parsimony, the scientific method, cosmology, etc etc...

Robert Robbins rrobbins at GDB.ORG
Tue Aug 1 10:28:49 CDT 1995

Another way of stating Ockham's razor is,

   ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL, one should choose the more parsimonious

In this wording, the razor is nothing more than a useful heuristic method
for deciding among otherwise indistinguishable hypotheses.  According to
Webster's Third, "heuristic" describes something "valuable for stimulating
or conducting empirical research but unproved or INCAPABLE OF PROOF"
(emphasis added).=20

If we really want to get into the bowels of the assumptions underlying
science, we could get into Hume's critique of induction.  Hume argued that
induction requires the assumption of the uniformity of nature (i.e., that
the properties of nature are stable across space and time) and that no
evidence, certainly no inductive evidence, may be offered to support this
claim without begging the question. =20

Although Hume's argument is logically fairly tight, it tends to provoke
mainly irritation among those who consider empiricism to be a demonstrated
success.  In any event, one wishing to pursue such matters could do worse
than to read Wesley Salmon, The Foundations of Scientific Inference, for a
brief treatment of this and related issues.=20

If we go ahead and allow that the assumption of the uniformity of nature
is in fact the underlying assumption that drives science, we can now do
Hume one better by arguing that all inductive science has proven to be one
big reductio ad absurdum: science began with the assumption of the nature
exhibits uniformity in time and space and now reached the conclusion that
the universe began with a big bang (nature is not uniform over time) and
that it currently possesses black holes (nature is not uniform over
space).  This argument, too, possesses a certain logical tightness, but
also tends to be about as intellectually satisfying as an annoyingly
inexplicable card trick.=20

The fun thing about debates over the very fundament of science is that
they provide so little by which one might explain the demonstrated
astounding success of modern science.

One of my favorite treatments of the methodological engine driving science
is by Peter Medawar, who in 1968 delivered a Jayne Lecture to the American
Philophical Association entitled "Induction and Intuition in Scientific
Thought" (published as: Medawar, Peter Brian.  1969.  Induction and
Intuition in Scientific Thought: Jayne Lectures for 1968.  Philadelphia:
American Philosophical Society.)

In this essay, Medawar addresses head on the problem of whether or not=20
most scientists follow a formal method:

  Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be, and=20
  he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed:=20
  solemn, because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-=20
  eyed, because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no=20
  opinion to declare.

Other quotes follow below.  Anyone with an interest in scientific method,
and with an appreciation for good writing, should read this work.=20
Page 1:
  It is not at all usual for scientists to deliver formal lectures on=20
  the nature of scientific method, particularly if they are still=20
  engaged in scientific research.  Of course, it is an understood=20
  thing that scientists of a specially elevated kind, e.g. theoretical=20
  physicists, may from time to time express quietly authoritative=20
  opinions on the conduct of scientific enquiry, while the rest of us=20
  listen in respectful silence; but that a biologist should speak up=20
  where so many physicists and chemists have chosen to remain silent=20
  must seem to you to be yet another symptom of the decay of values=20
  and the loss, in this modern world, of all sense of fitness of=20
  Yet -- if the task of scientific methodology is to piece together an=20
  account of what scientists actually do, then the testimony of=20
  biologists should be heard with specially close attention. =20
  Biologists work very close to the frontier between bewilderment and=20
  understanding.  Biology is complex, messy, and richly various, like=20
  real life; it travels faster nowadays than physics or chemistry=20
  (which is just as well, since it has so much farther to go), and it=20
  travels nearer to the ground.  It should therefore give us a=20
  specially direct and immediate insight into science in the making.

Page 8:
  Most scientists receive no tuition in scientific method, but those=20
  who have been instructed perform no better as scientists than those=20
  who have not.  Of what other branch of learning can it be said that=20
  it gives its proficients no advantage; that it need not be taught=20
  or, if taught, need not be learned?
  It will not do to say that a scientist learns by apprenticeship,=20
  implying that he learns to do his own work by studying the Works of=20
  others, for scientific "papers" in the form in which they are=20
  communicated to learned journals are notorious for misrepresenting=20
  the processes of thought that led to whatever discoveries they=20

Page 9:
  Of course, the fact that scientists do not consciously practice a=20
  formal methodology is very poor evidence that no such methodology=20
  exists.  It could be said -- has been said -- that there is a=20
  distinctive methodology of science which scientists practice=20
  unwittingly, like the chap in Molie=8Are who found that all his life,=20
  unknowingly, he had been speaking prose.

Page 9:
  Coleridge described it as "notorious" that zoology had been "falling=20
  abroad, weighed down and crushed as it were by the inordinate number=20
  and multiplicity of facts and phenomena apparently separate, without=20
  evincing the least promise of systematizing itself by any inward=20
  combination of its parts" (General Introduction, or A preliminary=20
  Treatise on Method: Encyclopaedia Metropolitana [London, 1818]).

Pages 31-32:
  Methodologists who have no personal experience of scientific=20
  research have been gravely handicapped by their failure to realize=20
  that nearly all scientific research leads nowhere -- or, if it does=20
  lead somewhere, then not in the direction it started off with.  In=20
  retrospect we tend to forget the errors, so that "The Scientific=20
  Method" appears very much more powerful than it really is,=20
  particularly when it is presented to the public in the terminology=20
  of breakthroughs, and to fellow scientists with the studied=20
  hypocrisy expected of a contribution to a learned journal.  I reckon=20
  that for all the use it has been to science about four- fifths of my=20
  time has been wasted, and I believe this to be the common lot of=20
  people who are not merely playing follow-my-leader in research.

Page 48:
  Scientific reasoning, in William Whewell's view, is a constant=20
  interplay or interaction between hypotheses and the logical=20
  expectations they give rise to; there is a restless to-and-fro=20
  motion of thought, the formulation and rectification of hypotheses,=20
  until we arrive at a hypothesis which, to the best of our prevailing=20
  knowledge, will satisfactorily meet the case.

  NOTE ADDED IN EMAIL: Although Whewell's work is presently ignored, he
  was a major intellectual force in the philosophy of science at the time
  of Darwin.  In particular, he should be known for his contributions to
  the vocabulary of science, having coined the word "scientist" as one

Page 55:
  There is nothing distinctively scientific about the hypothetico-=20
  deductive process.  It is not even distinctly intellectual.  It is=20
  merely a scientific context for a much more general stratagem that=20
  underlies almost all regulative processes of continuous control,=20
  namely feedback, the control of performance by the consequences of=20
  the act performed. =20

=3D=3D=3D=3D  END OF QUOTES =3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=3D=

Could this be it, the core of science is feedback -- the control of belief
by the consequences of the belief held?

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