A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, April 2, 2012

Commentary on Jerry Oltion

I had fallen way behind on my reading of ANALOG, so it is only lately that I have come across Jerry Oltion's essay, "What Science Means to Me"  [Jan/Feb 2012].  The Perceptive Reader will be unsurprised to learn that it means everything to him.  "My approach to life is scientific, and what understanding I have of life comes through analytic thought."  Evidently, synthetic thought is not to be used.  One imagines him waking to a clear blue sky and seeing stretched above him... the Rayleigh scattering of sunlight.  Well and good.  So do we all, whether we know it or not, and a knowledge of how the sky appears blue adds a lagniappe of pleasure.  (Saving only that there is something in the qualia of the sensation of blue that cannot be captured by light wave scattering or neurobiology.  More on this later.) 

For another 'tude, consider Werner Heisenberg.  While walking with Heisenberg one day, the physicist Felix Bloch, who had just read Weyl's Space, Time and Matter, felt moved to declare that space is simply the field of linear equations.  Heisenberg replied, "Nonsense. Space is blue and birds fly through it." "What he meant," Bloch later wrote, "was that it was dangerous for a physicist to describe Nature in terms of idealized abstractions too far removed from the evidence of actual observation."  Let us explore this dichotomy.  

Jerry playing the theramin
for the ANALOG Mafia
Ragtime Band
TOF (left) playing bass clarinet for the
ANALOG Mafia Ragtime Band.  Julia
Ecklar on trombone
Jerry Oltion, for those who don't know him, is a fine fellow, a friend, and a writer of considerable talent, having won the Nebula Award for his story "Abandon in Place."  I have no argument at all with his admiration for science, per se.  Although lacking in certain respects, modern science is the best tool we have not only for learning about physical nature, but for controlling and exploiting nature to the benefit of man.   

But in the course of his essay, Jerry claimed authority for science to define love and joy and, well... everything.  This fulsome belief in the omnicompetence of the scientific method has been called scientism by such skeptical thinkers as Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Hilary Putnam, and Mary Midgley.  The idea that empirical science is the sole authoritative worldview is akin to the man who, having a hammer -- albeit a very fine and excellent hammer -- therefore sees everything around him as a nail.[1]

It is an extreme expression of the logical positivism that Popper so thoroughly demolished.  Jerry provides an idealized description of the scientific method; but as such diverse writers as Pierre Duhem and Feyerabend have pointed out, this is not a description of how scientists actually work.  Ampère, indeed, developed an electrodynamics of conducting bodies by meticulous observation of detailed experiments, forming hypotheses, testing the hypothesis, and so on.  But Maxwell developed the electrodynamics of dielectric bodies from an intuition, a flash of genius.  The experimentation to verify the intuition followed, even in the face of what appeared to be a decisive falsification.  Namely, that the proposition that magnetism is a consequence of an electrical current was "falsified" by permanent magnets.  To account for them, Hertz and Boltzmann and other Maxwellians simply made up "electrons."  Hence, the difference between a lucky guess and an inspired or educated guess.  They did not discover an electron and develop a theory to explain it; they developed a theory and postulated an electron to make it work.  "The link between theoretical physics and experimental physics," wrote Duhem, "is felt, not concluded."  This sort of thing led Feyerabend to conclude that there was no "scientific method."  Rather, there are many scientific methods.[2]

Insofar as a paen to science is deserved, there is no quarrel with the gist of the essay.  But the devil is in the details, as the saying has it, and there are several points that are problematic, or where Jerry has failed to apply the scientific method by checking facts.  Comments are ordered as follows:
  1. Geocentrism
  2. Are there things science cannot explain?
  3. Religion

[1] See, e.g., Midgley, Science as Salvation (Routledge, 1994) Esp. Chapter 8. 
[2] See Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (Verso, 1993)

1. Geocentrism.
First and most trivially, Jerry writes that two millennia ago, "Science was mostly 'argument from first principles.'  People ... assumed that anything they could prove logically based on a true premise must also be true."  Now, this is pretty much the basis of logic, reason, and mathematics, so it's hard to imagine modern physics proceeding without it.  But it was not the whole story, even for the ancients. 

Then he goes on to say, "that led to things like the geocentric universe theory."  

Well, no, actually not.  It was Greek heliocentristm that was a dogmatic deduction from premises.  The sun was declared to be in the center of the world because fire was nobler than earth and the center was a nobler position. [3]  (We would not today regard the nobility of fire or centers as self-evidently true premises.) 

Geocentrism, otoh, was based firmly in empirical fact.  Aristotle's maxim was that "Nothing is in the intellect unless it is first in the senses."  Empirically, you can sense no motion in the earth; and you can see the sun (and everything else) going around sky in eternally repeating circles.[4]  The simplest hypothesis for this apparent motion is that the sun, moon, and stars actually do circle a stationary earth.  Aristotle, Archimedes, and the Greek mainstream regarded Pythagorean heliocentrism as mystical woo-woo self-evidently falsified by the data. 

1. The ancients knew about headwinds.  Try reading a scroll on a galloping horse!  If the earth is turning toward the east at 1670 kph (and whirling around the sun at 107,278 kph), why isn't everything just blown away?  Why is there no steady east wind?  (A sort of ancient Michelson-Morely experiment.)  Furthermore, how do we all keep our balance?  Why does an arrow shot straight up in the air not fall to the west as the earth moves out from under it? [5]

2. If the earth is rotating, an object at the top of the tower would be moving east with a higher velocity than one at the base.  So, an object dropped from the tower should fall slightly to the east of the plumb line.  (Galileo actually proposed this experiment, but there is no record he ever carried it out.  Perhaps he did, failed to find the predicted deflection, and kept his mouth shut.) [6] 

3. The distance to the stars can be calculated from their apparent brightness and diameters.  That puts them at an unimaginable seventy million-mile distance.  If the earth revolves around the sun, stellar parallax should be clearly visible; but is not.[7]

Now, this is not to say that the geocentric model was true -- believe it or not, there are people even today who claim this -- but that it was a model based on empirical observation and confirmed by experience.  That model withstood challenges for about 2000 years.  It was "settled science," the "scientific consensus," despite the occasional heliocentric "denialist."

A page from a text of Oresme in which he
comes to the verge of analytical geo
What hobbled the natural philosophers of the pre-modern age was not so much faulty methodology -- they were simply trying to do more than the natural scientists of the 17th and bit off more than they could chew -- as it was their lack of instrumentation and a mathematical notation. Even so, they didn't do too badly.  Petrus Peregrinus di Maricourt developed the laws of magnetism in the 13th century, and Theodoric of Fribourg conducted an experiment with glass balls to explain the rainbow at the turn of the 14th century.  But it was good old-fashioned reasoning from first principles that led Jean Buridan de Bethune to formulate Newton's First Law and his student Oresme to apply mathematics to motion and demonstrate the mean speed theorem.  It was Oresme, too, who invented the + sign. 

"Geocentrists kept patching their argument to account for new observations. .... That's not science.  That's dogma." 

The Ptolemaic model worked well enough right up to the point where it was discarded for the Tychonic model in the 17th century.  That it had to be "patched" now and then to account for new data is a myth.  When was it patched?  What new data?  There were improved methods of computation introduced from time to time, such as the Tusi couple, invented by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi to replace the equant.  But this did not alter the basic model.   

Besides, scientific theories are constantly patched in this sense.  That's how the Big Bang became the Hot Big Bang, then the Hot Big Bang with Inflation, and how evolutionary theory evolved, adding sexual selection, genetics, epigenetics, and so on.  Examples of dogma might be Galileo insisting that the Copernican model (with its 20 epicycles) was physically true even though he had no empirical evidence for it; or Einstein adding a cosmological constant because he believed the universe to be eternal and unchanging and his equations kept insisting it was not. [8]  

Tables based on Copernicus' De revolutionibus proved to be no better than those based on Ptolemy's Syntaxis Mathematiké.  This was largely because Copernicus had made almost no original observations and depended on the same old star tables, tables which had become corrupted over the centuries by copyist errors.
Copernican model on left; Ptolemaic model on right.
Yes, Copernicus used epicycles.

"Geocentrism gave way to heliocentrism when the advent of the telescope brought new observational data..."

No, it took about 120 years to overturn the paradigm.[9]  The only relevant telescopic observation in the era of gosh-wow-look astronomy was the discovery of the phases of Venus.  These were impossible in the Ptolemaic model, but were predicted by both the Copernican and Tychonic models.  So, astronomers immediately abandoned the Ptolemaic system... for the Tychonic or Ursine systems.

Tychonic system: it all goes around the sun
but the sun and moon go around the earth.
Ursine variant: the earth rotates.
Even before the telescope, Tycho Brahe had developed a non-Ptolemaic geocentric system based on a new set of meticulous observations using the latest modern instruments that he had designed and (more importantly) calibrated precisely.  The standard astronomical tables had become riddled with copyist errors.  Tycho provided clean, new, precise data. [10]  And it was computationally equivalent to the Copernican model.  That is, it made all the same predictions of celestial phenomena, only more precisely.   

To late moderns, accustomed to Newton's universal gravitation, the Tychonic system looks like a kludge.  But the proper way to look at history is not from the hindsight of the future but from the past itself.  Tycho had excellent scientific reasons for proposing what he did!  See this essay at The Renaissance Mathematicus.

Summary.  Geocentrism was not the result of a priori deduction from first principles, but rather the result of empirical observation and experience.  It was the best hypothesis, given the data possible at the time.  It was not until Kepler that a heliocentric model was developed that worked better; and not until Newton was there a reason to believe that it ought to be physically true.  Don't forget that the real telescopic revolution was the revelation of the heavens as a place where physical discoveries could be made.  The switched astronomy from the math department to the physics department, and people began to wonder if these purely mathematical models might be physically true.  Ptolemaic astronomers had never claimed physical reality for their epicycles. 
[3] Many Pythagoreans believed that there was an invisible central fire and the sun was a bronze mirror that reflected it.  Greek "heliocentrism" might be called many things, but "empirical" was not one of them. 
[4] This led many civilizations down the primrose path of eternally repeating cyclic universes, a mental milieu in which natural science failed to develop even though mathematics and astronomy flourished.
[5] Yes, we know.  The atmosphere and everything on the earth is also carried along.  Nicholas Oresme proposed this answer in the 14th century and Copernicus repeated it in the 16th.  But the physics to support it didn’t exist until the late 17th.  With no concept of force or mass, no correct definition of inertia or even of gravity, how was this atmospheric envelope supposed to work? 
[6] The rotation of the earth was not demonstrated empirically until the 1790s, when Guglielmini dropped balls down the inside of the Bologna tower and noted the eastward deflection predicted by inertial motion.  It was later demonstrated by Foucault and his pendulum. 
[7] There is parallax, but too small to be seen with the eye.  The stars are much farther away than measurements of their apparent brightness and diameter indicated.  But in all these cases, you cannot demonstrate one unproven hypothesis by throwing in a second unproven hypothesis.  Callendrelli detected parallax in a-Lyrae in 1803; Bessel made a clearer measurement in 1831 of 61 Cygni.  At that point the revolution of the earth was empirically proven. 
[8] and when he developed relativity, the "universe" consisted of the Milky Way.  Other galaxies were not yet recognized as such and were called "extra-galactic nebulae." 
[9] It took about as long for relativity and quantum mechanics to become the establishment, too.
[10] And a good thing, too.  Kepler would never have discovered ellipses in the old crappy tables.
+ + +

2. Are there things science cannot explain?
"What do you want to know about love?  ... Well, there are chemicals in the brain that regulate pleasure..." 

Aside from the confusion of "pleasure" with "love," there is no suspicion that it might be the pleasure that regulates the chemicals.  After all, it is not the footsteps that cause the walk, but the walk that causes the footsteps.  Iambic pentameter was not the cause of Shakespeare's plays. 

A statistician soon learns that on any problem on which he is consulted there are statistical aspects and subject-matter aspects, and the statistical aspects are not the entirety of the matter.  The same is true of the domain of science.  Natural science is the study of the abstracted metrical properties of material bodies.  As such, it has limitless scope, "from quarks to quasars."  But also as such, it has limited scope: it is limited to material bodies and to metrical properties.  Consequently, in the spirit of see-a-nail-everywhere, the natural scientist -- and more particularly the fan of natural science -- tends to see only the metrical and material aspects of a thing.  Hence, color is re-imagined as reflected light frequencies; and so on.  If the only legitimate methodology you allow yourself is a metal detector, you will never discover wood.  It is operationally invisible to the method.  But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist!  So if only the metrical and material aspects are "visible" to the scientific method, an examination of "love" will only see brain chemicals.  To suppose that these comprise a description of love (let alone an explanation) is like supposing that the physics of vibrating strings accounts for the Waldstein Sonata. [1] 

There is a famous thought experiment: Mary in the Black-and-White Room, also known as the Knowledge Argument against Physical Closure.  Mary has lived all her life in a room entirely black-and-white.  But Mary is a genius neuroscientist of the Future™ and knows everything there is to know about the physics and physiology of color perception: light wavelengths, surface reflectance, the retina, optic nerve -- everything there is to know about what goes on in someone’s brain when he sees a red object.  Then one day the door to the room is opened and she steps outside and sees a bright red rose.  Does she learn something new? Of course.  She learns what it’s like to see red. But then the essence of redness is not exhausted by wavelengths and retinas and optic centers in the brain.  There is more to redness than its metrical properties and efficient causes.  Mary knew all the physical facts about human perceptual experience before she left the room but, since she learned something when she left the room, she didn’t know all the facts.

In short, qualia exist and are not physical.  Forget about love.  Natural science cannot tell us everything about "red."

The "problem" of the qualia was anticipated by Thomas Nagel [2] and discussed in detail by Howard Robinson in "Why Frank Should Not Have Jilted Mary" [3]

"'Why do we love?'  Ah, now we're talking about evolutionary advantage.  We love because it increases our reproductive success"

That's a tautological answer, since the same answer could be given if, like amoebas, cockroaches, cod, and pine trees, we did not love.  Or if like many other species, we simply responded to chemical cues when our females went into heat.  Any extant species has been by definition reproductively successful.  Otherwise, it would not be an extant species.  It is only necessary to append the sentence, "We [have trait X] because it increases our reproductive success."

How it does so is irrelevant.  That it does so is taken on faith.  This facile use of adaptationist "just so" stories used to irritate the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who pointed out that some traits and features might simply piggy-back on others that were "selected for."  IOW we might have the capacity to love for some reason, and have been reproductively successful for an entirely different reason.  Gould labeled such traits "spandrels" and the atheist philosopher Fodor goes so far as to suggest nearly all traits are "spandrels." [4]

Besides, "reproductive success" does not explain "why" we love.  At best, it may describe "how" we have come to love.  Besides, I love both Mozart's music and asparagus.  I don't see how that increases my reproductive success.  The invocation of "evolutionary advantage" is really nothing more than a kerygma of faith.  Like physical closure, it is assumed, not demonstrated.

"A scientist looks at the question "What is the meaning of life?" and realizes it's meaningless." 

By this Jerry appears to mean both that the question is meaningless and also that science tells us that life is meaningless.  But if the question is meaningless, the answer could not be "there is no meaning to life,"  since there can be no answer to a meaningless question.  Our Perceptive Reader will by now realize that by "meaningless," Jerry evidently means that the question does not deal with the metrical properties of material bodies.  IOW, "meaningless" is precisely his term for "questions science cannot deal with."  And therefore Question 2 is answered in the affirmative.
[1] For the benefit of the overly literal we hasten to add that "the physics of vibrating strings" is shorthand for all the acoustic factors: keys, hammers, soundbox, etc. 
[2] Thomas Nagel, "What is it Like to be a Bat?" The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974):435-50
[3] in The Case for Qualia, Edmond Leo Wright (ed.) (MIT Press, 2008)
[4] Jerry Fodor, "Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings," London Review of Books, Vol. 29 No. 20 (18 October 2007), pp 19-22

3. Religion
Jerry finally segues into religion, as Perceptive Reader knew he would eventually: "Yes, I know, lots of scientists believe in God.  I contend they're not being scientific when they do so." 

To which one can only say, well of course not.  Science deals with the metrical properties of material bodies; and (except in some eccentric modern sects) God is not the latter and has not the former.  A scientist playing the trumpet is being a musician, not a scientist.  A scientist cheering on his home team is being a sports fan, not a scientist.  So what? 

"Belief in God doesn't hold up to scrutiny.  It's not testable." 

Heck, neither is string theory.  (Rim shot!)  Presumably, "scrutiny" is narrowly construed here as some sort of scientificalistic test.  But that's like a scientificalistic test for the irrationality of pi.  No matter how many empirical circles you measure, the ratio of the actual measured circumference to the actual measured diameter will be a rational number.  The irrationality of pi can be demonstrated only by mathematical proof, not by scientific experiment.  So we know of at least one domain -- mathematics -- not subject to scientific proof, one which leads to more certain conclusions. Surely there can be others.  [1]  Like the existence of objective reality, belief in God may not be testable, but that does not mean it cannot be reasonable

The existence of God is a proposition in metaphysics, not in the physics.  It cannot be demonstrated in physics, even in principle.  One of the deductions from the existence of God is that He is Existence Itself [2].  But physical science must take existence as one of its assumptions -- you cannot demand empirical evidence without assuming an empirical universe -- and no science can demonstrate its own assumptions or axioms.  That would be circular reasoning (a.k.a. "begging the question").  Therefore, physical science cannot demonstrate either Existence or God.   

Metaphysical demonstrations are more akin to mathematical demonstrations than to physical ones.  However, in the interests of having fun, we will essay a "scientifical demonstration" using the criteria Jerry gave for scientific method; viz., that a "theory" should make "predictions" and these predictions should be empirically verifiable.  Now, in Christian theology some of the consequences of the Christian concept of God are:
  1. Existence exists.
  2. There is an objective universe. 
  3. That universe is rationally ordered.  (There are natural laws.)
  4. The order of the universe is consistent.
  5. That order is knowable to human reasoning. 
  6. It is knowable "by number, weight, and measure." 
  7. Material bodies have natures that have the power of acting directly upon one another (secondary causation) and therefore natural phenomena have natural causes. 
  8. The universe had a beginning in time. 
  9. All human beings share a common descent.
  10. Human beings have a "selfish gene" that makes them prone to pride and selfishness. 
  11. New species of animals, if any such appear, would be produced by natural powers "which the stars and elements received at the beginning." (Summa theologica, Part I Q73 A1 reply3)
So, using Carnap's formulation of logical positivism, the more of these consequences that can be verified empirically, the greater the probablity that the Christian God exists.  For example, #8 might be verified if physics could solve the relativity equations and discover that there was some sort of "big bang" or something by which space and time commenced.  The remainder will be left as an exercise to our Perceptive Reader. 

"every time a religious explanation for how the universe works bumps up against a scientific one, the scientific one prevails.  We're left with a 'god of the gaps,'... but those gaps continue to close." 

The atheist Terry Eagleton once commented that “believing that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.”  It simply misses the whole point.  But such a belief is to be expected if one sees science as omnicompetent and omnipresent.  Of course, religion is trying to explain the physical universe.  What else would they be trying to do?  What else is there to do?  But as Augustine of Hippo wrote (Contra Faustum manichaeum):
"In the Gospel we do not read that the Lord said: ‘I send you the Holy Spirit so that He might teach you all about the course of the sun and the moon.’  The Lord wanted to make Christians, not astronomers.  You learn at school all the useful things you need to know about nature.”  
This actually seems quite reasonable. These beliefs are common to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, which between them account for about two-thirds of all self-identified Christians.  Bill and Ted's Excellent Bible Shack is another matter. 

Now, the explanation for how the world works in the traditional churches (Latin and Greek) is that God created nature with the ability to act directly.
“But the natures with which [God] endowed His creatures accomplish a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created these very natures.”  (William of Conches)
Augustine expressed it thusly:
"It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth.  In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come." (On the literal meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11)

And Aquinas: [3] 
"Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship."  (Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268)

William of Conches expressed impatience with a theokinetic approach. 
"[They say] 'We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.' You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so." (Dragmatikon)
This was the mainstream doctrine of the Church during the Age of Faith.  The study of the nartural world was seen as a way of appreciating God, and was thus a worthy occupations for grown-ups.
"For even creation reveals Him who formed it, and the very work made suggests Him who made it, and the world manifests Him who ordered it. The Universal Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this tradition from the apostles."  
Irenaeus, Adversus haereses bk 2 ch 9
And it was further believed that these operations follow a "common course of nature," by which  causes entailed the same effects "always or for the most part".  That is, there are laws of nature.  In fact, Aquinas famously used the lawfulness of nature as the starting point for his "Fifth Proof" of God's existence.  That is, it is not supposed exceptions to natural law that signify God; but the natural laws themselves. In this doctrine, there are no "gaps" for a "god of the gaps."  There are only progressive discoveries of the laws with which God "disposed everything by measure, number, and weight." (Wis. 11:21) [4]  For that matter consider this paean to natural science, sung in the voice of Solomon:
For [God] gave me sound knowledge of what exists,
that I might know:
the structure of the universe -- and the force of its elements,
The beginning and the end -- and the midpoint of times,
the changes in the sun’s course -- and the variations of the seasons,
Cycles of years, -- positions of stars,
natures of living things, -- tempers of beasts,
Powers of the winds -- and thoughts of human beings,
uses of plants -- and virtues of roots...
Whatever is hidden or plain I learned,
for Wisdom, the artisan of all, taught me.
(Wis. 7: 17-22)

For reasons like these, natural science as we know it today originated in the Latin West and nowhere else.[5]  It is diffucult to see how modern science could be encroaching on this Christian notion of the lawfulness of nature or the idea that material bodies act from their own natures.  It would be encroaching on science itself if it did so, like the worm Ourobourus eating its own tail.

This is not to say that there are no sects that are hostile to or distrustful of "science."  Although we often find it more due to socio-political factions using science as a sort of sock puppet.  But, for example, "creation science" wants nothing more fervently than that their religious beliefs be elevated to the status of a Science™!  Hence, they confuse creation with evolution, look for "gaps" and divine fingerprints, and try fervently to produce scientific proofs of their beliefs, because they too buy into the scientism that holds science as the only valid way of knowing anything.
[1] Aristotelians distinguished three kinds of knowledge: physics, mathematics, and metaphysics.  a) Physics proceeds by induction from empirical facts to a theory that is true-to-fact.  b) Mathematics proceeds by deduction from first principles to a theorem that is true-to-the-axiom system.  c) Metaphysics proceeds by deduction from empirical facts to a conclusion about being as such.  Metaphysical demonstrations are therefore like mathematics in being deductive and like physics in starting from empirical experience. 

[2] cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, Part I. Q3. Art.4[3] Thomas also made a distinction between a form and its quantitative extension; thus, between (e.g.) heat and temperature.  This proved useful in the later development of science. 
[4] The most frequent Biblical verse quoted in the Middle Ages. 
[5] It might have done so in the Greek East, had Byzantium survived.  It almost did in The House of Submission. 


  1. An excellent entry.

    One quick question. Why is it always suggested that geocentrism gave way to "correct" heliocentrism? My understanding is that heliocentrism ended up being nullified by relativity.

    Admittedly, if this is in fact the case, I imagine it would muck up the popular (already incorrect) story to say, "Well, first there was geocentrism, this evil religious idea. Then science came along and replaced it with heliocentrism! Which turned out to be wrong too."

    1. My understanding is that heliocentrism ended up being nullified by relativity.

      Not really. General relativity makes it possible to make accurate predictions regarding time dilations, length contractions, etc. from the viewpoint that the earth is stationary. However, it does not support geocentrism at any deeper level.

      For example, masses create geodesics (orbital paths) by their interaction, and it would be very odd way of thinking about the earth-sun geodeisic to say it resulting in the sun circling the earth. There are also conservation of energy issues with geocentrism.

    2. You don't seem to have understood my question. Not a problem, these things are complicated for those who haven't read up on it.

      I didn't ask "didn't relativity prove geocentrism true"? I asked, "didn't relativity prove heliocentrism false?"

    3. Crude,

      I answered your question by pointing out that 1) under a surface interpretation of general relativity, any reference frame is equal, so heloicentrism and geocentrism would be equally valid; 2) looking deeper at what general relativity means in terms of geodesics, it makes no sense to say the sun orbits the earth, rather, the earth's geodesic wraps the sun; and 3) from other principles in physics, it makes no sense to say anything other than the earth orbits the sun.

      So, what do you think I failed to understand?

    4. So, what do you think I failed to understand?

      Simple: The fact that I was not asking if relativity showed geocentrism to be correct, but if it showed heliocentrism to be false. Hence off-base replies like these:

      "However, it does not support geocentrism at any deeper level."

      "There are also conservation of energy issues with geocentrism."

      As I said, these topics are easy for people who haven't read up on it to get confused on, so your mistake is no big deal. You simply focused on answering a question I didn't ask.

      Thanks regardless for the attempt.

    5. So, I gave you more information than required to answer the questions, therefore I did not understand it?

      Sorry. I'll be happy to keep my answer to the minimum with you from now on.

      didn't relativity prove heliocentrism false?

      No, it did not prove heliocentrism false.

    6. So, I gave you more information than required to answer the questions, therefore I did not understand it?

      When the bulk of information in your reply repeatedly makes reference to not supporting geocentrism and various problems with geocentrism, yes, it does show you didn't understand what I was asking.

      C'mon, OB. No need to be like this. Like I said, it was no big deal - you made a mistake. It happens.

      No, it did not prove heliocentrism false.

      Wonderful. Let's get some clarifications in here.

      First, are you saying that heliocentrism is true? Granted, you could be saying relativity did not show heliocentrism false, but something else did. So, I'm asking.

      If you're saying it's true, could you define heliocentrism?


    7. Heliocentrism would be that the earth (and more generally, the solar system) orbits the sun (technically, except for Jupiter). By "orbits", I mean that the center of motion for the binary is within one of the bodies.

      Heliocentrism is the very best explanation for the observed data, and is as true as anyting can be true in science. No other proposed system explains all the observations.

    8. Heliocentrism would be that the earth (and more generally, the solar system) orbits the sun (technically, except for Jupiter). By "orbits", I mean that the center of motion for the binary is within one of the bodies.

      Alright. Some more points of clarification.

      1) Clearly, the sun is not the center of the universe. I think we're agreed there. (Maybe it can be modeled as such pragmatically. More below.) So claims of the sun being the center of the universe are wrong.

      2) Sean Carroll got into this, and had this (well, among other things) to say.

      "Most importantly, in GR the concept of a global reference frame and the more restrictive concept of an inertial frame simply do not exist. You cannot take your locally-defined axes and stretch them uniquely throughout space, there’s just no way to do it. (In particular, if you tried, you would find that the coordinates defined by traveling along two different paths gave you two different values for the same point in space.) Instead, all we have are coordinate systems of various types. Even in Newtonian absolute space (or for that matter in special relativity, which in this matter is just the same as Newtonian mechanics) we always have the freedom to choose elaborate coordinate systems, but in GR that’s all we have. And if we can choose all sorts of different coordinates, there is nothing to stop us from choosing one with the Earth at the center and the Sun moving around in circles (or ellipses) around it. It would be kind of perverse, but it is no less “natural” than anything else, since there is no notion of a globally inertial coordinate system that is somehow more natural. That is the sense in which, in GR, it is equally true to say that the Sun moves around the Earth as vice-versa."

      Any response to Carroll's post?

      I want to note: Carroll gives the example of 'sure, in GR you can use a geocentric model if you like'. Again, that's not my concern here. Pick any planet or point in space, and you can presumably make the model you wish to. Now, the point I'm taking away from Carroll (and others) is that given GR, we can put together a variety of models, each with different 'centers'. They all 'work', and as far as truth goes, they're all equivalent - some just may be more complicated and annoying to use than others. In which case, a heliocentrist claim that adds up to 'the correct frame of reference is the one where the earth revolves around the sun' would be, given relativity concerns, be false.

      I could be spectacularly wrong here, of course. Hence my asking all this.

    9. 1) We knew the sun was not the center of the universe well before Einstien's GR, if I recall correctly.

      2) GR sets up a model of the universe. However, like any other model of the universe, it is an incomplete description. In GR, on a surface level, heliocentrism is no more valid than any other model (geocentrism being one example of another model). However, it is no less valid. Reference frame A being no more valid than any other frame, when every reference frame is equally valid, is not a proof that A is false.

      I could have been wrong about the geodesics, it's been a while. However, as I recall, if you use a Sun-centered frame and cacluate the geodesic of the earth based on their relative masses and only inertial forces, you get no mysterious graviational forces not derived from mass needed to explain the motion of the earth. However, if you use a stationary earth, you wind up with some gravitational force, not connected to any mass, whipping the sun around the earth. Without it, the sun does not orbit the earth in your calculations. So, on a deeper level, I think even in GR you can tell the difference.

      Finally, because GR is not a complete model, we can use other concepts from physics to discuss this situation. In particular, if the Sun were orbiting a stationary earth (or any other similarly accelerated model), that would require something to be constantly pushing the sun. That means an influx of energy into the earth-sun system, breaking the principle of the Conservations of Mass-Energy.

      Now, I've used geocentrism as a well-known alternative to heliocentrism, but my remarks are meant more broadly. You can use any coordinate system in GR, but if you choose any accelerated coordinate system, you see the same issues.

    10. 1) We knew the sun was not the center of the universe well before Einstien's GR, if I recall correctly.

      I believe that's the case. So, if heliocentrism were connected to the claim that the sun was the center of the universe, then apparently heliocentrism was shown false. (Or as false as something can be where science is concerned.)

      In GR, on a surface level, heliocentrism is no more valid than any other model (geocentrism being one example of another model). However, it is no less valid. Reference frame A being no more valid than any other frame, when every reference frame is equally valid, is not a proof that A is false.

      If the assertion is that there is a preferred reference frame, and then along comes a better supported theory that there is not preferred reference frame, it would seem that yes, the starting assertion would be false insofar as the state of scientific knowledge goes.

      There's another problem. My understanding is that even on popular heliocentric models, the sun is not fixed and immobile. It too is revolving around a point - the sun's center is closer to that point than (say) the earth's center. But if heliocentrism took the sun to be fixed and immobile, the science we have would indicate that's incorrect again. Correct?

    11. Crude,

      For every planet except Jupiter, the point that the sun would otherwise be revovling around is acutally inside the sun. So, you could possibly say that the Sun is not the center of the Sun-Jupiter binary system, but merely very close to it. For any other planets, they do revolve around the sun.

      I agree that there are different defintions of heliocentrism that have been used over the centuries, and many definiitons are not compatible with modern physics (hence, as false as we can claim for something in science). However, other defintions are quite compatible. So, it would be wrong to say the general notion of heliocentrism, without qualifies, has been demonstrated false.

  2. There are two views of "laws of nature" that co-exist in some tension.

    First says, all we have are apparent regularities. We can not speak of 'laws' since we do not know why these regularities exist.
    This view is held by many physicists of older philosophic variety and also by Chesterton (Ethics of Elfland).

    2) There are true laws of nature and we can know them.
    This view seems to be held by most physicists today and also by medieval Schoolmen (?).

    1. I suspect the first may be influenced by Hume.

    2. Gyan, it's interesting you mention Chesterton's Ethics in Elfland. I don't think he would say that we cannot genuinely know anything about the laws of nature, or that we do not know why they exist just by virtue of them being repetitions. He was more concerned with the tendency of modern scientists to believe that they'd explained a given natural phenomenon (really explained it, in terms of its metaphysical nature) merely by an inductive experiment or observation. He would say they've only "described" it, rather than given any true insight into why it is the way it is. Basically, you have scientists treating contingent events as logically necessary; i.e. they couldn't have been any other way. Hence his example of rivers running with wine or whatever rather than water (it's been a while since I've read it, admittedly).

      Chesterton of course had a deep respect for Thomistic philosophy (I believe he refers to it as the "Everlasting Philosophy" somewhere), so I'd suspect he'd tend to fall in line with Aquinas (granted, he may very well have been mistaken, or misunderstood Aquinas' position on the matter). For this reason, I'd be careful in ascribing to him the first view you outline.

      Our host can correct me if I'm wrong on this.

    3. Scientific laws are indeed "descriptions" more so than "explanations." A full explanation would require grasping not only metrical efficient causes and (somewhat) material causes, but also other efficient causes, plus formal and final causes. Modern science explicitly denies the last two while simultaneously relying upon them. But a full understanding requires grasping all four causal categories.

      (An efficient cause A cannot "always or for the most part" entail the result B unless there is something in A that "points toward" B. That is, B is the final cause of A; and without final causes, efficient causes are dancing in the air. As an example of "pointing toward" consider "toward aptitude" (ad apt). Adaptation is the final cause of natural selection. As for formal causes, they have been resurrected in inchoate invocations of something called "emergent properties" and of "wholistic thinking.")

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. A full explanation would require grasping not only metrical efficient causes and (somewhat) material causes, but also other efficient causes, plus formal and final causes. Modern science explicitly denies the last two while simultaneously relying upon them.

      I agree that modern science rejects any telic components to formal causes. I disagree that it rejects every aspect of formal causes. However, I've seen formal causes described in a couple of different ways. How do you describe what a formal cause is, so that science refuses to study them at all?

  3. I wondered when you'd weigh in on this, Michael. I'm still debating whether or not I should write that Alternate View about it, but at least if I do, I now have your blog post to reference. It has long seemed to me that atheists insist on seeing the world in shades of gray. Show them a daffodil or a violet or an orange and your insistence on them being colorful is just more evidence of your intellectual incompetence.

    1. That was a deliberate methodological choice of the Scientists. When they decided only length, position, weight, and the like were objectively real and sound, color, texture, etc. were "subjective" and therefore unreal, it meant that if a tree fell in the forest and no one was there to hear it, it really did not make a sound. The Aristotelians recognized the distinction as between the common sensibles and proper sensibles -- which led the Thomists to suppose that the observer influenced what was observed -- but they did not suppose the proper sensibles were therefore unreal. The apple really was red.

    2. "-- which led the Thomists to suppose that the observer influenced what was observed --"

      Wait! That sounds familiar, though I can't quite place it. ;)

  4. Falling in unrequited love does absolutely nothing for your reproductive chances (except maybe making them worse, if you stick with the cruel one who holds your heart in fee, and thus are not reproducing with anybody), and yet unrequited love is probably the most common kind.

  5. I enjoyed reading this post. It is well-written, and contain a great many things I agree with.

    Ptolemaic astronomers had never claimed physical reality for their epicycles.

    An epicycle is a physical claim. This is like saying no biological reality has been claimed for the germ theory of disease.

    Then one day the door to the room is opened and she steps outside and sees a bright red rose. Does she learn something new? Of course. She learns what it’s like to see red. But then the essence of redness is not exhausted by wavelengths and retinas and optic centers in the brain. There is more to redness than its metrical properties and efficient causes. Mary knew all the physical facts about human perceptual experience before she left the room but, since she learned something when she left the room, she didn’t know all the facts.

    I agree Mary experiences something new. I disagree this is an argument against physical closure; it's an argument against factual closure. The something new that Mary experiences is still entirely in the realm of physics, as sections of her brain are used in new ways that she has not experienced. Assuming you think there are such things as non-physical thoughts, are there any non-physical thought Mary can have after seeing the rose that she could nothave before? It can't merely be the memory of red, as non-human animals are capable of that.

    Any extant species has been by definition reproductively successful.

    However, that is no guarantee of being reproductively successful in their current state, and certainly no indication that any particular feature is an indicator of sucessfulness. Of course, I agree for the need to be wary of just-so stories.

    The existence of God is a proposition in metaphysics, not in the physics.

    This means the existence of God can never be proven to be a reality. Metaphysics is a formal system, where conclusions can never be stronger than tehir premises. You can't prove the existence of God in metaphysics without making assumptions that equate to God at the beginning.

    1. "This means the existence of God can never be proven to be a reality." True, if metrically verifiable reality completely comprehends "reality." But, is that the case, really?

    2. thefederalist,

      I don't recall using "metrically verifiable" or any similar concept in that paragraph, nor making any limitations to reality on that basis. I was just pointing out that you can't prove something in metaphysics without making assumptions that are at least as strong as what you intend to prove. Noting the limitations of one sort of proof is not a limitation of the possibilites of reality.

    3. 1. OneBrow: you have posted comments so frequently in such a short time span that my email spam filter now dumps you in the spam bucket. Depending on how often I check the spam bucket, I may not get timely notice of your comments.

      2. One of the most difficult things for a Modern to comprehend is that until the telescopic revolution, astronomy was a branch of mathematics, not of physics. Epicycles, descants, deferants, and the like were mathematical gimmicks to make the calculations match the observations. The phrase was "save the appearances." That's why the job title for an official astronomer was "Mathematicus." It is also why the physicists were so hostile to Galileo: he was a mere mathematicus making physical claims. (For a modern taste: consider the reaction of "climate scientists" when a mere physicist like Freeman Dyson makes claims in "climate science.")

      3. It is not that thought is immaterial, but that knowledge of what it is like to see red cannot be obtained from knowledge of the physics of light or the neurobiology of perception. That is, physical facts do not comprise all the facts. That a thought (whatever that is) causes a reaction in the brain is irrelevant. Since every act of the intellect will produce an act of the imagination, we would expect the use of some section of the brain. (Although neuroscience tells us that this "section" is ill-defined and variable.) But to say that the thought "is" the neural activity is like saying Shakespeare's plays "are" iambic pentameter. Truth, but not the whole truth.

      The Knowledge Argument is compelling enough against Physical Closure that physicalists prefer to argue that the qualia do not exist rather than that they are physical. The latter leads to logical contradictions. See Howard Robinson, "Why Frank Should Not Have Jilted Mary" in The Case for Qualia, Edmond Leo Wright (ed.) (MIT Press, 2008)

      4. That "God can never be proven to be a reality" is simply a restatement of the dogma that only physical reality is reality. Like the man who allows himself only a metal detector denying the existence of wood, this can be understood as a limitation of the methodology. You can't prove the reality of electrons, either. Only mathematics proves things with absolute certainty, within a given system of axioms. Natural science is always falsifiable.

      It would be interesting to speculate on which assumptions "equate to God" at the beginning of the argument from motion. The first assumption is that there is change in the physical world. Methodological assumptions deal with the division between potency and act and other such metaphysical stuff. However, this response is already way too long.

  6. TheOFloinn,

    If you want me to slow down, I will. I like this blog's less-trafficked status simply because I don't have time to keep up with some others, I would not want to disturb that.

    If pre-Moderns did not have as sophisticated notion of functions as the Moderns, there may have been some confusion between mathematical models and physical claims. However, whether they intended it to be so or not, an epicycle is a physical claim. You can make retrograde predictions without claiming they are the result of epicycles.

    I agree that knowledge of what it is to see red can not understood by studying the physics and biology. I disagree that this means there needs to exist non-physical facts. Rather, the knowledge of seeing red can be (and as far as I can tell, is) a physical experience. I read the link already (I may even check out the book); the part I read in the Google preview seemed a little loose with equivalences. As a result, it's conclusion was not supported. Perhaps the missing section filled in the gaps.

    I agree that "proven" is a poor choice of words. Better would be "there can never be convincing evidence for God". Thank you for the correction.

    As traditionally presented, the argument from motion rarely lists all the assumptions at the beginning. Assumptions such as "motion must be externally activated from potential" and "motion can not be in an infinite chain" get worked into the argument, often by declaring them to be obvious (the very notion of being an assumption). By then end of the argument, there are a fairly good-sized number of assumptions (each distinct argument having its distinct subset).

    Even more to the point, the very nature of deductive argumentation requires that the premises can not be smaller in scope than the conclusion. If you disagree, try to come up with a counter-example.

  7. Metaphysics is a formal system, where conclusions can never be stronger than tehir premises.


    I agree that "proven" is a poor choice of words. Better would be "there can never be convincing evidence for God". Thank you for the correction.

    So, likewise, there can never be convincing evidence for (naturalism, or physicalism, or atheism) as well by your lights. Correct?

    1. "The correctness of naturalism is a proposition in metaphysics, not in the physics" would indeed imply there can never be convincing evidence for naturalism.

      Formal systems can be used to construct useful models; a useful model is not evidence. Thus, a metaphysical proof for the existence/nonexistence of God could be a useful model for examining the universe, but it would not be evidence.

    2. would indeed imply there can never be convincing evidence for naturalism.

      Or materialism, or idealism, or atheism. Correct? I know, you pretty much answered this just now, but I'm trying to get more clarity.

    3. Yes. If the case for any idea rests in metaphysics, or any other formal system, then there can be no evidence for that idea.

      If the case for materialism rests in metaphysics, there can be no evidence for materialism.

      If the case for idealism rests in metaphysics, there can be no evidence for idealism.

      If the case for atheism rests in metaphysics, there can be no evidence for atheism.

      The hypothesis is important to all these statements, so it does make me wonder why you keep dropping it.

    4. Unanswered as yet is what constitutes "evidence." There is for example no non-circular evidence for the existence of "evidence." That is, to point to evidence requires a prior metaphysical commitment to an external reality.

    5. Well evidence is any observation that supports a hypothesis, so the same observation can support any number of hypotheses, even mutually contradictory ones. I see evidence of God all around, but an atheist looks at it differently. "Proof" is too often used synonymously with "evidence" and should not be in a serious debate. The whole point of science is to find or produce evidence that supports one hypothesis as opposed to another.

    6. Duhem writes of an experiment testing a hypothesis involving pressure, the results of which confirm the hypothesis AND reject the hypothesis, depending on whether one accepts the Laplacian concept of pressure or the Lagrangian concept of pressure. I forget which led to rejection and which to acceptance of the hypothesis. But it kinda shoots down Heinlein's old dictum about how facts are "self-demonstrating." Facts in themselves have no meaning, save in relation to some theory or hypothesis.

    7. Use of the word 'proof', and the claim of having 'proved' something, are frequently derided by persons who do not understand what 'to prove' means.

  8. TheOFloinn,

    I would disagree that something as strong as commitment is required, but would certainly agree that a provisional acceptance of a number of points, including the existence of an external reality, is required.

    I agree that empirical observations, divorced from and sort of formal framework, say very little. That would be a counterweight to my position that formal frameworks, removed from a connection to evidence, have no indication of being useful. I would say that any good defense of an idea requires some combination of base beliefs, evidence, and formal reasoning, even though they don't naturally mix together. I occasionally pull out the metaphor of oil, vinegar, and parsley making a salad dressing.

  9. First and most trivially, Jerry writes that two millennia ago, "Science was mostly 'argument from first principles.' People ... assumed that anything they could prove logically based on a true premise must also be true."

    1) In contrast, 'modern science' has no principles.

    2) I can't help but wonder, does you your friend wish to *deny* "that anything [one can] prove logically based on a true premise must also be true"?

  10. Oh, please! The reality of God can be proven, and proven beyond reasonable question or doubt. I've done it, and I'm no one special.

    The "problem" isn't that there is no good proof that God is -- or, looking at it from the other direction, that the denial of the reality of God is show to be false -- but that these pretend-atheists will not acknowledge that God is. They always have an unstated premise-and-coda in their (ahem) arguments -- "Unless you can *force* me to admit that your pro-God argument is correct, than it is false!"

    1. Ilion,

      As I discussed in a blog post, your proof is simply not sound. Your reasoning is correct, you are smart enough to see that, and I don't think you are lying; nonetheless several of your assumptions are unevidenced and highly questionable.

    2. "Your reasoning is correct, you are smart enough to see that, and I don't think you are lying; ..."

      Coming from you, three not insignificant admissions.

      "... nonetheless several of your assumptions are unevidenced and highly questionable."

      Now we need to work on you admitting that you cannot identify even one premise, much less 'several', that is "unevidenced and highly questionable".

    3. There is *one* dodgy assumption in the argument -- but Onebrow cannot bring himself to identify it -- and that is the assumption that "God is not". But then, the whole point of the exercize is to demonstrate that "God is not" is not, and cannot be, true.

    4. Since "God is not" is not one of the assumptions at the end of the argument, it could not be one of the the assumptions that I referred to as unevidenced. I did point out one such assumption directly, and another via a link.

    5. Onebrow: "... I did point out one such assumption directly, and another via a link."

      Oh! You mean in your gobble-de-gook "disproof" of the argument. But, I speak English, and I wrote the proof in English, for the edification of persons who speak English.

      Apparently, you still can't actually tell these good people, much less me, in plain English, which assumption is "unevidenced". I should take seriously your assertion that the argument is false, why?

      And, for that matter, when you folk start using the word 'evidence', it generally means that you intend to smuggle in a materialistic assumption -- which is to say, if the subject matter is an argument against atheism, you hope to secretly introduce a contradiction into a(n alleged) re-statement of the argument, getting its defenders to fool themselves (generally out of the charitable impulse) into accepting that the contradiction was always there. I should take seriously your assertion that the argument is false, why?

      Onebrow: "Since "God is not" is not one of the assumptions at the end of the argument, it could not be one of the the assumptions that I referred to as unevidenced. ..."

      You appear to be a bit unclear on the concepts 'assumption' and 'conclusion'. I should take seriously your assertion that the argument is false, why?

    6. Ilion,

      A quote from the post to which I linked, describing an objection I raised in plain English.

      If a change is based in part on concepts and/or logical relationships (CLR, for short), does that imply it is not based solely on material causes? I disagree. I would say that changes based on CLR are actually based solely on material causes.

      My position is that CLR are patterned-yet-material reactions in the brain to material stimuli. We react with the same pattern of brain reactions to similar stimuli, and name these reactions the process of reasoning. Different people will likely store different physical patterns, but they will create the same behavior when reasoning.

      I have no expectation of you taking anything I say seriously, based upon previous interactions.

      Axioms for proofs need to be founded on evidence (reasons to think they are true). A proof with unevidenced axioms is like abstract art.

      I am quite clear on what aumptions are, and on how using a reducito ad absurdum argument removes the assumption being disproven from the list of assumptions.

  11. I realize I'm late to the party here, but I would think the question "Are there things science cannot explain?" would have at least one obvious answer in the affirmative. Namely, "is the answer to the question 'are there things science cannot explain?' no?" I have not seen one, but would be very interested in a scientific experiment to demonstrate that science can demonstrate everything.

  12. Hi, just a nitpick: I believe that the st. Augustine quote
    "In the Gospel we do not read that the Lord said: ‘I send you the Holy Spirit so that He might teach you all about the course of the sun and the moon.’ The Lord wanted to make Christians, not astronomers. You learn at school all the useful things you need to know about nature.” "
    is not from "Contra Faustum manichaeum" but from Contra Felicem Manichaeum, 1, 10


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