Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Quiz Show

Update: OK, I realize that it's a little too hard as is, so I've added a few more hints at the end of the post.

I want to test your wits, but to do so you have to promise to play fair. As most folks know, I am something of an anti-realist about science (in a very loose sense of "anti-realism"), and I have blogged often about the relationship between theory and observation and how perspectives in the working scientist can influence that relationship (this was, indeed, a theme behind my most recent posts on the "verification" of the miraculous). I have come across various statements of this theme in a wide variety of authors, from the usual suspects such as Bas Van Fraassen and Paul Feyerabend to some less obvious but perhaps for that even more interesting suspects such as Ernst Cassirer and Pierre Duhem, but recently I came across a version of this theme in a writer in whom I was quite surprised to find it, and I am wondering if anyone will be able to guess who it is.

When I say you have to play fair, what I mean is this. I'm going to offer some quotations from this author relevant to this theme, and I want you to try to figure out who the author of these quotations is, but of course you could easily discover it simply by Googling these quotations, because this author is very famous--so famous, in fact, that I'm quite sure that you have all heard of this person and, indeed, I would be willing to bet money that all of you have read at least one book by this person. So to play this game I must ask that you not use Google or any other electronic resource. Instead, rely on your wits and, if possible, your memory, or perhaps your collection of books or a good library. But if you think you know who the author of these quotations is, let me know in a comment, and I will announce the winner (the first person to correctly identify the source) as soon as we have one.

Now, on to the game. Here are the quotations, all from relatively close together in the one book from which they are all drawn. At the end of the post I will give some hints.
In every age it will be apparent to accurate thinkers that scientific theories, being arrived at in the way I have described, are never statements of fact. That stars appear to move in such and such ways, or that substances behaved thus and thus in the laboratory--these are statements of fact. The astronomical or chemical theory can never be more than provisional. It will have to be abandoned if a more ingenious person thinks of a supposal which would 'save' the observed phenomena with still fewer assumptions, or if we discover new phenomena which it cannot save at all.

This would, I believe, be recognized by all thoughtful scientists today. It was recognized by Newton if, as I am told, he wrote not 'the attraction varies inversely as the square of the distance', but 'all happens as if' it so varied. It was certainly recognized in the Middle Ages. 'In astronomy', says Aquinas, 'an account is given of eccentrics and epicycles on the ground that if their assumption is made (hac positione facta) the sensible appearances as regards celestial motions can be saved. But this is not a strict proof (sufficienter probans) since for all we know they could also be saved by some different assumption.' The real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Galileo raised a storm, may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heaves but in 'a new theory of the nature of theory'.
Some hints. The author is no longer living. The author was an expert in a particular academic field but also wrote popular works, both in the author's own field and in other fields. As I have already mentioned, it is extremely likely that you have already read at least one of this author's books, and I imagine that it is also likely that the book that you read was a work of fiction.

Note, too, that there are still some scientists out there who seem to want to treat their "supposals" as facts. One thinks, for example, of Richard Dawkins, but there are others who do the same.

More hints: The author wrote, in addition to scholarly articles and books, in more than one genre of fiction, including science fiction and fantasy. One of these works was made into a movie, and the author was also the subject of a book that was turned into a movie.

18 comments:

DimBulb said...

Is this author recently dead? Is he best known for a short story which was turned into a famous movie? If so, I know the answer, but wont reveal it.

If I'm wrong? Well, I've had my wits tested before and been found wanting. "...nothing changes under the sun."

DimBulb said...

I forgot comment moderation is on, so I'll state my guess: Arthur C Clarke.

Michelle said...

Are we allowed to post our answers in the comments, or would that spoil the fun?!

Scott Carson said...

Yes, all answers can be posted in the comments, but as dim has noted, I have comment moderation on, so it may take a bit for the answers to appear.

Arthur C. Clarke is not correct, I'm afraid. The author in question died much longer ago (didn't Clarke just die yesterday, in fact?), though it was in my lifetime.

Like Clarke, however, the author was also born in the United Kingdom and wrote works of science fiction.

John Farrell said...

I was going to suggest Arthur Koestler, until you gave the 'more hints'...
Now I'm thinking C.S. Lewis.

DimBulb said...

Hmm, it can't be Heinlein (American) or Asimov (Russian).

Not being a sci-fi fan, I'm stumped.

John Farrell said...

Comment didn't seem to take. Here it is again.

I was going to say Arthur Koestler, until you gave more hints (killjoy!).

Now I'm guessing CS Lewis.

Tony M said...

Well, I 99.9% sure that the answer is Clive Staples ____. The only thing is, I never remember him using the term supposals. Other than that, the entire passage is virtually identical in tone and presentation to other things I have read in his works.

Apollodorus said...

Yes, Lewis, being clear for once. ;-)

But now a philosophical question: how should an anti-realist treat theoretical constructions? As good (or not) at saving the phenomena, and nothing else? Or as potentially true? Probably true? Something like true? The best shot so far? I ask because the sort of anti-realism that your passage outlines seems pretty irresistible, and if we follow it, it seems wrong to say that a theory is 'true' because successful, but perhaps even more wrong to say that it's 'false.' So what do we call it?

Also, how can one be a scientific anti-realist for the reasons that Lewis outlines without being a global anti-realist? Especially when one supplements his picture with the 'fact' (!) that observation and 'facts' are all theory-laden to begin with, it seems that we should be anti-realists about all varieties of metaphysics as well as about empirical science.

Michelle said...

CS Lewis for sure...the quote is from something about literature or reading??

Scott Carson said...

Well, John got the answer into the comments queue first, but I prefer to think that we're all winners.

Yes, it's C. S. Lewis, writing in his The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, published posthumously in 1964.

Apollodorus is our other winner, for seeing, and making explicit, the ramifications of the passage! I'm not sure that global anti-realism is a necessary entailment of the view we find adumbrated in Lewis, but I suppose that even if a temptation to some sort of global anti-realism were to follow from it, one could, as anti-realists are won't to do, tailor one's anti-realism to fit the domain, because as much as one may like to bandy about the term "global" it is still the case that anti-realism is homonymous.

cnb said...

Alas, I knew that it was Lewis when I read the passage, but I didn't get here early enough. The Discarded Image is one of his most interesting and illuminating books.

Scott Carson said...

I agree--I think it may be my very favorite book by Lewis!

SFMatheson said...

Too many hints. True confession: I wouldn't have guessed Lewis without them, because I haven't even heard of The Discarded Image but have read Miracles. I was going with Clarke or with Asimov, though I wasn't sure that Asimov was a scholar.

Scott Carson said...

It was a tough call, because I suspected that few would be able to tell just from the quotation alone, but I also knew that, if the right hint was given, it would be obvious to everybody. I guess I'm not a very good quiz show host.

DimBulb said...

I guessed it with the further hints in spite of the fact that I've never seen the movies or read anything he has written. I guess that means you went to the opposite extreme with the second series of hints.

Actually, I do recall reading an introduction he wrote to an edition of St Athanasius' ON THE INCARNATION.

Scott Carson said...

Actually, I do recall reading an introduction he wrote to an edition of St Athanasius' ON THE INCARNATION.

Whew, that was a close one! I was afraid I was going to lose my bet!

Since you must be just about the only person on the planet who hasn't read the Narnia books, I think you may as well put in an application at the Guinness book of Records. But give The Discarded Image a try--it really is a fascinating and stimulating book.

cnb said...

Granted, I'm returning to the table belatedly, but I thought I would link to some notes I wrote about The Discarded Image when I read it several years ago.