The Puppet Always Wins

23 August 2011

Tuesday


In Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “On the Concept of History” (“Über den Begriff der Geschichte“), begins with this enigmatic aphorism:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.

We all know that Benjamin was a commie, and when he wrote this he was additionally a Jew on the run from the Nazis. It was among the very last things he wrote. After making his way from Paris to the Spanish border, he killed himself after being refused permission to cross. Ironically, the border was opened again the next day, but Benjamin obviously saw himself at a dead end that night, with no hope offered by the dawn of a new day.

Despite his ideological orientation, Benjamin does not take a simplistic tack when it comes to the theoretical basis of communism, viz. historical materialism. In this, Benjamin was far superior to the greater number of his fellow travelers (sort of like Brecht’s poem, Questions from a Worker Who Reads).

Recently on Twitter I wrote, “Historical materialism has been superseded by methodological naturalism.” Benjamin’s subtle attitude to historical materialism can be transplanted to the methodological naturalism that has supplanted it. And, now that I’m thinking of it, there do seem to be two ways of practicing science: one in which the puppet always wins, and another without either mechanism or hidden theology.

Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about methodological naturalism recently. On my other blog I wrote A Note on Methodological Naturalism, and the day before yesterday I posted Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence. Of the many philosophical dictionaries and reference books I keep to hand I haven’t been able to find a really good straight-up definition of methodological naturalism. There are, to be sure, definitions to be found, but none of the rise of the level of analytical clarity one would like to see.

For example, Philosophy Professor, which is a useful site for basic philosophical definitions, has no definition for “methodological naturalism,” but it gives this definition for naturalism:

“Any view holding that things in general, or things in some sphere under investigation, are all of one kind (as opposed to being of radically different kinds), and are amenable to study by scientific methods, without appeal to supernatural intervention or special kinds of intuition. In art or literature, any of a variety of views saying the artist should imitate the natural world or actual human behavior.”

This is great as far as it goes, but but it won’t be much use to use in defining science and the scientific method because the definition defines naturalism in terms of science, making any definition of science in terms of naturalism entirely circular. It would also be very difficult, from a philosophical point of view, to give adequate definitions of “thing” and “kind” that would illuminate this definition.

This woeful situation in relation to methodological naturalism 1) is related to the difficulty of defining naturalism itself, and 2) stands in fairly sharp contrast to two other ideas that I recently identified as central philosophical principles in the practice of contemporary natural science: the principle of parsimony, or Ockham’s razor, and uniformitarianism, which may be considered more or less logically equivalent to the Principle of Continuity.

Philosophers have given us a library of tomes on Ockham’s razor since Ockham formulated it in the middle ages, and scientists themselves have given a not insubstantial commentary on uniformitarianism. For example, Stephen J. Gould’s classic paper “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” makes a quadripartite distinction between species of uniformitarianism: of law, of methodology, of kind, and of degree.

I don’t know of any similar depth or breadth of material on methodological naturalism. I could simply cut the Gordian Knot and declare that science and methodological naturalism are identical, that each is, logically speaking, an alternative formulation of the other. However, this wouldn’t be very helpful, and I don’t even believe it to be true.

If we short circuit our definition of science by resorting to vacuous circularity, the puppet always wins. But what does it win? Nothing. Tautological truth comes at the expense of content. That’s why it’s better to unravel the Gordian Know strand by strand rather than to cut it. This is hard work — in the present case, hard conceptual work, hard philosophical work.

In a humorous passage in his An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Russell makes a reference to just this kind of hard conceptual work:

The method of “postulating” what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil. Let us leave them to others and proceed with our honest toil.

Bertrand Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Chapter VII

The advantages of theft (like postulation, according to Russell) are the “advantages” that accrue when the puppet always wins. The alternative of honest toil means thinking things through, especially when they are difficult, because it is when concepts are difficult that we must be most careful, as we are most vulnerable to confusion.

The example I gave above of vacuous circularity in attempting to define science is a philosophical concern rather than a scientific concern, but just as there are better and worse ways of doing philosophy, so too there are better and worse ways of doing science, and science is just as susceptible to setting things up so that the puppet always wins, and being sufficiently deluded about the process to believe in it, as is philosophy.

The most obvious way in which this sort of dishonesty wins out over honesty toil is in confirmation bias. An awareness of confirmation bias pervades the contemporary conception of scientific method, and in fact much in contemporary scientific method — like double blind studies — has been formalized in its present form precisely in an attempt to methodologically exclude confirmation bias.

But the mind is often its own worst enemy, and the labyrinthine paths of our thought find ways to make things happen despite our conscious efforts not to let the puppet win every time. In Beyond the Turing Test I quoted Alfred North Whitehead to similar effect:

“Discussions on the method of science wander off onto the topic of experiment. But experiment is nothing else than a mode of cooking the facts for the sake of exemplifying the law. Unfortunately the facts of history, even those of private individual history, are on too large a scale. They surge forward beyond control.”

Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 1967, Chapter VI, “Foresight,” p.88

When science is practiced in the spirit of a cooking of the facts to exemplify the general law, the puppet wins every time. In this particular respect, the historical sciences, deprived as they are of experiment (mostly, that is, except for experimental archaeology) and reliant on retrodiction rather than prediction, represent a kind of science insulated from the temptation to cook the facts with experiment. And yet, the historical sciences (most especially the subdivision of the social sciences) are notoriously less objective than the “hard” natural sciences. I’ll have to think more about this, as it is a problem that might offer rewards in exchange for honest toil.

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One Response to “The Puppet Always Wins”

  1. Foucault? Genealogy?

    Global capitalism, the end of linear time, the end of progressive politics, the end of history, the end of Marx and Freud pretty much. Just Events coming from elsewhere until they are forgotten.

    I’m listening to Zizek.

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