Subjectivity/Objectivity and evidence in science and philosophy

Why would it be a strange requirement when positive evidence is the requirement for all scientific conclusions? The entire point of the scientific method is to use evidence we can observe to test hypotheses about what we can not or did not observe. This method requires us to make positive statements about what we should see if the hypothesis is true, as well as observations that would be consistent with the hypothesis not being true or at least unsupported (i.e. the null hypothesis). What you seem to be describing for a genealogical Adam falls on the side of the null hypothesis in that you don’t have evidence that would distinguish the existence of Adam from the non-existence of Adam. You lack positive evidence.

Also, I am not sure who the “we” is in “There are lots of things we believe”. I don’t think I should be included in that “we”.

Don’t forget the last portion of that statement that mentions “not supported by scientific evidence.” I believe that Wittgenstein is the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. I believe that my wife loves me. I believe …

Should I go on? Ethics. Aesthetics. Music. There are any number of subjects that science does not address, and I’m pretty certain that you have strongly held beliefs about most of them.

All of which are subjective and not believed to be part of an objective universe. In context, we are talking about things which aren’t subjective human emotions or opinions, but things that are thought to be objective parts of the universe.

If you don’t believe that beauty is part of this objective universe, or music or art, then I don’t know what to say. Maybe Wittgenstein can help you out. Here is a nice article by Ray Monk on Wittgenstein’s Forgotten Lesson. He contrasts theoretical understanding, such as we have in science, and non-theoretical understanding like this:

Scientific understanding is given through the construction and testing of hypotheses and theories; philosophical understanding, on the other hand, is resolutely non-theoretical. What we are after in philosophy is “the understanding that consists in seeing connections.” Non-theoretical understanding is the kind of understanding we have when we say that we understand a poem, a piece of music, a person or even a sentence.

You really cannot limit “knowledge” only to what is empirically testable. Life just doesn’t work that way.


Beauty is not an objective part of the universe. It is a subjective human emotion.

As to music and art, I can supply scientific evidence that both of those things exist.[quote=“Jay313, post:157, topic:35961”]
You really cannot limit “knowledge” only to what is empirically testable. Life just doesn’t work that way.

Empirical testing is exactly what separates knowledge from belief.

No, not true. Have you read much on this subject? Try reading a bit of Wittgenstein some time. He might help you out of your philosophical difficulties.

1 Like

Yes, it is true. Have you read much on this subject? Try reading a bit of Steven Weinberg some time. He might help you out of your philosophical difficulties.

1 Like

There will always exist truth that cannot be proven, even built from any consistent set of axioms (themselves unproven). Or as I recall Hofstadter put it: “the notion of truth is stronger than the notion of proof”. Godel proved this formally within mathematics and logic itself. How much more true must this be in the much more nebulous domain of science? A lot, I strongly suppose, and even though I can’t prove it, I don’t have enough faith to think otherwise.


Always good to learn your philosophy from a physicist…

1 Like

That would be metaphysics which forms the foundation from which people try to determine truth.

If truth can not be proven, then it comes down to “because I say so”. Not only that, but people can claim that two completely contradictory positions are equally true, both claiming to have “knowledge” that it is the truth. I tend to agree with Steven Weinberg. The only good philosophers have done is point out bad philosophy.

"The value today of philosophy to physics seems to me to be something like the value of early nation-states to their peoples. It is only a small exaggeration to say that, until the introduction of the post office, the chief service of nation-states was to protect their peoples from other nation-states. The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers. . .

I should acknowledge that this is understood by many of the philosophers themselves. After surveying three decades of professional writings in the philosophy of science, the philosopher George Gale concludes that “these almost arcane discussions, verging on the scholastic, could have interested only the smallest number of practicing scientists.” Wittgenstein remarked that “nothing seems to me less likely than that a scientist or mathematician who reads me should be seriously influenced in the way he works.”"–Steven Weinberg, “Dreams of a Final Theory”

Better than learning it from a philosopher:

“It is only fair to admit my limitations and biases in making this judgment. After a few years’ infatuation with philosophy as an undergraduate I became disenchanted. The insights of the philosophers I studied seemed murky and inconsequential compared with the dazzling successes of physics and mathematics. From time to time since then I have tried to read current work on the philosophy of science. Some of it I found to be written in a jargon so impenetrable that I can only think that it aimed at impressing those who confound obscurity with profundity. Some of it was good reading and even witty, like the writings of Wittgenstein and Paul Feyerabend. But only rarely did it seem to me to have anything to do with the work of science as I knew it.”–Steven Weinberg, “Dreams of a Final Theory”

That is one theory. However “Son of Man” is clearly Messianic in the book of Enoch, and this was being widely read at the time. Also, we see Jewish leaders reacting to Son of Man as if it was a blasphemous reference. I’m not NT expert, but I’m not sure if this theory holds up.

I would agree. I hope you felt differently about my contribution. I did engage Scott and Denis throughout.[quote=“T_aquaticus, post:153, topic:35961”]
Why would it be a strange requirement when positive evidence is the requirement for all scientific conclusions?

I’m not arguing for a scientific theory. I am explaining the limits of the established scientific fact.

You seem to be trying to build everything off science. Please explain to us how you determine scientifically if genocide is wrong? Is racism wrong too? Or are these moral concerns just illusions because science cannot establish moral status.

1 Like

Not everything, only my conclusions about the objective universe.[quote=“Swamidass, post:165, topic:35961”]
Please explain to us how you determine scientifically if genocide is wrong? Is racism wrong too? Or are these moral concerns just illusions because science cannot establish moral status.

I base those on my personal and subjective emotions, and find agreement between many of my peers. I don’t expect morality to be an objective part of the universe.

I suppose I believe that racism is objectively evil, no matter what you or my peers think of it. There are important and true things that science cannot see. A world where racism could be acceptable is a very dangerous world.

1 Like

I don’t think it’s quite so bad as that. There is the yet wider (but still limited) world of empirical evidence. It can’t reach proof, but it can make use of probability. And then this can be widened out even more to all sorts of evidence (whether empirically reproducible or not). That begins to encompass a lot more things that are objective in their own right (whether empirical or not). If I’m not mistaken you and most of us here will all agree that objective truth doesn’t cease to exist just because it may be beyond our empirical grasp. Just because two people make contradictory claims doesn’t mean one of them can’t be objectively right. It only means they both can’t be right. (that last statement itself is an unprovable assertion by the way --but I’m betting all of us here handily accept it on faith alone.)

Well, I haven’t read Weinberg, so I don’t know what he does or doesn’t have on offer. But if physicists generally have that attitude toward all philosophy, then that might explain the woeful state of philosophical understanding that so many physicists are languishing in. I guess Weinberg and/or his colleagues have fallen down on the job getting them philosophically educated, then. The result of such physicists dismissing philosophy is not that they then don’t have one. It’s that they then are duped into defending an embarrassingly bad one – one that is easily dismissed by even those of us outside the profession who nevertheless prefer to keep our eyes open and not bury our heads in the philosophical sand.

I’ll borrow the words (and Myers quote) from a blogger “The OFloinn” in this particular blog who shows this better than I ever could…

Myers: Whoa. Scientists everywhere are doing a spit-take at those words. Philosophers, sweet as they may be, are most definitely not the “arbiters” of the cognitive structure of science. They are more like interested spectators, running alongside the locomotive of science, playing catch-up in order to figure out what it is doing, and occasionally shouting words of advice to the engineer, who might sometimes nod in interested agreement but is more likely to shrug and ignore the wacky academics with all the longwinded discourses. Personally, I think the philosophy of science is interesting stuff, and can surprise me with insights, but science is a much more pragmatic operation that doesn’t do a lot of self-reflection. [Emph. added] [[end of Myers quote]]

Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living; but Myers seems to brag about the limited mental horizons he ascribes to scientists. IOW, Myers is a technician not a thinker. How do we know? Because if he had thought about it he would never have used that locomotive-of-science metaphor. If the locomotive is science, we should remember that locomotives run down tracks laid by someone else and can only go to those places to which the tracks already run. Bad, metaphor, bad! Go to your room.

But who are these philosophers Myers sees huffing and puffing alongside the engine telling its puissant Baconian engineer that facts and theories are distinct? Mere nithings, like Poincare, Mach, Einstein, and the like, who are not fit to drive P.Z. Myers’ choo-choo.

1 Like

How do you know they are true if they can’t be seen, detected, or tested for?

In all fairness, (I’m going to critique some of what I quoted above from a blogger) – he is a bit sloppy with his own language as he is having fun with his point. He equivocates (in the blip that I pasted) between “science” and “scientists”, the former being a thing, and the latter being human beings. I think even Myers himself makes commendable allowance for the “philosophy of science” even within the bit of quote I pasted. But to the extent that anyone pushes some monolithic entity of “science” as being all-encompassing even of its practitioners, they would fall squarely afoul of the very criticisms bandied about above, and would only be demonstrating their “limited mental horizons”. I think it quite possible that the soulless entity “science” does indeed have limited horizons, as indeed it has no mental horizons at all, not being a person or a mind. But I’m nearly certain that much more could be said for a great many of its enthusiasts and practitioners both historic and contemporary.

What do you think is the difference between opinion and evidence?

“It may seem to the reader (especially if the reader is a professional philosopher) that a scientist who is as out of tune with the philosophy of science as I am should tiptoe gracefully past the subject and leave it to experts. I know how philosophers feel about attempts by scientists at amateur philosophy. But I do not aim here to play the role of a philosopher, but rather that of a specimen, an unregenerate working scientist who finds no help in professional philosophy. I am not alone in this; I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose research has been significantly helped by the work of philosophers.”–Steven Weinberg, “Dreams of a Final Theory”

Is Dr. Weinberg wrong? If not, then physicists aren’t languishing. They are thriving, and thriving without the input of philosophers. The stunning achievements that physicists have made in the last 150 years has been done with a reliance on empirical evidence and testable claims, not philosophical navel gazing.

The thing is that those who complain that people won’t listen to philosophers can’t point to how we would be better off listening to philosophers. All people seem to do is clutch their pearls when people discard philosophy.

The truth is limited. The truth isn’t whatever you want it to be.

I think “opinion” is a conjecture held (allowing for widely varying degrees of certitude) by a person.

I think “evidence” is (to that person) what he or she would offer in support of said opinion.

None of us has that luxury. You can’t not have a philosophy. All you can do is (through neglect) wind up with a default (maybe poor, maybe good) one that you un-reflectively inherited from … parents or culture or who knows where. Are you feeling lucky?

I propose that Weinberg is just plain wrong here. (or maybe not even that?) I don’t doubt that he is correct that he can’t think of any significant help, and he probably is crafty enough to define “help” in such a way that nobody else would be able to produce a name to gainsay his narrow opinion. My objection is against his entire premise that philosophy is somehow excluded (at least in any helpful way) from the professional work of the scientist. Life just doesn’t compartmentalize like that (another opinion from me – I’m full of them today!) It’s a huge (and quite unwarranted!) leap of faith that scientists have not pursued their entire lives and professions according to various philosophies that would have variously helped or hindered them. Those philosophies affect everything and history is littered with the detritus from bad philosophies/religions and of course has some shining fruits from some of the (now recognized as such) good ones. Just for the record, I note here that the jury will always be out on some of these as to whether they were good or not. But just jumping into the (apparently non self-reflective) boots of any physicist right now who is willing to blindly call any new knowledge good, then yes, they would then admire any philosophy that undergirded (indeed made possible) that particular knowledge gain.

As to whether physicists are languishing or thriving … the jury is apparently still out on that too. Those who are so inept outside of their own profession that they can’t even see or make connections between their work and a world of beauty and love and all manner of non-scientific yet thoroughly objectively existing treasures, then it seems to me that they may come up short of evidence for the “thriving” part of that. They may turn out notable work (though that probably not for long in the absence of any broader good life), but in what direction did they help push the aim of the whole profession? Is their philosophy attempting to steer the profession into needless rivalry and conflict with all other humanities/philosophies/religions? Or do they have a more science-friendly philosophy that is helping push their profession toward science in whatever contexts it can be found? The answers to those questions are not trivial ones and the existence of a web site like this one is testimony to the fact that a lot of people (including scientists) have been the victims of some very shoddy philosophy.

1 Like