10 November 2015
A medieval logician in the twenty-first century
In the discussion surrounding the unusual light curve of the star KIC 8462852, Ockham’s razor has been mentioned numerous times. I have written a couple of posts on this topic, i.e., interpreting the light curve of KIC 8462852 in light of Ockham’s razor, KIC 8462852 and Parsimony and Plenitude in Cosmology.
What is Ockham’s razor exactly? Well, that is a matter of philosophical dispute (and I offer my own more precise definition below), but even if it is difficult to say that Ockham’s razor is exactly, we can say something about what it was originally. Philotheus Boehner, a noted Ockham scholar, wrote of Ockham’s razor:
“It is quite often stated by Ockham in the form: ‘Plurality is not to be posited without necessity’ (Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate), and also, though seldom: ‘What can be explained by the assumption of fewer things is vainly explained by the assumption of more things’ (Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora). The form usually given, ‘Entities must not be multiplied without necessity’ (Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate), does not seem to have been used by Ockham.”
William of Ockham, Philosophical Writings: A Selection, translated, with an Introduction, by Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M., Indianapolis and New York: The Library of Liberal Arts, THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY, INC., 1964, Introduction, p. xxi
Most references to (and even most uses of) Ockham’s razor are informal and not very precise. In Maybe It’s Time To Stop Snickering About Aliens, which I linked to in KIC 8462852 Update, Adam Frank wrote of Ockham’s razor in relation to KIC 8462852:
“…aliens are always the last hypothesis you should consider. Occam’s razor tells scientists to always go for the simplest explanation for a new phenomenon. But even as we keep Mr. Occam’s razor in mind, there is something fundamentally new happening right now that all of us, including scientists, must begin considering… the exoplanet revolution means we’re developing capacities to stare deep into the light produced by hundreds of thousands of boring, ordinary stars. And these are exactly the kind of stars where life might form on orbiting planets… So we are already going to be looking at a lot of stars to hunt for planets. And when we find those planets, we are going to look at them for basic signs that life has formed. But all that effort means we will also be looking in exactly the right places to stumble on evidence of not just life but intelligent, technology-deploying life.
Here the idea of Ockham’s razor is present, but little more than the idea. Rather than merely invoking the idea of Ockham’s razor, and merely assuming what constitutes simplicity and parsimony, if we are going to profitably employ the idea today, we need to develop it more fully in the context of contemporary scientific knowledge. In KIC 8462852 I wrote:
“One can see an emerging adaptation of Ockham’s razor, such that explanations of astrophysical phenomena are first explained by known processes of nature before they are attributed to intelligence. Intelligence, too, is a process of nature, but it seems to be rare, so one ought to exercise particular caution in employing intelligence as an explanation.”
In a recent post, Parsimony and Emergent Complexity I went a bit further and suggested that Ockham’s razor can be formulated with greater precision in terms of emergent complexity, such that no phenomenon should be explained in terms of a level of emergent complexity higher than that necessary to explain the phenomenon.
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and its textual history
Like Darwin many centuries later, Copernicus hesitated to publish his big book to explain his big idea, i.e., heliocentrism. Both men, Darwin and Copernicus, understood the impact that their ideas would have, though both probably underestimated the eventual influence of these ideas; both were to transform the world and leave as a legacy entire cosmologies. The particular details of the Copernican system are less significant than the Copernican idea, i.e., the Copernican cosmology, which, like Ockham’s razor, has gone on to a long career of continuing influence.
Darwin eventually published in his lifetime, prompted by the “Ternate essay” that Wallace sent him, but Copernicus put off publishing until the end of his life. It is said that Copernicus was shown a copy of the first edition of De revolutionibus on his deathbed (though this is probably apocryphal). Copernicus, of course, lived much closer to the medieval world than did Darwin — one could well argue that Toruń and Frombork in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the medieval world — so we can readily understand Copernicus’ hesitation to publish. Darwin published in a world already transformed by industrialization, already wrenched by unprecedented social change; Copernicus eventually published in a world that, while on the brink of profound change, had not appreciably changed in a thousand years.
Copernicus’ hesitation meant that he did not directly supervise the publication of his manuscript, that he was not able to correct or revise subsequent editions (Darwin revised On the Origin of Species repeatedly for six distinct editions in his lifetime, not including translations), and that he was not able to respond to the reception of his book. All of these conditions were to prove significant in the reception and propagation of the Copernican heliocentric cosmology.
Copernicus, after long hesitation, was stimulated to pursue the publication of De revolutionibus by his contact with Georg Joachim Rheticus, who traveled to Frombork for the purpose of meeting Copernicus. Rheticus, who had great respect for Copernicus’ achievement, came from the hotbed of renaissance and Protestant scholarship that was Nuremberg. He took Copernicus’ manuscript to Nuremberg to be published by a noted scientific publisher of the day, but Rheticus did not stay to oversee the entire publication of the work. This job was handed down to Andreas Osiander, a Protestant theologian who sought to water down the potential impact of De Revolutionibus by adding a preface that suggested that Copernicus’ theory should be accepted in the spirit of an hypothesis employed for the convenience of calculation. Osiander did not sign this preface, and many readers of the book, when it eventually came out, thought that this preface was the authentic Copernican interpretation of the text.
Osiander’s preface, and Osiander’s intentions in writing the preface (and changing the title of the book) continue to be debated to the present day. This debate cannot be cleanly separated from the tumult surrounding the Protestant Reformation. Luther and the Lutherans were critical of Copernicus — they had staked the legitimacy of their movement on Biblical literalism — but one would have thought that Protestantism would have been friendly to the work of Ockham, given Ockham’s conflict with the Papacy, Ockham’s fideism, and his implicit position as a critic of Thomism. (I had intended to read up on the Protestant interpretation of Ockham prior to writing this post, but I haven’t yet gotten to this.) The parsimony of Copernicus’ formulation of cosmology, then, was a mixed message to the early scientific revolution in the context of the Protestant Reformation.
Both Rheticus and Copernicus’ friend Tiedemann Giese were indignant over the unsigned and unauthorized preface by Osiander. Rheticus, by some accounts, was furious, and felt that the book and Copernicus had been betrayed. He pursued legal action against the printer, but it is not clear that it was the printer who was at fault for the preface. While Rheticus suspected Osiander as the author of the preface, this was not confirmed until some time later, when Rheticus had moved on to other matters, so Osiander was never pursued legally over the preface.
The most common reason adduced to preferring Copernican cosmology to Ptolematic cosmology is not that one is true and the other is false (though this certainly is a reason to prefer Copernicus) but rather that the Copernican cosmology is the simpler and more straight-forward explanation for the observed movements of the stars and the planets. The Ptolemaic system can predict the movements of stars, planets, and the moon (within errors of margin relevant to its time), but it does so by way of a much more complex and cumbersome method than that of Copernicus. Copernicus was radical in the disestablishment of traditional cosmological thought, but once beyond that first radical step of displacing the Earth of the center of the universe (a process we continue to iterate today), the solar system fell into place according to a marvelously simple plan that anyone could understand once it was explained: the sun at the center, and all the planets revolving around it. From the perspective of our rotating and orbiting Earth, the other planets also orbiting the sun appear to reverse in their course, but this is a mere artifact due to our position as observers. Once Copernicus can convince the reader that, despite the apparent solidity of the Earth, it is in fact moving through space, everything else falls into place.
One of the reasons that theoretical parsimony and elegance played such a significant role in the reception of Copernicus — and even the theologians who rejected his cosmology employed his calculations to clarify the calendar, so powerful was Copernicus’ work — was that the evidence given for the Copernican system was indirect. Even today, only a handful of the entire human population has ever left the planet Earth and looked down on it from above — seeing Earth from the perspective of the overview effect — and so acquired direct evidence of the Earth in space. No one, no single human being, has hovered above the solar system entire and looked down upon it and so obtained the most direct evidence of the Copernican theory — this is an overview affect that we have not yet attained. (NB: in The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight I suggested the possibility of a hierarchy of overview effects as one moved further out from Earth.)
The knowledge that we have of our solar system, and indeed of the universe entire, is derived from observations and deduction from observations. Moreover, seeing the truth of Copernican heliocentrism would not only require an overview in space, but an overview in time, i.e., one would need to hover over our solar system for hundreds of years to see all the planets rotating around the common center of the sun, and one would have to, all the while, remain focused on observing the solar system in order to be able to have “seen” the entire process — a feat beyond the limitations of the human lifetime, not to mention human consciousness.
Copernicus himself did not mention the principle of parsimony or Ockham’s razor, and certainly did not mention William of Ockham, though Ockham was widely read in Copernicus’ time. The principle of parsimony is implicit, even pervasive, in Copernicus, as it is in all good science. We don’t want to account for the universe with Rube Goldberg-like contraptions as our explanations.
In a much later era of scientific thought — in the scientific thought of our own time — Stephen J. Gould wrote an essay titled “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” in which he argued for the view that uniformitarianism in geology had simply come to mean that geology follows the scientific method. Similarly, one might well argued that parsimony is no more necessary than uniformitarianism, and that what content of parsimony remains is simply coextenisve with the scientific method. To practice science is to reason in accordance with Ockham’s razor, but we need not explicitly invoke or apply Ockham’s razor, because its prescriptions are assimilated into the scientific method. And indeed this idea fits in quite well with the casual references to Ockham’s razor such as that I quoted above. Most scientists do not need to think long and hard about parsimony, because parsimonious formulations are already a feature of the scientific method. If you follow the scientific method, you will practice parsimony as a matter of course.
Copernicus’ Ockham, then, was already the Ockham already absorbed into nascent scientific thought. Perhaps it would be better to say that parsimony is implicit in the scientific method, and Copernicus, in implicitly following a scientific method that had not yet, in his time, been made explicit, was following the internal logic of the scientific method and its parsimonious demands for simplicity.
Osiander was bitterly criticized in his own time for his unauthorized preface to Copernicus, though many immediately recognized it as a gambit to allow for the reception of Copernicus’ work to involve the least amount of controversy. As I noted above, the Protestant Reformation was in full swing, and the events that would lead up the Thirty Years’ War were beginning to unfold. Europe was a powder keg, and many felt that it was the better part of valor not to touch a match to any issue that might explode. All the while, others were doing everything in their power to provoke a conflict that would settle matters once and for all.
Osiander not only added the unsigned and unauthorized preface, but also changed the title of the whole work from De revolutionibus to De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, adding a reference to the heavenly spheres that was not in Copernicus. This, too, can be understood as a concession to the intellectually conservative establishment — or it can be seen as a capitulation. But it was the preface, and what the preface claimed as the proper way to understand the work, that was the nub of the complaint against Osiander.
Here is a long extract of Osiander’s unsigned and unauthorized preface to De revolutionibus, not quite the whole thing, but most of it:
“…it is the duty of an astronomer to compose the history of the celestial motions through careful and expert study. Then he must conceive and devise the causes of these motions or hypotheses about them. Since he cannot in any way attain to the true causes, he will adopt whatever suppositions enable the motions to be computed correctly from the principles of geometry for the future as well as for the past. The present author has performed both these duties excellently. For these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. On the contrary, if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough. Perhaps there is someone who is so ignorant of geometry and optics that he regards the epicyclc of Venus as probable, or thinks that it is the reason why Venus sometimes precedes and sometimes follows the sun by forty degrees and even more. Is there anyone who is not aware that from this assumption it necessarily follows that the diameter of the planet at perigee should appear more than four times, and the body of the planet more than sixteen times, as great as at apogee? Yet this variation is refuted by the experience of every age. In this science there are some other no less important absurdities, which need not be set forth at the moment. For this art, it is quite clear, is completely and absolutely ignorant of the causes of the apparent nonuniform motions. And if any causes are devised by the imagination, as indeed very many are, they are not put forward to convince anyone that are true, but merely to provide a reliable basis for computation. However, since different hypotheses are sometimes offered for one and the same motion (for example, eccentricity and an epicycle for the sun’s motion), the astronomer will take as his first choice that hypothesis which is the easiest to grasp. The philosopher will perhaps rather seek the semblance of the truth. But neither of them will understand or state anything certain, unless it has been divinely revealed to him.”
Nicholas Copernicus, On the Revolutions, Translation and Commentary by Edward Rosen, THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS, Baltimore and London
If we eliminate the final qualification, “unless it has been divinely revealed to him,” Osiander’s preface is a straight-forward argument for instrumentalism. Osiander recommends Copernicus’ work because it gives the right results; we can stop there, and need not make any metaphysical claims on behalf of the theory. This ought to sound very familiar to the modern reader, because this kind of instrumentalism has been common in positivist thought, and especially so since the advent of quantum theory. Quantum theory is the most thoroughly confirmed theory in the history of science, confirmed to a degree of precision almost beyond comprehension. And yet quantum theory still lacks an intuitive correlate. Thus we use quantum theory because it gives us the right results, but many scientists hesitate to give any metaphysical interpretation to the theory.
Copernicus, and those most convinced of his theory, like Rheticus, was a staunch scientific realist. He did not propose his cosmology as a mere system of calculation, but insisted that his theory was the true theory describing the motions of the planets around the sun. It follows from this uncompromising scientific realism that other theories are not merely less precise in calculating the movements of the planets, but false. Scientific realism accords with common sense realism when it comes to the idea that there is a correct account of the world, and other accounts that deviate from the correct account are false. But we all know that scientific theories are underdetermined by the evidence. To formulate a law is to go beyond the finite evidence and to be able to predict an infinitude of possible future states of the phenomenon predicted.
Scientific realism, then, is an ontologically robust position, and this ontological robustness is a function of the underdetermination of the theory by the evidence. Osiander argues of Copernicus’ theory that, “if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough.” So Osiander is not willing to go beyond the evidence and posit the truth of an underdetermined theory. Moreover, Osiander was willing to maintain empirically equivalent theories, “since different hypotheses are sometimes offered for one and the same motion.” Given empirically equivalent theories that can both “provide a calculus consistent with the observations,” why would one theory be favored over another? Osiander states that the astronomer will prefer the simplest explanation (hence explaining Copernicus’ position) while the philosopher will seek a semblance of truth. Neither, however, can know what this truth is without divine revelation.
Osiander’s Ockham is the convenience of the astronomer to seek the simplest explanation for his calculations; the astronomer is justified in employing the simplest explanation of the most precise method available to calculate and predict the course of the heavens, but he cannot know the truth of his theory unless that truth is guaranteed by some outside and transcendent evidence not available through science — a deus ex machina for the mind.
The origins of the scientific revolution in Copernicus
Copernicus’ Ockham was ontological parsimony; Osiander’s Ockham was methodological parsimony. Are we forced to choose between the two, or are we forced to find a balance between ontological and methodological parsimony? These are still living questions in the philosophy of science today, and there is a sense in which it is astonishing that they appeared so early in the scientific revolution.
As noted above, the world of Copernicus was essentially a medieval world. Toruń and Frombork were far from the medieval centers of learning in Paris and Oxford, and about as far from the renaissance centers of learning in Florence and Nuremberg. Nevertheless, the new cosmology that emerged from the scientific revolution, and which is still our cosmology today, continuously revised and improved, can be traced to the Baltic coast of Poland in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. The controversy over how to interpret the findings of science can be traced to the same root.
The conventions of the scientific method were established in the work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, which means that it was the work of these seminal thinkers who established these conventions. Like the cosmologies of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, the scientific method has also been continuously revised and improved. That Copernicus grasped in essence as much of the scientific method as he did, working in near isolation far from intellectual centers of western civilization, demonstrates both the power of Copernicus’ mind and the power of the scientific method itself. As implied above, once grasped, the scientific method has an internal logic of its own that directs the development of scientific thought.
The scientific method — methodological naturalism — exists in an uneasy partnership with scientific realism — ontological naturalism. We can see that this tension was present right from the very beginning of the scientific revolution, before the scientific method was ever formulated, and the tension continues down to the present day. Contemporary analytical philosophers discuss the questions of scientific realism in highly technical terms, but it is still the same debate that began with Copernicus, Rheticus, and Osiander. Perhaps we can count the tension between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism as one of the fundamental tensions of scientific civilization.
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Updates and Addenda
This post began as a single sentence in one of my note books, and continued to grow as I worked on it. As soon as I posted it I realized that the discussions of scientific realism, instrumentalism, and methodological naturalism in relation to parsimony could be much better. With additional historical and philosophical discussion, this post might well be transformed into an entire book. So for the questioning reader, yes, I understand the inadequacy of what I have written above, and that I have not done justice to my topic.
Shortly after posting the above Paul Carr pointed out to me that the joint ESA-NASA Ulysses deep-space mission sent a spacecraft to study the poles of the sun, so we have sent a spacecraft out of the plane of the solar system, which could “look down” on our star and its planetary system, although the mission was not designed for this and had no cameras on board. If we did position a camera “above” our solar system, it would be able to take pictures of our heliocentric solar system. This, however, would be more indirect evidence — more direct than deductions from observations, but not as direct as seeing this with one’s own eyes — like the famous picture of the “blue marble” Earth, which is an overview experience for those of us who have not been into orbit to the moon, but which is not quite the same as going into orbit or to the moon.
Paul Carr also drew my attention to Astronomy Cast Episode 390: Occam’s Razor and the Problem with Probabilities, with Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay, which discusses Ockham’s razor in relation to positing aliens as a scientific explanation.
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A Wittgensteinian Approach to Civilization
One of my most frequently accessed posts is titled following Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus section 5.6, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt”). I noted in Contextualizing Wittgenstein that this earlier post on Wittgenstein was posted on Reddit and as a result gained a large number of views — a larger number, at least, than my posts usually receive.
If there is a general principle that can be derived from Tractatus 5.6, one application of this general principle would be the idea that the limits of science are the limits of scientific civilization. In the same vein we could assert that the limits of agriculture are the limits of agrarian civilization (or even, “the limits of agriculture are the limits of biocentric civilization”), and the limits of technology are the limits of technological civilization, and so forth. Another way to express this idea would be to say, the limits of science are the limits of industrial-technological civilization, in so far as our industrial-technological civilization belongs to the genus of scientific civilizations.
Recently I have taken up the problem of scientific civilizations in Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, Types of Scientific Civilization, Suboptimal Civilizations, Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations, David Hume and Scientific Civilization, The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, and Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, inter alia. None of this, as yet, is a systematic treatment of the idea of scientific civilization, though there are many ideas here that can some day be integrated into a more comprehensive synthesis.
What does it mean to live in a scientific civilization constrained by the limits of science? One of the points that I sought to make in my earlier post on Tractatus 5.6 was a scientific interpretation of Wittgenstein’s aphorism, acknowledging that the different idioms we employ to think about the world involve different conceptions of the world. In that post I wrote, “…scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.” This is part of what it means to be constrained by the limits of science: our scientific idioms constrain the conceptual framework we use to understand ourselves and our civilization.
Significantly in this context, different scientific idioms are possible. Indeed, distinct sciences are possible. We have had an historical succession of scientific idioms, which could also be called a succession of distinct sciences — something that could be presented as a Wittgensteinian formulation of Thomas Kuhn — according to which one scientific paradigm has replaced another over time. There is also the unrealized possibility of different origins of science, and different developmental pathways of science, in different civilizations. This is an idea I explored in Types of Scientific Civilization.
A civilization might develop science in a different way than science emerged in terrestrial history. A civilization might begin with a different mathematical formalism or a different logic. Perhaps logic itself might begin with the kind of logical pluralism we know today, which would contrast sharply with the logical monism that has marked most of human history. Different sciences might develop in a different order. The ancient Greeks developed an axiomatic geometry, but no scientific biology. But the idea of natural selection is, in itself, no more difficult than the idea of axiomatic geometry, and could have developed first.
A civilization might fail to develop axiomatic geometry and instead develop a scientific biology in its earliest history — its equivalent of our classical antiquity — and this kind of early biological knowledge would probably take agricultural civilization in a profoundly different direction. There may be (somewhere in the universe) scientific agrarian civilizations that are qualitatively distinct from both agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization. Thus the developmental sequence of sciences in a civilization — which sciences are developed in what order, and to what extent — will shape the scientific civilization that eventually emerges from this sequence (if it does in fact emerge). Is this sequence an historical accident? That is a difficult question that I will not attempt to answer at present.
There are, then, many possibilities for scientific civilizations, and we have not, with the history of terrestrial civilizations, fully explored (much less exhausted) these possibilities. But scientific civilizations also come with limitations that are intrinsic to scientific knowledge. In my Centauri Dreams post, “The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” I argued that the science of industrial-technological civilization, essentially narrowed by its participation in the STEM cycle that drives our civilization, is riddled with blind spots, and these blind spots mean that the civilization built on this science is riddled with blind spots.
This should not be a surprising conclusion, though I suspect few will agree with me. There is a comment on my Centauri Dreams post that implies I am arguing for the role of mystical experiences in civilization; this is not my purpose or my intention. This is simply a misunderstanding. But, in fact, the better I am understood probably the less likely it will be that others will agree with me. In another context, in A Fly in the Ointment, I argued that science is a particular branch of philosophy — that philosophy also known as methodological naturalism — which subverts the view (predictably prevalent in industrial-technological civilization) that if philosophy has any legitimacy at all, it is because it is a kind of marginal science in its own right. More often, philosophy is simply viewed as a kind of failed science.
Philosophy is not a kind of science. Science, on the contrary, is a kind of philosophy. This is not a common view today, but that is my framework for interpreting and understanding scientific civilization. It follows from this that a philosophical civilization would not necessarily be a kind of scientific civilization (the philosophy of such a civilization might or might not be the philosophy that we identify as science), but that our scientific civilization is a kind of philosophical civilization.
Philosophy is a much wider field of study, and it is from philosophy that we can expect to address the blind spots of science and the scientific civilization that has grown from science. So the limits both of science and scientific civilization can be addressed, but only from a more comprehensive perspective, and that more comprehensive perspective is not possible from within scientific civilization.
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2 August 2015
For some philosophers, naturalism is simply an extension of physicalism, which was in turn an extension of materialism. Narrow conceptions of materialism had to be extended to account for physical phenomena not reducible to material objects (like theoretical terms in science), and we can similarly view naturalism as a broadening of physicalism in order to more adequately account for the world. (I have quoted definitions of materialism and physicalism in Materialism, Physicalism, and… What?.) But, coming from this perspective, naturalism is approached from a primarily reductivist or eliminativist point of view that places an emphasis upon economy rather than adequacy in the description of nature (on reductivism and eliminativism cf. my post Reduction, Emergence, Supervenience). Here the principle of parsimony is paramount.
One target of eliminativism and reductionism is a class of concepts sometimes called “folk” concepts. The identification of folk concepts in the exposition of philosophy of science can be traced to philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett introduced the term “folk psychology” in The Intentional Stance and thereafter employed the term throughout his books. Here is part of his original introduction of the idea:
“We learn to use folk psychology — as a vernacular social technology, a craft — but we don’t learn it self-consciously as a theory — we learn no meta-theory with the theory — and in this regard our knowledge of folk psychology is like our knowledge of the grammar of our native tongue. This fact does not make our knowledge of folk psychology entirely unlike human knowledge of explicit academic theories, however; one could probably be a good practising chemist and yet find it embarrassingly difficult to produce a satisfactory textbook definition of a metal or an ion.”
Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, Chap. 3, “Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology”
Earlier (in the same chapter of the same book) Dennett had posited “folk physics”:
“In one sense people knew what magnets were — they were things that attracted iron — long before science told them what magnets were. A child learns what the word ‘magnet’ means not, typically, by learning an explicit definition, but by learning the ‘folk physics’ of magnets, in which the ordinary term ‘magnet’ is embedded or implicitly defined as a theoretical term.”
Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, Chap. 3, “Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology”
Here is another characterization of folk psychology:
“Philosophers with a yen for conceptual reform are nowadays prone to describe our ordinary, common sense, Rylean description of the mind as ‘folk psychology,’ the implication being that when we ascribe intentions, beliefs, motives, and emotions to others we are offering explanations of those persons’ behaviour, explanations which belong to a sort of pre-scientific theory.”
Scott M. Christensen and Dale R. Turner, editors, Folk Psychology and the Philosophy of Mind, Chap. 10, “The Very Idea of a Folk Psychology” by Robert A. Sharpe, University of Wales, United Kingdom
There is now quite a considerable literature on folk psychology, and many positions in the philosophy of mind are defined by their relationship to folk psychology — eliminativism is largely the elimination of folk psychology; reductionism is largely the reduction of folk psychology to cognitive science or scientific psychology, and so on. Others have gone on to identify other folk concepts, as, for example, folk biology:
Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world. Humans everywhere classify animals and plants into species-like groups as obvious to a modern scientist as to a Maya Indian. Such groups are primary loci for thinking about biological causes and relations (Mayr 1969). Historically, they provided a transtheoretical base for scientific biology in that different theories — including evolutionary theory — have sought to account for the apparent constancy of “common species” and the organic processes centering on them. In addition, these preferred groups have “from the most remote period… been classed in groups under groups” (Darwin 1859: 431). This taxonomic array provides a natural framework for inference, and an inductive compendium of information, about organic categories and properties. It is not as conventional or arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. From the vantage of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, such natural systems are arguably routine “habits of mind,” in part a natural selection for grasping relevant and recurrent “habits of the world.”
Robert Andrew Wilson and Frank C. Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences
We can easily see that the idea of folk concepts as pre-scientific concepts is applicable throughout all branches of knowledge. This has already been made explicit:
“…there is good evidence that we have or had folk physics, folk chemistry, folk biology, folk botany, and so on. What has happened to these folk endeavors? They seem to have given way to scientific accounts.”
William Andrew Rottschaefer, The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency, 1998, p. 179.
The simplest reading of the above is that in a pre-scientific state we use pre-scientific concepts, and as the scientific revolution unfolds and begins to transform traditional bodies of knowledge, these pre-scientific folk concepts are replaced with scientific concepts and knowledge becomes scientific knowledge. Thereafter, folk concepts are abandoned (eliminated) or formalized so that they can be systematically located in a scientific body of knowledge. All of this is quite close to the 19th century positivist August Comte’s theory of the three stages of knowledge, according to which theological explanations gave way to metaphysical explanations, which in turn gave way to positive scientific explanations, which demonstrates the continuity of positivist thought — even that philosophical thought that does not recognize itself as being positivist. In each case, an earlier non-scientific mode of thought is gradually replaced by a mature scientific mode of thought.
While this simple replacement model of scientific knowledge has certain advantages, it has a crucial weakness, and this is a weakness shared by all theories that, implicitly or explicitly, assume that the mind and its concepts are static and stagnant. Allow me to once again quote one of my favorite passage from Kurt Gödel, the importance of which I cannot stress enough:
“Turing… gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”
“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306.
Not only does the mind refine its concepts and arrive at more abstract formulations; the mind also introduces wholly new concepts in order to attempt to understand new or hitherto unknown phenomena. In this context, what this means is that we are always introducing new “folk” concepts as our experience expands and diversifies, so that there is not a one-time transition from unscientific folk concepts to scientific concepts, but a continual and ongoing evolution of scientific thought in which folk concepts are introduced, their want of rigor is felt, and more refined and scientific concepts are eventually introduced to address the problem of the folk concepts. But this process can result in the formulation of entirely new sciences, and we must then in turn hazard new “folk” concepts in the attempt to get a handle on this new discipline, however inadequate our first attempts may be to understand some unfamiliar body of knowledge.
For example, before the work of Georg Cantor and Richard Dedekind there was no science of set theory. In formulating set theory, 19th century mathematicians had to introduce a great many novel concepts (set, element, mapping) and mathematical procedures (one-to-one correspondence, diagonalization). These early concepts of set theory are now called “naïve set theory,” which have largely been replaced by (several distinct) axiomatizations of set theory, which have either formalized or eliminated the concepts of naïve set theory, which we might also call “folk” set theory. Nevertheless, many “folk” concepts of set theory persist, and Gödel spent much of his later career attempting to produce better formalizations of the concepts of set theory than those employed in now accepted axiomatizations of set theory.
As civilization has changed, and indeed as civilization emerged, we have had occasion to introduce new terms and concepts in order to describe and explain newly emergent forms of life. The domestication of plants and animals necessitated the introduction of concepts of plant and animal husbandry. The industrial revolution and the macroeconomic forces it loosed upon the world necessitated the introduction of terms and concepts of industry and economics. In each case, non-scientific folk concepts preceded the introduction of scientific concepts explained within a comprehensive theoretical framework. In many cases, our theoretical framework is not yet fully formulated and we are still in a stage of conceptual development that involves the overlapping of folk and scientific concepts.
Given the idea of folk concepts and their replacement by scientific concepts, a mature science could be defined as a science in which all folk concepts have been either formalized, transcended, or eliminated. The infinitistic nature of science mystery (which is discussed in Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need), however, suggests that there will always be sciences in an early and therefore immature stage of development. Our knowledge of the scientific method and the development of science means that we can anticipate scientific developments and understand when our intuitions are inadequate and therefore, in a sense, folk concepts. We have an advantage over the unscientific past that knew nothing of the coming scientific revolution and how it would transform knowledge. But we cannot entirely eliminate folk concepts from the early stages of scientific development, and in so far as our scientific civilization results in continuous scientific development, we will always have sciences in the early stages of development.
Scientific progress, then, does not eliminate folk concepts, but generates new and ever more folk concepts even as it eliminates old and outdated folk concepts.
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15 February 2015
In my first post on the overview effect, The Epistemic Overview Effect, I compared a comprehensive overview of knowledge to the perspective-altering view of the whole of the Earth in one glance. Later in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought I discussed the need for a comprehensive overview in formal thought no less than in scientific knowledge. I also discussed the overview in relation to interoception in Our Knowledge of the Internal World.
This account of the overview effect in various domains of knowledge leaves an ellipsis in my formulation of the overview effect, namely, the overview effect in specifically empirical knowledge, i.e., the overview effect in science other than the formal sciences. What would constitute an overview of empirical knowledge? The totality of facts? An awareness of the overall structure of the empirical sciences? A bird’s eye view of the universe entire? (The latter something I recently suggested in A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era.)
A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context, and when that subjective experience is of the overview effect the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which individual and isolated experiences derive their value. The overview effect, as documented to date, is a personal experience, therefore ideographic, and therefore also idiosyncratic to a certain extent. The traditionally ideographic character of the historical sciences, then, has been uniquely well-adapted to being given an exposition in overview, and so we have the recent branch of historiography called big history. Big history in particular gives an overview of the historical sciences even as the historical sciences are employed to give an overview of history. There is a twofold task here to interpret all the physical sciences historically (in ideographic terms) so that their epistemic contributions can be integrated into the historical sciences, and to move the historical sciences closer to the nomothetic rigor of the traditionally ahistorical physical sciences. We will truly have a comprehensive overview of scientific knowledge when the ideographic historical sciences and the nomothetic ahistorical sciences meet in the middle. This constitutes an ideal of scientific knowledge that has not yet been attained.
Every individual has an overview of their own life — or, rather, every individual with a minimal degree of insight has an overview of their own life — and this is the setting for any other overview of which the individual becomes aware, including the overview effect itself. (Individuals also, partly in virtue of their personal overview of their own life, possess what I have called the human overview, such that in the experience of meeting another person we can usually rapidly place that person within a social, cultural, ethnic, and historical context.) In the future, the personal experience of the overview effect may be harnessed for the production of knowledge understood more broadly than the knowledge engendered by purely personal experience. All empirical knowledge is ultimately derived from personal experience, has its origins in personal experience, but once personal experience has been exapted through idealization and quantification for the purpose of the production of empirical knowledge, it loses its personal and experiential character and becomes impersonal and objective.
It may sound overly subtle at first to make a distinction between personal experience and empirical knowledge, but the distinction is worth noting, and in any theoretical context it is important to observe the distinction. Experience is ideographic; empirical knowledge is nomothetic. Thus personal experience of the overview effect to date is an ideographic overview effect; the possibility of the empirical sciences converging upon an overview effect would be a nomothetic overview effect. If this nomothetic overview effect of scientific knowledge can be further extended by rendering the ahistorical nomothetic sciences in terms of the historical sciences, and the overview effect of scientific knowledge can be given a history in which we have an overview of each stage of development, we can get a glimpse of the possibilities for comprehensive knowledge, and what the future may hold for scientific knowledge.
Science has always been in the business of attempting to provide an overview of the world, but the approach of science has always been a form of objectivity that attempts to alienate personal experience. One sees this most clearly in classical antiquity, when the most abstract of sciences flourished — viz. mathematics — while the other sciences languished, partly because the theoretical framework for constructing objective knowledge out of personal experience did not yet exist. Hundreds of years of the development of scientific thought have subsequently provided this framework, but the paradigm produced by science has come at a certain cost. We are still today struggling with that legacy and its costs.
One way to approach the role of personal experience in empirical knowledge is by way of Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description (“Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays). The task that Russell set himself in this paper — “…what it is that we know in cases where we know propositions about ‘the so-and-so’ without knowing who or what the so-and-so is” — is closely related to the cluster of problems addressed by his theory of descriptions. Russell’s distinction implies two other permutations: the case in which we have neither knowledge by acquaintance nor knowledge by description, which is epistemically uninteresting, and the case in which we have both knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the latter case, knowledge by description has been confirmed by knowledge by acquaintance, but for the purposes of his exposition of the distinction Russell makes it quite clear that he wants to focus on instances of knowledge by description in which knowledge is only by description.
I am going to make my own use of Russell’s distinction, but will not attempt to retain any fidelity to the metaphysical context of Russell’s exposition of the distinction. Russell’s exposition of his distinction is wrapped up in a particular metaphysical theory that is no longer as common as it was a hundred years ago, but I am going to interpret Russell in terms of a naive scientific realism, so that when we see the Earth we really do see the Earth, and the Earth is not merely a logical construction out of sense data. (If I, or anyone, wanted to devote an entire book to Russell’s metaphysic in relation to his distinction between acquaintance and description this could easily be done. Indeed, an exposition of the Earth as a logical construction out of sense data would be an interesting intellectual exercise, and I can easily imagine a professor assigning this to his students as a project.)
Russell wrote of knowledge by acquaintance: “I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgment, but the sort which constitutes presentation.” Thus in the overview effect, I have a direct cognitive relation to the whole of the Earth, not in terms of judgment, but as a presentation. Intuitively, I think that Russell’s formulation works quite well as an explication of the epistemic significance of the overview effect.
Russell described knowledge by description as follows:
I shall say that an object is “known by description” when we know that it is “the so-and-so,” i.e. when we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property; and it will generally be implied that we do not have knowledge of the same object by acquaintance. We know that the man with the iron mask existed, and many propositions are known about him; but we do not know who he was. We know that the candidate who gets most votes will be elected, and in this case we are very likely also acquainted (in the only sense in which one can be acquainted with some one else) with the man who is, in fact, the candidate who will get most votes, but we do not know which of the candidates he is, i.e. we do not know any proposition of the form “A is the candidate who will get most votes” where A is one of the candidates by name. We shall say that we have “merely descriptive knowledge” of the so-and-so when, although we know that the so-and-so exists, and although we may possibly be acquainted with the object which is, in fact, the so-and-so, yet we do not know any proposition “a is the so-and-so,” where a is something with which we are acquainted.
There are a lot of interesting philosophical questions implicit in Russell’s exposition of knowledge by description; I am not going to pursue these at present, but will take Russell at his word. In the context of the overview effect, “the so-and-so” is “the planet on which human beings live,” and we know (to employ a Russellian formulation) that there is one and only one planet upon which human beings live, and moreover this planet is Earth. In fact, we know that it was a considerable achievement of scientific knowledge to come to the understanding that human beings live on a planet, and all this knowledge was achieved through knowledge by description. For the vast majority of human history, we were acquainted with the Earth, yet we did not know the proposition “x is the planet upon which human beings live” where x was something with which we were acquainted. This is almost as perfect an example as there could be of knowledge by description in the absence of knowledge by acquaintance.
In Russell’s distinction, ideographic personal experience is a kind of knowledge — knowledge by acquaintance — but is distinct from knowledge by description. What Russell called “knowledge by description” is a special case of non-constructive knowledge. Non-constructive reasoning is the logic of the big picture and la longue durée (cf. Six Theses on Existential Risk) — the scientific (in contradistinction to the personal) approach to the overview effect. Just as science has always been in the business of seeking an overview, so too science has long been in the business of elaborating knowledge by description, because in many cases this is the only way we can begin a scientific investigation, though in such cases we always begin with the hope that our knowledge by description can eventually be transformed into knowledge by acquaintance. In other words, we hope to become acquainted with the objects of knowledge we describe. Knowledge by description is here the theoretical framework of scientific knowledge in search of instances of acquaintance — evidence, experience, and experiment — to confirm the theory.
Although Russell was not a constructivist per se, his position in this essay is unambiguously constructive in so far as the thesis he maintains is that, “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (italics in original). Russell’s foundation of knowledge in the personal experience of knowledge by acquaintance demonstrates that Russell and Kierkegaard not only have a conception of rigor in common, but also the ultimate epistemic authority of individual experience.
Part of the importance of the overview effect is that it is a personal vision, such as I described in Kierkegaard and Futurism. The individuality of a personal vision is a function of the subjectivity of the individual, hence how the effect is experienced is as significant, if not more significant, than what is experienced.
An interesting result of this inquiry is not only to bring further philosophical resources to the analysis of the overview effect, but also to point the way to the further development science. I have often emphasized that science is not a finished edifice of knowledge, but that science itself continues to grow, not only in sense of continually producing scientific knowledge, but also in the sense of continuing to revise the scientific method itself. One of the most common objections one encounters when talking about science among those who take little account of science is the impersonal nature of scientific knowledge, and even a rejection of that same objectivity that has been the pride science to have attained. To fully appreciate the overview effect as a moment in the development of scientific knowledge is to understand that it may not only give us a new perspective on the world in which we live, but also a new perspective on how we attain knowledge of this world.
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3 December 2014
P. F. Strawson called his twentieth century exposition of Kant The Bounds of Sense. I have commented elsewhere what a appropriate title this is. The Kantian project (much like metamathematics in the twentieth century) was a limitative project. Kant himself wrote (in the Preface to the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason): “…my intention then was, to limit knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Here is the entire passage from which the quote is taken, though in a different translation:
“This discussion as to the positive advantage of critical principles of pure reason can be similarly developed in regard to the concept of God and of the simple nature of our soul; but for the sake of brevity such further discussion may be omitted. [From what has already been said, it is evident that] even the assumption — as made on behalf of the necessary practical employment of my reason — of God, freedom, and immortality is not permissible unless at the same time speculative reason be deprived of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For in order to arrive at such insight it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to objects of possible experience, and which, if also applied to what cannot be an object of experience, always really change this into an appearance, thus rendering all practical extension of pure reason impossible. I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition
What lies beyond the bounds of sense? For Kant, faith. And Kant’s theological agenda drove him to seek the bounds of sense so that speculative reason could be deprived of its pretensions to transcendental insight. Thus Kant gives us an epistemology openly freighted with theological and moral concerns. Talk about the theory-ladenness of perception! It is, however, non-perception — i.e., that which cannot be the object of possible experience — that is the Kantian domain of faith.
Of course, this is the whole Kantian project in a nutshell, is it not? It is Kant’s design to show us exactly how perception is laden with theory, the theory native to the mind, the a priori concepts by which we organize experience. Kant propounds the transcendental aesthetic and the transcendental deduction of the categories in order to demonstrate the reliance of even the most ordinary experience upon the mind’s a priori faculties.
Kant was, in part, reacting against the empiricism of Locke and Hume — especially Hume’s skeptical conclusions, although Kant’s own rejection of metaphysics equaled if not surpassed Hume’s anti-metaphysical stance, as famously described in the following passage from Hume:
“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “Of the academical or sceptical Philosophy,” Part III
For Hume, the bounds of sense and the limitation of reason entailed doubt; for Kant the bounds of sense and the limitation of reason entailed belief. There is a lesson in here somewhere, and the lesson is this: from a single state of affairs, multiple interpretations can be shown to follow.
Are the bounds of sense also the bounds of science? It would seem so. In so far as science must appeal to empirical evidence, and empirical evidence comes to us by way of the senses, the limits of the senses impose limits on science. Of course, this is a bit too simplistic to be quite true. There are so many qualifications that need to be made to such an assertion that it is difficult to say where to start.
It should be familiar to everyone that we have come to extensively use instruments to augment our senses. Big Science today sometimes spends years, if not decades, building its enormous machines, without which contemporary science could not be possible. So the limits of the senses are not absolute, and they are subject to manipulation. Also, we sometimes do science without our senses or instruments, when we pursue science by way of thought experiments.
While thought experiments alone, unsupplemented by actual experiments, are probably insufficient to constitute a science, thought experiments have become a necessary requisite to science much as instrumentation has become a necessary requisite to science. Sometimes, when our technology catches up with our ideas, we can transform our thought experiments into actual experiments, so that there is an historical relationship between science properly understood and the penumbra of science represented by thought experiments. And thought experiments too have their controlled conditions, and these are the conditions that Kant attempted to lay down in the transcendental aesthetic.
There is also the question of whether or not mathematics is a science, or one among the sciences. And whether or not we set aside mathematics as something different from the other sciences, we know that the development of unquestionably empirical sciences like physics are deeply mathematicized, so that the mathematical content of empirical theories may act like an abstract instrument, parallel to the material instruments of big science, that extends the possibilities of the senses. Another way to think about mathematics is as an enormous thought experiment that under-girds the rest of science — the one crucial thought experiment, an experimentum crucis, without which the rest of science cannot function. In this sense, thought experiments are indispensable to mathematicized science — as indispensable as mathematics.
At a more radical level of critique, it would be difficult to give a fine-grained account of empirical evidence that did not shade over, at the far edges of the concept, into other kinds of knowledge not strictly empirical. Empirical evidence may shade over into the kind of intuitive evidence that is the basis of mathematics, or the kind of epistemological context that is the setting for our thought experiments. Empirical evidence can also shade over into interoception that cannot be publicly verified (therefore failing a basic test of science) or precisely reproduced by repetition, and which interoception itself in turn shades over into intuitions in which thought and feeling are not clearly distinct.
Where does Kant’s possible experience fit within the continuum of the senses? What is the scope of possible experience? Can we make a clear distinction between extending the senses (and thus human experience) by abstract or concrete instruments and imposing a theory upon experience through these extensions? Does possible experience include all possible past experience? Does past experience include phenomenon that occurred but which were not observed (the famous tree falling in a forest that no one hears)? Does it include all possible future experience, or only those future experiences that will eventually be actualized, and not those that already remain merely shadowy possibilities? Does possible experience include those counterfactuals that feature in the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory? Explicit answers to these questions are less important that the lines of inquiry that the questions prompt us to pursue.
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15 November 2014
When I find myself among conspiracy theorists and pseudo-science aficionados, I probably sound like the most relentless, ruthless, unforgiving positivist that you have ever heard. But, of course, I’m not a positivist at all. When I find myself among those educated in the sciences, I probably sound like the most woolly-headed philosopher imaginable, who seemingly takes every opportunity to needlessly complicate matters that are perfectly clear just as they are. I am caught between defending science among those innocent of science, and defending philosophy among those innocent of philosophy. In other words, I can’t win. And now I’m going to make my hopeless position worse by taking the conflict (rather, the absence of communication) between science and philosophy into the forbidden no-man’s-land of politics.
My particular dilemma is the result of understanding that science is philosophy; that is to say, science as we know it today, is a particular branch of philosophy (something that I began to explain in A Fly in the Ointment). While it may be grudgingly acknowledged that science has philosophical presuppositions, it is step further to see science as a particular philosophy that is rather less comprehensive than the whole of philosophy. Now, it is true that science has become differentiated from the rest of philosophy because of its practical successes, but its practical successes alone are no warrant for separating methodological naturalism, i.e., science, from the rest of philosophy.
Without philosophy we cannot understand science; philosophy provides both the synchronic and the diachronic context of science. The emergence of science within western civilization is the diachronic narrative of philosophy, and the relations of science to other aspects of the world and human experience is the synchronic context of science that can only adequately be addressed by philosophy. The need for a robust engagement between science and philosophy, as is to be found, for example, in the work of Einstein, is a need that grows out of the philosophical context of science.
Previous epochs of civilization — notably, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — might point to their own pragmatic implementations of philosophy, no less than the successes of the sciences are heralded today. Enormous monumental building projects that still impress us today, symbols of civilization such as the pyramids, Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Daibutsu at Nara, and Borobudur, were possible only through the effort of a philosophically unified civilization, and the monuments themselves are monuments to those civilizations and their philosophical bases.
As an example of a philosophical civilization animated from the power elites at the top down to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder I have elsewhere quoted Gregory Nazianzus on the Christological controversies in Byzantium:
“Constantinople is full of handicraftsmen and slaves, who are all profound theologians, and preach in their workshops and in the streets. If you want a man to change a piece of silver, he instructs you in which consists the distinction between the Father and the Son; if you ask the price of a loaf of bread, you receive for answer, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you ask, whether the bread is ready, the rejoinder is that the genesis of the Son was from nothing.”
Another example might be the reach of stoicism in the Roman empire from the emperor Marcus Aurelius to the slave Epictetus. This philosophical character of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is not limited to western civilization, its predecessors, and successors, but is a planetary phenomenon.
The civilization of India is perhaps uniquely philosophical in the world. India is a civilization-state, and Indian civilization is a philosophical civilization. In this respect, it is markedly different from western civilization, which has no contemporary single state representative, and in regard to philosophy is more narrow and focused.
This can give us a certain insight into western civilization, which is not a philosophical civilization in the sense that India is, but is a fragment of a philosophical civilization. In so far as science is a particular branch of philosophy, and in so far as western civilization in its present form (industrial-technological civilization) is founded upon science as the source of the STEM cycle, western civilization is a philosophical civilization for the particular philosophy of methodological naturalism. Indeed, the very insistence today that science can do without philosophy is an expression of the philosophical narrowness of western civilization.
Much is to be learned from the comparison of the philosophies and civilizational structures of those independent civilizations that can be traced all the way to their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, during which all agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations had their earliest origins. But there is a problem here. In reaction against the imperialism of western civilization since that period once called the Age of Discovery, when Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and many others, sailed from Europe and began to survey the world entire, it is now considered in supremely bad taste to compare civilizations. The celebratory model of tolerance is almost universally adopted and every civilization is counted as a special snowflake that has something to contribute to human history.
In my post on The Future Science of Civilizations I noted Carnap’s tripartite distinction among scientific concepts, which Carnap identified as the classificatory, the comparative, and the quantitative. (We note that this typology itself takes a classificatory form, and an entire class of scientific concepts are comparative concepts.) In so far as we understand Carnap’s conceptual schema of measurement as developmental, proceeding in phases so that initial classifications lead to comparisons, and comparisons lead to quantification, all the while gaining in objectivity, Carnap’s schematism of scientific measurement embodies what Edith Wyschogrod called “the quantification of the qualitied world.”
If we take the division of classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts not in a developmental sense but as different approaches to a scientific grasp of the world, then each conceptual method of measurement may yield unique information about the world. In either case, whether we take these scientific concepts of measurement in developmental terms or take each in isolation, comparative concepts have a crucial role to play: either they are a stage in the development of a fully quantitative science, or they yield unique information about the world.
We cannot fully or adequately conceptualize civilization without developing comparative concepts of civilization to the greatest extent possible, but the development and exploration of this conceptual space is severely constrained by the contemporary political proscription upon the comparison of civilizations. In this way, the study of civilization today is unnecessarily yet unavoidably political. In order to frankly and bluntly discuss comparative conceptions of civilization, we are forced to seek artful euphemisms to speak evasively. This is unfortunate for the development of a science of civilization, but it is not insuperable, and the appropriate degree of abstraction and formalization in a fully developed theoretical context may be sufficient to violate this taboo in spirit while leaving the letter of the proscription intact.
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7 November 2014
Twentieth century American analytical philosopher W. V. O. Quine said that, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” (The Ways of Paradox, “Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory”) In so saying Quine was making explicit the de facto practice on which Anglo-American analytical philosophy was converging: if philosophy was going to be tolerated at all (even among professional philosophers!) it must delimit its horizons to science, as only in the conceptual clarification of science had philosophy any remaining role to play in the modern world. Philosophy of science was a preoccupation of philosophers throughout the twentieth century, from early positivist formulations in the early part of the century, through post-positivist formulations, to profoundly ambiguous reflections upon the rationality of science in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
I have previously addressed the condition of contemporary philosophy in Philosophy Institutionalized, in which I noted that among the philosophical schools of our time, “there is a common thread, and that common thread is not at all difficult to discern: it is the relationship of thought to the relentless expansion of industrial-technological civilization.” I would like to take this idea a step further, and consider how philosophy might be both embedded in contemporary civilization and how it might look beyond the particular human condition of the present moment of history and also embrace something larger.
The position of philosophy in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was preeminent, and second only to theology. India had a uniquely philosophical civilization in which schools of thought wildly proliferated and were elaborated over the course of hundreds of years. In those agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations in which religion simpliciter was the organizing principle, initially crude religious ideas were eventually given sophisticated and subtle formulations in an advanced technical vocabulary largely derived from philosophy. Where the explicitly religious impulse was less prominent than the philosophical impulse, a philosophical civilization came into being, as in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, starting with ancient Greece and its successor civilizations.
With the end of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, as it was preempted by industrial-technological civilization, this tradition of philosophical preeminence in intellectual inquiry was lost, and philosophy, no longer being central to the motivating imperatives of civilization, became progressively more and more marginalized, until today, when it is largely an intellectual whipping boy that scientists point out as an object lesson of how not to engage in intellectual activity.
“…science drives technology, technology drives industrial engineering, and industrial engineering creates new resources that allow science to be pursued at a larger scope and scale. In some cases the STEM cycle functions as a loosely-coupled structure of our world. The resources of advanced mathematics are necessary to the expression of physics in mathematicized form, but there may be no direct coupling of physics and mathematics, and the mathematics used in physics may have been available for generations. Pure science may suggest a number of technologies, many of which lie fallow, with no particular interest in them. One technology may eventually come into mass manufacture, but it may not be seen to have any initial impact on scientific research. All of these episodes seem de-coupled, and can only be understood as a loosely-coupled cycle when seen in the big picture over the long term. In the case of nuclear fusion, the STEM cycle is more tightly coupled: fusion science must be consciously developed with an eye to its application in various fusion technologies. The many specific technologies developed on the basis of fusion science are tested with an eye to which can be practically scaled up by industrial engineering to build a workable fusion power generation facility.”
Given the role of the STEM cycle in defining industrial-technological civilization, a robust philosophical engagement with the civilization of our time would mean a philosophy of science, a philosophy of technology, and a philosophy of engineering, as well as an overall philosophy of civilization that knit these together in a way that reflects the STEM cycle that unifies the three in industrial-technological civilization. Thus the twentieth century preoccupation with the philosophy of science can be understood as the first attempt to come to grips with the new form of civilization that had replaced the civilization of our rural, agricultural past.
This fits in well with the fact that the philosophy of technology has been booming in recent decades (partially driven by our technophilia), with philosophers of many different backgrounds and orientations — analytical philosophers, phenomenologists, existentialists, Marxists, and many others — equally interested in providing a philosophical commentary on this central feature of our contemporary world. I have myself written about the emergence of what I call techno-philosophy. The philosophy of engineering is a bit behind philosophy of science and philosophy of technology, but it is rapidly catching up, as philosophers realize that they have had little to say about this essential dimension of our contemporary world. The academic publisher Springer now has a series of books on the philosophy of engineering, Philosophy of Engineering and Technology. I would purchase more of these volumes if they weren’t prohibitively expensive.
Beyond the specialized disciplines of philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and philosophy of engineering, there also needs to be a “big picture” engagement with the three loosely coupled together in the STEM cycle, and beyond this there needs to be a philosophical engagement with how our industrial-technological civilization is embedded in a larger historical context that includes different forms of civilization with profoundly different civilizational motifs and imperatives.
To address the latter need for a truly big picture philosophy, that is not some backward-looking disinterment of Hegelian philosophy of history, but which engages with the world as it know it today, in the light of scientific rationality, we need a philosophy of history that understands history in terms of scientific historiography, which is how a scientific civilization grasps history and arrives at a self-understanding of its place in history.
Philosophical reflection upon existential risk partially serves as a reminder of the philosophical dimension of history and civilization, in a way not unlike meditations on eternity during the period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization served as a reminder that life is more than the daily struggle to stay alive. In my post, What is an existential philosophy?, I wrote, “…coming to terms with existence from an existential perspective means coming to terms with Big History, which provides the ultimate (natural historical) context for ordinary experience and its object.”
What we need, then, for a vital and vigorous philosophy for industrial-technological civilization, is a philosophy of big history. I intend to do something about this — in fact, I am working on it now — though it is unlikely that anyone will take notice.
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24 November 2013
The world, we are learning every day, is a very large place. Or perhaps I should say that the universe is a very large place. It is also a very complex and strange place. J. B. S. Haldane famously said that, “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” (Possible Worlds and Other Papers, 1927, p. 286) In other words, human beings, no matter how valiantly they attempt to understand the universe, may not be cognitively equipped to understand it; our minds may not be the kind of minds that can understand the kind of place that the world is.
This idea of our inability to understand the world in which we find ourselves (an admirably humble Copernican insight that we might call metaphysical modesty, and which stands in contrast to epistemic hubris) has received many glosses since Haldane’s time. Most notable (notable, at least, from my perspective) are the evolutionary gloss, the quantum physics gloss, and the philosophical gloss. I will consider each of these in turn.
In terms of evolution, there is no reason to suppose that descent with modification in a context of a struggle for vital resources on the plains of Africa (the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA) is going to produce minds capable of understanding higher dimensional spatial manifolds or quantum physics at microscopic scales that differ radically from the macroscopic scales of ordinary human perception. Alvin Plantinga (about whom I wrote some time ago in A Note on Plantinga, inter alia) has used this argument for theological purposes. However, there is no intrinsic reason that a mind born in the mud and the muck cannot raise itself above its origins and come to contemplate the world in Copernican terms. The evolutionary argument cuts both ways, and since we have ourselves as the evidence of an organism that can raise itself from strictly survival behavior to forms of thought that have nothing to do with survival, from the perspective of the weak anthropic principle this is proof enough that natural selection can result in such a mind.
In terms of quantum theory, we are all familiar with famous quotes from the leading lights of quantum theory as to the essentially incomprehensibility of that theory. For example, Richard Feynman said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” However, I have observed (in The limits of my language are the limits of my world and elsewhere) that recent research is making strides in working around the epistemic limitations of quantum theory, revealing its uncertainties to be not absolute and categorical, but rather subject to careful and painstaking narrowing that renders the uncertainty a little less uncertain. I anticipate two developments that will emerge from the further elaborate of quantum theory: 1) the finding of ways to gradually and incrementally chip away at an absolutist conception of uncertainty (as just mentioned), and 2) the formulation of more adequate intuitions to make quantum theory more palatable to the human mind.
In terms of philosophy, Colin McGinn’s book Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry formulates a position which he calls Transcendental Naturalism:
“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.” (pp. 2-3)
I have previously written about McGinn’s work in Transcendental Non-Naturalism and Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology, inter alia. Our ability to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds is severely limited at best, and so our ability to understand the world as it is is limited at best.
While our cognitive abilities are admittedly limited (for all the reasons discussed above, as well as other reasons not discussed), these limits are not absolute, but rather admit of revision. McGinn’s position as stated above implies a false dichotomy between staying within the constitutive structure of our minds and getting outside it. This is a classic case of facing the sheer cliff of Mount Improbable: while it is impossible to get outside our cognitive architecture in one fell swoop, we can little by little transgress the boundaries of our cognitive architecture, each time ever-so-slightly expanding our capacities. Incrementally over time we improve our ability to stand outside those limits that once marked the boundaries of our cognitive architecture. Thus in an ironic twist of intellectual history, the evolutionary argument, rather than demonstrating metaphysical modesty, is rather the key to limiting the limitations on the human mind.
All of this is related to one of the central problems in the philosophy of science of our time — the whole Kuhnian legacy that is the framework of so much contemporary philosophy of science. Copernican revelations and revolutions, which formerly disturbed our anthropocentric bias every few hundred years, now occur with alarming frequency. The difference today, of course, is that science is much more advanced than it was with past Copernican revelations and revolutions — it has much more advanced instrumentation available to it (as a result of the STEM cycle), and we have a much better idea of what to look for in the cosmos.
It was a shock to almost everyone to have it scientifically demonstrated that the universe is not static and eternal, but dynamic and changing. It was a shock when quantum theory demonstrated the world to be fundamentally indeterministic. This is by now a very familiar narrative. In fact, it is so familiar that it has been expropriated (dare I say exapted?) by obscurantists and irrationalists of our time, who point at continual changes at scientific knowledge as “proof” that science doesn’t give us any “truth” because it changes. The assumption here is that change in scientific knowledge demonstrates the weakness of science; in fact, change in scientific knowledge is the strength of science. Scientific knowledge is what I have elsewhere called an intelligent institution in so far as it is institutionalized knowledge, but that institution is formulated with internal mechanisms that facilitate the re-shaping of the institution itself over time. That mechanism is the scientific method.
It is important to see that the overturning of familiar conceptions of the world — some of which are ancient and some of which are not — is not arbitrary. Less comprehensive conceptions are being replaced by more comprehensive conceptions. The more comprehensive our perspective on the world, the greater the number of anomalies we must face, and the greater the number of anomalies we face the more likely it is that our theories will be overturned, or at least partially falsified. But it is the wrong debate to ask whether theory change is rational or irrational. It is misleading, because what ought to concern us is how well our theories account for the ever-larger world that is revealed to us through our ever-more comprehensive methods of science, and not how well our theories conform to our presuppositions about rationality. The more we get the science right, reason will follow, shaping new intuitions and formulating new theories.
Our ability to discover (and to understand) ever greater scales of the universe is contingent upon our growing intellectual capabilities, which are cumulative. Just as in the STEM cycle science begets technologies that beget industries that create better scientific instruments, so too on a purely intellectual level the intellectual capabilities of one generation are the formative context of the intellectual capabilities of the next generation, which allows the later generation to exceed the earlier generation. Concepts are the tools of the mind, and we use our familiar concepts to create the next generation of concepts, which latter are both more refined and more powerful than the former, in the same way as we use each generation of tools to build the next generation of tools, which makes each generation of tools better than the last (except for computer software — but I expect that this degradation in the practicability of computer software is simply the software equivalent of planned obsolescence).
Our current generation of tools — both conceptual and technological — are daily revealing to us the inadequacy of our past conceptions of the world. Several recent discoveries have in particular called into question our understanding of the size of the world, especially in so far as the world is defined in terms of its origins in the Big Bang. For example, the discovery of hyperclusters suggest physical structures of the universe that are larger than the upper limit set to physical structures by contemporary cosmologies theories (cf. ‘Hyperclusters’ of the Universe — “Something is Behaving Very Strangely”).
In a similar vein, writing of the recent discovery of a “large quasar group” (LQG) as much as four billion light years across, the article The Largest Discovered Structure in the Universe Contradicts Big-Bang Theory Cosmology states:
“This LQG challenges the Cosmological Principle, the assumption that the universe, when viewed at a sufficiently large scale, looks the same no matter where you are observing it from. The modern theory of cosmology is based on the work of Albert Einstein, and depends on the assumption of the Cosmological Principle. The principle is assumed, but has never been demonstrated observationally ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.”
This formulation gets the order of theory and observation wrong. The cosmological principle is not a principle that can be proved or disproved by evidence; it is a theoretical idea that is used to give structure and meaning to observations, to organize observations into a theoretical whole. The cosmological principle belongs to theoretical cosmology; recent discoveries such as hyperclusters and large quasar groups belong to observational cosmology. While the two — i.e., theoretical and observational — cannot be separated in the practice of science, it is also true that they are not identical. Theoretical methods are distinct from observational methods, and vice versa.
Thus the cosmological principle may be helpful or unhelpful in organizing our knowledge of the cosmos, but it is not the kind of thing that can be falsified in the same way that, for example, a theory of planetary formation can be falsified. That is to say, the cosmological principle might be opposed to (falsified by) another principle that negates the cosmological principle, but this anti-cosmological principle will similarly belong to an order not falsifiable by empirical observations.
The discoveries of hyperclusters and LQGs are particularly problematic because they question some of the fundamental assumptions and conclusions of Big Bang cosmology, which is, essentially, the only large scale cosmological model in contemporary science. Big Bang cosmology is the explanation for the structure of the cosmos that was formulated in response to the discovery of the red shift, which implies that, on the largest observable scales, the universe is expanding. It is important to add the qualification, “on the largest observable scales” because stars within a given galaxy are circulating around the galaxy, and while a given star may be moving away from another given star, it is also likely to be moving toward yet some other star. And, even at larger scales, not all galaxies are receding from each other. It is fairly well known that galaxies collide and commingle; the Helmi stream of our own Milky Way is the result of a long past galactic collision, and at some far time in the future the Milky Way itself will merge with the larger Andromeda galaxy, and be absorbed by it.
Cosmology during the period of the big bang theory (a period in which we still find ourselves today) is in some respects like biology before Darwin. Almost all biology before Darwin was essentially theological, but no one had a better idea so biology had to wait to become a science capable of methodologically naturalistic formulations until after Darwin. The big bang theory was, on the contrary, proposed as a scientific theory (not merely bequeathed to us by pre-scientific tradition), and most scientists working within the big bang tradition have formulated the Big Bang in meticulously naturalistic terms. Nevertheless, once the steady state theory was overthrown, no one really had an alternative to the big bang theory, so all cosmology centered on the Big Bang for lack of imagination of alternatives — but also due to the limitations of the scientific instruments, which at the time of the triumph of the big bang theory were much more modest than they are today.
As disconcerting as it was to discover that the cosmos did not embody an eternal order, that it is expanding and had a history of violent episodes, and that it was much larger than an “island universe” comprising only the Milky Way, the observations that we need to explain today are no less disconcerting in their own way.
Here is how Leonard Susskind describes our contemporary observations of the expanding universe:
“In every direction that we look, galaxies are passing the point at which they are moving away from us faster than light can travel. Each of us is surrounded by a cosmic horizon — a sphere where things are receding with the speed of light — and no signal can reach us from beyond that horizon. When a star passes the point of no return, it is gone forever. Far out, at about fifteen billion light years, our cosmic horizon is swallowing galaxies, stars, and probably even life. It is as if we all live in our own private inside-out black hole.”
Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, pp. 437-438
This observation has not yet been sufficiently appreciated. What lies beyond Susskind’s cosmic horizon is unobservable, as anything that disappears beyond the event horizon of a black hole has become unobservable, and that places such matters beyond the reach of science understood in a narrow sense of observation. But as I have noted above, in the practice of science we cannot disentangle the theoretical and the observational, but the two are not the same. While our observations come to an end at the cosmic horizon, our principles encounter no such boundary. Thus it is that we naturally extrapolate our science beyond the boundaries of observation, but if we get our scientific principles wrong, anything beyond the boundary of observation will be wrong and will be incapable or correction by observation.
Science in the narrow sense must, then, come to an end with observation. But this does not satisfy the mind. One response is to deny the mind its satisfaction and refuse to pass beyond observation. Another response is to fill the void with mythology and fiction. Yet another response is to take up the principles on their own merits and consider them in the light of reason. This response is the philosophical response, and we see that it is a rational response to the world that is continuous with science even when it passes beyond science.
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25 March 2013
In my last post, The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation, I attempted to show how diachronic extrapolation, while the most familiar form of futurism, is often misleading because it fails to adequately account for synchronic interactions as a diachronic strategic trend develops. In other posts concerned with unintended consequences I have emphasized that, in the long term, unintended consequences often outweigh intended consequences. Unintended consequences are the result of synchronic interactions that were not foreseen, that were no part of diachronic agency, and those cases in which unintended consequences swamp intended consequences the synchronic interactions have proved more decisive in shaping the future than diachronic causality.
In my post on The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation I made several assertions that clearly imply the limitation of inferences from the present to the future, which also implies the limitation of inferences from the present to the past. This brings up issues that go far beyond futurism.
In that post I wrote:
“…diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.”
“…the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time…”
The reader may have noticed the resemblance of this species of failed futurism to uniformitarianism: instead of taking a strategic trend acting at present and extrapolating it into the future, uniformitarianism takes a physical force acting in the present and extrapolates it into the future (or, as is more likely the case in geology, into the past). This idea of uniformitarianism is usually expressed as, “the present is key to the past,” and we might similarly express the parallel form of futurism as being, “the present is key to the future.” These two claims — the present is the key to the past and the present is the key to the future — are logically equivalent since, as I pointed out previously, every present is the future of some past, and the past of some future.
Since these interpretations of uniformitarianism involve uniformity across past and future, these formulations closely resemble formulations of induction also stated in terms of past and future, as when the logical problem of induction is formulated, “Will the future be like the past?” It is at this point that the philosophy of time, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, and futurism all coincide, because it concerns a problem that all have in common.
Stephen Jay Gould noticed this similarity of uniformitarianism and induction in his first published paper, “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” Gould, of course, become famous for his critique of uniformitarianism, and for this alternative to it, punctuated equilibrium (for which he shares the credit with Niles Eldredge). In this early paper by Gould, Gould distinguished between substantive uniformitarianism and methodological uniformitarianism. He tried to show that the former is simply false, and the the latter, methodological uniformitarianism, is now subsumed under the scientificity of geology and paleontology. Here is now Gould put it:
“…we see that methodological uniformitarianism amounts to an affirmation of induction and simplicity. But since these principles belong to the modern definition of empirical science in general, uniformitarianism is subsumed in the simple statement: ‘geology is a science’. By specifically invoking methodological uniformitarianism, we do little more than affirm that induction is procedurally valid in geology.”
Stephen Jay Gould, “Is uniformitarianism necessary?” American Journal of Science, Vol. 263, March 1965, p. 227
That is to say, the earth sciences use the scientific method, which Gould characterizes in terms of inductive logic and the principle of parsimony (I would argue that Gould is also assuming methodological naturalism) — therefore everything that is worth saving in uniformitarianism is already secured by the scientific status of geology, and therefore uniformitarianism is dispensable. Having once served an important function in science, uniformitarianism has now, Gould contends, become an obstacle to progress.
As I noted above, Gould didn’t merely assert that uniformitarianism was no longer necessary, but devoted his career to arguing for an alternative, punctuated equilibrium, which asserts that long period of stasis are interrupted by catastrophic discontinuities. While much has been written about uniformitarianism vs. punctuated equilibrium, I see this as the thin end of the wedge for considering all kinds of alternatives to strict uniformitarianism, and to his end I think we would do well to explore all possible patterns of development, whether uniform (slow, gradual, incremental), punctuated (sudden, catastrophic, discontinuous), or otherwise.
Of course, we could easily produce more sophisticated formulations of uniformitarianism that would avoid the subsequent problems that have been raised, but this is the path that leads to Ptolemaic epicycles and attempts to “save the appearances,” whereas what we want is a rich mixture of theoretical innovation from which we can try many different models and select for further development those that are most true to the world.
Since the philosophy of time, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, and futurism all coincide at the point represented by the problem of the relationship of parts of time to other parts of time (and the idea of temporal parts is itself philosophical contested), all of these disciplines stand to learn something of value from exploring alternatives to uniformitarianism. In so far as futurism is dominated by nomothetic diachrony, and constitutes a kind of historical uniformitarianism, very different forms of futurism might emerge from a careful study of the alternatives to uniformitarianism, or merely from a recognition that, as Gould put, uniformitarianism is no longer necessary and something of an anachronism. If there is anything of which futurists ought to beware, being an anachronism must be close to the top of the list.
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