Quantcast

«

»

Oct 30 2011

All of empirical inference

There’s another entry for the What to call it problem. It comes from a comment by Richard Wein on Dan’s post replying to Dr Coyne.

Much of the confusion over “science” and “scientism” arises from the tendency of some New Atheists (including Coyne) to stretch the word “science” to mean all of empirical inference. I think this stretching is based on a correct realisation that all of empirical inference lies on a continuum, with no clear lines of demarcation between formal science, philosophy, history, everyday inference, etc.

That’s exactly what I was talking about.

We need a better word for “good, secular thinking” that includes science but is not limited to it. We need a word that encompasses law, history, forensics and detective work, critical thinking, using what one knows and understands to navigate relationships and work and the world.

It’s all of empirical inference, that’s what.

29 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Felix

    “science & reason” ?

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    Not precise enough. History and law and detective work aren’t picked out by “reason.” Empirical inference does that.

    I can’t pretend it’s catchy though, I admit.

  3. 3
    Andrew G.

    Here’s the thing though: once you’ve applied scientific reasoning and methods to epistemology, then everything listed above as “all of empirical inference” ultimately answers to science. Not necessarily because they directly use scientific methods, but because in order to rationally know how much weight to assign to the results of other forms on inference, we must consider the results of scientific tests of their reliability.

    Forensics and detective work are an interesting example because of the recent discoveries of widespread unscientific practices in forensics labs (lack of proper blinding and controls, etc.) leading to false convictions.

  4. 4
    Daniel Fincke

    I guess my problem with this is that science has discovered uniquely special means of doing empirical inference. When you say something is science, to me you are saying it is not just a rigorous thinking through of one’s experiences and concepts as one does in philosophy but that there is hard data and math and specially refined methods of induction (like any number of falsification and verification tests, such as double blind experiments, etc.).

    I don’t mind at all science meaning something narrowly rigorous where “empirical” is defined with special constraints in the case of science where it is not elsewhere.

    I just oppose loose language and attitudes that imply all those other modes of reasoning which fall under the terms “logic and evidence” and which rationalists, more generally than just scientists, use as their ultimate grounds for appeal.

  5. 5
    Daniel Fincke

    are illegitimate.

  6. 6
    Vijen

    We just need to redeem the words “scientism” and “scientistic” by using them often and correctly. Yes it will be a struggle, but it will undermine the attempt to caricature empiricism as similar to religion (or more accurately, and with bizarre irony “just as bad as religion”).

  7. 7
    Steerpike

    How about “empiricism” to describe studies based on observation of data recorded and measurable in the real world? This would exclude disciplines like philosophy, literature (though not linguistics), mythology and, of course, theology, except as a neutral analysis of religion and its influence on history, sociology and psychology. These may still be considered valid areas of study, of course, though they would be described under a different rubrik, such as “intuitive”, or “subjective” studies to distinguish their non-fact-based nature.

  8. 8
    Stacy

    Philosophical naturalism. (With science as methodological naturalism.) ?

  9. 9
    hf

    Have you considered Bayesian reasoning, or Bayesianism? (I think the former technically refers to the ideal, not our attempts to practice it.)

  10. 10
    Andrew G.

    I just oppose loose language and attitudes that imply all those other modes of reasoning which fall under the terms “logic and evidence” and which rationalists, more generally than just scientists, use as their ultimate grounds for appeal are illegitimate.

    The snag is that they often are illegitimate.

    Simple example: eyewitness testimony has been historically treated as the gold standard of criminal evidence – until people started to test it scientifically, and (oops!) turns out it’s not so good after all.

    Worse, we now know that even our judgement of whether a reasoned argument is correct is suspect. In mathematics we can get around this obstacle by insisting on strict proofs and formal verification wherever possible; but in reasoning about the real world we have no such tools and therefore our conclusions are always suspect. The solution of course is the one adopted by science – it doesn’t matter how good your theoretical arguments are, they have to deliver the goods in the form of experimental results.

  11. 11
    Daniel Lafave

    The difficulty for someone defending “research” into Ockhamist will be to explain how something that is based on a bunch of theological claims based on no empirical evidence and a bunch of modal claims based on no empirical evidence–and no “modal intuition”, i.e. making things up, doesn’t count as evidence–is anything more than fan fiction for connoisseurs of the Divine Foreknowledge fiction genre. Philosophy of religion is a sham discipline operating on intuitions which have no relation to evidence. The modal claims in this area of metaphysics are equivalently unrooted in any actual evidence. Combine them together and you get pure mental masturbation, which is exactly what the Templeton Foundation likes to support.

  12. 12
    Bruce Gorton

    Investigative thinking.

  13. 13
    Enzyme

    I’d second stacy’s suggestion. The problem with appeals to empiricism (pace Steerpike’s suggestion) is that there’s a lot of good, rigorous thought that’s not empirical, and doesn’t need to be. A great deal of work in both the humanities and sciences is non-empirical, and none the worse for it: ethics, literary criticism, number theory, and so on. Some of these non-empirical disciplines might generate empirically testable claims, but not all do, and their methodology isn’t empirical.

    If “naturalism” doesn’t do it, how about “Occamism” or “Ockhamism”? That seems to describe perfectly what separates good methodology from poor methodology – and it has the advantage that it doesn’t exclude or include anything ab initio. Presumably, if it ever did turn out that there was some phenomenon that we could only explain by appeals to gods or spooky soul stuff, it’d be good to admit gods or spooky ghost stuff into our account of the world, howsoever non-natural it is. Isn’t the rejection of gods and spooky soul stuff based not on a positive assertion that they don’t exist, but simply that they don’t, given our best current understanding of the world, add anything to the debate except confusion? Unlikely though it may be, that might change. That being the case, an appeal to Ockhamite principles might be exactly what describes the stance. And it’s one that has to be accepted by anyone who claims to be interested in meaninful argument.

  14. 14
    philosopher-animal

    “empiricism” also has a traditional philosophical meaning or two, and science is not any more that than it is “rationalism”.

    IMO, just refuse to accept “scientism” as an insult. Bunge writes somewhere that, yes, sometimes “scientism” can mean aping science (i.e. pseudoscience), but sometimes it is just a term of abuse. As he puts it, something like: I respect evidence and clear thought? I’ve been called worse. Next!

  15. 15
    Richard Wein

    I am not worthy…

    I’m pretty sure I didn’t invent the term “empirical inference”. There’s certainly nothing new about the use of the word “inference” in this sense. However a quick Google suggests that combining it with the word “empirical” is not as common as I would have thought.

    Perhaps I should clarify that I mean it to include all evidence-based cognitive processes that produce knowledge about reality. This would include, for example, just looking out of the window and coming to believe (on the evidence of what I see) that it’s raining. It needn’t involve any conscious thought. I’m making empirical inferences (or at least my brain is) about what’s going on around me even when I’m driving in that automatic mode where I’m barely conscious of what I’m doing and my conscious mind is engaged in other thoughts. I would interpret my terms broadly enough to say that simple animals and present-day computers are capable of making empirical inferences.

    “Investigative thinking” won’t do for what I mean, because it implies something more deliberate. “Empiricism” has another meaning; it’s a philosophical position (about how we can know) rather than a way of knowing. “Philosophical naturalism” is another philosophical position. “Bayesian inference” is one specific form of empirical inference. Some Bayesians may claim that all effective empirical inference is actually Bayesian. But that’s a controversial claim, which I for one don’t accept. Given any possibility of it being untrue it would be unwise to pick a term that commits us to its truth.

    To me “inference” is just the right word to use here. Reading the recent controversial paper by Mercier and Sperber, I noticed that they carefully distinguish between “inference” and “reasoning”:

    So understood, inference need not be deliberate or conscious. It is at work not only in conceptual thinking but also in perception and in motor control (Kersten et al. 2004; Wolpert & Kawato 1998). It is a basic ingredient of any cognitive system. Reasoning, as commonly understood, refers to a very special form of inference at the conceptual level, where not only is a new mental representation (or conclusion) consciously produced, but the previously held representations (or premises) that warrant it are also consciously entertained. The premises are seen as providing reasons to accept the conclusion.

    When Ophelia says “good, secular thinking”, perhaps what she has in mind is reasoning rather than broader inference. But I like to refer to the broader concept, because I think that subconscious cognitive processes play a much more important role in our inferences than is generally recognised, even when we are consciously reasoning, and I want to emphasise the continuity between inference that has a conscious component and inference that doesn’t.

    I add the word “empirical” mainly to exclude inference about pure abstractions, such as those of pure mathematics. I’m not entirely happy with this choice of word, but can’t think of a better one. Also, the word “inference” on its own seems somehow too bare. Depending on the context we may want to specify that we’re only talking about effective cognitive processes, the sort that tend to lead to true beliefs. Hence Ophelia’s use of the word “good”. Perhaps the term “empirical” also carries a connotation of effectiveness to some degree, as it seems to imply some concordance with the the evidence.

  16. 16
    SAWells

    Maybe we should just cast the net over “knowledge”, as in the old couplet:

    I am the Master of this College.
    What I know not is not knowledge.

    :)

  17. 17
  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    Perhaps I should clarify that I mean it to include all evidence-based cognitive processes that produce knowledge about reality. This would include, for example, just looking out of the window and coming to believe (on the evidence of what I see) that it’s raining.

    Same here. I always mean it to include the most ordinary kinds of everyday production of knowledge. It’s a continuum, with looking out the window at one end and double-blind experiments at the other.

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    Urk. That Keith Ward piece is a bit…half-hearted.

  20. 20
    Wolfram183

    Trying to find terminology for believing in science is ultimately useless. The difference is Science is not a belief, therefore no (-ism) allowed. Science follows the path of information. Understandings are extracted from logical, rational observation. Once accepted in Science, we continuously try to DISPROVE. It is this constant attempt by the masses who “believe” in Science that gives scientists the credibility to discuss reality.

    (I use “Scientist” as a general term meaning – someone who wants to understand through historical and current observations. Scientists attempt to use logic and reasoning with data collected to discern reality. I am not a scientist by profession, but my processing of reality follows that of a scientist.)

    At the moment a scientific understanding becomes obsolete – i.e., not useful to describe observed realities – the scientific community will consent. Those in doubt continue to attempt to DISPROVE.

    In a belief system, that which is understood to be of “god” is NOT QUESTIONED. Belief systems fatal flaw is the lack of questioning. The “why” and “how” become insignificant in belief systems, while the same questions are the cornerstone of Science.

  21. 21
    kosk11348

    I consider it skepticism, with science as a subcategory (applied skepticism).

  22. 22
    Ophelia Benson

    Trying to find terminology for believing in science is ultimately useless. The difference is Science is not a belief, therefore no (-ism) allowed.

    But that’s not what we’re doing. That’s pretty much the opposite of what we’re doing. We’re arguing that science is continuous with other kinds of empirical inference and that the whole thing is a better way of finding things out than the alternatives.

  23. 23
    Ophelia Benson

    Well skepticism is part of it but it’s not the whole thing. It’s finding out, rather than skepticism. The end product is knowledge, not doubt. Inquiry is probably the best single word, but qualifiers are needed, to nail down the fact that to get from inquiry to knowledge you have to do it right.

  24. 24
    Wolfram183

    —-But that’s not what we’re doing. That’s pretty much the opposite of what we’re doing. We’re arguing that science is continuous with other kinds of empirical inference and that the whole thing is a better way of finding things out than the alternatives.—–

    Agreed with what you are doing. I went to the article again and re-read. Haha. Saying it is a useless pursuit stems from my personal experiences of discussing the differences in a true belief system and empirical inference, as it is being called.

    Obviously I needed to vent my frustrations on some level. Carry on.

  25. 25
    Ophelia Benson

    :- )

  26. 26
    Michael Fugate

    Many people must have much better imaginations than I do. I have tried thinking about omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence, infinite knowledge, infinite power and infinite love and I just can’t make anything of them. They just don’t seem possible – no matter how many contortions one makes – to be coherent concepts.

  27. 27
    Mark Fournier

    There is something that we’re leaving out here–peer review, which requires an agreement on methods. Standards of evidence and reason vary amongst people. It is astonishing to see otherwise bright people employ logical fallacies because they consider them decisive arguments, and hearsay or anecdotes as evidence. One of my greatest objections to religion is not just the claims that religion makes about the world, but the lower standards of evidence and reason encouraged to accept these claims.

    It’s fine to call for reason and evidence, but most people don’t know what these actually mean. I’m afraid that what is missing for people who disagree with us here is not some single idea, but a lot of effort and education. Science remains the gold standard, which is why we keep using the word. It’s important to see how it’s done, and few other disciplines are as transparent.

  28. 28
    Ophelia Benson

    Well peer review does narrow it, while my point is that it’s broad. Peer review & narrow of course means you get a better quality of inquiry, but my point is that even basic rational inquiry is better than just making it up or guessing at random or deliberately ignoring what you know/evidence.

  29. 29
    nifty signals

    I simply had to thank you so much once again. I’m not certain the things I would’ve carried out in the absence of the actual tricks discussed by you regarding that field. It was an absolute daunting case in my position, nevertheless finding out your expert technique you resolved it took me to leap for happiness. Now i am happier for this information and even pray you really know what a great job that you’re doing teaching others using your site. Probably you haven’t met any of us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>