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Re: Social Science, Science, and Empirical Study
by Mike Alexander
10 July 2002 04:34 UTC
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[Luke:]  This is a very good description [of chaos] you’ve given here. It does raise a question though; doesn’t Complexity, Chaos, & Heisenberg (to some extent) represent really a paradigm shift from the radically-empiricist, positivized, deterministic, materialistic, et al, Science of yesteryear to the Science of today?
[Mike:]  No, I don't see one, at least not in the Kuhnian sense.  Quantum mechanics certainly was a paradigm change but that's almost 80 years ago, hardly recent.  Complexity and Chaos are not new in a fundamental sense.  What was new (about 40 years ago) was the realization of just how complex a behavior can result from extremely simple nonlinear equations.  Chaos refers to the seemingly random behavior that can result from a very deterministic process  (e.g. my billiard example) Complexity is the study of seemingly random patterns for what might lie underneath.
In Chaos the process that creates the seemingly random pattern is not random; it is deterministic--but it looks random.  Could it be that other things, that look random might actually it be controlled by some underlying deterministic "law".  People who study complexity are trying to find such hypothetical laws.  So far little has come out of chaos or complexity, and perhaps nothing ever will.  But one can't know what one will find unless one looks, right?  So some people are looking into these things.
On the other hand, there was a paradigm shift in the way some scientists  felt about the world.  A 19th  century scientist may have well believed (felt) that, in principle, one could "calculate" how the weather (and other things) would unfold into the future. Once the nature of the equations became known we saw that an exactly correct model can fail to produce exact predictions, or any useful predictions at all.  That is, even if a theory of everything could be found, there would still be uncertainty in the world. 
For example, suppose an exact (nonlinear) law describing human thought was discovered that covered the basic synapse to synapse neural process behind thought.  Suppose what we are consciously aware of as a thought is the result of dozens of such basic processes.  Then, even though the basic law describing thought is known, the product of that process (after dozens of repetitions) would be unknowable, just as the position of the billiard ball is unknowable after 10-30 ricochets.  In other words, people still have free will because you can't predict what they will decide, even though you understand exactly, at the fundamental level, what their brains do while they are making their decision.
So chaos has finished what quantum mechanics started; the destruction of the belief (or faith if you will) that some 19th century scientists (and many nonscientists) held that some day we would be able to understand (predict) everything and so there was no longer any room for religion, moral philosophy and other "nonscientific" ways of knowing.  The result of  this destruction has been for scientists to largely "stick to their knitting" and use their tools/methods on those problems for which useful and interesting results can be obtained with a reasonable expenditure of effort.
[Luke:] It seems scientists have always recognized the mysteriousness and majesty of the natural world around us in the cosmos (indeed its multidimensionality); but there often seems a contradiction between this appreciation of Science and its critical methodology/ presentation as we’ve always learned to give it.  Take your discussion above for example.  It certainly shows the nuts and bolts of C,C, & H; but still Chaos and Complexity seem to even ‘transcend’ [as it were] a description such as this.  For some reason these models better capture the mystery and wonder of the universe in a way that Newtonian mechanics never could? 
[Mike:]  Here you are using terms like "mysteriousness and majesty" and multidimensionality that have no clear meaning.
[Luke:] What is it specifically about the former that makes this reality so? … If scientists with their science (in the 19th cen. & before) had just as much of a  sense and understanding of this complexity and awe-inspiring multidimensionality to the universe, then why couldn’t their presentation of science better reflect that principle?  Why does it tend to seem like its only today that we’re recapturing in the framework of our Science the same sense that early Renaissance, Medieval, and Ancient scholars – not just in Europe – had when it came to comprehending the cosmos?
[Mike:]  It's not a return to Renaissance, Medieval and Ancient ways of thinking.  Its simply a realization that the tools of science, although powerful, are not all-powerful.  Scientists are still the empirically-focused materialists we always were when we are doing science.  But that doesn't mean we necessarily are empirical materialists when we are doing other things, such as loving our spouses, dealing with difficult people, or practicing our religion.
[Luke:]  Convenience [of experimentation] is a big part of it; and laboratory experimentation is fast.  But the difference I think comes down to something else besides – a matter of orientation.  If science is a matter of better understanding the nature of the universe via a precise study of its phenomena through empirical investigation, then would it not be better to get at the data of natural phenomena through the means of “natural experiments” and investigating objects, systems, and processes in their natural states? …
[Mike:]  No.  Studying a phenomenon in situ will often not provide the information you need to understand what is going one in a reasonable amount of time.  If we can bring it into the lab to study it, that's great, but sometimes you can't do that.  For historical sciences (like what Diamond does) you can't.  Astronomers can't either.  Even if you can bring it into the lab that won't mean you will be successful.  You do your lab work and that gives you an idea of what happens.  You then have to go out and see if the same thing happens in the real world (now that you have identified an important variable you know what to look for).  If it doesn't happen the way you predict then you missed something and back to the lab you go.  Its iterative, and one doesn't always succeed.  By going to the lab one does simplify the system, sometimes fatally.  One finds this out by failing to obtain an accurate description even after many tries.  A good example is ecology. 
Ecological systems can have too many interconnections to study them in labs, even very large ones.  Hence a lot of observation is needed.  Lab work can still be used to look at relatively independent pieces of the whole system.
[Luke:] Wouldn’t it make sense that, if we had a completely exact understanding of natural phenomena and even the ability to physically apply that understanding, we should be able to completely master the holistic and integrating dynamics of such natural phenomena? …
[Mike:] No, it wouldn't in all cases.  For some yes, for others no.  (See discussion of chaos above).
[Luke:]  Is there a specific difference to be had between the empiric methods of say “clockmakers” and those of “astronomers, etc.” as dealt with in the movie Longitude about the horologist John Harrison who solved the problem of getting longitude at sea by the use of his invented sea clock/chronometer?  I’m not talking about generalization versus specialization here as much as I am talking about the empirical orientation of those who use an understanding of ‘science’ to do/make something (techne/praxis) versus those who use an understanding of science to discover the workings of the universe, its laws and principles (episteme/scientia/   & noesis = ‘understanding’)?  What do you think about these points?}
[Mike:]  No.  Both scientists and engineers (like Harrison) are empiricists.  I have a B.S. in chemistry (scientia) and a Ph. D. in chemical engineering (techne/praxis) so I have a foot in both worlds.  The difference between us is in motivation, not our methods of knowing.  Scientists wish for knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  Engineers wish for knowledge for the sake of people. 
[Luke:]  Yes, I like this explanation of yours also.  Here’s my question.  I do believe a lot of times Science’s critics among religionists, creationists, some ID theorists, and scholars of pre-Scientific Revolution Western thought – the latter tending to be mainly tending to be Medieval/Classics of Greece and Rome among whom stand philosophers, theologians, and literary thinkers – have an axe to grind against the discipline.  Besides the obvious issue of “religious” and immaterial “spiritual” concerns, what other factors stand to divide this community from the scientific community?  That’s to say, what else might be behind their making this argument that lab work = true science and true empiric study?  What does it stand for these people to gain by discrediting Science, pointing out its “contradictions”, and pressing the scientific community itself to keep itself in the lab?
[Mike:]  Science has been very successful in describing aspects of the world that have allowed engineers and non-scientists to vastly increase human mastery over large chunks of our material life.  As a result, science has gained a lot of
credibility and financial support.  So some of the criticism reflects envy.
But science has also demolished the old explanations for natural aspects of our world than once came from religion (e.g. creation stories and biblical cosmology).  God is dead, according to Nietsche, meaning that belief in God is no longer tenable amongst thinkers/philosophers.  Yet the enlightenment project, in which scientific rationality was to replace religious superstition, has foundered upon a sea of uncertainty arising from chaos and quantum mechanics.  Science isn't going to provide all the answers.  It never suggested that it could.  It was people, who having discarded their naive faith in God, sought to replace it with an equally naive faith in science.
When this faith was disappointed they became disenchanted with science.  But science has obvious utility, and so they wish to restrict it to the narrowest purview possible, hence the focus on lab work as if the laboratory is somehow central to the pursuit of science.
[Luke:]  That is to say, it’s about episteme, scientia, and noesis [to use the Classical Greek expressions for true knowledge, the true systematically reasoned inquiry into the entities of our world, and the true understanding of such things – in this case regarding human behavior and the state of human nature].  It’s, in some sense, less about – or at least secondarily about – doing something and/or making something (embodied in the terms techne and praxis) as it about delving into the true nature of the things we study and their systematic dynamics as real things.
So there’s a real formal distinction to be considered here between our object-as-is and the ways in which people use this object-as-is to their own ends (read “self interest”). 
[Mike:]  I think it comes down to this:   How do you convince others that you understand something that they do not?  A powerfully charismatic or talented individual might be able to convince others that he understands simply by the force of his personality or the power of his talent, as a prophet or artist might do.  But even prophets often include practical demonstrations of their special knowledge such miracle-working or faith healing. 
For most of us, nobody will believe we have any special understanding unless we include a demonstration.  For scientists his demonstration employs what you call praxis and techne.  We do something (like make a prediction) or make something (like a useful invention that makes use of our special knowledge).  These demonstrations, if sufficiently impressive, win converts to a new understanding (e.g. hypothesis, theory or paradigm) much as the miracle-working and faith healing of a prophet wins converts to their religion.
Praxis/techne, or empircism is fundamentally part of science and cannot be separated.  Not only is empirical observation/experimentation often (but not always) used to obtain understanding in science, it is always used to perform the demonstrations of the new understanding necessary to gain converts.  So we have Einstein developing his theory of relativity entirely from "thought experiments" (a creative activity not really different from what an artist does) but he then shifts to praxis and makes specific, testable predictions.  Experimental physicists (masters of techne and praxis) then set out to see if Einstein is right. When they validate his predictions his theory gains followers.   
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