More on Van Fraassen

(This is a follow up to my previous post on Van Fraassen and Constructive Empiricism)

I found an excellent article that laid out exactly what I found problematic about Van Fraassen’s observability criteria as well as an excellent argument against it while also preserving much of what I thought admirable regarding his description of the aims of science. I will quote the pertinent passage and offer a link to the rest of the paper, which is relatively short:

In simple terms, if we are confident on the workings of the light microscope we can calibrate the electron microscope to it. And how can we be confident on the light microscope? Because we calibrate the optical microscope to our vision. In this way, Maxwell’s intuition of a continuous series was in part right: when considering a series of calibration procedures, it is possible to give a meaningful notion of a ‘continuous series’ that goes from naked eye perception to aided perception with a series of instruments. It is the calibration that creates the ‘continuous series’.

Deconstructing van Fraassen’s observable/unobservable dichotomy

What this means is not a rejection of Van Fraassen’s argument, but rather to simply move the line forward in what counts as observable to include instruments that do allow us to extend the perceptual powers of humans. I also agree with the author (Mario Bacelar Valente) that a better demarcation is not unaided observability, but rather the distinction between what can be observed (with our without instrumental assistance) versus what can merely be detected but not directly observed. A good macro-world illustration of this is the difference between looking through the peep hole and hearing a knock at the door.

This is the difference between bacteria, which can be seen in great detail using a microscope, and an electron, for which we have a significant amount of circumstantial evidence for, but no direct observations.

Van Fraassen the Unbeliever

(hat tip to one of my favorite Sci/Fi series for the title)

Van Fraassen wants us to suspend believe in the unobservable entities postulated by scientific theory and instead hold merely to their success in predicting empirically observable phenomena (or as Van Fraassen puts it, to their empirical adequacy). What this means in practice is that we suspend belief in anything that cannot be observed unaided, in fact, he would argue that “aided observations” are naught but bits of scientific realist fiction. We must remain agnostic towards things like unicellular organisms, atoms, or any electromagnetic phenomena (with the possible exception of the narrow band of visible wavelength).

Of course, we can justifiably talk about these things, but only as descriptions of the theory. Van Fraassen holds that we could believe in the truth of these theories and the entities postulated therein, but that this goes beyond what science is doing and so involves other considerations and commitments, and so are not necessary for the empiricists acceptance of science and its various constituent theories. In fact, it would be inconsistent for an empiricist to believe the truth of these entities, since there is no empirical (observable) evidence for their existence. Additionally, he argues that it is not even the aim of science to describe the world (including unobservable entities), but rather the construction of theories that supply us with empirically predictive success within the constraints of various counter-factual contexts.

So what is the problem with this? On the face of it, it would seem to offer a lot for the empiricist who wishes to acknowledge the success of the scientific enterprise while maintaining an epistemically modest understanding of the project and avoiding what Van Fraassen calls “inflationary metaphysics”. But a point of contention can be found in the observability criterion Van Fraassen uses to determine what constitutes a justified belief. Van Fraassen describes observability so, “X is observable if there are circumstances which are such that, if X is present to us under those circumstances, then we observe it”. What this in essence means is that true observations must be unaided. If the phenomena cannot be at least potentially perceived without instrumentality then it does not count as observable.

The second element in observability is to determine who the observer is when delineating the criterion. In this case, observability is defined according to the abilities of the community as a whole, and in particular that part of the community which is in fact theorizing about the subject in question. In keeping with his empiricist principles, Van Fraassen maintains that the communities perceptual ability is itself a scientific theory and thus a subject of scientific inquiry and arbitration. Van Fraassen readily admits that this entails a certain amount of epistemic circularity since one must know the limits of observability in order to conduct the scientific inquiry into the limits of observability, but believes that it is unavoidable and that no better option is present to the empiricist.

The real problem is what does, and does not, count as potentially observable. Van Fraassen wishes to exclude the microscopic, but has no problem including distant objects. The only distinction between these two that I can imagine is that Van Fraassen is operating with some sort of Aristotelian concept of properties, in which some, like how large we are, are considered essential and thus serve as a determining factor in what we can observe, whereas others, like how far we are from an object, are merely accidental and so serve no role in determining what we can potentially observe.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that essential and accidental properties are determined more by what the inquirer is focused on and less on any inherent fact about the object. For the limitations of the human eye are just as much a consideration for distant objects as they are for small objects. That one set of problems can be resolved by changing our location while the other could be corrected for by changing our size makes no epistemological difference. Neither of these are currently possible given the current state of technology, and yet both are still logically possible. So the question is, when Van Fraassen rules out one but accepts the other, which possibility is he utilizing? If it is what is physically possible, then neither of these solutions is presently possible, and if it is logical possibility then both are possible.

Another problem is that the criteria for observability leads us to some odd situations. For if we consider the human being with the best near focus eyesight, Van Fraassen’s theory of the observable would lead us to inform the individual that they are not justified in believing what they can see, simply because what they can justifiably believe is constrained by the comparatively poor eyesight of their fellows in the scientific community. That is, even if the individual with good eyesight arrives at a belief through empirical means, they are still not justified in believing it.

A final issue with Van Fraassen’s observability criteria is that there are no demarcation for unaided observations. Looking at an object through a pane of glass would seem to be unaided, but what if it was so slightly convex that it went unnoticed? Would this constitute being an assisted observation? What about corrective lenses? Many people can recall when their eyesight was better and can compare this memory to what they experience when their visual impairment is corrected. It is an easy step to then introduce a magnifying glass and eventually a microscope. And what if what we are trying to observe is constantly behind us. Is it an aided observation to use a mirror? What about two mirrors to correct for the inversion of the image, does this improve our observation or further impair it because it is twice removed?

Besides, if Van Fraassen feels that he can trust scientific methodology and the community that uses it to inform his conception of what is observable, then why would he be so troubled when the same scientific methodology and community developed means of extending the range of our senses? As far as I can understand, there is no difference, and in fact there could be no consensus on the question of observability because only those driven by the same ideological commitments as Van Fraassen would agree to limit observability to those that can be made potentially unaided. Some might insist on observability standards that draw the line at only those which are actually unaided, while others might not have any compunctions with including various observation aids. It is not a scientific question and so could not be answered by the scientific community.

In conclusion, I believe that the observability criteria used by Van Fraassen is unusable and would only confuse or even hamper scientific investigation, not to mention the confusion and doubt such agnosticism would have with the public which already has difficulty understanding and accepting the results of scientific inquiry. It draws arbitrary lines that have no epistemic basis and holds to the empirical predictive success of scientific theories while casting doubt upon the elements of that theory simply because they cannot be observed solely through biological means. Rather than rejecting the so called unobservables, it seems one would be better served by throwing out the Cartesian style guarantee of correctness that Van Fraassen seems to impart to the concept of truth. A better attitude towards truth is that it is constituted by our best theories, imperfect though they may be, and to willingly modify our acceptance of them if experience proves that acceptance to be misplaced. Immutable truth is not a graspable object but an aspirational goal.

For more on Van Fraassen and his theory see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Constructive Empiricism.

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

I purposefully waited to read this book until after I had finished Sam Harris’ book. The similarities between the two are their shared ethical naturalism, while their differences lie in the focus of the work. Harris is primarily concerned with defending ethical naturalism in general, and sciences place in ethics specifically. He does spend some time talking about what science can tell us about morality, but this seems to be a secondary consideration for him.

These two elements are reversed in Churchland’s work, with the bulk of her book being devoted to what science can tell us about the foundations and development of morality. She does spend some of the first and last two chapters defending the idea that the information science is discovering actually does have a role to play in morality, but she seems content to allow science itself to make much of the argument in its behalf for the role she thinks it can and should play in ethics. And frankly speaking, I think she has the correct approach in this regard. It isn’t as though what philosophical arguments she offered were radically different or better (although I think her response to critics use of Hume and his is/ought problem is rhetorically superior for its clarity and simplicity), but the amount of evidence she offers for the role which neurochemistry and physiology plays in foundational elements of morality is a powerful tool for anyone wishing to argue for the efficacy of science in the field of ethics.

It is one thing to argue that values are indeed facts and that the fact/value divide is an artifice of rampant rationalism, but it is quite another to demonstrate the truth of this matter with neuroscience and psychological studies. The truth of the matter is that there is no tiny homunculus deciding things for me in my head, no distinct or independent “me” apart from my brain. Time and again we see proof of this, in studies of people who experience brain trauma to consistent results in various measures of brain activity to various stimuli and neurological responses. We are our brains, and our brains are a collection of neurons and their associated electro-chemical networks.

The confusion lies in our naive introspection which is incapable of penetrating the introspective illusion our minds set up and so peer into the background processes that form the basis for our thoughts and behavior. Evolution has not gifted us with this ability, in all likelihood because self-perception is tied to other perception, and so the foundations of our self-awareness is grounded in behavioral analysis and predictive models for states of intentionality that lead to potential behaviors. There is no benefit for a deeper analysis of cognition since what we interact with are not neural processes, but behavioral outcomes.

Morality then is found grounded in the instinct of me-care that has been extended by evolutionary pressures in social animals to mine-care. And while this is primarily directed towards offspring and (possibly) mates, it is highly extensible through both rational processes made possible due to increasing levels of intelligence in humans (and many other social animals) as well inculturation. In fact, it is particularly humans that are susceptible to this due to the highly undeveloped nature of the human brain upon birth which allows for such a large impact in the nurturing phase of their life. Churchland argues that morality is ultimately a constraint satisfaction process, the constraints being a combination of the external environment as well as the internal conditioning as shaped by evolution and upbringing. It seems to me that morality will eventually be encompasses by health science as neuroscience makes progress in diagnosing and treating the mind. Ultimately there is no divide between physical well-being and mental and social well-being since the mental is the physical.

Which is nothing more than what Sam Harris was arguing for. The shortcoming in his book, and the strength in Churchland’s, is precisely in how one ought to go about making this argument and where the focus of our efforts ought to lie. Science has been an extremely effective narrative for the expansion of human knowledge, and I see no better argument on its behalf, even in the area of morality, than the continuation of this success. Science does indeed have answers, and even where it doesn’t have answers, it can often offer help in what possible answers might look like (and might not look like). The science of the brain is indeed in its infancy, and so there is no justification for any wholesale rejection of traditional moral values, but there is also no reason why we shouldn’t begin the process of allowing science to inform our ethical beliefs and to subject said traditions to increasing levels of scientific scrutiny as our knowledge of the mind improves.

Sam Harris and the Foundations of Morality

Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.

This strikes me as the crux of Sam Harris’ argument in The Moral Landscape, for if it is granted, much of everything else in the book naturally falls into place, but if it is contested, all of the other arguments fail to find any traction, irrespective of how engaging and attractive they may be. And Harris does write some engaging and attractive prose that is both interesting and entertaining. But in this, the most important linchpin idea of his book, he spends so little time and effort to develop the argument, that I can’t help but feel some frustration.

For all his calls to rationality, the above argument seems to me to be reducible to Sam Harris’ inability to see beyond his own bias in this matter. His conclusion seems blindingly obvious to him and he can’t imagine that anyone would have an alternative response to the question. But of course, coming up with an alternative response is fairly easy. One could simply reject his assertion of moral objectivity and state that there are no logically deducible objective values and simply and fall back on the moral relativism that Harris is wishing to do away with. Not that there are any shortage of available alternatives, from pure self-centered interest to the realization of some evolutionary jump in humans (ala the X-men). Every religionist has an answer to Harris’ question. It is in their sacred texts and traditions. Who would argue that they do not see this as a valid alternative that provides an equally intelligible domain of values?

The other issue is that much of what Harris rails against is the bifurcation of scientific knowledge from morality based upon the is/ought problem elucidated by David Hume. And yet his solution comes no closer to bridging the gap between facts and values than any other ethical system has. This has to be seen as a failing of monumental proportion for someone who spends so much energy arguing against this divide. The claim that morality is based on “facts about the well-being of conscious creatures” is not something that is discernible through scientific inquiry, nor is it deducible from facts derived from said investigation. Harris’ morality begins with an “ought”, namely that we ought to value the well-being of conscious beings, and not an “is”. He argues that we can know that this “well-being” imperative through reason alone, and yet fails to provide reasoning for it beyond the intuitions and biases he hopes the reader holds in common with him.

The dichotomy?


Is this the dichotomy we are living with? I would really like to hear the opinions of Christians on this. It seems correct to me, but I fear I may be biased in this matter and would like to hear from those who believe religion and science can be harmoniously wed. I suspect some would like to try, with various metaphoric or symbolic interpretations of problematic passages, but there seems no easy way to know when to apply this hermeneutical principal in a systematic, non-arbitrary way. And if the adjustments are always made in the direction of science, one wonders what role of religion plays in such a scenario. Religion would increasingly appear to be superfluous beside science.

On Science: Conclusion

What have we then, from Kant’s description, but the philosophical underpinnings of Newtonian physics with its universal conception of space and time. The difficulty, one that perhaps was hidden from Kant’s view due to the relative success of Newtonian physics in explaining the world as we perceive it locally, is that there really is no justification for supposing that these organizing principles are any less affected by our perspective than the sense objects they organize. It took the brilliance of Einstein to finally dispel this powerful notion and allow us to see that even our understanding of these concepts is shaped by the subjective conditions of our observations.1 However, this is far from license for the abandonment of Kant’s analysis, since, like Newtonian physics, there is a high degree of intersubjectivity, especially as biological and cultural similarities narrow our consideration of the subject. Nevertheless, as long as it is kept in mind what frame of reference is understood in our observation, science remains safe thanks in large part to the intellectual work of Kant, who, along with many of the Enlightenment period thinkers, gave much to securing both science and human understanding from the twin pitfalls of presumption and skepticism.

1Relativity, sect.3


  1. Ariew, Roger, Eric Watkins, ed. Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

  2. “Relativity: The Special and General Theory.” Wikisource, The Free Library. 3 Jul 2009, 20:06 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2 Dec 2009 <>.

On Science: Kant

Amazingly, it was precisely in the despair of Hume’s assessment that Immanuel Kant found the inspiration for his own formulation of how our perceptions of the world function, and so how it is that science operates.1 Seemingly drawing inspiration from both the rationalists like Descartes and the empiricism of Hume, Kant proposed the radical idea that we cannot understand our perceptions without first understanding that they are neither external to us, that is purely sensations, nor exclusively internal, or a priori, but are rather a synthesis of the two. For without the contribution of internal rules, or principles of organization, we would not be capable of forming a coherent picture of our sense data, and truly would be rendered in the almost impossible situation outlined by Hume of merely cataloging our sensations.2 But without experience to provide these intuitive principles specific instantiations, there would be nothing to point to as an example of their exercise, and it is only in the objects of our experience that we can understand these intuitions, for how can we observe the a priori concepts that order our senses if there are no senses to order.3

And thus it is demonstrated to us that it is not the actuality that is the object of our scientific inquiries, but rather our experience, that synthesis of a posteriori sensation and a priori concepts.4 It is the discovery of these intuitive principles that constitute the discoveries of science, the universally held principles that objectively run through all of our experiences. Simultaneously, we understand the subjective nature of our observations is due to these experiences being built around our senses, which are peculiar to the individual.5 This means that the objective truths of science are necessarily understood to be one and the same as the intersubjectively held principles of cognition.6 Thus Kant resolves the difficulties brought up by Hume by demonstrating that while are observations in science may be empirical, that the object of analysis is the a priori concept shaping our sensations into the perceptions being observed. There is no need to discover a principle of causation in the sensation, since it lies not in the subjective senses, but in the universal principles governing those senses.7 We allow for Hume’s observation that it is impossible to bridge the gap between our perceptions and any underlying reality while still preserving a role for science in the analysis of these perceptions that is something more meaningful, indeed objectively meaningful, than mere habituation.

1Prolegomena, p.580-581

2Prolegomena, p.589

3Critique, p.653-654

4Prolegomena, p.597-598

5Prolegomena, p.598-599

6Prolegomena, p.599

7Prolegomena, p.605