My philosophy of science, if I have one, can be summarised by the principle that we should ensure that our intellectual constructs aren’t merely diversions. One way I apply this principle is by trying to work out my own solution to problems before reading the accepted scientific solution. If the previous approach isn’t applicable, I try and determine empirically and/or analytically whether we are trying to fit circular pegs into square holes.

This is frequently the case with dichotomies, which are very often mere figments of your imagination, and to illustrate my point I shall provide a few examples.

  1. All organisms are either terrestrial or not terrestrial.

    What about amphibians?

  2. Humans have free will or they don’t have free will.

    Here we are assuming that ‘free will’ is a scientifically useful notion although it is grounded in introspection and not empirical observation. We can define the spatial freedom of a Newtonian particle in some sense but the meaning of ‘free will’ is sufficiently flexible to survive any experimental test.

    Free will is a metaphysical idea and therefore outside the domain of science.

  3. Benjamin is a good person or he isn’t a good person.

    Most people are complicated characters that don’t fit into simplistic Disney categories. Benjamin might be a great scientist but a nasty football player on weekends. If you ask his mates that play football they’ll tell you that he’s an ass and if you ask his scientific colleagues they’ll tell you that he’s a great person.

    Which account is true? On one level it depends who you ask. On another level, the ‘good person’ category is much too simplistic to describe people.

  4. Anne is conscious or not conscious.

    This intellectual construct is similar to ‘free will’ in the sense that it isn’t something we can observe empirically. We can have a vague notion of an internal mental model of ourself in our environment but so does a fish or a rat. So how does consciousness set us apart from any organism capable of adapting to its environment?

    In fairness to human knowledge, consciousness and free will are part of a pre-scientific and anthropocentric view of the Universe.

  5. An elephant is either less than 100 m long or more than 100 m long.

    In this case we are trying to ascribe a length to an object that has three dimensions so there isn’t a unique method for measuring an elephant. In fact, there is an infinite number of ways to measure the length of an object with more than one dimension.

    It follows that in this circumstance, like the others, our intellectual construct is merely a diversion.

The reader might wonder what stimulated this reflection. Well, a couple weeks ago I reflected upon Luitzen Brouwer’s criticism of the law of excluded middle. This law basically states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true. Intuitively, it makes sense but I provided five concrete examples where the law isn’t applicable.

Once in a while it’s useful to reconsider the things we take for granted.