ScienceSkepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 12.17.08

Last week, during the AI about the cognitive and emotional abilities of animals, we talked about Alex, the African Grey Parrot that Dr. Irene Pepperberg worked with for 30 years in an attempt to demonstrate that science currently undervalues the abilities of the avian brain.

I just read Dr. Pepperberg’s book, Alex & Me, and it’s an interesting read, from the POV of an animal lover, a scientist, and/or a skeptic.  But scrutiny of her methods and accomplishments aside, she brought up an interesting topic: the possibility that we may “know” certain things that can’t be proven with science.

Although she was able to demonstrate with some level of scientific merit the ability of Alex to identify shapes, colors, materials, same vs. different, and the concept of “zero”, she also witnessed in him a higher level of consciousness, that was too spontaneous to replicate with trials.  For example, he refused to call an apple an apple, preferring instead to call it a “banerry”, which she interpreted to be a neologism of banana and cherry, due to the apple’s round red appearance, and soft yellow pulp.  She also witnessed in him the emotions of guilt, sadness, and intimacy toward her, and rivalry (almost bullying) between he and the baby parrot, Griffin.  Over-interpretation by Dr. Pepperberg, or valid conclusion?

Non-parrot-related examples of things we may just “know” might include…love, right & wrong (basic morality), good, evil, etc.

Are there some things that you just “know” from your experience, that can’t be proven with science?

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46 Comments

  1. Umm… No. Call me a reductionist but even things like love and morality are explainable by science. But I would never claim to ‘know’ something that has no basis in evidence (at least not intentionally).

  2. The person counting change down to the penny in front of me in the store only counts them when in front of me.

    They count slower when I am in a rush.

    That attractive person at the bar is more attractive as you drink more…Oh wait I think that has been proven with science.

  3. I wonder how many of the non-scientific things we supposedly “know” we don’t know after all, instead having only excessive confidence due to small sample sizes and sampling bias. If the first flush of true love were actually as wonderful and perfect as we “know” it to be, then poetry would not exist.

  4. I tend towards existentialism, so I hope y’all allow me to be pedantic for a moment.

    I think consciousness itself is something that we just ‘know’, not in the ‘brain activity a correlates to behaviour b’ kind of way, but in the subjective sense. While we may eventually have adequate neurochemical and physiological explanations and understanding for all of consciousness , that itself is inadequate to COMPLETELY describe what we are subjectively experiencing.

    While we have words that, because of common experiences, cultural meanings, movies…etc, give us an approximation for these states – like Jealousy, or Fury , or attraction, those words in themselves are just interpersonal placeholders for something that we can only every experience first-hand within our own subjectivity, and therefore those experiences themselves are somewhat beyond a complete explanation or understanding. How can I be absolutely sure that when I bring up a concept like ‘Loyalty’, you are completely aware of everything I mean when I say it, without you directly experiencing my consciousness with me?

    In other words, the very act of ‘knowing’, in the most complete possible sense of the term, is something that must necessarily rest beyond the objective realm of science, as the scientific understanding of these concepts does not tread into the subjective realm of our heads.

  5. I wouldn’t say there’s anything that I “just know” that can’t be proven with science. I think it’s more a matter of some things being so subjective that it’s currently impossible to quantify them such that they would stand up to scientific scrutiny.

    For example, I know I experience sadness. I can see other people behaving in a way that implies they experience sadness but I can’t know for certain that what they experience is what I experience. It’s possible that parrots experience sadness but it’s also possible that human observers are misinterpreting their behavior as sadness. Until someone invents a reliable funkometer, it’s all just conjecture.

  6. And, we might add, science is not about knowing things for sure. It is not even restricted to propositions we establish “for all practical purposes” or “beyond all reasonable doubt”. Before a proposition reaches that level of establishment — before it can enter the hallowed hall inhabited by “life evolved” and “matter is made of atoms” — it must survive intense scrutiny and receive support from multiple lines of evidence. We ratchet up our confidence in an idea when the evidence warrants doing so; until that day, we live with a degree of uncertainty.

    Part of the scientific approach is the art of living with incomplete information.

  7. Hm, there’s a bit of a difference, I think, between “proven” and “explained”, and I think that holds the key.

    I don’t think there’s anything concrete that science can’t eventually explain. As science progresses, the realm of philosophy diminishes.

    I think where science can fail us is in the realm of of the non-concrete — the qualitative, the subjective. Science might be able to explain why I find a particular piece of art moving, and perhaps even the motivation behind the artist choosing to create it (theoretically, at least). But science can’t prove that the art is beautiful. The best science can hope for is to figure out how likely it is that certain individuals or groups will find it beautiful.

    This is not a failing — in order to be so good at discovering, explaining, and proving the concrete, science must be “imperfect” in this way.

    The end result is that while the realm of philosophy shrinks, but I doubt that it will disappear.

  8. Having hung out in the skeptical and atheist blogospheres for a while, I feel I have a pretty good intuition for how internet skeptics and atheists think, but I don’t have much (rather, nothing at all) in the way of systematic evidence for my intuitions. I don’t claim to “know” my intuition is reliable, but I sure think it is.

  9. @autotroph: But science can’t prove that the art is beautiful. The best science can hope for is to figure out how likely it is that certain individuals or groups will find it beautiful.

    ——————

    So, to your mind “is beautiful” has a different meaning than “people will find this beautiful”, or “I find this beautiful”?

    I know the emotional states of people on an intuitive level. I know when people are angry or happy and can sometimes tell if people are lying about their emotional state. I can’t measure these things because I don’t have the equipment and I’m not sure if we actually have good measuring techniques. I don’t think that this stuff is beyond science, its just not something that we have good science for at the moment, or at least not that I have good science for at the moment.

    But I think that any technique applied to humans could be applied to Alex. Because “happy” is pretty darn arbitrary. All that means is “he acts this way when this is going on in his brain and he will seek out things that make him act this way” or something like that. I don’t know if anyone’s subjective experience of happiness mirrors my own, really.

  10. Sometimes the certainty and self righteousness of some people gets under my skin, and I stop feeling like I know anything, really.

    But if there’s anything of which, under any circumstances, I can be absolutely sure, it’s this; I know almost nothing, and that will never change. That’s just fine with me. It means I’ll never stop learning.

    Also, I don’t think that as scientific knowledge grows, the room for philosophy diminishes. Perhaps the fantastic concepts like the literal existence of a “world of ideas” will fade away in time, but there is always room for philosophy.

  11. @sethmanapio: I know the emotional states of people on an intuitive level. I know when people are angry or happy and can sometimes tell if people are lying about their emotional state.

    ———–

    Not that this is a special ability or anything. Obviously, pretty much every human being on earth has an emotional sense. So do dogs and apparently African Gray Parrots.

  12. There are plenty of things that I ‘know’ in the sense that in practice I trust upon them to be as I believe them to be.
    I haven’t formally put the majority of them to the test – there is simply too much to do in life.
    But there isn’t one which I wouldn’t indulge in at least one solid test of if given good reason.
    You’d be hard pressed to give me a good reason to challenge my belief in gravity – that one has done a good job of being 100% reliable over the past 39 years… and to the best I can tell, all time previous to that.
    But when a year ago it was suggested that my faith in echinacea was based upon thin evidence and I couldn’t back it up… well whaddaya know!? Now if I could just get my girlfriend to follow her own similar thread of logic.

  13. On second thought, maybe “funkometer” isn’t a good name for a sadness measuring device, since it could just as easily be a device for measuring grooviness or smelliness. Maybe it could do all three, with a selector knob to indicate which funk you’re looking for.

  14. @Steve DeGroof:

    I know I experience sadness. I can see other people behaving in a way that implies they experience sadness but I can’t know for certain that what they experience is what I experience. It’s possible that parrots experience sadness but it’s also possible that human observers are misinterpreting their behavior as sadness.

    What Steve said.

    I’m not convinced that many of Pepperberg’s accounts of her bird aren’t just a lot of wishful thinking. Seems to me she saw way more in him than others did.

    But I suppose it’s human nature to occasionally convince ourselves of things for purely emotional or egotistical reasons. We “just know” things without proof because sometimes we need to.

    And of course I’m subject to that by virtue of being human, although at the moment I can’t think of a specific thing that I’m willing to say I just know.

  15. Philosophy and science are not mutually exclusive. There is no reciprocal relationship between then that requires one to shrink while the other grows.

    Philosophy helps us to achieve a deeper understanding of the social significance and general prospects of scientific discoveries and their technical applications.

    More germane to the point, what we ‘know’ is just a series of improving best guesses at what will happen based on a layered history of observations of what has happened before. What has been ”proven” is to me just a more rigorous way of getting to the same place — what our best guess is as to what will happen based on what has happened before.

    To answer the question, I would think that the intersection of instinctively ‘knowing’ and rigorously ‘proving’ would dictate the degree to which this question can be answered in the positive.

    Which I suppose leaves me at: is everything testable? At any given snapshot in time the answer is no. Ergo, the answer would have to be in the negative.

  16. @wytworm “Philosophy and science are not mutually exclusive.”

    First thing that came to mind when I read this:
    “I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”

  17. I know what I like in art and music and I know certain diagnoses immediately as well. But I think all of these things, as diverse as they seem, can be explained by pattern recognition within the brain. Experience creates a template, that template can be neurologically explained. When experience matches a template – WHAM! – we know. In medicine, if I “know” something , I always go through the diagnostic steps to confirm my immediate impression because the cost of being wrong is too high ( and damn it … sometimes I’m wrong ), but with art and music I can appropriately be carried away with emotion, no matter the underlying science that explains it.

  18. I “just know” that other people have similar subjective experiences to me – love, hate, sadness, empathy, whatever. I believe to a lesser extent dogs do too. Cats a bit less. Dick Cheney – not at all.

  19. I seem to get in a bad habit of getting into a pissing match with the question, but I think this is kind of a good instance. People asserting that science can’t explain something are usually picturing lab coats, beakers, and acres of equations, and sure, some thing aren’t really ameniable to that kind of inquiry. But is there a class of information that doesn’t improve from repeated examination and comparison of trials, taking a stab at a predictive model, trying to eliminate biases, asking for the opinion of other qualified people, and the like? None that comes to mind. In the case of this parrot, the compound word is a fine piece of evidence-linguists with gorillas have observed the same thing. Thinking that Alex expressed love is fine too-if you follow the steps. Do birds have any parallels to our limited understanding of the neurology of love? Did it exhbit behaviors similar to that it would express towards mates or flockmates? If yes, then yes, science is comfortable saying Alex showed all the hallmarks of love.

    Not having read the book or seen the data, of course, I can’t say.

  20. @wytworm: Philosophy helps us to achieve a deeper understanding of the social significance and general prospects of scientific discoveries and their technical applications.

    ————

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean here. I mean, wouldn’t a good understanding of society, complex systems, economics, current technology, and the state of research be more useful to developing a hypothesis about the social impacts of or prospects for a given technology than philosophy? Or are you defining philosophy to include these things?

  21. “Are there some things that you just “know” from your experience, that can’t be proven with science?”

    No matter how much I prepare the undead are going to get me in the end.

    The person in front of me at the market is part of the microscopic number of people that not only still write checks, but don’t start filling it out till the transaction is completed.

    My cat is plotting something and working on what ever it is while I sleep.

    Even with all my faults I’m a pretty spectacular person, and people are lucky to know me.

    The Defiant could totally kick the millenium falcon’s ass in a fight, which follows that Star Trek is better than Star Wars

  22. I’m with Aristothenes on this: science is a process for gaining knowledge, and it doesn’t *prove* things as much as accumulate evidence for them. So I don’t see anything in the natural world that can’t be better understood with science; including things mentioned above, like what sethmanapio said about how we know whether people are angry or sad. Or the experience of beauty, or love. I wonder if people fear that when we try to measure and understand these things with science, we’re somehow taking the poetry out of them? We dissect the frog to understand the frog, but in the process we kill the frog.

  23. This thread is getting very close to discussing epistomology.

    Since we cannot be entirely certain of anything in science, just “reasonably certain,” I submit that if one considers all available evidence, the conclusion is as scientific as it can be, given the state of knowledge at the time. Of course, this being science, it is always subject to new scrutiny if more evidence turns up. Science is the best way we have of knowing, but it does not bring certainty with it. Approximation to certainty, yes.

    My take on Alex is that he appears to have some sort of intelligence. Since we have no “funk-o-meter* to check, I feel that we are on fairly solid ground here. Alex exhibited appropriate emotion to situations and appropriate verbalizations. It is eerily similar to what has been observed with apes and simians. Dr. Pepperberg went out of her way to maintain a scientific outlook and procedures. Given that, I feel personally confident enough that something very scientifically important is being observed and explored. Enough so that I would never want to own a pet parrot, just as I would not own an ape, simian, elephant or dolphin. I don’t want to think of myself as “owning” a creature possibly intelligent enough to have similar-to or near-human sentience.

    *Damn, why does that word make me think of Motown music and Soul Train?! :-D

  24. Oh, I just saw the bit about “morality” as something we “just know” in Stacey’s initial conversation-starter there. Morality is actually a great example of something we *are* figuring out via science. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich did a fabulous Radio Lab on the subject of morality: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2006/04/28 And really, if we can wrap our brains around morality, using science, what can we NOT better understand using science? Has religion or philosophy ever really furthered understanding of anything? They’re fun toys to play with while we wait for actual answers from scientific discoveries. (Bracing self for angry responses from philosophers.)

  25. OK , if that’s as angry as it gets I’m good. :) Although your avatar scares me, so I wouldn’t want to piss you off. :) Would you say philosophy was a precursor to science? In which case, what role does it have now? If science starts with philosophy, doesn’t that make philosophy exactly what I said it was? The thing we play with while we wait for science to answer things in a measurable, objective manner.

  26. @sethmanapio:

    So, to your mind “is beautiful” has a different meaning than “people will find this beautiful”, or “I find this beautiful”?

    Yes. “Is beautiful” implies an objective measurement of beauty; I don’t think there’s any such thing.

    Your contrast with “people will think this is beautiful” is a false dichotomy. It’s not exactly what I said, and in this case the distinction is important. The correct contrast is “certain types of people are likely to find this beautiful”.

    One can look at people with a shared cultural and sub-cultural background and anticipate whether a piece of art will appeal to the majority of them. We can even statistically predict exactly how big a majority it is, with an astonishingly small margin of error.

    We can’t, however, quantify an object and say “this is beautiful” — we have to qualify it with information about who will consider it so.

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