If I boil water in a kettle on a stove, the operation and the objects that support it are, in reality, bound up with a multitude of other objects and a multitude of other operations; in the end, I should find that our entire solar system is concerned in what is being done at this particular point of space. But, in a certain measure, and for the special end I am pursuing, I may admit that things happen as if the group water-kettle-stove were an independent microcosm. That is my first affirmation. Now, when I say that this microcosm will always behave in the same way, that the heat will necessarily, at the end of a certain time, cause the boiling of the water, I admit that it is sufficient that a certain number of elements of the system be given in order that the system should be complete; it completes itself automatically, I am not free to complete it in thought as I please. The stove, the kettle and the water being given, with a certain interval of duration, it seems to me that the boiling, which experience showed me yesterday to be the only thing wanting to complete the system, will complete it tomorrow, no matter when tomorrow may be. What is there at the base of this belief? Notice that the belief is more or less assured, according as the case may be, but that it is forced upon the mind as an absolute necessity when the microcosm considered contains only magnitudes. If two sides of a triangle and the contained angle are given, the third side arises of itself and the triangle completes itself automatically. I can, it matters not where and it matters not when, trace the same two sides containing the same angle: it is evident that the new triangles so formed can be superposed on the first, and that consequently the same third side will come to complete the system. Now, if my certitude is perfect in the case in which I reason on pure space determinations, must I not suppose that, in the other cases, the certitude is greater the nearer it approaches this extreme case? Indeed, may it not be the limiting case which is seen through all the others and which colors them, accordingly as they are more or less transparent, with a more or less pronounced tinge of geometrical necessity? In fact, when I say that the water on the fire will boil today as it did yesterday, and that this is an absolute necessity, I feel vaguely that my imagination is placing the stove of yesterday on that of today, kettle on kettle, water on water, duration on duration, and it seems then that the rest must coincide also, for the same reason that, when two triangles are superposed and two of their sides coincide, their third sides coincide also. But my imagination acts thus only because it shuts its eyes to two essential points. For the system of today actually to be superimposed on that of yesterday, the latter must have waited for the former, time must have halted, and everything become simultaneous: that happens in geometry, but in geometry alone. Induction therefore implies first that, in the world of the physicist as in that of the geometrician, time does not count. But it implies also that qualities can be superposed on each other like magnitudes. If, in imagination, I place the stove and fire of today on that of yesterday, I find indeed that the form has remained the same; it suffices, for that, that the surfaces and edges coincide; but what is the coincidence of two qualities, and how can they be superposed one on another in order to ensure that they are identical? Yet I extend to the second order of reality all that applies to the first. The physicist legitimates this operation later on by reducing, as far as possible, differences of quality to differences of magnitude; but, prior to all science, I incline to liken qualities to quantities, as if I perceived behind the qualities, as through a transparency, a geometrical mechanism. The more complete this transparency, the more it seems to me that in the same conditions there must be a repetition of the same fact. Our inductions are certain, to our eyes, in the exact degree in which we make the qualitative differences melt into the homogeneity of the space which subtends them, so that geometry is the ideal limit of our inductions as well as of our deductions. The movement at the end of which is spatiality lays down along its course the faculty of induction as well as that of deduction, in fact, intellectuality entire. Continue reading “BOILING GEOMETRY”
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.
Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson
The error of radical finalism, as also that of radical mechanism, is to extend too far the application of certain concepts that are natural to our intellect. Originally, we think only in order to act. Our intellect has been cast in the mold of action. Speculation is a luxury, while action is a necessity. Now, in order to act, we begin by proposing an end; we make a plan, then we go on to the detail of the mechanism which will bring it to pass. This latter operation is possible only if we know what we can reckon on. We must therefore have managed to extract resemblances from nature, which enable us to anticipate the future. Thus we must, consciously or unconsciously, have made use of the law of causality. Moreover, the more sharply the idea of efficient causality is defined in our mind, the more it takes the form of a mechanical causality. And this scheme, in its turn, is the more mathematical according as it expresses a more rigorous necessity. That is why we have only to follow the bent of our mind to become mathematicians. But, on the other hand, this natural mathematics is only the rigid unconscious skeleton beneath our conscious supple habit of linking the same causes to the same effects; and the usual object of this habit is to guide actions inspired by intentions, or, what comes to the same, to direct movements combined with a view to reproducing a pattern. We are born artisans as we are born geometricians, and indeed we are geometricians only because we are artisans. Thus the human intellect, inasmuch as it is fashioned for the needs of human action, is an intellect which proceeds at the same time by intention and by calculation, by adapting means to ends and by thinking out mechanisms of more and more geometrical form. Whether nature be conceived as an immense machine regulated by mathematical laws, or as the realization of a plan, these two ways of regarding it are only the consummation of two tendencies of mind which are complementary to each other, and which have their origin in the same vital necessities. Continue reading “THE THREE R’s”
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”
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
Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being. (Heidegger)
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him? (Zhuangzi)
To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality. It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture. Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe. It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years. This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality. This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are. It is not a case of what we think, but how. This is such a simple statement to make, but a much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.
I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place. Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year. McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.” And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today. Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson. I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s. It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.
The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life. Eisenstein says:
Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control. Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite. This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.
What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books. A few disclaimers: I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible. It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation. Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked. Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly. My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion. I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.
Adam John Miller
20th December 2018