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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17 March 2012
One of the greatest contributions to science in the twentieth century was Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees in the wild at Gombe, Tanzania. Although Goodall’s work represents a major advance in ethology, it did not come without criticism. Here is how Adrian G. Weiss described some of this criticism:
Jane received her Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1965. She is one of only eight other people to earn a Ph.D. without a bachelor’s (Montgomery 1991). Her adviser, Robert Hinde, said her methods were not professional, and that she was doing her research wrong. Jane’s major mistake was naming her “subjects”. The animals should be given numbers. Jane also used descriptive, narrative writing in her observations and calculations. She anthropomorphized her animals. Her colleagues and classmates thought she was “doing all wrong”. Robert Hinde did approve her thesis, even though she returned with all of his corrections with the original names and anthropomorphizing.
Most innovative science breaks the established rules of the time. If the innovative science is eventually accepted, it eventually also becomes the basis of a new orthodoxy. Given time, that orthodoxy will be displaced as well, as more innovative work demonstrates new ways of acquiring knowledge. As the old orthodoxy passes out of fashion it often falls either into neglect or may become the target of criticism as vicious as that directed at new and innovative research.
I have to imagine that it was this latter phenomenon of formerly accepted scientific discourses falling out of favor and becoming the target of ridicule that inspired one of Foucault’s most famous quotes (which I have cited previously on numerous occasions): “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” Here is the same quote with more context:
Each of my works is a part of my own biography. For one or another reason I had the occasion to feel and live those things. To take a simple example, I used to work in a psychiatric hospital in the 1950s. After having studied philosophy, I wanted to see what madness was: I had been mad enough to study reason; I was reasonable enough to study madness. I was free to move from the patients to the attendants, for I had no precise role. It was the time of the blooming of neurosurgery, the beginning of psychopharmacology, the reign of the traditional institution. At first I accepted things as necessary, but then after three months (I am slow-minded!), I asked, “What is the necessity of these things?” After three years I left the job and went to Sweden in great personal discomfort and started to write a history of these practices. Madness and Civilization was intended to be a first volume. I like to write first volumes, and I hate to write second ones. It was perceived as a psychiatricide, but it was a description from history. You know the difference between a real science and a pseudoscience? A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked. When you tell a psychiatrist his mental institution came from the lazar house, he becomes infuriated.
Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault — October 25th, 1982, Martin, L. H. et al (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, London: Tavistock. pp.9-15
It remains true that many representatives of even the most sophisticated contemporary sciences react as though attacked when reminded of their discipline’s history. This is true not least because much of science has an unsavory history — at least, by contemporary standards, a lot of scientific history is unsavory, and this gives us reason to believe that many of our efforts today will, in the fullness of time, be consigned to the unsavory inquiries of the past which carry with them norms, evaluations, and assumptions that are no longer considered to be acceptable in polite society. This is, of course, deeply ironic (I could say hypocritical if I wanted to be tendentious) since the standard of acceptability in polite society is one of the most stultifying norms imaginable.
It has long been debated within academia whether history is a science, or an art, or perhaps even a sui generis literary genre with a peculiar respect for evidence. There is no consensus on this question, and I suspect it will continue to be debated so long as the Western intellectual tradition persists. History, at least, is a recognized discipline. I know of no recognized discipline of the study of civilizations, which in part is why I recently wrote The Future Science of Civilizations.
There is, at present, no science of civilization, though there are many scientists who have written about civilization. I don’t know if there are any university departments on “Civilization Studies,” but if there aren’t, there should be. We can at least say that there is an established literary genre, partly scientific, that is concerned with the problems of civilization (including figures as diverse as Toynbee and Jared Diamond). Even among philosophers, who have a great love of writing, “The philosophy of x,” there are very few works on “the philosophy of civilization” — some, yes, but not many — and, I suspect, few if any departments devoted to the philosophy of civilization. This is a regrettable ellipsis.
When, in the future, we do have a science of civilization, and perhaps also a philosophy of civilization (or, at very least, a philosophy of the science of civilization), this science will have to come to terms with its past as every science has had to (or eventually will have to). The prehistory of the science of civilization is already fairly well established, and there are several known classics of the genre. Many of these classics of the study of civilization are as thoroughly unsavory by contemporary standards as one could possibly hope. The history of pronouncements on civilization is filled with short-sighted, baldly prejudiced, privileged, ethnocentric, and thoroughly anthropocentric formulations. For all that, they still may have something of value to offer.
A technological typology of human societies that is no longer in favor is the tripartite distinction between savagery, barbarism, and civilization. This belongs to the prehistory of the prehistory of civilization, since it establishes the natural history of civilization and its antecedents.
Edward Burnett Tylor proposed that human cultures developed through three basic stages consisting of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The leading proponent of this savagery-barbarism-civilization scale came to be Lewis Henry Morgan, who gave a detailed exposition of it in his 1877 book Ancient Society (the entire book is conveniently available online for your reading pleasure). A quick sketch of the typology can be found at ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEORIES: Cross-Cultural Analysis.
One of the interesting features of Morgan’s elaboration of Tylor’s idea is his concern to define his stages in terms of technology. From the “lower status of savagery” with its initial use of fire, through a middle stage at which the bow and arrow is introduced, to the “upper status of savagery” which includes pottery, each stage of human development is marked by a definite technological achievement. Similarly with barbarism, which moves through the domestication of animals, irrigation, metal working, and a phonetic alphabet. This breakdown is, in its own way, more detailed than many contemporary decompositions of human social development, as well as being admirably tied to material culture and therefore amenable to confirmation and disconfirmation through archaeological research.
Today, of course, we are much too sophisticated to use terms like “savagery” or “barbarism.” These terms are now held in ill repute, as they are thought to suggest strongly negative evaluations. A friend of mine who studied anthropology told me that the word “primitive” is now referred to as “the P-word” within the discipline, so unacceptable has it become. To call a people (even an historical people now extinct) “savage” is similarly considered beyond the pale. We don’t call people “savage” or “primitive” any more. But the dangers of these terminological obsessions are that we get hung up on the terms and no longer consider theories on their theoretical merits. Jane Goodall’s theoretical work was eventually accepted despite her use of proper names in ethology, and now it is not at all uncommon for researchers to name their subjects that belong to other species.
Some theoreticians, moreover, have come to recognize that there are certain things that can be learned through sympathizing with one’s subject that simply cannot be learned in any other way (score one posthumously for Bergson’s conception of “intellectual sympathy”). Of course, science need not limit itself to a single paradigm of valid research. We can have a “big tent” of science with ample room for many methodologies, and hopefully also with plenty of room for disagreements.
It would be an interesting exercise to take a “dated” work like Lewis Henry Morgan’s book Ancient Society, leave the theoretical content intact, and change only the names. In fact, we could formalize Morgan’s gradations, using numbers instead of names just as Jane Goodall was urged to do. I suspect that Morgan’s work would be treated rather better in this case in comparison to the contemporary reception of its original terminology. We ought to ask ourselves why this is the case. Perhaps it is too much to hope for a “big tent” of science so capacious that it could hold Lewis Henry Morgan’s terminology alongside that of contemporary anthropology, but we have arrived at a big tent of science large enough to hold Jane Goodall’s proper names alongside tagged and numbered specimens.
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19 November 2009
Yesterday’s meditation upon The Fungibility of the Biome led me to think in very general terms about scientific knowledge. It is one of the remarkable things about contemporary natural science — following rigorously, as it does, the methodological naturalism toward which it has struggled over the past several hundred years since the advent of the Scientific Revolution — that the more complex and sophisticated it becomes, the more closely science is in touch with the details of ordinary experience. This is almost precisely the opposite of what one finds with most intellectual traditions. As an intellectual tradition develops it often becomes involuted and self-involved, veering off in oddball directions and taking unpredictable tangents that take us away from the world and our immediate experience of it, not closer to it. The history of human reason is mostly a history of wild goose chases.
In fact, Western science began exactly in this way, and in so doing gave us the most obvious example of an involuted, self-referential intellectual tradition that was more interested in building on a particular cluster of ideas than of learning about the world. This we now know as scholasticism, when the clerics and monks of medieval Europe read and re-read, studied and commented upon, the works of Aristotle. For a thousand years, Aristotle was synonymous with natural science.
Aristotle is not to be held responsible for the non-science that was done in his name and, to add insult to injury, was called science. If Aristotle had been treated as a point of departure rather than as dogma to be defended and upheld as doctrine, medieval history would have been very different. But at that time Western history was not yet prepared for the wrenching change that science, when properly pursued, forces upon us, both in terms of our understanding of the world and the technology it makes possible (and the industry made possible in turn by technology).
Science forces wrenching change upon us because it plays havoc with some of the more absurd notions that we have inherited from our earlier, pre-scientific history. Pre-scientific beliefs suffer catastrophic failure when confronted with their scientific alternatives, however gently the science is presented in the attempt to spare the feelings of those still wedded to the beliefs of the past.
Once we get past our inherited absurdities, as I implied above, we can see the world for what it is, and science puts us always more closely in touch with what the world it is. Allow me to mention two examples of things that I have recently learned:
Example 1) We know now that not only does the earth circle the sun, and the sun spins with the Milky Way, but we know that this circling and spinning is irregular and imperfect. The earth wobbles in its orbit, and in fact the sun bobs up and down in the plane of the Milky Way as the galaxy spins. This wobbling and bobbing has consequences for life on earth because it changes the climate, sometimes predictably and sometimes unpredictably. But regularity is at least partly a function of the length of time we consider. The impact of extraterrestrial objects on the earth seems like a paradigmatic instance of catastrophism, and the asteroid impact that likely contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs is thought of as a catastrophic punctuation in the history of life, but we now also know that the earth is subject to periods of greater bombardment by extraterrestrial bodies when it is passing through the galactic plane. Viewed from a perspective of cosmological time, asteroid impacts and regular and statistically predictable. And it happens that about 65 million years ago we were passing through the galactic plane and we caught a collision as a result. All of this makes eminently good sense. Matter is present at greater density in the galactic plane, so we are far more likely to experience collisions at this time. All of this accords with ordinary experience.
Example 2) We have had several decades to get used to the idea that the continents and oceans of the earth are not static and unchanging, but dynamic and dramatically different over time. A great many things that remain consistent during the course of one human lifetime have been mistakenly thought to be eternal and unchanging. Now we know that the earth changes and in fact the whole cosmos changes. Even Einstein had to correct himself on this account. His first formulation of general relativity included the cosmological constant in order to maintain the cosmos according to its presently visible structure. Now cosmological evolution is recognized and we detail the lives of stars as carefully as we detail the natural history of a species. Now that we know something of the natural history of our planet, and we know that it changes, we find that it changes according to our ordinary experience. In the midst of an ice age, when much of the world’s water is frozen as ice and is burdening the continental plates as ice, it turns out that the weight of the ice forces the continents lower as they float in the magma beneath them. During the interglacial periods, when much or most of the ice melts, unburdened of the weight the continents bob up again and rise relative to the oceanic plates that have not been been weighted down with ice. And, in fact, this is how things behave in our ordinary experience. It is perhaps also possible (though I don’t know if this is the case) that the weight of ice, melted and now run into the oceans, becomes additional water weight pressing down on the oceanic plates, which could sink a little as a result.
Last night I was reading A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by John Losee (an excellent book, by the way, that I heartily recommend) and happened across this quote from Larry Laudan (p. 213):
…the degree of adequacy of any theory of scientific appraisal is proportional to how many of the [preferred intuitions] it can do justice to. The more of our deep intuitions a model of rationality can reconstruct, the more confident we will be that it is a sound explication of what we mean by ‘rationality’.
Contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophers seem to love to employ the locution “deep intuitions” and similar formulations in the way that a few years ago (or a few decades ago) phenomenologists never tired of writing about the “richness of experience.” Certainly experience is rich, and certainly there are deep intuitions, but to have to call attention to either by way of awkward locutions like these points to a weakness in formulating exactly what it is that is rich about experience, and exactly what it is that is deep about a deep intuition.
And this, of course, is the whole problem in a nutshell: what exactly is a deep intuition? What intuitions ought to be considered to be preferred intuitions? I suggest that our preferred intuitions ought to be those most common and ordinary intuitions that we derive from our common and ordinary experience, things like the fact that floating bodies, when weighted down, float a little lower in the water, or whatever medium in which they happen to float. It is in this spirit that we recall the words that Robert Green Ingersoll attributed to Ferdinand Magellan:
“The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church”
The quote bears exposition. Almost certainly Magellan never said it, or even anything like it. Nevertheless, we ought to be skeptical for reasons other than those cited by the most familiar skeptics, who like to point out that the church never argued for the flatness of the earth. We ought to be skeptical because Magellan was a deeply pious man, who lost his life before the completion of his circumnavigation by his crew because Magellan was so intent upon the conversion to Catholicism of the many peoples he encountered. Eventually he encountered peoples who did not want to be converted, and they eventually took up arms and killed him in an entirely unnecessary engagement. But what remains interesting in the quote, and its implied reference to Galileo’s early observations of the moon, is not so much about flatness as about perfection. Aristotle in particular, and ancient Greek philosophy in general, held that the heavens were a realm of perfection in which all bodies were perfectly spherical and moved in perfectly circular motions through the sky. We now know this to be false, and Galileo was among the first to graphically demonstrate this with his sketches of superlunary mountains.
What does the word “superlunary” refer to? It is a term that derives from pre-Copernican (or, if you will, Ptolemaic) astronomy. When it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe, the closest extraterrestrial body was believed to be the moon (this happened to be correct, even if much in Ptolemaic astronomy was not correct). Everything below the moon, i.e., everything sublunary, was believed to be tainted and imperfect, contaminated with the dirt of lowly things and the stain of Original Sin, while everything above the moon, i.e., everything superlunary, including all other known extraterrestrial bodies, were believed to be free of this taint and therefore to be perfect, therefore unblemished. Thus it was deeply radical to observe an “imperfection” on the supposedly perfect spheres beyond the earth, as it was equally radical to discover “new” extraterrestrial bodies that had never been seen before, like the moons of Jupiter.
Both of these heresies point to our previous tendency to attribute an eternal and unchanging status to things beyond the earth. It was believed impossible to discover “new” extraterrestrial bodies because the heavens, after all, were complete, perfect, and unchanging. For the same reason, one should not be able to view anything as irregular as mountains or shadows on extraterrestrial bodies. Once we get beyond the absurd postulate of extraterrestrial perfection, we can see the world with our own eyes, and for what it is. And when we begin to do so, we do not negate the properties of perfection once attributed to the superlunary world as much as we find them to be simply irrelevant. The heavens, like the earth, are neither perfect nor imperfect. They simply are, and they are what they are. To attribute evaluative or normative content or significance to them, such as believing in their perfection, is only to send us off on one of those oddball directions or unpredictable tangents that I mentioned in the first paragraph.
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