In this presentation we look at the philosophy of science in greater detail, and I make my final remarks of the ELT colloquium series. I have four big points to make:


But first, an etymology:

Before the 19th century, virtually any investigation of the physical universe was called "science" regardless of the methodology. Indeed, the words "science" and "philosophy" were often used interchangably and the two pursuits practiced promiscuously by the same people. E.G.:

Almost any intellectual movements could dignify itsselves with these terms. We don't hold this against modern movements and institutions that inherited their names from this period. E.G.

Johann Wolfgang von Geothe - scientist or philosopher?


Big point one: Our modern notion of the scientific method was codified by the philosopher Karl Popper as a reaction against powerful pseudoscientific movements:

Starting in the early 19th, the word "scientist" (coined by the polymath William Whewell in 1833) began to replace "natural philosopher," and the word "science" was applied in a stricter manner than previously. Generally speaking, what these scientists DID was to test hypotheses in an essentially modern way, however they didn't express their activities this way. Instead, they would say that they were attempting to prove or disprove their hypotheses. The idea was that with a huge mound of corroborating evidence, a hypothesis could be effectively "proven."

Scientists were secretly aware of the weaknesses of this approach, which they called the "Induction problem" but had not yet expressed the formal concept of "falsification." For many, it was not a serious practical issue.

Karl Popper

Our modern notion of the scientific method was codified by the philosopher Karl Popper. His motivations:

Popper observed the behavor of real scientists to determine what they really did, recognizing falsification as the true hallmark of scientific activity. Viewed in this light, whatever merit their philosophies had, the Marxists, Fascists, and Freudians were not doing proper science. For example, Karl Marx genuinely thought he was establishing the framework for the "Science of History," and Marxism set forth distinct falsifiable hypotheses (E.G. The Proletarian revolution would occur in industrial countries). Alas, after his death his followers refused forthrightly to acknowledge falsifications when they occurred and treated Marx's writings like holy writ, transforming Marxism into a pseudoscience. Fortunately, Popper's rigorous definition gave ordinary people a powerful tool with which to distinguish science from pseudoscience.


Big point two: Science is a culture that stands on three pillars:
  • Hypothesis falsification - discussed at length already
  • Peer review
  • Publication

  • Publication:

    Scientific research, however rigorous, amounts to little more than navel-contemplation if the results aren't made available to community at large. This typically means publication in peer-reviewed paper or on-line journals.

  • Peer-Review:

    Scientists don't merely pay printers to publish their works. To bear the stamp of legitimacy, these publications must be peer-reviewed. That is, submitted manuscripts are sent out for comment by other researchers working in or near the author's field. These reviewers point out errors (there are always a few) and, if necessary, raise major objections. A manuscript can be accepted for publication as is, recommended for publication after limited problems are addressed, or rejected outright. The net effect is that a high standard of quality is maintained and researchers are protected from mistakenly going public with embarassing "bloopers."

    Isaac Newton presents a cautionary tale. A large proportion of his energy was devoted to a secret pursuit of the mysteries of alchemy, which he did not publish or submit to review by his peers. He is not remembered for this work, but rather, for that which he did in the open.

  • More

    Big point three: Each pillar of scientific culture is based on the notion that a single true external reality exists and can't be harmed or degraded by honest skepticism

    I.E. - Reality is Real:

    Each pillar of scientific culture is based on the notion that a single true external reality exists and can't be harmed or degraded by honest skepticism. Pseudoscientists, in contrast behave as if the truth is frail and ephemeral and tend to react with offended horror if you even suggest that it should be critically examined. Of course, falsehoods are frail and ephemeral under objective scrutiny, so pseudoscience has a good reason to supress the practice of honest scrutiny.

    Believe it or not, there are those who would have you think otherwise. Belief in external reality is termed Objectivist Materialism. At the other end of the continuum is Solipsism - the belief that everything is an illusion. In between are people - often academics - cultural constructivists who think that scientific information is "constructed" in scientist's minds and that the scientific approach is not inherently a better description of reality than any other system of knowledge. Of course, when alternate systems of knowledge yield alternate, equally valid pictures of reality, then what is really real? Some adherents of a particularly strong version of cultural constructivism answer this by maintaining that what goes on in our minds, to some degree, shapes reality or, stated another way, that the reality that is really real is what's in our mind. But how do we reconcile so many realities? Maybe, if everyone thought the same thing..... That was on the agenda of the New Age Movement, cultural constructivism's manifestation in popular culture.


    Big point four: belief in the external reality that Science seeks to understand is a powerful defense against intellectual tyranny.

    Belief in external reality is a powerful defense against intellectual tyranny, because that reality provides a criterion for deciding what's right and wrong that isn't a product of our subjectivity. What would happen if we weren't sure about this reality?

    Tales from the constructivist trenches: Cultural constructivism's glory days in popular culture, the New Age Movement, may have peaked in the 1980s but continues today, pushing the notion that what is in our minds directly shapes the external reality we face.


    Here is a pleasant sounding linkage:

    • We can shape reality with our minds
    • It is possible for our minds to be coordinated to achieve that shaping of reality


    Think this is nostalgia for my youth? Not entirely. The New Age approach is still with us in extravagant forms as the Global Orgasm campaign demonstrates, and infuses popular culture in subtle ways.

    But for true 100th Monkey believers, the devil is in the details: As a practical matter, how do we get everyone thinking the "right" way?

    • Stalinist Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a lovely manufactured group reality in which:

      • The Ryugyong Hotel is under construction and, as far as anyone knows, has always been under construction.

      • A chance unscripted encounter between foreigners and locals attracts the attention of the police.

      • One needs special permission to reside in the capital, Pyongyang. Until recently, grayheads and pregnant women were banned from its streets.

      • The public seems truly grateful to have lived under the enlightened rule of the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung and his son, the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il - as if lightening had struck twice in a row, and many serve the state enthusiastically.

      • But the truth of the standard of living of the DPRK is visible up close and at a distance.
    • Speculative fiction, however, condenses the essence of the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy implications of New Age cultural constructivism in 1984 by George Orwell, 1948.


    Where does Science stand on the issue of mind-control? Compare these quotations from a non-scientist and a scientist:

    Those of us who believe in external reality don't need to practice mind-control. We only need to look at what's out there.

    This leads to the final point: Science does require one conviction of faith. Darwin's quest for the "truth" is pointless unless external reality exists, is worth investigating, and provides a reliable criterion of truth. When we quit acknowledging or seeking it, we are opening ourselves up to intellectual tyranny by allowing other people to step in and create for us a "reality" that suits their needs.

    i.e. The truth is OUT THERE.