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Author Topic:   Misunderstanding Empiricism
JavaMan
Member (Idle past 663 days)
Posts: 475
From: York, England
Joined: 08-05-2005


Message 1 of 185 (430596)
10-26-2007 8:48 AM


I've been shocked by the content of some of the debate in the past few weeks. Maybe people are getting carried away by rhetoric, but many of the most respected debaters here seem to have been suggesting that science is the only way we can acquire trustworthy knowledge about the world.

What started as a defence of scepticism, in debates with LindaLou, seems to have turned into an argument claiming that most our ways of acquiring knowledge about the world are untrustworthy and that only science provides the holy path to truth.

I want to challenge this argument; but before I begin, let me make clear where I stand, before anyone starts arguing with me under false assumptions.

I don't believe in the supernatural, or ESP, or ghosts. My aim in making this argument is not to defend belief in things that don't have any basis in reality, but to clear up a misunderstanding about empiricism, and point out some of the limitations of using scientific research as an aid to making decisions in life.

So to begin...

Empiricism

Empiricism is a philosophical theory about how we acquire knowledge. It makes the following claims:

1. That we can only acquire knowledge through the senses, and by reflection on the primary impressions of sense;

2. That our knowledge of the external world can never be certain, because it is based on reasoning from past experience rather than on the intrinsic properties of things. Any contrary future experience would prove our assumptions false;

3. That, instead of having certainty, we assess the likelihood of something or other being the case by judging whether it is more or less probable based on our previous experience.

(It is important to note that empiricism stands opposed, not to personal experience or anecdote, but to rationalism and revelation, i.e. to the notions that one can acquire certainty about the external world through reason or revelation.)

Personal experience and anecdote

Now, in the thread Sequel Thread to Holistic Doctors and Medicine, a lurker would have been justified in concluding that most of the pro-science debaters on that thread were making the following two claims:

1. That it was possible to acquire certainty or near-certainty about controversial medical issues by reading scientific literature;

2. That allowing yourself to be swayed by personal experience or by anecdote would in some way be 'unempirical'.

Both of these claims, I would argue, are false.

The first because science doesn't provide certainty even when the consensus of opinion leans heavily one way, and in the case of controversial medical issues scientific opinion may be divided, or scientifc evidence may be inconclusive.

The second because personal experience and anecdote are evidence. Personal experience, in fact, is the biggest chunk of evidence we have, and it's only through personal experience that we filter the evidence or opinion we receive from the scientific community.

Reaching Consensus and Making Decisions

I think a lot of the confusion and misunderstanding on this issue has arisen because the pro-science debaters are conflating four different things:

1. The scientific method (as an ideal way of doing science);
2. The way science is done in reality;
3. The way the scientific community reaches a consensus;
4. The way an individual comes to a decision (for example, on whether to give their child the MMR jab).

As this post is already getting very long, I'll leave that observation without further comment. I'm sure I'll have to come back and defend it :).

Edited by JavaMan, : No reason given.

Edited by JavaMan, : No reason given.


'I can't even fit all my wife's clothes into a suitcase for travelling. So you want me to believe we're going to put all of the planets and stars and everything into a sandwich bag?' - q3psycho on the Big Bang

Replies to this message:
 Message 2 by AdminQuetzal, posted 10-26-2007 10:14 AM JavaMan has responded
 Message 6 by crashfrog, posted 10-26-2007 12:18 PM JavaMan has responded
 Message 7 by Taz, posted 10-26-2007 1:01 PM JavaMan has not yet responded
 Message 8 by PaulK, posted 10-26-2007 1:51 PM JavaMan has not yet responded
 Message 9 by Percy, posted 10-27-2007 9:37 AM JavaMan has responded
 Message 12 by Brad McFall, posted 10-28-2007 8:42 AM JavaMan has responded
 Message 55 by JavaMan, posted 10-31-2007 8:53 AM JavaMan has not yet responded
 Message 86 by petrophysics1, posted 11-02-2007 2:05 AM JavaMan has responded
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AdminQuetzal
Inactive Member


Message 2 of 185 (430604)
10-26-2007 10:14 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by JavaMan
10-26-2007 8:48 AM


Hi Java. I very much like this OP. I have no hesitation about promoting it as it stands. However, have you considered that the substance of these remarks might also fit into the thread On the Philosophy of, well, Philosophy? If you think it would lose something of what you want to discuss on that thread, I'll be happy to promote it as is.

Is It Science? good enough for you as a stand alone?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by JavaMan, posted 10-26-2007 8:48 AM JavaMan has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 3 by JavaMan, posted 10-26-2007 11:34 AM AdminQuetzal has responded

  
JavaMan
Member (Idle past 663 days)
Posts: 475
From: York, England
Joined: 08-05-2005


Message 3 of 185 (430620)
10-26-2007 11:34 AM
Reply to: Message 2 by AdminQuetzal
10-26-2007 10:14 AM


Is It Science? good enough for you as a stand alone?

Yes, I think so.

However, have you considered that the substance of these remarks might also fit into the thread On the Philosophy of, well, Philosophy?

Yes, they are overlapping. But it's a more general question I'm trying to address here. Although you might find me dropping into your thread as well :).


'I can't even fit all my wife's clothes into a suitcase for travelling. So you want me to believe we're going to put all of the planets and stars and everything into a sandwich bag?' - q3psycho on the Big Bang

This message is a reply to:
 Message 2 by AdminQuetzal, posted 10-26-2007 10:14 AM AdminQuetzal has responded

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 Message 4 by AdminQuetzal, posted 10-26-2007 11:52 AM JavaMan has not yet responded

  
AdminQuetzal
Inactive Member


Message 4 of 185 (430625)
10-26-2007 11:52 AM
Reply to: Message 3 by JavaMan
10-26-2007 11:34 AM


My pleasure.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 3 by JavaMan, posted 10-26-2007 11:34 AM JavaMan has not yet responded

  
AdminQuetzal
Inactive Member


Message 5 of 185 (430626)
10-26-2007 11:52 AM


Thread moved here from the Proposed New Topics forum.

  
crashfrog
Inactive Member


Message 6 of 185 (430631)
10-26-2007 12:18 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by JavaMan
10-26-2007 8:48 AM


The way I see it, there are basically two forms of "knowledge" - that which was reached by some method known to give reliable results, and that reached by some method not known to give reliable results.

Science is one of the former. Obviously, things like revelation are the latter.

Is personal experience (just personal experience) one of the former, or the latter? Much evidence from psychology indicates that it not a reliable means for generating accurate knowledge. For instance, the Asch conformity experiment - where subjects literally experienced a hallucination simply because they were under the impression that everybody else was, too - makes it clear that our own perceptions are not so reliable that we can trust them above all.

Certainly a skeptic is one who says "show me", but a skeptic also understands that it's not enough to simply show himself, everybody else must be shown, as well.

Personal experience, obviously, is the most immediate source of knowledge we possess. Nonetheless, it is not an end to knowledge - it is rather the first step on a path that, ultimately, should end with a more verifiable means of gaining knowledge. Our own experiences in isolation are simply not to be trusted - as everyone who's ever dreamed must surely understand.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by JavaMan, posted 10-26-2007 8:48 AM JavaMan has responded

Replies to this message:
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Taz
Member (Idle past 1636 days)
Posts: 5069
From: Zerus
Joined: 07-18-2006


Message 7 of 185 (430635)
10-26-2007 1:01 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by JavaMan
10-26-2007 8:48 AM


JavaMan writes:

The first because science doesn't provide certainty even when the concensus of opinion leans heavily one way, and in the case of controversial medical issues scientific opinion may be divided, or scientifc evidence may be inconclusive.


Well, that's the whole point of science. We don't actually "prove" anything. But we try to make it as certain as we possibly can. Will there always be uncertainty in the result? Yes, of course. But ask yourself this question. Would you rather see the certainty and uncertainty as is explored carefully and repeatably in scientific studies or would you rather have the certainty from someone's personal experience?

The second because personal experience and anecdote are evidence. Personal experience, in fact, is the biggest chunk of evidence we have, and it's only through personal experience that we filter the evidence or opinion we receive from the scientific community.

I don't think anyone was trying to claim that experience and anecdote are not evidence. What we try to tell people is that for the most parts experiences and anecdotes by the average person is untrustworthy, not because he is dishonest but because he is not properly trained.

I do a lot of programming. My father, on the other hand, has trouble turning on a computer. Whose experience and anecdote do you trust more in regard to protramming? Mine or my father's?

Apply the same concept to scientific studies. Which side do you trust more? Just some people out there or real scientists making real efforts to make repeatable studies and repeatable results?

Maybe people are getting carried away by rhetoric, but many of the most respected debaters here seem to have been suggesting that science is the only way we can acquire trustworthy knowledge about the world.

I'm one of those who believe that science really is the only way we can acquire trustworthy knowledge about the world. Why? Because it's the discipline that is involved. I spent some years working in biology research labs and some years working in programming research. I can tell you this much. It's rigorous stuff. At every turn, there was always someone checking my results and someone else checking his findings. I've had to write reports after reports after reports, each with huge chunks of data attached to it.

Can we sometimes trust our own personal experience and anecdotes to acquire information? Sure, nothing is stopping us from doing it. But should we trust them more than scientific studies? I say no.


Disclaimer:

Occasionally, owing to the deficiency of the English language, I have used he/him/his meaning he or she/him or her/his or her in order to avoid awkwardness of style.

He, him, and his are not intended as exclusively masculine pronouns. They may refer to either sex or to both sexes!


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by JavaMan, posted 10-26-2007 8:48 AM JavaMan has not yet responded

  
PaulK
Member
Posts: 15670
Joined: 01-10-2003
Member Rating: 2.9


Message 8 of 185 (430637)
10-26-2007 1:51 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by JavaMan
10-26-2007 8:48 AM


The problem with using reason is that you need something to reason from Rationalism works well with formal axiomatic systems where the starting points can be defined to be "true". For dealing with the world we perceive, however, we need to discover the starting points - and that is where empiricism comes in.

Revelation we may also dismiss in that it is clearly unreliable. Someone who believes that they have a personal revelation might consider their revelation to be true but even then they must consider the possibility that others, with conflicting or even false revelations felt the same way.

The point about the scientific method is that it is it takes precautions to guard against error. Repeatability avoids the problems of anecdote and with the selection of data. Alternative health testimonials are anecdote complicated by selectivity - both in the data reported, and sometimes in attribution of the result, too - and the placebo effect as well.

LindaLou's problem was bias, which resulted in her preferring sources which said what she wanted over those that did - ignoring the fact that the sources she rejected were more reliable, by far, than those she accepted.

This is not to say that we cannot use unreliable sources if they are all we have. But we must recognise their unreliability, and use better srouces when they are available.


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by JavaMan, posted 10-26-2007 8:48 AM JavaMan has not yet responded

  
Percy
Member
Posts: 19117
From: New Hampshire
Joined: 12-23-2000
Member Rating: 3.0


Message 9 of 185 (430764)
10-27-2007 9:37 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by JavaMan
10-26-2007 8:48 AM


Hi JavaMan,

I think Taz and PaulK have already provided the correct answers, but in sum, no one was claiming anecdotal data was without any value whatsoever. In fact, I think it was said on at least several occasions that when anecdotal data is all you have, then that's what you go with. And I know that I said many, many times to LindaLou that her problem was looking at both the anecdotal and the scientific data, and then judging the anecdotal data superior.

Correcting just a few things:

...but many of the most respected debaters here seem to have been suggesting that science is the only way we can acquire trustworthy knowledge about the world.

The scientific method isn't the only way to acquire trustworthy knowledge. Rather, the scientific method is the best way to acquire trustworthy knowledge.

But whether it is better to use personal experience or the scientific method depends upon what you're studying. Is the light red and should you stop? The scientific method would be immense overkill in this situation, not to mention too slow.

But how about the question of whether there a relationship between vaccines and autism. This is a much more subtle question and requires a scientific approach to establish the nature of the relationship, if any.

Now, in the thread Sequel Thread to Holistic Doctors and Medicine, a lurker would have been justified in concluding that most of the pro-science debaters on that thread were making the following two claims:

1. That it was possible to acquire certainty or near-certainty about controversial medical issues by reading scientific literature;

The actual claim was that you could learn the current state of knowledge on medical issues by reading the technical literature. It wouldn't make any sense to claim that reading papers leads to certainty, because many, many papers reach no certain conclusion.

2. That allowing yourself to be swayed by personal experience or by anecdote would in some way be 'unempirical'.

The actual claim wasn't that personal experience and anecdotal data are unempirical, but that they are far inferior to scientific investigation and analysis

--Percy


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by JavaMan, posted 10-26-2007 8:48 AM JavaMan has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 16 by JavaMan, posted 10-28-2007 4:25 PM Percy has responded

  
JavaMan
Member (Idle past 663 days)
Posts: 475
From: York, England
Joined: 08-05-2005


Message 10 of 185 (430795)
10-27-2007 4:09 PM
Reply to: Message 6 by crashfrog
10-26-2007 12:18 PM


Personal experience is the only route to knowledge
Personal experience, obviously, is the most immediate source of knowledge we possess. Nonetheless, it is not an end to knowledge - it is rather the first step on a path that, ultimately, should end with a more verifiable means of gaining knowledge. Our own experiences in isolation are simply not to be trusted - as everyone who's ever dreamed must surely understand.

Personal experience is our only route to knowledge, surely. What else could there be? Isn't that one of the fundamental claims of empiricism?

How could anyone function in the world if our personal experience weren't, in the main, to be trusted?

I think you are wrong to thing of science as being something qualitatively different from our normal experience. In fact, science is useful and successful because it is based on our normal, empirical way of solving day-to-day problems.


'I can't even fit all my wife's clothes into a suitcase for travelling. So you want me to believe we're going to put all of the planets and stars and everything into a sandwich bag?' - q3psycho on the Big Bang

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 Message 11 by Taz, posted 10-27-2007 4:13 PM JavaMan has responded

  
Taz
Member (Idle past 1636 days)
Posts: 5069
From: Zerus
Joined: 07-18-2006


Message 11 of 185 (430796)
10-27-2007 4:13 PM
Reply to: Message 10 by JavaMan
10-27-2007 4:09 PM


Re: Personal experience is the only route to knowledge
JavaMan, I don't know how on Earth you were able to interpret crashfrog's quote you quoted the way you interpreted it.

Let me answer your questions in crash's own words from the quote.

you writes:

Personal experience is our only route to knowledge, surely. What else could there be? Isn't that one of the fundamental claims of empiricism?


crashfrog writes:

Personal experience, obviously, is the most immediate source of knowledge we possess. Nonetheless, it is not an end to knowledge - it is rather the first step on a path that, ultimately, should end with a more verifiable means of gaining knowledge.

you writes:

How could anyone function in the world if our personal experience weren't, in the main, to be trusted?


crashfrog writes:

Our own experiences in isolation are simply not to be trusted - as everyone who's ever dreamed must surely understand.


Disclaimer:

Occasionally, owing to the deficiency of the English language, I have used he/him/his meaning he or she/him or her/his or her in order to avoid awkwardness of style.

He, him, and his are not intended as exclusively masculine pronouns. They may refer to either sex or to both sexes!


This message is a reply to:
 Message 10 by JavaMan, posted 10-27-2007 4:09 PM JavaMan has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 13 by JavaMan, posted 10-28-2007 1:50 PM Taz has not yet responded

  
Brad McFall
Member (Idle past 3377 days)
Posts: 3428
From: Ithaca,NY, USA
Joined: 12-20-2001


Message 12 of 185 (430912)
10-28-2007 8:42 AM
Reply to: Message 1 by JavaMan
10-26-2007 8:48 AM


my own use of EVC for a posteriori purposes
I am running short on time so I will make this a little easier to follow later.

quote:
1.That we can only acquire knowledge through the senses, and by reflection on the primary impressions of sense;

I found that my “critters” would respond to light or electricity... like it was OBSERVERD in Daphnia in the past. These explanations were all based on “tropisms” which means direct casue and effect so that what sense I used, sight, feeling the electricity were the same as the what now seem to be ostracods 'sense'.

quote:
2. That our knowledge of the external world can never be certain, because it is based on reasoning from past experience rather than on the intrinsic properties of things. Any contrary future experience would prove our assumptions false;

Dr A. posted a question about germ-line mutatable traits to distinguish parent from offspring and I realized (not posted yet) that this opinion is due to problem with if axiom of parallels is synthetic or analytic and the theory that is lacking that combines a Waddington epigenetic landscape with a Wright adaptive one in Thom’s dynamical sense. In a paper on the bilateral symmetry of eye of Daphnia there was a discussion about same sex clones and distinguishing just what Dr. A had asked but in my critters there was ALSO a bilateral separation (not in the brain) but in the digestive area. I looked further for Daphnia info on the internet and FOUND the diverticulated digest system. WOW!! – so is there (was there) a “future” experience in this sense??

quote:
3. That, instead of having certainty, we assess the likelihood of something or other being the case by judging whether it is more or less probable based on our previous experience.

I emailed Dr. Gladyshev a copy of the EVC post showing the right side my ostracod and my explanation that adsorbtion and absorbition occurs differently in the seeming more stationary side process than the central moving system and he responded with a close enough viewpoint for me to have to think harder about if I was REALLY correct. I THEN realized that what is going on here is that WITH phenomenological thermodynamics the problem that MacArthur was having with the effect of environmental variables on niche intersections as redefined by Hutchinson (niche =positive fitness variables) limits the notion of infinity (applied by MacArthur to BOTH phenotype and niche) to what is realized with classical thermodynamics. ALL within the geometry of a "coulmn" ( I can post my skectch of this once scanned). This changes the debate over replicators and interactors in biophilosophy and leaves only Maynard Smith’s claim about ESS and sibling ostradcods. WOWWOW!!

This was an every day thought process. I went to work, slept, did laundary, talked with friends watched TV , went to Chruch and figured this all out. That was my experience. Now I still have the push and pull of quaternions to bound this as well and discuss even things more rational or revelatory!!!!!


This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by JavaMan, posted 10-26-2007 8:48 AM JavaMan has responded

Replies to this message:
 Message 17 by JavaMan, posted 10-28-2007 4:31 PM Brad McFall has responded

  
JavaMan
Member (Idle past 663 days)
Posts: 475
From: York, England
Joined: 08-05-2005


Message 13 of 185 (430942)
10-28-2007 1:50 PM
Reply to: Message 11 by Taz
10-27-2007 4:13 PM


Re: Personal experience is the only route to knowledge
I don't know why you're objecting, Taz. Isn't Crash implying that there's something else apart from personal experience that we can use to make judgements?

What else can these phrases mean?

Crashfrog writes:

...it is rather the first step on a path that, ultimately, should end with a more verifiable means of gaining knowledge.

Crashfrog writes:

Our own experiences in isolation are simply not to be trusted...

OK, I'll admit it - I'm being obtuse. But for a reason :).

Crashfrog and I are talking about two different things when we say, 'personal experience'.

Crashfrog is taking the viewpoint of the scientific community, assessing the experiences of individuals as separate pieces of evidence, whereas I am taking the viewpoint of the individual, attempting to make a judgement about the world (for example, whether to send my daughter for an MMR jab).


'I can't even fit all my wife's clothes into a suitcase for travelling. So you want me to believe we're going to put all of the planets and stars and everything into a sandwich bag?' - q3psycho on the Big Bang

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crashfrog
Inactive Member


Message 14 of 185 (430943)
10-28-2007 2:01 PM
Reply to: Message 13 by JavaMan
10-28-2007 1:50 PM


Re: Personal experience is the only route to knowledge
Crashfrog is taking the viewpoint of the scientific community, assessing the experiences of individuals as separate pieces of evidence, whereas I am taking the viewpoint of the individual, attempting to make a judgement about the world (for example, whether to send my daughter for an MMR jab).

And I'm telling you that the judgment of the scientific community is more reliable than your own personal experience.

How could it not be? The scientific community is the encapsulation of a multitude of personal experiences; yours is but one.

But other than that, I agree completely with what Taz said. It's hard to understand how you could ask the questions you asked after what I had written. Are you sure you're making an effort to read for comprehension?


This message is a reply to:
 Message 13 by JavaMan, posted 10-28-2007 1:50 PM JavaMan has responded

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 Message 15 by JavaMan, posted 10-28-2007 2:19 PM crashfrog has responded

  
JavaMan
Member (Idle past 663 days)
Posts: 475
From: York, England
Joined: 08-05-2005


Message 15 of 185 (430947)
10-28-2007 2:19 PM
Reply to: Message 14 by crashfrog
10-28-2007 2:01 PM


Re: Personal experience is the only route to knowledge
And I'm telling you that the judgment of the scientific community is more reliable than your own personal experience.

You're missing the point, crash. When I make a judgement call, I only have my personal experience to call on. And one of the judgements I have to make is whether to trust the scientific consensus, or whether to trust some other piece of evidence that I have.

When I was deciding whether to send my eldest daughter for an MMR jab, for example, there were 4 pieces of evidence I considered:

1. The scientific consensus, that there was no link between MMR and autism;

2. The research of Andrew Roberts that there WAS a link;

3. My personal experience of being barred from taking the Whooping Cough vaccine as a child (because my aunt had suffered adverse effects);

4. The evidence from the BSE fiasco here, that a scientific consensus, although backed by evidence, can be wrong. (The scientific consensus was that there was no danger in eating infected beef, because the disease vector couldn't be passed from cows to humans. After several years, it became clear that the disease vector was passed from cows to humans.)

So given this evidence, how do I decide whether to send my daughter to get her jab next week?

Edited by JavaMan, : No reason given.


'I can't even fit all my wife's clothes into a suitcase for travelling. So you want me to believe we're going to put all of the planets and stars and everything into a sandwich bag?' - q3psycho on the Big Bang

This message is a reply to:
 Message 14 by crashfrog, posted 10-28-2007 2:01 PM crashfrog has responded

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