Bertrand Russel’s proof of naïve realism being false

What is naïve realism you may ask? To put simply naïve realism is a belief that whatever you see with your senses is the reality. There is nothing more to reality than what your sense perceptions bring to you. It is a direct unmediated access to reality. There is no “interpretation” involved.

In philosophy of perception and philosophy of mind, naïve realism (also known as direct realism, perceptual realism, or common sense realism) is the idea that the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are. When referred to as direct realism, naïve realism is often contrasted with indirect realism.

Naïve Realism

To put this in other words, naïve realism fails to distinguish between the phenomenal and the physical object. That is to say, all there is to the world is how we perceive it, nothing more.

Bertrand Russel gave a one line proof of why naïve realism is false. And this is the topic of this post. Also, the proof has some implications for science education, hence the interest.

Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.

As quoted in Mary Henle – On the Distinction Between the Phenomenal and the Physical Object, John M. Nicholas (ed.), Images, Perception, and Knowledge, 187-193. (1977)

Henle in her rather short essay (quoted above) on this makes various philosophically oriented arguments to show that it is an easier position to defend when we make a distinction between the two.

But considering the “proof” of Russel, I would like to bring in evidence from science education which makes it even more compelling. There is a very rich body of literature on the theme of misconceptions or alternative conceptions among students and even teachers. Many of these arise simply because of a direct interpretation of events and objects around us.

Consider a simple example of Newton’s first law of motion.

In an inertial frame of reference, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.

Now for the naïve realists this will never be possible, as they will never see an object going by itself without application of any force. In real world, friction will bring to halt bodies which are moving. Similar other examples from the misconceptions also do fit in this pattern. This is perhaps so because most of the science is counter-intuitive in nature. With our simple perception we can only do a limited science (perhaps create empirical laws). So one can perhaps say that learners with alternative conceptions hold naïve realist world-view (to some degree) and the role of science education is to change this.

Book Review: Ages in Chaos by Stephen Baxter

Ages in Chaos is a scientific biography of James Hutton by Stephen Baxter. Hutton was a Scottish scientist who also played his part in Scottish enlightenment. Hutton was the first to speculate on the idea deep time required for geological processes at the end of 1700s arguing with evidence he collected. He was trained as a medical doctor, practiced farming for 10 odd years and had continued his explorations of geology throughout. The prevalent theories of geology, called Neptunists, posited that water was the change agent. Hutton on the other hand posited that it was heat which was responsible for changes, hence Vulcanists. Also, another thing was that of time needed for this change. As others of his era, Hutton was deeply religious, like Newton, wanted to find evidence for creation as per bible.

During his time, especially popular was the idea of flood as per Bible, while the Earth was literally considered to be 6000 years old. This created a problem for Hutton, who was labelled to be atheist and heretic for suggesting that Earth is much older and that there was no design. But Hutton was a conformist and wanted to find a uniform evidence for all observable aspects. He was not like a modern scientist, as he is painted many times. The ideas were vehemently attacked on each point. Though he went to the field to find geological examples for this theory. James Watt, Black and John Playfair were his friends and provided him with evidence in the form of rock samples. During his lifetime, Hutton’s ideas will not find much audience. But due to his friends, his ideas sustained a a barrage of criticisms. Only in the next generation with Lyell this work would find acceptance. This idea of a deep time was crucial in formation Darwin’s theory.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/157978.Ages_in_Chaos

The book reads well mostly, but at times a complete lack of illustrations in the forms of geological artefacats and maps (of Scotland) makes it difficult to read well.

Genetics and human nature

Usually, in the discussion regarding human nature, there is a group of academics who would like to put all the differences amongst humans to non-genetic components. That is to say, the cultural heritage plays a much more important or the only important role in the transfer of characteristics. In the case of education, this is one of the most contested topics. The nature-nurture debate as it is known goes to the heart of many theories of human behaviour, learning and cognition. The behaviourist school was very strong until the mid 20th century. This school strongly believed that the entirety of human learning is dependent only on the environment with the genes or (traits inherited from the parents) playing little or no role. This view was seriously challenged on multiple fronts with attacks from at least six fields of academic inquiry: linguists, psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, anthropology, and neuroscience. The advances in these fields and the results of the studies strongly countered the core aspects of behaviourism. Though the main thrust of the behaviourist ideas seems to be lost, but the spirit still persists.  This is in the form of academics who still deny any role for genes, or even shun at the possibility of genes having any effect on human behaviour. They say it is all the “environment” or nurture as they name it. Any attempt to study the genetic effects are immediately classified as fascist, Nazi or equated to social Darwinism and eugenics. But over several decades now, studies which look at these aspects have given us a mounting mountain of evidence to lay the idea to rest. The genes do play a definitive role and what we are learning is that the home environment may not be playing any role at all or a very little role in determining how we turn out. Estimates range from 0 to 10%. The genes, on the other hand, have been found to have about 50% estimate, the rest 40% being attributed to a “unique”  environment that the individual experiences.   Though typically, some of the individuals in academia argue strongly against the use of genetics or even mention of the word associated with education or any other parameters related to education. But this has to do more with their ideological positions, which they do not want to change, than actual science. This is Kuhnian drama of a changing science at work. The old scientists do not want to give up on their pet theories even in the case of evidence against them. This is not a unique case, the history of science is full of such episodes.

Arthur Jensen, was one of the pioneers of studying the effect of genetic heritability in learning. And he lived through the behaviourist and the strong nurture phases of it. This quote of his summarises his stand very well.

Racism and social elitism fundamentally arise from identification of individuals with their genetic ancestry; they ignore individuality in favor of group characteristics; they emphasize pride in group characteristics, not individual accomplishment; they are more concerned with who belongs to what, and with head-counting and percentages and quotas than with respecting the characteristics of individuals in their own right. This kind of thinking is contradicted by genetics; it is anti-Mendelian. And even if you profess to abhor racism and social elitism and are joined in battle against them, you can only remain in a miserable quandary if at the same time you continue to think, explicitly or implicitly, in terms of non-genetic or antigenetic theories of human differences. Wrong theories exact their own penalties from those who believe them. Unfortunately, among many of my critics and among many students I repeatedly encounter lines of argument which reveal disturbing thought-blocks to distinguishing individuals from statistical characteristics (usually the mean) of the groups with which they are historically or socially identified.

–  Arthur Jensen, Educability and Group Differences 1973

As the highlighted sentence in the quote remarks, the theories which are wrong or are proven to be wrong do certainly exact penalties from their believers. One case from history of science being the rise and rise of Lysenkoism in the erstwhile USSR. The current bunch of academics who strongly deny any involvement of genes in the theories of human learning are no different.

Asimov on science literacy

Science literacy does not have a unique definition. Depending on what your ideas about science are, the meaning of science literacy will change. But being scientifically literate, is usually taken as a sign of being informed, being rational in decisions. Here is what the great science and science-fiction writer Issac Asimov had to say about its importance.

A public that does not understand how science works can, all too easily, fall prey to those ignoramuses … who make fun of what they do not understand, or
to the sloganeers who proclaim scientists to be the mercenary warriors of today, and the tools of the military. The difference … between … understanding and not understanding . . . is also the difference between respect and admiration on the one side, and hate and fear on the other.

– Isaac Asimov

 

Why philosophy is so important in science education

This is a nice article whicH I have reposted from AEON…

Each semester, I teach courses on the philosophy of science to undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire. Most of the students take my courses to satisfy general education requirements, and most of them have never taken a philosophy class before.
On the first day of the semester, I try to give them an impression of what the philosophy of science is about. I begin by explaining to them that philosophy addresses issues that can’t be settled by facts alone, and that the philosophy of science is the application of this approach to the domain of science. After this, I explain some concepts that will be central to the course: induction, evidence, and method in scientific enquiry. I tell them that science proceeds by induction, the practices of drawing on past observations to make general claims about what has not yet been observed, but that philosophers see induction as inadequately justified, and therefore problematic for science. I then touch on the difficulty of deciding which evidence fits which hypothesis uniquely, and why getting this right is vital for any scientific research. I let them know that ‘the scientific method’ is not singular and straightforward, and that there are basic disputes about what scientific methodology should look like. Lastly, I stress that although these issues are ‘philosophical’, they nevertheless have real consequences for how science is done.

At this point, I’m often asked questions such as: ‘What are your qualifications?’ ‘Which school did you attend?’ and ‘Are you a scientist?’

Perhaps they ask these questions because, as a female philosopher of Jamaican extraction, I embody an unfamiliar cluster of identities, and they are curious about me. I’m sure that’s partly right, but I think that there’s more to it, because I’ve observed a similar pattern in a philosophy of science course taught by a more stereotypical professor. As a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, I served as a teaching assistant for a course on human nature and evolution. The professor who taught it made a very different physical impression than I do. He was white, male, bearded and in his 60s – the very image of academic authority. But students were skeptical of his views about science, because, as some said, disapprovingly: ‘He isn’t a scientist.’

I think that these responses have to do with concerns about the value of philosophy compared with that of science. It is no wonder that some of my students are doubtful that philosophers have anything useful to say about science. They are aware that prominent scientists have stated publicly that philosophy is irrelevant to science, if not utterly worthless and anachronistic. They know that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is accorded vastly greater importance than anything that the humanities have to offer.

Many of the young people who attend my classes think that philosophy is a fuzzy discipline that’s concerned only with matters of opinion, whereas science is in the business of discovering facts, delivering proofs, and disseminating objective truths. Furthermore, many of them believe that scientists can answer philosophical questions, but philosophers have no business weighing in on scientific ones.

Why do college students so often treat philosophy as wholly distinct from and subordinate to science? In my experience, four reasons stand out.

One has to do with a lack of historical awareness. College students tend to think that departmental divisions mirror sharp divisions in the world, and so they cannot appreciate that philosophy and science, as well as the purported divide between them, are dynamic human creations. Some of the subjects that are now labelled ‘science’ once fell under different headings. Physics, the most secure of the sciences, was once the purview of ‘natural philosophy’. And music was once at home in the faculty of mathematics. The scope of science has both narrowed and broadened, depending on the time and place and cultural contexts where it was practised.

Another reason has to do with concrete results. Science solves real-world problems. It gives us technology: things that we can touch, see and use. It gives us vaccines, GMO crops, and painkillers. Philosophy doesn’t seem, to the students, to have any tangibles to show. But, to the contrary, philosophical tangibles are many: Albert Einstein’s philosophical thought experiments made Cassini possible. Aristotle’s logic is the basis for computer science, which gave us laptops and smartphones. And philosophers’ work on the mind-body problem set the stage for the emergence of neuropsychology and therefore brain-imagining technology. Philosophy has always been quietly at work in the background of science.

A third reason has to do with concerns about truth, objectivity and bias. Science, students insist, is purely objective, and anyone who challenges that view must be misguided. A person is not deemed to be objective if she approaches her research with a set of background assumptions. Instead, she’s ‘ideological’. But all of us are ‘biased’ and our biases fuel the creative work of science. This issue can be difficult to address, because a naive conception of objectivity is so ingrained in the popular image of what science is. To approach it, I invite students to look at something nearby without any presuppositions. I then ask them to tell me what they see. They pause… and then recognise that they can’t interpret their experiences without drawing on prior ideas. Once they notice this, the idea that it can be appropriate to ask questions about objectivity in science ceases to be so strange.

The fourth source of students’ discomfort comes from what they take science education to be. One gets the impression that they think of science as mainly itemising the things that exist – ‘the facts’ – and of science education as teaching them what these facts are. I don’t conform to these expectations. But as a philosopher, I am mainly concerned with how these facts get selected and interpreted, why some are regarded as more significant than others, the ways in which facts are infused with presuppositions, and so on.

Students often respond to these concerns by stating impatiently that facts are facts. But to say that a thing is identical to itself is not to say anything interesting about it. What students mean to say by ‘facts are facts’ is that once we have ‘the facts’ there is no room for interpretation or disagreement.

Why do they think this way? It’s not because this is the way that science is practised but rather, because this is how science is normally taught. There are a daunting number of facts and procedures that students must master if they are to become scientifically literate, and they have only a limited amount of time in which to learn them. Scientists must design their courses to keep up with rapidly expanding empirical knowledge, and they do not have the leisure of devoting hours of class-time to questions that they probably are not trained to address. The unintended consequence is that students often come away from their classes without being aware that philosophical questions are relevant to scientific theory and practice.

But things don’t have to be this way. If the right educational platform is laid, philosophers like me will not have to work against the wind to convince our students that we have something important to say about science. For this we need assistance from our scientist colleagues, whom students see as the only legitimate purveyors of scientific knowledge. I propose an explicit division of labour. Our scientist colleagues should continue to teach the fundamentals of science, but they can help by making clear to their students that science brims with important conceptual, interpretative, methodological and ethical issues that philosophers are uniquely situated to address, and that far from being irrelevant to science, philosophical matters lie at its heart.Aeon counter – do not remove

 

Subrena E Smith

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Thomas Kuhn on the role of textbooks in science education

The single most striking feature of this [science] education is that, to an extent wholly unknown in other fields, it is conducted entirely through textbooks. Typically, undergraduate and graduate students of chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, or biology acquire the substance of their fields from books written especially for students.

Thomas Kuhn The Essential Tension

Here Kuhn is trying to show us the nature of science education which is usually divergent from the historical processes and events which led to the currently accepted theories. Most of the textbooks rather show the content matter which makes sense conceptually in a rationally organised manner. Of course, the ideal goal, at least in the physical sciences, is to create a hypothetico-deductive model in which a given theory, its predictions, explanations and implications can be derived from some basic definitions and axioms. For example, an introductory text on motion in physics usually starts with definitions and assumptions usually of a mass point, and/or operations that are defined on it. The text does not describe the historical conditions in which this conceptual approach arose, rather it adapts a very pragmatic pedagogical approach. It defines the term and ends it there, but in this process, it redefines the conceptual history. This approach assumes that there is no pedagogical merit or role in introducing a concept in its historical context. This perhaps is also linked to Poppers distinction of the context of discovery and the context of justification. What we see is a rational reconstruction of historical processes to make sense of them in a straightforward manner.