Re: History

James R Davila (jrd4@ST-ANDREWS.AC.UK)
Wed, 30 Aug 1995 10:40:45 +0100

On Wed, 30 Aug 1995, John Mcreery wrote:

> Nick Corduan asks,
> "If there are no absolutes, what is the point of science?"
> James replies,
> "I sympathize with you. I too believe in an objective reality, but the problem
> is that there is no such thing as an objective interpretation of that reality.
> Have you ever heard of "standpoint epistemology"? Interpretation, or simple
> reconstruction, is a matter of PERSPECTIVE. Check out "A People's History of
> the United States" by Howard Zinn for a different perspective on U.S. history."
> My own two cents:
> There is still a point to science if we recognize that (1) we shall never know
> everything with absolute confidence, (2) there are a variety of approximations t
> o what we want to know (call them "theories"), and (3) it is possible to make
> sound judgments of which approximation is closer to what we want to know.
> In practice, good science is like good history an evolving consensus among peopl
> e who are recognized (by each other and others, too) as being good, i.e.,
> combining a respect for careful data-gathering with fresh insight that
> produces better approximations than what has heretofore been on the table.
> Occasionally, someone notices a whole new angle that illuminates a situation in
> an unexpected way. Defenders of previous approximations may (and, in fact,
> frequently do) resist the new idea. They are human and, thus, competitive primat
> es attached to their own ideas. If, however, the new angle is productive,
> generating a steady stream of new insights and even better approximations, it
> will in time replace its predecessors or, the more common result of serious
> science, supersede them, incorporating their conclusions as a subset of its
> own. (There will, of course, be some rejected as errors; confusion and a
> sense of inadequacy are the motivators for continued progress.)

Thank you John, for your useful comments.

Perhaps some distinctions re science would be helpful here. The
mathematical physicist Roger Penrose divides scientific theories into
three categories: SUPERB (e.g. General Relativity), USEFUL (e.g. the big
bang) and TENTATIVE (e.g. any current theory of consciousness). SUPERB
theories explain almost all available data with a comprehensiveness and
elegance that show that they are almost certainly correct. USEFUL ones
explain a lot, but still have some holes in them. TENTATIVE ones, at
best, seem to be groping in the right direction. Unfortunately, no
SUPERB theory is found outside of Physics (evolution seems to come closest).

But an important point for this discussion is that scientific theories
that work their way into the SUPERB category don't throw out the old
consensus and show it was false. Example: Newton's classical mechanics
continue to work perfectly fine on the human level of events. It was
only when we started measuring movements of atomic particles or *very*
fast moving objects or large chunks of gravity that tiny inconsistencies
appeared. Einstein's theories of General and Special Relativity plugged
most of these holes, and Quantum Physics plugged others. The current
problem is that General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics appear mutually
exclusive. But when they are reconciled on some level eventually, the
adjustments to either will be minor.

Point: science is the process of refining our theories to correspond to
a real (dare I say "Platonic"??) reality. Facts is facts, but we doesn't
know all the facts yet, and our theories will continue to be refined--not
overturned-- until we do (if ever).

> History poses a special problem. In historical interpretations political issues
> of concern to audiences larger than the scholarly community are at stake.
> Historians' interpretations of the past become the basis for political/legal
> claims and actions and rare is the party to one of these actions who does not
> prefer the view that suits his own interests. It is one thing to say that
> all those with an interest should have a say in what is going on; another
> entirely to say that one party, however previously disadvantaged, should
> hereafter determine everything that is said about them.

The level of history, anthropology, and the general human world and
events on our level is a much messier problem. Chaos theory indicates
that this level of reality is very sensitive to initial conditions, so
generalization and prediction are much more difficult and perhaps
impossible on a comprehensive level. In other words, if I burned my
toast this morning, this event could completely change the whole sweep of
history on this earth a century from now. And all of the burned and
unburned pieces of toast every day, along with all other equally mundane
events, are feeding themselves into the future and bouncing off each
other in ways we will be very hard-pressed *ever* to sort out.

So, Nick, YES, there are absolutes, and on the level of basic laws of
physics and the macro view of the universe science is making good
progress. BUT on our level of discourse on this list, the facts, which
surely do exist, are much harder to get at. Truth is not (yet) just
truth and facts are not (yet) just facts.

> For descriptions of science in practice, allow me to recommend "Genius," the
> biography of Richard Feynman.
> Like animals, science is good to think with?
> Ne? :-)
> John McCreery

Jim Davila
St. Mary's College
University of St. Andrews
St. Andrews, Fife KY 16 9JU