Scientism and Paths to Knowledge, Understanding, and Truth

Do I know that the entire field of epistemology will not be settled in a BBS thread?



It depends entirely on how much more I decide to post. :slight_smile:


So you are saying that science attempts to understand objective reality while mathematics does not rely on, or even really need, any sort of objective reality to make sense?


My only reason for bringing up probability theory is that one can do experiments and obtain empirical evidence in that field of mathematics.

Not really any more than other branches of math that model reality. Yes, you can roll dice and show the results (in the long term) are what probability theory predicts, but that isn’t doing anything more than showing that probability theory was well designed for what it was created for. Similarly you can measure the area of your room empirically and compare it to what geometry says based on the shape and sides of the room, but that’s because measuring areas in the real world is what traditional geometry was designed for, although people like Euclid and others were interested in the geometry for its own sake.

By contrast, one can not do experiments in astrophysics (I should have been more clear than simply referring to astronomy…),

Many nuclear bomb designers have backgrounds in astrophysics because those big fusioney things in space aren’t all that different from the smaller ones we can create on Earth (even if we thankfully have mostly moved away from dangerous physical tests of them). So, in a sense we can do experiments in astrophysics.

But that’s beside the point because while it is true that we can’t do experiments in all sciences, either because they are historical sciences like paleontology, or because of ethical issues (we can create mutant flies to study genetics, but can’t ethically create human mutants). But designed experiments aren’t the only way to do science. We can, for example, take advantage of “natural experiments” where datasets naturally take the shape of test and control groups.

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Given that your arguments that anything that cannot be tested is irrelevant and that the only path to knowledge is via evidence of ‘real world’ outcomes, how do you square that with your view that the brain in a jar hypothesis cannot be tested - and therefore neither can the «we are not brains in a jar but are actually perceiving the ‘real world’« hypothesis?

No. The problem with this is exactly the same thing where theologians assume the existence of God and say that atheists have to show that He doesn’t. The “brain in a jar” hypothesis requires us to accept there are being(s) who created these jars and who are feeding us information. These things need evidence.

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I see what you are saying now, but would it not also be true to say that, although science attempts to understand objective reality, it (or rather we) can only really do so through imperfect models of reality?

The way I see it, the distinction blurs in fields of mathematics that are highly based on reality and in fields of science that are highly theoretical. I am sorry that my examples of such fields were poor, but that is what I was going for. Would you say then that science is a process of discovering reality while mathematics (can) define the boundaries of that process but cannot directly undertake that process?

If you don’t mind my asking, are you a mathematician who sees your field as unbound by reality or are you a scientist who sees mathematics as a tool in your field? Your initial remark comparing math to chess at first seemed dismissive, but I see now that you had no such intent. I only ask because I have had this conversation with both mathematicians and scientists (I am sadly neither) before and have heard a range of opinions on the matter

Again, I think you are missing the point. As is anyone who claims that the brain in a jar hypothesis is something that is actually “reality”.

The original point of that sort of speculation goes back to the basic principles of epistemology all the way at least to Avicenna and certainly earlier. Questions such as “How do we know anything?” “What can we know?”

It is not that “we are brains in a jar” is intended to be something that is actually the case.

ETA (fat fingers pressed post too early)

You previously (correctly) stated that the hypothesis cannot be falsified and (incorrectly) claimed that makes it useless.

The point is that if you think the hypothesis is incapable of being falsified then it follows that its opposite is also incapable of being proved or falsified.

It seems you are happy to accept the one outcome but not the other even though both necessarily follow from each other.


As a user of sci-hub, I greatly prefer knowledge systems in which wisdom is available to anybody who can read, but that isn’t the only method of technology transfer.

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I love how this started with a sweeping untestable value judgement, poorly defined terms, circular logic, unexamined subjectivity, and a heavy dose personal opinion salted with science-flavored rhetoric… and yet the pretense continues – and mark my words it is pretension and nothing else.


Your argument has really gone off the rails at this point. Over and over, math has calculated where reality will be, long before we had the ability to measure it empirically. We’re still in that zone for the math-iest parts of physics. But it was true for biology and chemistry, too, for a few centuries now.

To contest that is to ignore the history of scientific discovery and how science has danced with math for centuries. One does not move the other; they are partners.

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@Loki Yes, I know “the brain in a jar” is a very old philosophical idea. But that doesn’t make it useful. If the people proposing the idea aren’t willing to follow through to its implications of what’s behind it, then it simply cannot be taken seriously. I’m not a huge fan of the Matrix movies, but to their credit, the Wachowski’s actually thought through the implications of what the false reality would require to enact it, which is more than the philosophers did.


Your argument has really gone off the rails at this point. Over and over, math has calculated where reality will be, long before we had the ability to measure it empirically.

Not at all. Mathematical models of physics have predicted things like the Higgs boson long before we could measure it empirically, but that isn’t the same thing.

To contest that is to ignore the history of scientific discovery and how science has danced with math for centuries. One does not move the other; they are partners.

I’m a computational biologist myself. So I appreciate how math has helped science. But any mathematical model is only as good as the rules that were used to generate it. And ultimately, those rules are empirical.

Bullshirt. Those mathematical models existed before it was possible to gather the evidence to base them upon empirical evidence. This happened over and over. You’re just ignoring the actual history of science, math, and humanity.

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…Assuming a true reality that kind of works like ours, which there is no evidence for unless you presume you’re not a brain in a jar. C’mon, man. And where did you get the idea that being useful is what counts for knowledge anyway? Things can be useful and wrong.

There are a lot of unscientific notions you are trying to smuggle in here…and I would tend to agree with them, except they’re a problem for when you want to dismiss unscientific ideas.


Even string theory isn’t just abstract math but is based on assumptions grounded in empirical physics. That being said, it is certainly true that many predictions string theory has made don’t seem to be testable. Which is why some physicists think it might just be a dead end and we should look at alternative models like Loop Quantum Gravity that may give more testable predictions.

I’m not saying a true statement has to be useful. I’m saying an argument is only useful if there is some way to test it. I mean I could say I that snow storms are caused by invisible pink unicorns, and you could imagine a universe where that is true, but it isn’t a useful argument unless I can demonstrate that said unicorns exist and can influence the weather.

But you seem pretty cool with saying that external reality exists and can influence the perceived weather, even though there is no way to test that, because you can’t test whether we are brains in jars instead. I mean, I for sure believe it does…but then based on other arguments.


What arguments are those, then?

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I mean, like most foundational things it’s not actually a simple question, and people have written a lot on the subject.

How much do you want to be walked through what particular arguments I find convincing, when as far as I can tell you’re trying to dismiss the idea of untestable arguments entirely, and for that all that really counts is that one is needed here?


An idea is usefull if it can influence our behavior to interact with the world in a new way. If the pink unicorn theory makes improved predictions of the whether, then that’s useful regardless of “the truth” of their existence.

If someone says that a crop should be planted on a certain day because of invisible pink unicorns, or because that’s when the sun god will reward farmers the most, or because of some fancy mathematical model of climate patterns, usefulness is a measure of the crops not the truth. If they predict the best time to plant with equal reliability, then the ideas are equal useful. Whether the sun god, the math, or invisible unicorns truly exist is not a scientific question

*how can something simultaneously be invisible and pink?


It’s only pink when you cut it open.

And I’ll show myself out…

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You might want to check my updated post that you are responding to. “String theory” was only up for about 30 seconds.