LIBER SCRIPTUS PROFERETUR

VV: What have you learned from science?

EC: Only one thing: that one ought to wash one’s hands before touching nature.

VV: You want to imply that most scientists don’t deserve science?

EC: Yes. But they have made science into something that they deserve.

VV: What is the remedy?

EC: There is no remedy.

VV: At the place where you are now it is not for you to blow the trumpet of the Apocalypsis. Another tuba will spread its miraculous sound. I repeat my question.

EC: The first step would have to be to make science small again and to disengage it from technology and from the pursuit of power.

VV: How would you do this?

EC: I don’t think it can be done according to a blueprint, and it will not take place without a series of catastrophes of a dimension that would make mankind stop and look. Our kind of science has become a disease of the Western mind. We were taught that by digging deeper and deeper we should reach the center of our world. But all we find is rock and fire. So we take the stone as our heart and the flame as our hope.

VV: Is that all that has been found?

EC: We have been lured into a search for the ever-diminishing dimensions. Each new decimal opens a new grotto of delights. Drowning in precision, drunk with controls of controls, we lose ourselves in the quick and dead sands of eternity. It will be too late when we finally become aware of our error. The center of our world is not where we have been looking for it.

Erwin Chargaff, Liber Scriptus Proferetur (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

THE SILENCE OF THE HEAVENS

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I CAME TO BIOCHEMISTRY through chemistry; I came to chemistry, partly by the labyrinthine routes that I have related, and partly through the youthfully romantic notion that the natural sciences had something to do with nature. What I liked about chemistry was its clarity surrounded by darkness; what attracted me, slowly and hesitatingly, to biology was its darkness surrounded by the brightness of the givenness of nature, the holiness of life. And so I have always oscillated between the brightness of reality and the darkness of the unknowable. When Pascal speaks of God in hiding, Deus absconditus, we hear not only the profound existential thinker, but also the great searcher for the reality of the world. I consider this unquenchable resonance as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a naturalist.

When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published-and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print- I notice a freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, “in depth,” the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goaldirected
attitude had prevailed.

It is clear that to meditate on the whole of nature, or even on the whole of living nature, is not a road that the natural sciences could long have traveled. This is the way of the poet, the philosopher, the seer. A division of labor had to take place. But the overfragmentation of the vision of nature- or actually its complete disappearance among the majority of scientists-has created a Humpty-Dumpty world that must become increasingly unmanageable as more and tinier pieces are broken off, “for closer inspection,” from the continuum of nature. The consequence of the excessive specialization, which often brings us news that nobody cares to hear, has been that in revisiting a field with which one had been very familiar, say, ten or twenty years earlier, one feels like an intruder in one’s own bathroom, with twenty-four grim experts sharing the tub.

Profounder men than I have failed to diagnose, let alone cure, the disease that has infected us all, and I should say that the ostensible goals have obliterated the real origins of our search. Without a firm center we flounder. The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled. What has become of an enterprise that started as an exploration of the gesta Dei per naturam?

To follow the acts of God by way of nature is itself an act that can never be completed. Kepler knew this and so did many others, but it is now being forgotten. In general, it is hoped that our road will lead to understanding; mostly it leads only to explanations. The difference between these two terms is also being forgotten: a sleight of hand that I have considered in a recent essay, Einstein is somewhere quoted as having said: “The ununderstandable about nature is that it is understandable.” I think he should have said: “that it is explainable.” These are two very different things, for we understand very little about nature. Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above axiomatic abysses that cannot be explored. It is true, when one’s reason runs a fever, one believes, as in a dream, that this understanding can be grasped; but when one wakes up and the fever is gone, all one is left with are litanies of shallowness.

In our time, so-called laws of nature are being fabricated on the assembly line. But how often is the regularity of these “laws of nature” only the reflection of the regularity of the method employed in their formulation! Lately, many tricks have been discovered about nature; but these tricks seem to have been specially produced by nature for the imbeciles to find out; and there is no Maimonides to guide them out of their confusion. In other words, science is still faced with the age-old predicament, the lack of ultimate verification. It is written in the Analects of Confucius (XII, 19): “The Master said, Heaven does not speak.”

Erwin Chargaff, The Silence of the Heavens (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

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

TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW


 

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)

 

Preface

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


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