Rants about my life torn between physics and philosophy...

Monday, March 22, 2004

John Maynard Smith, in his essay “Science and Myth”, attempts to distinguish between myth, religion and science by ascribing to differences in their credibility and purpose in society. His explanation is very simplistic, and does not adequately make the distinction. Philip Kitcher is able to make a more successful distinction between science and myth, but is unable to distinguish religion from science, as his “scientific method” can be applied to religion, as shown by William Paley.

Maynard Smith claims that the purpose of science is only to show what is possible in experience, as opposed to the previous belief that it led to absolute knowledge [Smith, 1984, p. 283]. He believes that science is responsible to experience, such that any observation that is contrary to a scientific hypothesis would disprove the hypothesis. As the number of observations increase, the likelihood of any remaining hypothesis being correct increases. As such, he believes that science is responsible only to reality, rather than society; what is true in science is not necessarily what society wants to be true. An example of this would be the recent research into cloning technology. Cloning is now possible, and shown to be true, regardless of the theological and ethical social distress the concept has caused.

Maynard Smith further states that mythology plays a different role in society. It tells us what is desirable by providing “moral and evaluative guidance” [Smith, 1984, p. 283]. These stories are not responsible to experience, as there is no observation that could falsify them. Myths are stories that provide no proof or evidence of the occurrence, and are neither provable nor disprovable (in contrast with science, he claims, which is not provable but is disprovable). It is apparent that Smith attributes religion to mythology as he uses many issues upon which science and religion have traditionally disagreed as examples (i.e.: Darwinism and evolutionary theory). It appears that he attributes the stories often in religion (such as that of Adam & Eve and Sodom & Gomorra) to myth.

Smith’s arguments are brief and provide little detail to describe the distinction of science and myth/religion. As such, his arguments have merit only if external support can be found supporting his claim that science is responsible only to experience. Without this distinction, any falsification could then be due to something other than observation (i.e.: society), as with myths. Similar to Smith, Kitcher proposes that any scientific theory is dependent upon several hypotheses (primary and auxiliary, rather than a single one), and that bad science may allow society (or an external agent) to choose which hypothesis is falsified by observation/experience [Hunter, 2004]. Smith’s simplistic view of science allows for this external agent, but the distinction made by Smith may be rectified by the inclusion of Kitcher’s criteria of good science. Would then Smith’s distinction hold against good science and myth, and religion, under Kitcher’s criteria?

Kitcher’s “good science” does provide a method of ensuring that the hypothesis falsified by observation is not done influenced by society, and, if accepted, makes Smith’s distinction between science and myth valid. But it is not clear whether this distinction holds true for science and religion. William Paley presents an argument that shows that religion can also use the same method as science, which invalidates Smith’s distinction by making religion also responsible to experience. Paley shows that the hypothesis that there is an intelligent designer of nature is more likely than the world being the product of random chance, based on observations of complexity and purpose in nature similar to complexity and purpose of human inventions. As well, Paley’s argument is refutable by experience; if the tides could produce a functioning watch, for example, then it would not be less likely that the random interaction of matter could produce living organisms.

An advocate for pure science might not agree with Paley’s position. Science often portrays a deterministic view, and would argue that the above hypothesis is based on initial assumptions that are not independently verifiable. The creationist point of view assumes that humans have volition and can create something with purpose. Thus, in an analogical argument, anything else with apparent purpose would also have to be created by something with volition. The determinist would suggest that the hypothesis supporting randomness assumes that humans are a product of nature, and thus anything created by humans is also a product of nature. In this way, a watch created my humans is merely a product of nature. It would be folly to assume that a simple interaction, such as the tides, could produce a watch, just as a house is not constructed by trees just because the house provides shelter (as trees do). In summary, the scientist would claim that the creationist argument is not more valid than the random argument, as it is the “refusal to accept input as mere noise” [Smith, 2004, p. 283]. Religion would then not be employing proper science to falsify the proper hypothesis.

This leaves a fairly serious hole in the scientist’s argument, though, as science is guilty of the same. The current (semi-)unified theory in physics is called the Standard Model of physics. It states that all matter is based on individual particles, and that every interaction is due to a force caused by these particles. The idea of matter and forces was originally derived from a similar analogy, as the sensation of touch (leading to the concept of matter) and the change of inertia due to human interaction (leading to the concept of forces) is likened to how objects, initially at rest, fall under gravity [Russell in Mumford, 2003]. The inclusion of this analogical hypothesis demonstrates that the same initial assumptions and non-falsifiable auxiliary hypotheses are used for both science and religion. Thus it appears that science has only managed to use the method listed by Kitcher to build upon the initial conditions, where as religion has not. The scientific method may produce “good science”, but can also be incorporated into religion and thus does not serve as a distinguishing feature.

Perhaps then mythology and religion are not the same thing, contrary to Smith’s view, and science should not be distinguished from religion as it is from myth? It is true that even modern religions incorporate myths, but they can also incorporate some science to provide an entire universal view for society. Should then there be any distinction between science and religion? The distinction with regards to purpose still remains; science seeks to explain what is possible now, while religion seeks to explain what is desirable, through the mythology, and how things started and worked before we could experience them. Both science and religion can still be responsible to experience, contrary to Smith’s proposed distinction.

Myth tells us what is desirable by not allowing experience to falsify the myth, where as science tells us what is possible, and is reliable because it is falsifiable by experience. Maynard Smith’s apparent attribution of religion to myth is unfounded, though. He was correct that there is, and needs to be, a distinction between religion, myth and science, but did not have fully developed arguments. With fully developed ideas, he would have found that a correct scientific method can be applied to both science and religion, and that each of these should be distinguished from myth, and from each other.

Sources Used:

Smith, John Maynard, “Science and Myth”, “Natural History”, American Museum of Natural History, 1984

Hunter, “Science and Non-Science; Good Science and Bad Science”, Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta, 2004

Hunter, “Kitcher and Paley I”, Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta, 2004

Mumford, Stephen, “Russell on Metaphysics”, Routledge, 2003

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Okay, my last one wasn't really on the topic of this blog, so I don't think I will ever be making a post quite like it again... I just wanted some place to write stuff down.

Now for my first real philosophical message! This is the essay I got a B on. (Still upset with myself over that mark)

On the Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism

4. Is free will compatible with determinism? Explain and critically discuss in the light of relevant readings for this course. What would you infer from your answer concerning the further question whether free will exists? Explain and justify.

Is free will compatible with determinism? Philosopher Paul Holbach believes that the concepts are fundamentally incompatible and that free will does not exist in reality. Walter T. Stace presents an opposing argument based the concepts being compatible, and believes that both exist in reality. Stace’s arguments, though, do not satisfactorily reconcile the concepts, as it can be shown that the concepts are most likely incompatible and that determinism most likely exists.

Holbach and Stace agree that determinism is the idea that the sum of all influences, both past and present, uniquely determines the future, including determining actions that would otherwise be attributed to volition. It is on the definition of freedom and free will that Holbach and Stace disagree. Stace believes that freedom and free will can only be known by reflection on an action. Accordingly, a person is acting freely if, upon reflection, they were acting on the desires they wanted to act upon, and, upon reflection, they were acting as the sort of person they want to be. This does not contradict with the idea of determinism because the action a person takes may be determined by the sum of the influences, but they are still acting freely if the outcome is as they want it to be.

Holbach believes that free will requires that the sum of all influences merely act as guides, and that a person is in control of their actions. On reflection of an action, determinism states that a person cannot have acted other than they did, whereas free will states that the person could have acted other than they did. By the definition that Holbach presents, it is clear that these two concepts are incompatible. A person either could or could not have done other than they did; they either acted freely or did not. It is also clear that by Stace’s definition, the concepts are compatible. The problem of compatibility is then reduced to resolving which definition of free will is correct.

Stace builds his argument based on the desire for responsibility and morality to have foundation in philosophy, which he and Holbach agree is not the case in a deterministic reality. This both assumes that a person cannot be held responsible for their actions in a deterministic reality, and relies on society having the free will to hold a person responsible and punishable for their actions. In a deterministic reality, though, it must be agreed that society has no more free will in its collective actions than a person does. Thus, responsibility is nothing more than a concept, and has no direct effect on whether a person is punished or not. Responsibility instead represents the ability of cognitive beings to know the future consequences of their actions. The idea of responsibility, and the understanding of consequences, are then just further determinants that affect the outcome, similar to the speed and position of a pool ball determining the outcome of a shot.
With responsibility being a natural part of determinism, Stace’s reason for redefining freedom is not necessary. The argument of the five-legged man used by Stace can easily be turned around on his redefinition, and so is not valid. Stace changes the definition of freedom, and shows that this idea may be compatible with determinism, but invariably still leaves the same problem involving free will. In essence, free will still indicates that the outcome of a decision is unknown until it is made; the future is uncertain. This is in direct contrast with determinism, as the future may be unknown, but it is not uncertain. Thus, Holbach is correct in that determinism and free will are not compatible, and any contradiction between determinism and responsibility is removed. This serves to reestablish determinism as a viable solution.

The existence of free will over determinism then may well be impossible to prove, as it is only possible to examine events on reflection. In order to resolve the existence of free will a posteriori, an experiment would have to be performed in which there were two possibilities and absolutely no influences on the subject to make a choice. By reflecting on such an experiment, it is possible to determine some qualities it may have. The two options would likely have the following properties:
· Simplicity, so that they are impossible to misunderstand.
· Lack of an extended time component, so as patience would not affect the outcome.
· No influence due to spatial orientation, to remove any possibility of preference to left or right, up or down, etc…
· Lack of any relationship with primary or secondary qualities, such as sound, sight, smell, taste or touch, so that a preferred sensation is not an influencing factor.
The only action that exhibits these qualities is a reaction, which is generally agreed to be an unconscious act. The task may then be resolved by attempting to prove the reality of determinism as an inference to the best explanation.

Assuming a realist point of view, all real objects are composed of matter and energy. Energy is requires to control both matter and energy, and energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transferred. The body and brain are real objects and thus made of matter and energy, and so the laws of the system bind the body and brain. Should the mind have any ability to cause the body or brain to act other than it would, the mind would have to add energy to the system, and so would violate the fundamental laws of the system. Thus, the ability to act other than determined is not within the mind’s abilities.

The idealist point of view also shows a similar flaw; the system is not under the control of the mind. According to an idealist, all sensible things are nothing more than ideas in some mind (primarily an infinite, omniscient mind). Illustrating this point, Philonous stated , “I do not perceive the ideas of God, rather the ideas that I perceive are known by God and produced by him.” Thus, experiences are not controllable. As well, this has the side effect of bringing about a curiosity of the “omniscient” mind. If the omniscient mind truly knows all, then the past, present and future are all known. One of the fundamental principles associated with free will is that the future must be unknown, which is in direct contradiction to the idealist philosophy.

By definition, the ideas of determinism and free will are obviously incompatible, as the main views still remain in contradiction; the determinist states that “I could not have done other than I did” and a supporter of free will states, “reflection does not show that I could not have done otherwise, only that I did not do otherwise.” It may be that the practice of free will may never be proven, but a deterministic system explains existence far better than one in which there exists free will.

Monday, March 01, 2004

So I finally decided to start a Blog. My brother and friend have been bugging me to do so for a while now, but I have always guarded my thoughts closely. Some people find them way too strange, others find them insulting (I am quite blunt), and others have used them to hurt me.

Well, I guess I will start out now with a description of myself!

I am a student at the University of Alberta, in a little known program called Engineering Physics. To say that is what I am is a bit of an understatement, but it is the most important part of my life right now. Sad nes pas?

Well, so EngPhys works like this... They combined the main courses of the Honors Physics degree with the main courses of the Electrical Engineering degree to make the Engineering Physics degree. Instead of the usual 5-6 courses per semester that everyone else takes, we are encouraged to take 7 with the possibility of 8! If we want to finish the degree in 4 years, though, we have to take 7.

So I decided to take my degree in 5 years after a wonderful stint with an idiot of a professor.

At the moment, I find myself finishing up my fourth year, and am not enjoying myself overall.

It took me these four years to realize some things about Engineering in general...
1. Engineering is easy. Mind numbingly so.
2. Engineering is not socially relevant.
3. Physics is most certainly interesting, but creates more questions than it answers.
4. Philosophy is the ultimate! Especially metaphysics, as it actually attempts to answer the question of "why" rather than a simple "how".

So thats my life. Homework. Yay.

Other than that, I am currently single, live alone in a 3 bedroom - 2 bathroom house that I rent, and spend too much time on my computer. I often wonder how much of a direct influence those last two points affect the first. I have a mother and father that are separated, and one real brother (who is 22 months older). My father remarried 10 years ago and now I have a step mother, a step brother (who is 1 month younger than I), and a step sister (who is 6 years younger).

Hmm, for anyone else reading this, I guess a physical description is in order. I prefer to define my individuality by my thoughts, but others may be curious as to extents of my physical nature.
Height: 6'
Weight: 170lbs
Hair: Reddish brown
Eyes: Green
Gender: Male
Distinguishing features: Glasses, no piercings or tatoos. Just an average person. What did you expect? I am an engineer!

Well, thats me. Lets see how things go from there.

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