Re: Empiricism

Garry DeWeese (
Fri, 17 Apr 1998 10:31:27 -0600

Massimo--I trust your move went smoothly, with no bad weather!

At 10:51 AM 4/17/1998 -0400, Massimo Pigliucci wrote:
>Your example cuts to the core of how do you test the assumptions of the
>scientific method, and in particular to the question of how much
>evidence you need in order to accept or reject a hypothesis.
>Most students are taught that all you need is *one* clearly contrary
>evidence to reject a hypothesis (what I call naive falsificationism),
>and that regardless of how many confirmations of a theory you have, you
>still can't prove it.

Neither "naive" falsification--or even sophisticated, Popperian
falsification--is an adequate understanding of how science works. You're
right about this. But there is a significant difference between
experimental results which tend to confirm or disconfirm an auxiliary
hyopthesis of a theory (to use a Lakatosian model), and my counter-example
which which was directed at logical possibility. In earlier posts you
seemed to be claiming (and pardon me if I read more into your claims than
you intended) that it was not logically possible that one could have
knowledge of a non-natural realm of reality since such a realm is
inaccessible by empirical methods, and empirical methods are the only way
we can know about the world. My example challenged the logic of the last
premise of that claim.

>The second statement is certainly true, but both these assertions fail
>to recognize a central difference between science and mysticism. Science
>is *not* about truth. It is only about probabilities. Which is by no
>means a small feat! I'd rather know that my conclusions are 90%, 95%, or
>99% accurate, than just make a guess...

Yes, scientists and the naive public often speak of truth rather than
verisimilitude. (Still, I think that the term 'truth' is not entirely
inappropriate if appropriate caveats about precision, etc. are understood.)
But you have claimed that empiricism *works*. That doesn't even lend
itself to the claim that empirical results are even *probably true*, but
only to the claim that they work in some operationalist or instrumentalist

>Therefore, the response to your example is this: I would consider the
>preliminary data very interesting. I would go back and keep observing
>the results. The longer the temporal series of correct guesses, the more
>*likely* a paranormal phenomenon becomes. And that's all I will ever be
>able to say (unless I got paranormal powers of my own... ;-)

I'm glad you did not take the other horn of the dilemma I posed, for that
would have involved you asserting a priori that empiricism is the only way
to know the world, and empiricism denies a priori knowledge...

But I'm not sure that taking this horn helps you either. For you have
admitted the *logical* possibility that there are ways of arriving at
knowledge of reality other than empiricism. And once you have admitted
that--and I think you are eminently reasonable to do so [;-)]--then the
issue becomes this: Which way (method) of acquiring knowledge is best
suited for the particular realm of reality that I am interested in?
Empirical methods may be best suited for acquiring knowledge of the
material world; pure reason for acquiring knowledge of certain relations of
properties and propositions, logic, mathematics, etc.; practical reason for
answering the question "What ought I to do?"; religious practice for
answering the question "How can I know God?" (And surely you are aware of
a "very long temporal series" of people who have claimed knowledge of the
non-natural or supernatural realm.)

My whole point is to challenge the major premise of your argument that
since empiricism is the best or only way of acquiring knowledge of the
world, and since empiricism cannot find God (or any non-natural thing),
therefore God (or any non-natural thing) does not exist.

>p.s.: yes, this discussion has been great for me too, it's great mental

Well, yes, it is fun, but it is also quite serious business; I am not
merely interested in scoring debating points.

Best wishes,
Garry DeWeese