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Google and the End of Science

Bringing it all back Hume

History, also, contains warnings. The Copernican Revolution saw two competing models fighting it out - the old Earth-centred view of the universe, and a sun-centred solar system. One difference was that the traditional model could not account for the phases of Venus - a fact which anyone with the couple of lenses for one of Galileo's new-fangled telescopes could check for themselves. But science currently has some "facts" where no telescope whatever can bring the entities they are about into view (black holes, dark matter).

But don't draw any conclusions just yet from this, either.

Perhaps Anderson has all this in mind in predicting a common fate for "theory" in the dustbin of history. It does though make it harder to see if Copernicus really was Google's ancestor.

What is easier to see is that Anderson's thesis has historical pedigree.

Back home with Hume

The justification of science often looks to the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume. But it is also with Hume that modern scepticism about causation starts.

Hume was wondering if ethics could be like science: something accessible to ordinary folk for reasoning and deciding about, and not reliant on the diktat of Authority in the form of religion or other esoteric specialists, with their resort to inaccessible realms. These targets are in plain view in the famous "consign it to then the flames" conclusion of his 1748 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. But Hume noticed a problem.

Hume starts from the position that valid ideas about the world can be traced back either to an origin in perception, or to derivation from other valid ideas. He then finds this is not possible for a few ideas - causation is one, substance is another - which had been traditional stomping grounds of metaphysics. No amount of perceiving, says Hume, seems to show us causation itself; what we see are two events that regularly occur together.

Now this does not, as commonly supposed, make Hume sceptical about causation. His argument against a God that is the first ever cause of everything which came after, depends on it. Nor does it make him sceptical about knowledge in general. Some knowledge, says Hume, we can demonstrate to be true. For the rest, if we use a valid form of inference to draw a conclusion that is true - if we check it empirically - then it follows that if the premises are true, as a matter of logic we are assured that the conclusion is true, also.

What Hume's argument really shows is that causation cannot be justified starting from where he starts - namely the premise (from Aristotle) that logic and experience together account for all the sources of our knowledge.

What in Hume is a philosophical problem about the justification of causation, has been confused with that of the justification of knowledge.

For Empiricists, who support the general thesis that all knowledge is from experience, the issue devolved into determining the criteria and constraints for the scientific application of causation. Namely, how much regularity of occurrence is necessary to treat two things as causally connected, and what other conditions should be attached.

Enter a rabbit, wearing a waistcoat

Historically then, around the start of the 20th century, there is intellectual uncertainty in some minds about causation. Along with prevailing tendencies in physics, it is enough to cause scientists like Poincaré and Mach to abandon the correspondence theory of truth, and float an alternative conventionalist theory of truth. Let's not worry, it goes, precisely how our scientific conclusions relate to the world - let's agree that truth is what we can agree on so we can take business forward. (The demolition of this theory is according to taste - one for connoisseurs is by V.I. Ulyanov - aka Lenin).

Hark, though, and you can hear here the ghost of Hume. Anderson's "end of theory" has started growing roots.

The next significant development occurs when Wittgenstein encounters Russell busy deriving mathematics from logic. (A not inappropriate activity you might think for an Empiricist philosopher). Wittgenstein realizes that Russell's symbolic calculi might be useful for describing formally not only mathematics but what we know about the natural world.

Note how this extends the notion of modeling to the domain of abstractions and generalities. A statement like "All swans are white" cannot be modelled by a white swan, even if a white swan can be modelled. Fixing this conundrum became an ongoing project for logicians, and the arguments about whether the fixes are good is still a live one.

So now the logical germ of Anderson's thesis is sprouting leaves and branches. In Wittgenstein's hands, modelling turned into logical modelling, clouding the clear difference between things and ideas. But the rising sap is about to accelerate.

Eating up the tree of empiricism

Noticing that Wittgenstein had in effect slid the thin edge of a wedge between descriptions of the world and other sorts statements, the logical positivist philosophers (Schlick, Carnap, Ayer, et al) banged it some more. They arrived at their "verification principle": statements are meaningful only if they are verifiable - or, if like logic and mathematics, they are reducible to tautologies, which don't need empirical validation.

It was soon asked if this verification principle was true. It was clearly far from tautological. Also it looked like it would take scientists all their time for ever to verify it. So the verifiability principle was hedged to read "verifiable in principle" - an interesting twist.

Much merriment in scientific circles was then had with this new easy-to-handle intellectual toy. Waved contre-temps, it could patently banish metaphysical entities at a stroke. Among the metaphysical entities vanquished, though, was causation, on the basis that probability theory was a philosophically viable interpretation of causation. Thus set free from its referent, causation became a loose synonym for "correlation", then for "statistical link", and finally for "link".

In fact, the logical positivists' magic wand of verification turned out to have power on a scale that Harry Potter might only dream about and J.K. Rowling clearly never did.

Much of what people say to each other became at a stroke intellectually dubious. Value judgements (eg, "Tracy Emin makes great art") and statements with "ought" and "should" in them (eg, Timmer's conclusion about what science should do) seem to be unverifiable. One philosophical account interprets them as civilized ways of emoting and persuading. Bye-bye ethics?

The concept of the mind, and by extension that of a person, was also affected, with far reaching implications.

In psychology, Behaviourism was one favoured development. Its ontology does not include people with minds, only biological entities with patterns of behaviour. The rise and rise of neuro-science is correlated with this. Another is politics. The New Labour government in the UK boasts almost daily that it is in the business of "modifying behaviour".

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