Is Scientific Skepticism Irrational?

I am revisiting David Stove‘s Popper and Beyond: Four Modern Irrationalists. There is something “off” about it, which is captured in a review at Amazon:

Stove’s primary target was the idea that there might be a problem about inductive inferences, one dating to Hume who was the first to notice it and try to solve it. His secondary target was Popper, whose solution to Hume’s problem was to develop a deductivist account of scientific rationality (critical rationalism, as an alternative to logical empiricism)–naively attempting to change the philosophy of science to address a problem which, in Stove’s opinion, doesn’t exist. His tertiary targets were “historicist” philosophers of science such as Kuhn and Feyerabend….

One does not learn the actual positions of any of these folks from Stove’s book, unfortunately, much less any of their actual errors or excesses. Stove’s own position seems to be a kind of “naive realism” about scientific change and progress: almost as if there were no questions worth asking on the subject. I’ve encountered secondary literature on Kuhn and Feyerabend before that utterly failed to understand them, but Stove doesn’t even make the attempt.

Here is Stove’s argument, reduced to its essence:

  • Scientific knowledge has progressed.
  • Some philosophers of science hold the view that scientific knowledge is provisional because what is believed to be true can always be falsified by new knowledge.
  • Saying that scientific knowledge is provisional is tantamount to saying that scientific knowledge has not progressed.
  • The philosophers of science who hold that scientific knowledge is provisional are therefore irrational because they effectively deny that scientific knowledge has progressed.

Stove assumes that which he seeks to prove. His reasoning is therefore circular. His book is a waste of ink, paper, and pixels (depending on the format in which it is published).

Stove, nevertheless (unwittingly) poses a question that demands an answer: If scientific knowledge is provisional (as it always is), is it possible to say that scientific knowledge has progressed; that is, more is known about the universe and its contents than was known in the past?

The provisional answer is “yes”. Human knowledge of the universe progresses, in general, but it is never certain knowledge and some of it is false knowledge (error). Witness the not-so-settled science of cosmology, which has been in flux for eons.

There is broad but not universal agreement that the universe (or at least the part of the universe which is observable to human beings) originated in a Big Bang. Expansion followed. But the rate of expansion of the universe and the cause(s) of that expansion remain beyond the ken of science. The knowledge that the universe is expanding — and expanding at an ever-increasing rate — is an advance on prior knowledge (or belief), which held that the universe is contracting or that it is neither contracting nor expanding. But the knowledge of an accelerating expansion must be provisional because new observations may yield a different description of the universe.

That example brings us to the essential dichotomy of science: observation vs. explanation. What is observed is observed with varying degrees of certainty. The variations depend on the limitations of our instruments, sensory organs, and brains (which may be conditioned to misperceive some phenomena). Where things often go awry is in explaining that which is perceived, especially if the perception is wrong.

A classic case of misperception is the once-dominant belief that the Sun circles Earth. It’s easy to see how that misperception arose. But having arisen, it led to erroneous explanations. One erroneous explanation was that the Sun is embedded in a “sky dome” that surrounds Earth at some distance and rotates around it.

A current case of misperception is the deliberately inculcated belief that the general rise in observed temperatures on Earth from the late 1970s to late 1990s is due almost entirely to an increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 caused by human activity. The dominance of that theory — which objective observers know to be incomplete and unsubstantiated — may well lead to the impoverishment of vast numbers of persons in North America and Western Europe because the leaders of those countries seem to be virtue-signaling CO2-reduction race to limit and eventually ban the use of fossil fuels.

If David Stove were still with us, he would probably say what I have just said about the current misperception, given his penchant for iconoclasm. But where would that leave his “naive realism” about scientific progress? He would have to reject it. In fact, knowing (as he undoubtedly did) of the erroneous belief in and explanation a geocentric universe, he should have rejected his “naive realism” about scientific progress before taking Popper et al. to task for their skepticism about the validity of new scientific knowledge.

Yes, scientific knowledge accrues. It accrues because knowledge (to a scientist) is ineluctably incomplete; there is always a deeper or more detailed explanation of phenomena to be found. The search for the deeper or more detailed explanation usually turns up new facts (or surmises) about physical existence.

But scientific knowledge actually accrues only when new “knowledge” is treated as provisional and tested rigorously. Even then, it may still prove to be wrong. That which isn’t disproved (falsified) adds to the store of (provisional) scientific knowledge. But, as Stove fails to acknowledge, much old “knowledge” hasn’t survived, and some current “knowledge” shouldn’t survive (e.g., the CO2-driven theory of “climate change”).

Here is the argument that Stove should have made:

  • Scientific knowledge has progressed on many fronts, but not to the exclusion of error.
  • Some philosophers of science hold the view that scientific knowledge is provisional because what is believed to be true can always be falsified by new knowledge.
  • Given the track record of science, those philosophers are correct to say that scientific knowledge is provisional.
  • It is possible for scientific knowledge to accrue, and to be provisional at the same time.

Think of all of the ink, paper, and pixels that could been saved if Stove had thought more carefully about science and issued a PowerPoint slide instead of a book.

Related post: Deduction, Induction, and Knowledge

Altruism, Self-Interest, and Voting

From a previous post:

I am reading and generally enjoying Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution by the late Australian philosopher, David Stove. I say generally enjoying because in Essay 6, which I just finished reading, Stove goes off the rails.

The title of Essay 6 is “Tax and the Selfish Girl, Or Does ‘Altruism’ Need Inverted Commas?”. Stove expends many words in defense of altruism as it is commonly thought of: putting others before oneself….

… Stove’s analysis of altruism is circular: He parades examples of what he considers altruistic conduct, and says that because there is such conduct there must be altruism.

I went on to quote an earlier post of mine in which I make a case against altruism, as Stove and many others understand it.

Stove’s attempt to distinguish altruism from self-interest resurfaces in Essay 8, “‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother,’ or Altruism and Shared Genes”:

And then, think how easy it is, and always has been, to convince many people of the selfish theory of human nature. It is quite pathetically easy. All it takes, as Joseph Butler pointed out nearly three centuries ago, is a certain coarseness of mind on the part of those to be convinced; though a little bad character on either part is certainly a help. You offer people two propositions: “No one can act voluntarily except in his own interests,” and “No one can act voluntarily except from some interest of his own.” The second is a trivial truth, while the first is an outlandish falsity. But what proportion of people can be relied on to notice any difference in meaning between the two? Experience shows very few. And a man will find it easier to mistake the false proposition for the evidently true one, the more willing he is to believe that everyone is as bad as himself, or to belittle the human species in general.

Therein lies the source of Stove’s confusion. Restating his propositions, he says it is false to believe that a person always acts voluntarily in his own interest, while it is (trivially) true to believe that a person always acts voluntarily from an interest of his own.

If a man’s interest of his own is to save his drowning child, because he loves the child, how is that different from acting in his own interest? There is “a part of himself” — to put it colloquially — which recoils at the though of his child’s death. Whether that part is love, empathy, or instinct is of no consequence. The man who acts to save his drowning child does so because he can’t bear to contemplate the death of his child.

In sum, there is really no difference between acting in one’s own interest or acting from an interest of one’s own.

It isn’t my aim to denigrate acts that are called altruistic. With more such acts, the world would be a better place in which to live. But the veneration of acts that are called altruistic is a backhanded way of denigrating acts that are called selfish. Among such acts is profit-seeking, which “liberals” hold in contempt as a selfish act. But it is not, as Adam Smith pointed out a long time ago:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. [An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776]

The moral confusion of “liberals” (Stove wasn’t one) about matters of self-interest is revealed in their condescension toward working-class people who vote Republican. I have pointed this out in several posts (e.g., here and here). Keith Stanovich takes up the cause in “Were Trump Voters Irrational?” (Quillette, September 28, 2017):

Instrumental rationality—the optimization of the individual’s goal fulfillment–means behaving in the world so that you get what you most want…. More technically, the model of rational judgment used by decision scientists is one in which a person chooses options based on which option has the largest expected utility…. [U]tility refers to the good that accrues when people achieve their goals….

More important for discussions of voter rationality, however, is that utility does not just mean monetary value…. For instance, people gain utility from holding and expressing specific beliefs and values. Failing to realize this is the source of much misunderstanding about voting behavior….

Failure to appreciate these nuances in rational choice theory is behind the charge that the Trump voters were irrational. A common complaint about them among Democratic critics is that they were voting against their own interests. A decade ago, this was the theme of Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas? and it has recurred frequently since. The idea is that lower income people who vote Republican (not necessarily for Trump—most of these critiques predate the 2016 election) are voting against their interests because they would receive more government benefits if they voted Democratic….

[L]eftists never seem to see how insulting this critique of Republican voters is. Their failure to see the insult illustrates precisely what they get wrong in evaluating the rationality of the Trump voters. Consider that these What’s the Matter with Kansas? critiques are written by highly educated left-wing pundits, professors, and advocates…. The stance of the educated progressive making the What’s the Matter with Kansas? argument seems to be that: “no one else should vote against their monetary interests, but it’s not irrational for me to do so, because I am enlightened.”

As I say here,

it never ceases to amaze the left that so many of “the people” turn their backs on a leftist (Democrat) candidate in favor of the (perceived) Republican rightist. Why is that? One reason, which became apparent in the recent presidential election, is that a lot of “the people” don’t believe that the left is their “voice” or that it rules on their behalf.

A lot of “the people” believe, correctly, that the left despises “the people” and is bent on dictating to them. Further, a lot of “the people” also believe, correctly, that the left’s dictatorial methods are not really designed with “the people” in mind. Rather, they are intended to favor certain groups of people — those deemed “victims” by the left — and to advance pet schemes (e.g., urban rail, “green” energy, carbon-emissions reductions, Obamacare) despite the fact that they are unnecessary, inefficient, and economically destructive.

It comes as a great shock to left that so many of “the people” see the left for what it is: doctrinaire, unfair, and dictatorial. Why, they ask, would “the people” vote against their own interest by rejecting Democrats and electing Republicans? The answer is that a lot of “the people” are smart enough to see that the left does not represent them and does not act in their interest.

Related posts:
A Leftist’s Lament
Leftist Condescension
Altruism, One More Time
The Left and “the People”

Altruism, One More Time

I am reading and generally enjoying Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution by the late Australian philosopher, David Stove. I say generally enjoying because in Essay 6, which I just finished reading, Stove goes off the rails.

The title of Essay 6 is “Tax and the Selfish Girl, Or Does ‘Altruism’ Need Inverted Commas?”. Stove expends many words in defense of altruism as it is commonly thought of: putting others before oneself. He also expends some words (though not many) in defense of taxation as an altruistic act.

Stove, whose writing is refreshingly informal instead of academically stilted, is fond of calling things “ridiculous” and “absurd”. Well, Essay 6 is both of those things. Stove’s analysis of altruism is circular: He parades examples of what he considers altruistic conduct, and says that because there is such conduct there must be altruism.

His target is a position that I have taken, and still hold despite Essay 6. My first two essays about altruism are here and here. I will quote a third essay, in which I address philosopher Jason Brennan’s defense of altruism:

What about Brennan’s assertion that he is genuinely altruistic because he doesn’t merely want to avoid bad feelings, but wants to help his son for his son’s sake. That’s called empathy. But empathy is egoistic. Even strong empathy — the ability to “feel” another person’s pain or anguish — is “felt” by the empathizer. It is the empathizer’s response to the other person’s pain or anguish.

Brennan inadvertently makes that point when he invokes sociopathy:

Sociopaths don’t care about other people for their own sake–they view them merely as instruments. Sociopaths don’t feel guilt for failing to help others.

The difference between a sociopath and a “normal” person is found in caring (feeling). But caring (feeling) is something that the I does — or fails to do, if the I is a sociopath. I = ego:

the “I” or self of any person; a thinking, feeling, and conscious being, able to distinguish itself from other selves.

I am not deprecating the kind of laudable act that is called altruistic. I am simply trying to point out what should be an obvious fact: Human beings necessarily act in their own interests, though their own interests often coincide with the interests of others for emotional reasons (e.g., love, empathy), as well as practical ones (e.g., loss of income or status because of the death of a patron).

It should go without saying that the world would be a better place if it had fewer sociopaths in it. Voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships are more than merely transactional; they thrive on the mutual trust and respect that arise from social bonds, including the bonds of love and affection.

Where Stove goes off the rails is with his claim that the existence of classes of people like soldiers, priests, and doctors is evidence of altruism. (NB: Stove was an atheist, so his inclusion of priests isn’t any kind of defense of religion.)

People become soldiers, priests, and doctors for various reasons, including (among many non-altruistic things) a love of danger (soldiers), a desire to control the lives of others (soldiers, priests, and doctors), an intellectual challenge that has nothing to do with caring for others (doctors), earning a lot of money (doctors), prestige (high-ranking soldiers, priests, and doctors), and job security (priests and doctors). Where’s the altruism in any of that?

Where Stove really goes off the rails is with his claim that redistributive taxation is evidence of altruism. As if human beings live in monolithic societies (like ant colonies), where the will of one is the will of all. And as if government represents the “will of the people”, when all it represents is the will of a small number of people who have been granted the power to govern by garnering a bare minority of votes cast by a minority of the populace, by their non-elected bureaucratic agents, and by (mostly) non-elected judges.