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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

    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.

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

      by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:41PM (#34826846) Journal

      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. While inductive reasoning leaves itself open to be false, and there are times where inductive reasoning has proven to be false, it does not discredit the scientific method anywhere near enough to put it in the same ballpark as religious beliefs.

      Like this review and this book no doubt mentions, science is an open process where anybody and everybody can study and contribute. To find a major flaw in the currently accepted and believed theories is considered a scientific breakthrough, not blasphemy or heathen. Given that those who embrace the scientific method are willing to accept criticism and increase their knowledge of the entire system instead of deny or rebel against it, I believe those people have far more claim to knowledge. If you don't believe what a physicist has come up with, just recreate the scenario yourself and see the results. I challenge any priest, voodoo or otherwise, to do the same without the aid of science or mathematics.

      • 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?

        • I've studied quite a bit of philosophy, though not his specifically.

        • 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.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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 s

        • 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.

          Nobody got burnt at the stake for dissing phlogiston theory.

      • 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

    • by Anrego (830717) *

      Agreed.

      Philosophy has gone from something generally valuable to the community, to something that's pretty much only important within it's own academic community.

      Would be nice to find a way to put the philosopher mind back to work on real problems, rather than as you said, debating the reality of a bottle of water.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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.

        • Well, that's engineers for you. To them, humans are at best dirt in the machine.
        • The problem is, they don't seem to be of any practical importance whatsoever.

          High-level English or art degrees may make it difficult to find a job, but everyone recognizes their usefulness -- you're creating something beautiful, or you're communicating better, or helping others to communicate. Even by themselves, everyone can appreciate what authors and painters do, and there's always advertising. Or combine it with any other field -- an effective communicator is valuable pretty much anywhere.

          Math and physi

      • 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: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.
    • by chispito (1870390)

      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.

      Not all philosophers are that paralyzed, and I think that it is a useful profession. It's just that supply vastly exceeds demand.

    • by TeknoHog (164938) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:50PM (#34827004) Homepage Journal

      While the greek word philosophia literally means "friend of wisdom", the common-day philosopher tends to stare at their naval

      For a fleeting moment, I thought you were serious.

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

      Am I am that engineer! Can you even guess when I last had a day off?!

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

      by xednieht (1117791) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:04PM (#34827254) Homepage
      "I - personally - find it frustrating that we listen to the naval-staring philosopher, and forget what wisdom is in the same moment."

      I find it frustrating that people can't spell "NAVEL". I have stood next to friends of wisdom....

      Naval - "of or pertaining to warships"
      Navel - "umbilicus"
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by dcollins (135727)

      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... /#

    • the common-day philosopher tends to stare at their naval

      ...watching the ships go by...

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

      by zolltron (863074) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:47PM (#34827908)

      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

      Which "common day" philosophers are you referring to? How much common day philosophy have you read? I think it's fair to say that this problem is near death and has been for a long time. The problem was made famous by Descartes of course, but he's hardly "common day."

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

      I'm happy to hear that you think people listen to philosophers. How many people do you know that spend their time worry about the problem of existence instead of something else?

      Your attitude about philosophers is common, people take an intro to philosophy course that focuses on rationalist thought of the 15th century and assume they now know the state-of-the-art of philosophy. Somehow people don't realize how stupid this is, even though they wouldn't dare assume they understood contemporary physics after taking physics 101. Philosophy has a very long history of contributing to major scientific breakthroughs. Here are a few:

      1. Einstein, throughout his life, credited many philosophers including Hume and Kant with inspiring him to come up with special and general relativity.

      2. Neils Bohr invented his preferred interpretation of quantum mechanics because we was inspired by Kant.

      3. Adam Smith was a "moral philosopher." Before him economics didn't exist.

      4. Psychology wasn't it's own discipline until very recently. Before that it was philosophy.

    • Failure to recognize how much you don't know is forgetting what wisdom is. Epistemology, philosophy, is the study of what wisdom is, and yet you claim that ignorance of those is wisdom. Your argument presupposes that there are millions of lives to save or feed, that there is a Mars. Are you wrong? No, but ignorance of the reasons of why your assumptions might be false doesn't make you right.

      If anything, philosophy and the natural sciences should be brought closer together because they have so much to offer

      • by Snotman (767894)
        This post is spot on. All the rest of the comments on here, including the submitter, is banter. I doubt the submitter understands his professor's jest with the scientific method...and you can see why a professor would jest based on the comments. What wouldn't be more entertaining than watching people attempt to prove that science discovers reality and develops absolute universal knowledge?

        It is interesting how Socrates is not brought up in this argument..at least that I have read yet. But you are spot on
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      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...
  • 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 fotbr (855184)

      But using Ayn Rand gets more discussion amongst the /. crowd.

    • 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.

      • Obligatory (Score:5, Funny)

        by the Atomic Rabbit (200041) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:06PM (#34827284)

        Ya I've never got all the Randroids out there.

        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. -- Kung Fu Monkey

      • by naasking (94116)

        I think the obsession with Rand is the scope of her philosophy, and the fact that she wrote fiction which made it more accessible to younger readers. I think Rand could have been a very positive influence in getting young people to think critically and question a great deal about what their governments and religions are telling them, but her personality and the Ayn Rand institute caused a very serious stigma around Objectivism.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by rutter (1430885)
      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 demonstrat
      • 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: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.
          • Something similar did happen to me. My first real experience with reading philosophy (used loosely) was Rand's oeuvre in high school. In undergrad, I moved on to Locke, Rousseau, Hart, and others (obviously I was interested in jurisprudence as a hobby). But Rand was my first. I never thought about writers expressing philosophy through narrative until then, and it had a great effect on the way I myself write.

      • by wjousts (1529427)

        but second I hit "Ayn Rand" I just stopped reading.

        Me too, well actually I rolled my eyes first, then stopped reading.

      • by nomadic (141991)
        While I think Ayn Rand is a third-rate hack in everything she did, I will say that I had a philosophy professor in college, who was very much a serious academic, who I found out later did write scholarly treatises on Rand.
    • Really? (Score:2, Interesting)

      by marcus (1916)

      How about some citations wise one?

      Can you earn that "Informative" rating or just make arbitrary statements?

    • Re:oy (Score:5, Interesting)

      by radtea (464814) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:57PM (#34827174)

      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.

      Yeah, mostly Locke, Aristotle and--remarkably given her hostility toward the man and his work--Kant.

      People interested in Rand's notion of concepts are well-advised to look at the work of Peter Abelard, too. Although he's famous for other reasons, his conceptualist "third way" between nominalism and idealism is actually viable, and quite close to what Rand was dreaming of.

      From the sounds of this book it's nothing but a collection of just-so stories about the history of physics (Hey look, I'm writing a review of a review!) Science is a lot bigger than physics, and physics has a large number of special features that most sciences--biology, geology, astronomy, etc--don't have. As such, it's a lousy place to start when talking about science as such.

      The critical piece that's missing from all discussions of induction I'm aware is the creative role of definition. Newton, for example, created definitions of mass, force, etc, such that he could build a consistent, albeit incomplete, mathematical description of phenomena. The concepts he created were not given: they are as much a product of the needs of the knowing subject as they are constrained by the facts. Constrained: not determined.

      Unfortunately, philosophers are (still!) innumerate, and as such are not able to grasp the notion of a constraint: they think there must be either just one right way to conceptualize reality (idealism), or that any old way will do (nominalism).

      Rand claimed on the one hand to reject these alternatives, but then argued strongly that there was exactly one correct way because "reality really is that way", which is obviously nonsense: even within physics there are frequently several equally correct ways of conceptualizing the same phenomena (Newtonian vs classical physics, for example, which give quite different accounts of the cause of motion, one based on force, one based on the principle of least action or similar.)

      • by inviolet (797804)

        Rand claimed on the one hand to reject these alternatives, but then argued strongly that there was exactly one correct way because "reality really is that way", which is obviously nonsense: even within physics there are frequently several equally correct ways of conceptualizing the same phenomena (Newtonian vs classical physics, for example, which give quite different accounts of the cause of motion, one based on force, one based on the principle of least action or similar.)

        Know how I know that you do not u

  • 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?

    • Most people espousing randian "no-holds-barred" capitalism seem to do so out of a general nihilism towards people ever working for anyone but themselves. That is, they seem to think people are egotistic and amoral, and any attempt at socialism in any form resulting in either oppression or parasitic stagnation or both. They don't seem evil as such, but it is a strange view, and I cannot wrap my head around it fully.
      • 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.

        • I am not familiar with the specifics of Rand's works, I can see a problem here: trying to determine what constitutes "enlightened self interest" is in any case key. If we factor out shortsightedness, most people probably wouldn't be able to compete in todays society if they had to take full economic responsibility for themselves. No, it's clear that they can't. And then people spit on them and call them "white trash". Another problem is fundamentally, am I not expected to act morally unless it is in my self
        • Re:Rand (Score:4, Interesting)

          by lennier (44736) on Monday January 10, 2011 @05:58PM (#34829674) Homepage

          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.

          I think Ayn Rand's problem is as simple as this: she had a bad experience living under Russian Communism, escaped to America, and jumped to the (false) conclusion that since the Bolsheviks' ideology had demonstrably bad effects, then the exact logical opposite of it must have good effects. She retained a harsh Marxist-Stalinist materialist-dialectical view of the world, just flipped the polarity from 'all should serve the State and sacrifice personal advancement' to 'all should serve their selfish interests and sacrifice love and compassion'. She felt that Marxism must be 100% wrong and therefore anti-Marxism would be 100% right. So her view of a healthy human life became so distorted as to literally argue that the best form of love is rape. (That scene is when I stopped reading 'The Fountainhead').

          But the opposite of a partial falsehood is not a truth, and Marxism isn't 100% wrong. It isn't wrong to be altruistic, it isn't wrong to be part of a group, it isn't wrong to share one's life with another. Humans are social creatures and our very selfhood allows overlap with others. Egoistic isolation and perpetual competition isn't our natural state - we go crazy in solitary confinement.

          What's wrong is to abuse others and ignore their talents, either for personal gain or for group conformity. Reality is about 90 degrees rotated from the left-right axis that Marx and Rand take.

        • Your rant on lassez-faire can only be achieved by ignoring the fact that laissez-faire is derived from property rights. Property rights take priority, and if you see abuses coming out of laissez-faire, it's because property rights are being violated. Laissez-faire is mainly useful as a guideline for pointing out the damage caused by excessive government, it is not a full philosophical statement of the proper extent of government because it is not fundamental enough. For similar reasons, Rand vehemently re

    • Well, that didn't take long.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        Don't know why, but I seem sometimes to have pre-publication access to /. articles. I read the entire article, parts of it twice, and looked up some Rand stuff online before posting. My Karma must be overflowing the buffer or something.

    • by reedk (43097)
      Better; she grew up in a decidedly non-lassiez-faire system and learned that reality all too well.
      • by blair1q (305137)

        So she fell for the fallacy of the excluded middle.

        I'm starting to think she didn't think so much as we think she thinked.

      • Cue the apologists blithering about how Leninism/Stalinism is not the same as Marxism.
      • by wjousts (1529427)
        Yeah but going to the other extreme isn't any better. The most pragmatic solution lies somewhere in the middle. The difficulty is in finding exactly where it is.
    • by St.Creed (853824)

      This sounds like a case of being able to prove anything, as long as your assumptions (you know, those unshakeable things every toddler knows) are in line with the things you'd like to prove. For Ayn Rand certain things were quite basic. I mean, for the ones who are on top in any given society, that society is "natural" or "divine". Those on the bottom may not subscribe to that philosophy.

      As for induction, it's a pretty well understood concept in mathematics and in general use in computer science. I always c

    • Versus what? Leaving the fate of humanity subject to the power of those that control the coercive reigns of government? A power which is ultimately derived from the coercive use of force.

      Government power should be employed to balance humanity's worst impulses and not allowed to be used as a vehicle to magnify them.

      A free market is not possible without the rules that govern it and the police and courts to enforce those rules. But a free market, with rules that protect people from undo coercion and use of f

  • I think the role of the philosopher is to question everything. Sometimes it's a rigorous questioning (because, you know, physicists are philosophers too). Other times it's more of a general questioning, less scientific and more...well...philosophical. Philosophical statements should all begin with something like "What if..." or "Suppose that..." or "I've been wondering..."

    Philosophy is not about fact. Don't say that modern science is no better than island superstitions. There's lots of philosophical qu

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:49PM (#34827000)
    Ayn Rand was an intelligent fruitcake, not a philosopher or a scientist. The basis of her ideas can be found in the sources quoted in Umberto Eco's The search for the perfect language, which is quite hard going but I think worth the effort.

    Ayn Rand's concept of the arbitrary has its origins in the medieval ideas of substance and accident - the properties that define what something is versus things that don't (you wouldn't separate men into those with, and those without, spots on their bum and expect to deduce any real insights.)

    So: sounds like rehashed old stuff from the mob who want to argue that there is no "physical reality".

    finally, how modern physics has gone down the wrong path due to the lack of a proper theory of induction.

    I await a better one with interest; the present one has been under investigation for hundreds of years, and the root problem remains the initially unprovable hypothesis (which will eventually be found to be . It doesn't go away with hand waving.

    Incidentally, the Whipple Museum at Cambridge is stuffed with unreadable and largely unread books on induction in the philosophy of science. It tends to be a career graveyard subject: scientists are too busy to care, philosophers of science just categorise them by principal fallacies.

    • "the initially unprovable hypothesis (which will eventually be found to be insufficient and be replaced with a refinement)"
    • by Homburg (213427)

      I await a better one with interest; the present one has been under investigation for hundreds of years, and the root problem remains the initially unprovable hypothesis (which will eventually be found to be .

      The most interesting recent take on induction that I've seen is Quentin Meillassoux's in After Finitude. Meillassoux argues that the problem of induction as usually stated has it backwards. In fact, according to Meillassoux, the reason we cannot prove that nature is uniform is because nature isn't uniform, but instead totally arbitrary, and (this is the bizarre part), it is only because nature is totally arbitrary that scientific knowledge is possible.

  • At least as a method of increasing knowledge...
  • People like the articles' author seem to forget that "science" covers a lot of territory, and it is done by scientists - who are humans, with all the flaws and variation and abilities of humans. If you look at the diverse array of activities and people who do science, it is hard to believe that any single "theory" will accomodate all that
  • obligatory (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    As noted philosopher Randall Munroe noted: "Science: it works, bitches."

  • Objectivism? (Score:5, Informative)

    by pugugly (152978) on Monday January 10, 2011 @02:57PM (#34827166)

    I have an inherent distrust of anyone that is basing inductive logic on the underpinnings of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, for the simple reason that I've never . . . *ever* . . . heard of Objectivism as being contributory to *any* philosophy of logic.

    Quite the opposite in fact, I've seen logicians use her as examples of how people can be fooled by pseudo-logic which hides implicit assumptions under carefully concealed vagueness and frame shifting.

    This smells more like an attempt to rehabilitate Ayn Rand as a genuine philosophical contribution than a book on logic.

    Pug

  • by PJ6 (1151747) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:12PM (#34827368)

    This reminds me of a comic about an engineer at a philosopher conference [smbc-comics.com].

    All the so-called great philosophy questions can be answered definitively if you allow for the terms to be properly defined. The profession of the philosopher is to refuse adequate definition to these questions, so that they are unanswerable by design; their work is no better or more useful than religions assertions.

  • 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.

  • "first-level" generalizations which are directly, perceptually obvious, such as the toddler's grasp of the fact that "pushed balls roll."

    Why is this a fundamental level? Isn't the observed situation a special case (particular ball, surface, pusher and so on) from which the toddler might use induction to conclude that all pushed balls roll?

  • What about Jaynes... (Score:5, Informative)

    by rgbatduke (1231380) <rgb@@@phy...duke...edu> on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:16PM (#34827422) Homepage
    The problem with books like this -- even by physicists -- is that they all too rarely study the right things physicists have done. Induction/inference in epistemology is put on a mathematically sound axiom-based foundation by Richard Cox and E. T. Jaynes. The former wrote a truly marvellous monograph entitled "The Algebra of Probable Inference" (readily available on Amazon). E. T. Jaynes arrived at a very similar result following instead from Shannon's Information Theory (which is a consequence of Cox's prior work, although this is not generally recognized) and later enthusiastically adopted Cox's axioms as the basis for his own opus major "Probability Theory, the Logic of Science". Both are available as a twofer on Amazon (or even as part of a threefer with Sivia's work on Bayesian Analysis).

    They have one enormous redeeming value -- they don't refer to any work on philosophy including any by Ayn Rand. These are serious works on mathematics, logic, probability theory, and science, and they contain algebra, not handwaving. Absolutely amazing algebra, by the way. The sum total of philosophy in Cox is his highly restrained observation that his work seems to have solved Hume's basic problem -- deriving the theory of inference so it is on a sound mathematical footing.

    Two other places where this general topic is reviewed: David Mackay's superb: "Information Theory, Pattern Recognition and Neural Networks" where he explores the consequences of Shannon's Theorem in cryptography and data compression and reliable storage, then moves on to argue quite persuasively that the human brain and neural networks in general function as a Bayesian inference engine; and my own book-in-writing "Axioms".

    rgb
  • by Fujisawa Sensei (207127) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:41PM (#34827810) Journal

    The simple explanation is that Philosophy of science is a Crank.

    I've noticed that the biggest idiots out there are also the ones who resort to "Philosophy of Science" BS. When someone who claims scientific credentials starts citing a philosopher, they have immediately moved into the realm of crank-dom. That includes Penrose's every time he stops backing up his opinion with the math. And Hoyle who wasn't even very good at math, and this coming from someone with just a Bachelor's degree.

  • by NicknamesAreStupid (1040118) on Monday January 10, 2011 @03:41PM (#34827816)
    Science has gotten to where it is today by producing results. The philosophy behind it is like the critic who reviews the obvious success. He only serves to indulge his audience.

Riches: A gift from Heaven signifying, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." -- John D. Rockefeller, (slander by Ambrose Bierce)

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