The Scientist’s Skepticism

Keywords: philosophy of science, foundations of doubt

This is a note on the article The Scientist’s Skepticism by Mario Bunge. It was reprinted upon his death this year in Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec 2020.

Bunge writes that the scientist’s skepticism “is constructive, not just critical.” This is very consistent with my theme of starting from doubt; it isn’t just doubting things, it is moving forward from doubt. It is using doubt as a catalyst for exploration and discovery.

Bunge lists a set of assumptions that scientists make (Bunge uses “presupposes.”) These intersect and expand on the three foundations I discuss in Am I a figment of your imagination?  Specifically Bunge lists: “(a) materialism: everything in the universe is concrete or material, though not necessarily corporeal, and everything behaves lawfully; (b) realism: the world exists independently of those who study it, and moreover it can be known at least partially and gradually; (c) rationalism: our ideas ought to be internally consistent and they should cohere with one another; (d) empiricism: every idea about real things should be empirically testable; and (e) systemism: the data and hypotheses of science are not stray but constitute a system.”

Assumption (b) is a version of my second foundation:  “Something exists besides self (objective reality),”

I would restate “everything behaves lawfully” in (a) as “objective reality is consistent”. This is a critical assumption of science and is necessary for the testability mentioned in (d). This is the assumption that if I kick reality in exactly the same way, it will respond in exactly the same way. This is also, to a certain extent, a version of Newton’s third law: “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction …”. I think that some people’s objection to objective reality is that they don’t make the distinction between the existence of something other than self and the assumption that this other something is consistent.

I’m also not fond of Bunge using the word “corporeal” in (a). I’m fairly sure Bunge is making the distinction between matter (e.g., particles like electrons) and radiation (e.g., electromagnetic radiation like photons.)  My objection is that it is too easy to associate the word “incorporeal” with things that don’t exist such as chakras and ghosts.

A major theme of Bunge’s article is that scientists construct systems that represent reality. I state this as my third foundation, “Sensory perceptions interpret, rather than capture, reality”. I call this “modelism.” Bunge also emphasizes that scientists are always willing (or should be) to change the constructed system (the model) in the face of new evidence. As I repeatedly say, this willingness to change belief is a primary aspect of doubting.

Here are two examples of how the concept of “consistency” is, to a certain extent, fairly flexible and how far scientists and doubters might be willing to adjust their models.

The first example involves gravity. Einstein’s theory of gravity is a fine-tuning of Newton’s – yet a fine-tuning that led to mind-boggling results. But there is still a fundamental acceptance of the inverse square law of how gravity works. Well, one theory that I’ve read that eliminates the conundrum of dark energy is that, at galactic scales, the inverse square law needs to be tweaked. (I have not researched how much this is being pursued. At this point, don’t take this too seriously.) If this holds up, it would be just as shattering to modern physics as Einstein’s was to Newton’s. But the point is that people can consider this possibility.

The second example regards the idea that the reality we are part of is a computer simulation (some variant of The Matrix.) Even if we discover this to be true, we just have to make a radical change to our model. There still has to be a simulator (objective reality) and the simulation still acts lawfully within itself. It would be an addition to our current model; just as Einstein’s theories are an addition to Newton’s theories.

 The flexibility of models allows for radical change that progressively moves closer to objective reality.

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