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Comments on Philosophy of Biology versus Philosophy of Physics by William W Bartley III

Let me ask you for a show of hands. How many of you will agree that you see me? I see a number of hands - so I guess insanity loves company. Of course, you don't "really" see me. What you "see" is a bunch of pieces of information.., which you synthesize into a picture image... It's that simple.


Representationalism, the commonsense position which Bateson appears to criticize in our example, and which is rejected outright by Machian philosophy, is also the position of many of the founders of the western scientific tradition - including Galileo, Boyle, and Newton.
This is strange. The example says you see *information*. That means the picture image you create is based on real empirical information. It's not a fantasy. This is consistent with common sense. Common sense has no problem with the mechanism of sight being that information comes to you eyes, on photons, and then is processed by your brain, as long as the conclusion of the story is that you end up with a roughly accurate picture of the real world.
As Newton wrote: "In philosophical disquisitions we ought to abstract from our senses and consider things themselves, distinct from what are only sensible measures of them". Such representationalism maintains that the members of Bateson's audience - at least those that had vision - did see Bateson (at least if he was there).
This is just toying with terminology. There's no substantive difference. The example defines the word "see" so "seeing" photons isn't "seeing" people. That's mildly silly, I guess, but it wasn't the focus of the example. The point was to consider the specific mechanism by which we see. And that matters sometimes, e.g. for considering where errors can creep in.

Reading on, it looks like this example was badly chosen and "presentationalism" is actually about saying we learn about appearances rather than objective reality. That is not a claim about the mechanism of sight, and isn't illustrated by the example above. The example even *contradicts it* by saying there is information (implicitly from objective reality, what other sort of information is there?) coming to our eyes.

The reason all this stood out to me is the example is *true* on the face of it. That *is* how sight works. But Bartley takes it to be deeply wrong. I think it's important to be able to accept the accurate view about how eyesight works without thinking it has bad philosophical consequences. And mixing in differing accounts of sight (ambiguous statements on this issue continue) blurs the philosophical issues the paper is really about.
What explains the appeal of presentationalism to contemporary physicists and philosophers of physics? Part of its appeal no doubt consists just in the fact that, being contrary to common sense, it enjoys the possibility of being sophisticated.
I don't think one should put condescending psychologizing of one's opponents in serious papers.
Preoccupied with the avoidance of error, they suppose that, in order to avoid error, they must make no utterances that cannot be justified by -i.e., derived from - the evidence available. Yet sense perception seems to be the only evidence available; and sense perception is insufficienfly strong, logically, to justify the claim about the existence of the external world, or about the various laws and entities of science, such as atoms and forces. The claim that there is an external world in addition to the evidence is a claim that goes beyond the evidence. Hence claims about such realms are unjustifiable. Worse, many presentationalists argue that they are intrinsically faulty: they are not genuine but pseudo-claims; they are indeed meaningless. For a word to have a meaning, they say, it must stand for an idea: that is, for a perception or for a memory of a perception. Since there can be no perception of any realitybeyondperception, there can be no idea of it, and hence no meaningful language "about" it.
Wow! Now I see what Bartley has a problem with! He should have put this earlier. This section is good and clear.
Mach and his students against atomic theory. The best known of these problems relates to entropy. The second law of thermodynamics asserts the existence of irreversible processes. Thus differences of density, temperature and average velocity disappear, but do not arise, by themselves: entropy always increases. Yet it was difficult for atomic theory to explain processes of this sort: for in classical mechanics all motion is reversible. Hence it could be argued, as the physicist Loschmidt did, that heat and entropy simply could not involve mechanical motion of atoms and molecules. Boltzmann' s work, by contrast (like Maxwell's in Britain), was directed to explaining entropy statistically in terms of atomic theory.
The problem of entropy brought up here is interesting. Is it solved?
Their view has been named "evolutionary epistemology" by the distinguished American psychologist Donald T. Campbell. It is an approach, based on biological and physiological research, which is utterly at variance with presentationalism.
I disagree. Evolution is not based on research, it's a philosophical non-empircal, non-scientific theory. It's a statement about the logic of what happens in a certain category of situations.

Evolutionary theories of the history of the Earth/species/humans are based on research, and are scientific. But the research and empirical part of those isn't relevant to the philosophical issues at stake. It's specious to draw on that research for authority in a philosophical debate.
Until recently, there has been even less appreciation that Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms and western epistemologies could be compared - let alone that they conflict radically.
*If* there was a different way of creating knowledge, *then* it could be used to explain the observation that knowledge (in the form of animals, etc) has been created on Earth.

Christians know this perfectly well. *If* God is a good explanation for how knowledge is created -- if he can survive the philosophical debate -- *then* he can explain all the data (that knowledge was created) just fine. If you accept the God explanation, the data is not problematic.

So it's wrong to say that biological evolution research contradicts rival epistemologies. If there were any rival epistemologies, they could very possibly account for the data and there's no way to say in advance that they couldn't. And even if they couldn't account for the data, it still wouldn't contradict them. If I say you can create knowledge doing X, and this can't explain the origin of species only other types of knowledge creation, then maybe there's two or more ways knowledge can be created. There's no contrdiction.

The real problem with alternative epistemologies is being bad explanations, not failing to account for some data. Their real problem is there are no rival epistemologies that *have some other explanation of how knowledge is created*. Or in other words, there exist no rival epistemologies that are remotely serious -- they are all missing the core idea an epistemology should have!

They shouldn't feel too bad. The Problem of Design was a big, hard problem. So far there's only one proposed solution that has ever gotten anywhere. It's the difficulty of solving the philosophical problem of design in new ways that keeps rival epistemologies down, not any empirical data.

Oh, and Darwin didn't explain this stuff, so the paper shouldn't be talking about him at all.

The paper goes on to give actual animal examples. Birds and trees and stuff. meh. I think he'd be a lot better off explaining the philosophical theory of evolution (which surprisingly few people understand well) instead.
A good example is winetasting: the connoisseur knows what to look for and how to describe both what he searches for and what he experiences. His sensations are, as a result of cultivation, made more authoritative.
Errr, Bartley thinks people's statements or ideas can be more/less authoritative? He believes in authority?
Sensations are, then, anything but authoritative: they are themselves interpretations. They can be educated and refined. In this process they become more authoritative in the sense that they are better tested and educated but not in the sense that they are ever beyond error or improvement
Yeah he does. Not in the standard way, but still some. This is bad! Critical tests and knowledge creation are not about gaining authority. The Popperian approach is about *rejecting the goal of authority* and replacing it with a new approach!

I like Feynman. He rejects authority.
A presentationalist would hardly deny this; quite the contrary, if he knows his Kant, he understands these matters.
The part after the semicolon is condescending to people who haven't read Kant and it's unexplained. Should have been omitted.
One will hardly be inclined to treat
It goes: [argument] Therefore: One will hardly be inclined to treat

It should go: [argument] Therefore: one should not do X, Y, Z which contradict the conclusions of the argument.

Arguments don't depend for their power on what *people* are *inclined* to do or treat.

The paper goes on at length about various animals. It makes the point that different animals have different sense apparatus. This is kinda problematic for people who consider the *human* senses to be the sacred, authoritative version of reality. Actually different things about reality can be seen with differently designed eyes, or with microscopes.

It also says "combinatorialism" is about as big a problem as justificationism. And emergence/emergent-evolution is its opposite. Says something about combinationlism=reductionism too. I don't know what that is about, though of course reductionism is silly: we should operate at whatever level of explanation best solves our problems, not the lowest level possible.

So here's my version:

Presentationalism, instrumentalism, strong empiricism, Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, etc, say: do not explain. Just observe reality (perhaps predict, presumably using induction).

The right view is: do explain reality. That should be our goal. To *understand*. We should regard stuff to exist in reality if it's *needed* in our explanations. In other words, if we can't understand reality while denying X exists, then we should say X does exist.

Denying objective reality itself exists is quite a bad way to try to understand it, or anything!

And presentationalism/etc has no explanation of how knowledge is created to offer so it doesn't work as a rival theory to Popperian epistemology.

And authority is invalid. And there's no "raw" observations, sensory data is, and must be, interpreted.

Elliot Temple on July 26, 2009


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