A philosophical position statement

(The empirical, pragmatic, scientific, idealist, instrumentalist.)

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 26/03/2017 13:39


This work favours a scientific view of the world.

It draws a little from biological evolution, psychology and information system design.

The reader needs no expertise in philosophy, mathematics, formal logic or linguistics to understand these propositions.


However, the distinction between description and reality is central to both system theory and philosophy.

So which school of philosophy is endorsed here?

Philosophy is a vast and convoluted set of philosophers and schools that overlap and contradict each other.

This position statement leans on definitions you can read in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”.

The philosophy here has flavours of empiricism, pragmatism, idealism, instrumentalism and behaviourism.


As an empiricist may say, logic is good, testing necessary

The logical positivist A J Ayer said a proposition can be discounted if it is not logically verifiable by:

·         analysis or manipulation of descriptive elements according to agreed rules (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4).

·         empirical testing of propositions about real-world entities and events.


The first approach, so wildly successful in mathematics, is not so in successful in investigations of nature.

The success of a theory about the world depends on how well its results agree with observations of reality.

If they do not agree, then the theory needs to be adjusted.


As a pragmatist may say, knowledge is what helps us deal with realities

Pragmatists say knowledge is not made of up truths and certainties; it is made up of descriptions and explanations.

Knowledge is true in so far as it works or is helpful in dealing with realities; it can be improved or replaced.



       <use>                  <represents>

People    <observe and envision>    Realities


How to verify that all swans are white; or no real planet is shaped like a pyramid?

The statements are logical, but a million empirical tests cannot prove they are true.

The critical rationalist Karl Popper proposed the best theories are those that can be readily falsified.


However, Newton’s laws of motion are falsifiable at very small scales and very high speeds.

We don’t say Newton’s laws of motion are true or false; we say they are true enough to help us

They pass the pragmatic test cases that matter to us.


As idealists say, ideas are created

The solar system exists in two forms, as a reality and as an idealised description of that reality.

Which begs a more general question: how are describers, descriptions and realities related?

The terms realism and idealism are used variously; but in one interpretation:

·         Realist philosophers say realities have descriptions, which describers can discover.

·         Idealist philosophers say describers create descriptions to help them deal with realities.


Our scientific idealism separates describers, descriptions and described realities.

Scientific Idealism Triangle


<create and use>              <idealise>

Describers    <observe and envisage>     Realities


Most realities are more complex and multi-faceted than any description of them.

And a particular reality may not exactly fit a description applied to it.

Outside of mathematics and computing, fuzzy matching of realities to descriptions is normal.


As an instrumentalist may say, descriptions are tools

Instrumentalists follow Duhem in thinking that theories are merely conceptual tools for classifying, systematizing and predicting observational statements.

An instrumentalist… usually defines scientific progress by referring to other virtues theories may have, such as their increasing empirical success.



We seek unity

One important idea regarding systematization is that a good theory should unify empirical data and laws from different domains (Kitcher 1993).

For Whewell, the paradigm case of such “consilience” was the successful unification of Kepler's laws and Galileo's laws by means of Newton's theory.



We favour using Occam’s razor to achieve relative simplicity

Eino Kaila's concept of relative simplicity, defined as the ratio between the explanatory power and the structural complexity of a theory (cf. Niiniluoto 1980, 1999).

According to this conception, progress can be achieved by finding structurally simpler explanations of the same data, or by increasing the scope of explanations without making them more complex.

Laudan's formula of solved empirical problems minus generated conceptual problems is a variation of the same idea.



We regard meaning as arising in the creation and use of descriptions and directions

When [Peirce] said that the whole meaning of a (clear) conception consists in the entire set of its pragmatic consequences, he had in mind that a meaningful conception must have some sort of experiential “cash value,” must somehow be capable of being related to some sort of collection of possible empirical observations under specifiable conditions.



We regard naturally-evolved systems as embracing inorganic as well as organic entities

Kant’s Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755) represents an important contribution to science.

For in it, Kant explains how one can account for the formation of the solar system from an initial state, in which matter is dispersed like a cloud, solely by means of the interaction of attractive and repulsive forces.



We have no faith in metaphysics

Our scientific idealism owes nothing to metaphysical philosophy.

We address description and reality, mind and body, space and time, and what prompts humans into action, but not in a metaphysical way.

Like Carnap, we consider that philosophy must be committed to the primacy of science and logic.

Carnap’s second major work, Pseudoproblems in Philosophy asserted that many metaphysical philosophical questions were meaningless.

A J Ayer (a logical positivist) also dismissed metaphysical philosophy (such as Heidegger’s) as useless – unverifiable logically or empirically.


We are not linguists or logical positivists

Saussure (1857 – 1913) examined the structure of language and developed a theory that it is made of up “linguistic signs”, signifying concepts.

This became the basis of structural linguistics and semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of signs and the relationships of the signifier (the sign) to the signified (the concept).


Wittgenstein and other logical positivist philosophers focused on analysing the use of verbal language.

Later Wittgenstein realised his “Tractacus” was self-contradictory.

In its place, he developed and entirely different linguistics.

He dropped the metaphor of language “picturing” reality and replaced it with language as a tool.


Here: natural language is a biological phenomenon, a product of evolution that gives us tools we need to communicate, and help is learn.

But it is imprecise, ambiguous and fluid.

The role of words in biology is to help us to remember and communicate descriptions that are true enough.

Words didn’t evolve to enable us to formulate perfectly true propositions (a concern of philosophers and mathematicians) they are not good for that.

Usually, any "state of matters" or "fact" that one animal recalls or communicates to another is a perception that has "degrees of truth".



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