Could Creationism Be Rational After All?

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I thought I’d kick off the guest posts with a little philosophical thought experiment (hark, is that the sound of you all clapping your hands in glee?). When I wrote the following, I mean it fairly light-heartedly, but with an eye to the fact that we should perhaps remember we have less reason to be sure of ourselves than we may think.

Despite the insistence of many who champion it, Creationism does not qualify as a scientific theory under any reasonable definition of the term. It makes no testable predictions, invokes a supernatural agent and is supported by no observations of the natural world. But does that really matter? Could the theory of evolution, with all its mountains of empirical evidence, still be as irrational as Creationism?

Perhaps so. To see why, it is necessary to understand the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Both are ways of constructing an argument. The conclusions of a deductive argument however, are logically entailed by their premises. The conclusions of an inductive argument are merely supported by them.

Premise 1 – All horses are mammals.
Premise 2 – Mr Kips is a horse.
Conclusion 1 – Mr Kips is a mammal.

This is a deductive argument. The conclusion is logically entailed by the premises. It would be a contradiction to assert that the premises were true, and yet the conclusion was false.

Premise 1 – Horse no.1 is brown.
Premise 2 – Horse no.2 is brown.
Premise 3 – Horse no.3 is brown.
Conclusion 1 – All horses are brown.

This is an inductive argument. Here each premise acts as a single observation which supports the conclusion. Yet it is no contradiction to assert that while the premises are true, the conclusion may be false. Even if we had observed 100,000 horses and all of them were brown, this would still only act as inductive evidence.

Science is based on inductive reasoning. Observations are made, hypotheses are drawn up and tested, then critically challenged and re-tested, all under the assumption that the observations and results of the experiments are the result of static natural laws.

Indeed, it may be argued that inductive reasoning is the foundation for learned behaviour. If we put our hand on an open fire, the sensation will be extremely painful. Even from only one such experience, we will assume that coming into physical contact with fire will always feel the same and will avoid doing it again. Natural selection would punish those who did not learn from earlier mistakes. So it would seem that inductive reasoning is both reasonable and extremely useful for survival.

Yet there is a fundamental problem with inductive reasoning which David Hume outlined in his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In a nutshell his argument states that induction rests on the assumption that natural laws are constant and uniform – and that this assumption is wholly irrational.

Stephen Law, in his book The Philosophy Gym, compares this to an ant sitting on a bedspread:

“The ant can see that its bit of the bedspread is paisley-patterned, So the ant assumes the rest of the bedspread – the bits it can’t see – are paisley-patterned too. But why assume this? The bedspread could just as easily be a patchwork quilt… We are in a similar position to the ant. The universe could also be a huge patchwork with local regularities, such as the ones we have observed – the sun rising every morning, trees growing leaves in the spring, objects falling when released, and so on – but no overall regularity.” (p156)

Such local regularities could have boundaries in time as well as space. Perhaps the natural laws of the universe change suddenly every 100,000 years – and the next change is due tomorrow! What is to say that we will not wake up tomorrow to find the sky is red, or that dropped objects remain suspended in mid air? Note that it is no defense to say, ‘the laws of nature have always stayed constant in the past’, since that is itself a piece of inductive reasoning.

The classic mistake is to misinterpret Hume’s argument. He is not saying that we merely cannot be certain of our inductive conclusions: he is saying that we have no reason at all to believe them. We have no justification for expecting the sky to appear blue rather than red tomorrow. Either is just as rational. And the theory of evolution, based as it is on inductive reasoning, is no more or less rational than Creationism.

In conclusion it seems – according to Hume, at least – that we are always unjustified in drawing conclusions via inductive reasoning. It is as rational to expect a dropped ball to float in mid air as it is to expect it to fall. If you think the first proposition sounds ridiculous compared to the second , then this may tell you far more about human reasoning than it does about logical induction.

But it would be a mistake for Creationists to see Hume’s argument as supporting their ideas. Creationism may be as rational an explanation for the existence of the Earth and life on it as any theory science has yet put forward. But, if so, then so is every other explanation you could possibly make up. To reach a point where Creationism is a rational alternative to the theory of evolution, we have reached a point where the whole of science is meaningless and all certainty we have in any knowledge has been cut loose. We really are as justified in believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster as we are in believing in God.

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis


    Creationism does not qualify as a scientific theory under any reasonable definition of the term. It makes no testable predictions, invokes a supernatural agent and is supported by no observations of the natural world.

    Actually, it does (at least in it’s young earth incarnation) make testable predictions (for example, that we should not find evidence of an earth older than 10,000 years or so—certainly not millions or billions)….it’s just that those predictions have been falsified.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    Karl Popper, however, found a way around the problem of induction: falsification. Consider the following syllogisms:

    (1.) If x, then y
    y

    x

    (2.) If x, then y
    Not y

    Not x

    Those of you who have been burdened with a little learning in philosophy will see that (1.) is invalid (i.e., there is no contradiction where the premises are true and the conclusion is false) and that (2.) is valid. This is relevant to science where we replace ‘x’ with some model of how the universe works and ‘y’ with an observation. For example:

    (1.) If all species were created independently by God then many of them would be useful to humans.
    Many species are useful to humans.

    All species were independently created by God.

    (2.)If all species were created independently by God then they would not fall into a nested hierarchy.
    Species do not not fall into a nested hierarchy (i.e., they do).

    All species were not created independently by God.

    Same story: (1.) is invalid, (2.) is valid, creationists lose again.

    Of course we can’t confirm evolution (or any other model) deductively by this method, our best efforts can only fail to refute it. Popper envisioned a kind of Darwinian selection of scientific models, with only the ones which survive a large number of ‘critical tests’ becoming accepted.

    The other way to get around the problem of induction is to sort of throw up your hands and say it seems to work even if it shouldn’t, which is more or less what Hume did.

  • Eurekus

    Despite our inductive reasoning the story the earth tells us, from the evidence that we’ve received from her thus far, screams evolution. Honestly, what other rational conclusion is possible? The creationist conclusion is a grossly dishonest misrepresentation of the evidence. We mislead nobody, they are grossly unethical.

    Yes, we are looking at a patch of all the evidence, I’m sure. But just like the rest of the bedspread it was made obeying certain laws, all naturally occuring even if they have changed in an unlikely event.

  • http://paulforpm.blogspot.com/2009/04/morality-exposed.html keddaw

    Since all theories and Laws in the natural world are simply based on inductive reasoning we hold them tentatively. None are certain and all are able to be defeated by a single, repeatable, piece of evidence against them.

    However, as our theories are tested in more and more different ways and they continue to hold we become more accepting that they may be right, but never certain that they are. People commenting on science should be very aware of this and refrain from using comments like “the science is settled on that issue” when referring to evolution or global warming.

    It is pragmatic to assume that our inductive rules are adequate for the future, while recognizing they are almost definitely incomplete if not completely wrong.

    The universe’s past performance may be no guarantee of future performance, but for as long as it appears to be we should continue to treat it as such. Until induction fails it is rational to continue to use it.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    But just like the rest of the bedspread it was made obeying certain laws, all naturally occuring even if they have changed in an unlikely event.

    Hume’s point is that there is no reason grounded in logic to suppose that the same natural laws will still be in effect tomorrow.

    Dan Dennett in Freedom Evolves gave a different way of visualizing the problem of induction: in the Library of Babel there are some books that are chemistry textbooks, but there are also some books that start out as chemistry textbooks but become gibberish halfway through. Similarly, some of the set of all possible universes start out following natural laws but turn into Alice-in-Wonderlandish nightmares after a certain number of billions of years. There’s know way of knowing whether we live in one of those.

  • http://twitter.com/jtradke jtradke

    This sort of shit just frustrates me about Philosophy. A guy like Hume will make such an argument, saying that the expectation that things will float or fall are equally valid, but he surely did not spend any time walking off cliffs. Nor did he spend time condemning all the products of inductive reasoning – medicine, the printing press, democracy, clothes, money, love.

    Fine, sure, we don’t have a logical justification (in the abstract) for believing that the universe is uniformly consistent in its application of physics or mathematics or anything else. But if we’re to accept that, operationally, then our experience of the universe must be so flawed we may as well just believe any damn thing at all about it all.

    Holy shit, everything is valid! A lavender Ent in a three-piece polka-dot suit split open his side to release a Yeti-fairy with magic chalk stuffed up its ass. I shot plasma beams out my nostrils at the fairy, stole the chalk, drew an iMac in mid-air and look! Here I am, connected wirelessly to the Sub-Etha Network which was generated in the Tunguska blast.

    David Hume said so!

  • Samuel Skinner

    I should note evolution doesn’t have that problem. As long as individuals survival and reproduction is based on innate characteristics, they are heritable and they can randomly change, evolution will be in effect.

    Of course you can add in other factors which may be able to swamp it. If your fitness is determined by the genes of your neighbors (via magic), you will still have evolution, but it will look… different.

    Evolution does NOT make a claim about the underlying fabric of the universe. It is merely recognizing a pattern that life has due to the features of heredity and expression for genes. You could make it no longer apply (organisms are all the same, parents are unrelated to their offspring, etc), but that wouldn’t make it false, just inapplicable.

  • Eurekus

    ‘Similarly, some of the set of all possible universes start out following natural laws but turn into Alice-in-Wonderlandish nightmares after a certain number of billions of years. There’s know way of knowing whether we live in one of those’.

    Alex, FCD

    Too true. Perhaps God exits to counteract Alice to restore order. But rationally now, since the evidence that we’ve dug up thus far points to naturalism, then chances are the rest of the unfound evidence does too, whether or not physical laws have changed due to some unknown reason. Don’t you think? I think this is the likely case, but no one knows for certain. One thing that is certain though, creationism is stultified by the current evidence.

  • JulietEcho

    @jradke

    Hume didn’t argue that we should live in active anticipation of random things changing or happening – his argument doesn’t have any ramifications on the way we live. Even though Hume is correct, and everything *could* change tomorrow, the pragmatic thing to do is to continue on with what works for now.

    I mean, we could also be in a Matrix-like reality, and we wouldn’t know it. But, even if you acknowledge that possibility, what difference does it make in the way you live? None – we continue living as if we’re not in a Matrix, because it’s the safety, default position.

  • http://aigbusted.blogspot.com Ryan

    What do you think about my comments on creationism and the problem of induction? You can view what I say here:

    http://aigbusted.blogspot.com/2010/05/dawkins-mackay-and-inductive-reasoning.html

    Sincerely,
    Ryan

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    @jtradke (#6): Yeah, I sometimes feel like I’m the only one who can recognize the difference between, “Lack of complete certainty,” and, “Complete lack of certainty.” I mean, sure, reason can never be “justified” because justification is a reasoning process. Fine. Who cares? We just have to live without 100% certainty, and deal with googly-eyed twits who come along and say, “Well, then you’re not really certain at all, are you?” Morons. Certainty isn’t binary, it’s spectral.

  • Eurekus

    @jtradke (#6)

    You are right. Hume’s argument is nonsensical . Inductive reasoning led to Keynesian policy and where would we have been without Keynes in the last 2 years? Broke and looking for rats to eat probably.

    And where would we be on Sundays without Darwin’s inductive reasoning? With D’s googly- eyed twits most probably and still looking for rats to eat because the clergy would have ripped off our money!

  • Dark Jaguar

    I consider that argument silly. The assumption of “constistant laws” is, surprise, testable scientifically! All we would need to do is encounter some region that seems to operate completely contradictory to how things act now. Heck, in a way we are IN such a situation, in that quantum level interactions are wholly incompatible with relativistic thinking. Reconciling them in a higher order of law has been a big undertaking. In fact, some of those actually make predictions of a sort of physical law shift, I’ve heard some solutions of string theory allow for us being in a “bubble” that could “pop” to the “normal” physical laws any moment.

    That said, there is no reason to think that’s the case. So far, laws have acted consistantly, and there’s lots of empirical evidence to support that. It is, at least hypothetically, a testable idea.

    In other words, I reject the idea that it’s an axiom.

  • http://twitter.com/jtradke jtradke

    @JulietEcho – “his argument doesn’t have any ramifications on the way we live.”

    Well of course not, it has no ramifications whatsoever. It should never be used as a basis for any argument, because then you’re just playing philosophical Calvinball.

    EDIT: Come to think of it, perhaps all theology is just philosophical Calvinball…

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Even if it is true that natural laws are not immutable, it is still more rational to assume they are than they are not as we have no observable evidence of change. Nor is it clear that if they had changed, even just last Tuesday, that we would be aware of it.

  • Chris

    Hume’s objection is like solipsism: technically irrefutable, but practically meaningless.

    I have faith in the reality of the universe and the stability of its laws. If that faith is misplaced I could fall through a rip in the space-time continuum and be eaten by a dinosaur at any moment, or something indescribably weirder, but the prospect doesn’t really bother me.

  • DSimon

    I agree with Dark Jaguar. The consistency of the physical laws of the universe is just another potentially falsifiable notion, like every other conclusion science makes. It deserves confidence in proportion to the number of potential falsifications it has stood up to.

    If you want to find something that’s axiomatically assumed by science, one example would be the assumption that our memories are valid. If Last Thursdayism were true it would mean, among other things, that all evidence collected prior to last Thursday wouldn’t be valid.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    DJ:

    I consider that argument silly. The assumption of “constistant laws” is, surprise, testable scientifically!
    [...]
    So far, laws have acted consistantly, and there’s lots of empirical evidence to support that.

    Hume would say that you’re employing circular reasoning. Yes, so far it seems that natural laws are immutable, but we can’t say that they will continue to be immutable, unless we employ inductive reasoning. But the validity of inductive reasoning is what we’re trying to show in the first place!

    Chris

    Hume’s objection is like solipsism: technically irrefutable, but practically meaningless.

    I disagree: the argument has given rise to productive thinking. If all we did in science was employ induction, we’d be in a bit of a rut (see falsificationism above). He was also a big influence on Kant, who was a hugely important philosopher.

  • Berkys

    *Hume would say that you’re employing circular reasoning. Yes, so far it seems that natural laws are immutable, but we can’t say that they will continue to be immutable, unless we employ inductive reasoning.*

    Of course we can say that. Hume was wrong. And we can totally say that natural laws are immutable because there exists nothing that could change them.

    *I disagree: the argument has given rise to productive thinking.*

    Whether you agree or not, it doesn’t matter: You’re wrong and so is Hume. Philosophy is meaningless bullshit, no more relevant than religion or superstition. Only science matters.

  • Berkys

    *I agree with Dark Jaguar. The consistency of the physical laws of the universe is just another potentially falsifiable notion, like every other conclusion science makes. It deserves confidence in proportion to the number of potential falsifications it has stood up to.

    If you want to find something that’s axiomatically assumed by science, one example would be the assumption that our memories are valid. If Last Thursdayism were true it would mean, among other things, that all evidence collected prior to last Thursday wouldn’t be valid.*

    Those are stupid word games that you should be ashamed of proposing. If the physical laws of the universe were falsifiable, why would they exist?

  • Samuel Skinner

    “And we can totally say that natural laws are immutable because there exists nothing that could change them.”

    Isn’t part of the big bang theory that the 4 forces split apart from a single force bit by bit (well, in less than a second- alot less). So technically get something hot and dense enough…

    “Those are stupid word games that you should be ashamed of proposing. If the physical laws of the universe were falsifiable, why would they exist?”

    What we claim are laws of physics are falsifiable- what the universe actually is modeled by isn’t, although there may be a gap between the two. Needless to say, science is about closing the gap.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @DSimon (#17): “If Last Thursdayism were true it would mean, among other things, that the entire Universe was created last Thursday and all our records were created along with it, so we didn’t really gather that evidence in the first place.” Fixed it for you. Although, on reflection, I might be confusing Last Thursdayism with Last Tuesdayism. It’s so hard to keep the rules of Calvinball straight, it’s almost like they’re being made up as we go! :)

    @ Berkys (#19): Philosophy is meaningless bullshit, eh? I can’t tell whether you’re joking or not. Certainly, there’s a lot of meaningless bullshit that goes by the name of “philosophy”, but that’s no more to the point than that there’s a lot of useless bullshit that goes by the name of “medicine”. Take away the metaphysics, epistemology, rules of inference (and the rest of logic) – in other words, take away all the philosophy – and “science” is reduced to a mess of floating data points with no way to connect the dots, since the matter of how to reason is the province of philosophy. Unless, of course, you meant to say that “mere armchair speculation with no practical connection to the real world” is meaningless bullshit – because I could totally get behind that. But that’s not the same as “philosophy”.

    In fairness to Mister Hume, of course, we have to consider the cultural environment in which he was operating. Thinkers of the day thought we could in principle “figure it all out,” and the accomplishment of the Problem of Induction shows that there is always room for doubt. I’m not saying that was his goal, necessarily, I’m just saying that a charitable interpretation of the strongest case he could possibly make will only go that far before running into serious problems. Hume showed that our thinking apparatus can always in principle break down – but just because a machine can break down does not mean that it is broken down right now.

  • bbk

    If you have to open up the door to absurdity in order to put Creationism on equal footing with Evolution then the plight for Creationists becomes even worse, since their entire worldview rests on absolute certainty of an unchanging universe.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Did Hume know anything about statistics?

    And so what if there are different pockets of natural laws scattered throughout the universe that change in space and time?

  • Entomologista

    Philosophy is a common psychological disorder that causes people to endlessly ponder the inane, the unfalsifiable, and the pointless, rather than go out and get a job. It also refers to the incessant posing of questions that have no answers.

    If you ever get the urge to philosophize again I suggest you read that article to remind yourself why you shouldn’t.

  • Berkys

    *Take away the metaphysics, epistemology, rules of inference (and the rest of logic) – in other words, take away all the philosophy – and “science” is reduced to a mess of floating data points with no way to connect the dots, since the matter of how to reason is the province of philosophy.*

    No. We in science will be fine when the philosophy department is cut. We’re like the engineers of a train and you are all running alongside, pumping your little philosophers’ legs, trying to keep up, shouting suggestions, but we can’t hear you because our engine is pretty damn powerful and we’ve got important places to go.

    Case in point: I work in science, make $90,000 a year and I have no idea whatsoever what the word “epistemology” means.

  • Dan L.

    The short answer is: depends on what you mean by “rational.” If by “rational person,” you mean “perfect logician,” then no, inductive reasoning isn’t rational.

    But I’m willing to bet you mean something more like, “normal-functioning human being,” for whom the ability to rigorously apply modal logic isn’t nearly as important. A perfect logician will make about $4 in the traveler’s dilemma, while a normal-functioning human being makes more like $90, just as a demonstration of how rigorous application of logic is not always a benefit.

    So when you use the word “rational,” you should really be clear what you mean.

    Inductive reasoning isn’t valid because it makes philosophical sense, it’s valid because it “works.” Because those who assume that natural phenomena occur with certain regularities are more successful than those who assume the universe is simply a chaotic mess. Those who are willing to make the leap from, “this worked this time,” to “it might work next time too” are simply more likely to feed themselves and have children.

    My conjecture is that in any universe like ours that starts with low entropy and proceeds to high entropy is that inductive reasoning will be valid for many but not all phenomena. The validity of inductive reasoning may be a contingent property of our universe, but that doesn’t make it irrational.

  • Dan L.

    Also note: that water is potable is an inductive argument (I have drank water many times before, and it has always been healthful to do so). Does that make it an irrational belief?

    If you believe there’s no rational basis for inductive reasoning, then there’s no rational basis for any of your beliefs, all of which are arrived at through reasoning inductively on data from your sense organs. You really think empiricism=solipsism?

  • Anonymous

    What about gauging explanatory power and pruning presumptuousness in theories? Evolutionary theory wins by a landslide. Not to mention both creationism and evolution can make testable predictions, and while creationism fails, evolution succeeds. Gonna have to say this article is pretty meh as far as the evo-crea “debate” goes.

  • Dan L.

    In fact, the very notion that words have meanings is learned inductively, and then of course the meaning of most words is learned inductively. When I ask a waiter for a glass of water is it irrational for him to bring me one, given that any assumption about what the noise “glass of water” means (or “bring me” for that matter) is based on an inductive argument?

    Though reading the OP a little more carefully, it seems that the author may have just been trying to provide a reductio ad absurdum for the “induction isn’t valid” arguments against scientific reasoning.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @Berkys (#26): Ooh, are we gonna play flame war now? Sweet! OK, let’s see…

    We in science will be fine when the philosophy department is cut.

    Yeah, you’d probably also be fine if the computer science and mathematics departments got cut, too (and those departments would be fine if yours got cut). The funding of academic departments has precisely zero to do with the interrelation of those disciplines. We could remove all higher education and raise each crop of new professionals purely by apprenticeship – so what? But just as you need some mathematical training to judge the significance of quantified results, you need some philosophical training to judge what your results might suggest.

    We’re like the engineers of [an uninspired simile]…

    Yeah, because there’s never been room for, like, advisory positions in any human endeavor, no sir! Humans just do things, and thinking about them has never been valuable in any way! Daniel Dennett never influenced our ideas of how consciousness works, Niccolo Machiavelli never shaped the process of politics, John Dewey never changed the education industry, Sun Tzu certainly didn’t influence how conflicts are negotiated over the last 2,500 years, Bertrand Russell never revolutionized how we view mathematics, Confucius didn’t do anything to shape Chinese culture, Judith Jarvis Thomson didn’t affect the debate on abortion….. Man, I should just quit right now. I mean, nobody who’s ever taken a moment to sit back and think about something has ever had anything to contribute to the doings of things. Wow.

    Case in point: I work in science, make $90,000 a year and I have no idea whatsoever what the word “epistemology” means.

    What field of “science”, might I ask? Could it be “creation science”? Because you’re certainly good at making arguments from ignorance, and it’s taking me longer to explain what’s wrong with your inane jibes than it does for you to spew them. I might as well say that the paychecks of Bush the Younger make knowledge of geography obsolete – how much money you’re able to pull down is a measure of your ability to acquire money in your current environment, and shit else. Jeez, you’d think a “scientist” would know better than to wave around irrelevant facts and pretend that not knowing about something means it’s inconsequential. Here, let me give you a hand: as Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein put it, “How do you know what you know? Take away the option of saying, ‘I just do,’ and what’s left is epistemology.” The act of justifying this or that claim is the business of epistemology; you might be more familiar with one of its practical applications, citation. Any time you cite a source, make reference to a datum, or invoke any established fact in a chain of reasoning geared towards something you wish to prove, you’re doing epistemology, which means you’re doing philosophy, like it or not.

    Imagine a basketball player eschewing mathematics, saying, “I don’t know what a parabola is, I just get paid phat lewt to toss a ball through a hoop. Math is for chumps and has nothing to do with sports at all.” Proclaiming your ignorance of a discipline along with your disdain for it just makes you look like a toolbag. The proliferation of quackery in philosophy, while notable, no more speaks against the field than the proliferation of astrologers speaks against astronomy – and an inability to tell the two apart, in either case, is the fault of the person failing to make the distinction. Well, that and our educational system, since those in authority tend not to want those under them to think too critically about stuff.

  • Dan L.

    Yeah, you’d probably also be fine if the computer science and mathematics departments got cut, too (and those departments would be fine if yours got cut). The funding of academic departments has precisely zero to do with the interrelation of those disciplines. We could remove all higher education and raise each crop of new professionals purely by apprenticeship – so what? But just as you need some mathematical training to judge the significance of quantified results, you need some philosophical training to judge what your results might suggest.

    I think Berkys’ point is more like this:

    I don’t need to understand how logarithms work — how they’re defined and their properties are derived — to be able to correctly use the logarithm function on a calculator.

    More to the point, I don’t need to be an electrician to change the batteries in my flashlight. There’s thousands of similar situations — I don’t need to understand how something works if all I care about is that it works and that I can do it.

    While philosophical arguments interest me, Berkys is completely correct that scientists do not need philosophers to be able to do science.

    “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”
    — Richard P. Feynman

    That’s not to say that philosophy is useless — I doubt Feynman would agree that ornithology is useless — but that understanding how science works is not necessary to be able to do science.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    Ergo:

    Did Hume know anything about statistics?

    No, not in the sense you’re thinking of. The statistics necessary to get around the problem of induction were not invented until long after his death.

    I think a lot of people are misapprehending Hume’s purpose: he wasn’t anti-science and he didn’t think we have to throw out all conclusions reached using induction. One of his concerns was that, because we don’t have a good logical basis for induction, misapplication of inductive reasoning would lead to wrong results (which did happen, and still does). He didn’t have a very good solution, but by introducing the problem, he allowed other people (eg., Popper) to find ways around it.

  • DSimon

    D, thanks for the “fix” to my statement, though I don’t think it invalidates my original version. After all, not having actually existed at the time it was supposed to is a pretty good way for evidence to be “not valid”, right?

    Also, didn’t you hear that the new rule of Calvinball is that Calvinball no longer has any rules? :-)

  • DSimon

    Those are stupid word games that you should be ashamed of proposing. If the physical laws of the universe were falsifiable, why would they exist?

    Berkys, in response to your proposal that it’s a bad idea to play word games or engage in thought experiments merely for the fun of doing so, here’s a raspberry: *ppppptthhthh*.

    As for falsifiability, the physical laws of the universe are not falsifiable. What we’re talking about is the falsifiability of the notion that the physical laws of the universe never change.

    Think of it this way: mass isn’t falsifiable, it just exists. But any particular scientific theory of where mass comes from is falsifiable.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    @Dan L. (#32): Oh, so that’s what Berkys meant when s/he said, ” Philosophy is meaningless bullshit, no more relevant than religion or superstition. Only science matters”? Silly me. ‘Cuz, in the terms of your clarification, I would have thought the point was that understanding the principles behind and properties of logarithms is meaningless bullshit, no more relevant than… Reaganomics… or something mathy but stupid.

    As for Feynman, le sigh, he was so dreamy, and smart, and passionate – the trifecta of a great person, in my book. But even great people say silly things from time to time. Tell me, do birds have no use for ornithology because they’re intellectually incapable of grasping it, or because understanding their species is of no conceivable benefit to them? Because it seems that, by extension, Mister Feynman has committed himself either to the proposition that scientists are incapable of understanding the principles by which they themselves operate, or humans have no use for anthropology.

    Also, since philosophy of science is about how science is done, but ornithology is about how birds live, it might be more suitable to substitute aerodynamics for ornithology – to which I would add that birds exploit such principles all the time, and in all likelihood without being consciously aware of them. This is perfectly in keeping with your point about logarithms and just as applicable to scientists by and large, but still a far cry from Berkys’ “meaningless bullshit”.

    TL;DR version: A self-proclaimed “scientist” (especially one who must account for margins of error) denigrating epistemology is rather like a Creationist scoffing at the findings of the COBE mission while cooking with a microwave oven.

    @DSimon (#34): Oh, I wasn’t contradiction you at all, just clarifying. In fact, that makes the substance of your claim even stronger. Also, that’s why I quit Calvinball. Or religion. Whatever we were talking about. :)

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    If we want to rescue Feynman, I suppose we could say that physicists come into contact with the sort of knotty problems of definition that phil. of sci. is good at resolving less often than, eg., biologists. There’s real controversy over what constitutes a species or an adaptation, and less so about, say, what constitutes a quark. You will never hear a physicist say “Well, that looks a bit quark-ish, but there’s a bit of neutrino in there too.”

  • jane hay

    All swans are white; at least until we see a black one. (See Nassim Taleb’s book) Seriously, though, any real scientist knows that predictions from current data can fail tomorrow, in which case the theory is altered or thrown out. That is the basis of scientific thinking, and the way we differentiate ourselves from junk scientists and new agers. We go by probabilities. HOWEVER, I’m not betting on the sun NOT coming up tomorrow.

  • John Nernoff

    Probability is the operative word in this discussion. Technically there are no absolutes, so Hume’s exaggeration to make a point is correctly based on the notion that *nothing is certain*. We could all be brains in vats. But this is unlikely — VERY unlikely, but not impossible. Yes, induction can hypothetically (and sometimes) found to have flaws (there ARE black swans), but falsification is a form of induction too. One verifies by accumulating data and falsifies the same way. Both operate under theory. Everything is based on sense perception. Everything is subject to error. But our senses are very reliable though not perfect.

    But the key to understanding all this is to think in terms of probablilty. That the sun will appear tomorrow is a virtual certainty, but not totally guaranteed, as some strange nuclear reaction could well destroy it, or an unpredicted collision could take place, etc. On the other hand a ruling “God” of the Universe could well exist, but in face of thousands of years of testing this is of very low probability notwithstanding eons of shouting.

    So the best way to handle all of these arguments is to place any claim in the range of 0.000001 to 99.999999 and go from there.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    Yes, induction can hypothetically (and sometimes) found to have flaws (there ARE black swans), but falsification is a form of induction too.

    Nope, falsification is deductive:

    If p then q
    Not q

    Not p

    is as solid a deductive argument as you’ll find anywhere.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    The more loquacious you guys wax in attempting to refute Berkys, the more you prove his point. It’s so much easier than all that:

    Hey, Berkys, WHY do you do science? No matter your answer, it will have been arrived at…philosophically.

    So there.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    @ Jim:

    But if we did that, we’d be employing the Socratic method, which was invented by a dirty philosopher.

  • Mrnaglfar

    “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”
    — Richard P. Feynman

    He is not saying that we merely cannot be certain of our inductive conclusions: he is saying that we have no reason at all to believe them. We have no justification for expecting the sky to appear blue rather than red tomorrow. Either is just as rational. And the theory of evolution, based as it is on inductive reasoning, is no more or less rational than Creationism.

    Here’s my iron-clad proof that Hume is full of shit: I’ll bet anyone, oh, let’s say $1,000,000 that the sky will appear blue tomorrow rather than green.

    Any takers?

    Here’s a better version of the point Hume should have been trying to make: It’s fine to use inductive reasoning so long as you’re aware that your conclusion may be wrong.

    I’m glad philosophy has demonstrated its usefulness and made the world safer for all us simple folk who were incapable of figuring that out before philosophers stepped in to shine light on the world.