On the importance of induction for knowledge

Ignaz Semmelweis, 1860

Ignaz Semmelweis worked as a doctor at the Vienna General Hospital between 1844 and 1848. He observed that a large proportion of the women in the First Maternity Division who were delivered of their babies contracted a serious and often fatal illness known as puerperal or childbed fever. In the adjacent Second Maternity Division of the same hospital, which accommodated almost as many women as the First, the death toll from childbed fever was much lower.

Semmelweis began his efforts to resolve the problem by considering various explanations that were current at the time; some of these he rejected as incompatible with well-established facts; others he subjected to specific tests.

One widely accepted view attributed puerperal fever to ‘epidemic influences’ spreading over districts. But Semmelweis questioned how such influences could have affected the First Division for years and not the Second. At the same time, there was hardly a case in the city of Vienna or in its surroundings. Semmelweis noted that women who had given birth in the street on their way to the hospital had a lower death rate than the average for the First Division.

Semmelweis noted that overcrowding could not have been the cause since it was a greater problem in the Second Division, partly because of the efforts of women to avoid the First Division. He also considered the diet and general care of the patients in the two Divisions and found there were no differences.

A commission found in 1846 that rough examination by the medical students was the cause, but Semmelweis rejected this view because the injuries resulting naturally from the birth process are much more extensive, and the examinations by the midwives in the Second Division, though done in much the same manner, didn’t have the same dangerous results. Even after the number of medical students was halved and their examinations of the women were reduced to a minimum, the mortality eventually rose to levels higher than before.

Psychological explanations were attempted (the visits of a priest to deliver the last sacraments to dying women was thought to have had a bad effect on the patients). Semmelweis tested this idea and found that the mortality in the First Division did not decrease. He altered the womens’ position of delivery for birth but again found no alteration in the mortality.

In 1847 a fatal accident suffered by a colleague – a cut on a finger from a scalpel used in an autopsy, resulting in the same symptoms he had observed in the victims of puerperal fever – gave Semmelweis the clue he needed. He realised that ‘cadaveric matter’, introduced by the scalpel, had caused the doctor’s illness and death. He realised that the doctors and students had been the carriers of the infection, moving directly to the wards after performing autopsies, having only superficially washed their hands.

Semmelweis again tested his idea by reasoning that if he were correct, his instruction that all medical students should wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before making an examination, could prevent the fever. The mortality from the fever immediately began to decrease.

In further support of his hypothesis, Semmelweis noted that it accounted for the fact that the mortality in the Second Division was consistently so much lower: the midwives there did not engage in anatomical dissection. The hypothesis also explained the lower mortality among the ‘street births’: these women were rarely examined after admission. Again, the hypothesis accounted for the fact that the victims of the fever among the newborn babies were all among those whose mothers had contracted the disease during labor, when the infection could be transmitted to the baby before birth.

Semmelweis broadened his hypothesis by first sterilising his hands, then examining a woman suffering from cervical cancer, and then proceeding to examine a number of other women in the same room after only routine washing. Nearly all of them died of puerperal fever. He concluded that the fever can be also caused by ‘putrid matter derived from living organisms’.

Logical deduction usually moves from the general to the particular and requires that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true and that to accept the premises and to deny the conclusion is to contradict oneself. It depends on a priori reasoning. Its aim is to produce certain truth.

Induction (the general method of science) usually moves from the particular to the general (from the observed to the unobserved, from the past to the future or from partial experience to claims about general experience). Even if the premises are true, the conclusion might be false, and there is no contradiction in accepting the premises and denying the conclusion. It is based on a posteriori reasoning and is the method by which a general law or principle is inferred from observed particular instances. The problem with inductive argument is that the conclusion is not guaranteed truth (the Absolute Truth beloved of metaphysicians), even though all one’s observations may all be correct.

In order to find the cause of the fever, Semmelweis collected data, analysed it and formed and tested various hypotheses on that basis. These hypotheses were thought up to account for observed facts. Further, they gave no deductively conclusive evidence, but only more or less strong confirmation for their applicability. Semmelweis did not restrict his study to events at his hospital but to better understand these events, took into consideration births before the mothers arrived at the hospital and the incidence of puerperal fever outside the hospital. Because he proceeded inductively, Semmelweis was able to retain, reshape or discard premises in the light of incorrect conclusions. Even when he had identified the cause of the fever’s spread in the hospital, and did a further testing of his hypothesis using ‘putrid matter derived from living organisms’, not all of the women subjected to it died.

In cognition, induction and deduction are not self-sufficient methods, but are closely interconnected and interdependent.

C. Hempel. “Scientific Inquiry: Invention and Test” in Philosophy of Natural Science, Prentice-Hall, 1966

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As Lenin wrote:

‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature…’

V.I.Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.

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Dialectics at work

From Tony Stephens ‘Conquerors today, vanquished tomorrow’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 05-06.01.02

The American empire of today may be, at least in part, an empire of the mind. It is also an empire of corporate, Coca-Cola hegemony, of CNN, Sex and the City TV culture. It may be a virtual empire, but it’s nonetheless an empire. And many argue that Australia is part of it.

It is hard to imagine the American empire falling but fall it will, unless it defies all of history’s precedents. Morris Berman says in a new book, The Twilight of American Culture: “There is simply no exception to the rule that all civilisations eventually fall apart, and we are not going to beat the odds, or outflank the historical record.”

Berman, an American cultural historian and social critic, says his country’s “comparisons with Rome are quite startling: the late empire saw extremes of rich and poor, and the disappearance of the middle class, the costs of bureaucracy and defence pushed it towards bankruptcy; literacy and Greek learning melted away into a kind of New Age thinking…”.

Berman’s book, published in the United States before September 11, has not been released in Australia. The book argues that factors within American society will bring about its disintegration. Berman has returned recently to the subject, writing in The Guardian that the events of September 11 provided another parallel with the Roman Empire – the factor of external barbarism.

The Goths began pressing against the border of the Roman Empire from the late third century and scored a decisive victory at Adrianople in AD 378. Siege and potential invasion became facts of Roman life after 378. Alaric, the Visigoth leader, invaded Italy in 401 and captured Rome in 410. The Vandals sacked the city in 455 and barbarian mercenaries made the Germanic chieftain Odoacer king of the western empire in 476.

“America, too, now has barbarians at the gates,” Berman says. He sees other similarities – even in one photograph of the shell of the World Trade Centre resembling pictures of the Roman Colosseum. He says the Romans had no understanding of their attackers or their values.

“Similarly, America views Islamic terrorism as completely irrational; there is no understanding of the political context of this activity, a context of American military attack on, or crippling economic sanctions against, a host of Arab nations – with unilateral support for Israel constituting the central, running sore.”

Instead, the enemy is characterised as ‘jealous of our way of life’, ‘hateful of freedom’ and so on. Hence President Bush, no less than the Islamic terrorists, uses the language of religious war: we are on a ‘crusade’; the military operation was initially called ‘Infinite Justice’; and the enemy is ‘evil itself’.

“Along with this is the belief that the Pax Romana/Americana is the only ‘reasonable’ way to live. In the American case, we have a military and economic empire that views the world as one big happy market, and believes that everybody needs to come on board. We – global corporate consumerism – are the future, ‘progress’. If the ‘barbarians’ fail to share this vision, they are ‘medieval’; if they resist, ‘evil’.”

Berman says his book is “for oddballs, for men and women who experience themselves as expatriates within their own country. It is a guidebook of sorts, to the 21st century and beyond”.

Guide Berman seems to rely to some extent on Oswald Spengler, a gloomy prophet who wrote The Decline of the West after World War I. He develops Spengler’s view that every civilisation has its twilight period.

Berman lists four factors present when a civilisation collapses: accelerating social and economic inequality; declining returns on investments in organisational solutions to socio-economic problems; rapidly falling levels of literacy and critical understanding; the emptying out of culture, a kind of spiritual death.

On the dumbing down of America, he quotes a Time magazine poll showing that nearly 70 per cent believed in the existence of angels, another poll revealing that 50 per cent believed in the presence of UFOs and space aliens on Earth, and a US Department of Education survey in 1995 saying that 60 per cent of students had no idea how the US came into existence. Berman says that the US ranks 49th out of 158 United Nations countries on a literacy table. About 60 per cent of adults have never read a book of any kind.

Berman can be glib, with a broad-brush approach leading to sweeping statements based on limited evidence. He also heavily qualifies his theory, sometimes tortuously, regarding a descent into barbarism as “certainly possible, and may even occur to some degree toward the end of the 21st century, perhaps for a short period of time; but the general outlook, it seems to me, is one of slow, rather than sudden, disintegration, for this country seems to be very good at crisis management”.

He says that the dissolution of corporate hegemony is at least 40 years away. What’s more, it might not be a collapse but more of a transformation, even if the United States is a cultural shambles,” an empire wilderness”. If the 20th century was the American century, the 21st would still be the Americanised century.

Then there might be the dawn of a new American culture. This could happen provided the good bits are saved, like the good bits of the Roman Empire were saved during the Dark Ages to re-emerge in the Renaissance.

Berman goes on: “The phrase ‘twilight of American culture’ implies an eventual dawn, and at some point we are going to emerge from our contemporary twilight and future darkness, if only because no historical configuration is the end of history.”

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“All that comes into being deserves to perish”

200 million suns: M60-UCD1, the densest galaxy in the nearby universe

200 million suns: M60-UCD1, the densest galaxy in the nearby universe

This much is certain: there was a time when the matter of our island universe had transformed into heat such an amount of motion – of what kind we do not yet know – that there could be developed from it the solar systems appertaining to (according to Mädler) at least twenty million stars, the gradual extinction of which is likewise certain. How did this transformation take place? We know just as little as Father Secchi knows whether the future caput mortuum of our solar system will once again be converted into the raw material of new solar systems. But here either we must have recourse to a creator, or we are forced to the conclusion that the incandescent raw material for the solar systems of our universe was produced in a natural way by transformations of motion which are by nature inherent in moving matter, and the conditions for which, therefore, must also be reproduced by matter, even if only after millions and millions of years and more or less by chance, but with the necessity that is also inherent in chance.

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 37-38

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Time: matter in motion

Hourglass

NGC6302_ButterflyNebula_NASA1024

NGC 6302: The Butterfly Nebula

EtaCarinae_HubbleSchmidt_960

Doomed Star Eta Carinae

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Images: top/middle/bottom

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Trapezium

The Orion Nebula Trapezium

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In the Valley of Orion Nebula visualisation

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Images: 1st/2nd

Want to see a good display on New Year’s Eve?

NGC 6357: Stellar Wonderland

NGC 6357: Stellar Wonderland

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Image (click twice to fully enlarge)

Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part eight

A massive star in NGC 6357

A massive star in NGC 6357

“Matter has disappeared” (continued)

The opinions expressed by Bogdanov in 1899 regarding “the immutable essence of things”, the opinions of Valentinov and Yushkevich regarding “substance”, and so forth – are similar fruits of ignorance of dialectics. From Engels’ point of view, the only immutability is the reflection by the human mind (when there is a human mind) of an external world existing and developing independently of the mind. No other “immutability”, no other “essence”, no other “absolute substance”, in the sense in which these concepts were depicted by the empty professorial philosophy, exist for Marx and Engels. The “essence” of things, or “substance”, is also relative; it expresses only the degree of profundity of man’s knowledge of objects; and while yesterday the profundity of this knowledge did not go beyond the atom, and today does not go beyond the electron and ether, dialectical materialism insists on the temporary, relative, approximate character of all these milestones in the knowledge of nature gained by the progressing science of man. The electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, nature is infinite, but it infinitely exists. And it is this sole categorical, this sole unconditional recognition of nature’s existence outside the mind and perception of man that distinguishes dialectical materialism from relativist agnosticism and idealism.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 243

The first image (a 180 degree panorama) sent from another planet (Venus). Venera 9, 1975

The first image (a 180 degree panorama) sent from another planet (Venus). Venera 9, 1975

Opportunity at Santa Maria Crater, Mars, 2011

Opportunity at Santa Maria Crater, Mars, 2011

Philae on comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 2014

Philae on comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 2014

Flying past Neptune’s moon Triton

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Part eight/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd/4th

Marx acknowledges his debt to mysticism – and its potential

NGC 7635: The Bubble Nebula

NGC 7635: The Bubble Nebula

‘I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker…The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.’

Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Postface to the Second Edition 1873, Penguin, London, 1982, pp. 102-103

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Contra sacerdotes latentes

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The one (theoretical) absolute is change

The one (theoretical) absolute is change

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Leibniz’s perspectivism

FinestarDiamond

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For Leibniz, the nature of the knowledge we have of the world is perspectival, limited and finite. It is perspectival and limited because we are all in different places at any one time and can only view the world from those positions (literal perspective), have different beliefs about the world (metaphorical perspective) and finite not only because our monadic lives must end but because, despite our intellects, we can never grasp the world in its fullness and totality as can God in his omniscience.

The degree to which our monadic capacities as ‘mirrors’ of God are developed determines the degree to which we can reason and understand God, his beneficence and the world – this very ability enables us to appreciate our limitation.

Leibniz wrote of ‘clear and distinct’ ideas. A differentiation between things gives a clear idea (for example we can reason about objects because we can perceive their form) but when it is known why a thing is as it is, what its essential properties are, the idea is distinct.

Leibniz thought that scientific knowledge, though it aims to provide both clear and distinct ideas can only ever be limited because it is based on sensory information and reflects our finitude as monads.

The ideas of empiricism and mechanistic physics give confused, contingent truths whereas the ideas of metaphysical reason lead to necessary truths, truths that are distinct – the ‘knowledge’ of particular concern to Leibniz.

The knowledge of these necessary and eternal truths distinguishes us from animals and carries us beyond science, beneath science, to the true knowledge of ourselves, the world and God.

For example, when we think about time and space clearly and distinctly we will know that they are not real, that they refer (Leibniz drawing on Neoplatonic duration) to the simultaneity and flux between monadic representations.

As monadic ‘mirrors’ of God and his ‘mind’, we bear not only our futures but these innate ideas or truths in our own ‘minds’ as dispositions or tendencies. Leibniz denied that such knowledge was limited by our experience.

While our knowledge can only ever be limited and perspectival, God’s is perfect and infinite – not only is this monadic world his creation, all perspectives (again drawing on Christianity and the Neoplatonic hypostases of Intellect and the One) are united, co-ordinated and harmonised in his mind, the world.

Consistent with God’s laws, it is an harmonisation of the internal states of the monadic substances, their perspectival representations (beliefs, perceptions) and appetitions (desires, drives).

The interactions and interconnections between monads and their states – and therefore God’s harmonisation – are pre-ordained by him. In our finitude, we can only poorly realise this true knowledge.

That thought grasps its object from a particular point of view is an excellent, necessary approach to knowing the world.

When two people look at the same object or consider the same issue yet think and speak about it differently, they do so because they relate with that object or issue from their own perspective.

The questioning and testing of these perspectives, each in relation to the other and to their objective circumstances, can result in the deepening of our understanding of what is seen or considered.

In the process, we embrace and engage with the engine of the world – contradiction.

To bring perspectives constructively to a subject is to cut facets on a rough diamond.

Perspectives are essential to truth and to our knowledge of the world.

Brillanten

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