The Return of Natural Philosophy

Empiricism: using observation as the only developer of scientific theory; no need to explain why a theory is so, and a massive dose of skepticism regarding any theory and explanation; Nullius in verba "Take no one's word for it."

Natural philosophy: The belief (like a religion) that there is some purpose beneath the behavior of nature, a belief strong enough that it alters and guides observation, leading to a distrust of observation and exhaltation of the theories.

Over time mankind has swung back and forth between these two opposites.

10,000 B.C - 600 B.C.: For most of history empiricism was all we had. Practical arts and crafts, producing dyes, metals, glass and beads, pottery. Of these we have only artifacts, no written text describing any of it.

600 B.C. - 1660 A.D.: Beginning with Thales of Melitus and including all Greek philosophers, peaking at Plato and Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.), and continuing until the formation of the Royal Society of London, everyone followed the natural philosophers. These are half mythology and half poor observation to form a description, a creation story, an all-encompassing mythology that explains why everything is as it appears, and how it came to be. Aristotle wrote books and books of his natural philosophy, and he was a good writer. His ideas were believed for millennia. And they were all wrong. Flies have eight legs. Horses have 24 teeth. Men have more teeth than women. Metals are made in the earth through the combination of moist and dry vapours. All wrong. But he made a good story of it, and that story was enough. We love a good story, and remember them. So people remembered his good stories.

1536: Petrus Ramus (Pierre de La Ramée, or just Peter Rami) writes a dissertation Quaecumque ab Aristotele dicta essent, commentitia esse (Everything that Aristotle has said is false), for which he is later killed by an Aristotelian Catholic. But someone has finally said it.

1660: Robert Boyle and his friends, who style themselves the Invisible College (because they are in a pub, not a college) and some faculty from Gresham College form the Royal Society of London to produce fact. This is a pivotal moment in the development of science, because they want desperately to get away from natural philosophy and back to reality. The Society is there to host experimenters and witnesses to establish clear fact; the register cannot be signed unless the experimenter can say in a short phrase what fact he has demonstrated. The motto of the Society: Nullium in verba, "take no one's word for it." This motto is a clear statement of the empirical way of science: "I'll never take your word for anything; you must demonstrate fact, and I'll trust that if I (or someone I trust) observes, but anything else you say doesn't matter, I can draw my own conclusions." This motto presupposes that we have read and experienced enough to make sense of the demonstrated fact. If not, have another beer and don't get into science.

1950: After special relativity, general relativity, and quantum theory began to settle on the minds of scientists, they were drawn back to the natural philosophy as an explanation. Reasonably, I think, because those are such difficult concepts to master and stories help in understanding them. In 1950 Edwin Schrödinger (quantum theory) and Albert Einstein (both relativities) wrote letters back and forth trying to work out the empirical nature of quantum theory. They were dealing with one main question: can a quantum effect have any impact on reality? Together they come up with an apparatus that uses a quantum effect (a 50% probability effect, the decay or non-decay of a single radioactive atom) which will cause a detector to trigger a mechanism that will kill a cat (the observable reality). This is what Schrödinger's Cat is all about. They arrive at no conclusion, other than to demonstrate the silliness of the superposition aspect of matrix mechanics and the vast preference for Schrödinger's wave mechanics. But alas, the damage was already done: natural philosophy could not be stopped by some letters.

We are back in the age of natural philosophers. Natural philosophers don't spend much time in observation, they tell others what should be happening. That's an important word, should. It's a moral word, not describing nature, but describing how we anticipate what will happen. Predictions are an important part of what you do with observations. Successful predictions indicate we have observed accurately and have done well in describing them. Shoulds work differently. Since the should is believed, any violation of the expectation is wrong, and wrong data can easily be ignored or modified to make it conform to the should. I see far too much "science" being done this way, certainly everything leaning into propaganda. Antinuclear, climate change, organic, eating bugs, fossil fuel use come immediately to mind. None of it supported by empiricists, but by natural philosophers, particularly when they make it out to those talking to the public, the activists. They are pure natural philosophers.

Mototaka Nakamura, a climate scientist for 25 years, realized in 2019 that they weren't doing science anymore when they modeled the climate and made their predictions. He wrote it up in Confessions of a Climate Scientist: The Global Warming Hypothesis is an unproven Hypothesis, published on Kindle ($0.99 at the time of writing, in Japanese with an English version embedded within). From 1990 - 2014 he worked on the driving mechanisms for medium-scale, large-scale, and planetary-scale flow in the atmosphere and oceans (mass and heat, mostly). He realized the importance of nonlinear fine-scale phenomena in large-scale processes that weren't being modeled, like the dynamics of cloud formation. He became skeptical of the "global warming hypothesis" because of the catastrophic predictions, not the measured temperatures, which he says remains at 0.5 degrees K higher in 2019. He thesis: "I am simply pointing out the fact that that it is impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy how the climate of the planet will change in the future." He attributes this impossibility to not knowing how the solar input will change, nor how man-made carbon dioxide output will change in the future. In other words, it's the non-measurable part of the model that bothers him. A lot. He is bothered by the lack of good data for global weather, using instead the limited regional weather (America, Europe, and India) as representative of the globe, when we have strong evidence that regional changes do not follow global patterns. So in the absence of empirical data, climate scientists have created theories (models; Nakamura calls them hypotheses) to do all the explaining, then trust those models above the empirical data. Climate scientists have become pure natural philosophers again, and like Aristotle, everything they say is wrong. Nakamura's short book is a good read on where the climate modeling fails, the largest being solar energy input and the total unpredictability of cloud cover. The author has left climate science, with this book accounting for what climate science is doing his last climate activity.

Scientific papers generally have four sections: introduction, experimental, results, and discussion. A hundred years ago the discussion section was the shortest by far. Now in every paper I read it is the longest, sometimes by far. It is the discussion section the Royal Society said not to trust. I think it can be thrown away; if the experiment is so poorly done and reported that the reader can't figure out by themselves what it means, then don't publish until it's done right. Subtle, difficult, needed-to-be-argued science isn't good science, it's propaganda for the authors lab. For heaven's sake don't publish that crap.

If the experiment is so poorly done and reported that the reader can't figure out by themselves what it means, then don't publish until it's done right. Subtle, difficult, needed-to-be-argued science isn't good science, it's propaganda for the authors lab.

Long live empirical science! Maybe this climate science thing will reveal the flaws and start a movement back to pure empiricism.



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