Facts and Theories

by Gene Callahan

“The theorist who drops anchor here or there and puts out his equipment of theoretic hooks and nets in order to catch the fish of the locality, interrupts but does not betray his calling. And indeed, the unconditional engagement of understanding must be arrested and inquiry must be focused upon a this if any identity is to become intelligible in terms of its postulates. An investigation which denies or questions its own conditions surrenders its opportunity of achieving its own conditional perfection; the theorist who interrogates instead of using his theoretic equipment catches no fish.” – Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct

We often hear controversy today over whether something is a “fact” or a “theory.” This arises both in the debate over anthropogenic global warming and in the disputes between creationists and Darwinists: Is global warming a “proven fact” or a “speculative theory”? Is evolution a “scientific fact” or “just a theory”? For instance, at globalwarming.com, I find the statement: “While some would call global warming a theory, others would call it a proven set of facts.” Continue reading

The Limits of Bayesian Reasoning

by Gene Callahan

In a seminar I’ve been attending at NYU this semester, David Chalmers contended that “resetting priors” is irrational in a Bayesian framework. (If you’re not familiar with Bayesian inference, the Wikipedia article just linked to does a good job of introducing the topic, so I will refer you to that, rather than lengthening an already long post with my own introduction to the subject.) This seemed wrong to me and seemed wrong to me long before Chalmers raised the issue for me again. But his remarks renewed my interest in the subject, and resulted in this post.
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Can Biology Dispense with Purpose?

by Gene Callahan

Mario called into doubt the usefulness of purposive explanations in biology in this thread. I started to write up the following as a comment, but it grew long enough, and, I hope, of enough general interest, that I found it appropriate to elevate it to “post level.”

I think the evidence is very strong that biologists just have not been able to do without thinking of the “purposes” of biological features, despite the scientistic prejudice against regarding any such consideration as scientific. Continue reading