I was listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson on Star Talk the other day, and he was answering a question about orbits. But he added that it's not entirely true that, for instance, the earth orbits the sun, because the earth doesn't orbit the sun's center. Rather, both the earth and the sun both orbit their common center of gravity, which happens to be really close to the center of the sun, but not exactly. He also said that this isn't entirely true either, and I forget what exactly his reason was, but for some reason this reminded me of Peirce's essay defining a new list of categories. His categories begin with Being, which is the unity itself, whenever you predicate anything of anything else. His list ends with Substance, which he refers to as the What Is, which is the basic empirical content of the world that can't be summed up in any sort of concept scheme. Between Being and Substance are several different grades of concept, each one becoming more sophisticated, in the same way that the concept of orbit was slowly becoming more sophisticated.

So when I think of a statement such as that the earth orbits the sun, I generally think of the simplest version, unless I think of it some more, and then I think of the more sophisticated version. Maybe, if I think about it some more, I can grow even more sophisticated, by noting the gravitational influence of more and more bodies on the orbit of the earth and the sun, whether the strong influence of Jupiter in our solar system, to the extremely slight and insignificant, yet certain, gravitational influence of distant galaxies. Ultimately, I might conclude that all mass orbits all other mass, but by now I'm using the term "orbit" in an extremely sophisticated but difficult way. I question if even concept of "orbit" should even apply here.

So is it valid to be a skeptic of concepts here and say that all of our concepts are really false in a similar way? Is there any way of measuring how close to "substance" a concept is, or is this an idiosyncratic Peircean invention?

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    This suggests the question of what truth and falsehood even mean once you go outside a strict logical framework.
    – David Z
    Jun 26 '14 at 1:09

I think you need to distinguish between "concepts" in general and the specific type of concept you raise here, models. Models are useful simplification of mechanisms. They are not "false," they just simply don't tell the whole story. Good models tell enough of the story, where what we mean by enough depends on the specific practical problem at hand. There's a well-known quote, "All models are wrong, some are useful," I think that's what you're getting at.

Note that trying to measure how close to "substance" a concept is would necessarily be wrong in some cases, since how close to "substance" the model is depends on the question. Some models for population might, for example, be very accurate in the next year or so but be very wrong in the long term.

  • So do you disagree that "the earth orbits the sun" is false, or do you disagree that it is a model? Aren't all simplifications falsifications? Jun 25 '14 at 20:16
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    "The earth orbits the sun" is a great example of a model. Models are not evaluated as being "true" or "false" - it's not a useful question to answer. In practice, models are evaluated using a loss function like Root-Mean-Square error over a set of observations or some other thing that the person using the model cares about. Jun 25 '14 at 20:26
  • So is this like instrumentalism? Jun 25 '14 at 20:48
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    An example that immediately springs to mind is classical (Newtonian) mechanics. This model is "wrong" when dealing with very high velocities, and Einstein's theory of relativity gives a more accurate model. Nevertheless, the classical mechanical model is perfectly adequate for a lot of real-life scenarios, and relativity often just makes things more complicated without adding very much value.
    – BenM
    Jun 26 '14 at 0:42
  • @KevinHolmes, From the definition of instrumentalism on Wikipedia, I don't think that's necessarily the case. For example, Newtonian Mechanics do tell us something about things we cannot observe directly (like gravity), even if they tell only part of the story. Jun 26 '14 at 14:37

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