Monday, August 30, 2010

No Alternatives

I just read this interesting paper.  While it deals with Bayesian statistics  I find that it has revealed something else about my own life.  The authors Andrew Gelman and Cosma Shalizi talk about the falsifying of models without necessarily having an alternative model to replace the obviously false one. This has been a problem in my life. Karl Popper who thought that science progresses by the attempts to devise tests that will falsify a given hypothesis, often makes the point that when we devise these tests we really are devising tests to choose between two hypotheses.  I thing the main example of that would be the test of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which predicted that a large object such as the sun would bend light more than predicted by Newtonian physics. It was a test designed to choose between Einstein and Newton.

So we go through life and we are presented with an array of alternative ways of being and acting, and we start choosing between proffered alternatives. The crises comes when one realizes that previous approaches have been falsified, and living the critically real life, one attempts to falsify each new idea as it comes along, and succeeds without having any alternative hypothesis. One starts to stumble around in the dark, trying to find an explanation for it all, or some piece of an explanation, because all the explanations that we inherited have been shown to be false. We do not have the comfort of only having extremely strong theories to choose between. We may go with the approximation, but in life what does that mean? Every approach seems falsified and there is no clear replacement hypothesis or model or paradigm. It is all very tense. It feels horrible to be adrift.  It feels frightening when one thinks that one might die in this state.  So we try to eat well, get some rest and sunshine, maybe catch a show and continue racking our brains for the proper approach to it all.

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