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How to Talk About Empiricism

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Scientific realists take the basic criterion to be ontological, they take the ultimate aim to be the construction of true theories, accurate representations, not just of what appears in our measurement outcomes but of what is going on ‘behind the phenomena’. On this view to accept a scientific theory as completely successful would involve belief that everything it postulates is real and everything it says about that is true.’

Empiricists in the philosophy of science take the basic criterion of success in science to be empirical, with the ultimate aim of empirically adequate theories, accurate representation of what is accessible to human observation and manipulation. Theories and the search for explanation are important, but instrumentally, as roads toward greater empirical knowledge.

Constructive empiricism, the position I advocate, is an empiricism of this sort, a view about what science is that sees overall truth, or truth about what is not observable, as irrelevant to the basic operative criterion of success in the sciences.

If we are to put nature to the question, both the question and the meaning of each of the possible answers nature could give, must be clear to all sides. That is, all of this must be formulable in secular language, for it must be a language that both secular and religious can understand. The secular could not be satisfied with an experiment whose outcomes have their significance specified in religious language.

Bas van Fraassen is preoccupied with two philosophical questions, one about philosophy itself, and one about science, “What Is Empiricism, and What Could It Be?” and “What is Scientific Representation?” Most of his work as a philosopher has been in philosophy of science and in philosophical logic, but with occasional forays into philosophy of literature and the connections between art, literature, and religion. He began with the ambition to arrive at a coherent view of everything. Here he discusses scientific realism and anti-realism, empiricism and his own position – constructive empiricism, his 3-layer model of theory-phenomena-appearance, quantum mechanics, its relationship with empiricism, laws of nature, philosophical issues with materialism, why he’s dubious about analytic metaphysics, induction and abduction, theological options, and existentialism.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher, and why a philosopher of empiricism and scientific representation?

Bas van Fraassen: When I was 17 I was working part-time in the Edmonton Public Library, and reading everything in the Dewey Decimal 200 classification: a mixture of yoga, Freud, religion, mysteries of the Egyptian pyramids, and philosophy. At some point a book about Plato and St. Paul led me to Plato’s Phaedo. That was so different, and so striking a story, that it was like a revelation. Socrates and his students were debating about the soul or mind and immortality, but what was striking is that it was the argument, not the ideas, or the authority of the teacher, that mattered.

My teachers were suggesting at this point that I should go to university (not obvious for an immigrant boy whose family was close to the poverty line). When I told them that I’d want to study philosophy, the counselor shook his head. “That won’t put butter on your bread”, he said, “industry won’t pay for that”. And he suggested that I should just take a philosophy course along the way. But I had a tremendous first philosophy teacher, Karel Lambert, a logician, who encouraged me and helped me with directed studies. Eventually he and I would work together on topics in philosophical logic.

In my second undergraduate year I was working part-time in the University of Alberta Library, and there I came across a second revelation: Hans Reichenbach’s Philosophy of Space and Time. That is what brought me into philosophy of science.

3:AM: A naïve realist might assume that science is about finding out what the world is really like and that its theories are either true or false. But you have this idea of ‘empirical adequacy’ that doesn’t take that view, don’t you? Can you first say something about the anti-realism you presented in The Scientific Image so that we get an idea of where you’re thinking is coming from?

BvF: Scientific activity is an important and ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, and has its own criteria of success in practice. Philosophers differ, however, on what those criteria are.

Roughly speaking, scientific realists take the basic criterion to be ontological, they take the ultimate aim to be the construction of true theories, accurate representations, not just of what appears in our measurement outcomes but of what is going on ‘behind the phenomena’. On this view to accept a scientific theory as completely successful would involve belief that everything it postulates is real and everything it says about that is true. This is how it stood in the seventies, since then that first fine careless rapture has been qualified in terms of approximation, asymptotic approach, similarity, and at the extreme end, belief only in significant structure with agnosticism as to a material carrier of this structure, if any. But the basic ideology remains intact: science is all about discovering the true blueprint of the universe.

Empiricists in the philosophy of science take the basic criterion of success in science to be empirical, with the ultimate aim of empirically adequate theories, accurate representation of what is accessible to human observation and manipulation. Theories and the search for explanation are important, but instrumentally, as roads toward greater empirical knowledge. Empiricism is not skepticism, nor anti-realism in any general sense, it is just anti-scientific-realism. Empiricism as it is now can be combined with a ‘common sense realism’ that sees no difficulties in our reference to trees, rocks, persons, lasers, electron microscopes, interferometers, radio telescopes …. or, in their own way, optical phenomena such as rainbows and images produced by microscopes, to give some examples.

Constructive empiricism, the position I advocate, is an empiricism of this sort, a view about what science is that sees overall truth, or truth about what is not observable, as irrelevant to the basic operative criterion of success in the sciences. A scientifically literate person may also personally believe that certain theories are actually true in what they say about unobservable realities, going beyond what measurement can disclose. That is fine, but it is irrelevant to scientific success.

Philosophers often seem to think that all scientists must be scientific realists. If you just ask a simple question like “Are electrons real?” the answer will be “Yes”. But if your questions are less superficial, you will often get a quite different sort of answer. You might ask scientists, for example, whether Pauli or Fermi or someone else equally well-known was a good scientist. Then, next, mention a rumor that in their private diaries they had insisted that only empirical criteria matter and that they actually did not believe in the reality of sub-atomic entities. Ask “If that turned out to be true, would you still say they were good scientists?” The answer would reveal something about how they themselves understood what it is to be a scientist.

Once someone prominent in fluid mechanics asked me about Bohmian mechanics as an interpretation of quantum mechanics. After we had discussed the details for a while, he asked me how an experiment could be designed as a test between that and the ‘orthodox’, ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation? When I told him that such interpretations, unlike rival theories, are designed to have precisely the same empirical consequences he answered “Oh, well, then they should just take it home and play with it in their back yard!” The philosophers’ question of which is the truth about nature disappeared, what came to the fore was the conviction that what matters is empirical success.

3:AM: This initial position has been modified in the intervening years into what you wrote about in ‘Scientific Representation’ and which some have characterized as ‘empiricist structuralism’ or ‘structural empiricism’ hasn’t it? Why did you think your initial position needed an upgrade? Was it partly to do with needing to take greater account of the autonomy of experimental sciences than you had previously?

BvF: You are right that I was originally most interested in theories and their mathematical foundations, and that my attention turned more and more, over the years, to experimentation, measurement, and ‘local’ modeling. But I also became convinced along the way that the perennial philosophical problems about representation were equally crucial to both theoretical and experimental aspects of the sciences.

Early on I had already insisted that we should not think about theories as stories written in language, but as providing families of models as candidates for the representation of phenomena. This ‘semantic approach’ was a sort of backbone for The Scientific Image, but just what representation is, or what sort of criteria apply to scientific representation, was left largely unexplored there. By the time I wrote Scientific Representation: Paradoxes of Perspective I was convinced of two things. First of all, measurement outcomes should be understood as representations just as much as models. Secondly, to think of representation in terms of likeness or similarity, is to confuse the question of what representation is with questions about how representations typically work. So there were two tasks. The first was to extend the account of the mutual relations among the phenomena, their appearance in measurement outcomes, and their theoretical models. The second was to confront the traditional philosophical questions about representation and reality.

The first task continues, rather than corrects, The Scientific Image, while the second task confronts the much older issue at stake for realism, the problem of Appearance and Reality. The Structural Realism of latter-day scientific realists may be thought of as responding to the latter heads-on with views about nature, some of them quite extreme, like James Ladyman’s Ontic Structural Realism. When I argued in favor of Empiricist Structuralism I was making a slanting side-step to deflect the traditional questions, with a structuralist view about how scientific representations relate to the world. Ladyman, who is a life-long practitioner of martial arts, appreciates this difference keenly, but I realize that the similarity in the names of the two structuralisms could be confusing.

Though this development of constructive empiricism is strictly about the character of scientific representation, I do realize that I may here be straying into metaphysics. As an aspirant-empiricist I am not happy with that. But finally I do think that there are issues here that needn’t just throw us back into the pre-Kantian sort of metaphysics which should have been left behind long ago.

3:AM: Can you sketch how your 3-layer model (theory-phenomena-appearance) works – and doesn’t it concede that something that is abstract – such as a mathematical structure – represent something that is not abstract, like the universe? Won’t that mean that we can’t have theories or models that represent the universe (say), or that we can’t even answer the question: ‘what is happening?’ never mind ‘What is really going on?’?

BvF: I’m glad you are asking provocative questions, but I better disentangle this a bit! I’m not sure whether you are asking about the universe specifically or just generally about the real things in the world. I’ll assume the latter.

As I use the words, phenomena are real (objects, events, processes) while the contents of observation or measurement outcomes are their appearances. Retrograde motion of the planets provides a good example. That is not subjective, you could make a long, slow video with a camera, that would equally record a planet ‘turning back’ in its path in the heavens. But it is just an appearance, the actual phenomenon is the planet’s properly orbiting the sun.

In modern science those appearances, the contents of measurement outcomes, are typically not simply numbers. Reading a tire gauge is an example, but it is a misleading example if you let it guide your thinking about measurement in general. If the imagination needs a simple but informative guide to measurement, I suggest perspectival drawing, with its well developed, mathematically sophisticated technique and appropriate criteria of accuracy. However, with our current resources for calculation, in many contexts the deliverances of measurement are data models, constructed from large arrays of individual data, often gathered automatically by the relevant instruments. Just like a perspectival drawing, such a data model (now often presented in visual form) is a ‘picture’ of the phenomenon that was targeted in the scientific inquiry.

In any of these forms, it is the deliverances of measurement to which a theory will be accountable. But of course it will be accountable to them in the full realization of their perspectival character. A model of the solar system is accountable to the fact that the appearances include retrograde motion, but the phenomena it must represent are the actual orbits of the planets.

So yes, we can answer the question of what is really happening, what is actually going on in a case like this: what is seen in earth-bound perspective is retrograde motion but what is happening is orbiting around the sun.

You are connecting this, though, with another more fundamental question: how can something abstract, like a model, a mathematical structure, represent something concrete like, say, forest fire or bacteria growth or planetary motion?

When we ask how the theory is evaluated we are asking about how its models relate to the deliverances of measurement, that is the data models, which are also mathematical structures. So then, what relation does the theory have to anything concrete?

The answer must be something about how the data models relate to something concrete, and that must derive from how the individual data gathered by measurement are related to the objects and processes that are measured. So there is no escaping the underlying question: how can something abstract represent – or be related in any relevant way – to something concrete?

Here, again, we seem to have strayed outside philosophy of science into metaphysics. And again, in contrast to scientific realists who have touched on this question, I have made a slanting side-step to deflect the threat of skepticism. I argued that the question has real bite only if asked in the first person: “does my model accurately represent what I meant it to represent?” To that question I can only respond in two ways: either with “yes”, or by discarding or changing my model. To do anything else would be like drawing you a map to show how to get to the Metro station while neither endorsing the map nor agreeing that you need something better.

This way of defusing a philosophical puzzle is generally called a ‘Wittgensteinian” move, and it is not popular on today’s philosophical scene. Confronting a metaphysical dilemma head-on is more popular than escaping between the horns, but more likely to leave it plaguing us forever.

3:AM: By rejecting the theory-phenomena dichotomy are you saying that no scientific theory is actually true or false? Surely a good measurement of the universe is one that gets close to the correct measurement – and a bad one is one that doesn’t? Aren’t we somewhere along the line going to have to smuggle in truth and falsehood to make the idea of ‘correct’ work, or else be left with a Feyerabend-like position where reading tea leaves and quantum mechanics are equally scientific?

BvF: I think my previous answer shows already that I don’t do anything like rejecting the theory-phenomena dichotomy. Rather, a very delicate maneuvering to illuminate the relation between theory and phenomena, via the theory’s accountability to the appearances of the phenomena, dispels the philosophical puzzles that would lead one to the sort of confusion that you rightly castigate here.

When you asked above whether we can know ‘what is really going on’ my example of planetary motion stayed with things and processes which are observable. You may well have been thinking instead about putative answers that explain what happens on our observable level in terms of what is ‘really’ happening in some unobservable realm. In scientific models we see a good deal which does not correspond to the phenomena. But does every element or aspect of a successful model correspond to some other ‘element of reality’ (to use Einstein’s term)? On my view that does not matter, it is irrelevant to the empirical success of the theory and its models, which is what really matters. If you then ask whether we can nevertheless come to know whether there are those extra elements of reality, I’ll have to answer: not by scientific means.

By the way, Feyerabend is a much maligned philosopher. He was flamboyant and overly provocative, but also insightful, and it is all too easy to misrepresent what he argued.

3:AM: Ok, so can you say what the big philosophical questions are that quantum mechanics raises, in particular the problems of interpretation, and how your work in this area has helped shape your philosophical ideas about what science is? Are you a Rovellian?

BvF: Quantum mechanics is baffling, in many ways. But remember how earlier revolutionary developments in the sciences were baffling to their contemporaries! Newton’s contemporaries were baffled by the introduction of forces that could apparently make their effects felt instantaneously over any distance (was some influence traveling infinitely fast?). When William Magie gave his Presidential Address to the American Physical Society in 1911 he could not imagine how Einstein’s relativity theory could make sense of optical phenomena without the ether. But it is true that both scientists and philosophers still sometimes profess themselves baffled by quantum mechanics even now, a century after its advent.

For any new scientific theory we face a problem of understanding, of interpretation: how could the world possibly be the way this theory says it is?

That question makes sense whether you think the theory is true or false, or don’t care whether it is true or false. So this question arises for empiricists just as well as for scientific realists, we all want to understand just how the theory manages to represent phenomena, how it could be possible for it to represent phenomena at all.

Philosophers have often complained that working physicists pay homage to what they call the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, that they are happy to think that this was what Bohr and Heisenberg meant, and that they learned it as they were learning physics from their teachers. The complaint is that there is no coherent interpretation there and that this is just a way of dismissing the real conceptual puzzles.

To me, that is a mistaken complaint. Studies in the foundations of physics, beginning with von Neumann around 1930 and intensely pursued in the rest of the 20th century set very high, rigorous criteria for interpretation. By that standard Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s writings don’t meet the grade, that is true. But as I got involved in this, I set it as my goal to develop an interpretation that would be rigorous, and would still preserve what I took to be the principal new, revolutionary ideas that the Copenhagen physicists introduced.

To begin I developed ways for an interpretation to deal with indeterminism, necessity, and possibility in the relation between quantum states and measurement outcomes, and introduced the name “modal interpretations” for the result. (In philosophy the term “modality” typically refers to possibility and necessity.) This respected Bohr’s insistence on a radical breach with traditional causality, especially in the take on what happens in the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen thought experiment. Then I developed one particular such modal interpretation to respect several other Copenhagen ideas, such as indeterminacy (for values of a physical quantity), what John Wheeler tended to call the ‘no question, no answer’ principle. I called it the Copenhagen Version of the Modal Interpretation, CVMI for short.

Carlo Rovelli describes the Copenhagen ideas and their radical break with classical thinking very beautifully, for example in his book Reality Is Not What It Seems. He also developed an interpretation of quantum mechanics that respects these ideas, his Relational Quantum Mechanics. It is not the same as my CVMI, though there are some close connections and similarities, and as is always true of Rovelli’s ideas, truly fascinating.

3:AM: How does your empiricist stance help us solve some of the philosophical issues raised by quantum mechanics that a non-empiricist approach would struggle with?

BvF: Realists do seem to have more difficulty with some aspects of quantum mechanics. It is even not uncommon to see the term “realist” associated with interpretations that postulate hidden variables, or determinism, despite the enormous difficulties of reconciling that with what we see in physics texts. But I don’t think that anything in the basic idea of scientific realism requires it to be wedded to such aspects of classical physics.

What is, I think, easier for an empiricist to accept is that the physicists who developed quantum theory did not respect what I call the ‘appearance from reality’ criterion. What I mean is this: in classical physics, the outcome of a measurement is entirely determined by the state of the measured object, the state of the measuring instrument, and the context and character of their interaction. For example, what your tire gauge will show depends entirely on the state of your tire, the initial state of your gauge, and the way in which the gauge is connected to the tire. That is why the outcome reveals the tire pressure.

But at least on the common, Copenhagen understanding of measurement, its outcome is not determined in this way. Reference to the states will yield the statistical distribution of outcomes for a set of similar measurements under similar conditions, but will not explain the outcome in a particular case. This is often presented, though I think mainly by scientific realists, as a paradox, as the apparently unsolvable ‘measurement problem’: the quantum state of the complex system consisting of object+instrument evolves deterministically, but the instrument’s outcome state cannot be deduced from that dynamic evolution. For an empiricist it is easier, I think, to accept that the ‘appearance from reality’ principle was simply given up in the theoretical development of quantum mechanics.

As Hilary Putnam said, realism has many faces. Typical, I think, is the very great value realists place on explanation. That is why they will be won’t easily be satisfied with the idea of spontaneity in nature, with things happening with no reason at all even if those happenings fit a statistical pattern. And it is why, often, they seem to be satisfied even with explanations by postulates that have nothing else to recommend them. In quantum mechanics that entails a resistance to the idea that no reason is available for why a specific measurement would have the outcome it has rather than some other outcome.

3:AM: Where do laws of nature end up on your approach? Are they debunked? And if they are, must we also stop believing in them?

BvF: The idea of laws of nature played an important role in the seventeenth century in the liberation of modern science from theology. The idea of a law of nature is just a secular version of a command by an anthropomorphically conceived God, a great architect or despot who imposes global constraints on his creation.

While scientific literature has kept the honorific term “law”, as in “laws of motion”, “Kirchhoff’s law”, and the like, the idea of a law of nature does not play any real role in scientific practice. It is an honorific for important bits of theory, like “principle” in “Pauli’s Exclusion Principle”, and for many such important bits those honorifics are not used at all – think of “Schroedinger’s Equation”. While the idea of law was certainly importantly involved in early modern science, the sort of role it played is now taken, for example, by the idea of symmetry, by symmetry arguments, and by ways that symmetry can be broken, which lead to truly fundamental insights in theory development and modeling.

A rock climbing friend of mine has a T-shirt that says “Obey gravity, it’s the law!” Once when an immigration officer was looking at the manuscripts in my case he exclaimed “You don’t believe in laws of nature? Well, you’ll be happy enough if your plane stays up in the air!”. All that just goes to show how the metaphysics and scientific popularizing of past centuries remain entrenched in our thinking long after their due date.

3:AM: Ok, so the idea of ‘laws of nature’ belong to submerged metaphysical assumptions that contemporary science has rejected. Metaphysics needs to heed science is the lesson to be learned here. But coming from the other direction, should scientists heed (some) metaphysics, in the same way we exhort philosophers to stay in touch with contemporary science?

BvF: Once in a symposium in the Netherlands an older, in his own field very well known, theoretical chemist was in the audience. He challenged me to mention just one way that philosophy of science could ever help him in his work. What could I say?

It does not make sense for a scientist to look outside scientific practice for any direct help with his day’s work. Instead, philosophy could help if he wanted to understand better what he was doing, when he engaged in scientific inquiry. That might not have practical value, but could bring some intellectual good.

Now I think that this reply is at once too harsh, too unsympathetic, and too modest. For metaphysical ideas have always played a quite public, salient role in some scientists’ thinking, whether to help or to hinder. For such scientists it would be important to understand the array of criticisms that philosophers can aim at those ideas. And in addition there are fascinating examples of very insightful interactions with philosophy, that philosophers can learn from, not just by such great thinkers in our past such as Einstein and Weyl but also by contemporaries such as Rovelli and Smolin.

3:AM: You argue that philosophers, as philosophers, should not have beliefs but stances and that if choosing stances, we should prefer empiricism to materialism. Can you sketch why you think these things?

BvF: I did not argue that philosophers should do one thing or the other, and anyway, taking a stance will typically involve some beliefs, or factual presuppositions. What I argued to begin with was that traditional forms of empiricism involved some kind of mistake when they were expressed as factual claims (like such slogans as “experience is our only source of information”).

Looked at more closely, the historically recurring philosophical rebellions that came under the name of “empiricism” involved attitudes diametrically opposed to attitudes involved in realist metaphysics. I mentioned already above that realism is typically characterized by an overriding demand for explanations, and a satisfaction with explanation by postulate. Empiricists would often very saliently reject demands for explanation, and were never satisfied by the supplying of postulates to gain explanations, and even less with the idea that serving as an explanation would provide support for such a postulate.

Words like “demand”, “satisfaction”, and “reject” do not refer to beliefs, they will rather express attitudes, commitments, and values. So I concluded that it is these that are really at issue between empiricists and metaphysical (and probably also scientific) realists. I adapted the word “stance” to signify such a cluster of attitudes, values, commitments, and associated beliefs. In this terminology then, empiricism is a philosophical stance, not a thesis that the empiricist believes.

Metaphysical realists should also scrutinize their traditional slogans, to see if they are not misleading about what is at issue for them. For example, scientific realists often begin with the thesis that the world is mind-independent. There aren’t actually any subjective idealists involved in philosophy of science since Bishop Berkeley, as far as I know. So why do they keep saying that?
If a philosophical position is propounded as a thesis about what there is and what the world is like, but is actually a stance, then it is a case of false consciousness.

I argued that materialism, or physicalism (the currently preferred term) is such a case. An eighteenth century materialist like Baron d’Holbach explained what he meant: the world is just matter in motion obeying the laws of 18th century physics. That is a clear factual thesis. But if he had lived to see that physics rejected, he would not have ceased to be a materialist! He would just have said that material is what the new science describes. So there is no real content to the materialist thesis, and it is misleading to identify materialism with such a particular claim about what there is. Instead it is just a particular sort of deference to the natural sciences, which parlays those into a metaphysics palatable to current intellectual fashions.

Why is empiricism a good philosophical stance to take and materialism or physicalism a poor example of such a stance? By their fruits shall ye know them! Let us see how much understanding of the sciences is furthered by exploring empiricism in the philosophy of science, and how much it is furthered by the exploration of physicalism.

3:AM: Why are you dubious about analytic metaphysics and ‘objectifying’ epistemologies, worrying that they end up parochial or/and trivial?

BvF: When analytic philosophy developed in the early 20th century, at the hands of Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, and Carnap (and in fact in many small centers of philosophical discussion in Europe), it was largely in reaction to a previous metaphysics. That included the Idealism of the preceding century as well as the neo-Kantian tradition which was at least perceived to be repressively dominant. In the case of Russell, however, that reaction included a return to something like pre-Kantian realist metaphysics. This turned out to be disproportionately influential in the second half of the century with, for example, Quine’s idea that philosophy could be science carried further by other means.

To me this historic development is very disappointing. It seems to me to have degenerated into solving its self-created problems. I remember a paper, for example, that argued very cleverly that there are only ‘simples’, that is, that nothing has parts. What supported this thesis was that it solved various problems about the part-whole relationship. But those problems arose in the first place from taking the word “part”, which in ordinary use is very context-dependent, and treating it in some abstract way as a context-independent transitive relationship. It is probably a good exercise for the mind, but why not turn to the problems that arise already in real life, problems of art, religion, science, mathematics, and animal rights, as well as existential problems of death and suffering?

3:AM: Are induction and abduction no longer to be thought of as having a role in what science must be like? Are you saying that it’s irrational to believe in these things or that they are no more rational than other faiths ‘that capture actual regularities in their noose’, such as a faith in luck? And is belief in luck like skepticism only with courage added?

BvF: Induction and abduction are philosophers’ inventions. Of course we all go beyond our evidence in our beliefs, and it is perfectly rational to do so, if you are willing to take the chance. Let’s call that common practice “induction”, and reserve “Induction” with a capital “I”, for what philosophers have been talking about. What they envisaged was an objective, reliable method, in the strict sense of a rule or recipe following procedure independent of subjective input, for reaching conclusions beyond the evidence. Remarkably it was soon being talked about as if it really existed and only needed to be justified — it was a baby baptized before it was born, and in fact no one has ever come up with a formulation that held water.

In the sciences the techniques used to analyze and extrapolate data are those of mathematical and statistical analysis. The extrapolation hinging on something subjective that is considered reasonable to bridge the gap to the unknown. For the orthodox statistician that subjective element is the choice of confidence interval and for the Bayesian it is the relevant communal prior opinion.
Our actual practice in this regard, including many rule of thumb moves and common forms of generalization, has been very successful. How that can be is spelled out very well in John Norton’s theory of material induction, for there we can see how basic assumptions about stability in our world (or at least in the domain in question) play a crucial role. And we are lucky: we have been living in a world in which material properties have displayed the sort of stability that we habitually rely on. But if from this we conclude that we know that our methods are successful methods we arrive at what Karl Popper called an epistemology for dinosaurs. Dinosaurs would have been right to regard themselves as masters of their universe, and they might have thought that success implies truth, until the moment when unexpectedly everything changed, things fell apart, the center did not hold …

Dealing with this world takes luck, courage, and technique; but the greatest of these is luck. From the sciences and how they became successful in the modern period we have learned something very important, though! Luck and courage are crucial, but the part played by technique, by logic and mathematics, is crucial as well. No amount of luck and courage will save us if technique be lacking.

3:AM: Many would think that an empirical stance was one that left one in a secular position. After all, empirical science has not been able to discover a God or a theological realm. You dispute this though don’t you? Can you sketch why you don’t think the orientation of the empirical stance allows for just a secular orientation, and why do you think some theological options are still open and important for the contemporary philosopher of science?

BvF: Critics of religion seem typically to know very well what it is to be religious, to know what sort of thing God would be, and what is believed by people who are religious. That they are sure they know this is clear from what they are criticizing. But I wonder, how did they get to know all that?

As example, consider your statement that empirical science has not been able to discover a God or a theological realm. By saying that, you convey to me that you know what it would be for empirical science to discover a God or a theological realm. And really, just what would it take?

To design an experiment is to set a question for nature to answer, but a question is not well-defined unless the set of its possible answers is well-defined. The NSF would surely not fund an experiment unless it was made clear beforehand what its possible outcomes were, and what significance each of these outcomes would have for the topic of inquiry.

It is just here that the difference between religious and secular comes to the fore. If we are to put nature to the question, both the question and the meaning of each of the possible answers nature could give, must be clear to all sides. That is, all of this must be formulable in secular language, for it must be a language that both secular and religious can understand. The secular could not be satisfied with an experiment whose outcomes have their significance specified in religious language. So for this sort of enterprise to get off the ground at all, we would first of all have to accept that religious language, the language in which religious express their faith, is reducible to secular language. And that is a tendentious claim, on the face of it that does not seem to be the case at all.

I have a very low opinion of the intellectual quality of almost all of the science-and-religion literature, however well intentioned (not only of the ‘new atheism’ but on both sides).

To come back to your main question, though, why needn’t empiricism lead to a secular orientation? As I understand empiricism, and what empiricism can be now in contrast to how it got sidetracked into in the past, it is a philosophical stance that prizes experience above all, favors experience over theory, rejects overriding demands for explanation that could only be satisfied by postulates about the unknown, refuses to get drawn into philosophical fictionalizing, into what Kant rightly called the Illusions of Reason. That implies that the empirical sciences, as understood by an empiricist, are a paradigm of rational inquiry. But none of these elements in an empiricist stance need be foreign to the religious.

3:AM: You write: ‘ The question is: which life does he find worth living? Once we see that there is no method, no rule, which will produce a rationally compelling conclusion, that is the question which comes to the fore. Virtues other than the ability to calculate profit and risk come to light’. How far would it be right to say that you’re a pragmatist?

BvF: You are right to hear echoes of William James there. But it is closer, I think, to existentialism than to pragmatism.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books (other than your own) that you could recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?

BvF: Certainly, but with the caveat that I’m not expressing agreement. I found much inspiration in these books, much that is insightful and right. But I benefited from them in good part by arguing with them in my mind, and by trying to develop other ways of approaching the same subjects. In chronological order of publication:

Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906)

Hermann Weyl, Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science (1926/1949)

Hans Reichenbach, The Philosophy of Space and Time (1928)

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism (1946)

D. Z. Phillips, From Fantasy to Faith (1991)

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 27th, 2017.