What logical term or concept ought to be more widely known?

Various What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known? Edge, 2017.


Science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—is an essential part of psychology and the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. …

Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA.


As against others on:

(This is as far as I’ve got.)


I’ve grouped the contributions according to whether or not I think they give due weight to the notion of uncertainty as expressed in my blog. Interestingly Steven Pinker seems not to give due weight in his article, whereas he is credited by Nicholas G. Carr with some profound insights (in the first of the second batch). So maybe I am not reading them right.

My own thinking

Misplaced Concreteness

Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concerteness, also known as the reification fallacy, “holds when one mistakes an abstract belief, opinion, or concept about the way things are for a physical or “concrete” reality.” Most of what we think of as knowledge is ‘known about a theory” rather than truly “known about reality”. The difference seems to matter in psychology, sociology, economics and physics. This is not a term or concept of any particular science, but rather a seeming ‘brute fact’ of ‘the theory of science’ that perhaps ought to have been called attention to in the above article.


My own speciifc suggestion, to illustrate the above fallacy, would be Turing’s theory of ‘Morphogenesis’. The particular predictions seem to have been confirmed ‘scientifically’, but it is essentially a logical / mathematical theory. If, as the introduction to the Edge article suggests, science is “reliable methods for obtaining knowledge” then it seems to me that logic and mathematics are more reliable than empirical methods, and deserve some special recognition. Although, I must concede that it may be hard to tell logic from pseudo-logic, and that unless you can do so my distinction is potentially dangerous.

The second law of thermodynamics, and much common sense rationality,  assumes a situation in which the law of large numbers applies. But Turing adds to the second law’s notion of random dissipation a notion of relative structuring (as in gravity) to show that ‘critical instabilities’ are inevitable. These are inconsistent with the law of large numbers, so the assumptions of the second law of thermodynamics (and much else) cannot be true. The universe cannot be ‘closed’ in its sense.


If the assumptions of the second law seem to leave no room for free will and hence no reason to believe in our agency and hence no point in any of the contributions to Edge: they are what they are and we do what we do. But Pinker does not go so far: he simply notes that if things inevitably degrade we do not need to beat ourselves up, or look for scape-goats when things go wrong. But this can be true even if the second law does not apply. If we take Turing seriously then a seeming permanent status quo can contain the reasons for its own destruction, so that turning a blind eye and doing nothing can mean sleep-walking to disaster. Where Pinker concludes:

[An] underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

This would seem to follow more clearly from the theory of morphogenesis than the second law. Turing’s theory also goes some way to suggesting or even explaining the items in the second batch. So, I commend it.


Dave Marsay



About Dave Marsay
Mathematician with an interest in avoiding 'bad' reasoning.

2 Responses to What logical term or concept ought to be more widely known?

  1. davetaylor1 says:

    Dave, on the RWER blog I responded with interest to your link to Whitehead. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading through that and your other posts, but while I differ from you on key points it seems we have enough in common that it should be possible for us to compare notes so as to pick out differences to discuss. The problem is how?

    Blogs in which you set the agenda don’t enable me to present my versions in context, and frankly, at 81, with post-concussion problems (since 14) with remembering long word structures, and having technical problems due to focussing on resolving the issues rather than learning the arts of blogging and drawing diagrams on computers, I have forty years of highly significant research I need to pass on while I’m still around which is too complicated to address piecemeal. I can’t find your email address, so here is mine: dave at taylor.to. If you email me I can send you a copy of a paper I wrote last year for a heterodox economics seminar which was rejected as insufficiently intelligible, despite the point of presenting it being to interpret the circuit diagrams and Whitehead-like epochal transitions which enable me to situate the whole of economics in the context of the whole of everything else. Apologies in advance for the poor diagrams: my former assistant (a son) is now also struggling following a serious road accident.

    My background in electronic physics, computers and algorithmic programming is of course highly mathematical, though I think in visual icons in preference to symbols, and as an engineer seeking to make philosophical argument intelligible to working people. It would be interesting to see whether you can make anything of my paper as a mathematician rather than a verbal academic.

    Incidentally, I don’t agree with the above definition of science. Bacon’s method of taking things to bits to see how they worked aimed to compile an encyclopedia of reliable knowledge to pass on to future generations; there are more ways of skinning a cat than Hume’s justification of elites. My own position on fundamental theory is that it is about possibilities rather than probabilities: not providing answers but suggesting where and how it is worth looking for them.

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