April 17 – Scientific Explanation


  • David Hume, “Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion” – Part I, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VII, Harvard Classics Edition (1910), originally published in 1748
    • This is a passage in which Hume applies his ideas about the lack of “necessary connection” between events we perceive as being causally related to the relationship between will or volition and the movement of the body. First he tries to see “whether this idea [of the quality that binds effect to cause] be derived from reflection on the operations of our own minds, and be copied from any internal impression.” Going through this exercise, Hume finds us to have “profound ignorance in both cases.”
  • “Philosophy of Science”, Wikipedia, version 01:14, 28 March 2013‎
  • Karl R. Popper, “Science as Falsification”, Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1963, pp. 33-39
    • Popper’s perspective has been very influential both among philosophers of science and among scientists, especially in the social sciences. His hard-nosed exclusion of theories that had used the word “scientific” as self-descriptors (e.g. Marxism) usefully pointed out the difference between theories that pass tests of falsifiability and those that do not. But beyond taking the label of “science” away from these social and behavioral theories, it is not clear what should replace them. People who study human behavior have a much harder task than physicists when it comes to producing rigorous scientific theories that are both true and falsifiable.

Slides: http://www.stanford.edu/class/symsys130/SymSys130-4-17-2013.pdf. Some additional:

  • In the slide correcting my previous use of the term “genetic fallacy”, the definition I gave of “naturalistic fallacy/bias” is one that is widely used (e.g. by Steven Pinker), but on further reading in Wikipedia I find that the original meaning of “naturalistic fallacy”, from the philosopher G.E. Moore, was explaining “that which is good reductively, in terms of natural properties such as “pleasant” or “desirable”.” The is-ought assumption I have always thought of as the naturalistic fallacy is termed there “appeal to nature”. But you will be in good company if you use “naturalistic” fallacy to refer to the assumption that the way things are in nature is the way they ought to be.
  • A point we didn’t discuss in class but which I meant to include: Applying the hypothetico-deductive (H-D) method of making predictions from a theory can lead to what is known as confirmation bias (also known as “congruence bias”) in the search for evidence: preferentially looking to find evidence that would confirm a theory rather than looking for evidence that would disconfirm it. Numerous psychological studies have shown that people have this tendency, and scientists must work to avoid it.
  • Was Popper a behaviorist? I looked this up and found the following:
    • “Popper rejects both behaviorism and psychologism, and maintains that the content of thought, the meanings of words, the semantics of langu­age, are not determined either by the natural laws of the physical world or by the natural laws of psychology.  The world of objective knowledge, which is governed by the laws of logic, is a third world that is autonomous from the world of objective physical nature and also from the world of sub­jective psychology.  In The Self and Its Brain he argues against behaviorism and physicalist reductionism by the dis­play of ambiguous drawings that he emphasizes may be inter­preted in different ways by voluntary action, in order to demonstrate the existence of world 2, the world of the mind and of subjective mental experiences.  He argues against the psychologistic view by stating that the objects of world 3 are intersubjectively testable.  Hence there are the three separate worlds which cannot be reduced to one another: world 1 is the world of objective physical nature, world 2 is the subjective world of psychological experience, and world 3 is the objective world of human artifacts or crea­tions including knowledge.  Popper emphasizes that while the three worlds interact through world 2, nevertheless the world of objective knowledge is autonomous of the world of subjective psychological experience including perceptual experiences.   Advocates of psychologism and the naturalistic theory of the semantics of language fail to recognize the autonomy of world 3 from the other two worlds.”
    • And this: “Sir Karl Popper has claimed that behaviorism is misguided because it holds that conditioning occurs through repetition. According to Popper, there is no such thing as learning through repetition. To the limited extent that philosophers of science have concerned themselves with behaviorism, this attack is one of the most direct and unique in that the battleground is not over the value of mentalism/cognitivism but a bold claim that conditioning—the heart and soul of behaviorism—is fictitious.”
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