Public funding for phlogiston ?

According to the Oz, Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan has called for public funding for research promoting his belief that scientists since Arrhenius have been wrong about climate change. He makes this claim on the basis that the overwhelming body of evidence amassed by mainstream science means that “only one side of the debate is heard” (there’s also something about witches). Oddly enough, Canavan goes on to cite some (presumably publicly funded) research on aerosols from the Max Planck Institute which he thinks supports his arguments. The fact that such research gets undertaken and published suggests that there is no problem with the scientific process as regards climate change.

Still, there’s an interesting question here. To what extent should research funding seek to promote research approaches that are regarded by most experts in the relevant field as wrong or discredited?

In fields like economics, the ebb and flow of opinion is such that any temporary appearance of consensus is illusory. When I started studying economics, the dominant Keynesian/market failure school regarded classical economics as a collection of exploded fallacies. Within a decade or so, the position had reversed. Free market microeconomics and New Classical microeconomics became dominant and remained so until the Global Financial Crisis. The position now is best described as confused. Something similar could be said of fields like psychology (another example where plenty of non-specialists have strongly held views)

In the natural sciences, there are a lot more firmly established conclusions, which nonetheless run against the prejudices of many (obviously including Senator Canavan). I don’t see any merit in funding the pet theories and tribal prejudices of politicians. But at the frontiers, there are lots of instances where some particular approach (such as string theory in particle physics) seem to be dominant, at least in part, for sociological reasons. Here it would be desirable to ensure that alternative approaches get a hearing.

Any thoughts?

106 thoughts on “Public funding for phlogiston ?

  1. @tony lynch

    I am a late replier myself at this time of year. I don’t quite interpret Berkeley and Hume the way you do. Then again, I have only read Berkeley’s “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” and Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”. I have not read Descartes at all. I have not read Locke. I have read tiny parts of Francis Bacon, no Greek philosophy at all and a bit of Karl Popper who I take with a grain of salt. That’s it: the sum total of my philosophical reading apart from Marx and Tolstoy when they get a bit philosophical.

    Clearly, I have no background and I have read Berkeley and Hume (one short work each) in a naive fashion. To me it was clear that Berkeley’s method was empirical. I made a comment way above that he was empirical in approach yet idealist in outcome, which I noted seemed an unusual combination from my perspective. However, I still hold that his real a priori assumption was God’s existence. He then developed his idealist philosophy, with an empirical method, expressly to “prove” God’s existence via the way station of idealism. I hold to be fallacious any claim by Berkeley or his commentators that God’s exsistence was not his real a priori assumption and “the answer he wanted to get”. Of course, this is the opinion of untutored person.

    Hume I read as an empiricist and a materialist. Clearly, this is considerably at odds with what you have written above. Perhaps my biases and expectations played into how I read Berkeley and Hume in just one short work each. I will have to go back and read them again bearing in mind what you have said above. I didn’t notice Hume’s Cartesian framework (how could I?) and I didn’t notice any idealism in his thinking. Sorry to say, I remain sceptical about this interpretation. I remain, at leat until I re-read him, of the opinion that he is a materialist and empiricist. But in Hume’s time and even later, they did not IMO know how to deal with mind and brain (or consciousness). However, I will go back and re-read as I said.

    I remain of the following opinion for the time being and don’t know what to call my position. My best guess centers around words like physicalism (modern variant of materialism) and ontological monism. I currently hold that all phenomena are physical phenomena, even consciousness. Thus I reject all forms of dualism and idealism and hold that there is no mind-body paradox and no subject-object paradox. These paradoxes are artifacts of false a priori assumptions. If one assumes consciousness is somehow different to and outside the physical this is what creates these unnecessary and unresolvable paradoxes.

    Is there any need to assume that consciousness is not an (emergent) phenomenon of the physical? I think not. In the face of continuing neuroscience advances, the arena of the non-physical explanation for mind, perception and consciousness is ever shrinking. It is logical now to move to a formal physicalist view of consciousness.

    In my view, neither “causes” nor “explanations” exist in the strict sense. Though these notions are useful at the everyday level, they are not philosophically rigorous. In the strict view, the idea of “causes” should be eschewed and we should talk only of “laws”. I mean “laws” in the strict sense conveyed by the phrase “the laws of physics”. That is to say we can detect laws of relation (to a certain degree of probability) but we cannot strictly assign causes. Causes imply one-to-one certainty when and an ability to perform an infinite tree-search regression for all the causes. No event really has one simple cause.

    Our everyday predilection for “explanations” also has no philosophical use. Existence in total is essentially and profoundly inexplicable. Each phenomenon in existence while potentially relatable (via laws of relation) to other phenomena still partakes of this essential inexplicability. (I’m a bit wobbly on that last sentence. I still need to think a lot through.)

    Is consciousness really more inexplicable as a physical phenomenon than quantum entanglement or quantum uncertainty (for example)? I think not. Therefore I think one needs to make the minimum and simplest a priori assumption. That assumption is for ontological monism. Within ontological monism, the key tenet is simply “Stuff happens”. There is no explanation for any of it and it is philosophically misguided to look for “explanations” and “causes” anyway. These are inaccurate ideas and as invented as the idea of a unicorn. But real philosophy, real science and useful real actions are all possible because certain relations and relativities in the physical universe are reliable enough for us to develop reliable laws of relation

    I believe the path to proving or at least elucidating this philosophy lies in comparing real systems to formal systems and in analysing how they interact. I further hold that formal systems as they exist in real biological systems (e.g. human brains) and real physical artifacts (e.g. books) are in turn real physical systems in their own right (real constructs of matter, energy etc). This calls into question the real system – formal system dichotomy itself, which dichotomy turns out to be a qualitative and quantitative dichotomy but not an ontological dichotomy. What passes between the real systems and the formal systems both ways is information (which also passes via real physical transfer). Successful transfers are characterised by subsequent successful operations in the evolutionary sense including but not limited to biological evolution.

    The subsequent operations and transformations performed, following the successful transfer of information either way (real system to formal system or formal system to real system) obey different rules in relation to real matter and energy requirements. The “quantitative difference” re matter and energy thus refers to the difference between manipulating “materials in gross” (the real job like “nature” “building” a human body or us building a house) and manipulating symbols and especially symbol sets (formulas, plans) which possess workable “analogical congruence” (my phrase) with aspects of standard “gross reality”.

    The “qualitative difference” relates the handling of dimensions and consciousness (agency) in formal systems as compared to real system. So far we have found dimensions (at least) non-manipulable in the real systems. In formal systems, dimensions are manipulable, inventable and so on.

    Okay, all this above is very raw and might be entirely illusory as a philosophical system. But I am going to have a go at fully developing it as a personal endeavor. Developing it will have a meaning for me while I do it. Of course, it will if completed be unpublishable and sink without a trace. I mean I can play games, paint houses, cook meals or whatever (and I do a bit of each of these). But finally… “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” – Ec. All the information of our lives and stemming from our lives will be lost via heat death or entropy. That’s an interesting ontological question. Once all the information is lost did it ever happen, did it ever exist?

  2. “Is consciousness really more inexplicable as a physical phenomenon than quantum entanglement or quantum uncertainty (for example)? I think not.”

    Its not a good comparison because modern physics is really a lot of nonsense. Quantum entanglement was just proof that the conman Einstein was wrong about a light-speed limit and the phenomenon implied constant contact. Quantum uncertainty a lame excuse for a closed club of charlatans that had no idea what they were talking about. As for Berkeley and Hume these are about the last two people one would wish to follow when it came to epistemology. The thing to take from Berkeley is that bivalent deductive logic is valid for showing that everything could be essentially a fantasy. What could be more useless information then that? Ever since people have been slipping ideas like that into arguments as obstruction. Hume tried to overemphasise deductive logic, and I would say to assure himself a place in philosophical history. This is sucking up to the priesthood. Since trained philosophers can practice high level deductive logic, yet even a baby practices induction. This is just the profession patting itself on the back. In fact pure logic is useless without other tools. Just like a hammer cannot be used to build a house on its own. But Hume tries to undermine induction and his followers at least try to do so as if it were a one-step process. Rather than a process that you use ten times before breakfast and intersperse with other modes of getting the job done. Hume shows that induction isn’t the best. But that doesn’t matter since we have very few situations where only the best will do.

  3. “PHYSICAL SUBSTANCE is the idea of a physical object as something that exists independently of
    our experience, in its own right, and in 3-dimensional space. Hume asks how we could
    have had an impression of such a thing (Treatise on Human Nature, I.iv.ii). How can
    experience show us that something exists independently of experience? I see my desk; a
    few moments later, I see it again. If my two experiences are of one and the same desk,
    then the desk existed when I wasn’t looking at it. But I can’t know that my two
    experiences are of one and the same desk; I can only know that the two experiences are
    very similar. In coming up with the idea of physical substance that exists independently
    of my experiences, I have confused similarity with identity”

    So I don’t see Hume as any kind of materialist.

    The consciousness issue seems to me something different. You can assume physicalist reductionism if you want, but then you can assume anything. This link is interesting:

    For what it is worth, I think Wittgenstein the place to go here – and PMS Hacker is a good elucidator of the Wittgensteinian position. See

    Enjoy 2016.

  4. @tony lynch

    I stand, or rather sit, provisionally corrected, though I am not sure which originator(s) or commentator(s) your compound quote is from and what the context is. Your quote marks might be incomplete internally which can happen to anyone blogging. You don’t indicate who is being quoted either. Also, an argument being set up for demolition can be quoted out of context as if it were an attributed view. Not judging you. Blogging is rapid and subject to elision and mistakes.

    I have noted my strong preference to read and understand originals in the original where I at all can and to eschew all commentary at least until I have formed what I consider my own coherent view of the text. I will go back to re-read Berkeley and Hume as I flagged.

    I am now firmly a Physicalist and ontological monist. I will remain such for the foreseeable future. Physicalism is to my mind ontologically economical. Clearly a developed Physicalism will rely on notions of emergent phenomena (complex systems terminology) or perhaps supervenience in philosophical terms. I don’t think this reliance gives Physicalism any great difficulties though my purview of this point is superficial so far.

    On the other hand, I think “standard” dualism, has problems in terms of (a) lack of ontological economy, (b) lack of a model or set of demonstrable, reliable laws about what happens at the boundary and enables the “spiritual” and the “physical” to interact and transfer effects and (c) the difficulty in demonstrating intra-sphere laws of relation in the spiritual sphere outside the material sphere where they can be demonstrated. In dualism, the “spiritual” is a black box empirically. We are largely in the wrong ontological “box” to experience most of it or even any of it.

    Idealism is preferable to dualism. There may be few reasons to prefer physicalism over idealism. In Berkeley’s idealist universe there is no way, short of his own philosophy perhaps, to tell the difference between physicalism and idealism. An all-powerful God could create a physicalist universe, an idealist universe or any amalgam thereof including an infinite number of paradoxical universes. We are in no position to tell the difference.

    “A difference which makes no difference is no difference at all.” This is true for the subjective observer at least. This places God as an intentional obscurantist conjurer and us as his fools and cosmic jokes. I am not sure why Berkeley finds this vision compelling or attractive or even necessary. I find it existentially terrifying (which a follower of Kierkegaard could conceivably argue IS the point).

  5. Footnote to above.

    Tony, each of your posted links was very interesting thank you. I found each to be a mix of stuff I agreed with and stuff I disagreed with. It would take essays in my own right to separate those threads in each and then to sort my own views… if I even could. “The world is too much with us” (Wordsworth) or too much for us.

    I am prepared to accept human consciousness as a brute fact or a set of brute facts as at least an interim position to work from in Physicalism. This is just as I am prepared to accept as a brute fact the phenomenon that consciousness supervenes on the physical. This is not to deny that what we call consciousness requires elaborate and extensive definition and is multi-layered.

    The mere fact that a phenomenon is not simple is no reason of itself to question its brute fact existence. Consciousness is a noun which compounds a class of very complicated concepts with a common locus. At some initial level we have to be able to “do philosophy” with grab-bag terms I think. I am actually of the opinion we are finally beginning to refine the idea(s) of consciousness with nervous system and neuroscience insights. I perceive progress. This is not to say progress will reach any ultimate goal. The nature of consciousness like the nature of matter still is likely to remain ineffable and fundamentally inexplicable. But then I don’t follow a method which seeks “causes” and “explanations”. Reliable laws of relation within the existent are all we can realistically aim for IMO.

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