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The Logical Leap: Induction In Physics 630

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
FrederickSeiler writes "When David Harriman, this book's author, was studying physics at Berkeley, he noticed an interesting contrast: 'In my physics lab course, I learned how to determine the atomic structure of crystals by means of x-ray diffraction and how to identify subatomic particles by analyzing bubble-chamber photographs. In my philosophy of science course, on the other hand, I was taught by a world-renowned professor (Paul Feyerabend) that there is no such thing as scientific method and that physicists have no better claim to knowledge than voodoo priests. I knew little about epistemology [the philosophy of knowledge] at the time, but I could not help noticing that it was the physicists, not the voodoo priests, who had made possible the life-promoting technology we enjoy today.' Harriman noticed the enormous gulf between science as it is successfully practiced and science as is it described by post-Kantian philosophers such as Feyerabend, who are totally unable to explain the spectacular achievements of modern science." Read on for the rest of Frederick's review.
The Logical Leap: Induction In Physics
author David Harriman
pages 272
publisher NAL Trade
rating 9/10
reviewer Frederick Seiler
ISBN 0451230051
summary Explains how scientists discover the laws of nature
Logical Leap: Induction in Physics attempts to bridge this gap between philosophy and science by providing a philosophical explanation of how scientists actually discover things. A physicist and physics teacher by trade, he worked with philosopher Leonard Peikoff to understand the process of induction in physics, and this book is a result of their collaboration.

Induction is one of the two types of logical argument; the other type is deduction. First described by Aristotle, deduction covers arguments like the following: (1) All men are mortal. (2) Socrates is a man. (3) Therefore, Socrates is mortal. Deductive arguments start with generalizations ("All men are mortal.") and apply them to specific instances ("Socrates"). Deductive logic is well understood, but it relies on the truth of the generalizations in order to yield true conclusions.

So how do we make the correct generalizations? This is the subject of the other branch of logic induction and it is obviously much more difficult than deduction. How can we ever be justified in reasoning from a limited number of observations to a sweeping statement that refers to an unlimited number of objects? In answering this question Harriman presents an original theory of induction, and he shows how it is supported by key developments in the history of physics.

The first chapter presents the philosophical foundations of the theory, which builds directly on the theory of concepts developed by Ayn Rand. Unfortunately for the general reader, Harriman assumes familiarity with Rand's theory of knowledge, including her views of concepts as open-ended, knowledge as hierarchical, certainty as contextual, perceptions as self-evident, and arbitrary ideas as invalid. Those unfamiliar with these ideas may find this section to be confusing. But the good news is that those readers can then proceed to the following chapters, which flesh out the theory and show how it applies to key developments in the history of physics (and the related fields of astronomy and chemistry). These chapters do a wonderful job at bringing together the physics and the philosophy, clarifying both in the process.

Harriman argues that as concepts form a hierarchy, generalizations form a hierarchy as well; more abstract generalizations rest on simpler, more direct ones, relying ultimately on a rock-solid base of "first-level" generalizations which are directly, perceptually obvious, such as the toddler's grasp of the fact that "pushed balls roll." First-level generalizations are formed from our direct experiences, in which the open-ended nature of concepts leads to generalizations. Higher-level generalizations are formed based on lower-level ones, using Mill's Methods of Agreement and Difference to identify causal connections, while taking into account the entirety of one's context of knowledge.

Ayn Rand held that because of the hierarchical nature of our knowledge, it is possible to take any valid idea (no matter how advanced), and identify its hierarchical roots, i.e. the more primitive, lower-level ideas on which it rests, tracing these ideas all the way back to directly observable phenomena. Rand used the word "reduction" to refer to this process. In a particularly interesting discussion, Harriman shows how the process of reduction can be applied to the idea that "light travels in straight lines," identifying such earlier ideas as the concept "shadow" and finally the first-level generalization "walls resist hammering hands."

Harriman's discussion of the experimental method starts with a description of Galileo's experiments with pendulums. Galileo initially noticed that the period of a pendulum's swing seems to be the same for different swing amplitudes, so he decided to accurately measure this time period to see if it is really true. Concluding that the period is indeed constant, he then did further experiments. He selectively varied the weight and material of the pendulum's bob, and the length of the pendulum. This led him to the discovery that a pendulum's length is proportional to the square of its period. Harriman notes the experiments that Galileo did not perform: 'He saw no need to vary every known property of the pendulum and look for a possible effect on the period. For example, he did not systematically vary the color, temperature, or smell of the pendulum bob; he did not investigate whether it made a difference if the pendulum arm is made of cotton twine or silk thread. Based on everyday observation, he had a vast pre-scientific context of knowledge that was sufficient to eliminate such factors as irrelevant. To call such knowledge "pre-scientific" is not to cast doubt on its objectivity; such lower-level generalizations are acquired by the implicit use of the same methods that the scientist uses deliberately and systematically, and they are equally valid.' One powerful tool for avoiding nonproductive speculations in science is Ayn Rand's concept of the arbitrary, and Harriman brilliantly clarifies this idea in the section on Newton's optical experiments. An arbitrary idea is one for which there is no evidence; it is an idea put forth based solely on whim or faith. Rand held that an arbitrary idea cannot be valid even as a possibility; in order to say "it is possible," one needs to have evidence (which can consist of either direct observations or reasoning based on observations).

Newton began his research on colors with a wide range of observations, which led him to his famous and brilliant experiments with prisms. Harriman presents the chain of reasoning and experimentation which led Newton to conclude that white light consists of a mixture of all of the colors, which are separated by refraction.

Isaac Newton said that he "framed no hypotheses," and here he was referring to his rejection of the arbitrary. When Descartes claimed without any evidence that light consists of rotating particles with the speed of rotation determining the color; and when Robert Hooke claimed without any evidence that white light consists of a symmetrical wave pulse, which results in colors when the wave becomes distorted; these ideas were totally arbitrary, and they deserved to be thrown out without further consideration: "Newton understood that to accept an arbitrary idea even as a mere possibility that merits consideration undercuts all of one's knowledge. It is impossible to establish any truth if one regards as valid the procedure of manufacturing contrary 'possibilities' out of thin air." This rejection of the arbitrary may be expressed in a positive form: Scientists should be focused on reality, and only on reality.

After discussing the rise of experimentation in physics, Harriman turns to the Copernican revolution, the astronomical discoveries of Galileo and Kepler, and the grand synthesis of Newton's laws of motion and of universal gravitation. But this reviewer found the most historically interesting chapter to be the one about the atomic theory of matter; this chapter is a cautionary tale about the lack of objective standards for evaluating theories. This story then leads to Harriman proposing a set of specific criteria of proof for scientific theories.

The final, concluding chapter addresses several broader issues, including why mathematics is fundamental to the science of physics, how the science of philosophy is different than physics, and finally, how modern physics has gone down the wrong path due to the lack of a proper theory of induction.

So, with the publication of Logical Leap, has the age-old "problem of induction" now been solved? On this issue, the reader must judge for himself. What is clear to this reviewer is that Harriman has presented an insightful, thought-provoking and powerful new theory about how scientists discover the laws of nature.

You can purchase The Logical Leap: Induction In Physics from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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The Logical Leap: Induction In Physics

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  • Oh my (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:31PM (#34826710)

    Objectivist Epistemology.. professional philosophers.. hands beating on walls..

    It's all very moist! But I guess some people really get into reading this type of book. Not for me... I'm happy with saying "nothing can be 100% proven" and calling 2+2 a theory.

  • Philosophy... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Algorithmnast (1105517) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:32PM (#34826736)

    While the greek word philosophia literally means "friend of wisdom", the common-day philosopher tends to stare at their naval and wonder if they even exist more than they use anything which might resemble wisdom.

    Meanwhile, the engineer is creating ways to save lives, feed millions, and travel to Mars.

    I - personally - find it frustrating that we listen to the naval-staring philosopher, and forget what wisdom is in the same moment.

  • oy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworld@nOSpaM.gmail.com> on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:35PM (#34826770) Homepage
    The first chapter presents the philosophical foundations of the theory, which builds directly on the theory of concepts developed by Ayn Rand. Unfortunately for the general reader, Harriman assumes familiarity with Rand's theory of knowledge, including her views of concepts as open-ended, knowledge as hierarchical, certainty as contextual, perceptions as self-evident, and arbitrary ideas as invalid. Those unfamiliar with these ideas may find this section to be confusing.

    "Ayn Rand" and "philosophical foundations" should not be in the same sentence. If you like something Ayn Rand says, then I guarantee you can find another philosopher said it only in a far more intellectually rigorous manner.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:35PM (#34826778)

    which builds directly on the theory of concepts developed by Ayn Rand.

    Stopped reading right there.

  • Rand (Score:4, Insightful)

    by blair1q (305137) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:40PM (#34826824) Journal

    If Rand was so good at evaluating theories for arbitrariness and fitness, then how could she ever have promoted something as unrealistic as leaving the fate of humanity to laissez-faire capitalism? Had she never met humans before?

  • Re:oy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:48PM (#34826956)

    Ya I've never got all the Randroids out there. I'd never heard of Ayn Rand as a kid. Maybe in passing but never paid any attention, never read any of her work or anything. I was always interested in philosophy though and read a fair bit myself. In university, I took quite a few philosophy courses, and got taught on all the major philosophers and so on. Then, having heard some people going on about Ayn Rand I decided to investigate a bit. I read some of her philosophy and said "How is this news? It is all shit I've heard before, but better, with less logical problems, and less crazy."

    As far as I can tell people who get obsessed with Rand as a genius are just people who have never read Karl Popper.

  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Homburg (213427) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:48PM (#34826960) Homepage

    I'd say he's a bit of a silly goose who needs to study the things he is dismantling before making claims against them.

    So, tell me, how much of Feyerabend's philosphy of science have you studied?

  • by mapkinase (958129) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:49PM (#34826994) Homepage Journal

    If only statements like this were problems of only philosophers. The real problem is that scientists are losing the sense of rigor in method as well.

    The only litmus test for scientific method left nowadays is if you pass the review of your peers, that is couple of your colleagues from the same grant hunting boat.

  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:50PM (#34827014)

    Just because you or others here don't care about certain questions that some philosophers deal with doesn't mean they are not important. It's sad to witness how putting down philosophy has become the norm.

  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:54PM (#34827104) Journal

    Just because some scientists tend to bleat crude things about philosophy hardly means that it's some sort of an intellectual backwater. The truth is that a lot of scientists know next to nothing about philosophy of science, and thus denigrate that which they do not understand.

  • Re:oy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rutter (1430885) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:56PM (#34827134)
    I'm a Philosophy student and I think I can speak with a certain degree of authority when I say that Ayn Rand isn't someone you seriously cite in academic philosophy. She just isn't credible - and I'm not talking in terms of political disagreement - her arguments on topics of philosophical import just aren't very good. I wasn't too happy with everything that was written before for Rand, such as your rather shallow evaluation of Feyerabend and your flippant remarks about epistemology which clearly demonstrate you have no idea what your are talking about, but second I hit "Ayn Rand" I just stopped reading.
  • Re:Rand (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blair1q (305137) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:04PM (#34827248) Journal

    But I guess my central point is that objectivism (which includes the laissez-faire botch) is at odds with her other big meme, enlightened self-interest, which requires doing good unto others and expecting it to benefit you.

    Laissez-faire is a license to defraud. Human lives are finite, and the ability of a laissez-faire system to return one's evils back to oneself in time for them to overwhelm one's ill-gotten wealth is, evidently, minimal. If the system had a shorter feedback loop, or we lived long enough to be brought low by the results from this system, then laissez-faire would result in a competitive balance (albeit a tense one).

    Given the subject of this book, and how Rand is the basis for much of it, you'd think she'd have understood that believing in laissez-faire was, if not arbitrary, then certainly not supported by the evidence. It's certainly true that all the evidence today points to the fact that loosening the brakes on wealth-accumulation is resulting in more pain for the human race overall and less for those who already got theirs. She even had a word for the sort of selfishness that dominates laissez-faire: "unenlightened self-interst". Blows my mind that she cocked it up that bad and promoted objectivism instead of pointing flashing neon arrows at it and saying "DON'T DO THIS".

    Time to put the "enlightened self-interest" politics to work, and make sure people can distinguish them from the "unenlightened self-interest" practices that politics has been swinging towards for the past 30 years.

  • Re:oy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:08PM (#34827318)

    I'm a Philosophy student and I think I can speak with a certain degree of authority when I say that Ayn Rand isn't someone you seriously cite in academic philosophy. She just isn't credible - and I'm not talking in terms of political disagreement - her arguments on topics of philosophical import just aren't very good. I wasn't too happy with everything that was written before for Rand, such as your rather shallow evaluation of Feyerabend and your flippant remarks about epistemology which clearly demonstrate you have no idea what your are talking about, but second I hit "Ayn Rand" I just stopped reading.

    From Paul Krugman:

    There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:08PM (#34827320)

    Except everything you have just said is false.

    First of all, despite the popular view of religion you espouse, most religions and religious individuals are open to challenges to their faith. Admittedly this is a matter of degree, but to suggest that religions react to every challenge with "blasphemy!" and "you heathen!" is a gross mischaracterization.

    Second, finding a major flaw in science is not accepted as a "breakthrough" often; new ideas that challenge old orders are met with considerable skepticism to say the least. If the new idea is actually more accurate, it may eventually win out, but scientists do not quickly accepts new ideas and theories (see Kuhn's Structures of Scientific Revolutions). Often, despite the data, scientists "deny" and "rebel against" ideas that challenge their world views.

    Finally, science is not an "open" process where "anybody and everybody" is allowed to contribute. Most science as practiced today requires expensive equipment unavailable to those outside of the specific field being studied, and a considerable post-secondary science education is needed just to be able to understand the articles published in the majority of scientific journals today. On top of that, as "free" as I might be to recreate somebody's professional experiment, my results will never be taken seriously or published in a scientific journal unless I have particular credentials which are both difficult and often expensive to earn.

    None of this is meant as a dig on science; there are some important things that separate science and religion. But these reasons you are citing are completely false.

  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dcollins (135727) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:10PM (#34827340) Homepage

    Plus nukes, killer drones, and global warming.

    Consider the members of the Manhattan Project who felt so bad about it afterward. Perhaps they could have used a bit more philosophy on the front end and not merely engineering-uber-alles?

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:10PM (#34827342) Homepage Journal

    the common-day philosopher tends to stare at their naval

    # watching all the ships come in, and then watching them go out again... /#

  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hognoxious (631665) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:14PM (#34827400) Homepage Journal

    So, tell me, how much of Feyerabend's philosphy of science have you studied?

    None. But if he comes out with woo-woo shit like equating science to voodoo, that's already too much.

  • by overshoot (39700) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:15PM (#34827402)
    Scientific epistemology doesn't, at root, deal with "certainty." It doesn't deal with capital-T "Truth" either.

    It does deal with "how confident are we that ______ can be used as a reliable model of reality?" On which point we have Bayes' Theorem and various less-than-precise fuzzy analogues such as the rubric we call "the scientific method."

    So for those philosophers who worry about some sort of Ultimate Certainty Regarding Truth, I sometimes play the game but am not, in the end, worrying about whether it is Really True that my hands are typing on black keys with white lettering right now -- which is about the level you have to go to before "witch doctor truth" gets competitive with "quantum physics truth" for my attention.

  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by hubie (108345) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:24PM (#34827554)
    I think one could also say that most philosophers do not have a working knowledge of the science from the last 100 years. I don't think it is an accident that a great deal of the most famous philosophers came from the mechanistic era before relativity and quantum mechanics.
  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Somewhat Delirious (938752) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:46PM (#34827870)

    Yeah. I hear ya.

    In my philosophy of science course, on the other hand, I was taught by a world-renowned professor (Paul Feyerabend) that there is no such thing as scientific method and that physicists have no better claim to knowledge than voodoo priests

    I'd say he's a bit of a silly goose who needs to study the things he is dismantling before making claims against them.

    Actually unlike most philosophers of science Feyerabend did very extensive historical studies showing that the nicely streamlined philosophical schemes of how the scientific process was supposed to work did not actually occur in reality and that the rules of "scientific method" were broken at every turn even for those scientific discoveries that are always held up as the shining examples of the scientific method at work. What he showed was that if scientists had adhered to this philosophical fiction (pleonasm) of a scientific method many of the great discoveries and revolutions in science would not have taken place. The two deepest conclusions from Feyerabends work are:

    1. That you can't let philosophers legislate for science because they will end up destroying it.
    and

    2. That science, since it has no real epistemological foundation is no more justified in claiming to be discovering objective truth than, say, a voodoo priest and that therefore the authority of science should only be accepted in as far as it improves our quality of life.

    Feyerabend was in fact a pretty subtle philosopher but because of a combination of irreverence towards the great names and myths of science (mainly Popper and The Scientific Method), a polemic style of writing, a deeply humanistic view of the world and it's affairs and the fact that he was attacking the philosopher's misguided dreams of an epistemological foundation of science he has been consistently misread by whole generations of scientists and philosophers. In my book he is one of the great philosophers of the 20th century and one of the great humanist thinkers in the history of philosophy. Coincidentally almost everyone I have read on Feyerabend seems to completely miss the point that he was in essence a humanist thinker who's main aim was protecting humans against totalitarian, authoritarian and absolutist claims of science and scientific progress.

    So, with the publication of Logical Leap, has the age-old "problem of induction" now been solved?

    Nope

  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by AffidavitDonda (1736752) on Monday January 10, 2011 @04:18PM (#34828320)
    That's just envy. If you work in a field that in centuries didn't come up with anything better than "I think therefore I am" (somehow obvious, isn't it?) then to beef about other peoples success seems to be a common retreat...
  • by SoftwareArtist (1472499) on Monday January 10, 2011 @04:20PM (#34828348)

    The only litmus test for scientific method left nowadays is if you pass the review of your peers, that is couple of your colleagues from the same grant hunting boat.

    That's nonsense. Peer review is not about proving something is correct, and no scientist interprets it that way. Peer review is primarily about checking that your papers are clearly written and describe your work well enough that other people can understand what you did. It also has a secondary function of helping journals pick the articles their readers are most likely to be interested in (and down the road, most likely to cite). The real test of your work is in other scientists' response to it. And that can take a long time to sort out - years or even decades. Science works slowly, but so what? Speed isn't the goal. The goal is to work out the right answer, however long that takes.

  • Re:oy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Monday January 10, 2011 @04:21PM (#34828360) Journal
    A funny quote but rather unfair. Come to think of it, I did read Atlas Shrugged at around that age, and it did change my life, though (thankfully) not in the way Krugman describes.

    To me, it was interesting to read someone who, for example, put man's ability before man's need. Rand's (political) views were not exactly new to me, and I was already leaning towards a more right-wing, libertarian (insert your favorite label) world view, but to a boy growing up in the Dutch educational system, actually seeing such views promoted in print was a rare sight and a first for me. I've since left Rand's somewhat simple notions behind, but she did get me reading other works on politics and philosophy.
  • Re:oy (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tmosley (996283) on Monday January 10, 2011 @04:26PM (#34828406)
    Says the guy who has gotten absolutely everything wrong about the economy.

    Seriously, his only solution is "spend more", like a bloodletter of old claiming that he could have healed his patient if only the family had let him drain just one more drop of "bad humor" from his system.
  • Re:Philosophy... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Somewhat Delirious (938752) on Monday January 10, 2011 @04:38PM (#34828564)

    Either science is justified or it isn't. Either an epistemological foundation is required for justification, or it isn't. Don't switch to an empirical observation model when you've just argued that epistemological form is the essential criterion.

    That something is justified doesn't mean it's necessarily justified. Most things are in fact justified only within specific contexts.

    Feyerabend's argument is that the fact that science has enabled us to think about and interact with the world in ways we enjoy or find useful in no way validates claims that science leads to objective truth and in fact no such claim can be substantiated because the "scientific method" can be historically refuted and satisfactory epistemological justifications simply do not exist (well you can try to come up with one but I wouldn't advise that undertaking, it has been shown to be historically most unfruitful).

    In the absence of an absolute justification Science is contextually justified by the fact that we find it enjoyable, interesting, useful, inspiring, that it gives us useful ways to interact with the world, that it enhances our understanding of processes in that world etc. If the products or process of science do not provide those incentives you cannot argue it should be accepted anyway because it's "objectively true".

  • Re:oy (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2011 @04:45PM (#34828664)

    So remind us again when you got your MIT PhD in econ and your Nobel Prize?

    "Spend more" is not his only solution, but it's absolutely the right thing to do when there's a recession. I'd be curious to hear your prescription for G when Y=C+I+G+X-M is contracting in the C+I+X-M part and you want to minimize the contraction and resume growth.

  • Re:oy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by catmistake (814204) on Monday January 10, 2011 @05:04PM (#34828898) Journal
    I thank God that I am not the only one that has a respect for philosophy. Rand was not a philosopher, and does not have a philosophy. She was what I like to refer to as a pulp sociologist.

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