend heavily on our model of the equipment itself to know if it’s giving us accurate information. But ultimately, aren’t they all models whose veracity is strengthened or weakened by sensory perceptions?

          Liked by 1 person

    • I think it comes down to what parts of a theory have been tested, and which haven’t or can’t be. We should always try be aware that those untested aspects could be wrong, particularly if there is room for alternate explanations.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hariod Brawn says:

    It’s rather annoying that one can’t argue with a Transcendental Idealist. I ask them whether, when they draw the curtains at night, the moon disappears. In response I always get moments of great hesitancy, perhaps followed by “Well yes, it does for me”. I suppose if I were without bias, I’d just say that maybe they were right. Consciousness is a bugger, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps the follow-up questions to ask are, “If the moon disappears for me when I don’t see it, do you disappear when I’m not seeing you? If the answers are different, then why?”

      In any case, if the external world is an illusion, it appears to be one that exacts unpleasant penalties for not taking it seriously, leaving us without much choice but to play the game, and our models of it remain useful.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        I suppose the answer might come back that as my interlocutor existed (for me) only insofar as s/he did to ‘my’ past consciousness, so it is that s/he continues to exist (to themselves) only insofar as s/he does to ‘their’ consciousness? How do we get past that one?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hmmm. That seems to be redefining “exist” to be equivalent to “perceive”, something relative to each mind. It’s like we’re all in intersecting virtual environments or something. But what are those environments in?

          You can also posit that our memories are an illusion. Maybe you’re a mind that just came into being seconds ago with a lifetime of false memories. You could be a copy of your “real” self, a copy that is running in a simulation to see what that real self would do in a given scenario. Or maybe a Boltzmann brain that randomly assembled from chaotic patterns and will dissolve in a few more seconds. Or perhaps you’re a fraction of a mind, a piece of cognitive mechanism that only thinks it’s part of an overall mind.

          Ultimately, you can’t convince a determined skeptic that the world exists. But it’s worth pointing out that they can’t exempt themselves from that type of skepticism.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hariod Brawn says:

            I suppose to the Transcendental Idealist — the person who not only believes that the world is alone known by mind, but that only mind exists — perception, existence, and consciousness, are as one? They may argue that your question regarding discrete environments and whatever it is they are contained ‘in’ (your word), erroneously presupposes that their posited universal mind or consciousness is itself an existent within our apparent space-time? Maybe to them these apparently individual experiences are no more than aspectual figments of their metaphysical realm of pure mind? I’m not sure how we dispose of the argument. o_O

            Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t think you can. Even if you could, it’s probably not worth the energy. All that’s left to be done is meet on instrumental ground and agree what is useful.

            Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: What do scientific theories actually tell us about the world? | SelfAwarePatterns | Okapi

  11. Pingback: What do scientific theories actually tell us about the world? — SelfAwarePatternsness #SelfAwareness #NicolausCopernicus – Ola Queen Bee of Astrology

  12. Jeff says:

    Mike,

    Reading through this thread and its comments, I am struck again how the narrative of our ‘individual’ lives defines and fixes our views of life. Depending upon our narrative, we collect data to support our theories and concepts regarding ourselves and the universe/world, which is really the same thing. The Christian and the Quantum theorist, the Instrumentalist and the Idealist, the Buddhist and the Hindu, all have a collection of data to support their points of view.

    I’m wondering if you’ve ever had a moment where your narrative, which is conditioned, as well as all narratives are, all of a sudden took a ‘backseat’ and fell nearly silent to a sense of totality that was not ‘conditioned’ and which was felt everywhere at the same time? I don’t want to put a name on this as it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with our mental capacities, but has a sense of vastness and freedom about it, freedom from everything we ‘know’. (Reminds me of the J. Krishnamurti book ‘Freedom From The Known’, which does talk about this very thing. This kind of experience immediately changes your point of view in the sense of giving reality to the narrative we all take for granted. In fact, this may be the only thing that we could possibly agree on if we all could step out of our narratives. This totality does not have a fixed location or point but is pervasive and felt, but is not measurable. It is not a prediction machine, an endogram, or a concept. I’m wondering if you, Mike, or other readers here have stumbled upon this and how it relates to all that we know and do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff,
      Well, I’ve definitely had moments where my narrative changed dramatically, in many cases broadening. But I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been able to step clear of all narratives. My suspicion is that this isn’t possible. We can change our narrative, or perhaps adopted a different one.

      But if we think we’ve escaped narratives or somehow transcended them, I think it’s an illusion, one created by us stepping into perhaps a dramatically new narrative. But the narratives / theories / models are fundamentally how we understand the world and ourselves. They’re ultimately all we have. It’s all any conscious creature has. I would say your impression of being everywhere and freedom is some alternate narrative, but not narrative / model / theory /worldview free.

      Of course, it’s entirely possible that I completely misunderstood your point and question 🙂

      Like

      • Jeff says:

        Mike,

        If you noticed in my post, I said the narrative took a ‘backseat’ and that it ‘nearly’ fell silent. That narrative doesn’t seem to disappear, but it can function in a different ‘mode’ than what we are usually experiencing. What I tried to describe may be a different part or faculty of the brain which has been ‘overridden’ by the narrative that we are all used to. I’m not suggesting an ‘ending’ to the narrative as I agree with your view that the narrative is necessary to traverse this particular landscape. But, as humans, there may be other landscapes or dimensions that could touch our narrative and change our point of view in ways we do not expect.

        Because language is an imperfect means of communication, the terms ‘everywhere’ and ‘freedom’ don’t signify solid, fixed points on any map or model. Maybe a better way of describing what I’m talking about is simply a change in narrative to one that is not compiling data about experience and the creation of a fixed point called Jeff and Mike. I wanted to know if you or any of your other readers have had this ‘experience’ of totality? It is a palpable and undeniable moment or stream of moments that could be described as revelatory by some, ecstatic by others, or simply being present in the moment. It has nothing to do with thinking or whatever model or map one has put in place. I’m really curious as to the prevalence of this type of happening in the scientific community at large. It is generally talked about in philosophic and religious schools, but I never see this mentioned at all within the scientific schools and I’m wondering if this has been ‘trained out’ of you through the disciplines of what is called the scientific method. I do see ‘value’ in the scientific approach, but I don’t see totality and what I speak of.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jeff,
          I think everyone has non-analytical moments, where they just experience the raw feeling of the situation, if I’m understanding your question correctly. What might be different is that a science oriented person is probably not inclined to view that as any kind of epistemic data point, at least not without analyzing it in some fashion.

          Your question reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with someone, who asked if I’d ever had any kind of religious experience. My response was that I hadn’t (despite actively seeking one out when I was young), or if I had, I hadn’t latched onto it in the same manner that a spiritually oriented person might. And that I’d be unlikely to have one in the future because I’d almost certainly explore a religious-like experience from a scientific or analytical philosophical perspective, doubting any perception I might have that couldn’t be objectively verified.

          This actually might be a distinct difference between a science oriented person and the rest of the population. A science oriented person accepts that human perceptions are unreliable, that it’s very easy to fool ourselves, so we tend not to necessarily take them at face value, particularly when they seem to be showing something that doesn’t fit with the broader understanding of reality.

          Of course, this can make us slow to accept bizarre or unexplainable phenomena. But the idea is that repeatable, consistent, iterations of that phenomena, or at least third party verification, eventually forces a science minded person to accept it. Of course, then the goal becomes to understand it. I’m not sure we’re disposed to just accept it in and of itself.

          Again, I’m nervous that I’m not really addressing your question. Sorry if I’m still missing the mark.

          Like

  13. Jeff says:

    Mike,

    You express yourself well and explain your process clearly. I’m inclined to think that you have created a kind of shell of analytical thinking that doesn’t allow any other type of perception to come into play, and are very committed to a certain type of thinking. For myself, by reading the posts here, I can now appreciate this kind of thinking and analysis and even find myself engaging it when needs be. But, there are other ways of perceiving that need no outside corroboration that are crystal clear and not necessarily analytical. There is a whole level of intuitive perceptions possible. But, if you don’t allow your mind to engage this fully, exploring it in an open way, you will never know first-hand if any of this has validity.

    When I mention a moment of cognizing totality, that moment contains a kind of certainty that the narrative of our lives is not central to what we are. That it is possible to live without the narrative impinging itself on our very being and still retain the narrative without the first person association, ‘I’, ‘Me’, ‘Mine’, ego, and any other identities we’ve created. At some point, thinking becomes insufficient and it clearly cannot comprehend any of this. Some other faculty comes into play, Mike. I don’t need to know which part of my brain it may originate from or figure out anything that has to do with the narrative.

    I might sound like a fool to some readers. So be it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff,
      “I’m inclined to think that you have created a kind of shell of analytical thinking that doesn’t allow any other type of perception to come into play, and are very committed to a certain type of thinking. ”

      You’ve very diplomatically described what a lot of other people have just called “closed minded” 🙂

      Of course, closed or open minded is often in the eyes of the beholder. Many years ago, I developed an intense desire to get the clearest understanding of reality I could, wherever it might lead. The way of thinking you observe is the approach I’ve found to be the most effective way to achieve that.

      But, as I said above, this isn’t to say that I can’t turn that off and sometimes just have an experience, such as watching a sunset, marvel at a baby exploring its world, enjoying a good meal, the camaraderie of good friends, or enjoying good art.

      But by nature, I’m a pretty analytical person. I always have been. I can’t help but wonder how things got to be the way they are, and where they’re going, or the raw mechanisms involved in the experiences you described. It’s who I am. For me to deny it would be to deny who I am.

      Like

  14. Jeff says:

    Mike,

    Didn’t mean what I said as an insult. In fact, I have no idea how you really are apart from this blog. But, I completely agree with your last paragraph and don’t think you should deny anything about yourself. This would be the wrong approach and would cause untold problems psychologically.

    On the topic of ‘closed minded’, isn’t this what the narrative is all about? It IS the shell we’ve created. By deeply contemplating what this narrative is, we open to other possibilities, sensibilities, and what the nature of mind might be. I would venture forward and say that the nature of mind is openness, space-like in the sense of encompassing all. It is also not a divided nature in the sense of observer/observed, me and you. Yet, the narrative remains, but in a different role, so to speak. You are the narrative and at the same time, you are not. You are not a fixed point in space, but there is a cognizance present, no matter the experience. This is an important human moment that most people miss, but is there for all to see. Our narrative obscures this, but not fully. We just don’t know how to look at ourselves properly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry Jeff. Didn’t mean to imply that I felt insulted or aggrieved. I was just making the point you summarized so well.

      The blog is, in some ways, a hyper-rationalized view of the real me. In real life, while I do my best to be rational, I’m thoroughly human and get upset and delighted by many of the same things everyone else does.

      I do think being closed minded is allowing ourselves to be trapped in our current narrative. While I certainly have my own narrative, I try to alter it on new information, and regularly try to understand the narratives of other people, a practice I think we should all engage in.

      My view of the mind, which I fear you might find unappealing, is relentlessly evolutionary, in that I think minds evolved to plan and drive animal movement. Certainly human minds have a large capacity for abstract planning, an ability to simulate scenarios far and above any other species’. Which has allowed us to contemplate ourselves in a manner no other species can. But that ability can encourage us to think of minds as something above and beyond that movement planner. To me, this is itself a narrative, one that we should evaluate like any other.

      None of this is to say that I don’t think mindfulness practices are useful; I do. One thing I’ve learned about the brain is that it operates in layers, with the lower emotional/feeling layers outside of our direct conscious control. Having strategies to understand and influence the state of those primal layers definitely seems worth the effort.

      Like

  15. Jeff says:

    Mike,

    What you are describing about the mind’s abilities are functional and they all relate to the life we presently live. That life is finite in the sense that this body/mind is going to stop functioning at the time of death and everything that you call yourself is going with it. I’m not sure if I see your point about the mind being evolutionary or how that relates to what I said about the nature of mind. I am not talking about the content of mind and its myriad projections of thought and its narrative. That is not evolution to me and is not happening on a cellular level that changes the human being.

    All you’ve presented so far, is a strategic explanation of your thought structure to explain how we think based on information that you’ve gleaned from others. There’s not one original thought there. I’m not blaming you for this because this is simply what all of us do, regurgitate the cultural input and spit out a view that we call our own. What I tried to present was not about this narrative or any of its products. It was about a glimpse into a completely different way of living NOT based on one’s narrative and the whole thought structure. I don’t want to use the term transcend or something beyond thought as it gives rise to too many images. But, for me it is something actual and not very describable as thought and the whole analytical process cannot approach this. The very fact that thought cannot comprehend this will offend many people that are certain that they can think their way into some kind of state that will give them some great understanding or unravel the mystery of the human brain and the universe. This has to do with essence and being. It’s a different toolbox that I’m talking about. Ah well, I’ve run out of words and I find myself laughing at what I just wrote.

    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff,
      Maybe a common ground here is for me to acknowledge that we often think in terms of symbols, symbols which may be placeholders for a collection of other symbols, but eventually all the symbols are built on raw ineffable sensory perceptions or feelings. We can’t reduce these sensations or feelings to anything more primitive (at least not in terms of subjective perception), only apply symbols, labels, or words to them. For example, you can’t describe what “red” is to someone born blind, except to relate it to the smell of blood, the taste of strawberries, anger, or other things we commonly associate the color with.

      It’s possible you’ve experienced a sensory or feeling state that I haven’t and that’s what you’re trying to describe, but you can only do so in terms of other states that we might have shared. If so, I can fully understand the difficulty. This reminds of me of the discussion I’ve had with Hariod and what he calls “unknowing awareness”, which seems similar to the nothingness I’ve read from Buddhist primers.

      The other possibility is that I have experienced the state you’re describing, but my experience of it was simply less memorable or less intense than yours, or I interpreted it in a way you didn’t. Maybe next year I’ll have the full throttle experience and remember this conversation where you tried to tell me about it. But until then, maybe this is the best we can accomplish?

      Like

      • Jeff says:

        Mike,

        Let’s leave it at that. I’m fine with it.

        Getting back to sensory perceptions and the inevitable interpretation of them by our brains in the form of symbols, language, and concepts, brings us into a world of confusion in the sense that the brain takes this sensory input and creates some kind of order out of it. Order, in the sense of allowing communication and survival and the sharing of some kind of cultural life with others. But, as you are fond of pointing out, that the brain seems to be some kind of prediction machine, can you agree that it’s predictions are mostly incorrect as opposed to being right? This is borne out by many papers written on the errors of some of the most imminent scientists and philosophers the world has known. For me, guessing correctly once in a while seems adequate for survival and communication, but if falls very short in understanding ourselves. This is one of the reasons I don’t put much value on language, concepts, and models. I sense that you would agree with this, hence, your skeptical position which I can live with. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jeff,
          On prediction, I’d say that the brain is amazingly accurate at predicting normal day to day phenomena. It doesn’t start out that way of course. We often forget just how much children have to learn about normal everyday dynamics. But most adult brains seem to be right more often then not. If they weren’t, getting ready in the morning and making it to work, much less doing work, seems like it would be impossible.

          But when it comes to predicting things outside of our everyday lives, I totally agree. Historically, most of the models that humans have floated about wider reality have eventually been shown to be wrong. Science has a better track record than any other endeavor of finding predictive models. But even in science, most new speculative theories will turn out to be wrong. Although historically it seems like the ones that make the fewest assumptions beyond the data are most likely to pass the test of time.

          This is indeed why I’m a skeptic, not just of religious, paranormal, cryptozoological, or UFO type claims, but also of overly speculative untestable theories by scientists and philosophers. That said, the more a model accrues predictive successes, the more the skeptic who continues to reject it crosses the line into denialism. A skeptic insists on evidence, a denialist ignores it.

          Nowhere are these distinctions more important than explorations of the mind and brain.

          Like

  16. I’d like to first endorse the initial comment here from Michael. I agree that we should have purely conceptual thinking beyond what’s associated with formal languages. How else would non human conscious life function? This surely occurs in us as well, but seems hidden by the preponderance of our amazing languages.

    Then secondly there’s his observation of math as language. I’d add to this that it’s actually an extremely basic one, though it seems extra complex to us since we didn’t evolve to speak it. Conversely a natural language such as English should be many orders more involved, but can seem simple given our design and the right culture. Observe that there’s nothing that can be stated in mathematics that can’t also be stated in English, though the converse isn’t at all the case. I’m not aware of any term in mathematics for “swan.”

    With this post I could go into the unfortunate state of philosophy’s field of epistemology, and so advocate the need for my two associated principles. But I find reason to bring up the principle that concerns definition commonly, and as for the second which concerns a theorized singular means to consciously figure things out, I prefer waiting for specific dilemmas to use it on. There is something else however…

    Given this post I’m going to characterize “instrumentalism” as the most responsible position that a person can hold. Here a person is able to fully believe that what he/she senses corresponds with something out there, as well as formally remain open to the notion that it’s illusory. I suspect there to be lots of illusions for us to navigate, and if so, this should be no idle concern. To the degree that the realist goes further than the instrumentalist, the potential for such failure should increase proportionally. I haven’t read much about Albert Einstein, so I’m not sure what beliefs he had that I’d consider batty, but it does seem to me that he’s taken the responsible position regarding quantum mechanics.

    Apparently Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states what’s observed, or that nothing can be measured perfectly given that our measurements concern particles or waves, though apparently matter exists as neither. Thus the more certain we become in one regard, the more speculative we find things to be in the other. Does this not make sense?

    Where most modern physicists fail, I think, is by interpreting our inability to perfectly measure the particle or wave nature of things, as examples of ontic uncertainties associated with reality itself. To me such metaphysical speculation seems nothing short of arrogant. Einstein was offended by this to his end, just as I recall being when I first learned the contradictory expression known as “natural uncertainty.”

    If I were to state that most physicists today are mistaken here, it seems to me that I’d be making the same mistake I perceive of them to be making. It’s certainly possible that there’s a fundamental randomness to nature associated with quantum mechanics. But such a circumstance would have implications that are far less sanguine to the premise of naturalism itself. When something is caused to happen, there will be reason for it to do what it does. Conversely when things happen that have no cause, there will not be reason for it to do what it does. So then why does something happen, if there aren’t reasons for it to do what it does? Because here causality has become lost by means of what we commonly refer to as “magic.”

    By going beyond Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to speculate that the reason we observe uncertainty here is a fundamental randomness to reality, most physicists today endorse the notion of “magic.” To me the craziest thing about this, is that taking such a leap doesn’t seem necessary. We’re talking about stuff that’s apparently neither particles nor waves, that we’re trying to measure as particles or waves! Must we then take such results to decide that “God plays dice?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      One point I’d make about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which currently has a plurality, although not a majority, of adherents among physicists, is that it’s a very instrumentalist outlook. People mistakenly take it to be an assertion that there is no reality behind the wave function collapse, but all it really says is that attempting to use notions from classical mechanics (causality, determinism, etc) to derive anything about that underlying reality, if it’s there, is unlikely to be productive.

      Jim Al-Khalili, in his book on quantum mechanics, called it the “no interpretation interpretation”, pointing out that it was composed during the height of logical positivism, and although that philosophy’s failure has nothing to do with the veracity of the Copenhagen interpretation, the minimalist attitude of that philosophy influenced the interpretation.

      It sounds like the Everett many worlds interpretation gains in popularity every time a new poll is taken. But I’m not aware of any unique evidence for it.

      One thing I always remember when discussions of quantum mechanics come up, is Richard Feynman’s saying that, if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics. The point being that it makes no sense, but “making no sense” is a judgment we make using classical mechanical criteria, a classic mechanics that emerges from quantum mechanics.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Wow Mike, that sounds very much like support for my position! I didn’t expect that. To be honest I don’t get much out of wiki’s Copenhagen interpretation, except that lots of very smart people have been kicking this stuff around for a while. Either things get filed away simply in my head, or not at all. One thing it does suggest to me however, is that this issue doesn’t appear to be nearly as settled as I’m commonly led to believe. When I’ve discussed this with physicists online, as well as in one extended private conversation, I’ve always been met with frustration. Though I try to be tactful, the implication seems to be, “How dare you accuse me of blindly accepting the prescribed dogma rather than thinking for myself?” Usually it’s people such as psychologists and philosophers that take this stance with me, so I find it interesting to also get it from the human exploration that I most respect. Of course I only have this one beef with physicists, but many with those who toil away in our softest sciences.

    If I’m not going to be challenged here, then I suppose that I’ll have to look for discussions regarding topics that are most dear to me. Just in case I haven’t been sufficiently clear however, consider this from Wikipedia:

    “According to the Copenhagen interpretation, physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured, and quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities that measurements will produce certain results.”

    While I do of course believe the second part of that, I find the “physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured” quite challenging to accept in a conceptual sense. Here I fear that when I claim titles such as “naturalist,” “monist,” and “physicalist,” it would also be appropriate for me to leave the following asterisk: “*Except I also believe in quantum magic.” This is a subjective position of course, but it’s certainly parsimonious. Furthermore the evidence doesn’t seem to suggest that I’m wrong to hold it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      If your view is that all understandings of reality are essentially instrumental models, that there is no actual distinction between instrumentalism and realism, then we’re on the same page.

      On Copenhagen and the wiki quote, I think the main thing to understand is that there is no one Copenhagen interpretation. In that sense, it’s becoming evident to me that I need to stop referring to the agnostic version of it I prefer as the CI, and instead just advocate for agnosticism about the underlying reality.

      I’ve found that physicists can be just as tribal in their views as anyone else. Arguments about the epistemic status of many theoretical models, not to mention quantum physics interpretations, can get pretty nasty. It seems like every field has its share of this, along with the more open minded factions.

      That said, I often have two beefs with physicists. First, since everything is essentially applied physics, some of them conclude that every interesting problem in any other field is a physics problem they can know more about than the relevant specialists. One of their favorite targets is consciousness, for which their contributions are almost never substantive, and often cringe-worthy.

      Second is their attitude that every other field is less a science because it can’t have five sigma certitude. This is almost always grounded in ignorance of the actual methods and challenges of other fields. What’s interesting is that observational astronomy can’t meet this standard, but it seems to get a pass.

      Thankfully, not all physicists have these attitudes, but a few make a lot of noise.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well I’m not agnostic regarding QM, since I consider the standard interpretation’s void in causality to advocate the unnatural. I stand with Einstein. As for physicists dabbling in other fields, I’m supportive. I think it’s great to have new eyes consider things such as consciousness. Of course no one likes being disrespected, but then again I’d say that there are certain fields that have earned less reason for respect. I do try to be respectful given my interest in these fields, but I will not sugar coat failure.

      Regarding physicists, I wonder if you’re familiar with Sabine Hossenfelder? She blogs at http://backreaction.blogspot.com/?m=0 I wish I had more time for physics (as well as the brains), but to me she seems about as sensible as they come.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There have been mathematical proofs (which I won’t pretend to understand, but google “Bell’s theorem”) showing that Einstein’s hope for local hidden variables is a lost cause. Supposedly there’s no getting around it; Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics, and the decades of new data have only reinforced that he was. There probably is some underlying reality to it we don’t understand, but if so, it won’t have the properties Einstein insisted on.

        “As for physicists dabbling in other fields, I’m supportive. I think it’s great to have new eyes consider things such as consciousness.”

        That sounds good in principle, but the problem is that every established modern scientific field is vast. It takes years of specialized education in the field just to avoid making basic mistakes. .Even crossing sub-fields has become difficult. A scientist who does cross into another field starts as an essentially well educated lay person, at least until they’ve invested the time and effort to learn the new field sufficiently.

        Of course, it is possible to do it. Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of DNA, crossed from molecular biology to neuroscience late in his career. But those fields aren’t that far apart, and he still invested an enormous effort to become competent in the new field.

        But physicists talking about consciousness in terms of entropy, thermodynamics, quantum physics, or similar notions, are simply ignoring the fields of chemistry, molecular biology, and neurobiology that exist between what they know and consciousness, and that’s without even bringing up computational theory, psychology, or philosophy of mind.

        I’m not familiar with Sabine Hossenfelder. Her posts look interesting. Just subscribed. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Michael says:

          Hi Mike,

          I think you’re right about Bell’s Inequality and the subsequent experiments disproving local hidden variable theorems. From what I’ve read they do not disprove hidden variable theories with non-locality, as I understand it; as quantum mechanics itself is inherently non-local I guess this makes some sense. It’s also interesting for me to read about physicists who are touted as one thing, though they themselves desired to be another.

          One case would be Dirac, whose development of renormalization salvaged (I think?) quantum electrodynamics, but who personally came to view it as a mathematical procedure without a physical meaning (to the point here of instrumentalism). I believe Dirac was ultimately dissatisfied with this artifact that remained central to producing accurate mathematical predictions in QED.

          Another would be Bell himself, who despite his work was actually a proponent of Bohmian mechanics (non-local hidden variables) and not one to accept that no further insight, in a realist’s sense, into nature could be attained. Science strikes me as being full of these pitfalls–where it would be easy on the one hand to take a stanch instrumentalist view and say, “stop bickering; this works” when in fact other approaches may often afford greater insight.

          So while there may be no epistemic divide between instrumentalists and realists, we do have to be careful, I think, about shutting down the goals of the realist due to scientific fashion, or the fascination with “weirdness” that sometimes takes over in the QM world. I’ve only limited understanding of these things, but I do enjoy reading about the controversies!

          Michael

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hi Michael,
            Good catch. I almost made that last comment without the “local” adjective, but then figured someone might call me on it 🙂

            From what I’ve read, the issue is that quantum mechanics forces us to give up some crucial aspect of classical mechanics: determinism, locality, counter-factual definiteness (one unitary reality). No well formed interpretation seems able to preserve all of these.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpretations_of_quantum_mechanics#Comparison_of_interpretations

            Interesting on Bell and de Broglie / Bohm. When I first read about QM, I quickly gravitated toward that interpretation. The pilot/wave seemed to preserve the most comforting version from a classical perspective. Jettisoning locality seemed like a sacrifice, but we’d lived without it during the reign of Newtonian mechanics, so it seemed acceptable. But given that its comforting nature is the only reason I liked it, I’m now suspicious of it, and it’s not without its problems.

            On your point about being careful, I agree. We have to be willing to speculate beyond our current frontier of knowledge. A danger of instrumentalism is that it could discourage that. But that speculation should be done with a solid grasp on where that frontier actually is. Keeping in mind aspects of a theory that haven’t been tested may also keep the door open to speculation on alternatives to those untested elements.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Mike,
      I mentioned before that I don’t know very much about what Einstein believed, so I certainly can’t vouch for his beliefs in general. I fully endorse the epistemic findings of modern physicists regarding quantum mechanics. In that regard I’m not qualified to challenge this amazing community, though I’m still able to say that they seem to have gone over the line in a metaphysical sense. Apparently the majority of them today believe that the reason perfect measurements of particles and waves cannot possibly be taken, is because causality becomes lost at the quantum level. Unlike Einstein, I won’t say that god doesn’t play dice. I’ll just say that if he does, then it must be that we live in a realm of magic in this regard. Is “magic” not an appropriate term for the void in causality that they theorize?

      To me the strangest thing about their speculation here, is that the conclusion seems quite unnecessary. If matter does not exist as particles, and it does not exist as waves (as I believe modern physicists have come to understand), then why would we expect the particle and wave measurements that we take of things, to be perfect? At some point such measurements simply must fail if matter doesn’t exist in either way. No need for hidden variables that I can tell. Instead I suspect that the observed uncertainty associated with Heisenberg’s principle, ultimately occurs through causal dynamics. This is metaphysical speculation as well, but they started it! Furthermore their position mandates the existence of magic, whereas my own quite parsimonious position, does not.

      Mike, I know that you don’t believe scientists in our “softest” pursuits (including philosophy), carry just as much expertise regarding their fields as scientists in our “hardest.” Above you certainly didn’t present such a demonstration. Regardless I suspect that being indoctrinated into fields such as philosophy and psychology can actually do more harm than good for some — natural biases may tend to close a person’s mind. For example here one might be taught self defeating myths such as “Our field is inherently soft, so when some belittle our contributions, continue to hold your head high!” (I’m critical of physicists as well, as just observed, and furthermore soft sciences interest me far more than the hard, so it shouldn’t be that I hate them.)

      I think you’ll get a kick out of Sabine. Perhaps some day she’ll even set me straight on the metaphysical side of QM. Or even I her! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric,
        “Is “magic” not an appropriate term for the void in causality that they theorize?”

        I’m not personally a fan of the word “magic”, preferring to label things we don’t understand yet explicitly as things we don’t understand. But the reality is that we only understand things in terms of their more primitive components, and we only understand those components in terms of their more primitive components. Inevitably we reach a point where we no longer understand the primitives. In the future we will hopefully understand them, but when we do, it will probably be in terms of yet new primitives that we don’t understand. Turtles all the way down.

        “Furthermore their position mandates the existence of magic, whereas my own quite parsimonious position, does not.”

        Your position seems to assume that determinism is a fundamental primitive of the universe. You’re not alone in that assumption. It’s part of what powers some of the QM interpretations. But the data leaves open the possibility that determinism is ultimately an emergent phenomenon, a statistical relationshp that emerges from a large number of quantum interactions.

        From what I’ve read, most particle physicists take the attitude of “shut up and calculate” to avoid the metaphysical speculation. The more I’ve learned about quantum mechanics (purely as a lay person), the more value I’ve seen in that pragmatic stance.

        “Mike, I know that you don’t believe scientists in our “softest” pursuits (including philosophy), carry just as much expertise regarding their fields as scientists in our “hardest.””

        Actually, I think it depends on the field and the individual scientist. There are incompetents in every field. But controversies aside, I think Paul Krugman knows a lot more about economics than Stephen Hawking ever will. Of course, Hawking knows more about physics than Krugman ever will. And both know their respective fields better than I certainly ever will, although I probably know more about information technology than either of them.

        On softness, the problem isn’t so much being happy with it, it’s finding a way to do better than current best practices. Saying it’s desirable for those practices to produce harder results is fine. I’m not sure anyone would disagree. The crucial element is actually coming up with new methods that do that.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Mike,
      By a “void in causality” I actually meant something much stronger than “things we don’t yet understand.” For example, I consider it possible to understand how one can read your blog posts, since there should be a causal chain here, but impossible to understand how one can read your thoughts as you think them, since there shouldn’t be a causal chain from which to do such a thing. So here I’m making a distinction between the possible (or causal stuff) and what should not be possible (or non causal stuff). I consider the first natural and non magic, and the second supernatural and magic. One has the potential to be understood, given a causal chain, while the other simply cannot be understood, given an actual void in causality. But this isn’t a matter of ignorance and thus epistemology — it’s instead ontology. These physicists are claiming that there’s an ontic void in causality which thus has no potential to be understood. I’m saying that’s fine, though it’s apparently the same stuff that I’d need to read your thoughts as you now think them, or spin the Earth in the opposite direction, or anything else that has no causal premise. Apparently modern physicists have been dancing on the grave of Einstein, by endorsing the ontic existence of magic. It’s no wonder that they haven’t also used such an embarrassing term for their position however.

      This is the exact sort of thing that I believe all sciences need to check themselves about, but far more so for the softest varieties. Every science develops ruts, and therefore to be a scientist you must jump into an associated rut. This shouldn’t be much of a problem in fields that have already had great discoveries from which to position their ruts, such as physics, chemistry, and biology. But then there are also fields like philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, and cognitive science, that have no great discoveries to their credit so far. Thus to formally work in such fields, you will be expected to jump into a rut that hasn’t been positioned by any Newtons or any Einsteins. Here you may be taught to believe that things are inherently squishy in your field, and so consensus understandings will always remain in flux. Here you may be taught to maintain the rut that you joined, given your investment.

      This is why I come to you Mike. You are not financially beholden to the powers that be, and display a curiosity that seems about as genuine as it could be (though I consider your readers exceptional as well). It’s true that I’d like to divest you of a few standard learnings that combat my ideas, though that’s to be expected. Anyway, I’m not just saying that it’s a shame how soft our mental and behavioral sciences happen to be. I believe that I’ve developed theory from which to effectively found them all. If so, I’ll need to speak most with the curious rather than the invested.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric,
        I think using the word “impossible” for something we’re observing to happen is an improper use of that word. To me, “impossible” is that which is incompatible with the laws of nature and isn’t observed. Once we observe it to be happening, then we have an unexplained observation, one we don’t understand yet, possibly one that could force us to revise our understanding of the physical laws. In my mind, calling it magical or supernatural is unproductive. Our notion of what is natural should conform to what nature does when we’re watching it.

        One interesting thing about causality that David Hume (one of my favorite philosophers) pointed out: we never directly observe causality. Ever. We only ever observe correlations. The old saying: “Correlation doesn’t imply causation,” is incomplete. It would be more accurate as, “Initially observed correlation doesn’t imply causation, but consistent correlation isolated to a specific variable does.” The thing is, this is the only thing that implies causation, because we never observe it directly.

        On the sciences, again, I don’t think anyone would argue that there is no danger of group-think in any field. Laying that out is not controversial. Saying you have a solution is fine, but the devil is always in the details, and until you produce those rubber meets the road details, I don’t think you can blame the practitioners in those fields for being skeptical. Prominent scientists frequently receive mail from the public with purported solutions to deep problems in their field, but most of those proposals have very basic flaws that anyone with training could recognize.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I have a point of clarification Mike. We’ve discussed this before, but I pride myself on phrasing my ideas accurately rather than conveniently. Thus I don’t mention what I “know” (unless it’s that “I think”) but rather what I “believe.” Furthermore I consider it a bit shaky to “assume,” and so I instead “presume” the sentiments of others and so on. Thus when I use an absolute term such as “impossible,” I do so in a conceptual sense rather than as something that’s being observed. Something which is impossible cannot happen by definition, and so cannot be observed to happen.

      Consider my examples once again: “…I consider it possible to understand how one can read your blog posts, since there should be a causal chain here, but [I consider it] impossible to understand how one can read your thoughts as you think them, since there shouldn’t be a causal chain from which to do such a thing.” Furthermore I mentioned considering it impossible for me to make the Earth spin in the opposite direction by decree. My point was that non causal things cannot be understood (regardless of their possibility), given that they have no causal chain to consider that supports their occurrence. This conforms with how I understand the “magic” term to be used in general, and I will not amend this understanding with a disclaimer of “except at a quantum scale.” Yes we observe randomness at this scale, and when we explain this as a fundamental void in causality, it’s also conforms with how the “magic” term is commonly used.

      Regarding “Correlation doesn’t imply causation,” my own modification would be that “Correlation doesn’t mandate causation.” Then there’s yours:

      “Initially observed correlation doesn’t imply causation, but consistent correlation isolated to a specific variable does.”

      Hey that’s pretty good! I figured that I’d be able to raise some exceptions, but could not once carefully considered. I think I mentioned earlier that I needed a better excuse to provide my second principle of epistemology, and you’ve just provided it.

      There is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (theory). The more that theory remains consistent with evidence, the more it becomes believed.

      Not only does this view render us extremely fallible, but it puts us on par with all sorts of non-speaking life. One philosopher initially told me that he could think of lots of other ways that we figure things out, but never provided an example.

      Regarding “rubber meets road,” if only it were as simple as providing results for “yea or neigh” assessments. Beyond terminology issues, it’s naturally difficult to open others to ways of thinking that they’ve never considered before. I consider you to be an ideal candidate to learn the nature of my ideas for example, but it’s been difficult to demonstrate the concept of “reward and punishment” independently from modeling against an existing set of ideal circumstances. (I thought we needed a break from that discussion, and so move here.) But let me assure you that even highly trained people are not able to easily dismiss my ideas. In three years of blogging at various locations I’ve often presented radical perspectives that naturally counter the status quo, only to watch respected people challenge others rather than myself. While those sites have been extremely educational, I much prefer the engagement that I’ve come to expect from you (not to imply that your site hasn’t also been educational).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric,
        “There is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (theory). The more that theory remains consistent with evidence, the more it becomes believed.”

        And that’s pretty good.

        “One philosopher initially told me that he could think of lots of other ways that we figure things out, but never provided an example.”

        I don’t know about “lots of other ways”, but it’s worth noting the difference here between deductive and inductive reasoning. Usually pure mathematical or logical deductive reasoning is considered to be outside of science, so a mathematical or logical theorem could be consider one of those “other ways”. Of course, we could modify your maxim a bit to include deductive reasoning, but I think we’d be making it ambiguous to do so.

        OTOH, this might be ignoring the messy reality of how we actually go about deducing something, taking what we know, and attempting a logical deduction. We then check our attempted answer from multiple perspectives and maybe have someone else proof it. In other words, we test the answer, and become more confident in it if no one find any errors, mostly following your rule.

        Hmmm. Maybe the distinction between induction and deduction isn’t the distinction we take it to be. I’ll have to think about this.

        I’m flattered you enjoy our conversations. I hope it continues as you encounter more of my skeptical nature 🙂

        Like

  18. Jeff says:

    Michael and Mike,

    Indeed, models are all we have. What does this imply to you? Is it simply a matter of choosing which model you’re going to sign up for? But, that is exactly what we’ve all been doing our whole lives and we are still searching for a better model! No one ever talks about the insufficiency of building and adhering to models only to be torn asunder by some emotion or discovery of cracks that leave one confused, frustrated, and unable to live a balanced, harmonized life where the neurosis of experience doesn’t live. None of these models bring real peace and understanding into one’s life. They actually setup barricades that get attacked by your own narrative. Models are not able to sustain themselves. You need to feed them, protect them, and keep them away from life and experience or they will crumble. Building a model closes the mind for a time. It is not the mind’s nature to hold on to any model. It can’t. All you can do with a model is defend it. Just look at the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff,
      I think the thing to understand is that the models aren’t optional. The understanding of models you described is itself a model, a model of the models. We really can’t escape them. They’re integral to what we are.

      Evolutionarily, we hold models for their predictive value. For example, my model of the layout of the building I work in is pretty utilitarian, in that I hold it for its predictive value, for its utility in getting me to my office, the bathroom, breakroom, the offices of my boss and colleagues, etc.

      But the reality is we hold many models for their emotional effects. I know that very little of the models of the Lord of the Rings, or the Avengers, or any other fantasy is predictive of anything, but I still hold them for their pleasing emotional impact. And I have a tendency to seek out other similar models for that impact.

      I think scientific models are ones we hold primarily for their predictive value. Indeed, the most popular criteria for determining if a model is a scientific one is whether its predictions can be tested. But scientific models are often not emotionally pleasing. Indeed many people struggle with them for largely emotional reactions.

      Where things get tricky is when the models purport to be predictive but their predictions either fail or can’t be tested. It seems to me that holding to a model that fails predictions is basically what dogmatism and fundamentalism are all about (and it definitely happens with more than just religious models).

      Of course, I just described my own model of the models. Naturally, I think mine makes more accurate predictions. But that’s my model of the model of the models 🙂

      Like

  19. Jeff says:

    Mike,

    True enough, models aren’t optional, and I did say that’s all we have. Some models come to us through behavioral necessity like survival and communication. The models I’m referring to are either chosen or synthesized from existing cultural inputs. Religions are a good example. Behavioral models are more complex and are integrally woven into our narratives. What I’m suggesting is that there is a way to be aware of this narrative that doesn’t keep building upon it. It is there, but in a sense, it is also not there. No need to escape anything. It is through an openness of awareness that the narrative leaves centre stage as it is ‘de-personalized’. After all, there is really no person existing in the narrative except the creation of the narrator which has no solid existence. This is felt as well as seen by body and so-called ‘mind’.

    Because we live as though we are in ‘touch’ or ‘control’ of and with our beings, it sets in motion all kinds of models and beliefs. We don’t control our breathing, our heartbeats, bloodflow, and a myriad of other processes that go on unconsciously moment to moment, we are also unaware of different ways of knowing through other centres throughout the body. We continually think of our centre as the brain. Is our sense of being really located in the brain?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff,
      “Is our sense of being really located in the brain?”

      I think it is, although it’s highly dependent on the inputs it gets from the body. But a person with a severed spinal cord, while paralyzed below the severing, continues to have the same mind, although reportedly their felt emotions aren’t as intense. Of course in these cases, the vagus nerve remains intact so there’s still input from heart, lungs, digestive tract, etc, but even after various levels of vagotomy, a person’s cognition is the same.

      So, who we are is built on our innate predispositions but molded by a lifetime of input from the body and environment. Our self is of both the brain and its environment. But remove that environment from a developed personality, and the self remains. It remains if we remove the cerebellum. But it becomes compromised if any cortical areas are damaged or removed, and disappears entirely if the thalamus (the central hub of the cerebrum) or upper brainstem is destroyed.

      Like

  20. Jeff says:

    I think a lot of sensation is located in the area of the solar plexus and the lower abdomen. This would probably include one’s emotional or feeling centre. Sure, everything is linked up to the brain, but these other centres are important operative mechanisms that cannot be excluded from the total sense of being.

    In both Chinese Taoist and Buddhist schools, along with Japanese culture, the dan tian or hara is the centre where we feel our sense of being and where the attention is drawn to in their exercises. Many westerners miss this point because the cultures are very different, promoting different aspects of cognition and knowing.

    I prefer to use the word being instead of assigning the word self to cover all this territory as self has a debatable existence within the narrative and a name associated with it, like Jeff.

    Is mind and being the same thing to you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The gut does have a large number of nerves in it (~500 million in humans). These ganglia are often referred to as the Enteric nervous system. I’ve heard some people even call it our lower brain, although we shouldn’t get too carried away with that notion since it only has around 1/200th of the brain’s neurons.

      Emotions generally originate in the brain, but they resonate strongly through this region in a feedback loop with the brain. That means that if, due to indigestion or some other physical event, the gut ganglia are stimulated into the same state that they usually go into for a particular emotion, they have a chance of engendering that emotion in the brain.

      This is why deep breathing exercises can often help to calm emotions. They’re essentially influencing the resonance loop.

      I have to admit that I equated mind, being, and self in my previous response. Do I equate mind with being? I’m not sure. I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I think my conception of “being” is somewhat amorphous and context dependent, but then so is my conception of “self”.

      Maybe the question for what is included in something is, if we remove that thing from it, does it change the nature of the thing? And how much of that nature can change before we conclude that the identity has changed?

      If I had a gut transplant, would it change who I am? Given the resonance loop, I could definitely see it making a difference, but I think I would still be me, although my emotional predispositions might be altered. As I mentioned above, people used to have vagotomies, where the nerve connections between the brain and gut were severed to varying degrees (historically to alleviate ulcers). Just googled around, but didn’t find anything too definitive on what effects it might have had on emotional states.

      Like

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