Sunday, September 22, 2013

How to save a refuted theory

I understand that, for any scientific theory, the "refuted" theory can always be saved by adjusting it to fit the contrary evidence. There is no logical point at which scientists must give up their theory, but theories are often nevertheless abandoned by their adherents (possible when all the old scientists who believed the theory die off). 


The old astronomy was not, in any exact sense, 'refuted" by the telescope. The scarred surface of the Moon and the satellites of Jupiter can, if one wants, be fitted into a geocentric scheme... How far, by endless tinkerings, it could have kept up with them till even now, I do not know. But the human mind will not long endure such ever-increasing complications if once it has seen that some simpler conception can 'save the appearances." The new astronomy triumphed, not because the case for the old became desperate, but because the new was a better tool, and once this was grasped, our ingrained conviction that Nature herself is thrifty did the rest.

C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, 219-220. 

38 comments:

Lothar Lorraine said...


Basically it is a justification of Occam's razor.
But this can only be a pragmatic justification:
without OR we would not be able to know that geocentrism is wrong, therefore we ought to use OR as a pragmatic tool.

On my blog I criticized many justifications of what I call the ontological razor of Occam:
http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/deconstructing-the-popular-use-of-occams-razor/


Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com


Crude said...

A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/max_planck.html#BK0uKcB85M8v241G.99

B. Prokop said...

Victor,

Are you "going somewhere" with this posting? I'm not at all sure what kind of conversation you're trying to start here.

It is true that there were several rather Rube Goldbergish attempts to save what could be saved of the old Ptolemaic system after Copernicus (most notably, Tycho's "compromise" of keeping the Earth at the center of the Solar System with the Sun and Moon circling the Earth, whilst all the other planets orbited the Sun * ), but ultimately these are now nothing more than historical footnotes (as well as being monuments to the ingenuity of their makers).

Are you comparing today's Neo-Darwinists to Tycho Brahe?

* Interestingly enough, the Tychonic system actually works quite well with real world observations. It's just that it's incredibly, inelegantly complex - far more unwieldy than the epicycle-laden Ptolemaic System it was meant to be an improvement on.

im-skeptical said...

It would certainly be possible to make a mathematical model for a geocentric universe. The problem is that it takes more than a a mathematical formula. There must be a physical theory underlying that model if you want to call it science. Ever since Newton, we've had a real theory of gravitation, and no legitimate reason to revert to older concepts of celestial motion. If the theoty changes, it's because of improvements, not a reversion to the old. There's no going back, despite the continued existence of science-denying dinosaurs.

Crude said...

Bob,

I can't read Victor's mind, but I think one take-away lesson here is that you can keep your scientific model consistent with the data if you keep toying with it, and at no point do you necessarily get a clear refutation. You can just keep saying 'Well, that's a problem we're working on...' at worst.

Granted, your colleagues may not accept this. But then that gets into sociological considerations.

Ilíon said...

"I understand that, for any scientific theory, the "refuted" theory can always be saved by adjusting it to fit the contrary evidence. There is no logical point at which scientists must give up their theory ..."

This is because (as I keep pointing out) 'modern science' isn’t about truth -- its methods and reasoning do not start with truth, its reasoning is not strictly deductive (*), and its conclusions cannot be shown within the system to be true.

(*) Thus, even if the scientific-minded person *did* limit his axioms to known truths, he can never be certain that his conclusions are true.

BenYachov said...

The Ptolemaic system was in shambles by the time of Galileo since it could be observed Mercury orbited the Sun.

What couldn't be proven using the Science of the time was that the Earth moved & it would be several centuries before science could make the case.

As a Physics Professor at my college once pointed out ironically with Einstein in terms of mere observed motion we clearly live in an A-centric Universe thus if you arbitrarily mark the Earth as the "center" because of some peculiar interpretation of some book reportedly written by the Universe's Manufacturer then there is no reason why you must say that is false(other then any objections you have to the authority of the book or existence of the Manufacturer).

Of course the difference between this type of Geocentracism & the Ptolemaic system is with the Ptolemaic if the Earth disappeared the Cosmos would fall apart.

With this version of "geocentracism" the Universe wouldn't notice that it's "center" as gone away.

Curious that is....

B. Prokop said...

As any parent of a daughter knows full well, the universe revolves around them!

Ilíon said...

BenYachov: "The Ptolemaic system was in shambles by the time of Galileo since it could be observed Mercury orbited the Sun.

What couldn't be proven using the Science of the time was that the Earth moved & it would be several centuries before science could make the case.
"

Whether it *should* have been understood to be "in shambles" is a different matter from whether it *was* understood to be "in shambles". It was not so understood.

The geocentric model was abandoned in favor of the heliocentric model long before the "scientific evidence" was clear. The change was made for aesthetic reasons -- and more importantly, for socio-political reasons (*).

Under the geocentric model, it's not that the Earth was thought to be "THE center of the universe", but rather that the Earth was thought to be *at* "the center of the universe" – and “center” needs to be understood as “bottom”. There is a vast difference between these two ideas.

BenYachov: "Of course the difference between this type of Geocentracism & the Ptolemaic system is with the Ptolemaic if the Earth disappeared the Cosmos would fall apart."

This statement reflects a misunderstanding of Aristotelian science on the matter.

The Earth was considered to be *at* the center/bottom of the universe. It wasn’t that the Earth *caused* the center/bottom to exist, in the manner that we think of the Earth or the Sun as causing their respective gravity wells to exist, but rather that the Earth was at the center/bottom because *down* is where “heaver elements” naturally fall.

In Aristotelian science, “up” and “down” exist in their own right. Earth was “at the center” because “the center” was the lowest possible place; from “the center”, every direction is “up”.

(*) People who don’t understand (and most refuse to understand) the world-view that attends the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic conception, vainly imagine with Earth being thought to be *at* “the center of the universe”, it was thought to be in the most important place, or the place of honor. In fact, it was the opposite – Earth was thought to be at the *worst* place to be.
The early humanists liked the heliocentric model – and were instrumental in its cultural adoption – precisely because it “moved” Earth – and thus humans – to a “more important” or “more honorable” place. The early humanists wanted the heliocentric model to replace the geocentric model precisely because they were in thrall to the First Sin.

Modern-day humanists, while they have little in common with the early humanists, do have in common that they are *still* in thrall to the First Sin.

im-skeptical said...

"The geocentric model was abandoned in favor of the heliocentric model long before the "scientific evidence" was clear. The change was made for aesthetic reasons -- and more importantly, for socio-political reasons"

I think the geocentric model was abandoned BECAUSE of the evidence. The earlier heliocentric model of Copernicus was not accepted, because there was still no theory of gravitation that could explain the orbital paths of the planets and it didn't work as well as the geocentric model. Kepler's model agreed with Newton's gravity theory, predicted planetary paths better, and it then replaced the geocentric model.

B. Prokop said...

"Kepler's model agreed with Newton's gravity theory, predicted planetary paths better, and it then replaced the geocentric model."

Uhhh... How was that possible? Kepler died in 1630 and Newton wasn't born until 1642 - long after the heliocentric model had been accepted.

Ilíon said...

Totally off-topic -- one of my co-workers found out that he's descended from Kepler. I told him that had he know that when he was a teen, he could have taken 'Jukebox Hero' as his personal anthem ... you know, "stars in his eyes".

im-skeptical said...

Kepler's model using elliptical orbits was developed before Newton, but it was in agreement with and confirmed by the gravitational theory of Newton. So it became the first broadly accepted heliocentric model. You should know this.

B. Prokop said...

"You should know this."

I do know this, which is why I find your statement "Kepler's model agreed with Newton's gravity theory" incomprehensible - unless you meant to say "Newton's theory of gravity agreed with Kepler's model."

Is that what you meant to write? 'Cause if so, then no disagreement.

im-skeptical said...

Bob,

I don't think we disagree. It's a matter of semantics, perhaps. What I was attempting to say is that Kepler's model was based on observation but lacked an underlying physical theory, which was provided by Newton. Newton's theory confirmed Kepler's model from a scientific perspective. If it hadn't already existed, the Kepler model would certainly have been derived from Newton's theory.

But the point of all this is that scientific theories are not all equal. It has very little to do with proponents dying off. If there are competing theories, one eventually comes to dominate because it is best at explaining what is observed and predicting what happens. The idea that you can keep a theory alive by saying "we're working on it" just doesn't hold water. That's why ID will never fly, no matter how hard they try to spiff it up. Even if they start adopting real scientific practices, it just doesn't work as well as evolution in explaining what we see.

B. Prokop said...

"It has very little to do with proponents dying off."

The quote that crude brought up about opponents dying off before a new theory is accepted was actually by Max Planck, inventor of quantum mechanics. So maybe it does have something to do with that.

ingx24 said...

The idea that you can keep a theory alive by saying "we're working on it" just doesn't hold water.

Unless the theory is materialism, in which case it's fine to keep saying "we're working on it" for 60 years without making *any* progress on the issues that matter. ;)

ingx24 said...

(Of course, materialism isn't actually a scientific theory, but people like im-skeptical would like to think that it is, and they certainly treat it as one.)

im-skeptical said...

"(Of course, materialism isn't actually a scientific theory, but people like im-skeptical would like to think that it is, and they certainly treat it as one.)"

Citation, please.

Oh, that's right - you can't point to a single case where I ever said such a thing, or anything like it - you're just speaking from the other end. Taking lessons from crude?

ingx24 said...

I wasn't talking about you specifically - I was talking about your "type" in general. Maybe I should have been more clear on that.

What I meant was that, in general, "Cult of Gnu" atheists act as though materialism has been proven by science, and that it is a scientific fact (like evolution) that the mind is really just the activity of the brain. They treat materialism like a well-established scientific theory, when really it is only an article of faith held by particularly hardcore atheists who refuse to believe in anything that cannot be seen or measured. The thing is that materialism (besides being in direct contradiction with everything we know about ourselves introspectively) is a failing theory, if it is one: materialists have spent 60 years trying to make materialism work, and have not made even an inch of progress. You can only say "we're working on it" for so long before people stop taking your hypothesis seriously.

im-skeptical said...

"besides being in direct contradiction with everything we know about ourselves introspectively"

What do you know introspectively? Does introspection give you an understanding of how your brain functions? Does it give you knowledge of the distinction between reality and illusion? If you experience a thought, how can you know that's not just your brain doing what it does?

"materialism ... is a failing theory, if it is one"

This sounds like the desperate wail of theists as their system of beliefs crumbles down around them. "God did it" used to be the answer to everything, when ignorance reigned. The world was filled with gods and magic and spirits. And then we started to learn how thing really work, and the need for all that woo has gone by the wayside in case after case. Once, there were movers who pushed around the celestial spheres, and now they have been banished. Once, there were humors ans spirits that inhabited our bodies and made us sick - but no more. The workings of the brain has been a particularly tough nut to crack because of its tremendous complexity, and so it has served theists as a last bastion of immaterial woo - one of the few remaining places where they can cling by fingers and toes to the remnants of their dying belief system. I know you say you're not a theist, but you seem to be convinced by their arguments.

But it would be absolutely wrong to say that a scientific understanding of cognition has completely evaded us. Progress continues robustly, and empirical evidence is mounting faster than at any time in the past. Do I need to remind you where all that evidence points? Let's just say that your introspection isn't supported by empirical evidence.

B. Prokop said...

"Once, there were movers who pushed around the celestial spheres, and now they have been banished."

Really? Citation, please. I have extensively studied the Ptolemaic System (I've read the Almagest, have you?), and other than the Primum Mobile, there were no "movers" pushing the spheres around.

Skep, the Ptolemaic System was most definitely not the product of "ignorance", but of fantastically detailed and unbelievably accurate observational data compiled over patient centuries of study. Ptolemy was one of the most brilliant minds the human race has ever produced. His system still works (observationally) today! What has changed are the theoretical underpinnings to the construct (and, ultimately, better observations made with instruments unavailable in the 2nd Century A.D.).

You, Skep, have unfortunately swallowed hook, line, and sinker the atheist myth of a so-called "God of the Gaps", something no believer acknowledges. Why do you persist in fighting against an idea that no one defends? (I guess it's easier to win arguments when no one is arguing against you.) The contrary is the actual truth - there is no "God of the Gaps", but rather a "God of the Filled-in Spaces". The more we learn about the universe, the more we see the astonishing detail and complexity of its structure, the more we discover its remarkable adherence to regularity and law, the more we appreciate its sheer scale... the more opportunity there is to appreciate the Mind behind it all. The Heavens do indeed declare the Glory of God.

So please don't imagine that further advances in scientific knowledge will somehow "crowd out" God - they will only give us more reasons to praise His handiwork!

im-skeptical said...

"Citation, please."

I read it in Aristotle's Physics. I think he said there were something like 57 of them.

ingx24 said...

im-skeptical,

Can you explain why, when I think about my dog, a picture of a dog doesn't appear in my brain? Where is that picture? I can see it in my mind very clearly, but you can't see it; are you going to say it doesn't exist? If you say it doesn't exist, you are denying the reality of conscious experience; if you say it does, you are acknowledging that something exists that can't be observed. Pick your poison carefully.

B. Prokop said...

"I read it in Aristotle's Physics."

Aristotle is wa-a-a-y before Ptolemy. His 57 plus or minus movers had been eliminated long before the system was ever devised.

B. Prokop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B. Prokop said...

"If you say it doesn't exist, you are denying the reality of conscious experience"

I believe Skep is doing precisely that. You only think you are thinking!

He has also on occasion denied the reality of Free Will. And you're just being stubborn if you don't do likewise.

im-skeptical said...

ingx24,

"Can you explain why, when I think about my dog, a picture of a dog doesn't appear in my brain?"

Any why is it that when a computer conducts arithmetic calculations, we don't observe a little man inside the machine punching figures into a calculator? It must be proof that there is an immaterial being doing the work, right? That's your logic.

I certainly do not deny the reality of conscious experience. Yes, there is a perception of the image of a dog. And it's in your brain. I have never understood why you think there has to be an actual picture that is observable by others inspecting your brain, if the brain's function is to be considered material. That's not the way things work.

What if I stored an image in a computer? You would agree, I assume, that this is purely material - there's no spiritual being thinking of the image. It exists as a bunch of switched states of transistors, and you can't see it by inspecting the circuitry. But that image is there. And it's not so different from an image you might have in your brain.

Then you might say that the image isn't actualized or perceived until someone sees it. True enough. But perception is something that we each experience from our own perspective. I feel pain, but you don't feel my pain. Only I can do that, because it's my brain that perceives it, not yours. So should you also be able to touch my brain and feel my pain? I don't think so.

You need special equipment to do that.

We know that it is now possible to tap into the electrical activity of the brain and transmit the signals to other brains, that result in generation of mental activity that was originated in a different brain. We have even succeeded in reading images from a brain and reconstructing them electronically.

Yes, the evidence continues to grow, day by day. We don't have all the answers, and we never will. But your insistence that mental events exist in some immaterial being apart from the brain - that we can't think for ourselves, but must have the help of a ghost of some sort - don't even follow logically from your own arguments, let alone making any kind of sense.

ingx24 said...

What if I stored an image in a computer? You would agree, I assume, that this is purely material - there's no spiritual being thinking of the image. It exists as a bunch of switched states of transistors, and you can't see it by inspecting the circuitry. But that image is there. And it's not so different from an image you might have in your brain.

Nope. There is no image inside a computer *at all* - there are transistors and electrical signals that result in the generation of the image on a screen. But there's no actual image in the computer itself. When we "store" an image in a computer, all we are doing is creating a pattern that will produce the image when activated. We are not literally "storing" an image anywhere. If the brain is purely material, then there are no images, words, numbers, memories, etc. in there AT ALL, at least not in a literal sense.

im-skeptical said...

"If the brain is purely material, then there are no images, words, numbers, memories, etc. in there AT ALL, at least not in a literal sense."

Correct you are. (That was the subject of the next paragraph.) But then why do you make this idiotic observation: "Can you explain why, when I think about my dog, a picture of a dog doesn't appear in my brain?" Forgive me for saying so, but it really does seem incongruous.

ingx24 said...

"If the brain is purely material, then there are no images, words, numbers, memories, etc. in there AT ALL, at least not in a literal sense."

Correct you are. (That was the subject of the next paragraph.) But then why do you make this idiotic observation: "Can you explain why, when I think about my dog, a picture of a dog doesn't appear in my brain?" Forgive me for saying so, but it really does seem incongruous.


So you agree, then, that if materialism is true, we do not think or feel or have experiences in a literal sense. We only do in an abstract, figurative sense, like computers do. Objectively, we're just objects behaving according to the laws of physics.

im-skeptical said...

"So you agree, then, that if materialism is true, we do not think or feel or have experiences in a literal sense."

No. I certainly do not agree. We think. We have feelings and perceptions. We just don't have a movie screen in our brain where those perceptions are played in a literal form. There's a perceived image of a dog in your mind, but that's just your own private way of experiencing reality. That picture doesn't exist anywhere in a literal sense. Inside or outside your brain.

Outside your body, there are no images at all. There are reflective surfaces and photons. Even the memory stored in your brain is just a configuration of neural connections. When you think about it, you are constructing something that you see as a picture. But it's not on any screen. It's just a model that your brain puts together that allows you to have awareness of your world. It is a representation in your mind that has some correspondence to physical reality, but there's nothing outside your mind that literally matches the model (or picture) your brain constructs. That's just an illusion. Everything you perceive is an illusion, in the sense that you think it is reality, but it's just the way you privately experience the world.

So to think that you should be able to inspect a brain and see someone's thoughts and images is a fantasy.

ingx24 said...

You know what? I give up. I'm not even going to *try* to untangle the incoherent, self-contradictory mess that im-skeptical just posted. Someone else take a stab at it; I'm not that masochistic.

im-skeptical said...

"You know what? I give up. I'm not even going to *try* to untangle the incoherent, self-contradictory mess that im-skeptical just posted. Someone else take a stab at it; I'm not that masochistic."

Sorry, that was too much for you. Reality is strange, and it's not what we think it is. But as strange as it is, it's not as bizarre as the stories people concoct about immaterial entities that somehow do their feeling and thinking for them. Now that's weird (and contrary to all the evidence).

Try reading about cognitive science (as I've been doing), and especially about experiments in perception. They might give you some understanding of what I'm saying, and a different perspective about how the brain works, as well as a different view of the world that our brains try to make sense of.

And it's a far cry from being a "failing theory".

Ilíon said...

BenYachov: "Of course the difference between this type of Geocentracism & the Ptolemaic system is with the Ptolemaic if the Earth disappeared the Cosmos would fall apart."

Ilíon: "The Earth was considered to be *at* the center/bottom of the universe. It wasn’t that the Earth *caused* the center/bottom to exist, in the manner that we think of the Earth or the Sun as causing their respective gravity wells to exist, but rather that the Earth was at the center/bottom because *down* is where “heaver elements” naturally fall."


So, in fact, BenYachov's statement is almost exactly the opposite of the truth. Since "gravity" is not a term in the Ptolemaic system, were the Earth to somehow utterly vanish, there would be no change to the Cosmos.

On the other hand, under the current system, were the Earth to somehow utterly vanish, while that might not cause "the Cosmos would fall apart", it would certainly have an effect, begining with the movement of the Moon ... the Moon would no longer be falling into Earth's gravity well, for that would cease to exist, and so would streak off in some direction or other; perhaps it would (eventually) fall into the Sun, perhaps it would (eventually) crash into Mars, perhaps it would (eventually) leave the Solar System entirely.

BenYachov said...

>So, in fact, BenYachov's statement is almost exactly the opposite of the truth. Since "gravity" is not a term in the Ptolemaic system, were the Earth to somehow utterly vanish, there would be no change to the Cosmos.

If you say so.

BenYachov said...

BTW there is a third alternative.

The Moon would just assume orbit around the Sun if the Earth where gone.

Ilíon said...

You don't really pay attention, do you? Its no wonder they call you Son of Confusion.

If the Earth were to vanish, so too would the gravitational effect between the Earth and the Moon. Thus, the Moon could not *simply* continue to orbit the Sun along the present Earth-Moon orbit. Were the Earth's gravity-well to vanish, the Moon must fly off at a tangent to its orbit around the Earth.