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FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Why can't nature be determined through reason alone?

Asked by FireMadeFlesh (16543points) July 2nd, 2010

If our minds and our reason evolved to model the natural world for the purpose of predicting circumstances and enhancing our survival, it should follow that our minds would be suited to understanding the natural world.

It should also stand to reason that our success as a species points to successful modelling of the natural world, since an inaccurate perception would hinder our ability to flourish.

However, many of the greatest minds throughout history have attempted to investigate the nature of things through their own reason and failed monumentally. It is only since the advent of the scientific method, which plants seeds of distrust of our own perceptions, that we have developed an accurate view of the natural world.

So why have we evolved a sense of reason that does not regularly understand the physical world intuitively?

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32 Answers

laureth's avatar

Intuition seems to work better when data is present. Otherwise, working with no information, wrong conclusions can be reached. This is one reason why “common sense” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

jaytkay's avatar

You only have to evolve enough to reproduce. Not a big hurdle. Amoebas and plankton do it easily enough.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@laureth Certainly data improves intuition. As an example, Ptolemy had data on the orbital periods of the planets and the location of stars, but his intuition led him to work from the geocentric hypothesis rather than a null hypothesis. Why did it not occur to him that for the sake of consistency the Earth should be moving too? Why wasn’t it intuitive to him that all bodies are in constant relative motion?

@jaytkay Reproduction is essential for survival, but further evolution is required to bring a species to dominance.

jaytkay's avatar

Evolution is not a stepladder to “dominance”.

If you survive you win. If not, not.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@jaytkay Natural Selection, as far as I understand it, selects for organisms that are better at surviving to reproduce. If a certain trait increases the probability of survival to the age and circumstances of reproduction from 85 to 90%, it is still selected for even though the majority of both lineages survive.

lilikoi's avatar

1. Clearly you don’t have to understand everything about how the world works to survive. You just need to know more than the next species in your specific niche. That’s why a slight environmental change can make a species go extinct in no time at all. If they knew everything about the world, they would have a coping mechanism.

2. I think it will hinder our ability to flourish and survive, in time. We haven’t been around that long, and we are clearly digging ourselves into a hole.

3. We don’t have a totally accurate view of the natural world. We aren’t all knowing. We have an evolving view.

fundevogel's avatar

“So why have we evolved a sense of reason that does not regularly understand the physical world intuitively?”

Because reason is an active process, it doesn’t process things intuitively. Lets not blame the shortcomings of intuition on the process of reason.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@lilikoi 1. That is true, but science works on the assumption that nature follows self-consistent rules. Surely we would have stumbled upon at least some of those rules prior to our recent desire to seek them out.
2. Maybe so, but I am more interested in the past right now.
3. I did not mean to say that we do, only that it is vastly superior to the view held in the more distant past.

@fundevogel Thanks for pointing that out.

fundevogel's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh I don’t want to be too hard on intuition. Both it and reason serve a good purpose, but they don’t do each others’ jobs well. If you’re being chased by a tiger intuition is your man. But when you don’t need to make a quick judgment call you’re better off with reason.

laureth's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh – Perhaps he was blinded by preconceived notions. The real world is very complex – more than the brain, even – and so people create mental models of the world to use as a kind of shorthand. It gives us a survival edge most of the time, because when you’re running from a bear, you don’t want to have to take the time to ponder all the different directions in which to run. By the time you pick one, the bear is eating your liver. So you refer to your handy mental model, make a decision based on emotion, and haul arse outta there.

On the other hand, the mental models of the world are (by necessity) not as complex as the real world, and there are certain shortcuts our brains take. Sometimes, who lives and who dies is based on who can most quickly change their model to reflect new information. Others don’t give up on a cherished mental model so easily, because who among us doesn’t believe that we’re almost always correct?

lillycoyote's avatar

Maybe I don’t understand the question but I would disagree with your basic premises if I do.

1. Our minds are suited to understanding the natural world. We understand quite a bit of it.

2. The greatest minds throughout history have attempted to investigate the nature of things through their reason and “failed monumentally.”? How so?

3. The scientific method “plants seeds of distrust in our own perception?” The scientific method is based on what we observe, what we perceive.

4. Reason vs. intuition. They are both attributes of the human mind and complement one another. We understand the physical world both through reason and observation and through intuition. What is the benefit of understanding the natural world “inuitively” rather through observation and reason? Are you saying that intuitive understanding is superior to reason? Like I said, I’m not sure I understand the question.

I guess I don’t really understand what you’re asking.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Intuition and observation lead us to theories about how things work.

To find out if our theories are correct be conduct tests designed to show our theories to be false.
If with repeated tests by multiple independent investigators no one is able to show the theory to be false, then it becomes the prevailing explanation for that phenomenon.

If new methods of testing are developed that challenge the theory or if alternate explanations are shown to better explain the observations and many other things the original, then the new theory once confirmed by multiple testing becomes the prevailing explanation.

So intuition and observation contribute to scientific, but they are not sufficient.

ETpro's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh With regards to the mistakes Ptolemy made, he operated largely from belief, not solely observation and experimentation to verify observed data. He “assumed” the earth was stationary because when standing on it, it felt like it was stationary. So he came up with his theory of epicycles based on his false assumption. His epicycles actually do come very close to predicting the motion of the planets—just for the wrong reasons. The minor errors they calculate would have been beyond his ability to test with the instruments he had at hand.

Far from finding the work of the ancients laughable, I am amazed at how much they got right with the primitive instruments they had to make observations. Not only were Ptolemy’s epicycles close to perfect in predicting planetary motion, the Pythagorean Theorem was spot on. The foundations of math, geometry and the beginnings of an understanding of chemistry all date back thousands of years. Pretty impressive, given the knowledge base and tools they had to work with.

roundsquare's avatar

Maybe repeating someone but: our minds are actually very good at modelling the portion of the world that we see on a regular basis. Thats what one would expect from evolution. However, science tends to study stuff that is not necessary for survival, so we wouldn’t expect our minds to be good at studying these topics.

Also, who says we can’t figure out the universe from reason alone. We’re just getting started.

LostInParadise's avatar

We spent most of our evolutionary development time as hunter-gatherers, and our reasoning is finely attuned for such an environment. The real question is why we were able to do things that allowed us to make social adaptations far beyond the needs of a hunter-gatherer life style. Why were we able to become agricultural, develop writing and, starting with the ancient Greeks, develop formal reasoning? It is as if some tipping point was reached in our evolutionary development that allowed us to progress far beyond the immediate necessities of our environment.

Nullo's avatar

Your pondering depends on mankind evolving. Rather more popular than you think is the notion that we did not.

mattbrowne's avatar

It’s like dealing with rating agencies. Who rates the rating agencies? And who rates the rating agencies of rating agencies? Who explains the explanation? And who explains the explanation of the explanation. Reason can get us very far. But what about an ultimate reasonable explanation?

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@lillycoyote I’m not sure if you understand, but maybe I can clarify.
1. We understand a lot of the natural world, but a lot of that knowledge is recent and the result of new ways of looking at things.
2. The greatest minds of history who tried to deduce the nature of the world all failed, and accurate knowledge only started to be accumulated on a broad scale when people started running experiments to check their hypotheses against reality. Aristotle (I think) thought that projectiles could only travel in straight lines, so they went diagonally up and vertically down. It wasn’t until Galileo checked this theory with experiments that parabolic motion was found. This question was sparked by the book I am reading, The Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza. He uses pure reason with few examples, and although he comes up with some startlingly accurate ideas, others are way off base because he did not test his hypotheses with experiments.
3. For the background to this claim, see this video. Of course we rely on our perceptions, since we have no means of gathering data that does not rely on perception, but science teaches us to measure rather than stating impressions.
4. As many others, and yourself, have pointed out, this point was not clear. Intuition and reason are what we rely on most, and for the most (maybe all) of history that has been the case. However, when we rely solely on reason to guide us, we slowly diverge from reality unless we run experiments to check hypotheses against reality. For this reason, high level theoretical physics has not progressed significantly in quite some time. There are numerous competing hypotheses that are all logically consistent to a greater or lesser extent, but none of them are able to be tested to date although the LHC will get us closer so none are yet confirmed or rejected.

@ETpro I do not laugh at the achievements of the ancients. What I am saying is that pondering and reasoning can easily lead you astray when it is not checked with facts in the manner that modern science does.

@Nullo If you can provide a rival theory that is as successful as evolution, I’m sure the whole scientific community will be listening. Until then, I will continue to assume it is the most successful theory we have and build upon it as such.

Nullo's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh Watch Expelled. The scientific community isn’t interested in rival theories. And no, I’m not talking about creationism here.

ETpro's avatar

@Nullo, there is a huge difference between “theory” as used by science and “theory” meaning my pet hunch.

LostInParadise's avatar

I recommend the book Uncommon Sense The book’s contention is that formal reasoning leading to mathematics and experimental science is not at all natural to us and that its practice may have been postponed indefinitely had the ancient Greeks not come up with it.

laureth's avatar

Frankly, the Greeks were on to a lot of stuff, and simply lacked a lot of the instruments that we have now or they would have been even better. They were even trying things like analog computers when Rome came in and took the joint over. Romans weren’t too enamored of that elite science stuff unless it could be applied to military might, so Science took a backseat for the next manyhundred years.

LostInParadise's avatar

@laureth , It is a little more complicated than that. It is unfortunate that Hellenic civilization is not taught in public schools, probably because the Greeks were no longer a political power. Some of the most remarkable Greek discoveries occurred in this period, much of it centered in Alexandria. Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy and Eratosthenes were all from this time. Archimedes, among many other things, worked out the mathematics of simple machines. Of particular interest is Hero, who invented the steam engine as a play thing and absolutely refused to apply it to anything practical, because he thought this was beneath him. Apparently, the intellectual climate was not right for applied science.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Nullo Honestly, I don’t have the time to sift through every semi-educated person’s unique mythology. There are scientific bodies that analyse these things, and until they are peer reviewed and published in a reputable journal or textbook I don’t think there is any point to investigating them further.

@LostInParadise That sounds very interesting, thank you.

@laureth Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to belittle the Greeks. In fact Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum, Theophrastus, performed experiments that indicated that Aristotle’s theory of projectile motion was wrong. My question is only concerned with those who attempted to use reason without experimentation though, because they so often failed to develop theories as good as those of people who did experiment.

I really need to work on my phrasing. My questions spill out in convoluted torrents that do not seem to reflect my original thoughts.

ETpro's avatar

It is interesting that as many great minds as the Greeks had; Solon, Pythagoras, Aeschylus, Zeno, Hippocrates, Aristophanes, Plato, Euclid, Aristotle; none of them ever noticed that the two eyes being set apart from one another in the human (and in most sighted animals) heads afforded stereoscopic vision. Even as brilliant as Leonardo da Vinci was, and as focused on human visual perception, he didn’t notice that fact. He realized that his left eye could see slightly more of a the left perimeter of a globe than his right, and the right eye took in a bit more of the right side. But he didn’t take that observation the next step to define WHY two eyes were so superior to one.

Until English electrical scientist and inventor Charles Wheatstone explained the role of stereoscopic vision in depth perception in 1838, science has assumed it was just part of the bisymmetric design of bodies and perhaps provided a backup in case one organ was damaged, as is the case with our pair of kidneys.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@ETpro That is amazing! Thanks for sharing it.

lilikoi's avatar

I don’t think I really understood your question initially. It seems that the question of what the inputs of reason are is at the heart of your question. And that your and Spinoza’s position on this question is that reason is independent, subjective, unaided. I just can’t imagine how you can separate reason from sensory perceptions. And if sensory perceptions are an input to reason, then the answer to your question I think logically follows. Here is an example of the thought process in my mind regarding reason and sensory inputs. I wonder what Spinoza’s argument is?

Nullo's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh @ETpro You’re missing the point. The scientific community is not interested in anything that isn’t evolution. Which is bad science.

jaytkay's avatar

@Nullo Whatever you are hinting at, I suggest opening another question. This isn’t an evolution debate.

ETpro's avatar

@Nullo I second @jaytkay on that. I’d be happy to take that issue up separately, as I do not at all agree that science is the closed-minded side there.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@lilikoi It seems that the question of what the inputs of reason are is at the heart of your question.
Certainly. I am also working from the hypothesis that taking more measurements and inputs increase the accuracy of reason. I separate reason from sensory inputs because the imagination is capable of outstripping observation. Einstein developed highly successful thought experiments long before the technology to make relevant observations existed.

I wonder what Spinoza’s argument is?
“Let us conceive a child imagining a winged horse, and not perceiving anything else. Since this imagination involves the existence of the horse, and the child does not perceive anything else which excludes the existence of the horse, he will necessarily regard the horse as present.”
The text is full of such hypothetical statements that could not be tested in the 17th century when it was written. It also contains statements such as “Every idea which in us is absolute, or adequate and perfect, is true.” These are then followed by reasoning based on previously stated axioms and definitions. Occasionally he draws on examples, but more often he develops previously stated axioms to the extreme.

I am curious about your idea of the connection between reason and observation – how do you know what impressionist painting is? You can be shown a myriad of paintings, and be told whether they are impressionist or not, but when you are shown a new painting, how do you judge whether it is impressionist or not? You have developed an abstract idea of what the style is, and although the idea was communicated through observation and sensory inputs, your reason has developed the concept beyond that.

@Nullo Of course not. They aren’t particularly interested in theories of the tooth fairy either. Anthropologists and and Psychologists are probably interested in alternate theories, but since no credible alternative exists there is no reason to consider them or be interested in them. Asking biologists to take alternate theories seriously is like asking physicists to reconsider heliocentrism because there are a few people who aren’t quite comfortable with it.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Nullo – Scientists are very much interested in rival theories. A good example is abiogenesis i.e. the transformation of organic matter into living organic matter. Rival theories include autocatalysis, iron-sulfur world theory, clay theory and the deep-hot biosphere model. Evolution covers the development of living organic matter not the origin as such. What would be a rival scientific theory?

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