Semifinalist for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize 2011
In my last post, I asked whether there was a foundation for my view that species are extra-theoretical phenomena. I have done some further reading, especially Michela Massimi’s book Kant and Philosophy of Science Today, which I will have to buy. I had thought Kant was a dead issue in philosophy of science; of course I was wrong.
Massimi asks whether we can presume that there are “ready-made” phenomena that have to be “saved” (Hacking has a gloss on the phrase “saving the phenomena”; the Latin is salve, which he makes cognate to the English “solve”, thus to save the phenomena is to give an explanation for it). This, she thinks, is the widespread or commonplace view – that science explains phenomena observed without theory, by theory. Kant and those who follow him (including, I think, the whole modern philosophy of science since Mach and Duhem), hold that we construct phenomena from data, a view pushed by Bogen and Woodward (1988).
Add to the constructivist view that observation is theory-dependent – that we cannot even get data without prior theory – and we have a conundrum: in order to explain phenomena by theory we need theories which call forth the phenomena. Hence we do not ever actually discover phenomena in need of theoretical explanation; we make them. There are no “ready-made” phenomena.
If this doesn’t seem counterintuitive to you, then I think you haven’t read much history of science. The phenomena of planets was observed without any theory of celestial spheres; indeed the latter were hypothesised to explain this (non-theoretical) phenomenon. Likewise, the various reactions of naturally occurring chemicals was observed before we had either the Aristotelian or the alchemical theories of elements, or before we had Daltonian theory, all of which were attempts to explain these naturally occurring phenomena.
Granted, in physics and modern chemistry a good many of the phenomena are things that are made in experimental, controlled, settings, as Hacking insists (we intervene in the naturally occurring order to isolate causal influences). But there doesn’t seem to have been a space for unintervened phenomena, unconstructed by prior theory, in the philosophy of science. Why is that?
In part it is because of Kantian views, that we have access only to constructed phenomena and that ready-made phenomena might be indicative of confidence that we could see the Dingen-an-sich directly. This naive realism is not at all accepted by philosophers of science. A claim for the existence of natural phenomena unmediated by theory suggests that sort of realism, and so it is rejected. But does it imply naive realism? I do not think so. At best it implies that there are phenomena in the world we do not construct but can see (hear, smell, etc.) without there being theory that we base our perceptions upon. However, it is a long step from that to the claim that the phenomena are representations of the way the world is directly. Observing a chemical reaction (soda and lemon juice, for instance) is not something one can only do based on a theory of chemistry. It is enough that we have a commonsense experience of the world such that such a reaction is marked out as interesting and different.
But a response that one often encounters from philosophers is that in even observing these differences we rely upon theory: the “theory” that is embedded in our perceptual dispositions. Sometimes this is called psychologism, but in this case it is usually referred to as “evolutionary epistemology”. These are the dispositions that we have to explore a “quality space” as Quine called it. The Kantian analytic a prioria are the evolutionary synthetic a posterioria; to use a phrase of Konrad Lorenz’.
This is a markedly deflated notion of “theory”, so poor as to mock the meaning of “theory” in science. If just being able to detect motion in a visual field is a theory, everything is theory and we need not attend to theory-dependence as such. But now we must still deal with scientific theory differently, and the phenomena that it explains. Let us call scientific theory Theory with the capital, and leave the rest to psychological and sociological dispositions. Is observation Theory-dependent? Are phenomena Theoretical? I still say they need not be, although if they are constructed through intervention they may be.
Consider a case in which a scientist has an instrument that assays some property, like temperature. On the Bogen-Wooward view, the phenomena of the temperature of a heated piece of metal is the pattern of several measurements of that piece using the thermocouple (or whatever the tool is). Unless you have a pattern in the data, there is no phenomenon. Since the functioning of the thermocouple is explained by Theory (of, say, relative metal expansion rates), the observation is Theoretical. But any metal worker knows that metal heats up when put in flame, and they will have a pretty good idea of what you need to do in order to get a metal to just below the melting point, by the whiteness of the glow they give off (under uncontrolled lighting, too!); this is how swords were made for centuries. That is not Theoretical. It is just a ready-made phenomenon.
So there remains room for ready-made phenomena, even if to perceive it one needs to be trained and experienced, without Theory. Hacking makes something like this point about microscopes and telescopes – we ascertained that they worked without a theory of optics (even though some pretty good Theories of optics had been around since the Arabs), by checking through direct observation that they were properly imaging objects, and making ampliative inferences from there.
To return to species: they began to be properly named at the fin de siecle of the herbalist medieval tradition, based largely upon experienced observation by people like Gesner, Bauhin, von Puch and others. There was no Theory to speak of that required species, apart from a need to track naturally occurring phenomena, and yet many of the species they named remain good species today. Moreover, some assay-driven splitting of species, based largely upon molecular techniques, is counter-intuitive when the groups so split (into “Operational Taxonomic Units”) are Theory-driven but run counter to broader observation of interbreeding, ecological adaptation, and so on. Theory-based instrumentalism is not triumphant by any means. [I have in mind here the DNA barcodists who rely on a short stretch of mitochondrial DNA in eukaryotes, cox-1, and similar sequences in “prokaryotes”.]
Species can be identified by experienced observers in the absence of Theory. One must be trained and corrected in one’s taxonomic apprenticeship, and much of the “knowledge” employed is tacit practice, gained, I suggest, from past experience of phenomenal distributions of closely related organisms. The sense of Theory employed is ancillary, and not crucial (if one assay starts to fail, well, as Groucho once said, we have others). The Theory-dependence of modern natural history (excluding, that is to say, physics and general chemistry) is not central to identifying the phenomena that stand in need of Theory to explain them.
The Theory of the assays, however, can range from distal and irrelevant (as the quantum theory of optics is for identifying, say, mammal species) to closely relevant and even partially overlapping the domain of observation (quantum optics may play a critical role in identifying microbial species, for example). I suggest that we think of Theory-dependence in a more nuanced way: a phenomenon is Theory-dependent iff there is no phenomenon observable unless a Theory is necessarily employed in the observation.
So particle tracks in physics are Theory-dependent. However, I do not believe most species observations are (if we restrict ourselves here to species that can be observed in the absence of specialist tools like DNA barcoding chips). The characters and properties of species of fishes, flowers, and foxes are ready-made phenomena that can be seen if one learns how even in the absence of Theory, or else we cannot account for the history of taxonomy and natural history in general. Moreover, such ready-made phenomena are a good reality check on the assay-driven phenomena that do rely to greater degrees upon Theory. Maybe I cannot see DNA clustering, but I can see traits (especially homologies) if I study the groups. If DNA clustering implies there is a phenomenon of species that we do not pick up by trained direct observation, that becomes a testable hypothesis; it is not true by assay definition. It might turn out that cox-1 is a highly variable gene in some species, or that it is shared across many species unchanged; such is the nature of evolution.
I therefore propose that we call things “phenomena” when they are patterns of observation, and index them to the theoretical domain in which they properly occur (that is, in which they are to be explained). If the observation does not rely on the explanatory Theory, they are to be regarded as Theory-independent for that domain. There will, of course, be Theory that explains why we can observe those phenomena (and it might be a distal application the the relevant domain: we see because we evolved to see objects of that kind, and evolution explains why there are objects of that kind – this is not to say that the observation is Theory-dependent). But it is not necessarily Theory of that domain.
Many objects are observed because they are indeed objects of that domain. I am not denying this. I am merely saying that we have unjustly excluded from our philosophies of science a phenomenon of observing phenomena without Theory. One learns that by observing history, without a Theory of history …
Bogen, James, and James Woodward. 1988. Saving the phenomena. The Philosophical Review 67 (3):303–352.
Hacking, Ian. 1983. Representing and intervening: introductory topics in the philosophy of natural science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. [Is it just me or is this the least introductory book ever? How many deep discussions have followed this “introduction”?]
Massimi, Michela. 2008. Kant and philosophy of science today, Royal Institute of Philosophy supplements,. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.