Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Skeptical Movement, Science and Naïve Popperism

Members of the modern skeptical movement frequently emphasize their use of the scientific method. Moreover, when discussing the scientific method and whether a given claim is scientific, members of the skeptical movement frequently emphasize falsifiability and experimentation. Both of these tendencies are problematic.

The organized skeptical movement has done a very good job over the last 30 years promoting skepticism and critical thinking. The movement has helped people understand the deep problems with many superstitions and pseudosciences. However, the skeptical movement’s characterizations both of how the movement functions in regard to science and how science functions are inaccurate. Moreover, the movement tends to exaggerate the degree to which falsifiability matters in science.

Let us first examine the claim that the skeptical movement uses the scientific method. No matter how one characterizes science and the scientific method, a central part of the method is experimentation and observation. However, the vast majority of skeptics will not engage in direct experimentation or observation of data nor in fact should they. For example, in an earlier blog post, I discussed why claims of ghostly interference with electronics were extremely implausible. I didn’t need to engage in any experiments to reach that conclusion. I and the commentators in the thread discussed the matter based on what we reliably knew about the universe (especially how electronics work) and then made logical conclusions based on those results. No part of that process required any use of the scientific method.

If we wanted to investigate the claim in more detail, we might try to do actual experiments. But I can dismiss the claim of ghostly interference with electronics with a high degree of probability without experiments. Similarly, I can dismiss homeopathy without doing experiments or without such experiments having been done by anyone since the theory of homeopathy contradicts basic understanding of how the universe functions. The vast majority of skeptics will never actually use the scientific method, but rather rely on small bits of science and a lot of critical thinking. That’s fine. The movement is doing good work that way. But we need not pretend when talking to people that we’re engaging in science when we aren’t. This is all the more a concern because the emphasis on science distracts from the most important part of skepticism- careful critical thinking.

Skeptics often characterize science poorly. Skeptics frequently emphasize the need for claims to be falsifiable in order for them to be scientific. The philosopher Karl Popper first proposed that the demarcation between science and non-science is falsifiability- the ability to falsify a claim. Thus, in a classical Popperian framework, claiming that there is an invisible, intangible dragon living in my bathroom is not scientific because the claim is not falsifiable.

However, naïve Popperism is not a good description of science as a whole. While falsifiability is a useful approximation of what is often scientific, there are many problems with it as a description of all forms of science. For example, as pointed out by Quine, people can add defensive hypotheses to defend an underlying hypothesis; it is far from clear when such defensive hypotheses are acceptable and when they are not. In Quine’s formulation, a defensive hypothesis is a hypothesis that is added to prevent the falsification of another hypothesis. Thus, for example, to return to the case of an invisible dragon in my bathroom, you could try to test for its presence by searching on spectra other than visible light (such as looking at infrared light). When no evidence is found using that method, I might add the defensive hypothesis that the dragon also doesn’t interact with infrared light. As I add more and more hypotheses to counter each experiment, I prevent my claim from being falsified, but, at any given point, the claim that a dragon is in my bathroom remains falsifiable – in theory at least. In portraying a scientific method which relies completely on falsifiability the skeptical movement ignores issues such as those raised by defensive hypotheses.

Unfortunately, the situation becomes even more complicated because sometimes one can add defensive hypotheses and still do good science. For example, consider the history of our understanding of the solar system. In the early 1600s, astronomers adopted Kepler’s model of the solar system in which planets orbit around the sun in ellipses. Subsequently this model was refined further by Newton whose mechanics gave orbits nearly identical to those of Kepler but slightly more accurate (essentially if there is a single planet around a star then Newtonian mechanics predicts an orbit that is a perfect ellipse. But in fact, gravitational attraction between planets makes the orbits slightly non-elliptical). However, with this very accurate, very precise model, new issues arose. The orbit of the planet Uranus seemed to be slightly off from what it should be. Thus, Alexis Bouvard posited the existence of an as yet unobserved planet, which later became discovered and named Neptune. Bouvard’s hypothetical planet was a defensive hypothesis built to defend the more cherished hypothesis of Newtonian mechanics against being falsified by experimental data. Bouvard’s defensive hypothesis was good science; the defensive hypotheses about my dragon are not. It is not clear how one can easily distinguish between the good defensive hypotheses and the bad ones.

So how do we determine when defensive hypotheses are acceptable and when they are not? Imre Lakatos suggested that we should look to whether a hypotheses is fruitful: hypotheses that lead to interesting predictions and new questions are fruitful; hypotheses that required unproductive defensive hypotheses should be rejected. While I am partial to Lakatos’s viewpoint, such an approach renders the line between science and non-science inherently subjective.

In addition to the problem of defensive hypotheses, there are many other problems with a falsifiability as the sole line between science and non-science. Naïve Popperism is insufficient to describe the borders of science. Skeptics need both a clearer understanding of the scientific method and a clearer understanding of how the skeptical approach relies on science


Khagan Din said...

OK, OK, fair points. Skeptics, like just about everyone else, should be honest with the public about what kinds of things they're actually doing, and, strictly speaking, falsifiability isn't the only or the main test a skeptic applies to evaluate strange claims.

I think that you exaggerate the extent to which rejecting a string of defensive hypotheses requires subjective analysis, though. If one were to make a visual diagram of the claims made in support of Popper's invisible dragon, and a visual diagram of the claims made in support of, say, Newton's laws of motion, they would look totally different. The dragon argument would stretch out in a long, awkward line, each hypothesis creating the need for its successor while being otherwise unrelated to it or to any other hypothesis in the chain. The Newton argument would look like the narrowest part of a whitewater creek, with many pieces of evidence flowing into a handful of points, many consequences flowing out of those points, and at least some connections among hypotheses that do not stand in a defender - defendee relationship with each other. For instance, the plausibility of Kepler's laws of motion may increase the plausibility of Spinoza's understanding of the laws of optics, and vice versa, but neither conjecture is necessary to support the other, nor can one conjecture said to have been directly inspired by the other. The same cannot be said for any two claims about Popper's invisible dragon.

Khagan Din said...

Also, your point about homeopathy helps me crystallize (no pun intended) a point that I wanted to share with you about consciousness, from our earlier discussion:

Just as it is absurd to believe in effective homeopathy because there is no quality of a 1 ml solution of 0.0001 ppb arsenic that could even give rise to a change in the level of disease in a human organism, so it is absurd to believe in the physical origins of consciousness, because there is no quality of an up quark, or a neutrino, or an electron, or a quintillion of them, that can possibly even give rise to a change in the level of consciousness.

According to the standard physicalist account of what matter is, the amount of consciousness in a subatomic particle is ZERO. Not 10 ^ -30, not iota, not anything that can somehow be cajoled or coaxed into having an effect, but zero. Subatomic particles simply are not thought to have any quality or property of being aware of themselves, any more than a milliliter of water with zero atoms of arsenic in it has the quality of treating an arsenic deficiency.

Certainly, in so far as sound waves (e.g.) are made up of the motions of physical particles, one could imagine that the right combination of quarks would generate sound waves expressing the sentiment "I am conscious and I expect you are too" in any of a hundred languages. But no combination of quarks could *actually* make *you* conscious, because consciousness is not a state that can be described in terms of the arrangement of particles -- it is rather the state of knowing and caring what some of those arrangements are in the first place. Why should matter care about itself? Not in the sense of probabilistically shifting into certain patterns in preference to others over time, but in the sense of actually *wanting* some patterns to occur and not others? How can desire be accounted for in a purely physical universe?

I understand that (with some reason) you distrust your inner narrator; you may be loathe to credit your sense that you are conscious in any meaningful sense. But the problem goes deeper than the question of sentience; the existence of even more basic psychological phenomena like knowledge and desire are problems that, as I see it, cannot be solved by physics. Certainly we can predict which neurons will fire before, during, or after the experience of knowledge or desire. We may even be able to cause or prevent those neurons from firing, and in so doing we may even be able to cause or prevent knowledge or desire. But the startling thing is not that knowledge and desire should have predictable causes and effects, but that they should exist at all! A charge, a mass, a quantum of energy, as we understand it, should simply not have any aspect of it that is conducive to knowledge or desire.

One could doubt that knowledge and desire exist, but that seems to me less fair than doubting that sentience exists. At the point where one is operationally skeptical about one's own knowledge and desire -- not a particular datum or wish, but the existence of data or wishes in one's mind at all -- then one has already descended into a near-total solipsism that is poorly positioned to make claims about reality.

Michael Tobis said...

Khagan Din, well said.

I say it as follows: The usual materialist excuse about "emergent properties of complex systems" is handwaving, and fundamentally a category error. Emergent properties are aggregate behaviors that can be defined in terms of the properties of the component subsystems.

Consciousness cannot emerge in this way from aggregations of systems that can be described in terms of mathematical physics.

The relationship between physics and what is, peculiarly, sometimes called metaphysics remains unapproachable by physical science.

My wife, a practicing psychologist, has patiently convinced me that it is unfair, on that basis, to say that psychology is not a science. There is genuine knowledge of the human psyche that can be obtained from interviews and observation. But the principles of psychology are not reducible to physical principles. (My wife insists on finding this fact uninteresting, which irritates me no end.)

Knowledge of the psyche ultimately requires introspection. I cannot do your introspection for you and you cannot observe my introspection either, except on the basis of behavior. That is, the principle of repeatability is violated. I can only attest to the existence of one consciousness in any sense, my own. You cannot objectively repeat that observation. You in turn can observe your consciousness, presuming you have one, but you can never perfectly convince me of its existence, much less allow me to make objective measurements of it.

I conclude that the irreducibility of consciousness to physics is not a mere historical accident but a fundamental feature of the universe.

Oddly, I find that this view appeals to very few people, though I find it logically compelling.

Jr said...

I agree that skeptics often oversimplify the actual workings of science. As you say falsifiability is a problematic standard for science for many reasons.

But I am not sure this is because of they (the skeptics) actually misunderstand the scientific process or because they do not think they have the space to give an adequate explanation.

I personally would emphasize the common sense nature of science. The type of methodology used in science is no different from what most people would consider reasonable to answer important questions in their own life.

Unknown said...

Notably, Feynman (in "Tips on Physics", if memory serves) endorsed the fruitfulness criterion for hypotheses.

@Din 1:
"I think that you exaggerate the extent to which rejecting a string of defensive hypotheses requires subjective analysis, though."

However, based on my reading of Lakatos (only "Proofs and Refutations") he emphasized not the subjectivity but the intersubjectivity of the issue.

Nevertheless, I really love your idea about 'good' and 'bad' defensive hypothesis collections having measurably different (graph theoretic?) 'shapes'. Time for some empirical work! The ultimate test (of something...) would be to see what Popper's paradigmatic case of bad defensive hypothesis creation (i.e. Marxism as the science of history, post Soviet Union) would look like.

@Din et al 2:
Regarding consciousness as an epiphenomenon, I recently read Edelman's "wider than the sky" and he seems to think (if I understood correctly) that consciousness is not so much a physical epiphenomenon as a mathematical one. Physically, lots of neurons competing together to do vision processing may be an epiphenomenon or not, depending on how you use the word, but it does happen. The qualia of seeing red, however, is what is at issue.

Edelman thinks that there is a necessary correlate to some part of the processing that the brain does, and that this correlate is the experience. He likens this to the Fourier transform. On the one hand, there is the space domain of wave peaks and valleys. On the other hand there is the time domain of frequencies and their relative powers. You can measure either one, and know that the other will, in some mathematical (but not quite Platonic) sense 'be there' and even what it will be (if you know the mathematical translation). There is, nonetheless, only one underlying physical reality.

If one could figure out what the relevant measurable brain states are, and come up with a decent mapping to 'qualia space', one would be awfully close to a real solution to the mind-body problem. A sketchy hypothesis, I know, but it does account for a number of the puzzling features of consciousness, without the obvious problems of supernaturalism.

Joshua said...


That's a very interesting point about diagrams. That might help in the more clearcut cases, but there still will likely be a fuzzy borderline where it is unclear how exactly to split hypotheses or how bad a given arrangement of hypotheses is. If for example you have really strong evidence for a claim, adding more defensive hypotheses might be acceptable than when you have little or not evidence. Hunter's suggestion of using Popper's actual examples seems like a good one (unfortunately, I'm not sure I know enough about Marxist theory to diagram it out and one would need some set of standards for how to make such diagrams. Maybe we should go bug Shalom since he's studied a lot of Marxism?)

Regarding the consciousness issue, I don't think your point is that valid, since the physicalist (as you label them) doesn't think anything contains any amount of "consciousness" except as an emergent property. In that regard, a neutron contains no water, nor does a proton or an electron. But if I put them together the right way I still get water (a weak analogy but the point should be clear).

Jr. Good point. However, as someone involved in the active skeptical movement, my impression is that many members have heard of Popper and then seem to think that phil sci was more or less finished at that point. If one is lucky, they've heard of Kuhn, and often in only some very garbled vaguely post-modern form. The problem with emphasizing common sense and the like is that very often people think that anecdotes really are a perfectly valid way of learning about the world. And they frequently use it as more valid than studies.

Jr said...

If we don't emphasize common sense, what ground do people have for believing us?

If we try to argue against intelligent design by explaining that the scientific method does not allow supernatural explanations I think we will strike many people as just arbitrarily refusing to consider certain theories.

Similarly if we just dismiss anecdotes as valid evidence. Instead we need to explain with common sense argument why science has come to adopt the methodological principles it has. This is rooted in common sense since the early scientific practitioners who came to embrace these principles certainly did not start with loft philosophical principles like falsifiability. Instead they came to find that certain principles were successful in understanding the world.

Khagan Din said...


Hm, a Texas climate scientist who thinks about consciousness! Only so many of those out there. Very nice to meet you. For whatever it's worth, I agree with you that consciousness may be a priori impossible to study in a repeatable fashion, and that saddens me. I'm not sure what it is that you'd like your wife to think about psychology.


I'm sensing that there's something important I could learn from you about epiphenomena, but I'm having a lot of trouble following your train of thought. I'm a law student, not a physicist, so I don't really know what a Fourier transform is. Why is only one half of the transformation actually real? Supposing we could graph the frequency of brain waves very precisely, how would that solve the mind-body problem?


I could draw up a crude sketch of Marxist hypotheses about recent economic history if it was important, but mostly I agree with you that there will still be some fuzziness at the margins. My point is that the fuzzy zone isn't so wide as to render the distinction between legitimately defensive hypotheses and artificially insulating hypotheses one of mere personal taste.

I'm unimpressed by the water analogy because water's interesting properties are adequately explained in terms of brute physical facts about the universe, whereas consciousness's interesting properties are not.

An electron may not contain within it the Platonic ideal of water, but it certainly does contain charge, and certainly does have a capacity for lopsided orbits, and one of water's most interesting features is its polarized distribution of electric charge. If you accept as a brute fact of our universe that electrons will repel each other, then you can reason from that brute fact all the way up to a story about how water sustains life.

It's not clear what brute facts you might even begin to reference as you explain consciousness. No amount of brute facts about how particles repel or attract each other in time and space can help us understand how or why some particles would be aware of themselves.

John said...

@ Khagan Din

I think I should point out that water's interesting properties are not understood. There are still papers put out every year (Science, Physical Review) that address really basic aspects of water like local structure.

So Josh's analogy with water is better than you think. A 3-body problem in physics can not be solved exactly. Numerically such problems can be solved to computer precision, but as your degrees of freedom go up so does computation time. To look at the vibrational spectra of a single water molecule in vacuum computationally several approximations have to be made, the neutrons and protons in the oxygen be treated as a point mass and even the strongly bound oxygen 1s electrons will probably be ignored.

As systems get more and more complicated new models are necessary. A good model reduces the number of degrees of freedom as much as possible without sacrificing predictive power, but at some point every model fails. This is what is usually meant by emergent behavior. The question of can the physical structure of the brain lead to consciousness is not solvable from brute facts as you say (using current numerical techniques, number of transistors = number of electrons in universe, calculate for the age of the universe). There are too many degrees of freedom to do the full problem.

Khagan Din said...

John, I'm not sure why the level of detail in the model should matter here. Let's say you had an arbitrarily large amount of computing power, and could simulate the physical properties of the brain in as much detail as you like.

I say you STILL couldn't plausibly connect the phenomenon of consciousness to the brute facts of physics, because none of those brute facts have anything to do with particles being aware of themselves.

Sniffnoy said...

Khagan Din, let's look at your "refutation" of Josh's water analogy:

I'm unimpressed by the water analogy because water's interesting properties are adequately explained in terms of brute physical facts about the universe, whereas consciousness's interesting properties are not.

An electron may not contain within it the Platonic ideal of water, but it certainly does contain charge, and certainly does have a capacity for lopsided orbits, and one of water's most interesting features is its polarized distribution of electric charge. If you accept as a brute fact of our universe that electrons will repel each other, then you can reason from that brute fact all the way up to a story about how water sustains life.

Nothing in those two paragraphs had any substance. Seriously. There isn't a single actual argument there. You basically just asserted "water is explainable from fundamentals, consciousness is not". On what grounds?? You gave some justification for the first half but none for the second. You've asserted this repeatedly but made no actual argument for this. Oh wait, no, that's not true - you've made one argument:

I say you STILL couldn't plausibly connect the phenomenon of consciousness to the brute facts of physics, because none of those brute facts have anything to do with particles being aware of themselves.

Nobody is claiming particles are aware of themselves! The pattern that is consciousness is aware of itself. That does not mean it is aware of any constituent particles, or that any particles are aware of anything. The pattern is aware of the pattern. Patterns don't even need to be composed of fixed sets of particles, anyway. You don't like the water analogy? How about sound? A sound does not consist of a group of particles at all, but of a pattern in the variation of their position over time. You can ignore the pattern and just talk about the particles if you like, and have a perfectly good description of what's going on, but if you want to talk about the pattern, you can't pretend that its structure is irrelevant. If I say "that sound was refracted as it entered the water", that doesn't mean that either the air or the water was refracted! You don't seem to have gotten yourself entirely free of greedy reductionism.

Khagan Din said...

Josh, if at any point you want this consciousness thread off your blog, let me know, and I'll find another forum. It suits me if it suits you, though.

Sniffnoy, I'm certainly trying to be as substantive as I can without being verbose to the point of rudeness. If you want to talk about something in depth, send me your e-mail, and I'll be more than happy to defend any of my points in detail.

I think my main argument applies equally well to water, sound, or any other common physical phenomena -- we simply don't have enough evidence to conclude that arranging unconscious particles in the appropriate patterns can give rise to consciousness.

The idea that consciousness can arise from unconscious things is an extraordinary claim that should require extraordinary evidence. it is no more or less extraordinary than the claim that life can arise from unliving matter. We have both a specific mechanism in mind (tidal pools + nucleic acids + natural selection) and tremendous amounts of evidence that this mechanism in fact triggered the beginning of life on Earth (experiments showing that you can get organic compounds out of inorganic compounds; microevolution of bacteria), so it's OK for a rationalist to believe in the abiotic origin of life.

A fortiori, we have a proposed mechanism and evidence confirming the plausibility of the mechanism for water, sound, and similar phenomena. Our models may not be perfect, but they are more than sufficient to explain how, in theory, a collection of particles that, individually, our bodies would not experience as "wet" or "F - sharp minor" are nevertheless experienced that way when they are arranged in the appropriate patterns.

I am unaware of any similar mechanism for how unconscious things could arrange themselves so as to become conscious, let alone aware of any evidence supporting the plausibility of such a mechanism.

I would *love* to be enlightened on this point, but keep in mind that just ranting about how neurons share information or how we can read people's minds with the appropriate scanning device doesn't answer my question. My question is not "what are the physical correlates of consciousness?" but rather "how could arranging particles (which are admittedly unconscious) in the right pattern suddenly make them conscious?"

Sniffnoy said...

Nobody is claiming particles are conscious! Do you experience consciousness that way? Are your individual neurons and atoms conscious? The electrons in my computer are not software. And the ink molecules in a book are not molecules writing.

Perhaps you are misunderstanding me. I am not claiming that certain patterns cause consciousness. I am claiming that these patterns are consciousness. OK? Identity, not causation. In the same way that variations in pressure are sound, they do not cause the property of "soundness" to manifest in any air molecules, and the arrangement of the magnetic field in my hard drive is software, it does not cause software in any electrons. There is no "property of softwareness" that any individual electron can possess!

As for your actual argument... so your argument is that unconscious things forming conscious things is an extraordinary claim, just as is non-living things forming living things, etc. OK.

I see two major problems with this. Firstly, this seems to me to be a serious violation of Occam's Razor. Remember that anything that is localized is far more complex than anything that is not, because you have to specify under what conditions it occurs. It is a mistake to focus on such phenomena as life, consciousness, or whatever else you find "extraordinary" purely individually. In fact, we have very good evidence from, well, everything else, for the truth of reductionism as a whole. To postulate that it is true *except* under certain hard-to-specify conditions, is much less parsimonious than to suppose that this "extraordinary" phenomenon is just another case of the same things that occur everywhere else but you simply don't know the details yet. To make the reverse argument is really just the argument from ignorance. When you have good reason to believe that a given process is built up from given components, that you do not know how it is built up from those components is not counterevidence, just a lack of evidence.

Secondly, it's not clear why you get to just ignore all the evidence that yes, it really is the brain that does the thinking. The inherent inhomogeneity of you propose is bad enough, but once you throw in the actual evidence it makes your argument from ignorance and your violation of Occam's Razor much, much worse. The first, because our ignorance is lessening all the time. (OK, so that is actually only a little worse, I suppose.) The second, because it makes the conditions of this localized violation of reductionism far, far more localized! The complexity of the hypothesis takes a huge jump! This more or less takes it from "there's some mysterious thing occuring in that black box over there which I claim violates reductionism" to "there's some mysterious thing occurring in this machine which violates reductionism, even though I have figured out most of the simple rules by which its components work and haven't seen any violation of these". I mean, forget about elementary particles or atoms or molecules - we don't observe the patterns that make up the brains activity in electrons and quarks, we observe them in neurons and glial cells! We can see the network of these, we can see that it is a network of these and that it obeys a collection of simple rules (though I don't think we know all of them yet), we mostly just haven't yet figured out how the low-level behavior causes the high-level behavior. To postulate that, despite all the examination we've done, at some point we have not observed, the low-level behavior fails in a non-reductionistic matter, or that the system is influenced by something else in a non-reductionistic manner, is getting dangerously close to a "consciousness of the gaps" argument. Or worse yet, the philosophical zombie hypothesis. (If you actually *do* accept the philosophical zombie hypothesis, then, well, I really have no intention of trying to debate you any further.)

Khagan Din said...

Perhaps you are misunderstanding me. I am not claiming that certain patterns cause consciousness. I am claiming that these patterns are consciousness.

You're right, I was misunderstanding you. Thanks for the clarification; let's get some terms straight:

Particles -- the basic elements of reductionist theory

Patterns -- arrangements of those elements

Consciousness -- one type of pattern, often or exclusively found (so far) in brains

Subjective experience -- my sense of myself as existing, knowing, or desiring; my self-awareness

Look, it'd be ridiculous to claim that Person X, in particular, is a philosophical zombie, because it's an assertion with grave moral consequences and zero empirical consequences. I know I'm not a zombie because I have subjective experience; I am perfectly willing to credit all the people around me with not being zombies out of politeness, Occam's Razor, and the precautionary principle. It's simpler for there to be only one class of human-like things (humans) than for there to be two (humans and zombies), and there doesn't seem to be any evidence that requires the existence of zombies.

So, since I'm capable (at least in theory) of applying Occam's Razor, why don't I also apply it to the problem of subjective experience? Why don't I think that its simpler for there to be only one kind of consciousness-like thing (the patterns of quarks and neurons that make up a functioning brain) than two consciousness-like things (the brain patterns plus subjective experience)?

Well, for one thing, there seems to be evidence of both classes. I trust the neuroscientists when they tell me that neurons govern consciousness, and I also trust Descartes's logic when it tells me that I think, therefore I am, i.e., the fact that I stop to wonder whether I have a subjective experience means that I do in fact have a subjective experience.

Occam's Razor teaches us not to multiply entities unnecessarily, but it doesn't say anything about not multiplying entities period. If an additional entity - subjective experience -- is necessary to explain all of our observations (particles move in patterns + we are subjectively aware of them), then so be it. You can resist the additional entity by making defensive hypotheses and assuming that we must be mistaken about our subjective experiences, or by assuming that at some point someone will come up with a good explanation for how consciousness gives rise to subjective experience, but no such leaps are required or even endorsed by Occam's Razor.

You say that we've done almost all of the work, and we mostly just haven't yet figured out how the low-level behavior causes the high-level behavior. But the high-level "behavior" in question is SE, and, as I keep explaining, it seems a priori really unlikely to me that SE could ever be explained by reference to neurons and glial cells. A neuron doesn't have a SE, so why should a brain have a SE? Where the hell is SE supposed to come from?

Josh told me once that we might just be programmed to think we have an SE. But that begs the question of what sort of thing has an SE to be programmed into thinking it has an SE in the first place!

Daimo said...

Interesting stuff.

Don't underestimate Popper's method when applied appropriately. Falsifiability is a very useful standard when framing hypotheses addressing things that can be empirically tested (in order to evaluate the accuracy of derived predictions). It is, of course, of little use regarding things that are not easily subjected to testing, and here is where skeptics often overstep the mark (and do so largely from a misunderstanding of critical rationalism rather than a desire to keep things simple, imho).

I'm not overly enthusiastic about the idea that any hypothesis, falsifiable or not, can be dismissed purely on the basis of prior experience, though. It seems rash to question the hypothetico-deductive model only to then claim that inductive reasoning is just dandy. Case in point: a common explanation for the Ouija board mechanics given by skeptics is the ideomotor effect (Penn and Teller started this I think). Of course, few people bother to test it themselves (why should they? The "rational" explanation must be the right one, no?). In fact, the ideomotor hypothesis is well supported for scrying (try it), but doesn't hold up at all for the Ouija board (try that, too, with several hands on the planchette; it won't work). The Ouija board is more likely down to deception, whether trickery or a desire to save face, but of course, compelling as this hypothesis is, it's not that much easier to test than the hypothesis that a ghostly will is manipulating somebody's hand on the planchette.

"Thus, for example, to return to the case of an Invisible dragon in my bathroom, you could try to test for its presence by searching on spectra other than visible light (such as looking at infrared light). When no evidence is found using that method, I might add the defensive hypothesis that the dragon also doesn’t interact with infrared light. As I add more and more hypotheses to counter each experiment, I prevent my claim from being falsified,"

Hang on, what was the original hypothesis that is being prevented from being falsified? It seems to me that the obvious one is, "The dragon will be visible in the infrared spectrum", in which case, the experiment falsified the hypothesis. I think a better example of the following defensive hypothesis would therefore be something like, "The dragon just happened to have gone out to lunch during our experiment". Which is arguably the ultimate defensive hypothesis for paranormal buffs; because much of what is paranormal is considered to be intelligent, then any absence of evidence (in a lab setting, for example) can be attributed to shyness, or a will to remain hidden.

But I agree, though, that Teh Scientific Method! tends to be overplayed by skeptics, even if I still firmly hold to Teh Popster's model inre designing and executing solid empirical studies.

Joshua said...

Samways, I agree that a Popperian view works to a close approximation. The point is that it isn't anywhere near a perfect demarcation criterion.

That's an interesting point about the Ouija board. Having witnessed Ouija board use it seemed to me to be visibly apparent that some people were deliberately pushing. (Of course there are always other explanations ).

Regarding the dragon- I intended the original hypothesis to be the broader hypothesis of the dragon existing and residing in my bathroom.

I don't know if intelligence is as great an explanation as you posit since intelligent entities don't a priori have control over everything. We can do psych studies on humans and they are intelligent.

Khagan Din, I'm curious: If I claim I'm a zombie do you take that seriously? What if I start munching on brains while I make the claim?

Sniffnoy said...

You say that we've done almost all of the work, and we mostly just haven't yet figured out how the low-level behavior causes the high-level behavior

Hey now, I've said no such thing. Figuring out how the low level results in the high level is the bulk of the work in deciphering any complex system, no?

DM said...
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