Sunday 28 October 2018

Theories can *never* be disproved by facts - The quantity and quality of 'evidence' is completely and totally irrelevant

Science is about theories, and is indeed theory-driven - when it is being done properly (which, nowadays, is almost-never). One implication of the primacy of theory; is that theories can never be contradicted by facts.

This ought to be a truism - since everybody 'knows' about Thomas Kuhn's 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions; but the book was fatally misleading, because it called metaphysical assumptions 'paradigms' - and people have since assumed that paradigms were something distinctive to science.

There is a stubborn notion that scientists ought-to abandon theories when they are contradicted by observations; but from-within a theory (and all science is done within theories - albeit the theories are seldom recognised, often denied) observations never contradict the theory. There are always many (unbounded in number) of possible alternative explanations for an observation, or for the assertion of a fact.

For example, and it may indeed be true, the provenance of a fact may be challenged: i.e. a reported fact/ observation is disbelieved because the reporter is not trusted; because - that is - he is regarded as incompetent, ignorant, corrupt, insane or deliberately-misleading. 

This can be seen in public discourse. Two major scientific theories, upon which (it often seems) almost the entirety of modern policy hinges, are psychological differences between men and women and racial differences in intelligence. From the perspective of normal science, there is a colossal amount of evidence that there are significant biological differences between men and women, and between races, that affect behaviour in multiple ways.

But public policy is based upon the assumption that all such sex and race differences are a consequence of social circumstances. We can see, as a matter of everyday reality, that once the assumption is in place - all actual and possible observable differences between men and woman, or races, will be found due to social policies and practices - and Not due to biological differences. There is no possible evidence, and no conceivable amount of evidence, that can ever contradict these assumptions under any circumstances.

This shows that evidence is irrelevant. Completely and totally irrelevant.

Of course, evidence is cited by both sides; but that is rhetorical and expedient, not scientific - because the quality and quantity of evidence have no effect on the conclusion. And this applies all through science. It is only within a set of assumptions that evidence has the effect of changing sub-theories; when it comes to different assumptions, evidence is irrelevant - calling something 'evidence' is just an aspect of persuasion, or coercion.

This is pretty much undeniable as a description of how things are; and the usual response is to ask for greater 'rigour' in science, in applying science - or perhaps greater honesty (because dishonesty is endemic and pervasive in modern professional research). But these don't address the fundamental aspect that assumptions utterly and necessarily over-ride facts.  

What is needed, but which almost-never happens, is a thorough examination of the assumptions - a recognition of the fact of assumptions, a clarification and a critique of these assumptions... Do we really believe our assumptions? - or are they unconscious, unexamined, implausible?

This is what is needed, but this is precisely what is resisted - tooth and nail, by fair means and foul - resisted step-by-step, with escalating vigour, and with no surrender: in a fight to the finish. People Will Not acknowledge their assumptions, because one of their core assumptions is that they do not have any assumptions; but that their personal views are wholly a product of evidence, facts, observations...

What a weird situation! A world in which evidence, facts and observations are utterly and completely irrelevant - yet a world in which everything is supposedly dictated-by evidence, facts and observations...

We inhabit a world wholly dependent on human judgment (wrt. assumptions) - that is simultaneously a world which claims we have zero need for human judgement!


Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that you could make it clearer that you are speaking descriptively rather than normatively.

Theories are disproved by facts as a matter of course. It's just that sometimes the only form of disproof that is effective is the fact of the theory leading to behavior that is ultimately fatal to anyone who accepts it.

Some people might attempt to distinguish the certainty of a theory causing the death of those who accept it as not being relevant to "disproof". But functionally, "disprove" means to make it untenable to believe a theory. It's hard to believe things when you're dead.

Especially if you stay dead if you aren't willing to disbelieve those things.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Yes, it's descriptive - but it is also because assumptions necessarily structure evidence.

I would regard your example of death as endorsing my point - countless people are suffering and dying because they hold to a particular set of assumptions; and they apparently die without ever discovering this to have been what happened. When the West degenrates into undeniable chaos - the mass of strategic saboteurs will continue to believe that it happened because their ideology was not implemented hard enough. eg

Socialists/ Feminists etc - all that ails society/ women - past and present and future possiblities - was/ is/ always shall be due to insufficient socialism/ feminism etc. And the same could be said of Christians. But to get any further than self-contradicting assertions of 'relativism' we need to get back to the assumptions.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Some people don't learn anything even from dying.

But there is a reason God made humans mortal as a response to their temptation to sin.

It turns out that it really is a pretty effective way of presenting evidence such that people can only deny it by an absolute will to reject truth.

The mass of strategic saboteurs are "useful idiots". They will die, unpleasantly, and that death will be the beginning of the great majority of them admitting that they were wrong all along.

This is why the simple binary of Heaven/Hell doesn't work theologically. There is clearly a continuum to salvation. Those who must die as a result of their own sins to recognize their error aren't very high on that continuum, but they aren't at the worst extreme of those who will refuse to admit their error forever.

Of course, there are those who will simply gnash their teeth at God even in death and beyond. They are more numerous than many suppose. But as you posted, evil mostly needs an echo chamber. Death is the ultimate antithesis of that.

But not the only one. Evidence can and does challenge assumptions. That doesn't mean it will absolutely overwhelm them, you are right enough to say that assumptions frame how we view evidence. But reality limits how we can sustain assumptions. A man who assumes that eating his own brains with a spoon is a good way to feed himself will only be capable of the continued cognitive activity of sustaining that assumption for a relatively short time once he actually tries it.

Most everyday assumptions we rely on in life (correctly or not) are only possible at all for those who have a working (if far from perfect) body and brain. That's one of the great purposes of mortality, having a body at all does matter. The really important assumptions are possible entirely through the spirit, but even those are still challenged by the fate of the body.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

You're overstating your case to the point where it becomes ridiculous. You're right to emphasize the very important role played by assumptions and Bayesian priors, but that evidence plays no role whatsoever is true only in the most extreme pathological cases (like the examples you have chosen). Everyone has the experience of modifying their beliefs in response to evidence, and insisting that it doesn't happen is crazy and nihilistic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - "there is a reason God made humans mortal as a response to their temptation to sin."

I don't think this has anything to do with the reason for mortality. We are mortal because only by dying and being born again can we attain Life Everlasting. *Why* we need to die and be resurrected, rather than going directly from pre-mortal spirit to incarnate resurrected, I don't exactly know - but it seems that is the only route; partly by the evidence of Jesus's teaching, and mostly by the evidence of his example.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - "Everyone has the experience of modifying their beliefs in response to evidence..."

But Not when it entails changing their metaphysical assumptions.

I'm being perfectly serious here, based on three decades of engagement with public discourse; and there really is no doubt about it as an observation - I suggest you 'entertain' the idea, rather than rejecting it from incredulity.

Indeed, the sense of 'ridiculousness' you express is *exactly* what I mean when I say that evidence does not disprove assumptions: you - like most - assume that assumptions derive from evidence, and that the idea that any amount of evidence will not affect assumptions is ridiculous. It is ridiculous on on the basis of those assumptions you hold. If you had different assumptions, then it would not be ridiculous.

The big question concerns how people Do sometimes change their assumptions, given that it is Not due to evidence.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Or rather, not everyone has the experience of changing their beliefs about what constitutes evidence itself.

I don't, since I never have had the experience of genuinely believing a metaphysical assumption. For me they are always mere assumptions. I can disbelieve assumptions that I know to inevitably result in contradictory results, which most metaphysical assumptions do as soon as one starts really thinking about them.

But most people simply don't think about the implications of their metaphysical assumptions. They assume the contradictions that arise are because of false evidence being fed into their data (usually maliciously), and to be fair this also is a serious problem. In fact, most people are wildly underestimating the amount of intentionally false evidence they are accepting. Especially when they harbor metaphysical assumptions which are common, because the set of evidences which are considered valid on the basis of those assumptions will be the most likely to be intentionally falsified (precisely because they affect the most people).

On mortality simple, it is true that it would not constitute a special category of evidence incompatible with certain metaphysical assumptions if humans did not instinctively fear death, which is not of itself logically inherent in mortality, but only in the Fallen state which we associate with mortality. The Fallen state includes other entanglements of instinctive aversions which tend to challenge metaphysical assumptions conducive to certain sins.

This ties back to a lot of what is initially puzzling and off-putting about the teachings of Christ. One of the instinctive fears involved is the fear of social disapproval, which is at once condemned by Christ as well as exploited.

This is not contradictory, but it is distasteful to people who reject certain metaphysical assumptions. Especially in the modern era when such fears seem to be all on the side of ratifying sin. But cowardice (whether physical or intellectual) is normally one of the great restraints on gross sin as a result of the Fallen state. The current situation is an aberration, and an inherently transient one since it involves fundamental contradictions which undermine its stability.

Not all these contradictions rise to the level of metaphysical assumptions, but many of them do stem from such basic contradictions.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Certainly there are metaphysical assumptions -- about free will, time, causation, etc. -- in which evidence plays and can play no role. But your example (racial differences in IQ) was not a metaphysical one, and evidence very obviously does play a role. I myself came to accept the existence of such differences without any need to change my metaphysics, merely by encountering evidence to which I had not previously been exposed. I came to accept the reality of biological evolution, remote viewing, and several other things in which I had not previously believed, as a result of new-to-me evidence, without any metaphysical overhauls. (When I came to accept free will, on the other hand, that was a change in metaphysical assumptions and had nothing to do with evidence.)

Some people may well deny racial IQ differences for metaphysical reasons, and such people would indeed be evidence-proof, but you see to be making the all-embracing assertion that all theories are believed or disbelieved for purely metaphysical reasons, with evidence playing no role whatsoever, and this is what seems insane to me.

Some theories are wholly metaphysical, such that evidence can play no role. And all theories can be accepted or rejected for metaphysical reasons. But most theories for most people are such that they can be either accepted or rejected within the same metaphysical framework, and therefore the choice to accept or reject is often a function of evidence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I think you've made the argument for me. It's the metaphysics that is in control.

Within a metaphysical frame, people can change their views for all sorts of reasons - depending upon what the metaphysics dicates. If people change their reasons because of something they call evidence, that is (only) because the metaphysics has told them that *this* is evidence, and what to do about it.

But this means that 'evidence' is arbitrary - and need not overlap between people with different assumptions. Which is where we came in...

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think that there is some confusion here about "metaphysics". We naturally assign to the term a somewhat exalted view due to study of metaphysics being necessary to true philosophy, but the reason it must be studied is because many crude and unworkable metaphysics are commonly held as prior assumptions by those who do not carefully examine and audit their metaphysics.

The metaphysics that leave one open to accepting the evidence that there are differences in the intellectual capacity (not just the measurable IQ) of populations which are not explicitly selected on the basis of intellect are better than the metaphysics that deny this possibility outright and invariably assume that this can only arise from an invalid measuring process. But both types metaphysics exist, and the latter is more common than not. It is a set of metaphysical assumptions that is generally preferred by people who secretly know themselves to be of inferior intellectual capacity relative to that which would justify their social ambitions. The fact that it is logically incoherent and can't survive a minute's rational inquiry doesn't mean it is not metaphysics.

It means that it is bad metaphysics rather than good.

That said, the precise reasons that some people prefer such metaphysics makes it vulnerable to challenge by certain kinds of evidence. Generally, when people possessed of such metaphysics find themselves in real danger of being shunned from any community that possesses the means of providing survival advantage to the membership, their terror will overwhelm their metaphysics. The results of this collapse are often pathetic to witness (obvious groveling and servility, for starters). You can see this process quite often in the "white privilege deprogramming" interactions of whites who formerly wished to expunge themselves of any hint of racial bias and are forced (by social pressure) to accept an entirely contradictory metaphysics of 'white guilt' and the original sin (and mental as well as moral defect) of whiteness.

Of course, part of what makes that appalling is that the bad metaphysics is being replaced with worse metaphysics. But the behavior itself is embarrassing to witness even when it accompanies incoherent metaphysics being replaced by sound metaphysics.