Sunday, September 12, 2010

McCaskey, Private Concerns, and Induction in the History of Science

There's been quite a bit of discussion revolving around the issues brought on by Dr. John McCaskey's recent resignation from both the Ayn Rand Institute's (ARI) Board of Directors, and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship.

My goal in this essay is to present my own views on the whole matter, particularly what I think was the import of Dr. McCaskey's critical comments of Mr. Harriman's book The Logical Leap, and to weigh in on the issues revolving induction that this series of events has sparked.

Thoughts on McCaskey's Resignation and Private Matters

I found out from a friend that John McCaskey, Ph.D., resigned from the ARI Board of Directors and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship on September 3rd. According to his resignation message on his website, he made the decision after Dr. Peikoff sent a letter to the Board which contained his evaluations of Dr. McCaskey’s view of Mr. Harriman’s book, The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics, his own view of Dr. McCaskey, and his ultimatum to the ARI.

Dr. Peikoff's letter, Dr. McCaskey's resignation message, and his Amazon review, are required reading for understanding this post. They can be found here:

Amazon Review

As I understand the history from reading his resignation message, Dr. McCaskey exchanged emails with David Harriman on issues regarding his book in progress, The Logical Leap (now published), including what he thought was a consistent problem with it. These emails were always privately discussed, and according to Dr. McCaskey, he never spoke about them to Dr. Peikoff. There was also a 2-1/2 day meeting in July between academics and professors (including Dr. McCaskey, but not the author, Mr. Harriman), where the members discussed issues surrounding the book's content; this was carried out with the understanding that they wouldn't discuss each other's views outside of the group until the speakers had time to "reflect upon, refine, write up and publish [the views]," as the resignation message states it. Between the July meeting and August 30th, someone violated the agreement, seemingly around the same time that Dr. Peikoff learned of Dr. McCaskey's emails to Harriman.

Dr. Peikoff believes that Dr. McCaskey is attacking Harriman's book, and in some way Dr. Peikoff's introduction to the book which praises it as an expression of Objectivist epistemology, and his lecture course "Induction in Physics and Philosophy." But I disagree: Dr. McCaskey says on his site that: "The historical accounts as presented [in The Logical Leap] are often inaccurate, and more accurate accounts would be difficult to reconcile with the philosophical point the author is claiming to make." Whether Harriman's historical narrative in his book is wrong or Dr. McCaskey's proposed revisions are mistaken wasn't really the point: the point of the emails and of the July meeting was to investigate ways that the book and theory could be improved. So if he thought Harriman erroneously used a scientific-historical narrative to reach a certain philosophical point, he was being helpful in pointing how the history of science might have actually occurred (backed up with scholarly publications), and then modified the philosophical point being made accordingly.

Whatever objections Dr. McCaskey made were tentative, made in an effort to help the author (whom wasn't present at the meeting) by offering criticisms of areas where the theory could be improved--they certainly were not firm, definitive judgments of Harriman's book. It was constructive criticism that may not even fully represent Dr. McCaskey's views, not an "attack." It would have been an attack to say: "Your theory is false, your historical record is bunk, etc." He clearly wasn't saying that. His criticism is an instructive point about being rigorous in one's research, and a suggestion that being objective here could mean reworking the theory, as it may conflict with the facts.

I haven't yet encountered any damning evidence which would justify the harsh treatment given to Dr. McCaskey. From his Amazon review, it appears to me that he was being helpful in general: Harriman's historical record is an important part of the book, as it integrates his theory with what scientists actually did. If that record is flawed (and Dr. McCaskey hasn't definitively said "yes" or "no" on this point), then it will hurt the theory: it will be too narrow to account for different historical records and different developments in the history of science, and will only be a partial theory or hypothesis as a result, if not outright contradicted. He offered the criticism so that Harriman would consider modifying his record (and/or his theory) to better account for what might have been the facts.

Most importantly, we should keep in mind that Dr. Peikoff made his judgment based on partial, out-of-context information about Dr. McCaskey's views. Dr. Peikoff seems to indicate that he hasn't read all of Dr. McCaskey's emails, and he must have heard about the July meeting from second-hand accounts. (Contrary to his description of the meeting as a "forum" in his letter to the Board, the meeting was not public, but private and confidential.) Because of the tentative nature of scholarly debate and discussion, and perhaps especially in email discussions which are often extemporaneously typed up, the views of the participants may change later, or they might offer an objection as a devil's advocate, etc., in other words, there could be a lot of factors involved; I'll note that my reading of Dr. McCaskey's resignation message gives me the impression that the ideas thrown about at the meeting were extemporaneous as well, and sometimes even "partly-baked," as Dr. McCaskey describes it. Given all this, it's my belief that Dr. Peikoff should have at least discussed these issues first-hand with Dr. McCaskey before taking any action, especially the drastic one he took.

(As an aside, but something that needs to be noted: this issue technically isn't about Objectivism. Objectivism does not have a theory of induction; rather, Objectivists who specialize in epistemology figure out ways to apply the philosophy to the area of induction. From the content of the Dr. Peikoff's letter, he seems to be reacting to his judgment that Dr. McCaskey thinks that either the way Harriman and himself applied the philosophy (i.e. his theory) is wrong, or that Objectivism is wrong due to its inadequacies in this area. Either reason appears good enough for Dr. Peikoff to deem a person unqualified for a position on the Ayn Rand Institute's Board. It should grab one's attention that this applies to not only public assertions of such judgments, which I could understand for obvious reasons like public image, but also for private judgments, such as those of Dr. McCaskey's. The implication of this is that any leadership role at the ARI would demand not just a commitment to advancing Objectivism in the culture (and beyond), but to Dr. Peikoff's theories as well.)

Issues Concerning Induction, the History of Science, and The Logical Leap

At the heart of this controversy are the issues raised by Dr. McCaskey in his emails and at the July meeting, a sample of which was presented to the public in his Amazon review. In his words, "[t]he historical accounts as presented [in The Logical Leap] are often inaccurate, and more accurate accounts would be difficult to reconcile with the philosophical point the author is claiming to make." The Amazon review makes it clear that he isn't 100% sure in every case whose interpretation of history's scientists are right, whether Harriman's or the scholars' who have produced works about those scientists. One case where Dr. McCaskey is correct seems clear-cut to me, however: how Galileo determined that all free bodies fall to the Earth at the same rate regardless of their material composition or weight.

On pages 43-44 of The Logical Leap, Harriman presents Galileo's discovery as the result of experiments with dropping balls of the same material but different weight (the first experiment), and balls of the same weight but different material (the second), and thus induced that the rate at which a body falls is independent of its weight or material. He goes on to say, "Imagine that he attempted to drop the lead or oak balls through water instead of air . . . . The result would not have led to any important discovery." (p. 43) Dr. McCaskey points out that Galileo considers the difference between dropping balls through air and through water as the heart of his discovery, rather than water being an uninteresting case. A read through the relevant passages of Galileo's Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences (Day One, 8: 110-116) shows that Dr. McCaskey is correct:
Salviati [the character representing Galileo]: [...]But tell me now whether the density [corpulenza] of the water, or whatever it may be that retards the motion [of bodies falling], bears a definite ratio to the density of air which is less retardative; and if so fix a value for it at your pleasure. (Galileo Galilei, Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences. Translated by Henry Crew and Alfonso de Salvio. The Macmillan Company, 1914. Day One, 8: 110-111. p. 66. First two brackets, and the fourth, are mine.)
I shall now take one of those bodies which fall in air but not in water, say a wooden ball, and I shall ask you to assign to it any speed you please for its descent through air. (ibid., 8: 111)
Indeed there appears to be a considerable antagonism between air and water as I have observed in the following experiment. (ibid., 8: 115)
Those passages show Galileo's fictional characters working through issues relating to the resistance of media in relation to falling objects, buoyancy, and how the speed of objects falling is affected by such phenomena, whether the effect is their being slowed down, quickened, or halted. Air and water are the crucial data Galileo discusses, and they are repeatedly brought up in the progression towards his probable conclusion about all falling bodies. It's examples like this that support Dr. McCaskey's point that, "[r]eaders of [The Logical Leap] should be aware that the historical accounts presented here often differ from those given by academic researchers working on the history of science and often by the scientists themselves."

From the Amazon review, the philosophical point that Dr. McCaskey may disagree with Harriman on is how concepts develop into inductive propositional generalizations. I'll quote Dr. McCaskey himself for the comparison of the two views:
Generally, scholars who try to recreate the development of scientific concepts in the minds of great scientists are struck by how successful these scientists are in making propositional generalizations while still forming--and often themselves never fully forming--the concepts that constitute the generalizations. The narrative these scholars present (using Harriman's metaphor, not theirs) is not that a fully formed concept comes into the mind of the scientist who then uses it as a green light to an inductive propositional generalization, but that a partly formed concept serves as a flickering greenish light to a partial generalization, which acts as a less flickering, somewhat greener light to a better concept, which in turn improves the generalization, which then improves the concept, and so on, until well-defined concepts and associated propositional generalizations emerge fully formed together (at which point, the subjectivist says, 'See, it's all just a matter of definitions.') Most scholars find the process of scientific progress less linear than Harriman indicates and much more iterative and spiral.
So, the difference is that Harriman presents in the book a linear approach to inductive generalization-formation—using a conceptual framework and reasoning (and experiment when applicable), one forms a concept, which acts as a "green light" to form the inductive generalization—whereas Dr. McCaskey highlights the fact that scholars in the history of science would say that the process by which scientists learn concepts is more of a iterative process. This view of new knowledge as iterative brought up in my mind a number of technical issues regarding how our reasoning impacts our concepts, and vice versa, such as whether or not this is related to the Objectivist idea of "reduction." It was because of my research that I learned about the Objectivist idea of a "spiral theory of knowledge."

The spiral theory of knowledge is a technical aspect of Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism. In the Objectivist view, all of one's knowledge should be tied together into an integrated sum, with the higher, more abstract knowledge resting on the lower-level knowledge, and with one's perceptual knowledge as the base. The spiral theory is the idea that gaining new knowledge is a process of rising from the perceptual level to higher abstractions to form concepts, and them moving back down to the perceptual level to validate, apply, and refine those concepts.

(For anyone still not sure what this "spiral theory" is all about, see this lengthy, but very informative post on examples of the spiral theory from Montessori teacher Dr. Deborah Knapp.)

Ayn Rand used this "spiral" method to clarify a number of concepts in her philosophy: her simple definition of "concept" which she later develops and defines as resulting from a process of abstraction she named "measurement-omission"; her non-sophisticated concept of "egoism" which lead to her technical theory of "rational egoism/selfishness"; her general definition of "government" which produced the only justified sort of government, one which respected individual rights; and her concept of value (as being the object of one's actions) resulting in Rand's technical conclusion regarding the nature of life and the objectivity of value.

In Dr. Peikoff's lecture course "Objectivism Through Induction," he frequently makes the claim that understanding Objectivism requires reaching non-philosophical concepts and inductions about a variety of issues in life before one can truly induce the principles of Objectivism themselves. This means that one reaches a non-philosophical account of "egoism," for instance, and after gaining more knowledge, one can then spiral back to this non-philosophical knowledge, integrate it with more of your knowledge, and thus reach the Objectivist understanding of egoism inductively. When all of your knowledge is integrated, new knowledge has implications for your old knowledge, and it redounds on it and strengthens it, leading to a new integration.

Even David Harriman implicitly refers to this "spiral theory":
I began this section by emphasizing that philosophy is the foundation of the specialized sciences, and yet now I have emphasized that some crucial philosophic knowledge is induced from the history of those sciences. Both points are true and consistent with one another. One must have the essentials of a this-worldly, rational approach in order to discover specialized knowledge; then, once a significant amount of such knowledge has been discovered, one can reflect on the process and come to a more explicit understanding of method. (p. 239)
As the "spiral theory" has so many applications in learning about Objectivism, why wasn't this idea discussed in The Logical Leap? My point in bringing all this up is because these are technical, scholarly questions about induction that should have been raised and answered, not brushed aside.

There are other issues as well:

How does induction relate to the spiral theory of knowledge, and how does the spiral theory relate to the case of concepts formed by a method of induction?

What is the relationship between induction, mistaken concepts, and the principle in The Logical Leap that "induction is self-corrective"?

What is the difference between forming a predicate concept (burns, rolls, is red, is hot) and forming a universal proposition? Is a theory of propositions needed to validate a theory of induction?

Does Aristotle's distinction of a nominal ("in name only") definition and that of a causal definition have any bearing on this issue? What is its relation to how Rand would define, analyze, and then causally redefine a concept?

There are other questions to ask, but I merely wanted to indicate how I would approach Dr. McCaskey's criticisms and how I am approaching Harriman's book: with critical thinking about the claims made by all sides, and my own understanding of the issues I think we would need to solve in order to reach a fully valid theory of inductive reasoning. Tackling these issues is the means to working out such a theory, and in my view, Dr. McCaskey was helping Mr. Harriman to make the book a stronger product than it was. It is a real shame that such an attempt at providing help seems to have been construed as an attack and a denunciation in Dr. Peikoff's view.

1 comment:

  1. As a counter-point: