Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Discussions on the philosophical foundations, assumptions, and implications of science, including the natural sciences.

Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 10:29 am 

Time to ruffle some more feathers, ladies and gentlemen. It seems to be a duty that has fallen incumbent on me since that night the KGB spiked my prune juice with James Dean serum in a seedy Kiev bar.

It's often said, here and elsewhere, that the only factors relevant to theory choice in science are evidence and logic; what we might call "epistemic" factors. (I've recently been chastised, in another thread, for not understanding that all scientists care about is evidence) No doubt all will concede, I hazard, that other factors -- social, political, psychological, and so forth -- may be relevant to what gets studied, after all, an ordinate amount of research is dedicated to erectile dysfunction and male baldness cures, while our understanding of bonobo armpit hair remains largely neglected. Far more controversial (that's why we're here; hold tight now) is the suggestion that the content of the knowledge thus produced is influenced by anything other than epistemic factors. In other words, received wisdom has it, doesn't matter if it's bonobo hair or Sean Connery's bald patch, all that matters is evidence and logic.

It's a claim that I personally find somewhat implausible, not to the extent that scientific knowledge is constrained by epistemic factors, which I wouldn't deny just yet (gimme a few years), but that scientific knowledge (or theory choice) is constrained only by epistemic factors.

Thought I'd begin with the most innocuous example I can think of (and if I remain alive, advance to hard core drugs).

As far as I understand (kick me in the quarks if I'm wrong, you physicists), quantum physics these days is dominated overwhelmingly by the Bohr et al-inspired Copenhagen interpretation, which is committed to the intrinsic causal indeterminacy of quantum events. Less well known, at least according to James T. Cushing in his "Quantum Mechanics: Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Interpretation", is that physicist David Bohm (and his colleagues) proposed an empirically equivalent, though causally deterministic, interpretation of quantum mechanics -- yet Bohm's theory/interpretation languishes in obscurity.

For the uninitiated, two theories, A and B, being "empirically equivalent" means that both theories entail exactly the same set of observational consequences; i.e., they are, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable. (unless we invoke non-epistemic factors to pinpoint the "true" [*panic*] one).

Now here's the prob: If Copenhagen and Bohm are empirically equivalent, and all that matters for theory choice is epistemic factors (evidence and logic), how do we explain the ascendancy of one theory at the expense of the trampling underfoot of the other?

Cushing argues, as the title of his book suggests, the explanation lies with historical contingency; viz., Bohr got his big fat Danish foot in the door first.

(Yes, it's unfortunate that Bohr and Bohm differ by only one letter; Niels and David if you prefer)

So, thoughts to ponder: Has Cushing got his facts right? If so, must we renounce our adherence to the doctrine that epistemic factors are all that matter in theory choice?
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Braininvat on December 8th, 2016, 11:09 am 

Will let the fizzic fellows answer....AFAICT, experiment has supported the acausal models rather than DeBroglie/Bohm hidden variable model. Also, there are other models besides just the 2 you cite. Back later. I have a windshield to scrape, with my bonobo armpit hair brush.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 11:31 am 

Braininvat » December 9th, 2016, 12:09 am wrote:Will let the fizzic fellows answer....AFAICT, experiment has supported the acausal models rather than DeBroglie/Bohm hidden variable model. Also, there are other models besides just the 2 you cite. Back later. I have a windshield to scrape, with my bonobo armpit hair brush.


Even though I'm confused enough to begin with, BIV, sounds to me like if what you say is true, and the Bohm/Bohr interpretations are indeed empirically equivalent, then we, I mean they, must be appealing to extra-epistemic factors (you know the usual suspects: coherence, simplicity, low-cut dress, etc) to achieve that "support" you speak of.

As any good realist would.

But the Copenhagen folks are supposed to be anti-realist.

Erm, see ya at the carwash.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Serpent on December 8th, 2016, 11:38 am 

The word "choose" is ambiguous in the context of science.

Are you constructing a model from known facts, mathematically
extrapolating into the unknown,
or formulating a theory, based on observed phenomena and
projecting these into the unknown
deciding which of two or more provisional explanations is more probable on the
available evidence

or shopping for a cosmology that suits your temperament?
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 11:41 am 

Serpent » December 9th, 2016, 12:38 am wrote:Are you constructing a model from known facts, mathematically extrapolating into the unknown,
or formulating a theory, based on observed phenomena and projecting these into the unknown
deciding which of two or more models and/or projections is more probable on the available evidence
or shopping for a cosmology that suits your temperament?



This misses the point, Serpent. The point is:

If two theories are empirically equivalent (see definition above), why is one selected over the other?

The only way I can see (at this late hour anyway) is by appeal to non-epistemic factors. (coherency, simplicity, and all that)

Or maybe just the way it grabs you?

This is the matter under examination.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 11:44 am 

To add a little more: your talk of constructing a theory to accommodate the observable phenomena may not be enough in all cases.

What if two (logically incompatible) theories fit the evidence in exactly the same way?

How do we, I mean they, break the deadlock?
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Serpent on December 8th, 2016, 11:44 am 

Grab is an even more unscientific term than choose.
There is no compelling reason to do either.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 11:47 am 

Pardon me (no more grabbing then).

If you don't do either, we have no theory.

You have to choose one -- it's a bit like Buridan's ass, come to think of it.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 11:51 am 

It's that old whore :underdetermination

Here's your predicament: Two theories are empirically equivalent (i.e., entail exactly the same observational predictions), yet are logically incompatible. Which one do we choose?

Your talk of "evidence" and "phenomena" doesn't help. That's the whole issue.

Unless you expand the purview of "evidence" to include "non-empirical evidence"

Comes to the same thing.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Serpent on December 8th, 2016, 11:52 am 

NoShips » December 8th, 2016, 10:44 am wrote:To add a little more: your talk of constructing a theory to accommodate the observable phenomena may not be enough in all cases.

I do not.
I talk of constructing a model or formulating a theory.

What if two (logically incompatible) theories fit the evidence in exactly the same way?

No two things are exactly the same. If they are of equal evidential weight, go get more observations, make more measurements, collect more data, devise more formulae - whatever you need to do.

How do we, I mean they, break the deadlock?

What deadlock? Any number of models and theories may be exist concurrently. Eventually, some or all may be discarded for breach of internal consistency, or because new evidence turns up to contradict them, or because yet another new one is constructed/formulated that better explains what is known to date. Science is a dynamic organism: it adapts, mutates, selects and evolves.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:01 pm 

Serpent » December 9th, 2016, 12:52 am wrote:What deadlock? Any number of models and theories may be exist concurrently. Eventually, some or all may be discarded for breach of internal consistency, or because new evidence turns up to contradict them, or because yet another new one is constructed/formulated that better explains what is known to date. Science is a dynamic organism: it adapts, mutates, selects and evolves.



Now, we finally get to the point. Consistency (i.e. no contradictions), and "evidence" (as commonly understood -- i.e. empirical evidence), belong to the realm of logic and evidence ( = received wisdom).

Now when you mention "explanation" you go beyond the traditional "all scientists care about is logic and evidence".

Q1: Is "explanation" observable? (I just see it's a good explanation")
Q2: What does "explanation" have to do with logic?

By invoking "explanation" you exceed the boundary of what is commonly understood as "evidence and logic". You appeal to non-epistemic factors.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:05 pm 

Put another way:

Theory A and Theory B are empirically equivalent: they entail exactly the same observational consequences.

With me so far?

How do we break the deadlock? How do we choose one over the other?

By appealing to "one provides a better explanation than the other"?

Then, I suggest, you appeal to non-epistemic factors.

Unless you can show a connection between explanation and epistemology or logic.

Can you?
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:09 pm 

Carl Hempel thought he could. But that went out with chest medallions and frizzy hair.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Forest_Dump on December 8th, 2016, 12:18 pm 

I don't often have the time needed to keep up in a lot of fields so I certainly can't offer anything of interest to the field of physics but I can say I certainly do believe that ideology is often (usually? always?) the driver when it comes to deciding what counts in science as in virtually everything else. It is ideology tht decides what questions we want to ask and that the sets the stage for determining what evidence/data/observations we decide to bring to bear to try to answer these questions. After all, hypothetically there could be an infinite number of observations we could make about anything but we make choices about which ones we will focus on to get at answers we think we care about or should. In another thread, the question was aout the remote past with premises (and a by-passed debate although I would argue that that debate has become mostly moot) about how remote that past was and how "we" got from there to here (the process and thus the theoretical construct to explain that process). So, we do believe, for example, that the further into the past we can trace something, the more legitimate it becomes (now I would argue that itself is a somewhat culturally specific set of values that is not universal but I digress). So, then, some argue that tracing a idea back to Darwin or Galileo gives it greater legitimacy while tracing it back to the Bible may give it more or less, depending on other values we choose to bring into the fray (such as pragmatics, economics, politics, etc.). In answer to one of your questions, then, if two or more equally viable sets of theories are offered, the one that wins is often (in our cultural context) the first. But we do often face a reality that they both are not always (often?) equal but address different questions so, often (usually) we don't like this prospect of equivalence or ambivalence and often (negatively but politically) choose to undermine the values, questions, etc., of the other.

But I ramble. But I ramble because I have been thinking on some recent issues.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:22 pm 

Here's another way to put it....

We're often told "Evolutionary theory is the best explanation for, um, whatever, the diversity of life we see around us." Whatever you like.

The next question is: "So what?" What is the implication? Is the implication that because "evolutionary theory" contains contains 18 letters (if I counted right) and one space we should consider it to be true?

Obviously not. Ask yourself again. What is the implication we are supposed to draw from the fact (if it is a fact) that evolutionary theory provides the best explanation for [blah blah blah]?

Clearly, the implication we're supposed to draw is: it is the best explanation; therefore it is true (or at least, we have good reason to think so).
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:26 pm 

and if you draw that implication, you appeal to non-epistemic factors (i.e., it's not just evidence and logic)
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:31 pm 

Forest_Dump » December 9th, 2016, 1:18 am wrote:but I can say I certainly do believe that ideology is often (usually? always?) the driver when it comes to deciding what counts in science as in virtually everything else. It is ideology tht decides what questions we want to ask and that the sets the stage for determining what evidence/data/observations we decide to bring to bear to try to answer these questions. .



This is the crux. Few deny extra-epistemic factors influence what we, I mean you guys, decide to study. But the real question I'm asking is: Do these non-epistemic factors influence the knowledge thus produced?
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Forest_Dump on December 8th, 2016, 12:32 pm 

NoShips wrote:Obviously not. Ask yourself again. What is the implication we are supposed to draw from the fact (if it is a fact) that evolutionary theory provides the best explanation for [blah blah blah]?


For some reason, we care about our connections to the past.

For some reasons we care that we appear to be more closely related to chimps than to trees.

For some reason we care that we have established a "proper" set of relationships between things in our domain (the earth).

But of course there are also much more practical benefits because we can find fossil fuel more easily (cheaply). We can cure diseases, etc.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Forest_Dump on December 8th, 2016, 12:36 pm 

NoShips wrote:Few deny extra-epistemic factors influence what we, I mean you guys, decide to study. But the real question I'm asking is: Do these non-epistemic factors influence the knowledge thus produced?


Well, if these extra-epistemic factors influence (decide) what we study and they influence who does the study, how they study, what observations we can make (we can afford to make), what instruments we choose (or are required) to use, who gets to judge the quality of the products that result, etc. well, ummm, what left?
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:36 pm 

Well, that does nothing to address the issue of the connection between explanatory goodness and epistemic, erm, validity. Not to mention your relationship with Clemenza.

Anyway, better get to bed before non-epistemic influences get in the way. Burp.

See yas tomorrow.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:41 pm 

Forest_Dump » December 9th, 2016, 1:36 am wrote:
NoShips wrote:Few deny extra-epistemic factors influence what we, I mean you guys, decide to study. But the real question I'm asking is: Do these non-epistemic factors influence the knowledge thus produced?


Well, if these extra-epistemic factors influence (decide) what we study and they influence who does the study, how they study, what observations we can make (we can afford to make), what instruments we choose (or are required) to use, who gets to judge the quality of the products that result, etc. well, ummm, what left?



In a nutshell, the truth: about you and Clemenza.

Told you it was late.

Hey Forest, I've grown to like you a lot. Not just the cannoli. I like your knowledge, and most of all, your impartiality. Next time we fight Genghis Khan, I'd like you on my side of the plate.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 12:42 pm 

Now go do some work while I sleep.

Still snowing there? *snicker*
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Braininvat on December 8th, 2016, 1:03 pm 

Back again. This wiki article helps make clear that there are over a dozen alternative interpretations to Copenhagen, with many non-epistemic factors in play (elegance, simplicity, clinging to realism, clinging to math, etc.) --

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpret ... _mechanics

This suggests that your OP example is a good one, if you want to talk about science and non-epistemic factors.

I suppose if you ask how non-epistemic factors influence the knowledge produced, the answer in physics is that an interpretation tends to lay down particular limits to knowledge, limits that become a sort of aesthetic. People who hate Many Worlds often say they don't like the unknowability of all these forking universes and that it's silly to talk about such things. Their sense of how to use Ockham's Razor is that extra universes should be shaved off.
Our knowledge, when we measure something, is the same: we observe some sort of quantum event, essentially an interaction with a detection device. Momentum, spin, whatever. It's our feeling about that knowledge, and what we might NOT be knowing (Bayesian quantum mechanics is another example) that varies.

-5 degrees F. last night. Kills the vermin.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Serpent on December 8th, 2016, 1:08 pm 

NoShips » December 8th, 2016, 11:01 am wrote:
Serpent » December 9th, 2016, 12:52 am wrote:What deadlock? Any number of models and theories may be exist concurrently. Eventually, some or all may be discarded for breach of internal consistency, or because new evidence turns up to contradict them, or because yet another new one is constructed/formulated that better explains what is known to date. Science is a dynamic organism: it adapts, mutates, selects and evolves.



Now, we finally get to the point.

Evidently, you have not, and won't.

Consistency (i.e. no contradictions), and "evidence" (as commonly understood -- i.e. empirical evidence), belong to the realm of logic and evidence ( = received wisdom).

I don't know who made up that equation, but it doesn't scan.

Now when you mention "explanation" you go beyond the traditional "all scientists care about is logic and evidence".

Which I never said.

Q1: Is "explanation" observable? (I just see it's a good explanation")

Objects are observable. Some phenomena are observable. Some are not observable but manifest through their action on material objects. Effects are observable. Changes are observable. All of these observations add up to data, and such data as can be used as evidence of a yet unexplained action, event, change, effect or phenomenon. Then, a human being might logically deduce what has happened and offer an explanation as to why and how it happened.
Q2: What does "explanation" have to do with logic?
By invoking "explanation" you exceed the boundary of what is commonly understood as "evidence and logic". You appeal to non-epistemic factors.


Get a dictionary.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby BadgerJelly on December 8th, 2016, 1:29 pm 

If you cut to it people guess what the data says and make a theory to fit it and extrapolate from there. Or they may guess how something works and propose a way that can help prove or disprove this idea.

So, yes. Theory choice is constrained by epistemic factors. What these epistemic factors are the jolly old scientist has little to say about. In fact they will probably shoot me.for saying such a thing ... maybe?
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Forest_Dump on December 8th, 2016, 1:40 pm 

Well we have had steady light snow for over a week and a half, three days over blizzard, now died out but below -10 C and will be dropping to highs around -20 C by Sunday. So in my free time I have been schlepping and stacking fire wood but enjoying the sights of pine grosbeaks, feeding our new national bird, looking out for moose, wolves and lynx, etc. and contemplating the meaning of life.

NoShips wrote:Well, that does nothing to address the issue of the connection between explanatory goodness and epistemic, erm, validity.


How much more do I need to go on?

I think we as humans go beyond (or can or choose to go beyond - however that is measured which is also a somewhat arbitrary/cultural/ideologically driven choice) our biological roots and so we choose to believe that economic mores are better and therefore we will choose the alternatives that give us more. And that economic "more" can also translate to economic efficiency (haven't lost all my Marxist structuralist influences) which is laziness (so Occam's razor applies) and therefore the more things that can be explained and the more easily makes it better particularly if it allows us to deal with things that are not so easy to explain (so here we can put aside any supernatural factors we don't want to think about or don't think we can).

Now I, of course, do put a lot of stock in "science" but that is because it does allow me to gain confidence in the answers I do get (from the questions I choose to ask) but I certainly do know that science is very difficult to seperate from its cultural (religious, political, etc.) roots and I know many people are uncomfortable with this ancestry and there may be debate as to whether the "speciation" is complete. I call myself an agnostic which, to me, simply means "I do not know" but I am hopeful I can find some answers (as hasn everyone for the last few thousand years, at least). I have also been lucky in that lately I have been more removed from the influences of those Middle Eastern religions (Muslim, Jueo-Christian, etc.) and feudal European influences so can start to see them from increased distance (although there are still biases around here - I still think the "Gitchi" in Manitou is part of that European corrupting influence but I digress).

Bottom line is we do make choises about what we want to know about and why and we are influenced by a huge host of inter-related factors, most of which we are only dimly aware of at best. Science, if conceived of "properly" (and we would certainly need to question the metic we use here), can give us some answers that we will have at least some confidence in given our cultural (i.e., economic or ultimately ideological) context. But of course, if we are not careful it can also cause us all kinds of problems if we screw up (such as by believing there is or can be some ultimate or universal good or even direction for progress). I have no problem then, recognizing that science is simply and only the way of my people - but it is the way of my people. Now all I have to think about is just who my people are and why that is. Oh yeah and if that is a mistake. Maybe some nice single malt scotch will help. And maybe rewatch some old movie... Perhaps something by this guy Coppola everyone is talking about...
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Forest_Dump on December 8th, 2016, 1:51 pm 

In order to indulge this naval gazing...

BadgerJelly wrote:If you cut to it people guess what the data says and make a theory to fit it and extrapolate from there. Or they may guess how something works and propose a way that can help prove or disprove this idea


There are some big questions here. Why choose that data and not something else? (One thread here is why do we prefer some experimental data over say anecdotal evidence? Why is control and simplicity of factors more important than the muddiness of real life? Sure more is better but why is more better? Particularly when "more" might also leave some more out?) We don't just choose data equally out of the universe of possible data - we use a priori expectations and history to select a range of possible data, then use some logic to narrow down what data we choose to consider, etc. We make convoluted choices of what things that work to look at and test while we shrug and walk away from other choices (that volcano hasn't erupted in a while so I just assume somebody is still sacrificing virgins in the proper way but that is not something I choose to put to the test. What if I am right or wrong in my assumptions?)
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby NoShips on December 8th, 2016, 7:58 pm 

BadgerJelly » December 9th, 2016, 2:29 am wrote:
So, yes. Theory choice is constrained by epistemic factors. What these epistemic factors are the jolly old scientist has little to say about. In fact they will probably shoot me.for saying such a thing ... maybe?



This is conceded in my opening post. The question I want to examine is: "Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?"

BIV seems to take it for granted (as do I) that theory choice is not constrained only by epistemic factors. Other factors such as coherence, simplicity, elegance, explanatory goodness, etc., play a role too. (We'll get to social factors soon unless Clemenzo gets me first). And Cushing's QM example suggests historical factors are at work too -- who gets a foot in the door first.

But I keep getting slapped on the wrists (in other places) for not understanding (so the wrist-slappers say) that all that matters to science is evidence and logic.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby Lomax on December 8th, 2016, 8:48 pm 

Braininvat » December 8th, 2016, 6:03 pm wrote:I suppose if you ask how non-epistemic factors influence the knowledge produced, the answer in physics is that an interpretation tends to lay down particular limits to knowledge, limits that become a sort of aesthetic. People who hate Many Worlds often say they don't like the unknowability of all these forking universes and that it's silly to talk about such things. Their sense of how to use Ockham's Razor is that extra universes should be shaved off.

Well put. D.K. Lewis argues (in support of modal realism) that it's more Occamistic to suppose all the possible worlds are real; because to do otherwise would require drawing a distinction between the "real" possible stuff and the "unreal" possible stuff, which is multiplying properties, or metaphysical entities, beyond necessity. I'm not sure I buy his argument, but it goes to show that pragmatic factors (which we do always have to rely on) are somewhat in the eye of the beholder.
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Re: Is theory choice constrained only by epistemic factors?

Postby BadgerJelly on December 8th, 2016, 11:43 pm 

NoShips -

Well forgive my stupidity because I view aesthetics as epistemic factors. Historicity as epistemic too! I have tried to argue elsewhere about the semantic delineation of the ontic and epistemic as being one of convenience only (I guess this komd of seems contrary and aesthetic so it confuses the whole meaning of what I've just said). Haha

I am actually going in depth on this subject in regards to Husserl's "Crisis".

I may as well quote here from §5 The ideal of universal philosophy and the process of its inner dissoution.

"Skepticism about the possibility of metaphysics, the collapse of the belief in a universal philosophy as a guide fornthe new man, actually represents a collapse of the belief in "reason," understand as the ancients opposed episteme to doxa. It is reason which ultimately gives meaning to everything that is thought to be, all things, values, and ends - their meaning understood as their normative relatedness to what, since the beginninfs of philosophy, is meant by the word "truth" - truth in itself - and correlatively the term "what is". Along with this falls the faith in "absolute" reason, through which the world has its meaning, the faith in the meaning of history, of humanity, the faith in man's freedom, that is, his capacity to secure rational meaning for his individual and common human existence."

It is quite possible I have no idea what you guys are talking about and I am doing little other than making raspberries at you? Who knows!

Either way would appreciate it if you could explain in laymans terms.

Anyway, he continues ...

"If man loses his faith, it means nothing less than the loss of faith "in himself", in his own true being. This true being is not something he always already has, with self-evidence of the "I am", but something he only has and can have in the form of the struggle for his truth, the struggle to make himself true. True being is everywhere an ideal goal, a task of episteme or "reason", as opposed to being which through doxa is merelt thought to be, unquestioned and "obvious"."
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