Levinas and Heidegger Lecture 2

December 9, 2018

Levinas told his students, and everyone else, that you really need to read Heidegger, and especially, Being and Time, and he also tells us that he would have written a book on this work, after his book on Husserl, if the events of the war, and Heidegger’s complicity in them, had not intervened.[1] Indeed, without reading Heidegger, and especially Being and Time, much of what Levinas writes is incomprehensible, since Levinas’s own philosophy is written in dialogue with him. He simply takes it for granted that his readers have read Being and Time and know this text intimately. This does not mean that Levinas is a scholar of Heidegger, for then he would not be an original thinker in his own right. If you are looking for a detailed, nuanced, and even sympathetic reading of Heidegger, then you would not come to Levinas. But is that no true of any philosopher who has anything interesting to say. She only creates her own thought by misunderstanding or even caricaturing those who have preceded her, otherwise she would be, no matter how important they are to the dissemination of knowledge, only a scholar herself.[2] This lecture will mostly be about Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time, and will end with a few brief remarks about Levinas’s disagreement with it. In next lecture on Levinas’s ethics, we will speak in more depth about his own philosophy.

Levinas’s writings, precisely because of the war, where he ceases really to engage with Heidegger’s later philosophy, are predominately focused on Being and Time. When Levinas’s speaks or writes of Heidegger’s concept of being, then he is, for the most part, referring to question of being in Being and Time.[3] It opens with a quotation from the Sophist:

For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed [Sophist 244a].

The situation is worse for us than it is for the stranger. For at least he was perplexed by the question of being, but we do not even hear it as a serious question at all. We don’t even know what someone means by the question of being. The reason, Heidegger, tells us, is because the history of philosophy has obscured this question. Either we think know the answer to it, being is the most general and obvious concept, or we think it is indefinable, and it is not a serious philosophical question at all.

Against this indifference, how will we renew the question of being? Heidegger’s answer to this question is that we must focus on that being whose being, whose existence, is an everyday concern for them, and that is us. Heidegger does not use the term ‘human being’ to designate us, because he thinks that it is too overloaded with metaphysical and scientific connotations that have concealed the question of being from us in the first place. Rather he describes us by the expression Dasein. Most translators leave this word untranslated, which gives it a kind of mysterious air, but Heidegger wants us to read it literally. In German, Dasein means ‘being-there’, rather than just the technical meaning ‘existence’ that we might find in a dictionary. What is unique to us, Heidegger will argue, is that our ‘being there’ matters to us, and it matters to us in a specific way that could be a clue to the meaning of being in general.

Science, and we do live in a scientific age, so we generally think that science has all the answers, investigates the meaning beings. Chemistry analyses and studies molecular structures, physics, matter, and biology, life. In each case, the being of these things, is not a serious question for them. If they worried about the being of these things, then they would not be doing science but philosophy. To do science, you must accept that these things exist to even get started. It is only when science goes into a crisis that it might start doubting the fundamental reality of the basic components of its scientific paradigm.

We can also think of ourselves as objects of scientific investigation. We can be studied biologically, psychologically, or even anthropologically. In each case, the human being is analysed as certain kind of being, as life, mind, or culture. Philosophy, however, for Heidegger, does not take for granted what kind of being we are, but asks a rather different question. It asks what kind of understanding of being already exists such that a being is taken to be in certain way. The first kind of study, the obviously scientific one, Heidegger calls ontic. It is the study of things as things without questioning their fundamental nature. If we were going to use a Kuhnian vocabulary, we might call it ‘normal science’.[4] The second kind of question is ontological.

The difference between us and things is that we already relate to our being, even if for the most part we do so in an unthinking way. A stone does not ask itself what it is to be a stone, nor does super nova, or dolphin. It is perfectly possible for me, at any stage of my life, or at any moment of the day, to wonder who I am. What is ontically distinctive about us, is that we are ontological:

Dasein is an entity which does not just occur among other entities. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it […]. Understanding of Being is itself a defining characteristic of Dasein’s Being. Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological [BT 12].

What Heidegger is not interested in is the way we might think of ourselves as the ‘dust of the stars’, since these scientific pictures of ourselves, common in much popular science, already smuggle in too much metaphysics. Rather what matters to him is how we appear to ourselves in our everyday lives. Philosophy is very much about the everyday for Heidegger, and this is perhaps what excited his students about his teaching.[5] How do understand ourselves? We understand ourselves as existence. Heidegger does not mean this in a technical sense, as when some says, ‘the chair exists’ or ‘black holes exist’, because these are ontical questions, rather than ontological ones, but existence as possibility. My existence, and it is always my existence, is made up of possibilities (shall I go the lecture today, shall I do the reading, should I take my studies more seriously, will I become a teacher and so on). Most of the time the existential structure of these possibilities, how I live my possibilities, is not visible to me. I just concern myself with the daily stuff of life (I must make sure that I buy my train ticket), or maybe with bigger projects (what will I do when I finish my degree?), but I don’t think about how these possibilities are. That is a philosophical question that Heidegger hopes to answer and forms most of Being and Time, which in the end remained an unfinished project.

If our existence is the object of investigation, what then is our method? How are meant to uncover the meaning of our existence? There are two sides to Heidegger’s method in Being and Time. One is negative and the other is positive. The negative side is hermeneutical. Hermeneutics was originally the study of biblical texts, but for Heidegger it has a very specific meaning.[6] It is the ‘destruction’ of the philosophical tradition handed down to us that obscured the meaning of being that he describes in the opening pages of Being and Time. This too has its own negative and positive side. On the one hand, it has to show how the philosophical tradition from Plato onwards has prevented us from thinking about being in a meaningful way, because it takes a certain meaning of being for granted, but on the other hand, in the very same tradition, it has to show how philosophy, sometimes in the very same text or page, fights against its own self-limitation.[7] Yet if we do not know what the phenomenon is that we are attempting to save from the tradition, how do we know what has been lost? Thus, we need a positive method that is distinguished from this ‘negative’ one, if that word is not in some sense inadequate. That is function of phenomenology for Heidegger.

Heidegger’s definition of phenomenology, like the rest of the book, is very peculiar. It is not a description of a technique, but of a way of doing philosophy. Rather than go back to Husserl, who was Heidegger’s teacher, and explain phenomenology that way, he does through the etymology of the word itself. Phenomenology is made of two Greek words, φαινόμενων (phainomenon) and λόγος (logos). The meaning of the first word is:

Phenomenon signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest. Accordingly the phainomena or ‘phenomena’ are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light [BT 28]

A phenomenon is therefore something that show itself or makes itself visible. On the other hand, the word λόγος originally means ‘to make manifest what one is talking about in one’s discourse [BT 32]. The primary meaning of discourse is not judgement, but to ‘letting something be seen’ [BT 32]. The meaning of phenomenology is, therefore, a combination, of the original sense of these Greek expressions:

Thus ‘phenomenology’ means…to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself…. But here we are expressing nothing else than the maxim formulated above: ‘To the things themselves!’ [BT 34].

To bring to light that which shows itself is not an easy task because it lies in concealment. What is closest to Dasein is its own being, but for the most part, it is this being which it is most in the dark about. I can tell you what a look like or what I do for a living, but if you were to ask about ‘being’, I might be left speechless. The phenomenologist should uncover what is ordinarily and nearly continuously in the dark. This covering up is even more difficult to expose, because the tradition that is handed down to us prevents us from seeing what is closest to us, either because it says that it is the most obvious concept (we exist in the same way that any other object exists), or is not a serious problem at all.

Heidegger’s understanding of phenomenology is directly linked to is conception of truth. Ordinarily we think of truth of as judgemental. There is statement about the world and this statement is either true or false if it agrees with a state of affairs in the world. I say that wall is blue, and if the wall is blue, then my statement is true. Heidegger does not disagree with this propositional idea of truth, but he asks whether that notion of truth is fundamental. Heidegger uses the example of someone who has their back turned to a wall and who makes the true assertion ‘the picture on the wall is hanging askew’. The truth of the statement is demonstrated when the person turns around and sees that the picture is indeed askew. Assertion, then, is a way of relating to the world. To be able to assert something, I must already have a relation to that thing. In other words, the thing must be already visible to me in some way or other (which goes back to the original meaning of the word ‘phenomenon’ as a kind of original self-disclosure) such that I could make an assertion about them. This disclosure comes first and is the condition of the assertion. Truth must first be defined as an ‘uncovering’ (Entdeckend), but uncovering is only possible because there is being whose relations to things in the world brings them out of their concealment. This being is ourselves. This ontological meaning of truth, as way of relation to things in the world, and bringing them to light, is the original meaning of truth expressed by the Greek word for truth as ἀλήθεια (aletheia).

‘Being-true’ (‘truth’) means Being uncovering […]. But while our definition is seemingly arbitrary, it contains only the necessary interpretation of what was primordially surmised in the oldest tradition of ancient philosophy and even understood in a pre-phenomenological manner […]. Being-true is aletheia in the manner of apophainesthai – of taking entities out of their hiddenness and letting the be seen in their unhiddenness (their uncoveredness) [BT 261-2].

If Dasein is understood as existence, and the meaning of existence is to be uncovered by the phenomenologist, how then does this existence show itself. Heidegger makes the distinction between the being of things and the being of Dasein. One, he calls categorical, which goes back to Aristotle, and the other existential. We continually misunderstand the being of Dasein because we understand its being categorically rather than existentially. We think that Dasein is a mysterious thing, which has a soul, or a thing like anything else, that is made up same stuff as the rest of matter. In the first case, we have a theological understanding of Dasein, and in the second, a scientific one, but what is common to both ways of understanding is that they both think of Dasein in a categorical way.

One way in which Heidegger thinks of the difference between categorical and existential being is the proposition ‘in’ (and propositions tell us a lot about how we are in the world). We imagine that Dasein is ‘in’ its world in the same way that water is ‘in’ a glass, but this is not the case. Such a way of thinking about Dasein in terms of the spatiality of things already requires an abstract way of thinking about the world. I am not in my world in this way. I do not live in Bristol in the way that water is in a glass. Rather I am familiar or at home in Bristol, and this ‘being at home’ is far closer to my way of being than the representation of space.

This does not mean that Dasein cannot be understood as ‘thing’, as something ‘present-to-hand’ to use Heidegger’s vocabulary, but in that way it is being treated as a thing, and not as what it is primordially speaking and in its own way of being. We take being present at hand as the general meaning of being, such that we start interpreting ourselves as present to hand like everything else, but this way of approaching things has been handed down by tradition. It is not the way our existence reveals itself to us in our everyday being in the world.

Things and other people only matter to me because I care about them. They are not first representations, concepts or categories. This relation to things comes afterwards and is already reliant on the world in which I find myself and exist. The table is something to put my cup of tea on, the house for living in, the computer for writing this lecture on. In my involvement with them, these things are not present to hand at all, but ready to hand and disappear in their use. The door that I use every day to enter my house is not visible to me when I use it, still less, like some kind of AI, do I have to represent it to myself to use it. I enter the house and walk through it. It is part of everyday world, which I am comfortable with.

This world too is not a thing that contains the things of the world. Rather than a thing, it is my way of being. The world, then, or ‘being in the world’, is not categorical, but existential. The everyday world Heidegger calls the ‘environment’ (das Umwelt). Again, like Dasein, environment can sound like a highly technical term, but he means the world that surrounds us, the world that we feel at home in, and which we can lose, for example, if we go to a foreign county, and no longer know our way about, or is something unexpected happens to us, and we no longer feel comfortable where we live. In this world we don’t encounter things as perceptual objects, which is the way that philosophy likes to talk about things since Plato, as though perception were our original access to the world. We do not first of all perceive things. They are part of world as things we use. What Heidegger calls ‘equipment’ or ‘tools’ (das Zeug). I use the bed in order to sleep in, I use the shower to wash, the toothbrush to clean my teeth, the stove to make coffee, the ticket machine to catch a train in order to get to work. One characteristic of tools is that they are part of a series of ‘in order to’s’ that point to an ultimate ‘for the sake of which’. I have described to you my working morning whose ultimate ‘for the sake of which’ is that I am a teacher of philosophy. This role is the ultimate project that orientates my existential possibilities and this chain of ‘in order to’s’ is my world. When you ask me, perhaps you encounter me in the train station, ‘how are you?’, you are asking about this world. It is this world, Heidegger says, that I live in, and it would be a profound misunderstanding of this world, to think that I live in it as water is in a glass, or that this world is place on Google maps.

For the most part this world is invisible to me, which is why it is difficult, phenomenological speaking, to bring it to light. It is only when things do not work that the world can reveal itself. The bed is uncomfortable, the shower is cold, the oven does not light, the ticket machine does not work, and the train is late. Suddenly, after these disasters, my everyday existence and world can show itself to me, and I might even question my project of being a philosophy teacher that it the ultimate goal of all these activities.

In my world, I don’t just encounter things but other people. I might not buy my ticket at machine, but speak to a someone behind the ticket counter. Traces of others are there everywhere in my world, whether I pay attention to them or not. Heidegger’s describes the relation to others as ‘being with’ (Mitsein). I am not with others in the same way that I with things. We have seen that things are either ready to hand or present to hand, but other are not present in that way (that does not mean that others cannot be present in that way, but then I am precisely not relating to them as others at all, but as things). For unlike things, others have a world like me and because they have a world like me we share that world. Others, then, do not stand apart from me. I have intimacy with others that is not at all like the ‘being in’ of things.

By ‘Others’ we do not mean everyone else but me – those over against whom the ‘I’ stands out. They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself – those among whom one is too…. [t]he world is always the one that I share with Others. The world of Dasein is a with-world (Mitwelt) [BT 118].

We must distinguish between the ontological and epistemological relation to others. It is only in the epistemological relation to others that solipsism becomes a problem where I might wonder whether they are real or not, or whether there are ‘other minds’ at all. For Heidegger, at the level of your existence, you do not have to think your way to others, since you are already involved with them and my world is already something that I share with others. Even if I choose to live in isolation, then this is already decided in relations to others (in world without others, being solitary would not make any sense at all). The philosophical problem of how I bridge my existence to the existence of others is therefore a false problem, since ontologically speaking there is no bridge to be crossed.

For the most part my relation to others is a matter of indifference. This is not a moral issue for Heidegger, but just expresses our everyday being. Most of the people that I encounter in my world are not ‘there’ for me at all.

Being for, against, or without one another, passing one another by, not ‘mattering’ to one another – these are possible ways of solicitude. And it is precisely these last named deficient and indifferent modes that characterise everyday, average Being-with-one-another [BT 121]

There are, however, two ways in which others do matter for me. One is that I seek to dominate and control them, and the other is when I liberate them for their own possibilities. In this case we are speaking about others who are present to me in one way of other. The bus driver I get angry with because I am late, or the student who I hope to inspire by writing a lecture about Heidegger. Generally, Heidegger thinks that our relation to others is one of indifference. It is in this indifferent relation that others can come to dominate me, rather than I them.

This domination is a very different from the domination of control. It is not a matter of an action or result, but the insidious stripping away of possibilities. I begin to understand myself in terms of the anonymous others, such that I can lose the very sense of my own individuality. In this indifferent relation everyone becomes the same and we talk of others as the ‘they’ (das Man).

We take pleasure and amuse ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’ which is nothing definite and which all are, though not as sum, prescribes the kind of being of everydayness [BT 126-7].

This closing down of possibilities to lowest common denominator Heidegger calls the ‘public’ (die Öffentlichkeit), and, if we are honest, for the most part, this is what our everyday existence is. Rather than authenticity, or individuality, being the way that we exist, we live lives that are similar or identical to the lives of everyone else, even though none of us are really sure when this way of life first began or originated. Being-with, then, is a kind of conformity. Yet if authenticity was not possible, then Being and Time would not have been written, since the authenticity necessary to writing philosophy, requires to some extent or other that the question of Dasein’s being becomes an issue to them, and this is precisely what is not an issue in everyday being. What matter there is merely what everyone else understands and takes for granted. This is the purpose of the famous analysis of ‘being-towards-death’ (Sein-Zum-Tode) in Being and Time. It shows how authenticity is possible.

The task of Being and Time, as we know, is to reawaken the question of being. But this question can only be formulated by that being whose being is an issue for it, which is ourselves. Yet for most of the time, as the description of the everyday being of Dasein shows, our being is not an issue for us. We are so involved with the world of things and others that our own being does not become a question at all. It can do so only if Dasein has an authentic relation to its being, but all that we have described, which Dasein for the most part is, is the inauthentic being of the everyday. We must show, then, how authentic being can rise out of inauthentic being as a modification of the latter. This is the purpose of the description of ‘being-towards-death’.

We have already shown that Heidegger understands the existence of Dasein as possibilities. My existence is nothing but my possibilities. Death too is one possibility amongst others, but how are we to think this possibility as way of uncovering Dasein’s authenticity? Death as a possibility is not an event like any other. In that way you are not thinking of death as a possibility at all, but an actuality. Death is a fact of life like other facts of life, one that is more extreme and frightening perhaps, but still nonetheless a fact. Every day when I read news, I hear of countless deaths as facts or actualities. This is not how Heidegger is thinking about death. He is not describing death as the end of a process that is still outstanding, but as a possibility. This is the meaning of ‘towards’ in the expression of ‘being-towards-death’. Rather than imagining death as fact that comes at the end of your life, you should be aware of it a permanent possibility that surrounds your life at any moment. In this sense, Heidegger says, my death is a peculiar possibility that is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein’ [BT 250].

What is revealed in this relation to death is nothing factual, but only the existence of Dasein as a whole. It is not death as fact that makes me anxious, this is rather an object of fear, but my existence that is revealed to me in ‘being-toward-death’. It rips me from the tranquillity of everyday existence and forces me to stand in front of my life as a whole. If I were to die now, in this instance, would my whole life have been a failure and a waste? It is this recognition that we flee from when we avoid death as a possibility. We can see that death as an actuality, something that happens at the end of my life and about which I do not have to concern myself now, is in fact a way of resisting and avoiding death as a possibility. Only through death as a possibility can I discover the courage to authentically be myself by seizing the possibilities that have been given to me.

To understand Levinas, and we will do so positively in the next lecture, rather than negatively in comparison to Heidegger, is to see how far he breaks with this ontological analysis of Dasein as it is presented in Being and Time. In one sense he agrees with Heidegger’s break with Husserl’s too cognitive understanding of consciousness, as though the only relation to the world were one of knowledge and representation, and he says so in his thesis on Husserl.[8] Yet he argues, in Totality and Infinity, whether this analysis goes far enough. The world that is described in Being and Time is the world of work where I have projects and outcomes, but is this really the first world in which I exist? Before I relate to the world as one of accomplishments, I enjoy the elements, the warmth of the sun against my face, the wind in my air. This world is not the world of my personal being as described in Being and Time, but the impersonal world of nature, where my happiness can be snatched away in an instant by floods and earthquakes. The house I build, which is described in Being and Time, as the example of the ready-to-hand’, is built against this world. It is second not first. Moreover, Levinas claims, this house depends on a radically different relation to others than the one described in Being and Time. Not one that is determined by me in relation to my own being, whether others matter or to do matter to me in terms of my own existential drama, but an ethical encounter where the other radically calls into question my existence and my place on this earth. This ethical other is not a being at all, in any ordinary sense, whether we mean by that categorically or existential being, but beyond being, what Levinas will call ‘transcendence’. If the other is not ontological but ethical, then my relation to death is not merely one of actuality or possibility. Why should it be the case that the death of other is merely a ‘fact’ for me of no more significance than any other fact in the world, and why should my relation to death be only one of authentically choosing my own possibilities. If death is the possibility of impossibility, it is not also the impossibility of possibility, where dying, through illness and suffering, strips me of the power to be, and where the discussion of being authentic makes no sense whatsoever (what would authentic being-towards-death be in a concentration camp)?

Levinas wants us to consider, whether ontology must have the last word and whether we can only speak in the language of ontology. If ethics does appear in Being and Time, then it does so only in marginal way and subordinated to the ontological question. This is even the case in Heidegger’s later work, when he says that until we know what it means to be a human being, then we cannot even begin to understand what ethics could be. Yet what if ethics were not an ontological category at all, and the other were not a being, neither present-to-hand, or ready-to-hand, and rather than appearing within my world, where to completely call this world into question, even beyond my death.

Works Cited

Derrida, J., 1978. Violence and Metaphysics, in: Bass, A. (Tran.), Writing and Difference. Routledge, London, pp. 97–192.

Gadamer, H.G., 1994. Heidegger’s Ways. SUNY Press.

Glazebrook, T., 2000. Heidegger’s philosophy of science. Fordham University Press, New York.

Grondin, J., 1997. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Yale University Press.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Kuhn, T.S., 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Levinas, E., 2012. Signature, in: Hand, S. (Tran.), Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 291–5.

Lévinas, E., 2000. God, death, and time. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1973. The theory of intuition in Husserl’s phenomenology. Northwestern University Press, Evanston [Ill.


 

[1] For Levinas’s own autobiography of his intellectual journey, see (Levinas, 2012).

[2] The classic account of Levinas’s creative misreading of Heidegger, and other philosophers, like Husserl and Hegel, is still Derrida’s first, and highly detailed and complex, extended essay on Levinas’s work, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ (Derrida, 1978). It too would be a misunderstanding of this essay to think that it was a mere critique.

[3] Levinas’s own lectures on Heidegger concern the arguments of Being and Time (Lévinas, 2000).

[4] In The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Kuhn makes a distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary science’, which echoes Heidegger’s differentiation of the ontic and ontological basis of science in Being and Time (Kuhn, 2012). For a detailed account of Heidegger’s philosophy of science, see (Glazebrook, 2000).

[5] Gadamer, perhaps one of his most famous students, bears witness to the effect of Heidegger’s teaching, in his book on Heidegger, Heidegger’s Ways (Gadamer, 1994).

[6] For an good introduction to the history and meaning of hermeneutics from a Heideggerian perspective, see (Grondin, 1997).

[7] Some of the missing divisions and parts of Being and Time were meant to include these ‘destructions’, but we find them in many of the lectures that were published afterwards.

[8] ‘One can reproach Husserl,’ Levinas writes, ‘for his intellectualism. Even though the attains the profound idea that, in the ontological order, the world of science if posterior to and depends on the vague and concrete world of perception, he may have been wrong in seeing the concrete world as a world of objects that primarily perceived’ (Lévinas, 1973, p. 119).

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Levinas and Phenomenology. Lecture 1

October 28, 2018

husserlOne of the most important sources of Levinas’s philosophy is the phenomenology of Husserl. We cannot hope to cover all of Husserl’s work (which is very extensive in itself), but only focus on that material useful for our reading of Levinas’s essay  ‘God and Philosophy’: namely, the critique of psychologism and the natural attitude through the phenomenological reduction, and the intentional structure of consciousness that emerges from such a distancing from psychologism and the natural attitude. We shall end with Levinas’s critique of the presuppositions of Husserl’s phenomenological method and thus how he saw his own ethics going further and deeper.

In the Prolegomena, the first part of Husserl’s Logical Investigations, Husserl offers a sustained argument against psychologism in logic, which he believed had come to dominate the philosophical scene in the early part of the 20th century (2012, pp. 9–160). This is not merely a parochial issue for Husserl, for it is a matter of the status of philosophy itself. Psychology, or the domination of psychology, which is a natural science, marks an extreme danger to philosophy that could have the consequence of its own disappearance. This unease should not be misunderstood as an expression of hatred against science or that the sciences themselves do not tell us something true about reality (Husserl remains deeply committed to the scientific project), but the belief that science ought to be limited to its own proper area of investigation. When science does exceed these limits, it becomes an unthinking metaphysics. What do mean by science exceeding its limits? For example, Steve Hawking in his introduction to modern cosmology, A Brief History of Time, argues that the physico-mathematical theories of the universe that he and his other colleagues have uncovered are a representation of ‘God’s mind.’ We need to be clear that science can tell us nothing about God, and the statement that physical theories are a representation of God’s mind is not scientific but metaphysical.

What matters for Husserl, however, is not just what scientists say or do not say, but the relation between science and philosophy. He makes two fundamental claims: one, philosophy is not a science, and two, science is impossible without philosophy. There are perhaps many who would agree with the first statement, because they would think that philosophy is more akin to literature than anything scientific, or more pejoratively, that philosophy is just metaphysical claptrap, which we don’t need at all. But the second claim makes it clear that Husserl would not agree with this dismissal of philosophy. Rather, he wants to insist that science cannot ground itself scientifically. In other words, the natural sciences require philosophy in order to be legitimate, even though philosophy itself is not science in their terms:

Man should admit that truths which have their roots in the concepts which constitute the objectively conceived Idea of Science cannot also belong to any particular science. They should see that such truths, being ideal, cannot have their home-ground in the sciences of matter of fact, and therefore not in psychology. (Husserl, 2012, p. 172)

But why should the sciences require philosophy to be properly grounded or legitimated? The answer is logic. All the sciences require the truths of logic to put forward properly constituted arguments. Therefore, we can see there arises a conflict between philosophy and psychology. For psychologism is the belief that logic is based in human psychology. Psychology is just one more natural science (though Husserl will say that is not a well formed natural science), and if psychology could demonstrate the basis of logical truth, then the sciences no longer require an extra-scientific discourse to legitimate themselves. To save philosophy from this redundancy Husserl must show that logic cannot be validated legitimately in psychology and thus philosophy is still necessary to the natural sciences.

There are three, Husserl argues in introduction to the Prolegomena, primary explanations of logic: ‘psychological, formal and metaphysical’ and, as we have seen, the first, the psychological has gained the ascendancy (2012, p. 3). Psychologism can be defined as follows: laws that regulate the mental must themselves have a mental basis. The regulative principles of knowledge must be grounded in the psychology of knowledge. Take, for example the law of non-contradiction that P cannot be P and not P at the same time. The psychologist would say that this certainty of this law was grounded in the feeling of certainty of the person whose thought it is (perhaps today we might speak of MRI scans). Now Husserl’s argument against this is not a factual one (that there could be, for example, a better factual account of our minds), but that these psychologists have made a fundamental mistake about semantics. This error does not invalidate their scientific accounts, but it does call into question their ability to determine the status of logical truths from facts about the human brain.

The source of Husserl’s theory of semantic is Bolzano. Like Kant, he argues that all knowledge is representation and representations can be divided into concepts and intuitions. There are two meanings to representation: on the one hand, mental states of the soul, which are the states of my mind when I perceive something, which is a subjective representation, and on the other side, there is the inter-subjective representation, which is not a representation in us, but a representation in itself; an ‘objective representation.’ This difference can be made sense of in the following way: each grammatical unity (a word) is associated with a host of subjective representations, but with only one objective representation. There are many subjective representations of the word ‘nothing,’ for example, but only one meaning of the word ‘nothing.’ Whereas subjective representations are plural, objective ones are not. The subjective ones are plural, because they are many ways to represent something, but there is only one way in which something is meant.

We can see what Husserl’s critique of psychologism might be. It is the confusion between meaning and subjective representation, which is then thought of in terms of psychological state of the brain. Or, in other words, they believe that meaning and the activity of the mind belong to one and the same region of being, reality or nature, which is to be understood through the same causal laws. But this is to fail to make the distinction between the content of knowledge and the act of knowing. Take his example of the number 5 again in the Prolegomena. No one would think that the concept or the meaning of 5 is the result of their own counting or someone else’s. The number five is not the result of the activity of thinking (or what Husserl’s calls ‘presentation’) by this or that person. Rather it is a possible object (‘object’ here not meant as a real object, but as an ideal object) of any activity of thought or presentation. In the activity of thought, we can, Husserl’s argues, make an abstraction, from the actual event of thinking itself, which takes place in a certain time and certain place, to what is being thought, which is not dependent on certain time and place. This ideal meaning tells us nothing about reality, to use the example of the number 5 again, the actual activity of counting, or the thinking the number, or objects in the real world, which might be counted through the concept of the number 5 itself. The critique of psychologism is negative. It attempts to show that we cannot give a scientific account of our understanding of the world because we need a non-natural account of meaning. We need a positive account, however, what it means to do philosophy if we reject the natural attitude. Husserl’s description of what it means to do philosophy he calls the reduction.

I see the table in front of me. Now it seems clear to me that this table exists. But what do I mean by the word ‘exists’? I mean possibly that it is something real, that it is not a dream, an illusion or a hallucination. But what do I mean by the word ‘real’? This word seems just as obscure as the word ‘exists’. Perhaps I mean by this, considering my reference to illusions and so forth, that is has a physical existence. And what is something physical? It is something that is made of matter, and if I have some passing knowledge of physics, I might add this matter is made of atoms and energy, which can be described by quantum mechanics.

What of the world that things are in? Is that too a thing? From a scientific point of view, we might think of the world as the totality of things, which would be nature ruled by causal laws. The difficulty comes when we speak of the scientist itself. What is she or he? In one sense they are just like the chair about which they speak. They too are things. We would want to say, however, that they are much more than that. Unlike things, they think (they are scientists after all), and like the rest of us, they have hopes and desires, which chairs do not have. Thus, we must make a distinction between what is psychical and what is physical, and to each, we could say, there belongs a corresponding world: for the world of things, nature, and for people, the mind. This vision of a world split into two, the physical and the psychical, is already an interpretation and one perhaps that is even the more distorting and powerful because we just take it as obvious. First of all, we need to go back, Husserl would say, to our most fundamental and basic relation to things, and therefore to the world in which they belong, and that is perception before we make metaphysical or even scientific speculations. We ask ourselves ‘how does the thing appear to us?’

Let us go back to our table again. There are two sides to our experience of this table. One side is transcendent and the other is immanent. The natural attitude only ‘sees’ the transcendent side of the object. What is meant by transcendence here? It is the object conceived as something real that lies outside of consciousness conceived of as something mental. From the perspective of the natural attitude knowing something is to go outside of oneself towards the object and to bring it back to the mind. Here consciousness is conceived of as a bag that contains the representation of the objects passively. And yet there are great difficulties with this theory. How would one know that the picture one had of the object was the same as the object itself? Moreover, my perceptions can be disappointed. I think that I am seeing a chair, but on closer inspection it is a stage prop. These questions themselves are not scientific ones, for what matters here is not knowledge of this or that object by a subject, but knowledge in general, that is to say, the relation between the subject and object, rather than the subject and object in themselves. Moreover, even if I were never deceived, does not this image of knowledge beg the question? How can I make the reality of external things the basis of knowledge when this is the very thing that I am trying to prove? The phenomenological reduction, which Husserl says is the very beginning of the philosophical method, brackets any claim to the external transcendent reality of things:

We put out of action the general positing which belongs to the essence of the natural attitude; we parenthesise everything which that positing encompasses with respect to being: thus the whole natural world which is continually there for us on hand, and which will always remains there according to consciousness as an actuality, even if we choose to parenthesise it. (Husserl, 1980, p. 61)

What need to underline here, and make sure that it is completely understood, that this is not a theory about the non-existence of the world: that everything is a dream, and that nothing exists except consciousness. For these claims themselves would be metaphysical and thus outside the reduction. Rather, it is a matter, of methodology. This is clear in the above quotation. The very being of the external world is one of actuality, and it is not as if the phenomenologist will put his or her hand in the fire after the reduction, because he or she now believes that the world does not really exist. I ask myself if the knowledge of exterior things cannot be the basis of knowledge itself, is there anything left if I discount this knowledge from my own procedure? You would think that the quick answer to this question would be nothing. For if I can no longer used the facts and material obtained by the natural science, or even my everyday experiences, then they must be nothing left over. For I still see my consciousness as an empty bag that need to be filled with the things outside of it, and once I have got rid of these things, then all I am left with is something useless and null.

Yet consciousness is certainly not a thing, and this is what Husserl wants us to see above all, and moreover if I take out the transcendent object, then I am not left with nothing, rather everything remains, but with a different status. What I am left with after the reduction, what Husserl calls the ‘phenomenological residuum,’ is the immanent object. In The Idea of Phenomenology, Husserl refers to Descartes to make sense of this idea. Cartesian doubt leads us to the cogito as something self-evident, for even if I doubt everything I cannot myself doubt that I doubt. But the evidence, of the cogito extends over all conscious acts. If I remember something, I cannot doubt that I am remembering it, and if I desire something, I cannot doubt that I am desiring it. The immanent object remains, even if the transcendent one does not:

I might reach such a degree of sceptical despair that I finally say: Nothing is certain, everything is doubtful. But it is at once evident that not everything is doubtful, for while I am judging that everything is doubtful, it is indubitable that I am so judging. […] And likewise with every cogitatio. Howsoever I perceive, imagine, judge infer, […] it is absolutely clear that I am perceiving this or that, and as far as the judgement is concerned that I am judging of this or that, etc. (Husserl, 1964, p. 23)

Now the content of the immanent object must be the same as the transcendent object, though the latter is a real object and the former an ideal one. For the real object, external to consciousness can be be destroyed, whereas the ideal object cannot; it only exists immanently within the consciousness. It is Husserl’s argument that the immanent object is given absolutely. Thus, there is no possibility that I can doubt it. If I am thinking of a chair then I am thinking of a chair, whether the chair exists or not, or whatever the chair is made of, and this is true also of perception. If I am perceiving a chair, then the chair is given as a perception as it is. I do not need to speculate about metaphysical chairs that somehow exist outside of consciousness. There is the chair given to me in my conscious perception of it.

The reduction opens a field of the phenomenological analysis of immanent objects. But we do need to be careful to understand how far we have got here. We still do not know what the relation, if there is any, between the immanent and transcendent object is, and how we are to grasp the meaning of the world after the reduction. Do we simply return to the distinction between the subject and object, as Descartes does after the proof of the existence of God, or is the relation between immanence and transcendence far more complex than this? An answer to this question will only be found by a closer analysis of the difference between transcendence and immanence, and this can only be attempted after a deeper consideration of the structure of consciousness, which will only be obtained after a discussion of perhaps Husserl’s most important and central concept: intentionality.

How things present themselves, rather than how we might wish them to present themselves, has to do with the intentional structure of consciousness. Like Kant, Husserl would argue that consciousness is not just a passive recipient of information from the external world, but already determines shapes and constitutes the object we see. Consciousness is not just opposed to the object, but constitutes the relation between the self and the object. These two ‘subjects,’ however, cannot be thought as identical. The first subject is the actual empirical subject, whereas the second subject, which cannot be identified with any actual living person, is ideal and transcendental. The analysis of intentionality is the description of its essential structure.

The notion of intentionality has its roots in medieval investigations of signification, but the immediate source for Husserl was his philosophy teacher Brentano, who made intentionality a distinction between mental and physical phenomena. Mental phenomena, for Brentano, are to be divided into the act of presentation, such as hearing a sound or seeing a colour, but also expectation, hope, judgement, love, happiness and joy, and the content of the presentation of the things or matter which is aimed at in the act of presentation. This ‘presentation’ is not to be confused with any actual thing or state of affairs (Brentano, 1973, pp. 77–81).

Brentano’s account is still empirical (different ways we are conscious of the world) however, whereas Husserl’s is transcendental (what does it mean to have a consciousness of the world at all?). To explain intentionality, let us return to the example of perception. Perceptual objects, are given to us, Husserl argues, only through a continuum of profiles, perspectives, or adumbrations (these are not only spatial, but temporal):

Of necessity a physical thing can be given only ‘one-sidely,’ and that signifies not just incompletely or imperfectly in some sense or another, but precisely what presentation by adumbrations prescribes. (Husserl, 1980, p. 94)

Yet it is equally clear, Husserl would say, if we simple reflect upon our perception of things, we do not just see aspects and profiles, rather there is another element. I always see one and the same thing. Take the example of the table described in the Ideas:

Let us start with an example. Constantly seeing this table and meanwhile walking around it, changing my position is space in whatever way, I have continually the consciousness of this one identical table as factually existing ‘in person’ and remaining quite unchanged. (Husserl, 1980, p. 94)

We are continuously conscious of this one and the same table as existing yet our perceptions of it change. My perceptions of the object are perspectival, whilst I am conscious of the table in person as being there as one thing. We can, therefore, also make a fundamental distinction between appearing and appearance. There is one and the same appearance, Husserl would say, though the appearing of this appearance is always changing. The one and the same appearance is the sense through which I take up the immanent object, and the changing manner of the appearance is how I perceive that object. Both these objects are immanent to the subjective activity of perceiving something as something.

We confuse objectivity with the perceptual object, but it is this object that is continually changing and therefore could never be the ground for scientific knowledge. It is object that is meant that gives unity and sense to our experience of things in the world. It is this unity that is valid meaning of objectivity. This unity already organises, or synthesises Husserl would say, our experience of the world, prior to any theoretical or scientific judgements that I might make of it. It is because the world is already organised by the immanent intentional structure of consciousness that we see things as having such and such meanings and therefore can make judgements about them. My experience of the world is already organised by the structure of intentionality before I have any sensations. I always see something as something. I always take up my perceptions in a meaningful way, and this is the case, even if my perceptions are confused or unclear.

The world is not something outside of us, in the sense of nature in the scientific or common-sense attitude; rather the world should be understood as the network of meanings, which is the horizon in which we encounter perceptual objects. The world is this region of sense in which we are orientated. This world for Husserl is identical to the immanent life of consciousness. It is constituted through it. The key to understanding this claim is to no longer to see the world on the analogy of a natural thing, but in terms of language. For the self-same and identical appearance that appears at the heart of appearing is sense or meaning. It is not a natural thing, and nor does it have any basis in nature, yet it is the ground and possibility of our experience and judgements about nature.

What then did Levinas take from Husserl’s phenomenology and what did he reject? First, Levinas’s method is phenomenological. His description of the experience of the other, which is the basis of his ethics, is a description of how the other is given in concrete experience. His distance from Husserl, however, is the ubiquity of intentionality. There is no doubt that Husserl gives precedence to intentionality, and thus representation, in all aspects of human experience. Thus, even if I love something, then that person must be represented intentionally for me to have to say that I love them and not someone else, and this is true of every subjective act, whether I am speaking of thinking about someone, remembering someone, or wishing to be with someone.
For Levinas, representation is not the primary way in which we relate to the world. Rather the world already must be meaningful for me to have representations of objects in the world. The existence of the world is dependent on my relation to others with whom I share the world, but these others are not first representations. There is an experience of the other, which is non-intentional. Rather than my act of consciousness constituting the meaning of the other, it is the immediate presence of the other in the words they speak that calls my possession of the world into question. It is this demand that is the basis of ethics, not the understanding of a duty or obligation.

One way of understanding the difference between Husserl and Levinas is their approach to sensation. For Husserl, sensations are part of our lived experience, but they are only meaningful when they are taken up through an intentional content. I am looking at the Eiffel tower, but this perception is only a perception of the Eiffel because I take up all my sensations through a unity of sense. It is only because we go beyond the different sensations that we can say perceive one and the same thing, even though I might see it from different perspectives and orientations. For Levinas, the relation to other can be a relation of thought in this sense. I can say that I see a person in the same way I perceive the Eiffel tower. I can experience then objectively. Yet this is not the only, nor the primary relation to others. They can break through their objectifying relation through their singular and individual presence. This other here before me now, and not as a meaning. My sensations are therefore given a different orientation or direction. Not towards a thought or representation, but the embodied presence of the other who speaks to me. This sensation of the presence of the other is not a mutilated thought, but has a unique meaning to itself, an ethical meaning.

Works Cited
Brentano, F., 1973. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint; Routledge, London.
Hawking, S., 2009. A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes. Random House, New York.
Husserl, E., 2012. Logical Investigations. Routledge.
Husserl, E., 1980. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. M. Nijhoff, The Hague.
Husserl, E., 1964. The Idea of Phenomenology. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.


Falsification HM5501 Lecture 4

October 15, 2017

Karl_PopperWhat we want is some criterion which will allow us to distinguish science from any other discourse. In other words what makes science, science, as opposed to religion? What is specific to the method of science? Our simplest response to this question is that science deals with facts that are objective (out there in some way) and that religion has to do with belief and is subjective. We might want to say, then, that science is true, and religion is not. When we looked at this simple definition, however, the less certain and clear it seemed. For the idea that science is made up of many observations of facts that are then converted into theories breaks down in the problem of induction, which, in its most succinct form, is the impossibility of leaping from a singular judgement to a universal one. No amount of logical finessing will get you from a particular to a universal judgement. This would seem to imply that science is no more objective than religion, and that a theory is as much a belief as any faith, though a particularly strong one when it comes to habits of the human mind.[1]

Moreover, it was also clear that the ‘inductionist’ picture of science was not accurate at all, since facts are not just littered throughout the world such that we pick them up and notice common characteristics from which we then construct some universal law, as though coming up with a scientific theory were no different from observing black crows and coming up with the statement ‘All crows are black’. On the contrary, we already come to facts with a pre-existing theory, which determines which facts we take as relevant or not (or even which fact we can see). As Ladyman explained, Newton did not find the law of gravity in Kepler’s data, he already had to have it in order to interpret the data (Ladyman 2002, pp.55–6).

This reversal of the relation between theory and facts, that theory is first and facts second, is the basis of the next philosophy of science that we shall look at, Popper’s theory of falsification, and indeed rose out of the insurmountable problems of ‘inductionism’. His argument is that we should give up induction as the basis of science, but such a rejection would not lead to irrationalism. Rather we substitute for induction, deduction. But did we not argue already in the first lecture that deduction could not be the basis of science, since deduction is merely tautological? Deductive logic tells us nothing new about the world, but only analyses what we already know, whereas science actually tells us something about nature that we didn’t know before.

Deduction does not work as a basis of science only if we move from the singular to the universal, but if we go from the universal back to the singular then deduction does work. Indeed, this move from the universal back to the singular is exactly, Popper argues, how science operates. We do not start with facts and then make laws, rather we start with laws and then we attempt to test them with facts. The logical point is that we can’t go from observations to theories, even if the observations themselves are true, but it is possible the other way around. We can go from theories then back to observational statements to show that the theory is false. Thus to use Chalmers example, if someone was to see a white raven outside the lecture room today, then this would prove deductively that the statement ‘All Ravens are black’ is false. Such deductive arguments are known as modus tollens, which take the form if P, then Q. ⌐Q, therefore ⌐P (Chalmers 1999, p.61).

When we look at the history of science, this seems exactly what happens. Take for the example, Eddington’s proof of Einstein’s theory that gravity bends light. If the theory was correct then a star that was beyond the sun should be displaced from the direction of the observer so that we could see it. Normally the light from the sun would mean that these starts would not be visible to us, but would be if the light of the sun was blocked. Eddington managed to measure just such a displacement with the eclipse of the sun in 1919. For Popper, the point of this story is that he could have proved otherwise. In other words, Einstein’s theory could have been falsified, if there had not been any displacement.

The real difference between science and religion or any other discourse is not the theories or hypotheses put forward, but how they are tested. Popper is adamant that science is creative as any other human discourse and that the origin of this creativity is outside any logical explanation. That someone comes up with such an idea at such a time cannot be logically deduced. Thus, it would require a complex explanation, comprising of psychology, history, and sociology, for example, of how Galileo or Einstein came up with their ideas, and why not someone else, or at different time and place, but what we do know that what makes these creations scientific, as opposed to anything else is that they can be falsified (this is the difference between context of discovery and context of justification). In the opposite case, it does not seem possible to falsify a religion logically. I can always find a reason to believe something. Think for example of the classic problem of evil in theology. How do I justify the existence of God with evil in the world? It is perfectly possible to find such a reason, as Leibniz did, that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’, and it is just our lack of human understanding that prevents us from seeing it so.

Here we might need to know a little of the story of Popper’s life. When he was young he was a communist and of course Marxism was treated as a science. He says that one day in went on a march with his friends and they were attacked by the police and some of them were killed. He was so shaken by this incident that he had to speak about to his political leaders. They told him that these deaths were necessary for the political emancipation of the workers as was explained by scientific Marxism. But what then would falsify Marxism, for they did not seem to be any instance, including the death of his friends that could not be explained by it.[2]

This is precisely the difference between a science and a pseudo-science (religion is only a pseudo-science when it takes itself to be answering scientific questions, otherwise it is perfectly meaningful for Popper): a pseudo-science has the answer to everything and can never not be true, whereas a science does not have the answer to everything and can always be false. It is this that demarcates, to use Popper’s word, empirical science, from anything else, and it is a question of method, rather than logical form, by which he means the positivist obsession with the correlation of statements with aspects of reality. Metaphysics and religion are only pseudo sciences when they pretend to be sciences. If they do not, then there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them. They are certainly not meaningless which is just derogatory word, rather than having any useful philosophical sense.

If what makes a scientific theory scientific is falsification, what exactly makes a falsification? Can any falsification be scientific? Such a broad generalisation does not seem to be correct because just to falsify something would not make it a scientific theory. I could falsify physics, by quoting Genesis but no one would think I was being scientific. The answer here is intersubjective testability. One cannot conceive of how it would be possible to set up an experiment that would test my falsification of physics that claimed God had created the universe in the way that it is described in Genesis. One can imagine, however how it might be possible to test the falsification of Newtonian science through the prediction made by Einstein, which is entirely what the example from Eddington proves, and it is perfectly possible that other scientists could conceive of such an experiment, whether in principal or in practice.[3]

Could a theory always secure itself by simple adding an ad hoc modification every time a falsification was produced? Thus, to use Chalmers’s example, we could take the generalisation that all bread was nutritious to be falsified by the death of all the members of French village who ate bread. We could then qualify our theory by saying that all bread is nutritious except when it is eaten by these members of the French village and we could do this every time any falsification was discovered. Such ad hoc modification would destroy any progress in scientific discovery. How then can we distinguish between an authentic and inauthentic ad hoc modification (Chalmers 1999, p.75). In this example, the modification cannot be falsified, so it does not tell us anything new about the world. It in fact tells us less than the original theory that all bread nourishes. So, an authentic modification must be one that is also falsifiable. If we had said instead that all bread nourishes except one that is contaminated by certain fungus called Claviceps purpurea, then this would be an authentic ad hoc modification, since it could be tested and falsified, and thus does tell us something new about the world.

This distinction between authentic and inauthentic ad hoc modifications of scientific theories, however, tells us that we should not over-estimate falsifications of theories. When we look at the history of science we can see that ad hoc modifications can confirm rather than deny a theory. Take the case of the discovery of Neptune. Irregularities in the orbit of Uranus predicted that there must be another planet that had not be observed. Rather than reject Newton’s theory, scientists argued that a planet must exist that would explain it. Thus, the fact that Neptune was found in 1846 confirmed Newton’s theory rather than falsified it. Rather than seeing science as just a series of falsifications, which lead from theory to the next, Aristotle to Newton to Einstein, we should see it as the confirmation of bold conjectures and the falsification of cautious ones. For what difference does it make to science if one falsifies conjectures such as the universe is made of porridge or confirms a cautious one? But how then do we determine what makes a bold conjecture? The only answer to this must be background theories themselves, for only in relation to them could we know what would be bold or timid. The background knowledge is therefore the cautious conjecture (what we take to be correct) and the bold conjecture flies in the face of what everyone thinks is the case. We can see, then, what the real fundamental difference between the falsificationist and inductionist is. The first takes the history of science seriously, and the second has no conception of the history of science at all. There is no background knowledge. Rather facts are accumulated as though there were no context at all and science existed in the eternal present.

Is falsification immune to criticism then? The answer must be unfortunately not. The real problem is still the relation to the theory and the observation. All we can say deductively is that if there is O, then the falsity of T follows if the O is not given, but it tells us nothing about the standard of the evidence itself. What if the evidence is incorrect? Perhaps when person who said that the raven was white and no idea what white was. Perhaps the photograph of the white raven was created in Photoshop, and no such evidence exists. Popper does not have a better story about the correctness of evidence than the positivist.

Moreover, when we look at science, it does not take the simple form of ‘All swans are White’. Rather, sciences are made up of complex collection of universal statements which are interrelated to one another. Now if a prediction tells us the theory is false it tells is that one of the premises might be wrong but not which one or even that our own experience might be the problem. It might not the theory that is out, but the ‘test situation’ itself, because we cannot isolate the premise which allows us to falsify the theory (this is known as the Duhem/Quine thesis). So to use Ladyman’s example, if we were to try and predict the path of a comet, the law of gravity would not be sufficient, so if the predication were incorrect we would not know that it was the theory of gravity that was being falsified or something else (Ladyman 2002, pp.77–8). You cannot isolate hypotheses in science and refute one and others, because these different hypotheses fit together to make a whole.

Even if such an isolation were possible, falsification does not seem to capture what scientists do, for when we look at the history of science we do not find one great conjecture following another, but that scientists stick to their theories despite the fact that they can be falsified or they adopt a new hypothesis even though all the known evidence at the time should have killed them off at birth. This is what we find when we look at the detail of the eventual transition from the Aristotelian to the Copernican view of the world as Feyerabend and Kuhn describe it. It certainly was not the simple falsification of the one by the other. Science works, to some extent, because scientists are dogmatic and not open to falsification. If that is the case, how is it possible to differentiate, or demarcate, science from any other dogma? Will we not have to use different criteria, which are more pragmatic and historical than methodological?

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.

Popper, K.R., 2002. Unended quest, London; New York: Routledge.


[1] When we look at science as a method this is a problem. We might ask, however, if we think of science as an activity, whether it is such a problem since science is not a straightforward process of induction.

[2] The source of this story can be found in Popper’s autobiography (Popper 2002, pp.30–8).

[3] Does this open Popper to a more pragmatic account of science than an epistemological one? For if testability is inter-subjective how are we to describe it? Popper appears to want to separate questions of method from question of practice, but later criticisms will in turn want to question this distinction by asking whether it is really the case, when we look at the history of science, that scientists really are committed to the principle of falsifiability. This will be part of Kuhn’s critique of Popper.


The Problem of Induction HM5501 Lecture 3

October 15, 2017

HumeThe justification of science appears at first glance to be the generalisation of experience. I heat metal x and see that it expands, I heat metal y and see that it expands, I heat metal z and see that it expands, and so on, such that it seems natural that I can claim that all metals expand when I heat them. When you hear then talk, then you would think that most scientists think this is what a scientific argument is, and most would also think this is what we might mean by scientific objectivity. There are, however, two questions we might ask of them. First of all, does the inductive method really produce knowledge in the way they think it does, and secondly even if it did is this how science itself operates in its own history? I actually think the second question is more important than the first. The first question is about scientific method, the second is more about what scientists actually do, and not what they say they do. It is a matter of pragmatics, rather than the logical definition of a method in the abstract.

Let us take the first question first, because it is the more traditional problem of induction, and has its canonical form in the argument of Hume. To understand his problem with induction we first of all need to understand, even if in the most basic way, his epistemology. For Hume, there are two kinds of propositions: relations of ideas, and matters of facts. In the first relation, the truth of our ideas is confined by our ideas alone. Thus if you understand the concept ‘bachelor’ you know the idea ‘unmarried man’ is contained within it. When it comes to matters of fact, however, we have to go beyond our concepts to experience. They tell us something new about the world and not just the ideas we already know. A matter of fact would be that Paris is the capital of France, or metals expand when heated. Of course when you know the idea then you know what is contained in it, but to obtain the idea you first of all have to get the knowledge. You only know that Paris is in France, if you have knowledge of basic geography. You only know that metals expand when heated, if you know metallurgy.

There can be false relations of ideas as there can be false matters of fact. Thus if you think that a whale is a fish, then you have made an error about a relation of ideas (you don’t know that a whale is a mammal), and if you think that Plato died in 399 BC, then you have made an error at the level of facts (Ladyman 2002, p.32). Relations of ideas can be proved true by deduction since the negation is a contraction. Basically relations of ideas are tautologies, you cannot assert that Peter is not a bachelor at the same time as asserting that he isn’t married as well, since being unmarried and being a bachelor are one the same thing. On the other hand, matters of fact cannot be proved by logic alone, but can only be derived from experience and their contradiction is not a fallacy. If I say that Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth, none of the terms have a logical relation to one another, so I could assume that there is taller mountain. I would have to experience the different tall mountains on Earth to know which one was tallest or not (Ladyman 2002, p.33). For this reason Hume was extremely sceptical about what one could claim to know deductively. All that one could claim are logical relations between concepts that we already known (whose origin anyway would be the senses). What we cannot claim is to produce new knowledge about the world simply through examining our concepts (as theology and metaphysics is wont to do in his opinion).[1]

These distinctions seem very straight forward and at first glance appear to back up the ‘inductivist’ view of science. The problem for Hume, however, is whether the idea that matters of fact could have the same necessary conclusions as relations of ideas, as the idea of expanding metals as a universal law implies. The key to this problem for Hume is whether I can assert that what happens in the past is a necessary certainty for what will happen in the future. I have experienced the fact that the sun rises every morning. Does this give me the right to say it will rise again tomorrow, when I haven’t actually experience this dawn yet? If it does rise then I will be certain, and in terms of the past, I know that it did rise, but now can I know that I will rise again tomorrow? It is perfectly possible, even if it were unexpected, that the sun might not rise.

Induction for Hume is based upon causal arguments. Our only knowledge of cause and effect is through experience itself because there is no logical reason why any causal relation should hold or not hold. I know matches cause fires, because I know that from experience, not because matches logically contain fire. Just as we can only infer future behaviour of the world from the actual experience of the world, then we can only understand the category of causality from experience. In other words without experience we would not have the concept of causality as a generality. If I always experience the dawn as the rising of the sun then I conjoin this events. If A always follows B, then I will say that A causes B. This because I believe that the future always follows the same path as the past. So that if A happens, then B will happen. Linked to conjunction is contiguity and precedence. Contiguity means that B follows A in time and space, and precedence is that the effect is always after the cause. (the flame is after the lighted match and not before). It is because of conjunction, contiguity, and precedence, that we feel that we have good reason to say that A causes B, or that the sun will rise tomorrow. Hume assertion, however, is that this can never be a necessary reason, as is suggested by generalisation of a universal law, however compelling I feel this causality to be.

Take the example of billiard balls, which seems the most basic relation of causality. The ball X hits the ball Y and causes it to move. But what do we mean by that? Do we mean that the ball X makes the ball Y move or that it produces its movement? We think there is a necessary connection between the two events. X moving and Y moving. What we experience is conjunction, contiguity and precedence, what we do not experience is some mysterious ‘necessary connection’. What we see is ball X and ball Y, what we do not see is some other third thing (like an invisible connection, indeed what we do not see is causality). What does it add to our explanation of the events, even if we were to add this mysterious cause. Wouldn’t the ball X and the ball Y just move in exactly the same way?

The point for Hume is just because two events have always in the past be conjoined, does not mean that we can be universally certain that they will always do so. The conclusion of inductive argument could be false but that would never make it invalid (indeed it might make it more interesting, if the sun did not rise the next day), but this is never the case with a deductive argument if the premises are true, then the conclusion is necessarily true. What underpins the inductive generalisation is the belief that nature is well ordered spatially and temporally, that what happens many times will happen again in the same way. But that is just an assumption. Why must the future always be the same as the past and it certainly is not a logical contradiction if it were not.

Now of course we make these kind of inferences all the time, and Hume accepts that. I probably would not be able to live if I really though the sun would not rise tomorrow every time I went to bed. But this uniformity is a result of our psychology (perhaps it is an evolutionary trait) rather than reason or logic. We find regularity in nature because our habitual associations of events, and not because these events are necessarily connected.[2]

There is no doubt that Hume’s problem is very profound and does make us look at induction more critically, but we might think that the idea that science itself is inductive in the simple way that ‘inductivism’ implies is too simplistic. So the problem is not with induction as such, but how we are using it. It is important to note that this is a very different critique from the methodological one. In the first case, we investigate the method of induction, and like Hume say that is flawed, or might even argue that Hume’s own account of induction is not a correct description of induction.[3] Whereas in the historical account of science, we are arguing whether the description of method is actually how scientists themselves work. One is a description of the content of scientific knowledge, the other is a description of the activity of scientists themselves. Do scientists really act the way that Hume’s example suggests they do? This is a completely different way of doing philosophy of science. For it does not first of all describe a method of doing science and then apply it to scientists, rather it examines what scientists do and from that derives the method. We shall see that this way of understanding science is going to be very important to Kuhn.

Why might we think that scientists do not use the inductive method in the way that induction has been described so far? Take the example of Newton’s Principia (Ladyman 2002, pp.55–6). Newton presents in this work the three laws of motion and the law of gravity. From these laws in explains natural phenomena like planetary motion. He says that he has inferred these laws through induction from observation. Now it is French philosopher of science Duhem that points out that there is a problem with Newton’s explanation. The data he is using is Kepler’s. His data proves that the planet will move in circles, whereas Newton’s in ellipses. This means that he could not have inferred gravity from Kepler’s data, rather he already the hypothesis of the law of gravity to interpret Kepler’s data. Even Kepler’s theory could not have be derived from observation, because he took his data from Brahe, but could only organise it by already assuming that planets moved in circles, a hypothesis he didn’t receive from data, but from the mystical Pythagorean tradition.

So there are two reasons why we might be sceptical of the simple inductive explanation of science. One is methodological through the problem of induction (though we might come up with a better inductive method to solve this), and the other is historical, that science does not work in the way that theory of induction describes. I think the latter is the more serious issue than the former. For in the end science is what scientists do, and not what philosophers might idealise that they do. If you like, the problem of induction is a problem for philosophers. It isn’t one for scientists. They work in a very different way indeed.

Works Cited

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.

 


[1] A group of philosophers from the 20th century called logical positivists also liked this distinction, and differentiated mathematical and logical truths, on the one hand, and science on the other. Anything that didn’t fit this schema was said to be nonsense or meaningless. I am not sure that Hume would have gone that far.

[2] Kant’s argument against Hume is that causality is not merely a habit of the mind but a necessary part of our representation of the world. It would not make sense without it.

[3] This is what Ladyman does when he lists all the different ways in which we might counter Hume, the most telling being induction as the ‘best explanation’ (Ladyman 2002, pp.46–7).


Induction HM5501 Lecture 2

October 2, 2017

BaconLast week we spoke about the difference between science and religion. We said it could be conceptualised as one between belief and facts. The more, we investigated, however, what a fact is, the less certain we became of its status as a starting point for scientific investigation. Common sense might tell us that facts are just out there and we simply observe them and scientific theories are merely collections of these observations, but when we look at the history of science, however, this is not how science works. What we take as facts are already determined by the way we understand and see the world, and our observations are equally shaped by this background conceptuality. In the next two lectures, we are going to investigate the problem of induction, which is probably the classic form of the philosophy of science, and we shall see that we’ll come up against the same barrier again. Moreover, the knowledge that science has of the world cannot itself be infallible, because of the very way that it interprets these facts. In this lecture, however, we’ll give a positive account of induction through Francis Bacon’s method in Novum Organum (1620) and we will investigate the problems of induction in the next lecture.[1]

Ordinarily we might think that scientific theories are obtained from facts through observation and this is what makes it different from belief. But what does it exactly mean that theories are obtained or derived from facts? How do we get from the one to the other? What we mean here is something logical rather than temporal. We don’t just mean that first there is a collection of facts, and then a theory, as though facts were just pebbles on a beach that we pick up. A theory, on the contrary, is supposed to tell us something about these facts before we have even discovered them. It is about meaning and context, rather than just what comes first or second in a temporal order.

What then do we mean by derivation when we speak about logic? We don’t have to go into the complexities of logic here but just the basic form since all we are interested is how theories originate from facts. Logic is based upon deduction. Here is a valid deductive argument, which comes from Ladyman:

All human beings are mortal

Socrates is a human being

Socrates is mortal. (Ladyman, 2002, p. 19)

1 and 2 are the premises and 3 is the conclusion. You cannot deny the conclusion if you take the premises as true. We can change the premises slightly, however, as Ladyman writes, and the deduction would be wrong.

All human beings are animals

Bess is an animal

Therefore Bess is a human being (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

What is important here is that it’s the form of the argument itself that is wrong. The conclusion does not follow from the premises even if one accepts them. Bess could be any kind of animal. What is positive about deductive arguments is that they are truth preserving. That is, if the premises are true and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is. The problem is that the conclusion does not contain any more information than the premises. It does not tell you anything more about the world and surely this is what science does. Although science uses logic and mathematics, it does tell us something new about the phenomena we observe. If it did not, then there wouldn’t be different theories about the world.

From this is follows that if science is derived from facts then it cannot be done so logically, because logic cannot tell us whether a fact is true or not. If we know there are true facts then we can logically relate them together (logic is ‘truth preserving’), but it is only from experience whether we know they are true or not. Take for example the scientific law that metal expands when it heats. It does not matter how many times that I repeat this, as Chalmers argues, it does not logically follow (as is implied below) that all metals will expand when heated:

metal x expanded when it was heated

metal y expanded when it was heated

metal z expanded when it was heated

All metals expand when heated (Chalmers, 1999, p. 44)

If scientific theories don’t come from facts logically, then how are they derived? The answer must be through experience itself inductively. What do we mean by induction? First of all, the difference between deductive and inductive arguments is that in the latter the conclusion always goes beyond what is contained in the premises, as the example above shows. I can never be certain that all metals will expand when heated, because this is precisely what I assert when I move from singular instances (this metal expands when heated) to the universal judgement that all do so.

How then can I adjudicate between a bad and good inductive argument in the way that I did with deductive ones? It would seem, through common sense, that I might be able to justify my universal judgements if I go through many singular observations. In other words, I observe many samples of metal to investigate whether they do expand or not, and if I observe in this large number that they do, then I would be justified in asserting ‘All metals expand when heated’. Thus, the laws of induction would be

1) The number of observations should be large

2) They must be repeated under a wide range of conditions

3) There should be no exceptions.

It is precisely for this reason that English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon can up with his ‘new method’.[2] First this method is negative. The point is that we should avoid falling into bad arguments rather than coming up with new deductive ones. Bacon’s method is rules about how to practice science by avoiding some of the worst errors. These errors he called ‘idols of the mind’: that we tend to see order and regularity in nature when there is none is the idol of the tribe; that our judgements and are shaped by our language and concepts rather than what we see is the idol of the marketplace; and finally that are views of nature can be distorted by our philosophical and metaphysical systems of thought is the idol of the theatre.[3] From this follows the positive content of Bacon’s method that we ought to make observations of nature that are free of these idols. It is from the mass of information gained through observation that we should make generalisations, rather than understanding our observations through generalisations, which he accuses the philosophers of doing. This he calls the ‘natural and experimental history’.

It is important to understand what Bacon meant by observation is not just looking at the world, but doing experiments, and it this emphasis on experiments that distinguishes the new method from the old Aristotelian one.[4] It is experiments that preserve the objectivity of observations. First, it allows them to be quantified and secondly that they can be repeated by others and thus tested as to their reliability. It is this data from experiments that are then put into tables. To use then example from Bacon of heat: first we have the table of Essence and Presence that lists those things that are directly part of the phenomena of heat; secondly, we have the list of Deviation and Absence, which lists those phenomena that are related to the first but have no heat; and then we have the list of Comparison, where features that have a quantity of heat are listed and quantified. The empirical method is one of elimination. Let us say I argue that the colour white is explanation of heat. Then I would check my tables and I would see that not all the phenomena that are hot are white, or that some phenomena that are white are not hot and so on. White, then, could not be part of theory of heat. Through this process of elimination Bacon explained that heat was caused by the ‘extensive motion of parts’, which is not far from the modern kinetic theory of heat.

Bacon believed one can discover the forms that made what we observed possible, even though they were not directly perceivable. These forms where the direct physical cause of what we saw. This was the rejection of final causes, where natural phenomenon where viewed as purposive. The Aristotelian explanation, for example, that stones fall to the ground was because the earthly element sought to fall to the centre of the earth. Teleological explanations such as these are only suitable for human actions (since humans unlike stones do have desires) but not natural phenomena. The ubiquity of physical causes is the major different between new empirical science of the 17th century and the old science of Aristotle’s era that had dominated the explanation of nature for so long.

There are, however, problems with induction. First, what is the status of the non-observed forms that are the physical cause of what we observe. How can we make a leap from what is seen to what is not seen? It is possible to see how heat might be explained by Bacon’s method since in fact we can see the motion, but how would we go about explaining radiation? Also, we see in science that there can be two competing forms that explain the same visible phenomena such as the two theories of light, for example. Bacon does have an answer for the last problem. He says that we ought to set up two competing experiments that would test what we observe and we could see which was the more successful. But this already demonstrates what we might doubt about Bacon’s new method. In this case are not the theories themselves determining the experiments and not what we observe? Bacon says that science is made from two pillars: observation and induction and that we ought to be able to observe nature without prejudice (the prejudices being the idols of the mind). This is perhaps what most people think that science is. We take many instances and then we generalise a law. Yet the problem is how we account for this mysterious leap from the particular to the universal. How many instances make a general law and if there is an exception does this mean that law is no longer a law?

There are, then, two problems with the principle of induction as Bacon describes it. One is that we might doubt that any observation is unprejudiced. This is not just in a negative sense as Bacon describes it, but also positively, that without a theory it is hard to know what one would observe in the first place. If one didn’t have a theory of electricity why would you set up experiments to observe it? Secondly, we might worry about how it is possible to go from many observations to a general law. Just because X has happened many times before, how do we know we know that it will happen again? This problem of induction, as it is called, and was introduced by the Hume, and has for many made naïve induction untenable. We shall investigate this problem in next week’s lecture.

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science? University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Qld.

Gaukroger, S., 2001. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, P., 2007. Was there a Scientific Revolution? European Review 15, 445–457.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science. Routledge, London; New York.


[1] Although Newton had not read Bacon’s work, his scientific method was widely seen as following his account of induction, and through the fame of the former, has become the ‘common sense’ view of science. For a general account of the importance of Bacon for the image of science, see (Gaukroger, 2001).

[2] See (Ladyman, 2002, pp. 22–5) for this summary of Bacon’s method.

[3] As we can see, what Bacon sees as idols, we might see as unavoidable necessities and this precisely prevents us from accepting the naive inductive explanation of science.

[4] On the importance of experiments to Bacon’s conception of science, and the subsequent transformation of science from a solitary to a communal affair, see (Harrison, 2007).


Why Philosophy? Lecture 1 HM4511

September 24, 2017

thalesPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives, we do not question our fundamental principles, values, or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were the first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one these first, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theaetetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end, is not on Thales, but those who laughed at him, because, according to Aristotle, having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he could predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune by cornering the market in olive presses (Politics 1.11 1259a5-19).[1] Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being. In this way, he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals, and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what the word ‘philosophy’ means in Greek (φίλος meaning ‘love’ and σοφία meaning ‘wisdom’), is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas non-philosophers always know they have found the truth and everyone else is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.[2]

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives? Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes, and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we must accomplish throughout our whole lives, and is something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that can choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction, and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though our time were endless and we could always put off deciding. It’s a bit like how we think about our own death. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course, that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here.[3] He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.

Works Cited

White, Stephen, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.


[1] For a full account of what we know about Thales, which is very little, see, Stephen White, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.

[2] Perhaps Plato typifies the non-philosophy in the figure of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who does not like arguing or contemplating the truth from different perspectives but always wants to win. The practice of philosophy, what it means to philosophise, is as of much importance to Plato, perhaps even more so, than the content.

[3] You can watch him talk about this here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e0O09_ZekE. He starts talking about his spirtual experience at about 8.36.


Induction – Lecture 2

October 10, 2016

BaconLast week we spoke about the difference between science and religion. We said it could be conceptualised as one between belief and facts. The more, we investigated, however, what a fact is, the less certain we became of its status as a starting point for scientific investigation. Common sense might tell us that facts are just out there and we simply observe them and scientific theories are merely collections of these observations, but when we look at the history of science, however, it is clear that this is not how science works. What we take as facts are already determined by the way we understand and see the world, and our observations are equally shaped by this background conceptuality. In the next two lectures, we are going to investigate the problem of induction, which is probably the classic form of the philosophy of science, and we shall see that we’ll come up against the same barrier again. Moreover, the knowledge that science has of the world cannot itself be infallible, because of the very way that it interprets these facts. In this lecture, however, we’ll give a positive account of induction through Francis Bacon’s method in Novum Organum (1620).[1]

Ordinarily we might think that scientific theories are obtained from facts through observation and this is what makes it different from belief. But what does it exactly mean that theories are obtained or derived from facts? How do we get from the one to the other? What we mean here is something logical rather than temporal. We don’t just mean that first of all there is a collection of facts, and then a theory, as though facts were just pebbles on a beach that we pick up. A theory, on the contrary, is supposed to tell us something about these facts before we have even discovered them. It is about meaning and context, rather than just what comes first or second in a temporal order.

What then do we mean by derivation when we speak about logic? We don’t have to go into the complexities of logic here but just the basic form since all we are interested is how theories originate from facts. Logic is based upon deduction. Here is a valid deductive argument, which comes from Ladyman:

All human beings are mortal

Socrates is a human being

Socrates is mortal. (Ladyman, 2002, p. 19)

1 and 2 are the premises and 3 is the conclusion. You cannot deny the conclusion if you take the premises as true. We can change the premises slightly, however, as Ladyman writes, and the deduction would be wrong.

All human beings are animals

Bess is an animal

Therefore Bess is a human being (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

What is important here is that it’s the form of the argument itself that is wrong. The conclusion does not follow from the premises even if one accepts them. Bess could be any kind of animal. What is positive about deductive arguments is that they are truth preserving. That is, if the premises are true and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is. The problem is that the conclusion does not contain any more information than the premises. It does not tell you anything more about the world and surely this is what science does. Although science uses logic and mathematics, it does tell us something new about the phenomena we observe. If it did not, then there wouldn’t be different theories about the world.

From this is follows that if science is derived from facts then it cannot be done so logically, because logic cannot tell us whether a fact is true or not. If we know there are true facts then we can logically relate them together (logic is ‘truth preserving’), but it is only from experience whether we know they are true or not. Take for example the scientific law that metal expands when it heats. It does not matter how many times that I repeat this, as Chalmers argues, it does not logically follow (as is implied below) that all metals will expand when heated:

metal x expanded when it was heated

metal y expanded when it was heated

metal z expanded when it was heated

All metals expand when heated (Chalmers, 1999, p. 44)

If scientific theories don’t come from facts logically, then how are they derived? The answer must be through experience itself; that is to say, inductively. What do we mean by induction? First of all the difference between deductive and inductive arguments is that in the latter the conclusion always goes beyond what is contained in the premises, as the example above shows. I can never be certain that all metals will expand when heated, because this is precisely what I assert when I move from a singular instances (this metal expands when heated) to the universal judgement that all do so.

How then can I adjudicate between a bad and good inductive argument in the way that I did with deductive ones? It would seem, through common sense, that I might be able to justify my universal judgements if I go through a number of singular observations. In other words, I observe a large number of samples of metal to investigate whether they do expand or not, and if I observe in this large number that they do, then I would be justified in asserting ‘All metals expand when heated’. Thus the laws of induction would be

1) The number of observations should be large

2) They must be repeated under a wide range of conditions

3) There should be no exceptions.

It is precisely for this reason that English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon can up with his ‘new method’.[2] First of all this method is negative. The point is that we should avoid falling into bad arguments rather than coming up with new deductive ones. Bacon’s method is rules about how to practice science by avoiding some of the worst errors. These errors he called ‘idols of the mind’: that we tend to see order and regularity in nature when there is none is the idol of the tribe; that our judgements and are shaped by our language and concepts rather than what we see is the idol of the marketplace; and finally that are views of nature can be distorted by our philosophical and metaphysical systems of thought is the idol of the theatre.[3] From this follows the positive content of Bacon’s method that we ought to make observations of nature that are free of these idols. It is from the mass of information gained through observation that we should make generalisations, rather than understanding our observations through generalisations, which he accuses the philosophers of doing. This he calls the ‘natural and experimental history’.

It is important to understand what Bacon meant by observation is not just looking at the world, but doing experiments, and it this emphasis on experiments that distinguishes the new method from the old Aristotelian one.[4] It is experiments that preserve the objectivity of observations. First of all, it allows them to be quantified and secondly that they can be repeated by others and thus tested as to their reliability. It is this data from experiments that are then put into tables. To use then example from Bacon of heat: first we have the table of Essence and Presence that lists those things that are directly part of the phenomena of heat; secondly, we have the list of Deviation and Absence, which lists those phenomena that are related to the first but have no heat; and then we have the list of Comparison, where features that have a quantity of heat are listed and quantified. The empirical method is one of elimination. Let us say I argue that the colour white is explanation of heat. Then I would check my tables and I would see that not all the phenomena that hot are white, or that some phenomena that are white are not hot and so on. White, then, could not be part of theory of heat. Through this process of elimination Bacon explained that heat was caused by the ‘extensive motion of parts’, which is not far from the modern kinetic theory of heat.

Bacon believed one can discover the forms that made what we observed possible, even though they were not directly perceivable. These forms where the direct physical cause of what we saw. This was the rejection of final causes, where natural phenomenon where viewed as purposive. The Aristotelian explanation, for example, that stones fall to the ground was because the earthly element sought to fall to the centre of the earth. Teleological explanations such as these are only suitable for human actions (since humans unlike stones do have desires) but not natural phenomena. The ubiquity of physical causes is the major different between new empirical science of the 17th century and the old science of Aristotle’s era that had dominated the explanation of nature for so long.

There are, however, problems with induction. First of all, what is the status of the non-observed forms that are the physical cause of what we observe. How can we make a leap from what is seen to what is not seen? It is possible to see how heat might be explained by Bacon’s method since in fact we can see the motion, but how would we go about explaining radiation? Also we see in science that there can be two competing forms that explain the same visible phenomena such as the two theories of light, for example. Bacon does have an answer for the last problem. He says that we ought to set up two competing experiments that would test what we observe and we could see which was the more successful. But this already demonstrates what we might doubt about Bacon’s new method. In this case are not the theories themselves determining the experiments and not what we observe? Bacon says that science is made from two pillars: observation and induction and that we ought to be able to observe nature without prejudice (the prejudices being the idols of the mind). This is perhaps what most people think that science is. We take many particular instances and then we generalise a law. Yet the problem is how we account for this mysterious leap from the particular to the universal. How many instances make a general law and if there is an exception does this mean that law is no longer a law?

There are, then, two problems with the principle of induction as Bacon describes it. One is that we might doubt that any observation is unprejudiced. This is not just in a negative sense as Bacon describes it, but also positively, that without a theory it is hard to know what one would observe in the first place. Secondly, we might worry about how it is possible to go from many observations to a general law. Just because X has happened many times before, how do we know we know that it will happen again? This problem of induction, as it is called, and was introduced by the Hume, and has for many made naïve ‘inductivism’ untenable. We shall investigate this problem in next week’s lecture.

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science? University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Qld.

Gaukroger, S., 2001. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, P., 2007. Was there a Scientific Revolution? European Review 15, 445–457.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science. Routledge, London; New York.


[1] Although Newton had not read Bacon’s work, his scientific method was widely seen as following his account of induction, and through the fame of the former, has become the ‘common sense’ view of science. For a general account of the importance of Bacon for the image of science, see (Gaukroger, 2001).

[2] See (Ladyman, 2002, pp. 22–5) for this summary of Bacon’s method.

[3] As we can see, what Bacon sees as idols, we might see as unavoidable necessities and this precisely prevents us from accepting the inductive explanation of science.

[4] On the importance of experiments to Bacon’s conception of science, and the subsequent transformation of science from a solitary to a communal affair, see (Harrison, 2007).