Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Who are the true champions of science?

The Guardian’s Political Science blog is providing rich pickings while I am preparing to argue that the recent financial crises exposes a deeper malaise in (Anglo-Saxon) science at the Edinburgh Fringe on 18 August. What caught my attention was a piece describing how climate change sceptics present themselves as the true voice of science. I have no faith in strong (Baconian,Logical) Empiricism and little time for scepticism. This makes me more French than British and susceptible to thoughts that Anglo-Saxon science is flawed.

Francis Bacon (whose brother was Thomas Gresham’s son-in-law) “insisted that the laws of nature could only be uncovered through collecting and organising massive amounts of data” [Fara2009, p 132] — this is the British Empiricist tradition. A very different approach was taken by the French Rationalist René Descartes. Descartes was born in the Loire valley near Tours in 1596. When he was twenty Descartes qualified as a lawyer, but in 1618 he left France for the Netherlands, then at war with Imperial Spain, and joined the military academy of Prince Maurits. While in the Netherlands, Descartes met a Dutch mathematician, and student of the financial mathematician Simon Stevin, Isaac Beeckman, who sparked an interest in mathematics and the new physics emerging at the time. However, this interest would lie fallow for some ten years as the Catholic Descartes fought Protestants in Bohemia .

Descartes ended his military career around 1621, and, prompted by a series of visions he had had, decided to follow a career in science. He returned to France, sold his property (booty?) and was able to live of investment income for the rest of his life. For the next seven years Descartes travelled around Europe in a fairly aimless manner and in 1627 he accompanied the mathematician Gérard Desargues, who was working for the French army, at the siege of the Huguenot city of La Rochelle.

In the winter of 1628 Descartes went to a lecture by someone called Sieur de Chandoux, hosted by the papal nuncio to France and involving two Cardinals. No one knows what for certain Chandoux said, the story was pieced together by Descartes’ biographers, but it seems to have been some sort of synthesis of Baconian and “neo-AristoleianScholastic philosophy”, possibly linking Bacon’s “truth is what is useful” with Jesuit laxism — choose the opinion you find most convenient (which was an important concept in the development of probability theory).

Most of the audience liked what they heard, however Descartes did not. In the words of the philosopher Paul MacDonald “Descartes’s reaction to Chandoux’s speech can be summed up in a few words: this is utter rubbish and you’ve all been taken in.”. MacDonald tells us that
the young cavalier [Descartes] held forth at some length on the utter lack of grounds and abundant [use of difficult words and complicated sentences to intimidate and deceive] in the [conclusion] which they had just heard. He showed that Chandoux wanted to accept probability as the standard of truth, that opposite conclusions were at least as probable, and that every sceptical trope could be countered with another, turning every truth into a falsehood. Descartes commented that this was the same thing as [Scholasticism] disguised in new terms and unless the principles of a true and reliable method were established there was little point for further scientific enquiries.(MacDonald [2002]. See also Sarkar [2003, pp 1—2])
Whatever the actual merits of Chandoux’s lecture, Descartes seems to have been an astute judge of character, since Chandoux would soon be hanged for counterfeiting.

MacDonald explains that Descartes realised that any skilled speaker, using clever rhetoric and rapier wit developed in the humanist tradition, could persuade anyone of anything and, as a consequence, that much of the contemporary philosophical debate was empty. At the time there were the dogmatics, who would not diverge from Aristotle on any matter. Opposed to the dogmatics were the sceptics, who would not make any judgement, or decision, if there was any degree of uncertainty. This was convenient since it freed the sceptic from making difficult decisions. In the middle of the two camps were the cynics, whose aim was to appear superior to both the dogmatist or sceptic by using their arguments “to pretend what is true is false and what is false is true”.

Descartes, the retired soldier, seems to have been disgusted by the cynicism of Chandoux, angered by the blindness of dogmatism and frustrated by the barrenness of scepticism when these philosophies were confronted with matters of doubt. His response was to abandon the philosophising French and return to the pragmatic Dutch, and their mathematics, what the Dutch called - wiskunde - the ‘art of knowledge’. Descartes settled in the Dutch Republic, were he would remain for the next twenty years and write his most important work, ‘Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences’, published in 1637.

The Discourse on the Method is first and foremost a philosophical work that argues that “seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us” Descartes [2008, Part IV] we must “never accept anything for true which [you] did not clearly know to be such”, Descartes [2008, Part II] and this led Descartes to doubt his own existence, a problem he resolved by observing that “I think therefore I am” Descartes [2008, Part IV]. Because the senses were so unreliable, Descartes argued that “we ought never to allow ourselves to be persuaded of the truth of anything unless on the evidence of our reason” and, somewhat in disagreement with Bacon, “not of our imagination or of our senses”. Descartes starts from the “certainty of the existence of the mind” Hall [1962, p 179] from which universal laws of nature can be deduced through “mathematics, on account of the certitude and evidence of [its] reasonings” Descartes [2008, Part I].

While Stevin had established the practical usefulness of mathematics in natural philosophy, Descartes explained why mathematics was so powerful in deducing the reality of nature and turns maths from a calculation tool into a tool of enquiry, as the art of certain knowledge it brushes away doubt. The essence is that Descartes cannot know from the evidence of his senses what are the laws that govern nature, and so he is forced to reason, using mathematics, what they are. This is a very Platonic view of the world — hidden from us are nature’s laws, understood through mathematics, that govern nature. This philosophy was extremely influential in the development of science and would not only influence Newton but many physicists to this day, such as Roger Penrose Hall [1962, pp 181-182].

It seems to me that the issues raised by Warren Pearce’s article are not particularly novel. My argument is that the dominating feature of finance is randomness, pure uncertainty, and so the science — the speculative, agreed-upon inquiry which recognizes and distinguishes, defines and interprets reality and its various aspects and parts, on the basis of theoretical principles, models and methods rigorously cohering — that emerges in finance is of more use to resolving contemporary issues than the science advocated by some of climate change sceptics described by Pearce.


   R. Descartes. A Discourse on Method. Project Gutenburg, 2008. www.gutenberg. org/etext/59.
   P. Fara. Science: a four thousand year history. OUP, 2009.
   A. R. Hall. The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800. Longmans, 1962.
   P. S. MacDonald. Descartes: The lost episodes. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 40 (4), 2002.
   H. Sarkar. Descartes' Cogito Saved from the Great Shipwreak. Cambridge University Press, 2003.  

1 comment:

  1. Frankly, the article in the Guardian is a weak cup of stale tea. The author talks about skeptics' alleged concerns with falsifiability, but doesn't mention that climate models are tested against historical data, and that proxies are (a) made from large numbers of measurements and (b) compared with other types of proxies, and with instrumental records.