Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bas van Fraassen, philosopher of science

Today is philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen's birthday (72th), so what better reason to read what he's about.

Richard Rorty linked him into his pantheon of anti-essentialists (anti-Platonists*):

Some day, intellectual historians may remark that the twentieth century was the one in which the philosophy professors began to stop asking bad questions – questions like “What really exists?” “What are the scope and limits of human knowledge?” and “How does language hook up with reality?” These questions assume that philosophy can be done ahistorically. They presuppose the bad idea that inspection of our present practices can give us an understanding of the “structure” of all possible human practices.

“Structure” is just another word for “essence.” The most important movements in twentieth-century philosophy have been anti-essentialist. These movements have mocked the ambitions of their predecessors, positivism and phenomenology, to do what Plato and Aristotle had hoped to do – sift out the changing appearances from the enduringly real, the merely contingent from the truly necessary. Recent examples of this mockery are Jacques Derrida's Margins of Philosophy and Bas van Fraassen's The Empirical Stance. These books stand on the shoulders of Heidegger's Being and Time, Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy, and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. All these anti-essentialist books urge us to fight free of the old Greek distinctions between the apparent and the real, and between the necessary and the contingent.

"Anti-clericalism and atheism", Richard Rorty

Some van Fraassen quotes:

"The success of current scientific theories is no miracle. It is
not even surprising to the scientific (Darwinist) mind. For any
scientific theory is born into a life of fierce competition, a jungle
red in tooth and claw. Only the successful theories survive -
the ones which in fact latched on to the actual regularities in

"To develop an empiricist account of science is to depict it as
involving a search for truth only about the empirical world,
about what is actual and observable.... It must involve
throughout a resolute rejection of the demand for an explanation
of the regularities in the observable course of nature, by means
of truths concerning a reality beyond what is actual and
observable, as a demand which plays no role in the scientific

Fans of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design (from two scientists, not philosophers) should be able to relate:

Model-dependent realism is a controversial philosophical approach to scientific inquiry, which accepts that reality can always be interpreted in a number of different ways, and focuses on how well our models of phenomena. It claims that it is meaningless to talk about the "true reality" of the model. The only meaningful thing is the usefulness of the model. The term itself was coined by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their 2010 book, The Grand Design.

From Richard Rorty's review of van Straassen's The Empirical Stance:

Readers of this book are likely to hope that it will soon be supplemented by one in which van Fraassen tells us more about what sort of projects he has in mind, and about their relevance to the academic discipline of philosophy. He grants that philosophy is “for the most part an academic enterprise, that is, also objectifying” (p. 177), but he does not discuss how that enterprise might be of use to non-objectifying inquirers. He describes his book as “a personal response to philosophy as I found it” (p. xvii), saying that he is an analytic philosopher who views the analytic revolution in philosophy as “subverted by reactionary forces”. But he has not yet made clear what analytic philosophy might look like once those forces have been overcome.

(One can't really split philosophy from politics.)

Finally, some Quine:

As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries -- not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits18b comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.

Two Dogmas of Empiricism
Willard Van Orman Quine

So we have Wittgenstein, Dewey, Quine, Heidegger, Derrida, Rorty and van Fraassen: a mix of anti-essentialists. Or whatever you want to call them!

Does that put materialism in a box? I don't think so. In Huw Price's (Naturalism Without Mirrors) identification with subject naturalism (vs. object naturalism), philosophers' and scientists' attempts at representations (language, mathematics) are part of the same world as what they are attempting to represent.

Materialism is just what you get without (holy) smoke and mirrors.

* Plato was one of the first essentialists, believing in the concept of ideal forms, an abstract entity of which individual objects are mere facsimilies. To give an example; the ideal form of a circle is a perfect circle, something that is physically impossible to make manifest, yet the circles that we draw and observe clearly have some idea in common — this idea is the ideal form. Plato believed that these ideas are eternal and vastly superior to their manifestations in the world, and that we understand these manifestations in the material world by comparing and relating them to their respective ideal form. Plato's forms are regarded as patriarchs to essentialist dogma simply because they are a case of what is intrinsic and a-contextual of objects — the abstract properties that makes them what they are. For more on forms, read Plato's parable of the cave.