Reading Time: 4 minutes


For a long time, science has operated on the assumption that nature is ruled by causality. What this means, however, is by no means clear to philosophers, and has become a major philosophical debate during the 20th century. Wittgenstein is one of the more prominent skeptics. He argues in the Tractatus that when we scientifically explain something, we try to establish links between one event and another. But are the different states of the world really linked at all? Furthermore, how recognizable are these links, if they existed?

Consider the Gambler’s fallacy: People expect certain outcomes based on past events, even if there is no relationship at all. After five coin tosses with heads-up, what would you expect the next one to be? If a truly random sequence of events would show no patterns, would it still be random? How do we distinguish between randomness, statistical correlation, and causality?

Most philosophers of science maintain that theories prove themselves by being experimentally confirmed (Verificationism). Karl Popper argued against this assumption in his “Logic of Scientific Discovery,” 1934. He proposes faslificationism instead, and his argument is quite similar to the propositions from Wittgenstein.

Popper argued that all science is based on hypotheses that must be tested to destruction. Sound evidence which does not fit with the hypothesis must logically cause it to be rejected. Since no hypothesis can ever be fully proven, only falsified, science remains a hypothetical project: Theories are considered true as long as they work, but eventually, they will get replaced through something entirely different, akin to a paradigm shift (Thomas Kuhn.)

The project of modern science has had phenomenal success, but deeper reflection shows that we have no idea why it works, and what reality really is. Consequently, even the bureaucratic organization of modern science, i.e. universities and their departments, is a result of history and pragmatism, rather than insight into the organization of reality.

Wittgenstein:

5.135 There is no possible way of making an inference from the existence of one situation to the existence of another entirely different situation.

5.136 There is no causal nexus to justify such an inference.

5.1361 We cannot infer the events of the future from those of the present. Belief in the causal nexus is superstition.


Timothy Morton: The Ecological Thought: We no longer live within a horizon (did we ever?). We no longer live in a place where the sun comes up and goes down, no matter how much some philosophers insist that we experience things that way. We’ve lost a sense of the significance of events that appear on horizons (did we ever have them?)


Alasdair MacIntyre: The central epistemological problems of philosophy do not arise primarily from within philosophy at all, but from the recurrence in every area of human thought and practice of rival interpretations, and rival types of interpretation, of events and actions. It is for this reason that every academic discipline is to some degree ineliminably philosophical. The literary critic, the historian and the physicist presuppose, even when they do not explicitly defend, solutions or partial solutions to the problems of representation and justification. Shakespeare and Proust, Macaulay and Charles Beard, Galileo and Bohr cannot be read and responded to adequately without epistemological inquiries and commitments. Moreover, the philosophical problems and solutions in each particular area have a bearing on those in other areas; often enough, indeed, they are the very same problems. Hence the need for a synoptic and systematic discipline concerned with the overall problems of justification and representation.

(1 “Alasdair MacIntyre on the claims of philosophy,” London Review of Books, Vol. 2 No. 11, pp. 15–16.)


John von Neumann: The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work. 


Heinz von Foerster: I don’t know where my expertise is; my expertise is no disciplines. I would recommend to drop disciplinarity wherever one can. Disciplines are an outgrowth of academia. In academia you appoint somebody and then in order to give him a name he must be a historian, a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, a biophysicist; he has to have a name. Here is a human being: Joe Smith — he suddenly has a label around the neck: biophysicist. Now he has to live up to that label and push away everything that is not biophysics; otherwise people will doubt that he is a biophysicist. If he’s talking to somebody about astronomy, they will say “I don’t know, you are not talking about your area of competence, you’re talking about astronomy, and there is the department of astronomy, those are the people over there,” and things of that sort. Disciplines are an aftereffect of the institutional situation.

[Von Foerster (1995) “Interview Heinz von Foerster” S. Franchi, G. Güzeldere, and E. Minch (eds) in: Constructions of the Mind Volume 4, issue 2. 26 June 1995]

Carl Sagan: We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.


Adorno/Horkheimer:

Myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology.

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant.

Adorno/Horkheimer: Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1947