How Do You Know You Know?

Lurking somewhere beneath many of the political disagreements I’ve encountered here is the question of faith versus science.  In other words, how is it that we know something?  This question is there when the smug philistine announces that “science is just a religion.”  It is there when the idealist earnestly tells us that our belief in the class struggle is just a matter of faith.  It is there when the postmodernist speaks of “historical narratives.”  It is there when the devotee of macroeconomics assures us that the value of commodities is all in our heads.  It is profoundly there when the supporter of identity politics wishes to replace discussion of objective conditions with discussion of personal experience.

Ironically, this question (epistemology, to call it by its name) is one that Americans grow up believing is something only suitable for academics, rather than something that is at the very heart of how we understand our world, how we interact with our world, how we seek to change our world.   We are taught that questioning our method is navel-gazing.  If we accept that, we are helpless before the method that we pick up from our social conditions (I trust no one will dispute that we pick up a method from growing up, being educated, and living in a particular culture at a particular time and place; if I’m wrong, I’ll go back make this post even longer).

So, how is that we actually know something?  Well, obviously, not by thinking about it.  I mean, you can’t prove the truth of your thought by thinking, right?  That way lies solipsism.  Which means either we are defeated before we begin, or must find another way.

Many, many people, of course, are defeated.  They insist that we simply cannot know anything.  Pragmatism, the belief that “truth is what works,” grew out of the needs of an expanding capitalist economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It says,  “since we can’t actually know anything, let’s just find a belief system that makes us happy.  Of course, yours will be different from mine, but that’s all right, because there is no truth anyway.”

Another approach is called empiricism, which emerged with the birth of science as a formal discipline and the roughly simultaneous birth of capitalism, and says that we can know facts, and facts only.  In other words, we can count (more or less, and with some conditions) on our five senses to tell us certain things are true, but the connections, the reasons, the laws, are unknowable.  We can know, because it was witnessed, that the sun rose in the east every day of recorded history, so we assume it will continue to do so, but we can’t know it won’t rise in the west tomorrow, because the laws of astronomy and astrophysics that guide the motion of heavenly bodies are merely ideas, which, to the empiricist, means we can’t actually know them.

So, how do we know we know?

Historically, the development of knowledge is a social, not an individual thing.  What I mean by that is, yes, at some point in the past, someone came up with a way of converting motion to heat (fire). But that technique quickly became part of humanity’s body of knowledge.  It was used, tested, and became the basis for further developments of knowledge, until eventually we found a way to turn heat into motion (the steam engine).  Now, whether  you credit the invention of the steam engine to Hero of Alexandria, or Taqi al-Din, or even skip everyone until James Watt, the point is that the steam engine became a part of humanity’s general body of knowledge, and we, human beings, used this knowledge to change the world.  I’m sure I will get arguments about this or that aspect of what it means “to know,” but I trust no one is going to deny that the steam engine has changed the lives of human beings across history and cultures.

Am I off the subject?  I don’t think so, and that is exactly the point.  Let us return to that first mythical woman who rubbed two dry cliches together to consciously produce the first fire (probably after she or someone else had done the same thing unconsciously).  She did many things, at that moment. She generated heat in a controlled way.  She provided the opportunity to gain more efficient nutrition, thus permitting the brain to evolve more into a more powerful and complex organ.  She developed an element of culture that could be taught to others.  And, just by the way, she proved the relationship between her thoughts and the objective world.  Not by her thoughts, but by her actions.  In other words, as it is most often expressed, “Man answered the question of the relationship between his thoughts and objective reality hundreds of thousands of years before it occurred to him to ask.”

What I am suggesting, then, is looking at “proof” in a different way; not as something that exists as a thing inside someone’s head, but something that happens as a social process.

Proof, for human beings, is not individual, it is social.  It is not passive, it is active.  To focus on the question, “But how do I know this is real?” is to begin with yourself, with what’s in your head.   Take it the other way.  Instead of starting with your own thoughts, start with what is around you.  Strive to understand the movement of history, of the natural sciences.  Approach them from the point of view of, “How can we understand the world in order to change it?” Our confidence in our thoughts comes when we have put our ideas into practice and observed the result.  I propose, then, not proof as contemplation, but proof as activity.



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74 thoughts on “How Do You Know You Know?”

  1. Epistemology is certainly at the heart of all science and philosophy.

    > you can’t prove the truth of your thought by thinking, right

    — well you sort of can for “analytic” truths like 1=1, but the great Quine* argued against the analytic/synthetic distinction — he thought that all truth was empirical.

    > Proof, for human beings, is not individual, it is social.

    Not sure I follow you here. I agree it’s not passive but active, but still you can prove something to yourself or to others as the case may be, and in either case you are following much the same procedure. If I have 10 coins in my pocket, and I suspect they’re all quarters, I can prove it experimentally to myself by examining each of the coins, or I can prove it to you by handing you the coins to look at yourself. This is a process or an activity, just as you say, but the social aspect seems to be optional. Clearly communicating a statement to be proved is social, and indeed communicating a proof is social, but I don’t think proof itself is social.

    *He’s great in any event, but you have to love someone who argues a philosophical point, in part, by saying “whistling in the dark is not the method of true philosophy.” Follow the first google link to that quote as a search term, by the way for a book (The Politics of Constructionism) about the socialization of scientific knowledge that seems like it might be relevant to your post.

  2. Our experience is that there are repeatable patterns in the world. To some extent, when you do the same thing you get the same result. To the extent that’s true, we have something to work with — we can predict the future and to the extent that the future is like the past, we can get repeatable results.

    We don’t have to understand how or why those repeatable results happen. Maybe they happen because a predictable God is making them happen each time, and any time he gets distracted or forgets, they stop happening. But whether or not you are right about why things happen predictably, to the extent that you can predict you have something.

    I strongly recommend the game Eleusis to anybody who wants to think about this sort of thing.

    It’s a great game. One person makes up a rule, like for example Spade diamond heart club. When the last card successfully played was a diamond, the next successful card must be a heart, when the last was a heart, the next must be a club, etc. He writes down the rule and doesn’t show it to anybody.

    The other players play cards and notice whether they pass or fail, and try to guess what the rule is.

    It’s a great game, and lots of fun. People tend to pick a rule they think is happening, and they play cards they think will fit the pattern, and maybe for a long time it seems like they’re right until all of a sudden somebody plays something that doesn’t work when they thought it would, or something that does work when they thought it wouldn’t. And all of sudden they find out they were wrong. They tend not to think in terms of playing things they think will fail, to find out. So it’s easy to get wrong rules that mostly fit the right one.

    Like, you might think the above rule is even spade, odd diamond, even heart, odd club. If they think that and they don’t play the odd spade or even diamond etc, they don’t find out the rule is less strict than they though.

    It’s hard to think about alternative rules even when it’s very easy to do experiments to test your ideas. But playing the game makes that easier.

    Really and truly. People are good at seeing patterns, and then they quickly pick one and from that point on they are bad at seeing alternate patterns and they come up with all sorts of explanations when they see a counterexample to what they believe. Playing Eleusis gives us some humility about that. It’s a great game.

    With Eleusis, after the game you can read the rule. If the person who enforced the rule got it wrong you can discuss that. In reality the true rules are never read out. The best you can possibly do is to have rules that are compatible with all of everybody’s experience that you know about. That deserves a lot of humility too.

    When you know how to arrange predictable, repeatable experiences, then you know something. Usually when that happens you have some say in creating the experience. So if you’re interacting with other people and you present them with a situation they must react to, you can likely get them to behave much more predictably than they would otherwise.

    Reactionaries tend to be predictable once you succeed in turning them into reactionaries…. Would they respond differently to a different initiative on your part? Who knows? You can only try it and find out, or choose not to try.

    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But if you do the same thing over and over again and expect the same results, and you get the same results, then you know how to get those results. That’s knowledge about the world. Expecting that you’d get the same results no matter what you do? That’s a bit more iffy. But it could be true.

  3. the smug philistine announces that “science is just a religion.”

    And visa versa. Every spiritual practice I’m aware of is the result of a lot of years of experimentation to find out what works to transform consciousness and what does not. Just because the practice is couched in language science dismisses doesn’t mean the practice is ineffective. Otherwise, why would people keep doing it for thousands upon thousands of years? Do we really think our ancestors were complete idiots?

  4. Falco, the “they did it for thousands and thousands of years” argument can get you in trouble. A friendly word from someone who thinks there are truths in all the great religions.

  5. J Thomas, good post. Where we get in trouble is being unwilling to open our minds to change when our theory no longer works. People are too good at rationalization and few people are willing to simply say, “I don’t know.” It happens too much in science. Which may be the reason for the OP comment that science is a religion.

  6. Falco, yes, our ancestors were in fact complete idiots, and we are too.

  7. It turns out that if you add the genes for another opsin (color-sensitive pigment) to the retina of a monkey of a species that usually only has two opsins and thus cannot normally see the full spectrum of colors that we do, its brain will *learn* to use this new ability, without any mutation or evolution required in the brain itself.
    The brain and the mind are not hardcoded. Everything we are is (pretty much) learned. So given that we humans, when we “begin”, do not even know that we exist, and that it takes us years to learn this, it seems odd to suggest that we cannot know anything. Getting to “I exist” from first principles seems rather harder than getting to “other things than I exist” from “I exist”. So if you doubt the existence of other forms of knowledge, you really have to doubt your own knowledge of your own existence first. No?
    And now we shall see how much I should have doubted my understanding of the subject…
    (Also, could the religion thing go away now, please?)

  8. Will – there is a great deal of evidence that people have been experimenting with ways to modify their consciousness since before there were people.

    Kristian – the religion thing will only go away when people stop insisting that their viewpoint, exclusively, is the correct one. Personally, I’m not holding my breath.

  9. Falco, Miramon > I think Steven’s point was not that our ancestors were idiots, but, in fact, that they are social beings. That means their” knowledge” was shaped by the culture, state of knowledge, and political power of the culture within which they were raised, taught and lived. In every society, at every point in history, a few individuals have been able to draw new conclusions about their world through their activity, whether planned or fortuitous. Hence, progress.

    This has always been, and remains today, anathema to those who currently hold power. So denying that one can know a fact about the world, was, is, and always will be, a prime way to suppress social progress and maintain those in power in their position.

  10. Falco, the large successful religions do not actually include “consciousness modification”, do they? They are rule-sets for proper action, on a personal level and on the level of society. Your definition of “religion” is strange.

  11. Keep in mind that repugnant as it may be, objectivism, the closest thing to a philosophy espoused by our current ruling class, has the core precept that existence is independent of thought. It is as opposed to idealism as are more progressive philosophies, but that doesn’t make objectivism any more attractive.

    Of course change is anathema to those in power. But in some periods, including the present day, those in power have no time for philosophy of any kind, much less epistemology. Today we’re living in an anti-intellectual period brought about by populist pandering and the deliberate destruction of the education system. Philosophy isn’t being used at present to suppress progress; it’s been replaced by the crudest and basest forms of rhetoric and propaganda.

  12. Cynthia – my point is that there is more than one way of understanding the world than on a lab bench. People that didn’t have lab benches still had a very sophisticated understanding of themselves and the world. People in power, now as then, mold that understanding to help them keep their power.

  13. SKZB says:”Pragmatism, the belief that “truth is what works,” grew out of the needs of an expanding capitalist economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ….Another approach is called empiricism, which emerged with the birth of science as a formal discipline and the roughly simultaneous birth of capitalism…”

    I’m not sold on this definition of pragmatism. Pierce’s original statement of pragmatism is probably best understood as: that to have a full understanding of some concept we must not only be familiar with it in day to day encounters, and be able to offer a definition of it, we must also know what effects to expect from holding that concept to be true. Your definition seems more like akin to utilitarianism. Nor do I see any significant link with capitalism.

    Likewise your idea of empiricism. While I would agree empiricism asserts that true knowledge derives only or primarily from sensory experience, to conclude that empiricism says we can’t know the sun will rise in the east tomorrow is to me a cartoonish version of empiricism. Nor would I say that empiricism coincided with the birth of capitalism; it’s been around for millennia.

    To jump back to the sunrise for a moment, the pragmatist might conclude that question of whether the sun will rise in the east tomorrow is moot because the alternative makes the question meaningless. An empiricist might say that there is a very high probability that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, but given that planetary rotations have changed in the past, that orbits can change, and that stars can go supernova, there is no guarantee that just because it has always risen in the east that it will tomorrow.

    Is either wrong? If the sun doesn’t rise in the east tomorrow there won’t be anyone alive to call the praqmatist wrong. Yet we can also envision an alien some distance away from Earth thinking, “Damn, that empiricist sure nailed that one.”

    Pierce’s pragmatism also mandates a constant reassessment of circumstances – so the answer to the question could change; for instance, if there was a colony on Mars what was hitherto a moot question to the pragmatist suddenly has import.

  14. Try Bertrand Russel and John Dewey, who were probably the two people most influential in installing pragmatism as the dominant philosophy in American education.

  15. “Every spiritual practice I’m aware of is the result of a lot of years of experimentation to find out what works to transform consciousness and what does not.”

    Yes. The emperor’s new clothes story may occasionally fit. Lots of people believe that algebra works even though it doesn’t work for them, because they believe all those smart people are right. But they also believe they can get by just fine without it. Occasionally people might believe *in* a spiritual practice that doesn’t work, because they want to. But ones that work will tend somewhat to outcompete them.

    And consider that some ancient egyptian religions depended on magic tricks to fool people. The priests had walking sticks they could turn into cobras. I don’t know how that worked, whether they could make a snake hold a straight position or what. Moses knew the trick and his walking stick was a blacksnake that killed the cobras. Moses knew how to reliably call down lightning from a dry hilltop, reliably enough to bet his life on it. The trick involved dousing his strike point with a liquid he called water. Etc. Early christianity also involved miracles, though they stopped doing that after a little while.

    My other point is that spiritual practices tend to be somewhat reliable at creating mental states that people want. This does not imply “truth” beyond the ability to create those mental states. Milarepa learned to increase his body temperature, so he could reliably use his hands to read and write in a cold room. The amount of food it took him to do that cost less than the fuel to heat the room, so it was a practical skill. I have read that there are competitions at this skill in india — the participants drape standard cotton blankets soaked in water over their bodies, and heat the blankets to evaporate the water, and the one who creates the most dry blankets in a set time is the winner. Milarepa described how he learned this, he persuaded one out of a pantheon of gods to give him the ability. Was the pantheon of gods real? I don’t know and I don’t know how to find out. But thinking of them that way was an effective method for him to learn the mental skill.

    A long time ago I read some about chinese mysticism, and there was some about mystical chinese massage. I was amused by some of the names they gave to things, the names were fanciful and most of them sounded to me to be allusions to sex. Anything that mentioned “jade stalk”, for example. Some years later I got a great massage and by the end of it essentially all of my muscles were relaxed. I could feel my ribcage muscles when I breathed, and there were some muscles in the center of my throat, I think connected to my larynx etc that were tight that I usually don’t notice. It exactly fit one of the descriptions. I don’t remember the name they gave now, it was something like “reed in a hollow gourd”. There was nothing sexual about it, it just described the feeling. I didn’t know until I felt it. Incidentally, I just found out that if you google for chinese massage + “reed in a” you get 99% porn links. All it takes is one porn star named Reed and there are at least five of them…. Anyway, communication is hard, and you can only guess what somebody else is talking about until you experience it yourself. Science reduces those problems by restricting itself to measurements that any trained person can do in a standard way, but of course we lose something from that too. Easier communication about restricted topics.

    My most important point in all this is that people do spiritual practice for personal goals. Success means achieving those goals, and it may have nothing to do with truth or reality. People want to stop worrying, to feel happy, to feel joyous, to feel like they are part of a vast spiritual order, to age slower, to feel like their souls are immortal, etc.

    There are spiritual disciplines which can achieve all those goals. You can learn to feel all these ways, and you can learn slow down aging somewhat. If those feelings are valuable to you, it’s possible to achieve them. Similarly, you can learn to feel that Republicans are right about everything, if that’s valuable to you. It isn’t about reality, it’s about achieving goals.

  16. A couple of nits to pick. As a mathematician I do know the proof of my mathematical thoughts just by thinking about them. Of course, they are all tautologies, just not obvious ones. I assume O’Neill was actually thinking of Peirce, Charles Sanders.

    Do I think my ancestors’ religious beliefs were foolish? In some sense I do. I don’t think I am less moral than they and I certainly don’t know any way, save social, in which their lives were enriched by religion. Certainly the religious people I know disrupt their daily lives by their beliefs. And had they been raised in another tradition, they would have followed that.

    Leaving religion aside, the problem is that most people never examine the basis for their beliefs (that is they don’t think about them). So while you cannot prove something (outside of the mathematical realm) by thinking about it, it is only critical thinking that can clue you in to the fact that what you know might not be so. One example of this is belief in the “free market”. All these people who go on and on about the wonders of free markets would realize, if they thought about it that there is hardly ever such a thing. The only people who believe in free markets, really, are the rare individuals who try to enter an established one. And if they succeed, they will become monopolists like all the rest. I believe Adam Smith recognized this fact and admitted that government intervention would be required to keep the markets free. (Steve: is this accurate? You have read Adam Smith; I haven’t.) We saw in 2007 what unregulated “free” markets can do. But the monopolists now own the government.

  17. I’m going to say a little about religion and then I’m going to drop it because Steve’s an atheist and I don’t like disagreeing with people’s beliefs on their blogs without a better reason than “I disagree”.

    There are at least two approaches to religion, one that focuses on certainty and one that accepts mystery. These are not tidy divisions, but organized religions tend to be of the first sort—regardless of the goals of the individuals, most religious organizations end up serving the rich, which is why reds often rail against priests of all faiths.

    But the second sort is a metaphorical approach to justice. Throw that out, and you throw out Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Throw it out, and there’s no League of the Just to become the Communist League. Throw it out, and you lose most of humanity’s history of fighting to end inequality.

    There is a pragmatic reason for reds to be more tolerant of religion. In the US today, 77% of the population identifies as Christian; 36% view socialism favorably. Tactically, it makes more sense to work with religious people than fight them.

  18. Big Mike: Yes, that’s accurate, but please don’t tell the Libertarians, it will make them sad.

    Will: I responded at your blog:

    Here, I will only say that “there is a pragmatic reason…” might indicate that you’ve missed the point of this post, which is to insist on the importance of the effort to understand objective reality, as opposed to, above all, pragmatism. I will happily work with people who happen to be religious; that does not mean I will work with religion.

  19. Hmm. My comment was meant for the people knocking Falco. But having said that, do you really think socialists should be idealists in their approach to politics?

  20. J Thomas – If I understand you correctly, there is no objective reality, just people with different goals who have convinced themselves that their choices represent reality. I will contend that people meeting their goals says nothing about whether there is really something toward which they strive that lies beyond their personal goals.

  21. skzb says: “Try Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, who were probably the two people most influential in installing pragmatism as the dominant philosophy in American education.

    I think you overestimate Dewey’s impact on education. What he proposed as far as the classroom is concerned was very rarely initiated. The very situations he lamented (children as passive vessels, sitting at desks and having knowledge poured into them by a teacher) was the norm in the late 1900s and has AFAIK been the norm ever since.

    Russell wrote most of his essays on Pragmatism as critiques of James. I do not find them necessarily illustrative as critiques of other flavors of Pragmatism. Since Pierce is the one who was actually writing about Pragmatism in the 1870s (that you reference as its birth) it seems best to use his works as our reference. Obviously there have been many others over the century and a half since then that can be considered pragmatists; with distinctions sometimes subtle and sometimes not. My objection is really that you seem to have taken James as your definition of a Pragmatist and the example you use is more specifically a critique of James’ version of Pragmatism and not that of Pragmatism in general.

    Both Pierce and Dewey believed that truth was social, but Pierce was more interested in defining rules to govern thought; Dewey more in practical problem solving. Your suggestion of how to find proof is a very close analogue to Dewey’s prescribed method. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Pragmatism says:
    The ‘pattern of inquiry’ that he [Dewey] describes is common to practical problem solving, common sense investigations of our surroundings, scientific inquiry, the information gathering of animals and so on. Dewey recognizes that when we first face a problem, our first task is to understand our problem through describing its elements and identifying their relations. Identifying a concrete question that we need to answer is a sign that we are already making progress. And the ‘logical forms’ we use in the course of inquiry are understood as ideal instruments, tools that help us to transform things and resolve our problem….

    Dewey’s work developed these ideas about inquiry. Shared inquiry directed at resolving social and political problems or indeterminacies was central to his conception of the good life and to his account of the democractic ideal.

  22. Will: “do you really think socialists should be idealists in their approach to politics?”


  23. I always hate being binarian, but if you’re not advocating idealism, are you accepting that sometimes pragmatism is necessary? Or do you think ‘no compromise’ is not idealistic?

  24. Um. It sounds like you’re counterpoising pragmatism with idealism. Pragmatism is based on subjective idealism. I attempt to look at things as a materialist, not an idealist, which is why I reject pragmatism.

    $1 says we are using some words to mean entirely different things.

  25. I’m not sure I see the connection between pragmatism and subjective idealism. Can you explain or reference this?

    Pragmatism is certainly concerned with thought, but it is concerned with the real-world consequences of thought, and so it necessarily concedes the existence, meaning and value of the material world.

    That seems very different from subjective idealism, which as I understand it more or less definitionally states that only thought exists.

  26. Miramon: In the first place, pragmatism explicitly rejects any effort to understand objective reality, which puts in the idealist camp right there (if you don’t have an objective reality, you only have your own ideas, right?). Second, the idea that “truth is what works” implies that it might be different for different people. I mean, what works for you might not work for me. The classic pragmatic statement is be, “If believing in God makes you happy, then God exists for you.” That is textbook subjective idealism. Does that help at all?

  27. (Ignoring everything else that’s been said in the comments…) (:

    > “We are taught that questioning our method is navel-gazing.”

    From my experience, quite the contrary. I, and those in my generation, at least in my area, were taught to question everything, because only by questioning everything can we ever hope to expand our knowledge, find the weaknesses in our current theories, and catch failures before they go too far / cause too much damage.

    > “But how do I know this is real?”

    Why do you care? (:

    From my perspective, all knowledge has a level of “effectiveness”, which is to say, specifically, “this knowledge can accurately predict the results of these specific actions around X percentage of the time, give or take Y as a margin of error.” What we call “truth” is really just high-percentage effectiveness with a low margin of error.

    Which isn’t to say that low-percentage and / or high margin of error knowledge doesn’t have value. If it makes you happy, if it’s comforting to you, if it’s satisfying, if it helps to relieve mental or emotional pressure or stress, if it’s otherwise useful in some way, it has value, even if for no one else than you. Additionally, we actively need regular infusions of low-effective knowledge, because it is part of our creative process, and is often what leads to ideas that improve the effective percentage or reduce the margin of error for other effective knowledge.

    > “I propose, then, not proof as contemplation, but proof as activity.”

    Exactly. Again, there’s no real point to “this is an absolute truth”, because 1) there’s no real way to tell, and 2) you’ll probably always be missing some aspect of it, because nothing exists in isolation and our brains are way too small and our lifetimes way too short to ever even come close to understanding everything in our universe. There’s “effectiveness”, which has a shared, common approximate value range across all peoples (“intrinsic value”, if you will), and then there’s personal value, which is completely independent of effectiveness, at least for most values of “outside of you”.

    At least, that’s my take on it.

  28. We, or at least I, have a problem with words in this context. There are a lot of hidden assumptions in various positions and definitions of things like pragmatism and objectivity and a lot of things.

    I think a basic hidden question in all this is; is there a reality that exists without our comprehension of that reality? The answer is yes. The tree does make noise when it falls even though nobody was there to hear it (ignoring trick word “sound”).

    People use words as a tool to remember and describe things. We can remember images and sounds and feelings, but it is difficult for us to communicate those things. Sorry to be so basic, but the weakness is at this level. The words trick us.

    Once we have put things into words, the image of the original event or thought is at least partly gone and definitely modified. It has been largely replaced in our memory by a word image and that is now our reality. The question then is, is that image accurate (true)? The answer is, probably not, but maybe good enough. There is extreme data compression involved and the limitations of the words and concepts to those available to the person describing things.

    So if we were able to find a bushman who has never seen modern aircraft and landed a aircraft in front of him and asked him to describe it – we could probably understand where he was coming from, but it would be totally different than what we might describe. Or, for example, the mechanism causing the vehicle to fly. There is the cargo cult religion, for example.

    Math is a different animal. There is no math in the physical world. Physics, yes, math, no. Math is symbol manipulation which we find useful. How many cows type thing expanded as needed.

    When we ask about objective reality (do we know something?), we are asking if we can agree on the word description of specific things and on perhaps the mechanisms/motivations behind those things. The further we get toward the latter, the greater the probability that we will disagree. Because we each have a different tool set to understand things and filters through which we see.

    We might all agree that a hunk of stone with a hole in the middle is a hunk of stone. So I guess there is objective reality (know, true) to that level. But one person might think it is good for grinding grain, another a boat anchor, a third a weapon. So at the pragmatic (use) level, while they sound like disagreement, they can all be correct. Yet we insist that this apparent disagreement is very important (don’t know) because the other answers do not fit the mental (word) image in our head and there can only be one true answer. And thus claim there is no objective reality (knowledge) as a result.

    Then when you get into describing things (other than math) with no obvious physical reality to go back to, we really muck things up because all there is, is our word image. And we have politics and religion to show for it. So the physical reality associated with this stuff is people’s behavior. The rest is just words. If you change the words, you change the belief. So we will have disagreement. Those beliefs are not objective because there probably is no way to test or arbitrate things.

    Certainly, people will not let you set up a set of rules where by one could understand (know) the amount of objective reality associated with these beliefs. Their belief system would be at risk and people feel threatened by the idea that their beliefs might be wrong. So they dismiss any physical reality (as being untrue) that might put their beliefs at risk.

    So, to the OP: Yes, we can actually know some things (related to the physical world, math and behavior), but we have to accept that there are severe limitations to our knowledge and it is never complete. It is always a shorthand image of the real thing.

  29. I see what you’re saying, skzb, but I think you are overemphasizing subjectivity with respect to pragmatism. Pragmatism is much closer to empiricism than it is to idealism. It’s true the pragmatic emphasis is not on reality as a starting point, and it may not be as materialistic as you would desire, but lumping it in with platonism seems like going way too far in the other direction.

    Moreover I don’t think pragmatism is focused on finding beliefs that make you happy, I don’t think it has anything to do with capitalism nor with the promulgation of delusional belief systems. I don’t believe there were any economists or political theorists associated with with pragmatism to speak of. There’s no connection to hedonism here, either that I’m aware of.

    I’m sure you know the word “belief” is used in epistemology not in terms of faith or whimsical ideas with no basis in reality, but in terms of evidence-based understanding of the world, something less forceful than absolute knowledge, but still justified by the senses.

    IMO the idea is that belief is *operational* — it’s what you act on. “The truth is what works” doesn’t mean “the truth is whatever delusion you like” it means “the truth is what can be demonstrated” — you can’t demonstrate a counterfactual or evidence-less religious belief, but you can demonstrate patterns of phenomena that are consistent with our scientific understanding of the real world.

  30. Falco —

    “If I understand you correctly, there is no objective reality, just people with different goals who have convinced themselves that their choices represent reality.”

    There may be an objective reality and I don’t have a lot to say about it. Say I go outside and the sky looks blue to me. That’s my perception, and it may be a perception that comes from objective reality but the perception is not reality itself, except that it’s actually my perception and I assume not a dream or a hallucination.

    Another time the sky looks gray to me. Another time it looks black with stars in it. My perception of objective reality changes, and maybe objective reality is changing too.

    I notice patterns. The bright sky and the black sky alternate in a somewhat complicated but regular way. Sometimes gray skies lead to rain, but blue skies hardly ever rain. I have ideas to explain the patterns. People used to think that somebody drove a fiery chariot across the sky to provide daylight. Some people thought that the night sky was a carpet that was between us and the bright sky, and the stars were holes in the carpet. I tend to believe that the earth is a rotating sphere, and the sun is a bright ball and sometimes I’m in the earth’s shadow, and the stars are like the sun but tremendously farther away. My current belief explains more things than previous ones, and it fits together well. I have no reason to think about alternatives, except for tiny improvements like the earth is not exactly spherical, the rotation is not exactly uniform, other planets make small changes in the orbit, etc etc etc. So many fudge factors we can easily explain away small inaccuracies after the fact.

    Still, is this theory objective reality? No, it’s a theory that fits our perceptions remarkably well. It’s easy and only natural to make the mistake that a theory which predicts well is true, especially when you can’t think of any adequate alternative.

    Objective reality is whatever it is. Theories which are good at predicting our future perceptions, are not objective reality, ever. They are theories which are good at predicting perceptions.

    “I will contend that people meeting their goals says nothing about whether there is really something toward which they strive that lies beyond their personal goals.”

    I agree. But what they care about is their personal goals. If you were to find a way that gave them contact with objective reality, and it was not compatible with their personal goals, they would reject it. You couldn’t sell it. You couldn’t give it away. Likely the secret would die with you.

    I think that’s important.

  31. Dewey on truth: The best definition of truth from the logical standpoint which is known to me is that by Peirce: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real”

    So both Dewey and Pierce believe in a social construction of truth or what we might term objective reality.

  32. “$1 says we are using some words to mean entirely different things.”

    Yeah, one of us owes the other coffee. Given the subject of the post, I should’ve said, “There is a tactical reason for reds to be more tolerant of religion.”

  33. Miramon: What Kevin said pretty much hits it. “The object represented in this opinion is the real.” In other words, instead of beginning with objective reality, and finding ways to make our ideas correspond to it as closely as possible, the approach replaces objective reality with “consensus opinion.”

  34. That’s fair. Note the word “investigate” in that definition, which implies an exploration of real-world phenomena, presumably through the scientific method or at least through informal induction. Idealism doesn’t care about phenomena. In this pragmatic definition of truth there is no sense of “whatever makes you happy”, nor is there any sense that individuals who arbitrarily dispute the consensus investigation may be correct. So there is no pragmatic support, for example, for a belief in God in the absence of evidence.

    Now I must admit that personally I would not say that the Ptolemaic view of the solar system was correct even if every other person in world said that it was based on their observations and experiments; and since pragmatism would affirm Ptolemy in that case, that is no doubt a failing of pragmatism.

    But that kind of failing is IMO completely different from supporting an uninvestigated truth not based on our senses, such as a belief in God. Pragmatism is not a supporter of dogma, nor of mystical intuition.

  35. It is a weakness of scientific investigation that we do, in fact, have to rely on a consensus opinion. It is open to all the faults of people and politics. But we do tend to zigzag ever closer to a reasonable truth.

    The Earth centric model was more a religious artifact than a scientific one. Several ancient civilizations figured out that the Sun was the center of our solar system well before the Catholic church made a big deal about the Earth being the center.

    The Greeks. et al, accurately plotted the course of the planets, including the retrograde movement of planets. So their observations, measurements and predictions were accurate.

    Their observations were true and they knew the positions. I would call that real knowledge. They may or may not have understood that we all went around the sun or the physics for this. But it was more useful to them to describe the motions as seen from Earth. That doesn’t make them either stupid or wrong.

  36. skzb – In addition to what Miramon said, note that the consensus opinion is also of *all who are fated to investigate* — it isn’t a public opinion poll. Truth is fixed by current and future knowledge.

  37. Miramon – Dewey and Pierce would both say that truth is fixed, it is our understanding (or circumstance) that changes., Vis a vis the Ptolemaic view, our understanding changed as a result of further inquiry. That’s the ‘all who are fated to investigate’ part. The Ptolemaic view was never the consensus of all who were fated to investigate. It wasn’t true.

  38. Don’t know if it’s useful or already said in this thread etc

    But I wonder if one of the reasons why we’ve gotten so fixated on proof as cognitively-based entity because all the simple things were obvious, and easily demonstrable in the real world, but in order to prove something tough, or less obvious, required a good amount of thought, logic, etc which of course existed as structures built on that good solid pragmatic “well yeah, of COURSE if you hit a drop a thing it will fall to the ground.” or some similar idea.

    Furthermore, to one degree or another, we are all inwardly bound; and while that means that our own individual reality is completely subjective to our own unique blend of experience, thought, reality, etc, and thus no objective reality can be defined or presented and hence, agreed upon, I suggest that the reason that reality loses out to psychological construct is that, to us, psychological construct is just that much more primary; ie, proximate. Yeah, sure, we might have a real object in our hand. But the thought that we hold about that object is in our HEAD and that’s FAR closer to the where of who I am than any hand-held object can be.

  39. “It is a weakness of scientific investigation that we do, in fact, have to rely on a consensus opinion.”

    We don’t have to do that. We just do.

    After playing Eleusis, I am convinced that in science we should always strive to have at least two alternate models for each phenomenon. When we can’t find a second model, we should consider that a failure of imagination and try harder. Big rewards to the guy who comes up with the second explanation that has not yet been falsified.

    When there are two hypotheses people get excited to find the experiment that proves one of them wrong. Science proceeds faster from it. When there is only one they tend to relax and believe they know the truth. This is a bad thing.

    But somehow scientists tend to not do it that way. There have been exceptions, like Fred Hoyle came up with an alternative to the Big Bang theory and for some years people were excited and looked for evidence to prove him wrong, and eventually they got a consensus that he was in fact wrong and there could be no alternative. But it seems like usually that isn’t happening.

    “Their observations were true and they knew the positions. I would call that real knowledge.”

    Sure. The alternative is false observations that somebody just makes up.

  40. “The Ptolemaic view was never the consensus of all who were fated to investigate. It wasn’t true.”

    It could have been the consensus at one time.

    There is no particular reason to think that anything we have a consensus about now, will stay the consensus. People who are fated to investigate might eventually discard all of it, or any particular piece of it.

    People like to believe that we now know some scientific truth. But there is no particular reason to think so. Hardly any of what people now think they know has stood the test of time. Maxwell’s equations were first published in 1861, before that nobody understood electricity, magnetism, or light. Now Maxwell’s equations are considered to be incorrect approximations, replaced by a far more complicated theory that is hardly 100 years old.

    There hasn’t been a lot of time to come up with alternatives, and alternatives are actively discouraged. It would be naive to assume that any current scientific explanations are true. But the observations are of course true, except for the small minority that are falsified.

  41. J. Thomas: “It could have been the consensus at one time.”

    Yes, it could. But according to the definition of truth proposed by Pierce and accepted by Dewey, the consensus they speak of is ‘all those fated who are fated to investigate’ — that means our understanding of the truth is always susceptible to revision (fallibility). Note, it is our understanding that changes – not truth that changes.

    Not having access to future inquiries, all we can say is that our best understanding of the truth of a given proposition is what those honest agents, using logical processes, have as a consensus opinion. The implied modifier is ‘expert’ consensus opinion. With the full knowledge that this understanding may be deficient.

    The Ptolemaic theory was never true. It was never the consensus opinion of all who were fated to investigate. That consensus would include the inquiries of Ibn al-Shatir, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and many who have followed since (and of inquiries yet to come). Truth by this definition does not care what you or I as individuals think, nor does it care what our opinion is unless we have tried to honestly investigate.

  42. Miramon: “Idealism doesn’t care about phenomena” I respectfully disagree. Most idealist care very much about phenomena; the thing is, they locate the ultimate source of these phenomena in the idea. Look at how the post-structuralist considers history. He cares deeply about the events of history, but considers the observers narrative the decisive factor and the only thing we can “know” enough to draw conclusions.

  43. A consensus opinion is useful is separating the wheat from the chaff, but sometimes there are diamonds in the chaff. That is an important difference in scientific investigation over other doctrinal based methodologies. It must in the long term be amenable to change as new evidence is found.

    Once I discard as non useful dead ends such things as Solipsism and Simulationism, I very much am in the camp of Scientific Materialism. This would lead me to agree with Steve’s assertion that the pursuit of knowledge needs to be an active one. Theory must be explored and supported through experiment.
    As experimental evidence requires ever larger mechanisms to produce, collaboration with others is necessary. Peer review is one attempt to expose methodologies to the group. Review via the internet is a growing trend that is showing some very useful results.

  44. “The Ptolemaic theory was never true. It was never the consensus opinion of all who were fated to investigate. That consensus would include the inquiries of Ibn al-Shatir, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and many who have followed since (and of inquiries yet to come).”

    Then there is no reason to think that anything we now believe is true either. There may be a consensus about some things at the moment, but there is no particular reason to think that this consensus will last beyond this century.

    There is no particular reason to think that we will ever find a consensus opinion that will be held by all experts in the future. We may never reach truth about anything.

    So what use is this idea about “consensus by every expert past some particular date in the future”? It’s an idea which cannot be realized before the extinction of humanity. What does it get us?

  45. JT – Of course there is reason to believe something is true – the evidence we’ve accumulated. Is our understanding perfect? Probably not, in some cases definitely not. This is why scientists continue to investigate even in areas where we *think* we know the answer. A century after Einstein’s theories of relativity we still test them.

    Is the moon made of green cheese or is it made of rock similar in chemical composition to that found on Earth? We’ve gathered lunar rocks. We’ve tested those rocks. We know that the moon isn’t made of cheese (green or otherwise). We also know that it is very similar in composition to rocks on Earth.

    Just because we admit that our understanding may not be perfect it does not logically follow that our understanding is worthless. Every new inquiry informs our understanding; either supporting the current consensus, presenting evidence that requires it be modified, or falsifying it.

    Tangentially, there are some questions it is not worth the effort answering and/or for which no logical answer can be found. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” What difference can it make?

  46. skzb, re idealism and phenomena. I agree. I should have said idealism is concerned with what it considers to be the immaterial origin of phenomena, whereas empiricism is concerned with discovering the material origin, and pragmatism is concerned with how to exploit phenomena which are assumed to be material.

    As regards the Copernican view being obvious in ancient times, I disagree. What I recall is that the spherical shape of the Earth was obvious in ancient times, but that the layout of the solar system was not. See Wikipedia: “….most educated Greeks from the 4th century BC on thought that the Earth was a sphere at the center of the universe.”

    Keep in mind that the Ptolemaic system is observationally accurate and is a legitimate scientific theory given the primitive physical theories available at the time. The calculations to predict planetary motion, eclipses, and other celestial phenomena work under the Ptolemaic system, or else that system would never have evolved in the first place. Even Copernicus, lacking a Newtonian theory of gravitation as basis, presumably made his choice based on simplicity and esthetics, not on a RAA or on a concrete defeat of the old system.

  47. Kevin, sure, our knowledge is worth something. It predicts patterns in our experience, when we can create repeatable patterns.

    But when we have a “current consensus” that is a sign that we are being intellectually lazy. We should actively look until we have at least two different approaches that work with our current evidence.

    When we fail to take this basic precaution, we are likely to be plagued with people who believe that our “consensus” is true because it fits the available evidence so far. This is beyond stupid. And yet a whole lot of people who ought to know better spout this sort of idiocy, and they can cause a lot of trouble.

    Here is a simple example. A young man finds a technique that reliably gets him two to four new women to have sex with each week. (Depending on how many women he is actually up to having sex with each week. He may say he has a new one every night, but more likely it’s two to four a week.) He will probably have ideas about why it works. He might for example believe that women want a dominant man who tells them what to do and expects them to do it. And he will probably believe that all women are alike, all like the ones he seduces. He will believe that his “success” is evidence that his theories are correct.

    But it’s easy for me to believe that other theories could explain his results just as well. If you would, for example, choose women randomly out of a 3-years-old high-school yearbook and challenge him to seduce them, there’s a strong chance that he would not do as well. He almost certainly has ways — conscious and unconscious — that predispose him to choose women who are compatible with his methods. My own experience tells me that women vary in most ways and are not all alike at all.

    Similarly, he thinks he knows why his methods work. But maybe some of the women who sleep with him are looking for sex but definitely do not want a relationship at the moment, and by choosing an obvious asshole they prevent the temptation that they might agree to a second date. Others may have trouble speaking up for themselves and may submit to him the way they might buy a used car they don’t want from a loud aggressive used-car salesman. They could be building up rage against him that they don’t know how to express. There are lots of ways it could go. He knows how to get the results he wants (with the women he has screened) but he probably doesn’t know why it works.

    A lot of our “current consensus” is like the seducer’s beliefs. Somebody expresses them loudly and long, they are superficially compatible with the known evidence, no alternative gets much attention. This is not a recipe for finding truth. It is not even a recipe for finding better theories.

    “This is why scientists continue to investigate even in areas where we *think* we know the answer. A century after Einstein’s theories of relativity we still test them.”

    Have you heard of any actual tests of relativity within the last 40 years? I have not. A number of physics ljournals have a standing policy that no papers will be published that present alternatives to relativity. So far as I know there are no tests that compare relativity to alternate results, unless the alternative is one of the classical theories that came before. This is bad practice.

  48. One thing that makes me frustrated about this discussion is the sometimes implied (or stated?) assumption that if we cannot understand something perfectly, we know nothing. And since we can never understand something perfectly, we can prove nothing true. That’s just plain wrong (sophistry?). We can’t function in a world were we doubt everything all the time. A healthy skepticism is good, just don’t get crazy.

    If something makes sense or works, use it until you can come up with something better. Don’t over think the problem.

    The concepts of True, Know, Understand, seem to be put on such a high pedestal as to be forever out of reach.

  49. J Thomas, I’ve read articles which talk about confirming relativity. But that is about the level of detail given. I don’t have access to scientific journals (you have to subscribe these days). Without the detail, it is hard to criticize articles or test protocols. But I can think of alternate explanations, I just can’t properly evaluate them.

    Another sacred cow is the size of the universe. We somehow happen to be in the exact center. What a coincidence! I can think of alternative possible explanations.

    Journals do block scientific inquiry if it goes against the consensus. That is wrong thinking. As you say, they should be looking for alternative explanations. Look what happened to “cold fusion”. The “hot fusion” guys killed it politically. It has had to be relabeled LENR to be able to talk about any experiments (which are typically unfunded). Hot fusion seems to have reached a technological dead end.

  50. JT – Try the Google search ‘new study confirms einstein relativity’ and page thru the results. There are dozens – if not hundreds – of studies that have been performed that confirm relativity. Every year new results confirm it.

    Where the evidence warrants there are multiple theories in science (why did the dinosaurs die out?) , but alternative theories really aren’t always easily derived or would simply be the negation of an existing theory. I.e., smoking causes lung cancer. What’;s the alternative, that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer? OK, let’s keep that around as an alternative – despite the fact that all evidence says otherwise.

    Dealing in vague generic ‘possible’ theories is a fool’s game; either an alternative exists or it doesn’t. I really have no idea why you think there are plausible alternative theories that don’t receive scientific attention.

  51. Probably thousands of experiments confirm aspects of relativity over the last hundred years, not to mention practical technologies like particle accelerators that measurably extend muon half-life by time dilation. Because of the famous difficulties reconciling quantum theory and relativity there are always experiments being done in hopes of new insight into the problem.

  52. “Try the Google search ‘new study confirms einstein relativity’ and page thru the results. There are dozens – if not hundreds – of studies that have been performed that confirm relativity. Every year new results confirm it.”

    But see, those don’t count. All they do is confirm that relativity is compatible with some data, typically within a range that has already been thoroughly explored. That is not at all useful.

    Compare to the old chestnut, Ptolemaic theory. Ptolemaic theory predicted correctly. The minor things it did not predict correctly like planets varying in their assumed distance from earth (because their brightness changed) could have been fixed by assuming dark planets they shared circular orbits with.

    Copernican theory made the same predictions. It was easier to compute because it used ellipses instead of circles, but of course ellipses were a complication.

    Two theories that predicted the same things — one was preferable on esthetic grounds.

    Now we have relativity, and we have no alternative that predicts the same things or mostly the same things. There are alternatives proposed by crackpots, and I don’t know how good any of them are — they get no notice.

    It is not enough to confirm that relativity is compatible with the known evidence within experimental error, or that it’s compatible once we assume the right values for fudge factors we can’t measure. What is needed is to have an alternative which predicts the same known data, which either makes different predictions for some data which has not been collected yet, or which predicts the same right down the line.

    Given an alternative, we can look for ways to collect the unknown data and choose to discard one on that basis. Or we can choose one on esthetic grounds, like we did for Copernican theory. Or we can retain both and use whichever one is better at stimulating our imaginations to come up with new ideas.

    Remember, Einstein’s great achievement was to fit a theory to the known data at a time when nobody could make sense of the known data. And his big breakthrough was to realize that it did not need to make sense. Later Minkowski made a kind of sense from it. Time is the Fourth Dimension, coordinate time versus space are at right angles and their hypotenuse, clock time, is not found by the sum of the squares but the difference of the squares, because coordinate time is like the square root of minus one. Velocity is like a rotation between time and space, a hyperbolic rotation. It all makes sense if you don’t think about it too much. And it gets the right answers because it was back-computed from the right answers.

  53. “One thing that makes me frustrated about this discussion is the sometimes implied (or stated?) assumption that if we cannot understand something perfectly, we know nothing.”

    I wouldn’t say that. When some observations are repeatable, and we can predict them, then we know something. We might be completely wrong in our ideas about why they are repeatable, but being able to predict them is something and it can be valuable.

    “And since we can never understand something perfectly, we can prove nothing true.”

    I do mostly say that. We can predict some observations given enough effort setting up conditions. All of our theories about that may be wrong, except for the predictions themselves.

    “If something makes sense or works, use it until you can come up with something better.”


    “Don’t over think the problem.”

    If you have a theory why something works, it might have mnemonic value. The mnemonics might help you remember how to set up the required conditions. Stories about gods and demons and what they do to each other might be quite valuable in that context, or simple theories about physics could work too.

    Beyond the mnemonic value, it might be overthinking things to have any theory. Or maybe a theory will turn out valuable independent of its validity.

    I like to use the Pragmatist’s Code about overthinking. “If it feels good, do it. Until it stops feeling good. Then quit.”

  54. JT says: 1)”Have you heard of any actual tests of relativity within the last 40 years? I have not.”

    When presented with tests of relativity he responds:

    2) “But see, those don’t count. All they do is confirm that relativity is compatible with some data, typically within a range that has already been thoroughly explored. That is not at all useful.”

    If the data had been otherwise, then relativity would be falsified. That’s what a test of relativity (or any other theory) does – confirm or contradict. Every experiment devised to test relativity has confirmed it.

    The characterization that ‘All they do is confirm that relativity is compatible with some data’ is quite an understatement. Relativity, because of the breadth of the theory, has probably been the most rigorously tested physics theory ever postulated. Both General and Special Relativity have their own pages just for tests!

    Wiki page for tests of General Relativity

    Wiki page for tests of Special Relativity

    You then go on to say, “Compare to the old chestnut, Ptolemaic theory. Ptolemaic theory predicted correctly.” Well, no, it didn’t – as you admit in the next sentence! On the other hand, all predictions from both General and Special Relativity have been correct.

    I’m left with the impression you prefer an incorrect theory that couldn’t predict correctly to a theory that has always predicted correctly. Yours isn’t a method of scientific inquiry, it’s a method of anti-science.

  55. “If the data had been otherwise, then relativity would be falsified. That’s what a test of relativity (or any other theory) does – confirm or contradict. Every experiment devised to test relativity has confirmed it.”

    Sure, if they found that relativity was incompatible with data in some restricted range, that would be interesting. However, in most circumstances there are enough fudge factors to prevent that. Like, if you look at objects orbiting a black hole, you have to estimate the orbit from fragmentary data, and of course you must use relativity to interpret your data. So you cannot compute an orbit which is incompatible with relativity.

    “You then go on to say, “Compare to the old chestnut, Ptolemaic theory. Ptolemaic theory predicted correctly.””

    It predicted to within the measurement error of the time. As I understand it, when Copernicus replaced it with a sun-centered system, he kept the epicycles because they worked so well. Kepler’s elliptical orbits were only accepted after improved measurements showed they fit better.

    “I’m left with the impression you prefer an incorrect theory that couldn’t predict correctly to a theory that has always predicted correctly.”

    No, I want attention paid to two theories that predict correctly. When there is only one people are tempted to fall into the error of believing it is true.

  56. JT, you’ve made some good points.

    I get frustrated with cosmology precisely because they often use the same yardstick for observation and verification. However, if one searches for “anomalies”, you find that there are lots of observations which cannot be explained by the standard model (at least yet). So basically they are thrown out of the data set. That’s called confirmation bias. The anomalies are what makes life interesting and allow science to grow.

  57. J Thomas: Calling experimental error a fudge factor isn’t particularly accurate. As far as I know, special relativity has passed every test yet devised. Many tests have been rerun to reduce the measurement error, but the nature of experiments is that there always is a measurement error.

    Not having a competing theory does not make a particular theory of more or less interest. It just means that such a competing theory has not been found.

    For General Relativity, there are some open questions that we don’t have tests for around naked singularities, etc. I found a good list of these at:
    Stack Exchange discussion of open problems in general relativity

    Then, there are a number of competing theories as to how to resolve quantum mechanics and relativity.
    Then, there are various other unanswered questions such as what exactly dark matter and dark energy are.
    There are plenty of things to explain.

  58. Steve, yes, relativity is compatible with all the experimental evidence we are willing to look at. That’s fine.

    But without a competing theory that is also compatible with the evidence, there are large numbers of people who make the horrible mistake of believing that relativity is true.

    And it isn’t just that we don’t have a competing theory, there are people with influence who try to prevent alternate theories from being considered.

    This is wrong on so many levels….

  59. JT – if there *were* a theory that was compatible with the evidence, some scientist would be pushing it and others would be thrilled. That’s how science works. Conspiracy theories of how this or that is forbidden is hokum. There are scientists in every discipline all over the world; they would *all* have to be in on it. C’mon, you can do better than that.

    You should really go read blogs by actual scientists – I’d start with theoretical physicist Matt Strassler’s Of Particular Significance

  60. Kevin, don’t be naive. There is politics in science just like in everything else in this world. And it need not be a “conspiracy” as you claim. It just has to be a few powerful people acting as gatekeepers for what ever their reason. Luckily it doesn’t happen often, but it really does happen. Eventually these gatekeepers either die of old age or get pushed out of the way and progress happens. The Brontosaurus is a prime example of what I am talking about. But this can happen in any field.

  61. David, your brontosaurus article doesn’t show any gatekeepers preventing a new alternative theory from being entertained/examined/published. It shows scientists correcting mistakes: “As it turns out, Marsh’s mistake was called out by scientists long before the public was willing to let the Brontosaurus go, with the record being set straight over a century ago in 1903.”

    This simply isn’t an example of a theory being squashed by powers that be.

  62. I didn’t read the article. Apparently it is a “sanitized” version of what happened. Yes, scientists very soon (well before 1903) knew Marsh was wrong, but the mistake couldn’t be corrected until after Marsh’s death (about 25 years later). Marsh was being the gatekeeper as he was the primary authority on dinosaur fossils at the time. Some careers were crushed in the process. Yes, the public still thinks of it as the Brontosaurus. But since when has the public been in charge of scientific publications?

    25 years may not sound like much, but it was important to the researchers at the time.

  63. David, I don’t recall that any careers were ruined – or that there was indeed any controversy. Marsh was wrong and the world didn’t realize it until much later. You might want to read The Brontosaurus Brouhaha. Elmer S. Riggs, who wrote up the apatosaurus in 1903, went on to become curator of the Field Museum – not exactly a career deadend.

  64. Kevin, good article and it mentions the bitter rivalry between Marsh and Cope. IIRC, Cope suffered quite a bit because of Marsh. But the article does show that there was politics involved that took a very long time to correct. A “mistake” that sounds like either total wishful thinking or out-and-out fraud by Marsh. But once it happened, it was written in stone.

    The following article goes into more detail about the finds and timing, and alludes to the politics (can’t admit a mistake). Williston found an intact Apatosaurus within years of Marsh, but was ignored. Holland identified the problem very early on, but was ignored until after his death (over 50 years).

    My point is that this kind of thing does happen in science, it is not as idyllic and pristine as one would like it to be. When money and fame are involved, people play politics.

  65. “JT – if there *were* a theory that was compatible with the evidence, some scientist would be pushing it and others would be thrilled. That’s how science works.”

    First off, there are a variety of theories proposed by amateur physics crackpots. I don’t know whether any of them are compatible with the evidence. Everybody ignores them. They almost completely ignore each other, even.

    Second, there are theories proposed by legimate physicists. There are for example a variety of things that get labeled “euclidean physics” which vary from completely compatible to compatible wrt all the current measurements. As near as I can tell these also get ignored. I haven’t heard of physicists who are thrilled by them.

    The people who do that, do it in a variety of ways, but here is one that’s easy to follow. The claim is that there are two time dimensions at right angles to each other. one of them is for things moving at lightspeed, and the other is clock time. Coordinate time is then the euclidean sum of them. This gives you all the results of special relativity without requiring weird explanations about coordinate time versus clock time, or hyperbolic rotations, or any of the other mystical claptrap usually associated with relativity.

    That one is particularly easy to describe, but it can be done without a fifth dimension too.

  66. JT – Euclidean Relativity is not the example you’re looking for. It is not being suppressed. It is almost identical to the classical Minkowski framework. Like string theory, it offers some mathematical tools that make certain calculations easier. Almost all physicists will use it at certain times.

    Double check your dimensions. The Euclidean relativitiy I’m familiar with uses 5 dimensions to encompass gravity.

    Since it is based on the Minkowski metric we wouldn’t expect any significant differences in either predictions or compatibility with the data. There is a slight difference in the velocity addition, – not sure when that could ever be tested.

  67. The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. – Deut 29:29
    …and from the NT…
    For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,… – Romans 1:20

    I know because I have seen the shadow of the Truth. Where there is shadow, there is Light.
    I just made that up right now, but it sounds sufficiently C.S. Lewis-y to be impressive. LOL

  68. “Euclidean Relativity is not the example you’re looking for. It is not being suppressed. It is almost identical to the classical Minkowski framework. Like string theory, it offers some mathematical tools that make certain calculations easier. Almost all physicists will use it at certain times.”

    See, Copernican theory was almost identical to the classical Ptolemaic framework, it used the same epicycles etc, putting the sun at the center. Later the mathematical approach of elliptical orbits made certain calculations easier.

    But both with Copernicus and with euclidean relativity, the interpretation is very different. And the differences in interpretation could be valuable.

    I might be misunderstanding this, it isn’t really my field. But the way I see it, special relativity often has equations of the form:

    -(scalar constant)^2 = -scalar-term^2 + (vector space-term) dot-product.

    This fits a hyperbolic rotation because of the scalar-term negative sign.

    But in each case the same relation can be written

    scalar-term^2 = (scalar constant)^2 + (vector space-term) dot-product which fits a circular dilation. For a circular rotation, the sum of the short sides of the triangle would be constant, but instead it is one of the short sides which is constant.

    So for example, we get -m^2 = -E^2 + 3-momentum dot-product.
    With special relativity m is a required constant.

    But reverse that, and it becomes E^2 = m^2 + 3-momentum^2
    So the total energy is the rest-energy plus the perpendicular momentum. The rest-energy is of course constant, and different observers will calculate a different momentum and of course a different total energy. Obvious.

    Similarly, you can compute clock time as an equation of velocity, coordinate time and distance. But rearrange to get coordinate time as an equation of velocity, clock time, and distance and it comes out simpler. And the constant is obvious — clock time is of course constant regardless what velocity you assign. Coordinate time is not independent of clock time or distance, and there’s no reason to say it is perpendicular to either of them — it is their vector sum.

    Obviously I’ve only sketched this out and made no effort to make it unassailable. I say the approach provides room for a very different conception of time and space, one that is easier to follow and that might provide useful intuitions. And it appears that is being almost universally ignored.

    Of course it gives the same answers — if Copernican theory had given answers that were wronger than the previous theory it would have been discarded.

  69. JT – You wrote that Euclidean relativity avoids “any of the other mystical claptrap usually associated with relativity.” Again, this is anti-science. There is no ‘mystical claptrap’ – it’s simply math.

    Once we accept Maxwell’s equations and Lorentz Invariance there really isn’t much left to argue about. Lorentzian Relativity is indistinguiishable by experiment from non-Euclidean Relativity. And while Euclidean Relativity is very similar, most physicists will tell you that non-Euclidean Relativity is more internally consistent *and* a more physical description of the universe than Euclidean Relativity. Regardless, we could adopt any of these as our prevailing theory and nothing would change.

    None of them are mystical, none of them are claptrap – they’re just maths.

    It is no different than the various interpretations of quantum mechanics; the Copenhagen Interpretation, Bohmian mechanics, or the Many Worlds theory. While these theories lead to wildly divergent interpretations, they result in the same equations and thus are experimentally indistinguishable from one another.

    Heisenberg wrote that when two theories lead to the same predictions and are experimentally identical, then they really aren’t different theories – just reformulations of the same theory.

  70. Kevin, in some senses I agree with you. When it’s the same math then some ways it’s the same. You could stretch it and say that when the math is the same then there is no difference at all, that life is nothing but math and people who say there is anything more are simply mistaken.

    But people use a lot of imagination when they interpret what the math implies, and different approaches to the same math can get different results.

    As an example, Townes decided that Maxwell’s equations implied that a laser should be possible. He worked out a way to build one. I read a story that before he built the first one, he consulted with various QM experts who told him that it was incompatible with quantum mechanics, but after he did it they decided it was compatible with QM after all. (But when I read his own version of the story, they only doubted that there was any way to make the molecules in a gas line up well enough to support a laser, and he found a trick to do that. The first-hand account was not nearly as dramatic as the urban legend.) Lots of people looked at Maxwell’s equations and did not get the idea of the laser from them.

    Mallinson invented the Halbach array in 1973, apparently realizing this was possible by imagining magnetic field lines. He could arrange magnets so the magnetic field cancelled in one direction and doubled in the other. Magnetic field lines had been invented more than a hundred years before by Faraday, but as far as I know nobody had previously noticed they could be arranged this way. More modern mathematical descriptions of magnetic fields apparently did not encourage this intuition either.

    It is not enough to have mathematics that fits the known observations. The particular ways that people imagine the math fitting the observations can make a great big difference.

    So for example, magnetic fields are a consequence of relativity. There’s no actual “magnetism”, but charges in relative motion observe each other’s positions at an offset from their “actual” positions (when you assume there is an actual simultaneous position at a distance), and that offset is what we think of as a magnetic field. But people traditionally think of it as an instantaneous force that fits an equation of the form AxBxC, a pair of cross products. So they think of the magnetic field as perpendicular to the direction of motion of the source, which acts in a direction perpendicular to the motion of the sink. And this is compatible with lots of observations. But if instead of AxBxC you think of it as B(A.C) – C(A.B) you get a very different image of the same exact math. Now your magnetic field is two forces, both in the same plane. The end result is the same, but it *looks* very different. Which gives you the better picture? It probably depends on your current needs.

    If people could look at mathematical equations and immediately grasp all their implications, then nothing would matter except the math, and the math could be presented in any form. But human beings are not very good at that.

  71. I have a science/engineering background. I agree that science is a belief system that includes faith (in the scientific process). Perhaps that is what you mean? I also agree that science cannot (at least at this time) prove or disprove the existence of spiritual beings. Any more than science can be used to prove or disprove beauty.

    You say that perverting science in effect turns it into a religion (?). Perhaps it is more like politics which talks religion or science, using something for a political purpose.

    I am withholding judgement on things like dark energy and dark matter until I’ve seen a better explanation of the properties and how it might be detected. Some of this stuff seems like hand-waving or else too metaphysical for my comfort.

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