Asteroids, Cathode Rays & Requisite Knowledge, II

Image source: tutornext.com

Yesterday we talked about asteroids, and the fact that “there’s no evidence for X” type claims are often made amidst the very evidence being denied. We also discussed the interesting truth that an unjustified claim is not necessarily untrue. Today, let’s continue with another example from science’s history to discuss what counts for evidence, when our beliefs are justified, and the extent to which we can lean on either as an epistemological security blanket. Let’s discuss cathode rays!

It’s en vogue to associate 1859 with Darwin, but I like to remember that year for physicist Julius Plücker, who noticed that a strange, green phosphorescence gathered around the negative electrode (cathode) of his tubed apparatus whenever he applied current to the positive electrode (anode). Based on his observations, Plücker reasoned that something was being emitted by the cathode, and a decade later his student—Johan Wilhelm Hittorf—demonstrated that objects placed between the cathode and an interior wall cast shadows. This led to the more specific conclusion that whatever was being emitted by the cathode traveled in straight lines.

Two mutually-exclusive hypotheses soon emerged and physicists found themselves divided. The first camp supported the hypothesis that cathode rays were atoms or gas molecules inside the tube that had become negatively charged. The second camp supported the hypothesis that cathode rays were not particles at all, but waves that moved through ether. In 1883, physicist Heinrich Hertz produced cathode rays inside an apparatus containing an electrometer, which did not register any charge. Of that experiment, Hertz said,

As far as the accuracy of the experiment allows, we can conclude with certainty that no electrostatic effect due to the cathode rays can be perceived.
-Heinrich Hertz

Now, I appreciate the way Hertz worded that: it sounds like what we’d expect from any responsible scientist. Notice that unlike my high school biology teacher, he’s not taken facts and twisted them into agenda, dogma or premature conclusion. Rather, he simply stated nothing more and nothing less than what the results of the experiment allowed: as far as the accuracy of the experiment permits—IOW, proceeding on faith that the results were in fact accurate—scientists were able to justifiedly conclude the absence of an electrostatic effect.

The history of physics testifies to how wrong they were, regardless of whatever methodological certainty they felt justified their beliefs! There was an electrostatic effect being generated, even in Hertz’ experiment; it’s just that the electrometer Hertz used could not detect that effect. Regardless of however responsibly stated Hertz’ conclusion was, the body of requisite knowledge was insufficient, this time in the form of insufficient technology, which led to a false negative result.

Another decade or so passed, and British physicist J.J. Thomson repeated Hertz’ experiment in 1897. He initially obtained the same results. However, in that short decade, knowledge and technology had evolved such that Thomson could lower the air pressure inside the apparatus more than Hertz was able to do in 1883. Sure enough, Thomson detected what Hertz was literally unable to detect: the strange “cathode rays” showed clear lines of deviation towards the anode, which Thomson concluded as proof not only that they were charged particles, but negatively charged particles.

Today, it’s common knowledge that what Plücker and Hittorf and Hertz and Thomson referred to as “cathode rays” are not rays at all, but negatively charged subatomic particles more commonly referred to as electrons. Yet, during the time they were thought of as cathode rays, that belief—untrue as it was—was a justified belief, backed by repeatable experiments according to every principle of induction and falsification that scientists use today.

So, what’s the lesson to learn here, and what is the larger analogy in discussions of (a)theism?

There exists a certain subset of atheists and skeptics who lean with great confidence on the impression that each and every stepping stone of their philosophies constitute justified beliefs, but as the case of cathode rays demonstrates, beliefs deemed “justified” on account of repeatable experiments has nothing to do with whether those beliefs are in fact true. In fact, I’ll go out on an epistemological limb here, and provisionally argue that there is no objective, undeniable reason to prefer justified beliefs over unjustified ones: justified beliefs often prove false (as did belief in cathode rays), and unjustified beliefs often prove true (as did belief in asteroids). Court-of-law arguments would be a notable exception.

So, besides the obvious psychological self-soothing, what do we really gain to say that our beliefs are justified, if the quality of being justified is no reliable indicator of truth?

11 Comments

  1. John Morales says:

    You touch on the Gettier problem here.

    So, besides the obvious psychological self-soothing, what do we really gain to say that our beliefs are justified, if the quality of being justified is no reliable indicator of truth?

    Pragmatism teaches us that justified beliefs are more reliable than unjustified beliefs. Thus the requirement for ID cards, credit ratings and courtroom evidence.

  2. cl says:

    Pragmatism teaches us that justified beliefs are more reliable than unjustified beliefs.

    Yet, justified beliefs often turn out to be false, while unjustified beliefs often turn out to be true. So, what’s the basis for the claim that “justified beliefs are more reliable,” and can you precisely quantify “more reliable” for me?
    People pass fraudulent claims with ID cards, credit ratings and courtroom evidence rather frequently, and it’s often our faith in what we call “justified belief” that precludes further investigation, which leads to error. How many people have ceded their rights and/or property to phony police officers, precisely because a badge was presented?

  3. D says:

    cl, I’m all the way with you up until you ask what the lesson is. Even on the faith part, with “faith” here meaning “trust” rather than “hope” or “belief firmly held beyond reason.” (Brief aside: though many individuals may in fact have firmly held the belief beyond reason, only the trust is necessary to arrive at the conclusion. The rational person will form a conditional belief based on some level of confidence in that trust, and eschew such firmly held beliefs beyond the bounds of reason as superfluous.) Also, the key word in the phrase “proceeding on faith that the results were in fact accurate” is “results.”
    You state in your reply to John that “justified beliefs often turn out to be false, while unjustified beliefs often turn out to be true.” My agreement hinges on what exactly you mean by the word “often.” If we get properly philosophical with Hertz’s conclusion, it ought to have been phrased in terms of “in light of these results, given the conditions, the most likely explanation we can come up with is [blah blah blah].” That was true. It’s still true, given the facts of their time (as we understand them, so far, etc.). The conclusion itself happened to be false, but it will always be true that it was the best available explanation given the body of facts as accumulated at that point.
    I’m not after “truth.” I’d need second order knowledge to know I’ve got it, which I can’t get, so I’m not interested. I’m after increasingly likely explanations. Again, I don’t just want answers, I want understanding. I want to build a model of reality, and if you’re saying that God is real, then you’re saying that my model of reality is incomplete without him. I’m open to that idea, but please show me where God fits in the explanation of “all of reality,” and how you propose to know that it’s God, and what I can do to check your ideas for myself to see if they bear any relationship at all to reality.
    Otherwise, again, all you’ve got is a nice coherent story that lacks demonstrable correspondence. I make no claims to infallibility, I’m just saying that I try to form my beliefs after demonstrable correspondence has been integrated into a coherent story. The great part is that all you need to do is show me how I can see for myself that your beliefs do in fact correspond to reality, and then I can go about making sure that this demonstration coheres with the rest of my beliefs (revising as needed). Both coherence and correspondence are needed, otherwise you’ve got mere nice stories, or floating abstractions.

  4. D says:

    Oh! Also! (Dammit, I need an “edit” button!)
    If you think your methods of belief formation are better than mine (if they do in fact differ, I don’t know), then please outline what they are and why you think they’re better. I’m also interested in that.

  5. MS Quixote says:

    You guys really have some great dialogue going here & in some of the previous posts.
    D, I’m interested in how you demonstrate the correspondence of your principle: “Both coherence and correspondence are needed, otherwise you’ve got mere nice stories, or floating abstractions.”

  6. John Morales says:

    So, what’s the basis for the claim that “justified beliefs are more reliable,” and can you precisely quantify “more reliable” for me?

    You seem to want me to, um, justify this belief to you.
    Why would you want that, other that you too consider justified beliefs more reliable?

  7. D says:

    MS Quixote,
    I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. It sounds like you’re asking me to “demonstrate the truth” of “a definition of truth.” That’s rather like asking me to “solve” the problem of induction, to use reasoning processes to show why we should buy into reasoning processes. You’re asking me to beg my own question, and, uhh… not gonna fall for it.
    See, “truth” is a word that humans made up. I’m just offering a definition of what I mean by that word. Definitions are stipulative, not demonstrative. Here is where I first laid this out in my dialogue with cl:

    So yeah, finally, on truth: there are two prevailing theories of truth in philosophical circles, the correspondence theory of truth and the coherence theory of truth. To steal Scotlyn’s turn of phrase and boil a whole lot of argy-bargy down to one sentence, “correspondence” means “is the case in reality,” and “coherence” means “is consistent with the greater body of true propositions.” I couldn’t tell you why this is a serious debate if you put a gun to my head, because both are important to me: true things ought to correspond to reality, I think, and true things also ought to cohere with one another. I think if either one of those is lacking, then you don’t have truth; and if you can only get one but not both, then any claims to truth are suspect. So when I check to see if something is or is not the case, I’m satisfying the correspondence quotient; when I integrate that bit of knowledge with the rest of my knowledge, I’m roughly checking for coherence. They both matter.

    cl seems to agree, and he also pointed out the difficulty in sussing this stuff out. That’s what we’re trying to do here: we’re going through the whole song and dance of argumentation. But my theory of truth is something that he agreed to, and so we’re just saying, “Great,” and moving on to things where we disagree. If you have a better definition of truth, I’d love to hear it!

  8. MS Quixote says:

    “You’re asking me to beg my own question, and, uhh… not gonna fall for it.”
    Come on D, give me a bit more credit than that, as I am to you. I’m already assuming we’re both two steps further along on this discussion. The rules of inference will for the most part qualify as self-evident propositions, whereas your definition of truth does not. I’m certain you have good reasons to believe in its utility as a governing thought principle or as a pragmatic tool of discovery; however, I was mainly interested as to whether you believed your principle had any genuine correspondence in reality, or not, from either demonstrable or ideologic lines. I think your reply has confirmed in the negative on that score.
    “See, “truth” is a word that humans made up.”
    Literally correct, in its restricted sense, but if you attempt to develop it into what I think you mean by it, you would require the same correspondence you’re demanding on other counts to be consistent, don’t you think?
    “I’m just offering a definition of what I mean by that word. Definitions are stipulative, not demonstrative.”
    OK, but certainly you’d agree I can offer definitions of truth to which you’d demand correspondence, right? (and coherence for that matter, given your earlier statements) What do you consider the guideline for when and when not correspondence is required?
    “That’s what we’re trying to do here: we’re going through the whole song and dance of argumentation.”
    Yes, I’m following quite well and down with the philosophy involved. I don’t need to butt in; I just wanted to know how you would respond to that particular question. No worries and no parlor tricks from this end–you’re way up there on the Quixote respect scale, FWIW…but this principle is a belief of yours and you did say “I’m just saying that I try to form my beliefs after demonstrable correspondence has been integrated into a coherent story…”

  9. D says:

    @ MS Quixote: I think maybe we ought to start over. cl and I did, and it took a while to hash out our starting points, and I think we’ve become very good friends because of it. So let me briefly come out of the closet to you.
    I’m a capital-S Skeptic, one of those weirdos who doubts everything, including my own ability to apprehend reality. However, because of the fact that my Skepticism precludes me from endorsing solipsism, I trust that other people are intelligent agents in their own right, and I seek to learn what I can from them. Pro tip: this includes you! So, when you say:

    I’m already assuming we’re both two steps further along on this discussion.

    Maybe, maybe not. Even if we are – which steps, precisely? Maybe this is old hat to you, and if so, then please indulge me – but while I agree that the rules of inference are self-evident, I’m curious as to why you think they are. For my part, if I did not accept them, then I would be paralyzed by doubt. I’m not willing to be paralyzed by my own mind, so I simply go and do and be and so forth; I walk in doubt. I also accept that I might be wrong at any step of the way, but inferences seem like they work, and other people seem to think so as well (and so those folks are worth talking to because we have a starting point from which to argue), and so I take inference for granted. How about you?
    So, I hope you can understand, I’m a bit confused as to why you think I ought to demonstrate the truth of my definition of a made-up word. That’s just what I think “truth” means, in light of my philosophical studes. When you get right down to it, that’s the conclusion I was more or less forced to accept. If you have a different definition, or a different theory of truth, then I’m interested in what you think. We can hash it out from there. But I don’t believe in a vacuum – nobody does. I acknowledge the fact that who I am is shaped by my environment, and that includes other persons, such as cl and yourself.

    …I can offer definitions of truth to which you’d demand correspondence, right?

    Now that you mention it – I don’t know! And I’m interested as to what you’ve got. What’s your theory of truth? I do have a guideline for when correspondence is required: it’s for when you want to say that it’s reasonable/rational/etc. to believe in this-or-that thing. If you’ve got some answers, I’d love to hear them – just know that all I’ve got is questions.
    Full Disclosure: Socrates is my hero, and I’m a total slut for the Socratic method of questioning. The difference is that while “mere” sophists use it only to weaken the position of their opponents, I’m actually interested in wrapping my head around answers – I just have no respect for the answers themselves, I only respect what understanding those answers may confer in relation to the questions that never stop being asked.
    Anyway, the upshot of all this is: let’s dance! I hope you’re having a great one!

  10. MS says:

    “@ MS Quixote: I think maybe we ought to start over.”
    No problem, D, but this is not to suggest that there is any hard feelings from which we would need to reset that I’m aware of. My first question for you would be to ask why you’re writing your novel in present tense :) I’ve read nearly the entire thing; did I miss the reason for the tense? Is it germane to the theme or something?
    “I’m a capital-S Skeptic, one of those weirdos who doubts everything, including my own ability to apprehend reality.”
    Yes, I gathered that from your blog. Sans theism, I am as well, being drawn by the lure of continental philosophy and its continual questioning of just how, and if, we apprehend and process phenomena with any degree of accuracy. I think we have some common ground there, which is quite rare with atheists, and I suppose theists as well, who these days tend to be extremely analytic in their approach to atheism. I don’t understand this because their case is much stronger outside of analytic philosophy, IMO. My guess is threefold: one, they’re honestly persuaded by it; two, they want to retain some of the better parts of theism that an analytic approach engenders; and three, non-quantum science is such an uncomfortable bedfellow with continental philosophy. Just guesses, though…
    “Even if we are – which steps, precisely?”
    That was just to say that I recognize that you seem fluent in the concepts involved, so in reaction to your original comment I didn’t want you thinking I was attempting to make you “fall” for something or another. I really asked for my own reasons, similar to what you’re getting at in your Pro tip.
    “but while I agree that the rules of inference are self-evident, I’m curious as to why you think they are.”
    Self-evident means self-evident, right? A self-evident truth is true in all possible worlds, regardless of what I think about it. It can be no other way. So when you say:
    “For my part, if I did not accept them, then I would be paralyzed by doubt. I’m not willing to be paralyzed by my own mind, so I simply go and do and be and so forth; I walk in doubt.”
    I disagree. I don’t think you can doubt without them. Your doubts are formed or engaged by rules of inference, and in that manner they undergird your doubt. Perhaps we could say they’re more fundamental than doubt. So, yes, I take most inference for granted, but also as a necessary condition for thought and for how whatever is must be.
    “So, I hope you can understand, I’m a bit confused as to why you think I ought to demonstrate the truth of my definition of a made-up word.”
    Don’t you find a huge assumption in the phrase “made up word?” And, no, I don’t think you’re confused at all…I think you know exactly what you are claiming :)
    But, yeah, if you have a governing principle aimed at detecting or identifying truth–whatever that word may mean to you–I think it’s important that the system itself abide by its own principle. It seems a bit too loose to me otherwise. Take classic foundationalism, for instance. It’s not self evident, incorrigible, or readily apparent to the senses; hence, it’s not properly basic. Thus, by its own standard it would require a framework of justification built upon one or more of those basic beliefs to quality as rational/justified/warranted under its own standard.
    Otherwise, we’re into the netherworld of deconstructionism that you and I both want to avoid so we can actually have this conversation.
    “Now that you mention it – I don’t know!”
    Well, yeah, if I defined truth as a relation to God, you’d probably ask for a demonstration of correspondence, I’m guessing.
    “What’s your theory of truth?”
    Correspondence, but in reading your last couple of comments, I think you’ve brought something very wise forward: that if a truth corresponds, it should most likely cohere as well. Thanks for that one.
    “I do have a guideline for when correspondence is required: it’s for when you want to say that it’s reasonable/rational/etc.”
    That’s what I figured, and I was just applying some skepticism to the claim. You should be OK with that, right? :)
    “The difference is that while “mere” sophists use it only to weaken the position of their opponents,”
    I really have a lot of respect for this particular sentence, D, and for your comment in general. While we’re opponents I suppose in the worldview sense, there’s no reason we have to argue at all times. Again, I didn’t draw you into this to argue, I just wanted to know how you would answer that first question, and we can leave it at that. It is nice to be able to have reasonable atheists/skeptics/agnostics/naturalists to dialogue with, without having to argue, call names, etc.
    FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a Calvinist.
    I do really like my featherless biped friend Plato, though. Does that help?

  11. MS says:

    ‘No problem, D, but this is not to suggest that there is any hard feelings”
    Substitute “are” please.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *