Friday, March 7, 2008

Philosophy and Experts

Over at the First Things blog, Steven M. Barr has written a post about science, crackpots and experts. The upshot is that every academic discipline attracts crackpots. This presents a problem for the layman, for how is he to distinguish the genuine expert from the merely apparently expert? Barr puts the question this way:

When is one to trust the experts and when is one to trust one’s own instincts? It may be the central problem of our times.

Barr's answer to the question is that he trusts scientific experts, but rejects experts in the humanities. The sciences generally weed out crackpots because the crackpots can't acquire the necessary technical skills before their lack of judgment becomes apparent. Also, the empirical foundation of the sciences weeds out crackpots, for the test of whether anyone has created a perpetual motion machine or performed cold fusion is whether he can offer a repeatable experiment that supports his claim, an experiment that may be performed by other, skeptical scientists. The humanities, however, are not based on such falsifiable experiments and so it is difficult to distinguish experts from crackpots with respect to them. Barr prefers to "rely more on my own judgment as far as human realities go"; that is, on his "instincts."

What we have here is the tacit modern assumption that the only genuine knowledge available to us is knowledge in the form of the empirical sciences. Beyond that, there isn't really a basis from which to determine the true from the false, the truly expert from the merely crackpot. So on all those "human realities" like the nature of the beautiful or the best way to raise children, we must fall back on our "instincts." This is another form of the modern denial of the possibility of philosophy as it is classically understood. For the Socratic origin of philosophy consists precisely in the question asked by Barr: How does one distinguish the true expert from the false?

Before I discuss the manner in which Socrates answered this question, I would like to point out a few difficulties with Barr's solution. These difficulties will help us to see the depth of the Socratic solution. The difficulties are:

1. Scientists are genuinely expert in their own field and are able to distinguish the true from the false with respect to it. But in what, precisely, is a particular scientific field delimited? The limits of science is not itself a scientific question but rather a philosophical one. So when a scientist like Carl Sagan, for example, declaims not only on planetery astronomy, but also on nuclear warfare, history, environmental and theological issues, how do we know when he is acting as a true expert rather than merely an apparent one? It is possible for a man to be a genuine expert on one topic and a crackpot on another. Since this is a human question, we must (in Barr's opinion) rely on our instincts, so our ability to distinguish the scientific expert from the crackpot ends up being a matter of instinct as well.

2. Barr presumes that his instincts provide a superior way of judging human issues than reliance on experts. But what makes him think this is so? If there is little or no way to distinguish the true expert from the crackpot in the humanities, how does he know that his own human instincts are not crackpot? Obviously they will not seem to him crackpot, but then the academic crackpot's instincts don't seem crackpot to him either.

Let us now examine how Socrates addressed the question of experts. In the Apology, Socrates is told that the oracle at Delphi pronounced that there is none wiser than Socrates. Socrates is surprised at this, for he knows that he possesses no wisdom great or small. He resolves to prove the oracle wrong by finding someone wiser than himself. Among the candidates he interviews in his quest are the craftsmen, the resident experts of his day. And Socrates finds that they are genuinely wise in their chosen profession; but he finds something else as well. Because they are wise in their particular specialty, the craftsmen are led to believe that they are wiser in many other areas as well. Their genuine knowledge is "obscured" by the things they think they know but they do not. Socrates concludes that he is in a better state than the craftsmen: He does not have their particular knowledge, but neither does he falsely think that he knows things when he does not.

How is Socrates able to determine that the experts don't know things that they claim they do? He finds out through the famous Socratic cross-examination. Socrates generally proves two things in his cross-examinations. The first is that the expert's views are not consistent with each other. The second is that the expert's views contradict one or more elements of common experience that both Socrates and the expert accept. The key to the Socratic method is that Socrates questions a person. Abstract knowledge is a fiction. Like flute-playing without a flute-player, there is no knowing without a knower. This holds for scientific knowledge as well as any other kind of knowledge. So when a scientist proclaims knowledge, we are perfectly justified in demanding an account of how he knows what he claims to know. "Scientific consensus" is a cop-out; it only means that he knows because other scientists claim to know. By holding a scientific expert's feet to the fire in this respect, it is generally not difficult to find out what he really knows and what he doesn't. This is the answer to the first difficulty I pointed out in Barr's position.

The second key aspect of the Socratic method is its basis in common experience. "Instincts" are purely individual and subjective. My instincts may differ from yours, which is why crackpots are usually lonely and their views eccentric. There is no community of crackpots, or at least not any that lasts very long before they drink the Kool-Aid. "Common experience" consists of individual reality as it is universalized through rational dialog. The likelihood that Socrates and his partner in dialog will be crackpots in just the same way is small, and becomes smaller as the dialog is continued over time and with a variety of partners. Participants in the dialog constitute a check on the crackpottery of everyone else. This is why Descartes missed the point when he said that every opinion, no matter how outlandish, has been held by some philosopher at some time. Descartes thought this reason to dismiss the tradition of philosophy as hopeless and to embark on his individual quest for certainty. But of course crackpot ideas have been held by philosophers; the point is that the philosophical tradition eventually recognizes crackpot ideas as such, dismisses them, and learns from their mistakes. Aristotle is still the model of the true philosopher. He does not start philosophizing from his own crackpot ideas (his "instincts"), but from a review of the philosophical tradition, i.e. the ideas that have survived the rational scrutiny of many intelligent minds before him. Aristotle advances the tradition by criticizing it in its own terms and, at times, adding his own novel contributions. Which of Aristotle's contributions are genuinely sound and which are crackpot is something the philosophical tradition will ultimately determine. But Aristotle's grounding in the philosophical tradition makes it a good bet that his personal contributions will be sound rather than crackpot.

And that is how the second difficulty of Barr's position is resolved. We should not rely on our untutored instincts, because we are likely to be as idiosyncratic as anyone else. We should recognize the transcendent authority of classical philosophy and ground our thinking in the philosophical tradition, where we will learn how to tell the true expert from the false in any field whatever, be it the sciences or the humanities.

13 comments:

Jed said...

You wrote:

"Also, the empirical foundation of the sciences weeds out crackpots, for the test of whether anyone has created a perpetual motion machine or performed cold fusion is whether he can offer a repeatable experiment that supports his claim, an experiment that may be performed by other, skeptical scientists."

Cold fusion is a bad example. It was repeated by experts over 200 world-class laboratories such as Los Alamos, and these replications were published in about a thousand papers in established, peer-reviewed journals such as J. Electroanal. Chem. and Naturwissenschaften. You will find a bibliography of 3,000 papers and 500 full text papers here:

http://lenr-canr.org

You have to be careful when defining "other, skeptical scientists." Which scientists? In what field, with what qualifications? Cold fusion experiments are very difficult and can only be done by experienced experts in electrochemistry and material science. They are also expensive and time consuming -- they usually take 6 months to a year. In 1989, some nuclear physicists tried to do cold fusion experiments for a few weeks. They failed because they made elementary mistakes. No doubt, if a group of electrochemists were to try to build a plasma fusion reactor they would fail just as badly.

The problem you are describing is caused by the appeal to authority logical fallacy. See:

http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-authority.html

Quote: "This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person A is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject S, then the argument will be fallacious."

This has been a big problem in cold fusion. As I said, in some cases unqualified people attempted to replicate experiments. More frequently, people who know nothing about cold fusion, and who have read no papers on the subject, have attacked or ridiculed the research. The editors of the Scientific American are prime examples. They have published many statements that are completely at odds with the facts, and they bragged to me that they have not read any papers but they are certain the results are wrong. See:

http://lenr-canr.org/News.htm#SciAmSlam

- Jed Rothwell
Librarian, LENR-CANR.org

David said...

Jed,

Thank you for your comment. Perhaps it was unfortunate of me to include perpetual motion in the same sentence as cold fusion, because I didn't mean to imply that cold fusion is a crackpot theory like perpetual motion. I included it as something controversial that will eventually be (or already has been) resolved through empirical experiment. I agree with you that experimental evidence is meaningful only if the scientists who conduct it know what they are doing (in other words, they are qualified.)

Your link to the "argument from authority" fallacy is interesting and refers to a question I have long thought about: How does one know which experts to believe? The second half of my post gives a brief account of an answer to that question; I think I will post a more extended answer in the coming days referring to the answer given through your link.

Jed said...

You wrote:

"How does one know which experts to believe?"

You cannot know which expert is right; you can only guess. In many cases you have to achieve some expertise yourself before you can even judge which expert might be right. It often happens that the experts everyone thought were right turned out be wrong. There is no certain method. There is no touchstone of truth

Earlier you wrote:

"We should recognize the transcendent authority of classical philosophy and ground our thinking in the philosophical tradition, where we will learn how to tell the true expert from the false in any field whatever, be it the sciences or the humanities."

This is naive. The classical philosophers disagreed among themselves, and many of them made what we now know are drastic errors. We have the advantage of age and experience. As Francis Bacon explained:

"The opinion which men cherish of antiquity is altogether idle, and scarcely accords with the term. For the old age and increasing years of the world should in reality be considered as antiquity, and this is rather the character of our own times than of the less advanced age of the world in those of the ancients. For the latter, with respect to ourselves, are ancient and elder, with respect to the world, modern and younger. And as we expect a greater knowledge of human affairs and more mature judgment from an old man, than from a youth, on account of his experience, and the variety and number of things he has seen, heard, and meditated upon; so we have reason to expect much greater things of our own age, (if it knew but its strength and would essay and exert it,) than from antiquity, since the world has grown older, and its stock has been increased and accumulated with an infinite number of experiments and observations."

– Novum Organum, 1620

You seem to be looking for absolute standards and surefire methods. Such things do not exist. Furthermore, as our knowledge of nature expands, our ignorance and confusion must expand even faster. Quoting myself:

"Progress may not continue infinitely, but as Jefferson said it will continue 'indefinitely, and to a term which no one can fix and foresee.' We are nowhere near the limits yet. Were the empire of the unknown as large as North America, we have established a few settlements on the coast; we have some notion how large the continent may be, and we are still debating whether California is an island or a peninsula. There are 3,000 miles of unexplored wilderness to the west. Even this analogy is an understatement. The unknown and unexplored facets of nature will never decrease in number. Each new answer reveals dozens or scores of new mysteries. We will, someday, run out of gumption and stop seeking answers, but we can never run out of questions."

http://lenr-canr.org/BookBlurb.htm

David said...

Jed,

Your last post confused me. May I ask a few questions?

1. If I can't distinguish the true expert from the false except by guessing, and if it often happens that the experts everyone thinks are right turn out to be wrong, why I should be impressed by the 200 world-class laboratories and thousands of papers you cite in favor of cold fusion?

2. If philosophers disagree with each and sometimes make mistakes, does it follow that they can't have anything valuable to say, and can't possibly have said anything of surpassing depth and importance?

3. "We have the advantage of age and experience." Does this mean that, at age 12, I had the advantage of age and experience over Socrates when he was 70, since I was born 2500 years later than him? Are not age and experiece the attributes of individuals and not the human race as such? Bacon seems to make a simple category mistake.

3. "You seem to be looking for absolute standards and surefire methods. Such things do not exist."

Are you sure that surefire methods and absolute standards do not exist? How?

4. How do you know that as our knowledge increases, our ignorance will increase even faster?

5. How do you know that we can never run out of questions?

Jed said...

Hi. You wrote:

"1. If I can't distinguish the true expert from the false except by guessing . . ."

If you have to guess, then I think you should not try to judge which is right. You have to have some relevant expertise.


". . .and if it often happens that the experts everyone thinks are right turn out to be wrong, why I should be impressed by the 200 world-class laboratories and thousands of papers you cite in favor of cold fusion?"

Good question. There are two ways of looking at it:

1. It is extremely unlikely that 200 professional labs would make egregious errors. If that could happen, the experimental method itself would not work. So it is likely they are right.

2. On the other hand, unless you can judge the technical content of their reports, you really can't be sure. You could be making a "appeal to authority" fallacy.


"2. If philosophers disagree with each and sometimes make mistakes, does it follow that they can't have anything valuable to say, and can't possibly have said anything of surpassing depth and importance?"

Not at all. However, it does follow that there are no absolute standards, and that many disputes are unlikely to be settled in the lifetime of our species. Scientific questions are never settled absolutely. Even the most firmly established laws and theories might be proved wrong. However, these laws are useful even though they are less than absolute.


3. "We have the advantage of age and experience." Does this mean that, at age 12, I had the advantage of age and experience over Socrates when he was 70 . . ."

No. The meaning is explained by Bacon, in the quote.


"3. 'You seem to be looking for absolute standards and surefire methods. Such things do not exist.'

Are you sure that surefire methods and absolute standards do not exist? How?"

Because people have been looking for them for a long time and no progress has been made as far as I know. On the contrary, standards appear to be more relative (culturally based) and less absolute.


"4. How do you know that as our knowledge increases, our ignorance will increase even faster?"

This is an observation. As I said, every new answer reveals more mysteries. In the 19th century, things seemed to be headed toward a grand simplification of physics and biology, but now things seem to be growing more complex and even unknowable in some cases.

In biology, given the number of species and the complexity of DNA, and the likelihood that there are species on other planets, I do not think we will catalog or understand in detail more than a tiny fraction of all species before we ourselves go extinct.


"5. How do you know that we can never run out of questions?"

As I said, every answer reveals many more questions.

David said...

Jed,

In your original comment, you wrote that my use of cold fusion was a bad example. In proof of that, you cited 200 world-class laboratories and thousands of published papers. I'm not sure anymore what point you were trying to make with the citation.

Your answers to my questions 3,4,5 are all examples of inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is nothing new and is one of the forms of reason used by classical philosophers, and it has long been known that inductive reasoning itself depends on absolute standards.

For example, in order to know that no one has ever found an absolute standard, you must have a stable and consistent notion of absolute standard that applies across time and culture. In other words, you must have an absolute standard of what an absolute standard is. Only in this way is your inductive argument about absolute standards possible. So your use of an inductive argument across time and culture is itself evidence for the existence of an absolute standard.

I don't think you got my point about Bacon's category mistake. "Experience" is meaningful in an individual because he persists through it retains it in memory. But his memory dies with him and the next generation must start afresh.The "human race" as such has no collective memory or experience; only individuals do.
We can learn from the past, yes, but one does not do so by simply dismissing it through historical prejudice as does Bacon. Notice that Bacon does not refute anything from Plato or Aristotle; he merely asserts that since he was born later, he must know more. This is forgetting the past rather than learning from it.

As far as the increase in ignorance goes, who would you say is more ignorant: The man who knows he does not know the answer to certain questions, or the man who is unaware that there even are such questions?

Jed said...

You wrote:

". . . you cited 200 world-class laboratories and thousands of published papers. I'm not sure anymore what point you were trying to make with the citation."

My point is that 200 labs are good indication that the result is real. It might be an "appeal to authority" fallacy but that is unlikely.


"Your answers to my questions 3,4,5 are all examples of inductive reasoning."

Yup.


"Inductive reasoning is nothing new and is one of the forms of reason used by classical philosophers . . .

Sure. Bacon pointed that out in the document I quoted.


"For example, in order to know that no one has ever found an absolute standard, you must have a stable and consistent notion of absolute standard that applies across time and culture."

Well, the physical analogy to that does not follow. No standard is absolute. They are all approximate. I doubt there can be any culture-free philosophy, and all that I have encountered is inseparable from the culture that gave rise to it.


"I don't think you got my point about Bacon's category mistake. 'Experience' is meaningful in an individual because he persists through it retains it in memory. But his memory dies with him and the next generation must start afresh. . . ."

Bacon and I disagree. We think that experience survives in culture, customs and writing (books, laws, sciences and so on). Of course each generation must learn these things starting afresh, but learning them is far easier than inventing or discovering them in the first place. As Jefferson put it:

"And it cannot be but that each generation succeeding to the knowledge acquired by all those who preceded it, adding to it their own acquisitions and discoveries, and handing the mass down for successive and constant accumulation, must advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind . . ."


"The 'human race' as such has no collective memory or experience . . ."

Yes, it does. In books. And among illiterate people, in language itself, and stories and mythology.


"We can learn from the past, yes, but one does not do so by simply dismissing it through historical prejudice as does Bacon."

He didn't dismiss it. He put it in perspective. He showed that we are more knowledgeable than our ancestors, a fact not widely recognized in 1620, although it is common knowledge today.


"As far as the increase in ignorance goes, who would you say is more ignorant: The man who knows he does not know the answer to certain questions, or the man who is unaware that there even are such questions?"

That's a tough question. I suppose you could define it either way.

David said...

Jed,

If you read my original post, I never said that cold fusion was phony. I only said that if it is real, it will be demonstrated by experiments that can be replicated by skeptical scientists. I leave it to the experts to hash out who is qualified to perform the experiments.

I agree with you that the past can be accessed through books - but only if they are read and understood. Then, in effect, the author's experience becomes my experience. Plato and Aristotle can benefit us only if we read and understand them, both in their successes and their failures. In my experience, most people who dismiss the ancient philosophers have only a superficial acquaintance with them, or rely on tendentious secondary sources. When they say they "know" that the ancient philosophers made a lot of mistakes, they mean that they read in a magazine somewhere that they made a lot of mistakes, not that they have actually read Plato and Aristotle and detected the mistakes for themselves. This is not learning from the experience of the past, but adopting an attitude about the past.

I think we will just have to disagree about whether we are more knowledgeable than people were in the past. You know some things, I know some things, other people know other things. Aristotle knew some things. Did Aristotle know more than the average U.S. high school graduate does today? About some things, like structure of the solar system, no. About other things - for instance, the basic forms of reason and logic - I think the answer is yes. In fact, I think we make a lot of mistakes that Aristotle did not through ignorance of ancient philosophy. Many people think they "know" ancient philosophy when they have only uncritically adopted opinions about it.

One last question:

"No standard is absolute. They are all approximate."

Is this an absolute or an approximate statement, and is it culture-free?

David said...

My last comment should start:

"If you re-read my original post..."

I don't mean that sentence to sound obnoxious.

Jed said...

You wrote:

"You know some things, I know some things, other people know other things. Aristotle knew some things."

For that matter, a man who lived 100,000 years before Aristotle knew many things that Aristotle did not. Individuals on average are never smarter or stupider in different eras. In the aggregate, we have more knowledge than people did in ancient times. Not more wisdom.

We know something vitally important that Aristotle failed to realize: that progress and technology can liberate us and elevate the human condition. Giorgio de Santillana, in "The Origins of Scientific Thought," (U. Chicago, Mentor; 1961) described this "great failure of the imagination":

"When Aristotle, the great master of ethics, said that slavery is a fact of nature, and that we shall need slaves so long as the shuttle will not run in the loom by itself, he had registered one of those great mental blocks which foretell the end of a cycle. And this leads us to what is obviously crucial, the lack of an applied science. . . ."


"Did Aristotle know more than the average U.S. high school graduate does today?"

Far less about some things, and more about others. As I said, that is true of all people, in all eras, going back hundreds of thousands of years.


"About other things - for instance, the basic forms of reason and logic - I think the answer is yes."

No doubt Aristotle knew more logic than the average high school kid. But millions of people know as much about logic as Aristotle did. By the same token, millions know as much physics as Newton did. That is because it is far easier to learn logic or physics than to discover them in the first place. As Newton said, we stand on the shoulders of giants.


"In fact, I think we make a lot of mistakes that Aristotle did not through ignorance of ancient philosophy."

Some people make mistakes. Others are quite familiar with logic and other findings of ancient philosophy, and they avoid making these mistakes. Ancient discoveries are incorporated in our thinking just as much as Newtonian physics are. They have not been forgotten.


"Many people think they 'know' ancient philosophy when they have only uncritically adopted opinions about it."

On the other hand, Francis Bacon knew ancient philosophy like the back of his hand, as you see in his book. If you have not read that book carefully I think you should refrain from criticizing it.


"'No standard is absolute. They are all approximate.'

Is this an absolute or an approximate statement, and is it culture-free?"

I meant physical standards, and it is common knowledge that they are approximate. The limits of accuracy are defined for each on. The notion that cultural and philosophic standards are also approximate is an observation, or opinion of mine, which is widely shared.

No assertion can be culture-free, as Bacon and many others have shown. They are all colored by what he called the "idols of the tribe" or cultural bias, in modern terminology.

David said...

Jed,

Your comment that one should refrain from commenting on a book without having read it is excellent. I've read some of Bacon, though probably not as much as you. I have read much more of Descartes, Hume, Kant and other modern philosophers. One thing I have learned is not to trust the opinions of philosophers about each other, including the opinions of modern philosophers about ancient philosophers.

I ask that you extend the same courtesy to Aristotle that you do to Bacon. Reading Bacon on Aristotle is not the same thing as reading Aristotle. If you wish to assert that Aristotle had a mental block, please prove it from Aristotle's own writing. The fact that Bacon had an opinion to that effect does not impress me.

I know that your opinion is that philosophical standards are approximate. Whether it is popular or not is irrelevant to its truth. Is there an argument that supports it? I'm just interested in the argument, not quotes from famous philosophers who shared the opinion.

"No assertion can be culture-free." You say that Bacon showed this. Can you show it, and leave Bacon out of it? Or can we only know it on the authority of Bacon?

Jed said...

You wrote:

"I have read much more of Descartes, Hume, Kant and other modern philosophers."

I am a big fan of David Hume.


"If you wish to assert that Aristotle had a mental block, please prove it from Aristotle's own writing."

I did. He said "we shall need slaves so long as the shuttle will not run in the loom by itself." That's a failure of imagination, as de Santillana said. Bacon criticized him for ignoring observations, and for sophism.


"The fact that Bacon had an opinion to that effect does not impress me."

It should!


"I know that your opinion is that philosophical standards are approximate. Whether it is popular or not is irrelevant to its truth. Is there an argument that supports it?"

Yes. An expert wrote: "One thing I have learned is not to trust the opinions of philosophers about each other, including the opinions of modern philosophers about ancient philosophers." In other words, opinion, culture and point of view shape our notions of truth, and we will never agree unanimously on non-trivial issues. I rest my case.


"I'm just interested in the argument . . ."

As I say below, this is not based on argument or first principles so much as observation.


"'No assertion can be culture-free.' You say that Bacon showed this. Can you show it, and leave Bacon out of it? Or can we only know it on the authority of Bacon?"

It is widely believed by anthropologists. You will find many examples in their texts. People who have experienced other cultures and translators (including me) ofter observe cultural differences which shape world-views, including philosophy, morality, religion and so on.

As you yourself noted, eminent philosophers throughout the ages have disagreed with one another. It seems unlikely to me that after all this time they will start to reach firm, unvarying conclusions unaffected by cultural points of view. This is more of an observation that an assertion. In other words, I cannot justify it theoretically or show why people are unlikely to agree, but I can show that they did not agree in the past; they do not all agree now; and based on that I predict they never will.

That is not to suggest that philosophy is a waste of time or that important progress has not been made. Research in many subjects cannot be perfected or finalized even in principle, but progress can be made, and useful goals can be met.

David said...

Jed,

I thank you for the discussion, but it seems we are not getting anywhere.
I'll grant your last post the privilege of being the last word.

Cheers,
David