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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Not all philosophy is useless.

In this, the epilogue to my philosophic musing, I locate my view of the scientific method within the landscape of various philosophical traditions and also tie it into my current interest of project management. As strange as it may seem, this triumvirate of the scientific method, philosophy and management meet in the philosophic tradition known as pragmatism and in the work of W. Edwards Deming (1900 – 1993), a scientist and management guru who was strongly influenced by the pragmatic philosopher C.I. Lewis (1883 – 1964), who in turn strongly influenced business practices. And I do mean strongly in both cases. The thesis of this essay is that Lewis, the pragmatic philosopher, has had influence in two directions: in business practice and in the philosophy of science. Surprisingly, my views on the scientific method are very much in this pragmatic tradition and not crackpot.

The pragmatic movement was started by Charles S. Peirce (1839 – 1914) and further developed by Williams James (1842 – 1910) and John Dewey (1859 – 1952). The basic idea of philosophic pragmatism is given by Peirce in his pragmatic maxim as: “To ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might result from the truth of that conception—and the sum of these consequences constitute the entire meaning of the conception.” Another aspect of the pragmatic approach to philosophic questions was that the scientific method was taken as given with no need for justification from the outside, i.e. the scientific method was used as the definition of knowledge.
How does this differ from the workaday approach to defining knowledge? Traditionally, going back at least to Plato (428/427 or 424/423 BCE – 348/347 BCE) knowledge has been defined as:
1) Knowledge – justified true belief
The leaves open the question of how belief is justified and since no justification is ever 100% certain, we can never be sure the belief is true. That is a definite problem. No wonder the philosophic community has spent two and a half millennia in fruitless efforts to make sense of it.

A second definition of knowledge predates this and is associated with Protagoras (c. 490 B.C. – c. 420 B.C.) and the sophists:
2) Knowledge – what you can convince people is true
Essentially, the argument is that since we cannot know that a belief is true with 100% certainty; what is important is what we can convince people of. This same basic idea shows up in the work of modern philosophers of science with the idea that scientific belief is basically a social phenomenon and what is important is what the community convinces itself is true. This was part of Thomas Kuhn’s (1922 – 1996) thesis.

While we cannot know what is true, we can know what is useful. Following the lead of scientists, the pragmatists effectively defined knowledge as:
3) Knowledge – information that helps you predict and modify the future
If we take predicting and modifying the future as the practical consequence of information, this definition of knowledge is consistent with the pragmatic maxim. The standard model of particle physics is not knowledge by the strict application of definition 1) since it is not completely true; however it is knowledge by definition 3 since it helps us predict and modify the future. The scientific method is built on definition 3). The modify clause is included in the definition since the pragmatists insisted on that aspect of knowledge. For example, C.I. Lewis said that without the ability to act there is no knowledge.

The third definition of knowledge given above does not correspond to what many people think of as knowledge so Dewy suggested using the term “warranted assertions” rather than knowledge: The validity of the standard model is a warranted assertion. Fortunately, this terminology never caught on. In contrast, James’s pragmatic idea of “truth’s cash value”, derided at the time, has caught on. In a recent book “How to Measure Anything,” on risk management, Douglas W. Hubbard spends a lot of space on what is essentially the cash value of information. In business, that is what is important. The pragmatists were, perhaps, just a bit ahead of their time. Hubbard, whether he knows it or not, is a pragmatist.
Dewey coined the term “instrumentalism” to describe the pragmatic approach. An idea or a belief is like a hand, an instrument for coping. A belief has no more metaphysical status than a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks or something inherent in the nature of soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon . However, most pragmatists did not consider themselves to be instrumentalists but rather used the pragmatic definition of knowledge to define what is meant by real.

Now I turn to C.I. Lewis. He is alternately regarded as the last of the classical pragmatists or the first of the neo-pragmatists. He was quite influential in his day as a professor at Harvard from 1920 to his retirement in 1953. In particular, his 1929 book “Mind and the World Order” had a big influence on epistemology and surprisingly on ISO management standards. One can see a lot of the ideas developed by Kuhn already present in the work of C.I. Lewis , for example, the role of theory in interpreting observation. Or as Deming, influenced by Lewis, expressed it: “There is no knowledge without theory.” As a theorist, I like that. At the time, this was quite radical. The logical positivists took the opposite tack and tried to eliminate theory from their epistemology. Lewis and Kuhn argued this was impossible. The idea that theory was necessary for knowledge was not new to Lewis but is also present in the works of Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912) who was duly reference by Lewis.

Another person Lewis influenced was Willard V. O. Quine (1908 – 2000), although Quine and Lewis did not agree. Quine is perhaps best known outside the realm of pure philosophy for the Duhem-Quine thesis, namely that it is impossible to test a scientific hypothesis in isolation because an empirical test of the hypothesis requires one or more background assumptions. This was the death knell of any naïve interpretation of Sir Karl Popper’s (1902 –1994) idea that science is based on falsification. But Quine’s main opponents were the logical positivists. Popper was just collateral damage. Quine published a landmark paper in 1951: “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. I would regard this paper as the high point in the discussion of the scientific method by a philosopher and it reasonably readable (unlike Lewis’s “The Mind and the World Order”). Beside the Duhem-Quine thesis, the other radical idea is that observation underdetermines scientific models and that simplicity and conservatism are necessary to fill the gap. This idea also goes back to Poincaré and his idea of conventionalism – much of what is regarded as fact is only convention.

To a large extent my ideas match well with the ideas in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” Quine summarizes it nicely as: “The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges.” and “The edge of the system must be kept squared with experience; the rest, with all its elaborate myths or fictions, has as its objective the simplicity of laws.” Amen.

Unfortunately, after the two dogmas of empiricism were brought to light, the philosophy of science regressed. In a recent discussion of simplicity in science I came across, there was neither a single mention of Quine’s work nor his correct identification of the role of simplicity – to relieve the under determination of models by observation. Philosophers found no use for his ideas and have gone back to definition 1) of knowledge. Sad

Where philosophers have dropped the ball it was picked by people in, of all places management. Two people influenced by Lewis were Walter A. Shewhart (1891 – 1967) and Edwards Deming. It is said that Shewhart read Lewis’s book fourteen times and Deming read it nine times. Considering how difficult that book is, it probably required that many readings just to comprehend it. Shewhart is regarded as the father of statistical process control, a key aspect of quality control. He also invented the control chart, a key component of statistical process control. Shewhart’s 1939 book “Statistical Method from the viewpoint of Quality Control” is a classic in the field but it devoted a large part to showing how his ideas are consistent with Lewis’s epistemology. In this book, Shewhart introduced the Shewhart cycle, which was modified by Deming (and sometimes called the Deming cycle). Under its current name Do-Plan-Check-Act (DPCA cycle) it forms the basis of the ISO management standards.


The original Shewhart cycle as given in Shewhart’s book.

What is this cycle? Here it is as captured from Shewhart’s book. This is the first place where production is seen as part of a cycle and in the included caption Shewhart explicitly relates it to the scientific method as given by Lewis. Deming added another step to the cycle, which strikes me as unnecessary; the act step. It can easily be incorporated in the specification or plan stage (as it is in Shewhart’s diagram). But Deming was influenced by Lewis who regarded knowledge without the possibility of acting as impossible, hence the act step. This idea has become ingrained in ISO management standards as the slogan “continual improvement” (Clause 10 in the standards). To see the extent Deming was guided by Lewis’s ideas just look at Deming’s 1993 book “The New Economics.” He summarizes his approach in what he calls a system of profound knowledge. This has four parts: knowledge of system, knowledge of variation, theory of knowledge and knowledge of physiology. The one that seems out of place is the third; why include theory of knowledge? Deming believed that this was necessary for running a company and he explicitly refers to Lewis’s 1929 book. Making the reading of Lewis’s book mandatory for business managers would certainly have the desirable effect of cutting down the number of managers. To be fair to Deming, he does suggest starting in about the middle of the book. We have two unbroken chain – 1) Peirce, Lewis, Shewhart, Deming, ISO management standards and 2) Pierce, Lewis, Quine, my philosophical musings . It reminds one of James Burke’s TV program “Connections”.

Popper may be the person many scientists think of to justify how they work but Quine would probably be better and Quine’s teacher, C.I. Lewis, through Deming, has provided the philosophic foundation for business management. Within the context of definition 3) for knowledge both science and business have been very successful. Your reading of this essay required both. In contradistinction, standard western philosophy based on definition 1) has largely failed; philosophers still do not know how to acquire knowledge. However, not all philosophy is useless, some of it is pragmatic.



  • templeruins

    Einstein was a philosopher. Newton was a philosopher. Bacon was a philosopher.

    Going after philosophy you may as well be mad at pure mathematics, which is also largely unrelated to experimental physics.

  • Quentin Ruyant

    Apart from a few good references, the article is a bit caricatural. To my knowledge the first definition of knowledge has always been more or less accepted. Pragmatism is generally understood as a cinception of truth (not knowledge). It’s not true that “philosophy of science regressed since Quine” (and one reading is not enough to evaluate a whole active discipline). Quine is still highly influential and taught in every epistemology class as well as underdeterimantion, and the role of epistemic values, such as simplicity. The role of these values is more complex than conventionalism would have it. Some authors argue that they play a strategic role, or that they are indirectly teste by their fruitfulness (which is actually a pragmatist stance). There has also been strong arguments on the realism side and instrumentalism is difficult to defend in face of it. Contemporary antirealists, such as van Fraassen, are generally more cautious. The author also seems unaware of recent developments, such as structural realism.

  • don allen

    This is a fine introduction to the ideas of knowledge, and touches on the many difficulties in possessing it. When discussing knowledge, as the author does well, we encounter the idea of truth. And this is a subject to which philosophers, thinkers, and just about everyone else has considered, has been puzzled by, and has come to varied conclusion. The clerics holdforth their scriptures, the scientists with their theories, the skeptics with their reluctance to accept anything not directly observable. Basically, we cannot make definitive statements about knowledge without a correspondent understanding of truth. Basic fact: One cannot accept a statement (or its negative) as knowledge unless one believes it is true.

    Toward that end we need a working definition of truth, the big “T.” As it happens there is none in the sense there are many – each applied as needed. From absolute to pragmatic, empirical to transitive, truth needs some ink when addressing knowledge.

    And then, when addressing truth, we confront our most powerful system for accepting truth and knowledge — belief.

    There is a short article at the link below demonstrating that the problems of knowledge and truth are, in the new vernacular, “wicked.”

    On wickedness of problems, their solutions, and even formulation, all of which impacts knowledge, see Challenges to Computing, Recent and Innovation Trends in Computing and Communication (IJRITCC), Volume 2 Issue 11, 16 November 2014. Link: http://www.ijritcc.org/download/1415860735.pdf

  • Douglas W. Hubbard

    Thanks for mentioning my book How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business. I had some comments on your article. You wrote:

    “In a recent book “How to Measure Anything,” on risk management, Douglas W. Hubbard spends a lot of space on what is essentially the cash value of information. In business, that is what is important…Hubbard, whether he knows it or not, is a pragmatist.”

    1. Actually, I’m entirely aware that I’m a pragmatist and I often refer to James and Pierce when explaining to others that philosophy is useful. Many times over the years I have taken the side of the practicality of philosophy against the argument that it has no application to real problems.

    2. The value of information in monetary terms is not limited to the interest of business. Even though the subtitle of the book mentions business, the examples I mention in the book are government, military and not-for-profit as well as business. What these organizations have in common is not whether they are in business but whether they have to deal with limited resources. Last year, when we developed a model for drought resilience in the Horn of Africa, we used the value of information not because they were a business but because they had limited resources with which to measure and to risk on different resilience strategies. In fact, there are other potential information value interests to business which I state explicitly I spend no time on – namely, the value of information for resale. I focus on only information for informing decisions under uncertainty. That is a need in any organization whether a business or not.

    3. The third edition is relatively recent (March 2014) but the book was first published in 2007.

    Thanks again for mentioning my work.

    Douglas W. Hubbard

  • Byron Jennings

    I also liked you book “The Failure of Risk Management”. As far as I could see it “just” the practical application of the scientific method to risk management.

  • Raul Romea

    “no justification is ever 100% certain”

    You can kick and scream all you want about #1 but the truth is, it’s true.

    And nothing against #2 and #3, they’re good as well.