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poke comments on Reductive Reference - Less Wrong

20 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 April 2008 01:37AM

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Comment author: poke 04 April 2008 02:14:45AM 0 points [-]

Sister Y - I don't think there's any reason to privilege the sensory periphery of our brains over some other part of the situation. We might just as well start with the planet or the telescope as the eyeball peering through the telescope or the brain attached to that eyeball. I don't mean, precisely, that we take theory as a starting point either (or that our observations are always theory-laden); I mean to say we can start from the physical objects themselves as described in our best theories. We can start our inquiry outside of our own brain!

We can do this because we have no privileged knowledge of our brains over and above any other object in the world. If we reject the efficacy of introspection then there is no reason to privilege "the object as I see it" over "the object itself" as the starting point of inquiry. Science knows this. Science makes quantitative measurements; the interesting thing about quantitative measurements is that they work regardless of the details of our psychology. Our brains can represent the world arbitrarily and as long as we agree on a system of measurement we can still make measurements in the world.

Think of measuring length; we make marks along a length of material with arbitrary but equal spacing and as long as my marks match your marks we can talk about lengths. Similarly, our brains can represent those marks anyway they please and as long as my brain uses the same representations as your brain we can still talk about lengths. The same is true of time and, through extension, pressure, temperature, etc, all the way through to the data retrieved from particle accelerators. We can also do (limited) relative comparisons of qualitative data; we can talk about the similarities and dissimilarities of organisms, stellar objects, and so forth.

So I think, in this way, science is unaffected if we reject the efficacy of introspection (including the efficacy of our own sensory data). Since most arguments for the fallibility of science are premised on our sensory periphery having a privileged place in inquiry I also think those arguments are defeated. Whether science remains fallible is another matter entirely. For my own part, I take mathematics to be similar to measurement and the revolution in science due to Kepler and Galileo to be moving directly from measurement to mathematical abstraction, without the previous step of interpretation into a cultural framework (i.e., Aristotelianism). This, I think, leaves science fallible only in the case of human error.