Saturday, March 30, 2013

How Can We Know the Dancer from the Dance?

Henri Matisse, La Danse, 1910
Henri Matisse, La Danse, 1910

πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἐχῖνος δ'ἓν μέγα

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.


Science is the characteristic product of our culture. Similarly, understanding where science fits in – metaphysically, epistemologically, morally, aesthetically and otherwise – is our characteristic philosophical problem; we’ve been working on it since Descartes. As of now, the hardest part is to reconcile a physicalistic ontology with the apparently ineliminable multiplicity of discourses that we require when we try to say how things are. Wilson thinks this appearance of tension is unreal. He suspects that if we resist consilience, that’s because we’re suffering from pluralism, nihilism, solipsism, relativism, idealism, deconstructionism and other symptoms of the French disease. Well, maybe, but I for one plead not guilty. It seems to me that scientific Realism is quite compatible with the view that events fall into revealing and reliable patterns not just at the level of micro structure but at many different orders of aggregation of matter. The heterogeneity of our discourse would then correspond to the heterogeneity of levels at which the world is organised, and both might well prove irreducible.

Everything is physical perhaps, but surely there are many different kinds of physical things. Some are protons; some are constellations; some are trees or cats; and some are butchers, bakers or candlesticks. For each kind of thing, there are the proprietary generalisations by which it is subsumed, and in terms of which its behaviour is to be explained. For each such generalisation, there is the proprietary vocabulary that is required in order for our discourse to express it. Nothing can happen except what the laws of physics permit, of course; but much goes on that the laws of physics do not talk about. It would not be entirely surprising if the explanatory apparatus that our higher-level theories require in order to say the sorts of thing that physics doesn’t, cross-classifies the taxonomy that physical explanation employs. Maybe this kind of picture is a viable alternative to consilience. Or maybe it’s not. Or maybe both are wrong. Or maybe it’s still too soon to tell.

— Jerry Fodor 1

However, the point which is most significant in the present context is that all these laws of nature contain, in even their remotest consequences, only a small part of our knowledge of the inanimate world. All the laws of nature are conditional statements which permit a prediction of some future events on the basis of the knowledge of the present, except that some aspects of the present state of the world, in practice the overwhelming majority of the determinants of the present state of the world, are irrelevant from the point of view of the prediction.

— Eugene Wigner 2

Physics in particular and the natural sciences in general constitute a remarkable intellectual accomplishment of the human race. While they are by definition neither invulnerable to challenge nor complete, they allow us to describe and predict a broad range of physical phenomena with astonishing accuracy and precision. They have enabled tremendous industrial and technological development, as well as allowing us to express the baser part of our natures with distressing power and efficiency.

But as Eugene Wigner explains, their success in large part depends on laserlike focus on only those phenomena which can be described with the explanatory apparatus they possess. Physics and the natural sciences succeed by ignoring particulars they deem irrelevant to their purpose and focusing on a limited number of real or hypothesized invariances which they can understand and manipulate. The present location of a carbon atom does not matter to particle physicists’ prediction of its mass, regardless of whether it resides in a coal seam thousands of feet underground, an air molecule exhaled from an athlete’s lung, or a patch of pigment on the surface of a Matisse painting.

And yet, outside the laboratory, factory, and classroom, the class of particulars which physics and its brethren ignore make up the vast body of phenomena and things which human beings experience every day. Variance is the main concern of our waking lives, not invariance. Variance is what most of us seek to understand, explain, and manipulate most of the time.

The natural sciences’ ability to describe the infrastructure of the world—what matter and energy do, and how we should expect them to behave—is a triumph of our species, and undeniably useful. But physics and chemistry and cosmology stand mostly mute before a painting or a concerto. They reveal the physical origin, composition, and interaction of the components, and how certain photons or sound waves propagate from the pigment or instruments, but they can explain almost nothing that really matters 3 about a work of art. Nor, what is more, about an election, a culture, or a civilization.

* * *
Science is our best shot at explaining the constraints of our universe: what is possible, and what we should expect when events occur. Science may even be able, one day, to explain the origins and functioning of consciousness. But unless you believe the entire history of the universe, including all the thoughts, decisions, and actions of conscious beings everywhere, is completely and ineluctably predetermined by the physical facts of our universe, science will never be able to predict or explain the workings of our will. And our will, arising in an as-yet unexplained fashion from electrochemical reactions inside the spongy matrix of our physical brains, is what in turn affects and even alters the physical universe itself. Physical Matisse assembled physical objects to create that painting, then, in that fashion. Why? What does it mean to us? To you? How will that historical fact about that created physical object affect you? What are you going to do about it?

And if you don’t think a primitive figurative painting by a long-dead Frenchman matters much in the scheme of things, consider the atom bomb. Men and women decided to make that, too. Science tells us virtually nothing about why they did so, other than the relatively trivial fact that they could.

Many scientists scoff at philosophy, psychology, and cognate disciplines as empty gibberish, obscurantist mumbo jumbo.4 This is a mistake. Such disciplines are humans’ attempts to describe, explain, and, on occasion, even predict the constraints, facts, and nature of our consciousness and how it interacts with the world. This is not a trivial or misguided undertaking, for our consciousness affects the world, too.

Writing on science, Thomas Henry Huxley said,
To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.
Do not make the same mistake about the life of the human mind. Otherwise, you will pass through life incapable of actually seeing any of the paintings turned toward you.

Related reading:
Sovereign Triviality (November 19, 2011)
Pixels Don’t Breathe (May 17, 2011)

1Look!,” London Review of Books, Vol. 20 No. 21 (29 October 1998), pp. 3-6.
2The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, Vol. 13, No. I (February 1960).
3 Yes, that is a value judgment. Explain value judgment to me using science. Comprehensively. I’ll wait.
4 Mind you, some of it is. There is bad philosophy and bad psychology, just like there is bad science. It comes with the territory of being human.

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