Friday, June 4, 2010

Optimus E-Prime...

Yesterday I wrote a post about the peculiar place of ontology in science, which segued to some riffing on E-Prime, which I concluded is just a form of radical idealism (if not solipsism, now that I mention it). The upshot with regard to one of my ongoing interests at FCA--namely, the interrelations of faith, science, and rationality--is that quantitative (i.e., exact physical) science is incapable of affording, much less debunking, an ontology, since the object of ontology--that which is--eludes quantification qua the modus operandi of exact physical science (EPS). Here I just want to add a few more thoughts to the topic.

Listen to Science defending Itself in E-Prime:

"I am true! I mean, uh, I appear to be true! Dang it, I mean, I seem to have truth on my side based on the endorsements of my top users."

Now listen to Optimus E-Prime defending his mother tongue:

"'Is' is a useless word! Oops, I mean to say that 'is' seems like a useless word. To me, at least."

Now listen to how normal people might ought'n respond:

"Why should I care what seems to be the case coming from people who can't even assert such a seeming-to-be is the case?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm actually fond of E-Prime. (Even though it's racist: why else root out "be" from English if not to squash "I be, He be, You be, We be, etc." in Black English!?) I have found it does force me to clarify my writing. But treating it as an entire guide for life--in the way, for instance, Robert Anton Wilson does--is just E-gregious (rimshot!). You end up sounding, and thus living, like the guy who never wants to step on anybody's toes, who of course ends up being a very irritating, passive-aggressive type. I can hear him now:

"My opinions just express how it seems to me, you know? Not being dogmatic. I consider myself an agnostic, on all things, really. I don't want to say you've got false beliefs. I just think the world seems different to me."

With one hand I face-palm myself, with the other I palm-smack his chin. Reminds me all too much of "that guy" I "encountered" a couple months ago while I was having dinner.

But anyway.

Even without E-Prime, scientific hyper-realism (aka scientism) suffers from serious ontological problems, a deficit which I have written about before. The problem emerges like this:

Local Scientismatic: AMAZING NEW THEORY is a fact. Science has proven it.

Methodological (Sane) Realist: What do you mean by "fact"?

LS: I mean we now know that's actually how the world works, how it has always worked.

MR: So what about the theory it replaced? Didn't the world work that way too, according to scientists?

LS: Well, AMAZING NEW THEORY hasn't replaced the old theory, it's just expanded it. It's still true, but under limiting conditions inside the new theory.

MR: So what if this new theory gets "expanded" someday too? Will it be a description of how the world as a whole really works?

LS: Well, that's just conjecture. We can only rely on the science we have to tell us about reality.

MR: So AMAZING NEW THEORY is a global fact but it might be wrong?

LS: It's the most successful model of BIG SCIENTIFIC PROBLEM we've ever known. Its benefits could be incredible.

MR: I saw a documentary the other night about the fastest car we've ever known, but I don't think that tells us anything ultimately true about the nature of speed, motion, or time. So what bearing does our "best model so far" have on the way the world really is? I'm confused.

LS: Now you're talking metaphysics, which is just games with big words. It's like Robert Pirsig said, "Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty thousand page menu, and no food." Science gives us something real, something practical, something meaty, not just words and conjectures.

MR: Okay, but, again, I'm still confused what science really gives us. You said AMAZING NEW THEORY is a fact, but then you said it could be disproven at a moment's notice. So why call it a fact? Why not just call it a breakthrough in scientific discourse, since, after all, it does give scientists a new way of talking?

LS: But the validity of AMAZING NEW THEORY is obvious since it works; it produces real results. I mean, people are suggesting AMAZING NEW THEORY will cut energy costs around the world by 35% in just a few years. That's why science is superior to any other kind of thinking: it creates reliable effects based on clear, repeatable set-up conditions. Let's see philosophy or theology do that sometimes, yeah?

MR: So a scientific theory or model is true as long as it produces effects we can see and which make life more comfortable? How can we say, though, that people were less happy before AMAZING NEW THEORY? Even in ancient, pastoral civilizations, people had vast resources for reducing stress and getting by each day.

LS: Yeah, but that was just shaman tricks and guesswork, religious mumbo jumbo. Nothing systematic or falsifiable about it.

MR: I'm not so sure. After all, descendants of those people today would admit, if they bother to think about it, that the abandonment of the old ways for technology and new forms of thought did spell the end of their civilization. It was a clear outcome for the experiment: abandon the gods and they'll abandon you.

LS: Are you seriously trying to argue that shamans are just as effective or rational as modern scientists?

MR: Not exactly, but what I am wondering is what we mean by "effective" and "rational" with regard to AMAZING NEW THEORY. Who's to say that cutting energy costs by 35% is an obvious good, since it might just be prolonging a system with deeper flaws and which is unsustainable in the long run? The vast majority of humans have lived without technology, and they've done so at a fraction of the energy-bill we have.

LS: But they were so miserable and had such short lifespans.

MR: But that just begs the question. Were they really so miserable? And is a long lifespan an unqualified good? Or to put it another way, is a youngish death intrinsically bad? What if you grew up in and then died in a society which showed you how every part of your life and your body connected with the rest of the world at large and all other people, and, what's more, gave you a serenity about death at any age? Would that really be such an awful world?

LS: I don't see what this has to do with AMAZING NEW THEORY.

MR: Exactly. AMAZING NEW THEORY doesn't explain the value of low energy costs, nor does it explain why we should prolong a system that requires so much energy.

LS: But knowledge for knowledge's sake is inherently good.

MR: I agree, which is why I keep wondering what "knowledge" AMAZING NEW THEORY really provides. You can't defend it as dogma--

LS: Damn right, dogma is for godbots and fascists.

MR: You can't defend it as dogma--as absolutely and always true--so why defend it as true at all?

LS: Okay, fine, I see your point. You want me to say that because AMAZING NEW THEORY is tentative, since it might be falsified--which is what good science requires--, that it's not "really true."

MR: Well, yes, that's my basic worry. You insist AMAZING NEW THEORY is a fact, but I keep wondering what it's a fact about: about the world, which presumably does not change, as it is driven by blind natural forces, or about our speech about the world, which obviously keeps on changing? If it's a fact that "John was in Denny's this afternoon for lunch," I don't see how that can cease to be a fact. I can see how the claim that "Johnny was in Denny's this afternoon for lunch" can be falsified, such as if he told me he went to Chili's, or that I had photographic evidence he was elsewhere, or proof that he didn't actually eat lunch. But the fact of the matter--the logical relations of John, afternoon, lunch, as Wittgenstein might put it--just seems beyond falsification. Unless it were actually false all along, and thus not a fact in the first place.

LS: So you're trying to say that AMAZING NEW THEORY is either a fact or it's a construct?

MR: I'm wondering.

LS: Well, you're just being sophistical. In the meanwhile, normal people like me--as well as the countless poor people who will benefit from AMAZING NEW THEORY--accept the fact (heheh) that there is no way of knowing AMAZING NEW THEORY is not true, so we might as well live like it really is true.

MR: In that case, why keep doing science at all? Why not just call a summit to agree on the most beneficial theories now at-hand (hat tip to Heidegger) and then call a moratorium on science?

LS: But that goes against the whole spirit of science, the love of truth, the desire for wonder!

MR: Wait a minute, now who's talking metaphysics?

LS: Bah. Plus, there are lots of other problems in other fields which we need to tackle.

MR: So you admit AMAZING NEW THEORY is not the whole answer? It's not a final theory?

LS: Not at all. The show must go on, as they say!

MR: So is AMAZING NEW THEORY true or merely a future falsehood being promoted as "truth for our time"?

LS: It's true in its own context, in SCIENTIFIC FIELD, but we need to keep linking all the best theories together till we get to a unified theory. It's asymptotic and I can't deny we'll probably never get all the way there. I think it's just beyond the human mind.

MR: I think you mean that "it"--a comprehensive grasp of the world--is just beyond the human mind relying solely on exact physical science, like AMAZING NEW THEORY. It's a philosophical assumption, not a scientific finding, to say that truth is asymptotic. If we utilized other means of inquiry, we might get a picture beneath the asymptote, so to speak. If AMAZING NEW THEORY, or any other scientific model, is true only in its respective field, then why think that science will give us the truth about the world, and therefore disproofs of non-scientific claims about the world? Science seems to have an inherent humility--a sort of technological apophaticism--built into it, such that, in the very doing of science, you can't say it ever gets at truth as such, only that it worked this time, in this small corner of the world, in such and such terms.

LS: Sorry, but that's just jesuitical bullshit. I say put your money where your mouth is: get in your car, insert the key, and start your car--that's science. Now toss your keys out the window and pray for it to start: that's religion. I might have an ear for your sophistry if you can show me prayer works as consistently as cardiology.

MR: I'm not trying to make this a theological debate, but your argument does raise some interesting ideas. For example, who's to say car keys aren't an answer to a prayer for starting the car? And that cars themselves aren't and answer to our ancestors' prayers for being able to travel faster to help sick people or be with family and friends? Or who's to say that the reason cardiology works so much more "obviously" than prayer is because it deals with a vastly less complex system than prayer?

LS: What do you mean?

MR: Well, cardiology, like any exact science, functions best by excluding "extraneous factors," by honing in on the fewest "essential elements" in a system (like the heart). Prayer, by contrast, is aimed at an entire person, just the brain of which is considered by many to be the most complex dynamic system in the universe. What's more, prayer for any person implicates their entire destiny--their entire "world-line," as we might say in Minkowskian terms--including all people intertwined with their world-knot (as Schopenhauer would put it).

LS: What's your point?

MR: If you tried to apply cardiology to forecasting the weather--meteorology is much more complex than cardiology, which is why it is so much less dependable--, I suspect you'd be disappointed just as much as non-believers are by prayer. The premise of the scientific method is that, if we apply a consistent series of minutely varied conditions to a limited field of operations, we will gradually learn "the way the world really works." Every failed experiment--and don't forget that failure is the bulk of normal science--is like an "unanswered prayer." By "asking nature for such and such a result," a failed experiment indicates that the request does not accord with the principles of the real world, or, you could say, doesn't comply with the "cosmic will." Likewise, some prayers get turned down--though we shouldn't forget either that unknown positive answers to prayer are probably the bulk of the spiritual life--because they don't accord with the real world as governed by God. Unanswered prayers no more comply with the will of God than failed experiments comply with the cosmic order.

LS: You might as well keep going.

MR: Prayer doesn't always work, but neither does experimentation. What must keep working, though, are the prayors and the experimenters. Like good scientists, believers keep praying. A lot of the time, we end up performing the same "experiments" as our ancestors, such as asking for peace rather than comfort, or for courage rather than an easy way out--an atavistic doltishness akin to how every generation of science students must re-enact and rehearse the same milestone experiments of their predecessors. They don't learn anything new by re-enacting the old experiments, but they do become better scientists. Likewise, we don't see "new marvels" in praying for a gracious death, or for the grace to forgive our enemies--these are well-worn paths in the science of the soul--but we do become better people for it.

LS: Yeah, but eventually science will track down the loopholes. It will just keep tightening the scope and finding the right path in novel ways.

MR: But I wonder at what point the tracking of truth will shift from covertly metaphysical to blatantly spiritual.

LS: What are you talking about?

MR: Well, based on what I've read, our most ambitious theory, string theory, requires an experimental "prayer" so grandiose that it's beyond all conceivable human means, for the indefinite future. From what I've heard, the only way to empirically falsify or confirm string theory is with a particle collider the size of the Milky Way.

LS: Bring it, baby!

MR: Best of luck to those wild and crazy guys. But for me the incredible empirical distance between us and string theory--and who knows what even more grandiose theories we will see in the future?--points to the same idea: the more complex the plea is, or, I mean, the more complex the system is, the greater the energy required to effect it. If there's anything to the idea that each human is an infinitely valuable "entity"--and an unfathomably complex microcosm of the whole world in each case--, then even a simple prayer for him or her entails a request of power basically commensurate with the cosmos itself. Presumably, someday, the grandest final theory humans might ever conceive will require so much energy to investigate empirically--in a God-like way--that getting the decisive proof will literally require energy from beyond the cosmos.

LR: Now I think you're just making this stuff up. But go on, keep weaving the dream.

MR: It's about the cost of information for any closed system. Information about the system produces a decrease in available energy in that system, which is diverted from it, in the form of entropy, into information that is about the system but emerges from outside it. Information is a new, higher-level energy complex which, you could say, "feeds on" the disorder in that system until an informed judgment is made about the system. Greater information about the system--at a higher level--means greater entropy in that system. Hence, an informationally complete judgment of the whole cosmos--a true theory of everything--would require an informed perspective outside the cosmos. And this perspective would require more energy than is available within the system to make it's judgment into information.

LS: All I can say is, cut back on the Starbucks, Jesuit.

The problem with a rigorous realism in science is akin to the problem of a carpenter saying that because his hammer works, therefore the universe is fundamentally nail-like or essentially nail-having. Science, like any tool, is only as good as far as it goes. It's also only good for as long as people want to use it, which reminds us how exact physical science (EPS) must be situated in a larger framework of beliefs, values, and ends. Treating EPS as an end in itself is, once more, like a carpenter treating a hammer as an end in itself. "Science is good" only if we clarify what it's good for, which, it must never be forgotten, entails being a lot more open about whom it's good for. I won't get into the economical politics of Big Science in this post, but suffice to say that the modern conception of benign, universal, progressive Science For All is a very delicate historical, ethical, and metaphysical construct. Being a metaphysical project, though, Science For All can't use scientific results as proof for its vision, since the vision itself grounds what counts as significant or positive scientific results. The United States is witnessing a profound shift from being "One Nation Under God" to that of "One Government Under Science," and where it will end up is not a scientific question. This is why sound metaphysics have a vital role in the Science For All project. We still need to have serious discourse about what worldview best accounts for the coherence of Science Itself and which worldview directs its awesome power to the proper ends for the All in the Big Science game. Since it can't even grasp existence and immanent temporality (i.e., the Present Moment), EPS has no way of going against certain metaphysical claims.

Let me close by adding some acronyms I think I'll start using at FCA and in my other writings from here on out. I long ago became dissatisfied with how scientism "frames" (à la George Lakoff) the discourse on science, and thus on "science and religion," by conditioning us to say "science" only in reference to EPS, and thus to discount as "not scientific" any form of reasoning unlike that used in EPS. In the classical and medieval worlds, science (scientia) referred to rational knowledge as such, but over time, natural philosophy came to dominate the semantic role of "science," so that by now people don't think twice about bandying around "science" for what are in fact just discrete practices in the pursuit of scientia. I've addressed this problem before at FCA, but I want to start being more methodical about it. So, from now on, I will use "EPS" to refer to "exact physical science(s)," such as physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. I will use "scientia" to refer to "rational knowledge" and will use metaphysics for what has also been called natural philosophy.

Stay tuned.

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