Re: [asa] Evolution and history compulsory

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Sun Nov 22 2009 - 09:53:07 EST


You're walking into thick stuff here.
It's like the endless debate between realism and anti-realism in their
many varieties.

We could say that 'objectivity' is a matter of convention or mutual
agreement, but that isn't really what is meant by ontology.

We could say that ontology is what we say 'being' is. We say that there
are things called 'particles,' like the entire atomic thesis. In doing so
we enumerate some list of essential properties, a kind of template. Is
such a list a matter of semantics? Is it more related to what 'really'
is, or could we be wrong? Witness the wave/particle confusion. Is it
that the 'world' doesn't fit our categories? If so, then are our
categories inadequate, our ontology wrong, or is the 'world' really

It seems to me that we can draw distinctions between epistemology and
ontology and be wrong about all of it. Ontology does not mean what
'really' and certainly is. It means, or could mean, what we posit to be
and what being is like. In this sense, there is surely a relationship
between epistemology and ontology. How do we come to know, or decree
what being is like? Perhaps, a la Kant, we don't. We begin with it,
and can begin no other way, or cannot begin without it. It seems we
could also suggest an abductive process, wherein our knowing and what we
take to be are mutually involved in a process of correction and

In an absolutist sense, there is what is and there is our coming to know
what is. The former is ontology, the latter epistemology. In a
metaphysical realism, such as this, there is little or no participation
of our knowing and what is. As Putnam points out, in this case there
is, then, no reason not to believe that our very best understandings of
the world could be completely and utterly wrong. He argues this to
support his more moderate realism in which we participate in the
creation (in some sense) of the world. The world is familiar to us
because we, in part, create it. (I may not be remembering this exactly
right.) But if we follow this suggestion, there are no such things as
natural types, but rather ontologies that we create and understand
because they are ideas in our mind and not in God's mind. So our
notions of truth are closer to us, in some sense possessing an internal
criteria, for they are our ideas, and our world. You can see the
problem, if we are really trying to think the ideas of another, viz.,

What Putnam and others attempts to describe then is what human knowledge
(not bat knowledge) is like, and it perhaps can be true, but not in the
classical correspondence way, at least not without some clever nuance.

I suppose, if not Putnam, then Quine, would say that there really is no
way that the world 'really' is, and I think that they might argue this
even if there is a God. What this means, however, is that there could
be many physics, many ontologies, perhaps even many epistemologies.
Epistemology is not merely a matter of human psychology, something we
presume to be somewhat universal. But what counts for 'evidence' and
what for an 'explanation' or theory evaluation can and has changed even
in the West. So there can surely be many paradigms of science.

But I guess that I'm still something of a metaphysical realist for I
beleive that it really is true that the very best we could do could be
utterly wrong. Indeed, it amazes me that we could believe that we can
'capture' reality in ideas and mathematics. Unlike high energy
physicists, I am not a Platonist, and believe that the particular, as
God, cannot be universalized or made into an idea. Ultimately, God and
reality is then beyond Law and indescribable or comprehendible.


On Sat, 21
Nov 2009, dfsiemensjr wrote:

> I'm having a problem with a strict separation of epistemological and
> ontological. Part of the problem springs from the fact that objectivity
> is a matter of intersubjective agreement. No matter what we measure, it
> all comes down to passing through a human being's senses and mind. In
> some experiments, the mass of data is so immense that people cannot keep
> up with it, so computers sort through the mass and pick out "interesting"
> items for the scientists to look at. In others, the computations are so
> difficult that simplifications have to be used, sometimes with weird
> consequences. But it finally depends on people.
> Regarding the speed of light, how do I differentiate what I understand of
> the measurement and the way the universe is? With such matters, how well
> do our terminologies match "reality"? We consider statements to be either
> true or false (that's XOR) even when we don't know which, but qubits take
> all values simultaneously. With regard to the formulas that make up the
> strict sciences, Poincare a century ago noted that any set of data
> fitting the least action principle will match an infinite number of
> formulas. From what I can gather without the specialized training in the
> multiple disciplines, there are different consequences to the several
> possibilities. So what have we nailed down absolutely? It is well that we
> talk of confirmation rather than proof. Even in mathematics, one chooses
> the axioms with their undefined primitives before starting on proofs
> depending on them.
> Epistemology and ontology are philosophical terms, which puts them
> outside of the testability inherent in the sciences. With no better test
> than logical consistency, there are more systems than I like to face. It'
> not just the just who live by faith.
> Dave (ASA)
> On Sat, 21 Nov 2009 13:31:40 -0600 "Jon Tandy" <>
> writes:
>> I don't remember about quantum mechanics, but I believe it is true of
>> both QM and relativity that there are mathematical formulas
>> involved. Even if only an introductory, qualitative, version is
>> taught in lower grades where students aren't prepared for the math,
>> that does NOT make it "not science". That's what it sounds like you
>> are saying. It only means that they are being taught a less
>> rigorous version of the subject. To say that something must be
>> empirical, math and formula based, etc., in order to be science is a
>> philosophical supposition that the ontology of nature must follow
>> the precision of mathematical formulas.
>> Whether Einstein "got it right" is the wrong question. The answer
>> is, certainly he did get it right, as do every scientist who doesn't
>> have the perfect knowledge of God. It is true that the speed of
>> light may be about epistemology rather than ontology, but what else
>> do you have? I would dare say we don't know much about ontology
>> (the way things really are) except through experience and
>> measurement. QM and the appearance of "common descent" could both
>> be tricks of God, but as scientists we have to look at the data,
>> analyze, extrapolate, and ultimately make educated guesses about the
>> ontology.
>> As to why QM was brought up in this thread, I don't recall, but I
>> think it was a rhetorical comment that has since branched off from
>> the original point. But I will respond to one comment that was made
>> earlier. If the teaching of biological evolution were pushed back
>> into the 11th or 12th grade instead of 9th grade biology, it
>> wouldn't make any difference whatsoever to the public dispute,
>> legality, etc. Those opposed to evolution will oppose it wherever
>> it is taught, and those who say that evolution must be taught in
>> school because of the scientific strength of the evidence will say it
>> regardless of the grade. And those who rule that creationism can't
>> be taught as an alternative will say the same whether it's 9th or
>> 12th grade, at least in the context of publicly funded schools.
>> Jon Tandy
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: []
>> On Behalf Of wjp
>> Sent: Saturday, November 21, 2009 8:41 AM
>> To: Schwarzwald
>> Cc:
>> Subject: Re: [asa] Evolution and history compulsory
>> Importance: Low
>> I'm not certain why teaching QM in high school has come up.
>> QM can be taught in a number of ways.
>> I remember by undergraduate and graduate classes in QM as primarily
>> a study of mathematics & mathematical approximation, often guided by
>> a presumed happy union with semi-classical methods and ways of
>> thinking.
>> It was taught simply as a physicist's tool, little, if nothing, was
>> said of various metaphysical or philosophical interpretations.
>> It is only in the last 20 years that I have begun to think of the
>> supposed philosophical implications, both for the nature of the
>> world and the nature of science.
>> What would be said in a high school QM class where none of the
>> mathematics would be presented? Wouldn't it be all interpretation,
>> all philosophy?
>> It sounds like it would be some popular exposition, more like a
>> religion class.
>> The same can be said of all of physics, including SR and GR.
>> Without the mathematics, what are we left with? We are not left
>> with tools, but studies of the nature of the world and the nature of
>> epistemology. This is interesting stuff, but it is NOT science.
>> Witness, for example, that 100 years after Einstein's landmark 1905
>> paper on SR, and the relativity of simultaneity it is still be
>> debated whether Einstein "got it right." Not that people doubt the
>> mathematics and the physics. They doubt whether Einstein's
>> arguments are correct. They doubt, as for QM, whether it speaks of
>> epistemology or ontology.
>> Yet, it seems to me, that from the beginning it was about
>> epistemology.
>> Even the light postulate says that all observers will *measure* the
>> same speed of light regardless of their "inertial" frame relative to
>> the source.
>> It appears to strictly speaking be saying something about
>> measurement and nothing about ontology. It is silent on what is
>> behind the empiricism.
>> In as much as science relies upon observable results, we are bound
>> only to what can be observed. For all we know, it could be a trick
>> of God.
>> So, tell me, what have I missed. Why teach QM, and what would be
>> taught?
>> bill
>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
>> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
> ____________________________________________________________
> Weight Loss Program
> Best Weight Loss Program - Click Here!
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Sun Nov 22 09:53:50 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sun Nov 22 2009 - 09:53:50 EST