explanatory harmony

(I believe this analogy – my version of it below – belongs to Polkinghorne, but I’m not sure)

explain the boiling kettle!

Explanation A: Well, the heat from the element is transferred to the metal of the kettle, which transfers to the water, which changes the chemical state of the water, which we call boiling, at which liquid gives rise to vapor.  The bubbling, by the way, is utterly random!

Explanation B: I wanted a cup of tea.

Both explanations are perfectly true, and in absolute harmony with one another.  In other words, robust scientific descriptions do not cancel out teleological or intention-based ones.

13 thoughts on “explanatory harmony”

  1. Just a pedantic note (the sense of the post is spot on) boiling is not a chemical change, but a physical one. This site http://www.chem.purdue.edu/gchelp/liquids/boil.html shows how chemistry gets involved, and it is only to explain that different substances have different boiling points (at the same pressure).

    Sorry :( once a pedant always a pedant, and once a kid who corrected his physics teacher always a smart Alec ;)

  2. Both explanations speak to the invisible – electrons becoming excited, transferring that excitement from solid to liquid as well as transfer of hot tea to mouth, all derived from invisible human intention!

  3. I like that point, BC. We’ve certainly not got to the ‘bottom’ of physical activity yet (and have no idea how close we’re getting to the bottom – whatever is meant by ‘bottom’!?), and intention is also invisible!

  4. Leaving aside the completely random bubbles (which are not), this is just a word game based on inherent assumptions about unknown contexts, agents, and intentions. We can just as easily substitute equally ‘true’ responses of “No.” or “No!” or “I can’t.” or “You can’t make me!” or “God did it.” But do any of these responses really ‘explain’ anything about the boiling kettle alone?

    No matter what the response may be, all can be valid explanations dependent entirely on the context, agents, and intentions of that [person undertaking the action and to whom the demand is leveled. But does each response truthfully answer the intention of the questioner? This is not a matter to simply ignore in order to imply that different ‘truth claims’ can be equally valid if one simply asserts them and assumes the appropriate context to make them true. That’s not an honest method of inquiry.

    If one wishes honest explanations, then one has to phrase the question in such a way to provide the means, such as the question “For what purpose are YOU boiling the water,” to honestly inform the answer in B for its truth value in relation to the intention of the what question is attempting to answer. B is not an equivalent explanation to A under the same context but a different context. Its truth value is context dependent, something missing entirely in your presentation.

    You will note that explanation A has the merit of being a description of a phenomena that is always true regardless of context. Add enough heat to water and it will change state. Remove enough heat from water and it will change to a different state. The state of the water is dependent on how much heat it contains (and the pressure, of course). That’s knowledge. That’s consistent everywhere all the time and can be relied upon today as well as tomorrow and presumed to have been equally valid yesterday. It’s about the boiling water.

    B in stark contrast, is not about the water. It is a completely arbitrary explanation depending entirely on the unknown motivation for the action of agent responsible. It may be true. It may not be true. How do we know?

    Well, B answers a different question that can be equally ‘true’ while having nothing to do with the boiling of water whatsoever. For example, B suitably answers “Why did you go to the store?” “Why didn’t you call the ambulance right away?” “How did you not hear the phone ringing?” The explanation of B is context dependent not to explain the boiling of water in the kettle which is consistent but to explain some unknown context of the agent responsible. The explanation of B is all about context, whereas the explanation in A is about phenomena. The truth of A is consistent in all kettles boiling water; the truth of B is unknown and assumed as an explanation of something or someone else, something or someone unknown, something or someone assumed. The truth value of the responses are not the same.

  5. Tildeb,
    Your disdain for metaphysics in general is evident, as is your related distrust of any specific metaphysical claim. Nonetheless, you seem to grant that physical and metaphysical explanations can be in harmony. That really is the scope of this particular post.

  6. I prefer to describe my attitude as respectful to what’s probably true, probably accurate, probably correct, while being mindful of whatever undermines that process. Metaphysics is fine and dandy (love the metaphysical poets and Donne is my favourite) right up until a truth claim is made and then I ask how do we know if it’s probably true?

    The metaphysics of Aristotle et al is wrong and it is wrong for the same reasons that undermine your assertions that include essence and nature as part of the propositions you use for understanding what’s probably true.

    Just as Plato – a very big brained person – was entirely misguided about, say, the liver (home to many functions including divination so we are told) by using metaphysics as a basis for understanding biology, so too are we entirely misguided by assuming objects and phenomena possess an essence or natures we can identitify. We know better today, yet the religious urge to fall back upon Aristotelian physics is strong because it is the foundation upon which the catholic church has built its theology, and it is from this theology that all christian branches draw their fundamental doctrine. It may be true, but it may not. How can we know?

    Studying christian doctrine, then, often entails studying those authors who produced the catholic understanding of the fundamental doctrine relying on the liberal use of metaphysics as a method of inquiry, which produces what at first blush appears to be sophisticated arguments about what is based in large part on the nature of things – including god. But we know that the this foundation is built on a method of inquiry has already been thoroughly discredited.

    Essences and natures and agencies are the constructs of our perceptions imposed upon that which we pretend to investigate… only to yield ‘answers’ that are not to be trusted because at best they yield results that are not only inherently biased as reflective of ourselves but we know are as likely to be wrong as right. Furthermore, the use of metaphysics to empower an a justification for an explanation tends to be very difficult to falsify. If there is no way to know that we are wrong, then there is no way to know if we are right. This is what we would expect to find in truth claims based on metaphysics and this is exactly what we do find in truth claims that can be tested and falsified by other means.

    At best, we know that metaphysics as a method of inquiry is an unreliable and biased way to know what’s probably true, probably accurate, probably correct. When some truth claim relying on metaphysics is made that also happens to agree with other more reliable and less biased methods of inquiry, this is not to be a point in favour of metaphysics: even a broken clock is right twice a day. It is only when metaphysical conclusions agree with the falsifiable conclusions from other methods of inquiry that we have the right pecking order and metaphysics is always lower because of its inherent weakness to know what’s probably true. This is why a religion’s metaphysical truth claims come into direct conflict another religion’s metaphysical truth claims… not because one is right and one is wrong but because they are incompatible truth claims derived from the same unreliable and biased method of inquiry!

    So of course none of us should trust as true what is obviously an unreliable method of inquiry and, if nothing else, all of us should be highly skeptical of any truth claims that use only metaphysics. These claims do not possess knowledge of what is true except by chance. Investing our faith in the veracity of metaphysical truth claims is a choice each of us can make (a poor one, I think) but when the claims are presented as if they are not only possibly true but certainly true and derived from god then we have a major conflict in respecting what is actually true. This is not harmony between metaphysics and what we can know but at its root a source of great disharmony respecting how we can know what is probably true.

  7. Tildeb,
    Please do try to be concise. I trust you’ll not expect me to engage with all that. Nor will I (no offense) bother commenting on your rather sweeping dismissal of Aristotle as being ‘wrong’ other than to say that nothing is that simple.

    My espistemic stance is not about knowing the metaphysical claims are true or right in the same sense that I know this or that scientific ‘fact’ about the physical universe. I’m simply interested in what metaphysical claims can be ‘known’ – not in the sense of omniscient, total comprehension, ‘killed-and-mounted-on-my-wall’ kind of ‘knowledge’, (which would run against one of the most basic theological/metaphyscial/apophatic understandings about just how little we can actually ever know about these things – God’s ineffability, for example) but rather ‘known about’ along the lines of basically, reasonably and thus justifiably believing the claims.

    God as a First Cause is a justifiably basic belief that is anything but intellectual suicide – as is the other metaphysical claim that the universe is the result of some kind of (less-than-completely-known) divine intent.

    These are broad strokes. General metaphysical notions that span every kind of religious tradition. The point of this post (and the analogy) is that these broad/general metaphysical explanations are harmonious with and not contradicted by scientific explanations. That is the scope of the post – it’s not defending (in case you thought it was) Plato’s specific thoughts about livers and divination (something that’s really not fair to critique him on, btw).

  8. The notion of harmony you propose is no such thing. It is agreement in conclusion only rather than compatibility in method of inquiry. They are not compatible methods of inquiry.

    Metaphysics held sway for two millennia culminating in the Dark Ages. Methodological naturalism began (roughly) with Galileo who clearly showed that the notion of agency required for motion was false, and that what had been understood to be the essence and nature of objects responsible for their revealed properties (including motion and agency) were not only empty constructs but misleading assumptions that skewed honest investigation into what is with explanations that were not reliable, untestable, unfalsifiable, and unknown to be true except by assertion.

    With this change in method of inquiry has come an explosion of practical and reliable knowledge – not merely explanations that may or may not be true – derived not from metaphysics (can you name any advancement in knowledge derived from metaphysics alone?) but from science.

    In comparison to the method of inquiry we call metaphysics, the scientific method has the enviable benefit of producing knowledge that works reliably well for everyone, all the time, everywhere. This is not to be discounted lightly.

    Metaphysics by comparison has no such requirement; it merely explains without any requirement to be shown to work, dependent on context of who and where and when. The realm of metaphysics and its explanations today is justifiably relegated only to those gray areas of the unknown or unknowable – like what constitutes the interior of unicorn wings. Are they hollow? Are they filled with magical aether? Metaphysics can produce sophisticated explanations about the nature of these remarkable wings without ever having to deal squarely with providing the troublesome evidence necessary for the inquiry to ever begin on a scientifically acceptable basis, namely, whether or not the critter is actually a critter with wings available for study. Metaphysics is not constrained in any such way. That’s why you can delve into the ineffability of god through metaphysics and find many sophisticated descriptions. But what you don’t have to be concerned about using this method is whether or not any one of the explanations is true and show it by what works all the time by everyone everywhere. And that’s why the harmony you speak of is only about shared conclusions and not extended to mean any compatibility in methods of inquiry.

  9. Tildeb,
    I don’t have time to respond to these sweeping dismissals. I’m not an analytic philosopher, and it sounds like you’re not either. I’m hardly inclined (not best equipped) to show where you over-generalise. Unless you have a comment about the simple and general point of the post, I can’t promise I’ll sponsor further wholesale dismissals of entire disciplines. You have your own blog for that.

  10. Hey there
    A significant minority of physicists, geneticists, and philosophers believe there IS purpose behind the universe. Paul Davies, Francis Collins, Antony Flew to name a very few.

    Others instinctively reject this notion, just as the Big Bang was rejected 50 years ago. Complaining about the conflict thesis or caricatures of theology have no relevance

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