THE BLIND SPOT

In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers. 

For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate. 

So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.

Recent philosophers of science who target such ‘naive realism’ argue that science doesn’t culminate in a single picture of a theory-independent world. Rather, various aspects of the world – from chemical interactions to the growth and development of organisms, brain dynamics and social interactions – can be more or less successfully described by partial models. These models are always bound to our observations and actions, and circumscribed in their application.

The fields of complex systems theory and network science add mathematical precision to these claims by focusing on wholes rather than the reduction to parts. Complex systems theory is the study of systems, such as the brain, living organisms or the Earth’s global climate, whose behaviour is difficult to model: how the system responds depends on its state and context. Such systems exhibit self-organisation, spontaneous pattern-formation and sensitive dependence on initial conditions (very small changes to the initial conditions can lead to widely different outcomes).

Network science analyses complex systems by modelling their elements as nodes, and the connections between them as links. It explains behaviour in terms of network topologies – the arrangements of nodes and connections – and global dynamics, rather than in terms of local interactions at the micro level.

Inspired by these perspectives, we propose an alternative vision that seeks to move beyond the Blind Spot. Our experience and what we call ‘reality’ are inextricable. Scientific knowledge is a self-correcting narrative made from the world and our experience of it evolving together. Science and its most challenging problems can be reframed once we appreciate this entanglement.

Let’s return to the problem we started with, the question of time and the existence of a First Cause. Many religions have addressed the notion of a First Cause in their mythic creation narratives. To explain where everything comes from and how it originates, they assume the existence of an absolute power or deity that transcends the confines of space and time. With few exceptions, God or gods create from without to give rise to what is within.

Unlike myth, however, science is constrained by its conceptual framework to function along a causal chain of events. The First Cause is a clear rupture of such causation – as Buddhist philosophers pointed out long ago in their arguments against the Hindu theistic position that there must be a first divine cause. How could there be a cause that was not itself an effect of some other cause? The idea of a First Cause, like the idea of a perfectly objective reality, is fundamentally theological.

These examples suggest that ‘time’ will always have a human dimension. The best we can aim for is to construct a scientific cosmological account that is consistent with what we can measure and know of the Universe from inside. The account can’t ever be a final or complete description of cosmic history. Rather, it must be an ongoing, self-correcting narrative. ‘Time’ is the backbone of this narrative; our lived experience of time is necessary to make the narrative meaningful. With this insight, it seems it’s the physicist’s time that is secondary; it’s merely a tool to describe the changes we’re able to observe and measure in the natural world. The time of the physicist, then, depends for its meaning on our lived experience of time.

We can now appreciate the deeper significance of our three scientific conundrums – the nature of matter, consciousness and time. They all point back to the Blind Spot and the need to reframe how we think about science. When we try to understand reality by focusing only on physical things outside of us, we lose sight of the experiences they point back to. The deepest puzzles can’t be solved in purely physical terms, because they all involve the unavoidable presence of experience in the equation. There’s no way to render ‘reality’ apart from experience, because the two are always intertwined.

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge. It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture, in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature and as a source of nature’s self-understanding. We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience
Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson

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CREATIVE EVOLUTION

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When a shell bursts, the particular way it breaks is explained both by the explosive force of the powder it contains and by the resistance of the metal. So of the way life breaks into individuals and species. It depends, we think, on two series of causes: the resistance life meets from inert matter, and the explosive force—due to an unstable balance of tendencies—which life bears within itself.

That adaptation to environment is the necessary condition of evolution we do not question for a moment. It is quite evident that a species would disappear, should it fail to bend to the conditions of existence which are imposed on it. But it is one thing to recognize that outer circumstances are forces evolution must reckon with, another to claim that they are the directing causes of evolution. This latter theory is that of mechanism. It excludes absolutely the hypothesis of an original impetus, I mean an internal push that has carried life, by more and more complex forms, to higher and higher destinies.

The road that leads to the town is obliged to follow the ups and downs of the hills; it adapts itself to the accidents of the ground; but the accidents of the ground are not the cause of the road, nor have they given it its direction. At every moment they furnish it with what is indispensable, namely, the soil on which it lies; but if we consider the whole of the road, instead of each of its parts, the accidents of the ground appear only as impediments or causes of delay, for the road aims simply at the town and would fain be a straight line. Just so as regards the evolution of life and the circumstances through which it passes—with this difference, that evolution does not mark out a solitary route, that it takes directions without aiming at ends, and that it remains inventive even in its adaptations.

Evolution is a creation unceasingly renewed, it creates, as it goes on, not only the forms of life, but the ideas that will enable the intellect to understand it, the terms which will serve to express it. That is to say that its future overflows its present, and can not be sketched out therein in an idea.

If life realizes a plan, it ought to manifest a greater harmony the further it advances, just as the house shows better and better the idea of the architect as stone is set upon stone. If, on the contrary, the unity of life is to be found solely in the impetus that pushes it along the road of time, the harmony is not in front, but behind. Nature is more and better than a plan in course of realization. A plan is a term assigned to a labor: it closes the future whose form it indicates. Before the evolution of life, on the contrary, the portals of the future remain wide open. It is a creation that goes on for ever in virtue of an initial movement. This movement constitutes the unity of the organized world—a prolific unity, of an infinite richness, superior to any that the intellect could dream of, for the intellect is only one of its aspects or products. Continue reading “CREATIVE EVOLUTION”

TIME IT’S TIME

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The finished portrait is explained by the features of the model, by the nature of the artist, by the colors spread out on the palette; but, even with the knowledge of what explains it, no one, not even the artist, could have foreseen exactly what the portrait would be, for to predict it would have been to produce it before it was produced — an absurd hypothesis which is its own refutation. Even so with regard to the moments of our life, of which we are the artisans. Each of them is a kind of creation. And just as the talent of the painter is formed or deformed—in any case, is modified—under the very influence of the works he produces, so each of our states, at the moment of its issue, modifies our personality, being indeed the new form that we are just assuming. It is then right to say that what we do depends on what we are; but it is necessary to add also that we are, to a certain extent, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves continually. This creation of self by self is the more complete, the more one reasons on what one does. For reason does not proceed in such matters as in geometry, where impersonal premisses are given once for all, and an impersonal conclusion must perforce be drawn. Here, on the contrary, the same reasons may dictate to different persons, or to the same person at different moments, acts profoundly different, although equally reasonable. The truth is that they are not quite the same reasons, since they are not those of the same person, nor of the same moment. That is why we cannot deal with them in the abstract, from outside, as in geometry, nor solve for another the problems by which he is faced in life. Each must solve them from within, on his own account. Continue reading “TIME IT’S TIME”

THE INSTITUTION OF SCIENCE & THE CLIMATE CHANGE NARRATIVE

If the sceptical “right” and doomsaying “left” are both trapped in reality-tunnelling confirmation bias, perhaps we should flee to the centre: the standard climate change narrative.  This is comfortable territory, staked out by our society’s primary epistemic authority, science.

The problem is, the dynamics that afflict the two extremes afflict the middle as well.  Over the last few years, a growing chorus of insider critics have been exposing serious flaws in scientific funding, publishing, and research, leading some to go as far as to say, “Science is broken.”

The dysfunctions they describe include:

  • Various kinds of fraud: some deliberate, but mostly unconscious and systemic
  • Irreproducibility of results and lack of incentive to attempt replication
  • Misuse of statistics, such as “P-hacking” – the mining of research data to extract a post hoc “hypothesis” for publication
  • Severe flaws in the system of peer review; for example, its propensity to enforce existing paradigms, to be hostile to anything that challenges the views of the reviewers whose careers are invested in those views
  • Difficulty in obtaining funding for unorthodox research hypotheses
  • Publication bias that favours positive results over negative results, and suppresses research that won’t benefit a researcher’s career

The system encourages the endless elaboration of existing theories about which there is consensus, but if one of these is wrong, there are nearly insuperable barriers to its ever being overturned.  These go far beyond classic Kuhnian resistance to paradigm shift – critics call it “paradigm protection.”  Former NIH director and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus describes it this way:

The system now favours those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success.  Young investigators are discouraged from departing too far from their postdoctoral work, when they should instead be posing new questions and inventing new approaches.  Seasoned investigators are inclined to stick to their tried-and-true formulas for success rather than explore new fields.

It is easy to see how these dynamics might impact climate science, a politically charged field that receives billions of dollars of government funding.  Sceptics’ websites contain laments by climate researchers who are afraid to attempt publication of results that contradict climate orthodoxy because they do not want to be ostracised as a “denier”; professors telling of discouraging graduate students  from investigating inconsistencies in the data; and anecdotes about reputable scientists who lost funding and professional appointments after they issued mild criticism of official positions.

The dissident climatologist Judith Curry raises questions about the genesis of the scientific consensus around climate change:

The skewed scientific “consensus” does indeed act to reinforce itself, through a range of professional incentives: ease of publishing results, particularly in high impact journals; success in funding; recognition from peers in terms of awards, promotions, etc; media attention and publicity for research; appeal of the simplistic narrative that climate science can “save the world”; and a seat at the big policy tables.

All of this adds up to a kind of collective confirmation bias within science, the same cognitive handicap that so obviously afflicts many climate sceptics.  In other words, confirmation bias is not limited to those outside the establishment.  it is institutionalised within it as well, despite the system of peer review that is supposed to eliminate it.

In most controversies that pit a powerful orthodoxy against a marginalised heterodoxy, the establishment makes liberal use of scare quotes and derisive epithets like “denier,” “conspiracy theorist,” or “pseudo-scientist” to exercise psychological pressure on the undecided layperson, who does not want to be thought a fool.  These tactics invoke in-group/out-group social dynamics, leading one to suspect that the same dynamics might prevail within the scientific establishment to enforce group-think and discourage dissent.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
https://charleseisenstein.org/books/climate-a-new-story/

THE REMARKABLE CATEGORY OF BEING

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“Being” is, on the face of it, a very odd category indeed. In order for people to get along in life they need to be able to identify things like chairs, people, light switches, friendships, political institutions, and harmful objects. They also need to have a great deal of basic knowledge about these things, if they are going to survive and flourish. But it seems extremely odd to say that they need to identify and have knowledge of “Being.” And yet this is what metaphysics defines as our most noble philosophic task.

We have been suggesting that Being, like every other basic philosophic concept, is a human category, the very articulation of which depends on a cluster of common folk theories and conceptual metaphors. Being, regarded as the fundamental ontological category, emerged historically, as we have seen, in pre-Socratic philosophy and was given an elaborate articulation and refinement in Plato and Aristotle. We have argued that Aristotle was able to create the field of metaphysics only by adopting and adapting these shared folk theories and metaphors. The logic of Plato’s and Aristotle’s doctrines of Being, and indeed their entire philosophic positions, are significantly based on metaphorical concepts and are made possible by folk theoretical assumptions.

Many of these folk theories and conceptual metaphors are so deeply rooted in our Western philosophical tradition that they may seem to us not to be folk theories or metaphors at all. Many people, for instance, take it as a self-evident metaphysical fact that things consist of matter organized by form, or that everything has an essence that makes it the kind of thing it is, or that reality is organized in a hierarchy of categories, with the category of everything that exists at the top.

Many people think it obvious that the world must consist of basic substances that underlie the properties we experience. But there is nothing ontologically absolute about either the form/matter distinction or the idea of substance/attribute metaphysics. Many philosophers, such as Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, Whitehead, and, more recently, Rorty, have shown that the form/matter model is only one possible way of understanding things, and a mostly distorting way at that. Likewise, the idea that substance must be the ontologically basic entity is today almost totally discredited by a large number of philosophical traditions.

Nevertheless, the quest for Being goes on, and it is still regarded in many quarters as the ultimate philosophical project. The metaphysical impulse remains strong because the metaphors and folk theories defining it are so deeply embedded in our shared cultural understandings. As long as we believe that the world consists of general kinds of things defined by essences, that essences are the source of all natural behavior, that the world is intelligible, and that there is an all-inclusive category also defined by an essence, we will continue the search for Being.

The search for Being is for many people the search for God. The issues surrounding the quest for Being have always been at the center of Western theology and are still there today. God is widely regarded by theologians and laypeople alike as the ultimate causal source and sustainer of all that is, as the ultimate source of all that is good, as present in every existing thing, as having a plan that gives purpose to the world and meaning to human beings, and as being not merely all-powerful but also all-knowing. Most of these are the properties of Plato’s Idea of the Good, that is, of the essence of essence. This is no accident. Most of the medieval conceptions of, and arguments for, the existence of God stem directly from Greek metaphysics, partly from Plato’s Idea of the Good, but especially from Aristotelian views of causation and change.

The forms of thought that we saw as emerging in the pre-Socratics and finding their most sophisticated expression in Plato and Aristotle are thus anything but quaint and archaic. They exist not only in contemporary philosophy and theology, but they lie at the heart of Western science. The Folk Theory of the Intelligibility of the World is a precondition for any form of rational inquiry. The Folk Theory of General Kinds is required in order to state any generalizations at all. Otherwise, all knowledge would be utterly specific and could never be projected to new cases. The Folk Theory of Essences is commonplace in virtually every science, because science is always looking for the properties of things that make them what they are and explain their behavior. The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category is present in every mode of scientific explanation that seeks ever more comprehensive explanations to cover ever greater ranges of phenomena, for example, theories of everything in physics and theories of life in biology.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.

CONCEPTS OF CAUSALITY

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The Overall Philosophical Consequences

We began with a cognitive semantic analysis of the concepts of events and causation. If one accepts that analysis, a great deal follows. Given that causation is a multivalent radial concept with inherently metaphorical senses, the theory of the one true causation becomes not merely false, but silly. Once we know that it is multivalent, not monolithic, and that it is largely metaphorical, it turns out not to be the kind of thing that could have a single logic or could be an objective feature of the world. Since the concept of causation has ineliminably metaphorical subcases, those forms of causation, as conceptualized metaphorically, cannot literally be objective features of the world. There can be no one true causation.

That does not mean that causation does not exist, that there are no determining factors in the world. If one gives up the correspondence theory of truth and adopts the experientialist account of truth as based on embodied understanding, then there is a perfectly sensible view of causation to be given. We do not claim to know whether the world, in itself, contains “determining factors.” But the world as we normally conceptualize it certainly does. Those determining factors consist in all the very different kinds of situations we call causal.

When we see or hypothesize a determining factor of some kind, we conceptualize it using one of our forms of causation, either literal or metaphorical. If metaphorical, we choose a metaphor with which to conceptualize the situation, preferably a metaphor whose logic is appropriate to the kind of determining factor noticed. Using that metaphor we can make claims about that determining factor. The claims can be “true” relative to our understanding, which itself may be literal or metaphorical.

This does not eliminate all problems of truth with respect to metaphor. It moves many of them to another place, but a more appropriate place. It leads us to ask, “When is a metaphorical conceptualization of a situation apt?” Is it an apt use of metaphor to apply the metaphor of Causal Paths to democracy in the arena of foreign policy? Only relative to a decision concerning the aptness of the metaphor can we draw conclusions on the basis of the Causal Paths metaphor. Continue reading “CONCEPTS OF CAUSALITY”