Belief in electrons, sleeping through earthquakes

Elsewhere on the web, people are having to suffer my attempts at philosophy:

Belief in electrons

Over at Debunking Christianity, there’s an interesting dialogue about science. John W. Loftus has some guest postings from Kenneth J. Howell, a Catholic who wrote a book about the relationship between religion and early science. Howell’s been asking interesting questions about what atheists think of unobservable things (like electrons) in scientific theories, and later, on different kinds of evidence and whether all fields of inquiry should use the same standards. Armed with the Kasser lectures (you too can become an expert in the philosophy of science in just 21 days!) and some stuff I vaguely remember from my degree, I had a go at some responses: here, on electrons; and here, on standards of evidence, reductionism and all that jazz. There are some good comments there, although there’s also an awful lot off-topic wibbling.

Sleeping through earthquakes

Over on the Premier Radio forums, they’re wondering where God was in Haiti. Somewhat mischievously (but in a fine Biblical tradition), I’ve suggested he was asleep. I also linked to Stephen Law’s God of Eth (soon to be published as The Evil God Challenge) where Law argues that most arguments from Christians defending God’s goodness, despite the fact there’s so much evil in the world, can be turned into defences of an evil god’s evilness, despite the fact that there’s so much good in the world. A chap called Nick disagreed with the God of Eth argument and has been trying to paint me into some sort of corner involving Aquinas and Augustine, but unfortunately he seems to have gone away before getting around to telling me what his argument was. We’d got as far as arguing about whether all pleasures are good. Anyone have any idea where he might have been going with it?

12 Comments on "Belief in electrons, sleeping through earthquakes"

    1. I would if God later decided to reveal that he’d lied, surely? Either he was lying originally, or he’s now lying about the fact that he lied originally.


      1. ‘If God was to lie to you and didn’t want you to find out, you’d never know it’ is less snappy so I think we can assume the qualification is implicit for the sake of the phrasing.



  1. I’m a bit puzzled by the whole electron thing. Does any actually existing physicist take an instrumentalist view of electrons? Is there any useful sense in which electrons are “unobservable”?

    (Since I am paid to arrange for electrons to move around a bunch of semiconductors, perhaps my pocketbook biases me towards belief in them.)


    1. Is there any useful sense in which electrons are “unobservable”?

      Well, I’ve never seen one 🙂

      I suppose the further you get from the middle sized world, the more reliant you are on your instruments, and on the assumption that they measure what your theory says they measure. This starts to seem like philosophical logic chopping if you apply it to things like, say, telescopes (as I think some people did when they didn’t want to believe that Saturn had moons), but there’s always the lurking doubt, because people have been wrong in the past. So, some people would say “observable” is the (somewhat arbitrary) category of “stuff you can actually see without instruments”.

      Does any actually existing physicist take an instrumentalist view of electrons?

      Hawking is apparently an instrumentalist about his theories. I don’t know whether that includes being an instrumentalist about electrons.


      1. So, some people would say “observable” is the (somewhat arbitrary) category of “stuff you can actually see without instruments”

        I understand this, but is this really a useful ontological category? I have short sight, so does (say) the Waterloo departure board count as “unobservable” (to me) because I need my glasses to read it? There’s lots of evidence that unaided human sense perception is unreliable in many ways, so what good is done by privileging it philosophically?


        1. Not so much an ontological one as an epistemological one, I think (at least in the case of constructive empiricism: I don’t know what the ontology of logical positivism is like), but yes, people do get worried when so much rests on the observable/unobservable distinction. Sveinbjorn Thordarson’s idea that one could subscribe to a sliding scale seems better than making a hard distinction.

          From what I remember, the way this panned out historically was that reading a number from an instrument or whatever was seen as unproblematic: you could get into the “what if it’s all a dream” thing, but that’s not something philosophers of science tend to worry about. But if you claim to have observed the thing that the instrument is measuring for you, that’s more tricky: there’s some theory about what the instrument is doing, it might be wrong, and to think it might be wrong seems a far less radical sort of scepticism than the “what if it’s all a dream” variety. On the other hand, when the theory is doing really well, it’s hard to see how that doesn’t show that the theory’s ontology got something right. Cue an awful lot of philosophical debate…


      2. Hawking is apparently an instrumentalist about his theories

        And yet, in his popular writings, he takes what seems to me a straightforwardly realistic approach. From A Brief History of Time:

        We also now have evidence for several other black holes in systems like Cygnus X-1 in our galaxy and in two neighbouring galaxies called the Magellanic Clouds. The number of black holes, however, is almost certainly very much higher; in the long history of the universe, many stars must have burned all their nuclear fuel and have had to collapse. The number of black holes may well be greater even than the number of visible stars, which totals about a hundred thousand million in our galaxy alone.

        He’s happy here to consider black holes as if they were real objects that could exist (or not exist) out there in the universe, rather than instrumental phenomena or artifacts of a particular theoretical or mathematical framework.


      1. Feynman: “The electron is a theory that we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real.”

        That’s the sort of thing, although, if we’re keen Zen Ninja Rationalists, we might wonder what Feynman’s belief that the electron is only almost real leads him to anticipate: if he always treats it as real, perhaps the “almost” bit is just a nod to the niceties, a belief that such belief is good.

        But in fact, I’d’ve thought that the “almost” does serve a purpose: it might allow him to change his mind more quickly if new evidence came in.


  2. Subject: thanks!
    I just want to say thanks for the plug, Paul. I’ve only read these threads very quickly, but I admire your thoughtful, careful, approach and your constructive tone. And anybody with an avatar from the Buffy series is prima facie okay by me.

    Best wishes,

    Jeff Kasser


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