Scientific Anarchism

In Discussion on April 30, 2010 by dcmzb8

Dan here. This post is way too long, but it’s as short as I can make it.

Thesis: We have *no* reason to think that *any* synthetic proposition is necessarily true, for any strong sense of necessary.

Beatty’s Evolutionary Contingency Thesis claims that there are no laws in biology, because it is possible to find exceptions to any distinctly biological generalization. When we find an exception to a law-like generalization, we can save it from falsification by modifying the antecedent of the generalization’s conditional so that it doesn’t apply in the case of the exception. Do this enough times, and you either have a conditional that belongs to a lower-level science, or an analytically true tautology. I don’t have a major problem with calling such a tautology a law, since I think this is merely a linguistic dispute. I would prefer to call such a tautology a model, not a law, but this is partly because I like the cool name for my position.

However, I think we might eventually be able to extend the ECT to lower levels of science. Take Hempel’s example of a law-like generalization: you can’t have a sphere of U-238 1 km in diameter (because the thing would explode!). Now consider the fine-tunning thesis. In our current physical theories, there are about 16 free parameters. These are constants where we have no theoretical basis for setting their values – they have to be obtained empirically. According to the fine-tunning thesis, stellar formation is only possible for a small range of the possible values for these free parameters. One possible explanation for this is that there is some processes that is creating a large number of universes (possibly infinite) with the values of the free parameters assigned randomly. We just happen to be in one of the very few universes that can support observers, otherwise, we wouldn’t be around to observe. So, if we could explore other universes, we would quickly find exceptions to Hempel’s U-238 generalization.

So, it might be the case that, for *any* synthetic proposition in our current body of theory, we will eventually discover that this proposition can only be explained by a set of analytically true conditionals (a model) + the very contingent empirical proposition that the model applies in this case.

As for nomic necessity: Per this hypothesis, all “laws” are contingent, and nomic ‘possibility” (which is defined in terms of holding scientific laws constant) means holding the contingency base that makes a given set of laws true constant between possible worlds. The trouble with biology is that we have nomic ‘impossibilities’ that are actual. At some point, this may be true for chemistry and physics as well. So, we will have to bite the bullet: accept that we can have actual nomic impossibilities, or let nomic necessity recede to the point that it resembles logical necessity.


4 Responses to “Scientific Anarchism”

  1. So your thesis “We have *no* reason to think that *any* synthetic proposition is necessarily true, for any strong sense of necessary” is essentially what Kant spent a lot of time showing was false. He wanted to show that there are genuinely a priori AND synthetic true propositions. The two most important ones concern time and space. Try to imagine an object existing outside of space or an event existing outside of time. You can’t. It’s not possible. All objects must exist within space and all events must occur within time. It’s just the way the human mind works, we cannot avoid it. These propositions combine concepts, and thus are synthetic, but are also true a priori (aka necessarily true) because we can’t conceptualize events/objects any other way.

    He also said that we cannot but act as if we have free will, but that’s neither here nor there.

  2. Heh, me disagreeing with Kant about something. Yeah, there’s a shocker. If necessary, I suppose we could weaken Scientific Anarchism so it only says that there are no necessary empirical synthetic truths, but I’m not convinced that’s necessary.

    1) If we define “object” as a series of events, then Kant’s two propositions are analytically true – an event is a space-time locus.

    2) I can imagine an event that exists in a metric without a timelike dimension. Of course, to actually experience the event, I’d have to cruise by it along a timelike curve, but that’s a different story. I’ll admit that I can’t imagine an event existing outside of a metric, but possibly somebody with more imagination can – a mathematician, perhaps. And how many dimensional coordinates do we have to assign an event? Do we have to assign n-dimensions worth of coordinates or just 3 or 4?

    3) Even if we can’t conceive of events outside of space and time, that seems to be more a limit of human cognition (or possibly cognition in general), not something about reality itself.

  3. “2) I can imagine an event that exists in a metric without a timelike dimension.”

    I don’t think you can. In order for an object to exist, it must persist, that is, it must exist over at least one moment of time. In order for that to be the case, we need to posit at minimum 3 moments. First one where it did not exist, second one where it did exist, and third another where it did not exist. That’s certainly enough to say that it has a timelike dimension to it.

  4. I’m just going to say this, because the fact that this example has gone unchallenged leads me to believe that there is an inconsistency in the demand for rigor as applied in the works we have looked at. I think this argument is silly, but it makes the ‘no 100 kg sphere of U-238’ example lose its impossible portion.

    A 100 kg sphere of U-238 can ‘exist’ just as much as a 100 kg ball of gold can exist.

    First, there are no spheres in nature. A sphere is a mathematical object, but there can be ball-like objects…

    More substantively, U-238 is constantly having its atoms pop apart because of their immense size and the weakness of the atomic force then involved. This is seemingly at random. If one has about a kg of the stuff together, the random popping is such that one random bit is much more likely to hit another atom and cause another popping, and this cascades into a chain reaction. Less than a kg and this reaction is not likely to sustain.

    So, one gets a couple hundred less than 1 kg bits of U-238 together, separated by heavy shielding. Then when all the bits are together into your ball like object, you yank the shielding out of the way. For some finite amount of time the ball like object will exist as the chain reaction begins and cascades into a catastrophic explosion.

    Any ball of gold will exist for a considerably longer period of time, but it too will be destroyed by the operational laws of nature. So, hypothetically speaking, one could have a 100 kg ball of U-238 exist for a very tiny period of time. When each is compared to infinity, the ball of gold will last proportionately the same length of time.

    This is assuming any ‘object’ persists in time.

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