Epistemic Hubris

21 November 2010


The peacock is not a bird to hide its light under a bushel.

In More Evidence for the Copernican Principle I finished with this observation:

Now we know, and can demonstrate, that planetary systems are not unique to the Milky Way. From this stronger inductive position, we can with greater confidence extrapolate our existing knowledge to the furthest reaches of the universe.

The Copernican Principle tutors us in metaphysical modesty, but the growing evidence for the Copernican Principle, and the paucity of counter-examples, inspires us to metaphysical ambition. Scientific knowledge is the expression of this metaphysical ambition as much or more than it is an expression of metaphysical modesty.

As soon as I wrote this I realized that this is an idea that deserves its own independent exposition, as there is much that can be said on this head. I will touch on some of these issues here, though a full treatment would require a treatise, so I may need to return to this fascinating topic at a later date in order to refine and extrapolate my formulations as presented below.

I linked the above quoted idea to my post on Metaphysical Modesty, in which I discussed Jeffrey L. Kasser’s lectures on the philosophy of science published by The Teaching Company, and his exposition of the role of humility in scientific knowledge. There I wrote, “The Professor characterizes metaphysical modesty as, ‘The way the world is does not depend on what we think about it’.” And I added, “Now, this is simply an alternative formulation of realism, but Kasser has chosen to express realism as a moral virtue, and particularly as the moral virtue of metaphysical modesty.”

In recognizing the role of humility in scientific knowledge, and formulating it in moral terms, Kasser was not putting himself out on a limb, but on the contrary was staking out a classic position in the philosophy of science. Despite the contempt for philosophical ethics found in much early twentieth century positivist thought (and the formulation of doctrines like the emotivist theory of ethics), many of these scientifically-minded philosophers gave expositions of scientific knowledge saturated in moral significance.

While Bertrand Russell was never a positivist per se, nor simpliciter, he provides a wonderful example, perhaps even the locus classicus, of moralized scientific epistemology. Russell writes of the notion of good and evil being “extruded” from scientific philosophy. After an extensive explanation of how ethical preoccupations have compromised philosophical and scientific inquiry (in the last paragraphs of section I of “On Scientific Method in Philosophy”), Russell begins section II as follows:

“If the notion of the universe and the notion of good and evil are extruded from scientific philosophy, it may be asked what specific problems remain for the philosopher as opposed to the man of science?”

“On Scientific Method in Philosophy,” section II, collected in Mysticism and Logic

Russell’s criticism of the moral preoccupations of earlier philosophers is in the same paper:

“The ethical element which has been prominent in many of the most famous systems of philosophy is, in my opinion, one of the most serious obstacles to the victory of scientific method in the investigation of philosophical questions.”

For Russell, ethics is regulative of scientific thought, rather than constitutive of scientific thought, but that moral concerns are still present is unquestionable, as we see in his discussions of scientific humility:

“A truly scientific philosophy will be more humble, more piecemeal, more arduous, offering less glitter of outward mirage to flatter fallacious hopes, but more indifferent to fate, and more capable of accepting the world without the tyrannous imposition of our human and temporary demands.”

the last sentence of his “Mysticism and Logic” paper

And again:

“The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards which a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy, which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Chapter XXX, “John Dewey,” p. 828

And again:

“By the practice of methodological doubt, if it is genuine and prolonged, a certain humility as to our knowledge is induced: we become glad to know anything in philosophy, however seemingly trivial. Philosophy has suffered from the lack of this kind of modesty.”

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, third from the last paragraph of the last chapter.

Would it be too much to say that scientific humility was a preoccupation of Russell’s? As I noted above, Russell is the locus classicus here, and Kasser was on firm ground following his lead.

Russell makes a persuasive case for the role of humility in science, but as I realized as I was writing about the further evidence we now have for the Copernican Principle, the role of ambition in science is no less central, and perhaps more interesting. As our patient methods of induction increase our level of certainty about an hypothesis, we rightly become more comfortable with its further generalization and extrapolation.

To make a sweeping generalization about a law of nature, as when Newton posited universal gravitation, is an act of epistemic hubris. That the mind can capture, in an act of thought, a truth that is as true immediately beneath our feet as it is on the other side of the universe, is nothing short of astonishing. Nevertheless, it can be expressed with cool detachment, as with Newton’s law of gravitation:

“Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of the masses of the particles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”

Newton here invokes “Every particle of matter in the universe” without qualification. It is this simplicity that gives general laws of nature such great power of prediction and theoretical unity, but it also must be recognized as a triumph of epistemic ambition, if not epistemic hubris. As it often commented in regard to Newton, he said that “I feign no hyptheses” (“Hypotheses non fingo”) even while formulating an unconditional and universal law of gravitation. If this isn’t an hypothesis, I don’t know what is.

To contemplate the possibility of metaphysical ambition co-equal with metaphysical modesty as one of the springs of science brings us to the locus classicus of ambition, MacBeth’s speech as he contemplates politically-motivated murder:

I haue no Spurre
To pricke the sides of my intent, but onely
Vaulting Ambition, which ore-leapes it selfe,
And falles on th’ other.

Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Macbeth (1623 First Folio Edition)

Shakespeare’s use of “Vaulting Ambition” in this speech has often been quoted. I cite it here because of what it implies: a leaping-over of all that intervenes into order to get directly to the object without recourse to the painstakingly slow method of creeping along the ground. This way of formulating Vaulting Ambition reveals it as a non-constructive strategy, and this makes it interesting.

If you have not studied philosophy, logic, or mathematics you are not likely to be consciously aware of the formal distinction between constructive and non-constructive methods, or, formulated metaphysically, between idealism and realism. Nevertheless, the distinction is fundamental, and even those who cannot distinguish a constructive proof from a non-constructive proof will be immediately familiar with the intuitive instantiations of these divergent attitudes, as in “seeing is believing” (a constructivist idea) or “there is more to the world than we can see” (a Platonic, and therefore a realist, non-constructive idea).

Vaulting ambition in science, as revealed in breathtaking leaps of deduction to striking and unexpected conclusions, is usually a non-constructive enterprise. Non-constructive proofs are fascinating, and show us things we would probably not otherwise even guess, but they have their weaknesses. Some non-constructive proofs prove things but do not show us how to find them, construct them, or otherwise submit them to immediate observation, inquiry, or further analysis. For example, we may “feel in our bones” that there is more to the world than meets the eye, but not be able to say exactly what it is that the world consists of but which cannot be seen.

By way of contrast, the humility in science, of the sort recommended by Bertrand Russell and Kasser (though formulated in the language of metaphysical realism), is usually a constructive enterprise, whereby we reach our conclusions by the most slow and painstaking methods, so that when we arrive at our conclusion we know exactly how we got there, what we found, and we can point to the result of our research so that others can inspect it for themselves.

Both humility and hubris are to be found in scientific thought, with now one, now the other, taking precedence in the way we understand the world, but even when one is in the ascendancy, the other is never absent.

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The world is usually more complicated than we realize; there are almost always further layers of reality to discover. A widely reported discovery of a particular exoplanet made me aware of another layer of complexity in the world. An article in Science, subsequently reported on Science Daily and the BBC, described a particular exoplanet, i.e., a planet outside our solar system. Exoplanets are not news anymore, since hundreds have been discovered. We know that planets are plentiful in our galaxy. Now, it seems, we can even get a glimpse of planets in other galaxies.

I have been aware for some time that, in the long term history of the universe, galaxies collide, and the larger galaxies swallow up smaller galaxies. I have mentioned this in relation to the supermassive blackholes that reside in the center of spiral galaxies (in Appearance and Reality in Cosmology). It is pretty well certain that, in the distant future, the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies will meet in a slow motion collision, and at some time the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way will be swallowed up by the even more massive black hole at the center of the Andromeda galaxy (or maybe they will end up orbiting each other). What I learned today, and what I hadn’t thought of previously, is that our galaxy has already swallowed up smaller galaxies in the distant past.

As it turns out, the Milky Way is surrounded by stellar “streams” that are the remnants of galaxies that have had the misfortune to run into the Milky Way galaxy, and were torn up and largely absorbed by the Milky Way. There is a list of stellar streams on Wikipedia. Not all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their center, and it would seem that the galaxies absorbed by the Milky Way in the “recent” past of the universe, and which have left traces in the form of stellar streams strung out by tidal forces, were stellar clusters or dwarf galaxies something like the Magellanic clouds.

Astronomers have managed to detect an exoplanet around a star in the Helmi Stream, which is a stellar stream likely the result of another galaxy absorbed by the Milky Way. The star and the planet are sufficiently old that they likely originated in their formerly independent galaxy, before it was absorbed by the Milky Way. And so it is that we can “see,” after a fashion, an extragalactic planet right here as part of the Milky Way. From this we can infer that exoplanets are not only to be found elsewhere in the Milky Way, but also in other galaxies, and indeed in galaxies of a very different construction than ours.

Almost a year ago, in Other Worlds, I discussed our increasing knowledge of extrasolar planets. At one time, all of this was sheer speculation. Now we have a growing body of scientific knowledge about extrasolar planets, what other solar systems are like, how plentiful they are, where we are likely to find them, and the like. This growing body of exoplanetary science has been inductively confirming the Copernican Principle, also called the Principle of Mediocrity, which holds that there are no privileged observers in the universe, which is equivalent to the statement that we are not unique. Now we know, and can demonstrate, that planetary systems are not unique to the Milky Way. From this stronger inductive position, we can with greater confidence extrapolate our existing knowledge to the furthest reaches of the universe.

The Copernican Principle tutors us in metaphysical modesty, but the growing evidence for the Copernican Principle, and the paucity of counter-examples, inspires us to metaphysical ambition (perhaps driven by metaphysical pride). Scientific knowledge is the expression of this metaphysical ambition as much or more than it is an expression of metaphysical modesty.

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Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

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