4 jun. 2011

Hard and Soft

Now obviously the harder the field is, the more likely it is not to be called bullshit. Hard science like physics or chemistry seems beyond question. Biology seems a little softer but still hard enough. "Applied" sciences come next. Social sciences outrank humanities, to the extent that they claim mathematical models, etc... I don't want you to get the impression I think like that.

Actually, the level of argumentation is often stronger in the Humanities than in the social sciences, which often have a weaker philosophical base. I'd match up ok against the average cultural anthropologist or sociologist. Within the social sciences, an economist might be more bullshit than a sociologist, or a quantitative sociologist might not have the intellectual firepower to debate a social theorist.

So softer does not mean worse. You need some hermeneutic chops to really address wider intellectual questions across disciplines. You could be in the most rigorous, non-bullshit discipline of them all and still not be able to hold your own against a bullshitter humanities professor like me.

The other problem with my series of posts, as some of you have noticed and kindly pointed out, is that it often ended up being merely a rehearsal of familiar prejudices. Economists can't predict anything, nutritionists exaggerate the significance of their findings, etc... Much as I've tried to be fair, that was implicit in my approach, especially when I knew less about a field.

10 comentarios:

Andrew Shields dijo...

So "hermeneutic chops" are different than the "chops" that the "hard" sciences teach you. Can you develop your thoughts about the distinction between the "hermeneutic" chops and the "scientific" chops?

Professor Zero dijo...

That would be my question, too. I'm also not quite sure chem/physics don't have their own internal doubts about inexactitude ...

Jonathan dijo...

The ability to contextualize across intellectual boundaries, to see the limits of empiricist epistemology, to recognize that facts don't speak for themselves. Good scientists don't have to be good philosophers of science. They have to know what the margin of error is, but that doesn't necessarily lead to deep consideration.

Professor Zero dijo...

Are you sure you're not talking about technicians as opposed to scientists? I know MDs and engineers who think this way, and also MS level scientists. I'm not convinced the PhD level people are this ... [mechanistic, or something].

Jonathan dijo...

It's a question of degree. I'm not convinced that Sokal, for example, has a great grasp of the philosophy of science.

Andrew Shields dijo...

"The ability to contextualize across intellectual boundaries": when I saw "Good Will Hunting" when it first came out, I went to it with my friend Ulrich, who said that the one scene he didn't buy was when Matt Damon squared off with a grad student in history and not only quoted a bunch of well-known names in American History but also related them to each other. Ulrich could accept the gifted autodidact having great insights in math and other quantitative fields, but his claim was that it takes training (and not self-training) to do the kind of things that Damon was shown as doing with a "soft" field like history. "Hermeneutic chops," I guess.

Aside: Ulrich is the German translator of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest."

Sarang dijo...

In my experience these debates between philosophers (esp. those that are not philosophers of science) and scientists typically have the two sides talking past each other. The central issue is that there can be no good foundations for the usual Humean reasons, so one is stuck with justifications of the form "this is true modulo irrelevant philosophical questions" or "denying our assumptions should make you skeptical about X, Y, and Z which are all clearly legitimate." (This is sometimes vulgarized esp. by Sokal as "weakening these assumptions should lead you to radical skepticism," which is never strictly true.) So the assumptions are ultimately "empirically" motivated -- i.e., by generalization from a large number of examples from the practice of the discipline -- so that all one actually needs in practice is a catalog of acceptable forms of argument. A consequence is that one's views are difficult to explain when one is talking to intelligent people outside the field.

Philosophers of science are different because (as far as I can tell) most of them are naturalists.

I've been on both sides of this debate. Economists and policy-designing types seem to me to rely on simplistic ethics just as physicists rely on simplistic epistemology; but they would reply (as I would in the analogous situation with physics) that in most cases, any reasonable ethical system should, by definition, justify the bulk of their reasoning.

Andrew Shields dijo...

"any reasonable ethical system should, by definition, justify the bulk of their reasoning":

I like how that nicely slides past the problems created by Gödel's theorem, because you don't necessarily need a "sufficiently powerful formal system," you just need a "reasonable system."

This also makes me think of my argument as to why the world is probably pretty close to what we perceive it is: we evolved to live in it, and if we did not perceive it pretty well, then we would have died out.

Jonathan dijo...

So the world is also what a cockroach sees, or a pine tree.

Andrew Shields dijo...

But the world is not what a rock sees. :-)

I had some radical subjectivists in my language exams this week, which came out because we had a text to discuss that mentioned the idea that truth is dependent on location.

In the context of the exam, I wondered about my location versus the location of the students, given that I was in a position to make judgments about the true quality of their English skills.

And I concluded that no matter how radically subjective they want to be, the fact remains: if you say "fing" or "sing" instead of "thing," then your English skills are flawed!