Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Hans Ehrbar ehrbar at keynes.econ.utah.edu
Sun Jun 18 07:53:23 MDT 1995

Rahul, thank you for responding so patiently to the crossfire of
probing questions and attacks which you have attracted.  One of the
issues here is the distinction between philosopher and scientist.

I am appending an earlier posting of mine which tried to explain
Bhaskar's position on this.  In short it says: the philosopher of
science asks so-called "second-order" questions of the kind: what must
the world be like that the activities which the scientist engages in
can yield knowledge about the world.  It is a question about the
presuppositions of what the scientist does which must be kept separate
from the questions which the scientist asks while doing his science.

If one accepts that these areas of inquiry must be separated, then one
can resolve some of the questions brought up in the current debate as

(1) The philosopher cannot hope to derive the existence of
elementary particles simply from dialectical principles (this is a
first-order question).

(2) On the other hand you, Rahul, should not disqualify questions about the
ontological underpinnings of modern scientific endeavor by saying:
only the expert in physics can answer them.  There is indeed a very
rich philosophical thinking which has to say something about this.

(3) I think you are also giving too little credit to social sciences.
Of course, most mainstream social sciences are wrong because of their
social role of apologists of capitalism.  This does not mean that
a scientific understanding of society is impossible.

I find point (1) very important.  The Marxists' claim that they are
the final arbiters of first-order scientific questions showed its
oppressive face in the really existing socialist countries.  We should
be careful not to repeat those mistakes.

Here is, with my apologies, my earlier posting from May 5:

As I understand it, the main argument against the need of philosophy
apart from science is: if philosophy gives, as it often claims,
general (epistemological) criteria for what is scientific, then where
does it have these from?  Do they fall from the sky?

Bhaskar says: before one can ask the epistemological question how to
proceed to gain knowledge about the world, one has the ask the prior
ontological question: what must the world be like for science to be
possible?  This is not meant in the teleological sense that we
postulate that science must be possible, but it is a fact that the
social process which we call science does indeed expand our knowledge
of the world.  Worlds would be thinkable in which science is not
possible.  If the generally used scienctific procedures are able to
yield knowledge, then this tells us something about the world.  Now
Bhaskar claims that this kind of inference (which he calls a
"second-order" or "transcendental" inference): what must the world be
like that those procedures which are known as science can yield
knowledge about the world? is qualitatively different from the
"first-order" inferences which the scientists draw when they do
science.  This second-order inference is the realm of the philosopher.

As I understand Bhaskar, he does not claim that the scientist needs
the philosopher to do science.  Many excellent scientists are very
naive about the philosophical implications of what they are doing.  On
the other hand, the philosopher could not ask his second-order
question without being able to refer to the successful activity of the
scientist.  But an awareness of these second-order questions can often
be useful for a scientist.  Many sciences can be recognized as wrong
by the simple argument: were the world as this science claims it is
then science would not be possible.  Example: Lisa asked in a recent
post regarding quality and quantity whether one could not view all
the qualitiative breaks which were given as examples as quantitative
gradations?  The answer is: if the world would be as "monistic" and
without breaks as Lisa wants it to be, then science would either be
automatic or it would be impossible; it would not be the messy and
laborious affair that it is.

Hans G. Ehrbar                                    ehrbar at econ.utah.edu
Economics Department, 308 BuC                     (801) 581 7797
University of Utah                                (801) 581 7481
Salt Lake City    UT 84112-1107                   (801) 585 5649 (FAX)
For Info about our Graduate Program Contact  program at econ.sbs.utah.edu

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