YOUR HOST: Axioms and Principles

On a previous post, Stan lays the groundwork for including 'intuition' as part of a philosophical toolkit to evaluate atheism and related issues in the philosophy of science. He rather helpfully makes a distinction between axioms and principles, as follows:

(a) A precept that is used to support a different claim, but which is itself unprovable, therefore it is assumed valid for the sake of argument. Structure: “Given N, and assuming A, then P”, where A is the axiom, unprovable but assumed valid for this instance.

(b) A precept that is self-evident, unprovable, whose negation is self-contradictory.

I would argue that usage (a) is consonant with science as practiced and is hardly unexamined, whereas usage (b) is likely to be avoided. For example, it is far from 'self-evident' that the Universe is lawful, else it wouldn't have taken millennia for human civilizations to depress magical thinking to the point where science was possible. The absolute lawfulness of the Universe as a whole (or its negation, non-lawfulness) is not, properly speaking, falsifiable. So this usage would be out of sync with the way scientists think. On the other hand, the assumption that the Universe is lawful is sufficient to justify the scientist's search for 'Laws'.

Unfortunately for Stan, he seems to want usage (b) to justify the inclusion of 'intuition' in the philosophical toolkit. Now, speaking as a science teacher, I've got no ax to grind against intuition per se, or (as Pierce framed it) abduction. It's the old question of 'where does the hypothesis come from?' I'm perfectly happy to employ abduction as source material for scientific investigation.

Practically speaking, I don't
care where the hypothesis comes from: Kekule found benzene's structure in a dream, after all. What I want to know is this: after Popper, given an intuition exists, can this form the basis of scientific inquiry? That is, is there a way I can test (in Popper's idiom, falsify) the intuition, either directly or as a consequence of a claim uniquely tied to the intuition? If so, then I am satisfied.

But what if the intuition isn't source material? What if it's claimed to be foundational for inquiry? Here I am much more cautious, because I am not sure that every Principle urged by Stan is even true, much less foundational. Consider, for example:

“Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) (also, “I doubt everything, but I think about doubting, therefore I am a thinking being, therefore I am)

Foundational? There is a rich philosophical tradition associated with the Cogito, but in general contemporary neuroscientists and philosphers are skeptical that Cartesian dualism actually resolves the 'mind-body problem'. Antonio Demasio, for example, has claimed that the Cogito reduces to a tautological claim of identity. Daniel Dennett has spoken rather witheringly about the non-existence of the 'Cartesian Theatre'. The eliminative materialism of the Churchlands comes to a similar conclusion. As another has urged, the mind seems to behave like a serial computer, while the brain is manifestly a case of massive parallel processing. The unitary self that each of us typically experiences as dividing reality into 'me' and 'not-me' may be an illusion foisted upon us by the brain's organization, and what we call an 'intuition' may be the sum of all manner of inputs, and so unlikely to be foundational.

Now, I suppose one could argue that this posits a core of 'irrationalism' in the way many scientists behave: if we can not be entirely confident of the natural foundations of rationality, how can we confidently proceed in employing rational thought to investigate nature itself? I don't think this argument has any force for me, because I don't personally subscribe to metaphysical naturalism, but it may well prove to be a particularly good arrow in the quiver of the faithful. But, since I believe science proceeds provisionally in its attempt to expand the sphere of human understanding, I don't carry that baggage. Science has been spectacularly successful at answering certain kinds of questions because it constantly filters claims through rigorous sieves of doubt, and it has a long history of being able to accept levels of uncertainty even at the most fundamental level. A bad joke: you don't see physicists wishing Heisenberg had never been Born, after all.

Bottom line: if you want to use intuitions as part of argument in science, you will need to justify their usage at every step. Justification will essentially boil down to this: in asserting that this or that item is axiomatic, do we gain testable claims, or not?

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