Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy and Their Histories by Wallace Matson

Professor Matson (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley) doesn’t just describe the histories of science and philosophy in this book. He also describes the history of life on earth, all in terms of the evolution of belief. Simple organisms react to their environment in genetically-determined ways. Complex organisms form beliefs, new ways of coping with their environments. The most complex organisms, living in groups, create languages, allowing them to form beliefs about the past, present and future, and about what does not exist. 

Matson argues that all beliefs are ways of coping with the world. He divides beliefs into the low and the high. Low beliefs are those that have “rubbed up against the world”. They can be put to an empirical test and found to be accurate or not. Arithmetic and logic are made up of low beliefs, as are cooking and carpentry. Once we possess language, we can use our imagination to form high beliefs. They concern matters that cannot be tested or that we do not have the tools to test. Religion and morality tend to be high beliefs. They cannot be tested, although they have their purpose (edification). People living in groups need morality in order to live together. They don’t need religion, however, which came later in our evolution.

According to Matson, Thales shouldn’t be known for claiming that everything is made of water. Thales of Miletus (on the coast of Ionia, now Turkey) invented science by propounding three central ideas:

 “1. Monism, Unity, Reductionism: ‘The All is One’, that is, at bottom there is only one kind of reality, in terms of which everything can be (ideally) explained.

2. Naturalism, Immanence: No basic distinction between what a thing is and what it does. Processes manifest the essential internal energies of things.

3. Rationalism, Logos, Necessitarianism, Sufficient Reason: There are no “brute” facts; everything is either self-explanatory or explainable in terms of other things; and explanation has as its ultimate aim the showing of how and why things ‘couldn’t be otherwise’.”

Some science is theoretical: high beliefs that are “tethered” to low beliefs as part of a comprehensive theory. The theory of the Big Bang, for example, is tethered to low beliefs, not logically implied by observations, but suggested by the work of radio astronomers. On the other hand, Matson argues that “theories … invoking creative gods, final causes, ‘logical possibility’, and the like, are untethered, free-floating in the heaven of pure imagination”.

Matson credits Parmenides (another Ionian) with inventing philosophy, which Matson describes very generally as talk about what it is to be reasonable. His two favorite early modern philosophers are Hobbes and Spinoza, both of whom Matson believes subscribed to the scientific approach outlined above. Matson holds that Descartes took a wrong turn by focusing on his perceptions or ideas. Not only rationalists like Leibniz but empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume are part of the same misguided tradition, a tradition that gave rise to pseudo-problems dealing with the existence of the external world, other minds and causation.

Matson also argues that the idea of logical possibility is a holdover from medieval philosophy. He believes that it was the idea of an Omnipotent Creator/Legislator who could make anything non-contradictory happen that gave rise to the idea that the world is contingent, that it might have been any other way than it is. In his words: “The contention here is not that the phrase ‘logical possibility’ denotes nothing; it is that what it designates is, non-internally-contradictoriness, is not a species of possibility, any more than a teddy bear is a species of bear”.

I’m having trouble understanding Matson’s point regarding logical possibility not being real possibility. Couldn’t gravity be a more or less powerful force in another world? Adjustments might be needed in other aspects of the world to allow for gravity to be different, but that seems logically possible, even if it isn’t physically possible in our world. It seems as though Matson’s objections to the idea of an Omnipotent Creator/Legislator have colored his opinion of logical possibility. Aside from that, I found very little to argue with in this extremely interesting book.

PS — A review of the book by two philosophers at the University of Colorado:  (11/8/12)

Scientific Perspectivism by Ronald N. Giere

Scientific perspectivism, as Professor Giere describes it, is a somewhat weak form of scientific realism: “For a perspectival realist, the strongest claims a scientist can legitimately make are of a qualified, conditional form: ‘According to this highly confirmed theory (or reliable instrument), the world seems to be roughly such and such’. There is no way legitimately to take the further objectivist step and declare unconditionally: ‘This theory (or instrument) provides us with a complete and literally correct picture of the world itself'” (pp. 5-6).

Even the most accurate instrument gives us just one perspective on the world, since it picks out some feature(s) of interest, it’s subject to some margin of error, and its output is subject to interpretation according to some theory. 

Giere begins by discussing color vision and other sense perception, then moves on to the use of various instruments for scientific purposes, and finally discusses the creation of scientific models and theories. He is especially concerned with how scientists actually do their work. His conclusion is that all truth claims are relative to a perspective, even the claim that all truth claims are relative to a perspective (p. 81). “The strongest possible conclusion is that some model provides a good but never perfect fit to aspects of the world” (p. 93). Giere’s own theory of scientific perspectivism “may be regarded as a set of models of various scientific activities … these models exhibit a good fit to actual scientific practices. That … is as much as anyone can do” (p. 95). 

Some models fit the world better than others, however, meaning that they better serve our purposes. Perspectivism might be considered a kind of relativism, but not the kind that says all perspectives are equally valid.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the discussion of “distributed cognitive systems”. Giere argues that much of science involves the operation of such systems, most of which involve instruments and models that are perspectival. A simple example of a distributed cognitive system is a student’s use of pencil and paper to perform long division. The student making the calculation is part of a system that includes the pencil and paper. The system generates a calculation. This doesn’t mean that the pencil and paper are part of the student’s mind, as some philosophers who talk about “extended” or “embedded” cognition have argued. It’s not necessary to go that far in order to describe human cognition.

This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that I want to read again.  (4/24/12)

The Scientific Revolution by Steven Shapin

Historians refer to the changes brought about by such luminaries as Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, Boyle and Newton in the 16th and 17th centuries as the “Scientific Revolution”. The science of the Greeks and Scholastics was replaced by something that looks like science as it’s practiced today.

The theme of this book is that the “Scientific Revolution” wasn’t as clear-cut as historians and philosophers often imply. The scientists of the time disagreed about how science should be conducted. For example, some questioned the value of experimentation. If an experiment contradicted received opinion, many concluded that the experiment was performed incorrectly. Robert Boyle thought that scientists should perform many experiments and describe them in great detail. He never expressed “Boyle’s Law” (pV = k) in mathematical terms. Isaac Newton thought that a single experiment was good enough to allow the mathematical formulation of a law of nature. 

Science was also generally considered to be the “handmaiden of religion”. Showing that nature operated like a vast machine was thought to be evidence of God’s supernatural powers and wisdom. We had to wait for Darwin to show how “mere chance” could write a chapter in the Book of Nature.  (2/9/12)

Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Two English physicists try to explain Einstein’s famous equation and much more, including relativity and quantum mechanics. I didn’t understand quite a bit and didn’t try to do the math (which is relatively limited), but found their explanations reasonably helpful. For example, they explain that the speed of light is an upper limit because photons have no mass. It isn’t anything to do with light per se. Any particle with no mass travels at the speed of light and no faster. Gluons don’t have mass and, if they exist, neither do gravitons. So we might just as well call it “the speed of particles with no mass”. 

They also explain that mass and energy are constantly being exchanged in accordance with Einstein’s equation. Atomic weapons are just the most spectacular example of a process that is universal to nature, and occurs, for example, every time heat is generated or there is some other chemical reaction.

I’m still confused by the Twin Paradox. Why would someone in a spaceship moving close to the speed of light age more slowly than someone staying on Earth, if all motion is relative? Why not say that the person moving near the speed of light is standing still and the person who stayed at home is moving near the speed of light? The answer is that the person in the spaceship is accelerating and decelerating, and that’s why we can properly say that he or she is moving faster than the person on Earth and why he or she ages more slowly. There are formulas that explain this, but it still sounds fishy. 

I’m also bothered by the idea that the Big Bang had no location. If the universe is expanding in all directions, why can’t we say where the Big Bang occurred? And maybe put a monument there with a gift shop?  (9/8/11)