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The Role of Concepts in Scientific Investigation

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Here are some things I've noticed.  Where applicable, I have mentioned relevant philosophical works in the Objectivist literature. Can you think of something else that concepts do for scientists?


Investigation of a universal to be explained depends on a concept of that universal. Consider "heat". Without a concept of heat, it would not have been possible to investigate its referents. One cannot investigate without first mentally isolating something that can be investigated. One cannot hope to explain something without first mentally isolating what is to be explained.

What exists is classified as a particular instance of a universal on the basis of conceptual identification. For example, when one classifies something as "hot", the mind subsumes an aspect of a perceptual concrete under the concept of heat. In order to explain heat as an effect, scientists had to discover what it is to be heat. Since the concept of heat is an abstraction from abstractions, it was necessary to examine instances of heat.  The process of conceptual identification is clarified by Harry Binswanger in Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation.

The process of discovery is guided by other concepts besides the concept of the universal investigated. Scientists had to apply numerous concepts to factual data about the instances of heat: the concept of concentration, the concept of confining and enclosing, the concept of friction, the concept of chemical reaction, the methodological concept of comparative measurement, the concept of rarity of gas, the concept of motion, the concept of tendency, the concept of surface, the concept of particle, etc. 

The validity of an investigation depends in part on the validity of the concepts used throughout the process. Every concept applied during the course of a scientific investigation must be a valid concept. And every identification depends on correctly isolating a characteristic of the subject from all the other characteristics of that subject. A study of the history of the investigation of heat will reveal how an invalid concept can interfere with causal understanding and produce erroneous theories (e.g. phlogiston, which David Harriman mentions in Logical Leap).

Valid concepts enable the application of antecedent knowledge.

  • The concept of friction can be hierarchically reduced to earlier knowledge of motion and surface impediments to motion. The concept of motion, the concept of surface, and the concept of impediment were abstracted from entities. Thus it is perfectly valid to pursue the discovery of constituents and their interactions. 
  • The concept of chemical reaction can be hierarchically reduced to the knowledge of combinations of pure substances and the concept of change. Concepts of substances were formed by distinguishing entities according to constituents. Thus it is perfectly valid to pursue the discovery of the constituents of chemical substances.
  • The methodological concept of experimental confinement can be traced back to the knowledge that man is not omniscient and to the concept of causality. This methodological concept can be activated to carefully exclude irrelevant, interfering factors.

Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger have tips on performing hierarchical reduction scattered throughout their lectures and books.

Some instances of a universal can be used to demonstrate propositions applicable to more than one instance. Consider the expansion of liquid mercury and liquid alcohol when heated by fire. This demonstrates that the expansion of liquids quantifies the net effect of the behaviour of their constituents. Consider the fact that metal heated by the fire can produce the same amount of expansion. Consider the fact that a metal bar can be expanded by fire. Consider the fact that a metal bar is shorter in the coldest part of winter than in the hottest part of summer. Therefore we make measurements in reference to the net effect of the behaviour of the constituents.

Concepts of characteristics provide a context for identifying the fundamental characteristic. After you have identified a number of characteristics distinguishing the universal of inductive interest, you can determine which characteristic of the concept's units is the characteristic that causes or explains the most others known. The designation of the fundamental can be altered with the growth of human knowledge. It took centuries of discovery to proceed from the aspect of motion of particles to the more fundamental aspect known as the energy of the particles. Ayn Rand discusses the contextual nature of definitions in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, chapter 5. Definitions, pg. 43-45 of the English 2nd edition

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Vik said:


On ‎12‎/‎20‎/‎2015 at 5:34 PM, Vik said:

It took centuries of discovery to proceed from the aspect of motion of particles to the more fundamental aspect known as the energy of the particles

I wonder if you understand that this is a substantial claim in the Philosophy of Science:


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I've used the concept of energy as a concept of method for making certain predictions about motion and change.

I know that "binding energy" was used to deal with fact that the collected mass of two protons and two neutrons exceeds the mass of a helium nucleus.  They simply equate the binding energy to the so-called "mass defect".  In that application, energy has to be a concept of method.

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