Combining Philosophers

Ideas for Barry Smith, Alexander Bird and Keith DeRose

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26 ideas

14. Science / A. Basis of Science / 1. Observation
If theories need observation, and observations need theories, how do we start? [Bird]
     Full Idea: If we cannot know the truth of theories without observation, and we cannot know the truth of observations without theories, where do we start?
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.5)
     A reaction: See Idea 6793. You make a few observations, under the illusion that they are objective, then formulate a promising theory, then go back and deconstruct the observations, then tighten up the theory, and so on.
14. Science / A. Basis of Science / 4. Prediction
Explanation predicts after the event; prediction explains before the event [Bird]
     Full Idea: Explanation is prediction after the event and prediction is explanation before the event.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: A nice slogan, fitting Hempel's 'covering law' view of explanation. It doesn't seem quite right, because explanations and predictions are couched in very different language. Prediction implies an explanation; explanation implies a prediction.
14. Science / B. Scientific Theories / 1. Scientific Theory
Relativity ousted Newtonian mechanics despite a loss of simplicity [Bird]
     Full Idea: The theories of relativity ousted Newtonian mechanics despite a loss of simplicity.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998])
     A reaction: This nicely demonstrates that simplicity is not essential, even if it is desirable. The point applies to the use of Ockham's Razor (Idea 6806), and to Hume's objection to miracles (Idea 2227), where strange unnatural events may be the truth.
Realists say their theories involve truth and the existence of their phenomena [Bird]
     Full Idea: A realist says of their theories that they can be evaluated according to truth, they aim at truth, their success favours their truth, their unobserved entities probably exist, and they would explain the observable phenomena.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.4)
     A reaction: This seems to me to be the only sensible attitude towards scientific theories, even if they do become confusing down at the level of quantum theory. Theories aim to be true explanations.
There is no agreement on scientific method - because there is no such thing [Bird]
     Full Idea: I find little concurrence as to what scientific method might actually be - the reason being, I conclude, that there is no such thing.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.8)
     A reaction: I take the essence of science to be two things: first, becoming very fussy about empirical evidence; second, setting up controlled conditions to get at the evidence that seems to be needed. I agree that there seems to be no distinctive way of thinking.
14. Science / B. Scientific Theories / 3. Instrumentalism
Instrumentalists regard theories as tools for prediction, with truth being irrelevant [Bird]
     Full Idea: Instrumentalism is so called because it regards theories not as attempts to describe or explain the world, but as instruments for making predictions; for the instrumentalist, asking about the truth of a theory is a conceptual mistake.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.4)
     A reaction: It cannot be denied that theories are used to make predictions, and there is nothing wrong with being solely interested in predictions. I cannot make head or tail of the idea that truth is irrelevant. Why is a given theory so successful?
14. Science / C. Induction / 2. Aims of Induction
Induction is inference to the best explanation, where the explanation is a law [Bird]
     Full Idea: Induction can be seen as inference to the best explanation, where the explanation is a law.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.3)
     A reaction: I like this. I increasingly think of explanation as central to rational thought, as the key route for empiricists to go beyond their immediate and verifiable experience. Laws can be probabilistic.
14. Science / C. Induction / 3. Limits of Induction
If Hume is right about induction, there is no scientific knowledge [Bird]
     Full Idea: If Hume is right about induction then there is no scientific knowledge.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.5)
     A reaction: The first step is to recognise that induction is not deductively valid, but that does not make it irrational. If something happens five times, get ready for the sixth. If we discover the necessary features of nature, we can predict the future.
Anything justifying inferences from observed to unobserved must itself do that [Bird]
     Full Idea: Whatever could do the job of justifying an inference from the observed to the unobserved must itself be an inference from the observed to the unobserved.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.5)
     A reaction: We must first accept that the unobserved might not be like the observed, no matter how much regularity we have, so it can't possibly be a logical 'inference'. Essences generate regularities, but non-essences may not.
14. Science / C. Induction / 5. Paradoxes of Induction / a. Grue problem
Any conclusion can be drawn from an induction, if we use grue-like predicates [Bird]
     Full Idea: It looks as if any claim about the future can be made to be a conclusion of an inductive argument from any premises about the past, as long as we use a strange enough grue-like predicate.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Intro)
     A reaction: So don't use strange grue-like predicates. If all our predicates randomly changed their reference each day, we would be unable to talk to one another at all. Emeralds don't change their colour-properties, so why change the predicates that refer to them?
Several months of observing beech trees supports the deciduous and evergreen hypotheses [Bird]
     Full Idea: If someone were to observe beech trees every day over one summer they would have evidence that seems to support both the hypothesis that beech trees are deciduous and the hypothesis that they are evergreens.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Intro)
     A reaction: Bird offers this to anyone who (like me) is tempted to dismiss the 'grue' problem as ridiculous. Obviously he is right; 'deciduous' works like 'grue'. But we invented the predicate 'deciduous' to match an observed property.
We normally learn natural kinds from laws, but Goodman shows laws require prior natural kinds [Bird]
     Full Idea: We know what natural kinds there are by seeing which properties appear in the laws of nature. But one lesson of Goodman's problem is that we cannot identify the laws of nature without some prior identification of natural kinds.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.7)
     A reaction: For Goodman's problem, see Idea 4783. The essentialist view is that the natural kinds come first, and the so-called 'laws' are just regularities in events that arise from the interaction of stable natural kinds. (Keep predicates and properties separate).
14. Science / C. Induction / 6. Bayes's Theorem
Bayesianism claims to find rationality and truth in induction, and show how science works [Bird]
     Full Idea: Keen supporters of Bayesianism say it can show how induction is rational and can lead to truth, and it can reveal the underlying structure of actual scientific reasoning.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.6)
     A reaction: See Idea 2798 for Bayes' Theorem. I find it intuitively implausible that our feeling for probabilities could be reduced to precise numbers, given the subjective nature of the numbers we put into the equation.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 1. Explanation / a. Explanation
The objective component of explanations is the things that must exist for the explanation [Bird]
     Full Idea: There is an 'objective', non-epistemic component to explanations, consisting of the things that must exist for A to be able to explain B, and the relations those things have to one another.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: There seems to be some question-begging here, in that you have to decide what explanation you are after before you can decide which existences are of interest. There are objective facts, though, about what causally links to what.
We talk both of 'people' explaining things, and of 'facts' explaining things [Bird]
     Full Idea: We talk both of 'people' explaining things, and of 'facts' explaining things.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: An important point, and it is the job of philosophers to pull the two apart. How we talk does not necessarily show how it is. The concept of explanation is irrelevant in a universe containing no minds, or one containing only God. People seek the facts.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 1. Explanation / b. Aims of explanation
We can't reject all explanations because of a regress; inexplicable A can still explain B [Bird]
     Full Idea: Some regard the potential regress of explanations as a reason to think that the very idea of explanation is illusory. This is a fallacy; it is not a necessary condition on A's explaining B that we have an explanation for A also.
     From: Alexander Bird (Nature's Metaphysics [2007], 3.2.4)
     A reaction: True, though to say 'B is explained by A, but A is totally baffling' is not the account we are dreaming of. And the explanation would certainly fail if we could say nothing at all about A, apart from naming it.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / a. Types of explanation
Explanations are causal, nomic, psychological, psychoanalytic, Darwinian or functional [Bird]
     Full Idea: Explanations can be classified as causal, nomic, psychological, psychoanalytic, Darwinian and functional.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: These could be subdivided, perhaps according to different types of cause. Personally, being a reductionist (like David Lewis, see Idea 3989), I suspect that all of these explanations could be reduced to causation. Essences explain causes.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / b. Contrastive explanations
Contrastive explanations say why one thing happened but not another [Bird]
     Full Idea: A 'contrastive explanation' explains why one thing happened but not another.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: If I explain why the ship sank, is this contrastive, or just causal, or both? Am I explaining why it sank rather than turned into a giraffe? An interesting concept, but I can't see myself making use of it.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / e. Lawlike explanations
'Covering law' explanations only work if no other explanations are to be found [Bird]
     Full Idea: The fact that something fits the 'covering law' model of explanation is no guarantee that it is an explanation, for that depends on what other explanations are there to be found.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: He gives Achinstein's example of a poisoned man who is run over by a bus. It has to be a basic requirement of explanations that they are the 'best', and not just something that fits a formula.
Livers always accompany hearts, but they don't explain hearts [Bird]
     Full Idea: All animals with a liver also have a heart; so we can deduce from this plus the existence of Fido's liver that he also has a heart, but his liver does not explain why he has a heart.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: This is a counterexample to Hempel's deductive-nomological view of explanation. It seems a fairly decisive refutation of any attempt to give a simple rule for explaining things. Different types of explanation compete, and there is a subjective element.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / l. Probabilistic explanations
Probabilistic-statistical explanations don't entail the explanandum, but makes it more likely [Bird]
     Full Idea: The probabilistic-statistical view of explanation (also called inductive-statistical explantion) is similar to deductive-nomological explanation, but instead of entailing the explanandum a probabilistic-statistical explantion makes it very likely.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: If people have umbrellas up, does that explain rain? Does the presence of a psychopath in the audience explain why I don't go to a rock concert? Still, it has a point.
An operation might reduce the probability of death, yet explain a death [Bird]
     Full Idea: An operation for cancer might lead to a patient's death, and so it explains the patient's death while at the same time reducing the probability of death.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: This attacks Hempel's 'covering law' approach. Increasing probability of something clearly does not necessarily explain it, though it often will. Feeding you contaminated food will increase the probability of your death, and may cause it.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 3. Best Explanation / a. Best explanation
Inference to the Best Explanation is done with facts, so it has to be realist [Bird]
     Full Idea: Explanation of a fact is some other fact or set of facts. And so Inference to the Best Explanation is inference to facts; someone who employs it cannot but take a realist attitude to a theory which is preferred on these grounds.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.4)
     A reaction: So my personal commitment to abduction is entailed by my realism, and my realism is entailed by my belief in the possibility of abduction. We can't explain the properties of a table just by referring to our experiences of tables.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 3. Best Explanation / c. Against best explanation
Which explanation is 'best' is bound to be subjective, and no guide to truth [Bird]
     Full Idea: It is objected to 'best explanation' that beauty is in the eye of the beholder - the goodness of possible explanations is subjective, and so the choice of best explanation is also subjective, and hence not a suitable guide to truth.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.4)
     A reaction: Explanation is indeed dependent both on the knowledge of the person involved, and on their interests. That doesn't, though, mean that you can choose any old explanation. Causal networks are features of the world.
Maybe bad explanations are the true ones, in this messy world [Bird]
     Full Idea: It is objected to 'best explanation' that this may well not be the best of all possible worlds - so why think that the best explanation is true? Maybe bad (complicated, unsystematic and weak) explanations are true.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.4)
     A reaction: The only rebuttal of this objection to best explanation seems to be a priori. It would just seem an odd situation if very simple explanations fitted the facts and yet were false, like the points on a graph being a straight line by pure coincidence.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 4. Explanation Doubts / a. Explanation as pragmatic
Maybe explanation is so subjective that it cannot be a part of science [Bird]
     Full Idea: Some philosophers have thought that explanation is hopelessly subjective, so subjective even that it is should have no part in proper science.
     From: Alexander Bird (Philosophy of Science [1998], Ch.2)
     A reaction: God requires no explanations, and children require many. If fundamental explanations are causal, then laying bare the causal chains is the explanation, whether you want it or not. God knows all the explanations. See Idea 6752.