What is Possible? Fiction, Gods, and the Philosophy of Science

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Discussion by: Zeuglodon

It is said by Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and others that science versus religion is an offshoot of the broader conflict between reason and superstition, but maybe reason and superstition are themselves offshoots of a philosophical issue that brings the philosophies of epistemology, reason, religion, and science to bear; namely rationalism and fideism (faith-based thinking). Most of us will be aware of this by the repetition of arguments that reason is based on faith, and so on, which also raises questions about the induction problem and the concept of causality. However, I think it also can be thrown into sharper relief by speculative fiction.

 

Let me explain that last one before getting around to the title, as it needs some elaborating. I have noticed in recent years that ideas I would once have not remarked upon now leave me asking questions and feeling suspicious. If I read in a fantasy book, for instance, that "X is the apotheosis/god/manifestation of Y" (say, a god of chaos or something), or if I notice a film described as depicting a clash between order and chaos, I start wondering things like, "Does that statement even really make sense if you actually think about it," and, "Is there even really a clash to be had here?" A god of chaos to me seems to differ only in degree from any old kind of wizard, and in practice arguments between order and chaos seem no more substantial or profound than the difference between basic geometry and complex mathematics. It gets me speculating whether the distinction between "Order so complex it looks like the everyday idea of chaos" and "Genuine chaos" have any real world meaning beyond those words, akin to saying that "green stinky ideas sleep furiously in Detriot" or "wurzle purzle splunkenginger".

 

In addition, I wonder if some concepts are black boxes: that is, treated as though they were irreducibly complex, which can be discerned by the fact that an advocate goes back to base concepts and then – seemingly arbitrarily - stops there as though that settled the matter. I notice this in particular when reading stories that allegedly tackle the debate about determinism, libertarianism, fatalism, compatibilism, and pessimistic incompatibilism; they seem prepared to stop at "we can choose" this, that, and the other, but never seem to question the "we", the "choosing", or how either one comes about.

 

Moreover, I also wonder if some concepts are based more on how the speaker feels (or is supposed to feel) while saying them than on any real difference in meaning, and I don't mean that in the banal sense that "I'm slender, you're scrawny". I mean that in the sense that concepts like the "soul" are less truth statements than narcissistic "holier-than-thou" feelings masquerading as a legitimate concept.

 

Lastly, I wonder to what degree fiction can be dismissed and to what degree its outlandish elements can be taken seriously. More broadly, I wonder how this applies to whatever the imagination can churn out: if, for instance, I can dismiss the concepts of "yellow Sundays", "sleeping capitalism-ness", and "triangles with four sides", then can I also dismiss the idea of life force or essence of mind?

 

(Since I've been increasingly more interested in philosophy and science over the last few years, helped along tremendously by what I've discovered since becoming explicitly atheistic - as opposed to being "apatheistic" or implicitly atheistic - I'm wondering if this is a general side effect of becoming more thoroughly sceptical. Anyone else had thoughts like these?)

 

To get back on track, I suppose the philosophical term for it would be something like "cognitive" non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivism comes from the field of ethics, and in that field it states that ethics isn't about truth statements and so ethical statements, despite being structured like non-ethical ones, don't really describe anything about the world. In the field of ideas, which I'll tentatively label the "cognitive realm", it is effectively saying that some ideas are just flat-out meaningless, either because they don't/can't describe anything in reality or because they might as well not be describing anything. An igtheist or ignostic, for instance, would regard at least some concepts of a god or gods to be meaningless, or at least so perversely unproveable as to be practically meaningless, making questions like "Does God exist?" moot.

 

For instance, suppose two people come to you. One says that God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc. being, and the other disagrees and says that God is goodness, or some such thing. A "cognitive" non-cognitivist might point out that, since we could never devise a test that could exhaustively show that a being knew everything, the descriptor is meaningless in practice, and the best you can say is that this being is very smart, assuming for the moment that the being exists. He or she might also point out that making goodness identical with God is meaningless if you don't unpackage the meanings of both words, and at the very least raises the point that you can keep the concept of goodness and not bother with simply giving the concept a new word, especially one loaded with other meanings that would pointlessly muddy the waters.

 

Next, this raises a more general point: How do we determine whether a concept is intelligible enough to tackle, and when it's just a meaningless word? More broadly, how do we determine the possible from the impossible? To what extent can we trust human intuition and imagination here? Surprisingly enough, despite the previous criticisms, I found that some part of me did feel like such words and concepts as I have described here "make sense". Somehow, it doesn't bat an eyelid at a phrase like "yellow Sunday", perhaps because it subconsciously assumes the phrase means something figurative, like "green ideas" are really about environmental proposals. Or maybe instinct just uses some mental framework that slots into place, regardless of content: "a manifestation of chaos" might invoke the physics of liquids condensing into a solid, the solid being a man, and the notion of a pool of all-pervading medium – as, say, a liquid – standing in for "chaos", regardless of the abstract part of my mind insisting that ideas like chaos aren't themselves physical things, much less constitute a liquid medium. This last one both bothers and intrigues me most, as it debunks the old argument that merely being able to think of (and make sense of) something thereby makes it realistically possible.

 

This has obvious relevance to discussions about religion and gods, since the word God has so many definitions attached to it that you practically have to ask what people mean when they start using the word. It also serves as a useful way to clear waters that have become muddy, usually because people with ulterior motives deliberately muddy it and try to sneak ideas through the confusion. For instance, the old canard that, say, reason relies on faith because it relies on, say, inductive reasoning that isn't certain, depends on a confusion of the notion of tentative extrapolation based on evidence and hedged reasoning with the notion of claiming knowledge based on anything from authority and tradition to revelation and wishful thinking.

 

However, I think it can be used to tackle a more general question or set of questions relevant to the progress of science and philosophy. At the hypothesis stage, is there such a thing as a hypothesis that is utterly useless and can be dismissed without testing? At the empirical stage, is there any outcome we can conceive of that, by dint of being conceivable, should be taken seriously? For instance, if I imagine running an experiment to find out what patterns plates make when they shatter, am I obliged to heed the induction problem's criticisms and remain open to the chance that the plates will sprout wings and fly, and if not, why not? Are the induction problem, the "brain in a jar" hypothesis, the "unreasonableness of reason" argument, the philosophical zombie argument, and the notion of dualistic free will all serious ideas or meaningless babble?

 

Now, over to you. What is possible?

15 COMMENTS

  1. For instance, if I imagine running an experiment to find out what patterns plates make when they shatter, am I obliged to heed the induction problem’s criticisms and remain open to the chance that the plates will sprout wings and fly, and if not, why not?

    I think there’s a reasonable difference between being open to the hypothetical possibilty of the plates suddenly merging atoms and evolving wings and to consider it a theoretical possibility.

    Trial and error is still a big part of science even though some philosophers might not dig it. Reality changes and facts changes, but does that mean that we should abandon empiricism simply because it is not static?

  2. I’ve often thought that some of the best philosophy, not the stuff that Dennett or Chomsky do but the more “meaning of life” kind of thing, where you aren’t really looking for an objective answer to questions but exploring questions like “what does it mean to be human” more from an emotional and subjective level, can be done meaningfully through great fiction. Sartre thought that as well, I always thought his play and at least one of his novels: The Age of Reason, were far better than any non-fiction he ever wrote. Another great philosophical author was the American Philip K. Dick. He wrote science fiction but his background was in just about everything except science (history, philosophy, religion) and he wove that stuff into his novels. I also like Doris Lessing and Milan Kundera for the same reasons, they address deeper issues besides telling good stories.

    • In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      I’ve often thought that some of the best philosophy, not the stuff that Dennett or Chomsky do but the more “meaning of life” kind of thing, where you aren’t really looking for an objective answer to questions but exploring questions like “what does it mean to be human” more from an emotional and sub…

      See, I had another example occur to me right here. As I read the phrase “what does it mean to be human”, like the “Meaning of Life”, part of me just accepted it as making sense, but another part suspected that the idea is, at the very least… questionable, incomplete, and unsatisfactorily such that it is ripe for confusion. I’m not saying there’s nothing there, like a behaviourist saying that thoughts and feelings don’t exist, but subjective things like art, cuisine, taste in music, and, I suppose, purposes feel like items that are almost “deified”, so to speak.

      Also, I’m not charging you with thinking this, but phrases like “what it means to be human” seem to be indicative of lazy arbitrariness. Why human? It could be argued that I would be more interested in “what it means to be Zeuglodon”, to be narrow, or “what it means to be a brain-bearing animal”, to be broad. And the meaning part seems needless. I am Zeuglodon, I am a human, I am a brain-bearing animal, full stop. I’d like to know how I work, as an engineer might, but is that what people are saying when they talk about what it “means”? I’m not necessarily saying these are strong questions, but the more and more I think over phrases that would otherwise have drawn no comment, the more it intrigues me to think that there may be other long-standing assumptions that haven’t been properly looked at yet.

      Sartre thought that as well, I always thought his play and at least one of his novels: The Age of Reason, were far better than any non-fiction he ever wrote. Another great philosophical author was the American Philip K. Dick. He wrote science fiction but his background was in just about everything except science (history, philosophy, religion) and he wove that stuff into his novels. I also like Doris Lessing and Milan Kundera for the same reasons, they address deeper issues besides telling good stories.

      Sadly, I can’t say I’ve read their work, though I’ve heard about all of them (except for Kundera; that’s a new one to me). As I mentioned to DHudson above, Pratchett has been an influence on me, which led to me composing and submitting the OP. In recent weeks, though, I find myself more drawn to non-fiction than to fiction, and to philosophy and science books, both for education and (occasionally) for entertainment. For instance, I’ve read Moby Dick, but only once, and never revisited it, whereas I’ve dipped into Pinker’s and Dawkins’ books multiple times.

      • In reply to #4 by Zeuglodon:

        Also, I’m not charging you with thinking this, but phrases like “what it means to be human” seem to be indicative of lazy arbitrariness. Why human?

        I don’t think there are right or wrong answers on these questions. The question “what it means to be human” comes up in P.K. Dick’s novels (Blade Runner was based on one of his novels although if you read the original you barely recognize the plot of the movie) is because he creates situations where a person suddenly has to radically re-assess some of the most basic assumptions he has about his life.

        For example, the hero finds out he may actually be a robot. Or the hero finds out (as in Total Recall another movie based very loosely on a P.K. Dick story) that what he thought was his life story was just a memory implant and that he is actually a totally different person who had very different core political beliefs. Probably saying “what it means to be human” as a way to describe such ideas isn’t the most accurate, perhaps it’s more he’s challenging basic assumptions we have about reality that we are learning aren’t necessarily always true. We think our memories are inviolate but the more we learn about the brain the more we learn that isn’t necessarily the case. We think that there will always be clear and obvious answers to “is that animal me or someone else?” but a good Sci Fi author can make us challenge those ideas.

        I’d like to know how I work, as an engineer might, but is that what people are saying when they talk about what it “means”? I’m not necessarily saying these are strong questions, but the more and more I think over phrases that would otherwise have drawn no comment, the more it intrigues me to think that there may be other long-standing assumptions that haven’t been properly looked at yet.

        I think I get what you are saying and I think I not only agree but would go a bit further. To me it’s a waste of time to try and answer a question like “what is the meaning of life” in the abstract because the question is so poorly defined. What will happen (and IMO this happens all the time on the comments here) is one person will think the question means X another person will think the question means Y and they will argue endlessly never realizing that they aren’t really arguing they just haven’t defined their terms clearly enough.

        So I think “what is the meaning of life?” can’t be answered. But I do think it’s possible to refine it to a question that does make some sense even for people who believe in science and critical thinking. E.g., “what brings you great joy or a feeling of accomplishment?” “what makes you experience love and beauty” “what do you want to be known and remembered for?” It’s why I think Dawkins uses the wrong strategy when he just dismisses questions like “what is the meaning of life?” as just ill formed. I mean intellectually he is right but that isn’t what your average person hears. Your average person hears that atheists and scientists don’t believe in self sacrifice, or love, etc. which couldn’t be further from the truth.

  3. In reply to #1 by DHudson:

    For instance, if I imagine running an experiment to find out what patterns plates make when they shatter, am I obliged to heed the induction problem’s criticisms and remain open to the chance that the plates will sprout wings and fly, and if not, why not?

    I think there’s a reasonable difference bet…

    This is something that has been bugging me for a while, and I usually end up with a “take the middle road” approach. On the one hand, if something extraordinary happened and the best of science confirmed it, I could hardly tell reality “No, no, you’re not like that! You’re like this.” On the other hand, there is the logically relevant point that, from any finite amount of observation, there are an infinite number of inferences one could make; have you heard, for instance, of the philosophical “grue” argument? This is the induction problem. In the latter case, there’s a need to distinguish the arbitrary from the rational, but it’s not always obvious which is which.

    What bugs me is just how mind-screwy it gets when you contemplate, for instance, the hypothetical world in which the law of contradiction, say, doesn’t hold, and as the Weird Al song goes, “everything you know is wrong.” I get it particularly when reading Discworld novels with a more cosmological bent, but I also get it whenever I try to wrap my head around quantum physics to find out stuff about it for myself.

    • In reply to #3 by Zeuglodon:

      This is something that has been bugging me for a while, and I usually end up with a “take the middle road” approach. On the one hand, if something extraordinary happened and the best of science confirmed it, I could hardly tell reality “No, no, you’re not like that! You’re like this.” On the other hand, there is the logically relevant point that, from any finite amount of observation, there are an infinite number of inferences one could make; have you heard, for instance, of the philosophical “grue” argument? This is the induction problem. In the latter case, there’s a need to distinguish the arbitrary from the rational, but it’s not always obvious which is which.

      I may be a bit philosophically unsophisticated, but to me the grue argument sounds like semantics with an added time bonus. In other words: What makes ( if anything ) blue blue and what makes green green and can we predict the colours if they change? Can we even agree on the colours if blue and green one day turns into grue and what to do with blue and green then?

      I’ll leave it to the philosophers to reach their own consensus and conclusions, but it is worth noting that without empiricism one is basically free to invent whatever hypothesis one cares to imagine.

      To me these philosophical arguments represent an eternal and infinite vortex of hypothetical questions and answers that doesn’t really deal with reality. At least not as rigorously as I think exciting science does. In fact it is often a bit blurry to me where to draw the line between philosophy and fiction.

      What bugs me is just how mind-screwy it gets when you contemplate, for instance, the hypothetical world in which the law of contradiction, say, doesn’t hold, and as the Weird Al song goes, “everything you know is wrong.” I get it particularly when reading Discworld novels with a more cosmological bent, but I also get it whenever I try to wrap my head around quantum physics to find out stuff about it for myself.

      I don’t blame you and often feel somewhat the same especially when reading quantum physics. Gravity be damned. ;-)

      • In reply to #6 by DHudson:

        I may be a bit philosophically unsophisticated, but to me the grue argument sounds like semantics with an added time bonus. In other words: What makes ( if anything ) blue blue and what makes green green and can we predict the colours if they change? Can we even agree on the colours if blue and green one day turns into grue and what to do with blue and green then?

        Maybe so, but I’m no so confident it’s just a case of semantics. If you look at the methodology of science, the first stage involves coming up with a hypothesis to test, and that requires some prior speculating. In physics, I imagine it’s less of a bother because physical objects don’t make any active attempts to mislead researchers, but it becomes especially difficult in social matters where you’re dealing with thinking, motivated people, and the issue of trust comes up. This has implications for the legal process, but also when it comes to dealing with people’s testimonies in other walks of life. The grue argument just takes this particular and adds a general point to it: since we’re ignorant of a lot of things, what rules out just coming up with something arbitrary like green turning to blue on a certain date?

        I’ll leave it to the philosophers to reach their own consensus and conclusions, but it is worth noting that without empiricism one is basically free to invent whatever hypothesis one cares to imagine.

        It certainly seems that way, but at the same time empiricism requires a hypothesis to proceed, or else you won’t know what you’re trying to disprove. Speculation might be seen as an airy-fairy past time, but without being able to perform controlled experiments on, say, government styles and legal processes, it has to be confronted sooner or later. Goodness knows, political positions have to be decided in the absence of evidence that would justify such confidence. It’s a big topic, when you think about it,

        To me these philosophical arguments represent an eternal and infinite vortex of hypothetical questions and answers that doesn’t really deal with reality. At least not as rigorously as I think exciting science does.

        True, but on the other hand, the arguments at least give a sharp reminder that we’re always vulnerable to a surprise from the future. More substantially, science is based in part on a rigorous but not invulnerable epistemology, and musing on the problem gave us Popper’s idea of falsificationism (though I think the idea predated him, he was the first to unite it with the problem of induction), so maybe there’s something else there to add to the system? More relevantly, it plays a huge role in the rationalism-fideism, or reason-faith, debates, especially when the argument comes up that reason is based on faith.

        In fact it is often a bit blurry to me where to draw the line between philosophy and fiction.

        Maybe fiction is basically loose philosophy? :-S

        • In reply to #10 by Zeuglodon:

          Maybe so, but I’m no so confident it’s just a case of semantics. If you look at the methodology of science, the first stage involves coming up with a hypothesis to test, and that requires some prior speculating.

          That’s a given, but my point was that this speculation should rest on reality and prior empiricism gained through measurements and rigorous testing.

          I often compare these things to geometry. It works across cultures because it is fundamentally grounded in reality. Philosophy is often culturally biased and completely in the hypothetical realm in a manner most other disciplines are not, imo of course.

          The grue argument just takes this particular and adds a general point to it: since we’re ignorant of a lot of things, what rules out just coming up with something arbitrary like green turning to blue on a certain date?

          I think this is the philosophical version of a Y2K scenario, if I understand you correctly. But are you speculating that certain wavelengths will suddenly disappear or change frequency? Or are you speculating what is keeping us from arbitrarily deciding to call green blue on any given date?

          Maybe fiction is basically loose philosophy? :-S

          It does look a bit like a continuum sometimes. :-)

  4. Even worse than the “brain in a jar” hypothesis (which is very much a thought experiment) is the evidence which shows that human brain is not a large powerful general intelligence machine but, is in fact, a collection of separate jars itself. The jar for conscious thought is just another jar, it does not have the central control we would like to think (yes I appreciate the irony here). You could research the tests on split brain patients for some interesting examples, experiments on the existence of free will and read “the man who mistook his wife for a hat” by Oliver Sacks to show how conscious thought is a very isolated, gullible and unreliable piece of the brain.
    Sorry I realize I have probably missed the main point of your discussion and certainly failed to add the type of answers you were looking for but I think you will get the idea that given I do not have a very high opinion of human consciousness it naturally follows that I do not have so much enthusiasm for deeper philosophy. A bit negative perhaps but my answer is that all discussions should be based on evidence and/or falsifiable theories otherwise it is likely to be nothing more than a vehicle for self promotion (ie. politics). If Adolf Hitler had come clean with policy and detailed that he was going to setup gas chambers instead of babbling on about meaningless concepts like Nationalism, etc, etc, then the German public would have had him jailed instead of promoted to dictator. Feel I should apologize again because seems like I have become Basil Fawlty claiming “this is exactly how Nazi Germany got started”. Anyway I do admire philosophical studies and glad that people do them but not so much outside of academia.

    • In reply to #7 by Catfish:

      Even worse than the “brain in a jar” hypothesis (which is very much a thought experiment) is the evidence which shows that human brain is not a large powerful general intelligence machine but, is in fact, a collection of separate jars itself. The jar for conscious thought is just another jar, it does not have the central control we would like to think (yes I appreciate the irony here). You could research the tests on split brain patients for some interesting examples, experiments on the existence of free will and read “the man who mistook his wife for a hat” by Oliver Sacks to show how conscious thought is a very isolated, gullible and unreliable piece of the brain.

      I’ve been aware of split-brain experiments for several years, and have already read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. There’s also Nicholas Humphrey’s treatment of the subject of consciousness, and numerous references to it in works such as How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker. In fact, I think Pinker, using Dennett’s ideas, put it best when he described the mind as being made up of “a committee of smaller but dumber homunculi”, which in turn are made up of even smaller and even dumber homunculi, and so on until you get homunculi so small and so dumb that they basically just follow the laws of physics, a la neurons. I appreciate I might have made the metaphor a bit clumsy or lost some of its punch by removing it from context, but at the time I thought it was a great way to illustrate the idea of intelligence arising from brute physics. It also fit in with an idea I’d picked up before about the “unified” mind actually being like a committee, which goes further to explain issues such as self-control and self-reflection.

      Sorry I realize I have probably missed the main point of your discussion and certainly failed to add the type of answers you were looking for

      Ah, think nothing of it. What would life be without a little digression?

      More seriously, I do think that the issue of figuring out how we know what is true or not (epistemology, to use the philosophical term) ties in with the issue of consciousness or sentience, so it’s kind of relevant, I guess.

      but I think you will get the idea that given I do not have a very high opinion of human consciousness it naturally follows that I do not have so much enthusiasm for deeper philosophy. A bit negative perhaps but my answer is that all discussions should be based on evidence and/or falsifiable theories otherwise it is likely to be nothing more than a vehicle for self promotion (ie. politics).

      I wouldn’t quite go that far. As much as empiricism is important to science, so is hypothesis and speculation. A big part of determining what is falsifiable or not relies on an ability to recognize when you’re going beyond what the data can justify, which in turn requires an appreciation for epistemology and the ideas of philosophers like Karl Popper and David Hume. Falsificationism is taken for granted, but it started out as a brilliant philosophical insight into the problem of induction. I certainly go with you in putting priority on evidence, but it is worth bearing in mind that not all philosophy is bunk, and today’s philosophy might become tomorrow’s science if someone clever enough gains an insight from it.

      Also, I actually think that one of the more fascinating things about consciousness is how people go about explaining it and getting to grips with it. I have yet to get tired of that particular discussion.

      If Adolf Hitler had come clean with policy and detailed that he was going to setup gas chambers instead of babbling on about meaningless concepts like Nationalism, etc, etc, then the German public would have had him jailed instead of promoted to dictator. Feel I should apologize again because seems like I have become Basil Fawlty claiming “this is exactly how Nazi Germany got started”.

      An apology might be much, but I feel that’s a pretty big “if”. It could be argued that Nazism got by more on intimidation than ideological persuasion, especially when most of the country was still recovering from the economic disaster following WWI, and according to Better Angels by Pinker, ideologies can grip a population even if that population is mostly made up of just ordinary people. But it’s hard to make predictions about history, in any case, so speculation ends here. ;-)

      Anyway I do admire philosophical studies and glad that people do them but not so much outside of academia.

      I think philosophy is fair game for everyone, not something to leave to academics. I don’t mean that everyone can be good at it, of course, or that everyone sits down to debate ethics or the philosophy of aesthetics over each cup of coffee, but I do think people at least touch on it in their daily lives. All the more so in democratic societies, it’s essential that everybody gets to discuss it and think about it, because it is the bedrock from which more tangible ideas grow.

  5. What is possible? is really only a subjective concept for each individual to consider and I wager even the most advanced race in the known or unknown universe(s) would have agnostics / ignostics amongst them as the question of a Gods existence / nonexistience will aways be unanswerable.

    Signed Old School Agnostic Atheist.

    P.S How many more Atheist / theist variants can there be out there ?

  6. Language is useful when it is grounded, i.e. when its components represent easily identifiable and agreed entities, actions and relationships. Arguments in philosophy often reduce to the resolution of disagreements concerning these representations.

    Many years ago, I read “Neurophilosophy”, by Patricia Smith Churchland, Professor Emerita at UCLA, San Diego,* and agreed with her position that neurology and brain research were essential input to many areas of philosophy. A quote from her entry in Wikipedia: “She is associated with a school of thought called eliminative materialism, which argues that commonsense, immediately intuitive, or “folk psychological” concepts such as thought, free will, and consciousness will likely need to be revised in a physically reductionistic way as neuroscientists discover more about the nature of brain function.” I remember her argument that the reification of “The Will” (I associate that with Nietsche, but I expect many others adopted it) was effectively demolished by the discovery that an injection of sodium pentothal renders stubborn suspects and witnesses much more cooperative under interrogation.

    Her arguments seem to me to make many parts of philosophy subservient to brain science. The one exception is epistemology (including philosophy of science), which in principle is the foundation of science, although in practice influences travel both ways between them. From my limited knowledge of Popper’s work, I can comment on one of your questions in the last paragraph:

    Q. “At the hypothesis stage, is there such a thing as a hypothesis that is utterly useless and can be dismissed without testing?”

    A. A hypothesis is useful to the extent that it suggests experiments with possible outcomes that differ in such a way that the hypothesis (or some other proposition) could be falsified.

  7. Well no. this idea that “why cant science basically study any theory however outrageous?” is wrong because there are an infinite number of “possible” hypothesis . The universe is not long lived enough for us to consider random hypothesis. Something similar is often argued by theists against atheists.

    • In reply to #13 by hardy:

      Well no. this idea that “why cant science basically study any theory however outrageous?” is wrong because there are an infinite number of “possible” hypothesis . The universe is not long lived enough for us to consider random hypothesis. Something similar is often argued by theists against atheist…

      Yes, but I’m not saying scientists should study any hypothesis, however outrageous. My point was to ask how they separate the two, and on what grounds. The point of the induction problem is that there’s always the possibility of a surprise turning up tomorrow, so what philosophy (whether of science or of epistemology more generally) helps us to balance the risk of falling for surprises with the need to get at the answer?

      For instance, there’s a philosophy called pragmatism that argues – and I appreciate I’m putting this a bit crudely, so I’ll add that there’s a fuller account on Wikipedia – that truth, in some capacity, depends on information one can use. When you argue that science, say, is superior to religion because science gets results, you are appealing in some way to a pragmatist philosophy. The obvious counter to this is that an idea being practical or useful does not make it true but could just as easily make it a “useful lie”, but at the same time one can consider that knowledge about the world would at least in some capacity be useful only if it was true, because you can’t use so many tools successfully without knowing something about how reality works. False information, by definition, never correlates perfectly with reality, otherwise it would not be false.

      In reply to #11 by kenm:

      Language is useful when it is grounded, i.e. when its components represent easily identifiable and agreed entities, actions and relationships. Arguments in philosophy often reduce to the resolution of disagreements concerning these representations.

      Many years ago, I read “Neurophilosophy”, by Patr…

      After reading your comment, I checked on Wikipedia and revisited some old books I had, and I have to say that I’m surprised I haven’t looked into the Churchlands already, given how – albeit indirectly – their views correlate with mine on such matters as neuroscience and epistemology. I’ll have to track down those books of theirs and take a look.

      Language is useful when it is grounded, i.e. when its components represent easily identifiable and agreed entities, actions and relationships. Arguments in philosophy often reduce to the resolution of disagreements concerning these representations.

      You learn this one quite quickly when you delve into ethics, since there everyday words like “good” and “bad” become focal points for discussion.

      Q. “At the hypothesis stage, is there such a thing as a hypothesis that is utterly useless and can be dismissed without testing?”

      A. A hypothesis is useful to the extent that it suggests experiments with possible outcomes that differ in such a way that the hypothesis (or some other proposition) could be falsified.

      Of course! Given that I knew about falsificationism at the time, I should have seen this one coming when I asked that question. I should have thought of that, but thank you for answering, anyway.

  8. I cannot understand why this topic has been permitted, since it is an impossible tangle of fundamentally meaningless locutions and runs on almost forever.

    But to address what seems to be its main interest, it is the role of Philosophy to separate meaningful expressions from nonsense, and to distinguish questions that can possibly be ansswered from those that cannot. The question “Which is rounder, an orange?” for example, is so poorly framed that it has no possible answer. The question “Do other people experience consciousness as I do, or even at all?” examined closely, also has no possible answer. Likewise, “Why does the Cosmos exist and not something else, or nothing at all?” So yes, there are “questions” that can be asked which are not worth addressing.

    Or more precisely, it is possible to put words together and form what seems to be a question, and yet not to have asked a question at all.

    There are, of course, many perfectly correct and meaningful questions that are not addressed because the cost of answering them vastly exceeds the utility of gaining the desired information. “Does there exist a race of intelligent squid on a plant orbiting Epsilon Indi?” falls, for the time being, into that category.

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