Thursday, October 17, 2013

Our Glassy Essence

No, the light you are looking at is not refracted.
Richard Diebenkorn, Knife and Glass, 1963
But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.

— William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

* *

The central epistemological problems of philosophy do not arise primarily from within philosophy at all, but from the recurrence in every area of human thought and practice of rival interpretations, and rival types of interpretation, of events and actions. It is for this reason that every academic discipline is to some degree ineliminably philosophical. The literary critic, the historian and the physicist presuppose, even when they do not explicitly defend, solutions or partial solutions to the problems of representation and justification. Shakespeare and Proust, Macaulay and Charles Beard, Galileo and Bohr cannot be read and responded to adequately without epistemological inquiries and commitments. Moreover, the philosophical problems and solutions in each particular area have a bearing on those in other areas; often enough, indeed, they are the very same problems. Hence the need for a synoptic and systematic discipline concerned with the overall problems of justification and representation...

— Alasdair MacIntyre1

* *

The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.

— John von Neumann2

Press a practicing scientist, O Dearly Beloved, to explain what she does for a living and you will often (usually?) find her describing an extremely elaborate, well-constructed, and beautiful intellectual apparatus built to great height and breadth upon subtly shifting sands. As a von Neumann prediction machine, it is remarkably successful, at least in certain well-defined domains (e.g., quantum physics, astronomy), which she will no doubt point to with pride. Look a little closer, however, and you will begin to see lacunae, cracks, and jury-rigged joints papered over with vagueness and contradiction, especially at the gaps between different scientific disciplines or within the same discipline at different scales. Certain sections of the apparatus (like cosmology) seem to have abandoned their purported identity as prediction machines entirely and devolved into nebulous hypothesizing and vague handwaving. Others barely seem to merit the designation “science” at all. Look longer, and you begin to notice that virtually every section of the beautiful edifice is covered with permanent scaffolding and safety netting, with slightly dusty, battered “Under Construction” signs creaking forlornly in the breeze.

If she has any intellectual honesty, your scientist will acknowledge these defects with a slightly embarrassed shrug and an assurance that she and her colleagues are “working on it.” Pressed further, she will admit that the entire, vast apparatus—and every component section of it—is arguably only temporary, a stand-in theoretically ready to be torn down and discarded at a moment’s notice as soon as a more effective replacement is found. You will notice, however, that despite her protestations to the contrary she seems rather emotionally attached and intellectually committed to the existing bits, especially the ones she has devoted her career to understanding and perhaps improving. She also seems somewhat irrationally fond of the beauty of the apparatus—or what she claims to be its beauty, even though you may be unable to see it—and has real difficulty articulating why she believes the beauty of the machine makes it more fit for purpose, which is predicting future events.

* * *

Now far be it for me, a humble dilettante in all matters scientific, to deny the power, efficacy, and success of Science writ large. Without it—and without the legions of practical engineers and technicians who translate the pristine Platonic forms of pure science into messy, approximate, “good enough” directions for the construction of machines which actually work in the real world—you would not be able to read these words on your computer or mobile device and, more importantly, most of what you and I enjoy as perks of an advanced technological society would not even exist. As a cookbook, modern science is amazingly effective.

But it is important to guard against the notion, so often merely assumed by working scientists but occasionally trumpeted affirmatively by certain mouthpieces thereof, that the instrumental effectiveness of particular sciences provides prima facie proof that their underlying theories correctly describe the underlying reality of the world they purport to. For pace John von Neumann, rare is the scientist (or science writer) who can resist adopting the position that scientific theories actually describe that which is. Rare is the theorist who can treat her pet theory as merely a model which enables her to predict certain outcomes. Rarer still is the scientist who is content to ignore underlying reality (entities, causes, and effects) as a black box which doesn’t matter to the efficacy of her theorem. Such a perspective requires an intellectual rigor and discipline which is both rare and, as a matter of fact, practically unnecessary. Someone once quipped that most scientists are instrumentalists on Sunday and scientific realists the rest of the working week. It is simply easier to believe something like the Higgs Boson exists—or behave as if it does—than to practice particle physics as a mystifyingly effective physico-mathematical game.

The undeniable strength of science as a domain of human thought is that it embeds skepticism and contingency at the very root of its self-justification. Science is not science if it does not consist of theorems and hypotheses which are only—always and forever more—taken as potentially true until they are proven otherwise. And science itself declares its ambition to constantly test and retest its theories and assumptions for completeness, accuracy, and truth, even if this happens more often in theory than in fact. This is a highly admirable thing.

But science is not immune to the challenges of representation and interpretation which all human attempts to discover and describe the nature of reality are subject to. Science cannot finesse the influences and distortions which its practice by real human beings in real social contexts impose on it. Science cannot evade the problems of justification raised by choices driven more by aesthetics and intellectual convenience—like the preference for theories which are beautiful or which satisfy Occam’s Razor—rather than any a priori necessity. Science possesses no special defenses against the radical skepticism which calls into question our very relation to the world and each other. Science, in other words, does not hold a privileged position outside the core intellectual puzzles of human cognition and relation to reality.

* * *

All of which is simply to say that a scientist who claims that philosophy is dead and science has killed it is a fool. He or she is blind to the fact that philosophy is a discipline and way of addressing radical (from radix: root) mysteries and dilemmas at the core of our relationship to the world that science does not even touch. That science takes for granted. Such a scientist lives in a sort of intellectual Flatland, where the two-dimensional inhabitants are either incapable or terrified of grasping the notion they may be embedded in a universe which operates on them with constraints, causes, and effects they cannot even begin to comprehend. Such a scientist literally doesn’t have a clue what he or she is talking about.

The only cure for this, of course—now and always—is a healthy helping of humility. I struggle to remember mine every day.3

Related reading:
Sovereign Triviality (November 19, 2011)

1Alasdair MacIntyre on the claims of philosophy,” London Review of Books, Vol. 2 No. 11, pp. 15–16.
2 Cited in Derek Abbott, “The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics," Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 101 No. 10, pp. 2147–2153.
3 Those among you who have read this far only to be disappointed I did not offer stock tips or inside dirt on the size of Jamie Dimon’s washroom may take this post as either self indulgence or self-directed therapy, as you will. Given that this is my blogsite, after all, I couldn’t care less.

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.