Once Again, Does Science Produce Knowledge? (Part 2)



Last week, I started to dig into Jerry Coyne's argument that:

 ...music, literature and poetry don’t produce any truths about the universe that don’t require independent verification by empirical and rational investigation: that is, through science (broadly interpreted).  These fine arts don’t convey to us anything factual about the world unless those facts can be replicated by reason, observation or experiment.1

While H.G Well's The World Set Free inspired the creation of the atomic bomb that ended World War II early and saved millions of lives, under Coyne's contention there is no knowledge in that book, or the millions of lives saved or in history itself. Are the events of history and mass deaths classifiable as knowledge? 


Coyne is in a bit of a quandry here. There's no way to run World War II multiple times, with and without the use of atomic weapons, to see whether the cold war and arms races still happen or what replaces Godzilla. There are things that are not scientifically testable. In his assessment of literature, Coyne seems to propose that, while here may have been “emotional realizations” embodied in Godzilla, there are no truths in the rewriting of history or the loss of millions of deaths. As Stalin once supposedly said, if "one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics." They are just statistics and events that "don’t convey to us anything factual about the world." Or, is it possible that there is value in history and, by way of extension, in the thought experiments that literature can perform?

Those thought experiments take many forms. In the specific area of technological inspiration, Szilárd's inspiration is not unique. Helicopters, cell phones, satellites and robots are a few of the many technologies that were directly inspired by their invention and use by an author in a work of speculative fiction.2 While the ideas had to be developed, the ideas themselves were the work of creativity. Without Star Trek, we wouldn't have the cell phone.3 There's actually an entire cottage industry devoted to mining fiction for ideas.4 

In Coyne's framework, ideas are just ideas until they've been subjected to "independent verification by empirical and rational investigation: that is, through science (broadly interpreted)." By Coyne's Rubric, the expanse of speculative fiction (and the majority of patents) are not "knowledge." After all, the idea is just an idea. Works of speculative fiction don't include blue prints.

But are blueprints and operational details critical to "truths" and "facts?"
Let's return to the atomic bomb's backstory: energy-matter equivalence theory is the work of Einstein. Einstein is remarkable for many things including how he worked. His papers don't have blueprints, operational details, experimental setups or collections of experimental data. For instance, his relativity "experiment" is a thought experiment, a story, about a man in a falling elevator. It wasn't verified by empirical and rational investigation. Until Coyne is willing to grant literature a different status, Einstein's work, no matter how brilliant, was not knowledge.

But, but, but, Coyne might splutter, that work was later verified by experiment. Yes it was. In some cases, it took until late in the twentieth century to verify his work, science was finally able to test and "verify" Einstein's work.

At some magical moment, somewhere in the arc that goes from inspiration through execution to data collection to report writing to submission to review to publication to reading to verification by other scientists, scientific work becomes knowledge. If repeated experiments verify that a tree fell in the woods but no one reads the results did it really become knowledge? What is the magic moment when something becomes knowledge?


part 3 appears next Wednesday 


1 - Jerry Coyne, "Once again: does religion produce knowledge?" Evolution is True (May 4, 2011): https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/05/04/once-again-does-religion-produce-knowledge/ (accessed 12 August 2019)
2 - Williamson Murray and Alan Millet. A War To Be Won (Belknap Press, 2000), p. 520.
3 - Columbus trips to the Americas are hard to describe as "discoveries" because he was preceded by Asians and multiple European expeditions. By the same token, if an author was there first can the author-inspired technologist actually be termed an "inventor?"
4 - Bruce Sterling, "Science influenced by science fiction," Wired (September 22, 2010), https://www.wired.com/2010/09/science-influenced-by-science-fiction/  (accessed August 22, 2019).
5 - Mark Strauss, "Ten Inventions Inspired by Science Fiction," smithsonian.com (March 15, 2012):
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ten-inventions-inspired-by-science-fiction-128080674/?page=4 (accessed 12 August 2019).


Comments

The Pixie said…
Tim: Coyne is in a bit of a quandry here. ...

True. His problem is here (as you point out, but not for the reason you give): "These fine arts don’t convey to us anything factual about the world unless those facts can be replicated by reason, observation or experiment."

The problem is the word "replicated". Replace it by "verified", and all is good. As you say, we cannot re-run World War 2. But we can re-run the investigations, we can make further observations.

Tim: Without Star Trek, we wouldn't have the cell phone.

Seriously? No one would have thought of a cordless phone that you can take anywhere without Star Trek?

Tim: Einstein is remarkable for many things including how he worked. His papers don't have blueprints, operational details, experimental setups or collections of experimental data. For instance, his relativity "experiment" is a thought experiment, a story, about a man in a falling elevator. It wasn't verified by empirical and rational investigation.

Not true. It was already known that the orbit of Mercury could not be explained by Newtonian mechanics. Relativity successfully predicted the correct orbit.

Tim: But, but, but, Coyne might splutter...

Really? This is how you characterise your opponents? Wow.
Tim: "Einstein is remarkable for many things including how he worked. His papers don't have blueprints...."

Pix: "Not true. It was already known that the orbit of Mercury could not be explained by Newtonian mechanics. Relativity successfully predicted the correct orbit."

Irrelevant responses, neither address the point about his working method

Tim talks about the problem that WWII is replaceable, you argue that we can verify individual aspects and types of data pertaining to it that doesn't speak to the issue at all. His point is to put the data together requires a construct not based upon the data as a framework in which to understand what the data says. That is not the same as deriving our understanding purely from the data. It's not replication the experiment its just taking bits and pieces and imposing our understanding. We have to weave a unified narrative.
The Pixie said…
Tim: ".... It wasn't verified by empirical and rational investigation."

Pix: "Not true. It was already known that the orbit of Mercury could not be explained by Newtonian mechanics. Relativity successfully predicted the correct orbit."

Joe: Irrelevant responses, neither address the point about his working method

Tim made a claim that is not true. I called him on. If you guys object to being called on points that are irrelevant, do not make then up.

His ludicrous claim that we would not have mobile phones without Star Trek is similar, and the one that the majority of patents are speculative fiction is highly dubious too. If it is not true, do not say it. If ones argument is valid, one should not have to make things up to support it.

Joe: Tim talks about the problem that WWII is replaceable, you argue that we can verify individual aspects and types of data pertaining to it that doesn't speak to the issue at all. His point is to put the data together requires a construct not based upon the data as a framework in which to understand what the data says. That is not the same as deriving our understanding purely from the data. It's not replication the experiment its just taking bits and pieces and imposing our understanding. We have to weave a unified narrative.

What does that mean?

Whether we are talking about WW2 or relativity, we have a hypothesis that is based on the data we have, and can be verified by replicating the process that got us the data. Furthermore, it has been possible to contrive further processes of gaining data that would potentially support or refute the hypothesis, and in every case the hypothesis has been supported. This is knowledge that can be verified and that has been verified.

That cannot said for the tripods in War of the Worlds or indeed the atomic weapons in The World Set Free, both of which are "knowledge" in quite a different sense.
The Pixie said…
An English translation of Einstein's paper from 1916 can be found here:
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Foundation_of_the_Generalised_Theory_of_Relativity

From it:

It will be shown that the equations arising in a purely mathematical way out of the conditions of the general relativity, together with equations (46), give us the Newtonian law of attraction as a first approximation, and lead in the second approximation to the explanation of the perihelion-motion of mercury discovered by Leverrier (the residual effect which could not be accounted for by the consideration of all sorts of disturbing factors). My view is that these are convincing proofs of the physical correctness of the theory.
Tim Wood said…
Pix,

Einstein's paper on Generalized Theory of Relativity did refer to previous data in this one instance. My point was still technically correct (since there was no experiment and no description of the experiment and apparatus were included) but wrong in spirit.

I did not assert that the majority of patents were pulled from fiction. If you'll look back, you'll find that it has been a fruitful source for ideas.

Would we have cell phones without Star Trek? I'll concede that eventually it would have happened. I concede exactly this point in my argument about the atomic bomb. And, like with the invention of the atomic bomb, the delay would have resulted in a significantly different world than the one we inhabit.

I believe my overall argument still holds. I'm going to return to one of your reply's on my original post:

But the point remains. Is the attack on Earth by Martian tripods in
"The War of the Worlds" knowledge?

If so (and you seem to take that view), then all fiction is knowledge

Are you actually claiming that Wells' book produced knowledge?

Deciding whether "all fiction" is knowledge is not relevant to my argument. The idea does, however, pair nicely with a core problem in the piece that I'm responding to: the need to move between "knowledge," "truth" and "facts." But, Coyne doesn't actually move between them. He overlays one on the other, conflating the terms and implicitly defining this truth-knowledge-facts as the intersection of those three. It's the approach that I argue create an arbitrary moment when things are magically turned into knowledge.

Anonymous said…
Tim: Einstein's paper on Generalized Theory of Relativity did refer to previous data in this one instance. My point was still technically correct (since there was no experiment and no description of the experiment and apparatus were included) but wrong in spirit.

Your point was just plain wrong. The theory could and was verified by measuring the orbit of Mercury, an experiment that could be repeated as often as you like. He omitted the description of the experiment and apparatus because it was already established. That in no way means the theory was not verified!

Tim: I did not assert that the majority of patents were pulled from fiction. If you'll look back, you'll find that it has been a fruitful source for ideas.

Apologies, I misread it.

Tim: Would we have cell phones without Star Trek? I'll concede that eventually it would have happened. I concede exactly this point in my argument about the atomic bomb. And, like with the invention of the atomic bomb, the delay would have resulted in a significantly different world than the one we inhabit.

The communicators in Star Trek are pretty much walkie-talkies, as developed in WW2. Sure, they were technically better, but in ways that anyone could see would be an improve if we had the technology (greater ranger, full-duplex, etc.).

A cordless phone is an obvious development of the original phone, and a fully mobile phone is an obvious extension of that. A really cannot see how Star Trek helped in any way. And in fact, looking at Wiki, it turns out a patent was filed back in 1917 for the first mobile phone, and development started in earnest after WW2. That would be before Star Trek.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_phone#History

Tim: Deciding whether "all fiction" is knowledge is not relevant to my argument...

I would have thought that you would have a rigorous definition of knowledge (that you presented in part one), and the issue naturally fell out from that. Seems that is not the case.

Tim: ... The idea does, however, pair nicely with a core problem in the piece that I'm responding to: the need to move between "knowledge," "truth" and "facts." But, Coyne doesn't actually move between them. He overlays one on the other, conflating the terms and implicitly defining this truth-knowledge-facts as the intersection of those three. It's the approach that I argue create an arbitrary moment when things are magically turned into knowledge.

All the more reason for you to be clear on exactly what you mean by knowledge.

Pix
The Pixie said...
Tim: ".... It wasn't verified by empirical and rational investigation."

Pix: "Not true. It was already known that the orbit of Mercury could not be explained by Newtonian mechanics. Relativity successfully predicted the correct orbit."

Joe: Irrelevant responses, neither address the point about his working method

Tim made a claim that is not true. I called him on. If you guys object to being called on points that are irrelevant, do not make then up.

You did not contradict his claim. He said Einstein didn't use data you said we already had some data that is is not proof Intestine used it, and it doesn't speak to everything. Just one point.



His ludicrous claim that we would not have mobile phones without Star Trek is similar, and the one that the majority of patents are speculative fiction is highly dubious too. If it is not true, do not say it. If ones argument is valid, one should not have to make things up to support it.

I don't think he meant that literally.

Joe: Tim talks about the problem that WWII is repicable (not "replaceable"), you argue that we can verify individual aspects and types of data pertaining to it that doesn't speak to the issue at all. His point is to put the data together requires a construct not based upon the data as a framework in which to understand what the data says. That is not the same as deriving our understanding purely from the data. It's not replication the experiment its just taking bits and pieces and imposing our understanding. We have to weave a unified narrative.

What does that mean?

It means theorizing will always de limited by cultural constructs

Whether we are talking about WW2 or relativity, we have a hypothesis that is based on the data we have, and can be verified by replicating the process that got us the data. Furthermore, it has been possible to contrive further processes of gaining data that would potentially support or refute the hypothesis, and in every case the hypothesis has been supported. This is knowledge that can be verified and that has been verified.

Not based entirely upon the data and nothing else.

That cannot said for the tripods in War of the Worlds or indeed the atomic weapons in The World Set Free, both of which are "knowledge" in quite a different sense.

????
The Pixie said...
An English translation of Einstein's paper from 1916 can be found here:
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Foundation_of_the_Generalised_Theory_of_Relativity

From it:

It will be shown that the equations arising in a purely mathematical way out of the conditions of the general relativity, together with equations (46), give us the Newtonian law of attraction as a first approximation, and lead in the second approximation to the explanation of the perihelion-motion of mercury discovered by Leverrier (the residual effect which could not be accounted for by the consideration of all sorts of disturbing factors). My view is that these are convincing proofs of the physical correctness of the theory.

Very impressive professor (sincerely) but not sure it speaks to overall argument, but it is the kind of thing I want to happen in these discussions so I applaud you!
Tim what if I said knowledge of fictional work is knowledge, There are different kinds of knowledge and different uses for it I think the reductionist try to eliminate all the uses but their own?
The Pixie said…
Joe: Tim what if I said knowledge of fictional work is knowledge, There are different kinds of knowledge and different uses for it I think the reductionist try to eliminate all the uses but their own?

This is a valid point. My wife has a degree in English; she has a lot of "knowledge" about fiction - at least in some sense of the word.

However, in the context of the on-going debate of whether religion is true, then that type of knowledge is not what we are talking about. It is trivially true that the Bible says Jesus was resurrected. What we really want to know is whether it actually happened. This is why Coyne conflates facts and truth with knowledge.


We really need a clear definition
Tim Wood said…
Pix:

This is a valid point. My wife has a degree in English; she has a lot of "knowledge" about fiction - at least in some sense of the word.

However, in the context of the on-going debate of whether religion is true, then that type of knowledge is not what we are talking about. It is trivially true that the Bible says Jesus was resurrected. What we really want to know is whether it actually happened. This is why Coyne conflates facts and truth with knowledge.


Your point about your wife having a lot of knowledge about fiction is dead-on. And, as you note, that type of knowledge is not the one we're talking about. We're talking about knowledge about "reality". I agree with your assessment of why Coyne is conflating facts, truth and knowledge. As, I stated above, when he conflates the three, he's essentially looking at a strict union of the three. The series of examples I give point out that there is knowledge-truth-facts about world around us that a strict union definition of knowledge ignores.
Anonymous said…
If we are talking about knowledge about "reality", then how is Coyne wrong to conflate facts, truth and knowledge? that said, I do not think they are the same; truth is how reality is, knowledge is what we know of that. However, that does not seem to be your point here. If we are talking about knowledge about "reality", what has fiction to do with anything?

Pix
im-skeptical said…
And, as you note, that type of knowledge is not the one we're talking about. We're talking about knowledge about "reality".

I'm confused by this. We have finally arrived at the core question that needs to be addressed: What do we really mean by "knowledge"? And that's what Coyne's article addresses. He distinguishes between factual knowledge of reality and other kinds of knowledge. But you don't seem to make that distinction, and you have a problem with Coyne for doing so. My take on it: What Is Real Knowledge?
scootd28 said…
Tim - it is interesting to me that just this morning, during my prayers, I was pondering that it doesn't matter what one may know or understand or comprehend, it is irrelevant if it is not used in relationships...used to love others. Knowledge and understanding don't do me or anyone else any good, it has no value, if it isn't used to help others rise to their highest self. HELP others...not force others.

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