Back Off Science

Moving house

Posted in 1 by backoffscience on January 11, 2010

Well it turns out I’m not really angry enough, or stupid enough, to take on the whole of science. If you want to follow my somewhat mellower, more philosophical project, come on over to:


How do you interest a scientist in ontology?

Posted in 1 by backoffscience on November 27, 2009

Ok. It’s a bad word. Please keep reading. Ontology is a terrible word. Rings of something incredibly complicated. (see comments on philosophers, edited out of previous version).

If you feel like writing. Here’s a question. If not, read on…

singular essentials: 01 by clickykbd.

The question

The question you need to ask yourself is simply this. What is real? What is reality like? If you had to describe it objectively, capturing everything, what would you say?

Scientists are a clever bunch. All my criticism is of science applied to the wrong things, not science as used in the right way.

singular essentials: 14 by clickykbd.The problem, in an impossibly abstract sense, is that scientists work on an incoherent ontology. It is not scientists fault in a way. They are by definition not interested in a conceptual argument.

In the most basic sense an ontology is just an abstract conceptual description of what is real. Science does deal with defining what is real, but only after you have decided what kind of questions you need answering, and what importance the answers have.

It is not in the interest of science to question the conceptual system in which their investigation takes place. The inevitable answer is that science does not provide the whole answer.

Scientists themselves don’t seem to believe that they have all the answers. They happily use concepts that lie outside of scientific investigation – the purpose of the investigation, for example. Because the ontology is everything it obviously decides the importance of everything, thats all.

Language does not comply to the laws of physics

Ontologies can be really easy.

singular essentials: 07 by clickykbd.I’ll try an ontology from the most coherent materialist angle possible:

Everything that happens is made of matter. Matter can be explained by the rules of physics, chemistry, biology and cosmology.

One part of the material world is brains and nervous systems in humans.

Living brains and nervous systems in humans generate a complex, communal form of life, experienced by each living and awake human.

Every fact about the world only matters to us insomuch as it is part of the brain-created, conscious, conceptually organized life we live. This life takes place in the material world, but a material world overlayed with a complex network of interconnected concepts which are shared by massive groups, cultures, societies and populations of humans. You obviously cannot see these in the normal sense.

Of course everything real is a concept that is made of something. But tell me how where a concept is, is the most useful part of the explanation?

Lets try one. The concept of the novel. All the paper and ink in books and led and computer chip as well, on which they are being written. And add the interconnected neurons of novelists – the ones that do the thinking, and the writing, and the history and criticism of novels and the great novelists, and all the reading.

The question is, so what? I know what a novel is. There is no scientific discovery about paper or LEDs that will help me explain what a novel is.

And here we hit the sticky point. We get confused talking about our own brains. There are discoveries about the brain that are obviously yet to be made. The question is the most useful explanation of how the neurons are connected.

I would argue that the scientific explanation is not very useful in conceptual matters. The best, and most comprehensive possible answer of what the neurons are doing, the organisation of the atoms, is the description of the practice of reading and writing novels. This is inevitably an expansive inquiry based on finding out about the connected concepts, practices and ideas – the grammar of our form of life, to put it in Wittgenstein’s terms.

You explain what a novel is by explaining what reading and writing are, you explain narrative and characterization, the history of novelists, the science of printing and of neurobiology, the anthropology of  storytelling. All these things and more give the best, most complete explanation of the novel. (the words explanation and description here mean the same thing).

How can you say that life is not real?

Singular Essentials Series by clickykbd.It makes no sense to say that life is not real, but that is exactly what many people seem to believe.

Basically, we all bloody well know that we are conscious. That we are all living lives.

There is all this debate about the science of consciousness. We discovered consciousness long ago, but have yet failed to comprehend the implications of the discovery.

We know that our brains do subjectivity, that this is “what it is like to be your brain and nervous system”. We have known the ontology for a long time. But who would herald the discovery of something they were already plainly aware of.

No. We found out that conscious life took place in the brain, and not for example, the lungs. But we were not particularly interested. The logical conclusions are still sinking in.

These thoughts are so far from the scientist’s interests that it is clearly possible to discount them entirely.

The scientist’s question – “how do I find out what is real?”
The scientist’s answer – “it’s what I do”.

1.What is real? Come on you scientists and atheists and rationalists of all shapes and sizes. For the sake of nothing but inquiry and curiosity, indulge me in this trivial matter. What do you think, in the most abstract terms you can face using, is real? What ontology are you working from? Do it in 140 if you like.

Five tribes

Posted in 1 by backoffscience on October 6, 2009

“As people see the world so they behave”

From this TED video by David Logan. A glib, self-satisfied, and over-simplified analysis of 5 stages of our modern tribes. This man may be a moron, who sells a better world  like used cars. But I still like the idea of a super-simple ladder narrative for thinking about human progress. A bit like a computer strategy game. Collect enough logs and food, and you get onto the next level. Here’s how it works:

Stage 1) nihilist tribe – there is no tribe. Life sucks. Despairing hostility. 2%

Stage 2) idiot tribe – your life is good, my life is not. I hate my tribe. My life sucks. 25%

Stage 3) cocky tribe – my life is great and you’re not 48%

Stage 4) self-aware tribe – our lives will be better if we work together. We’re great. 22%

Stage 5) total tribe – life is great. 2%

So we just move the numbers up the stages and everything gets better. Easy as that.

Wittgenstein vs Melvyn

Posted in 1 by backoffscience on September 25, 2009

Listened to the In Our Time on Wittgenstein and thought there was some good talk about science and that. Here are some rough transcriptions:

Marie McGinn: In the Tractatus – “he [Wittgenstein] is interested in how language is used by scientists to state facts.”

“There is a danger in taking something that has nothing to do with anything being true or false and treating it as if it can be represented as a truth.

Barry Smith: “You’re trying to draw the limits to what is intelligible. The trouble with drawing a limit is that you seem to have to stand on both sides of the line… to understand the boundary is to see where its drawn.

“The limits are the limits of what you can say in science. Science has done a perfectly good job of describing the way the world is, and how things work. What about all the things that cannot be put into scientific speak? We might want to say that the world has a certain meaning for us or that things are valuable. But when we say that life has a value or a meaning, thats not just one more fact. It’s not going to be found in the world, alongside water boiling at 100c and certain facts about chemical substances.

“So what are we to make of that idea, that the world has value or that there’s a meaning to our lives? Instead of it being something that we state in another proposition or that scientists might investigate – it’s not a part of the world, it is an attitude to the world. It is a way that we regard the world. So if you’ve got the facts in front of you, there’s something else you can do other than just list them. You can take up a stance in respect to what you find there. Thats what gives the wold its value.

“For Wittgenstein, in doing philosophy, one is doing something like that. Philosophy’s job is just to say what can intelligibly be said and that is maybe to remind ourselves that what is intelligibly said is said by science, but then, where does philosophy belong? Is it a science? no it is not.

Marie McGinn: “He comes to see  not only the complexity of the logical structure of our language but that our language is in its nature something elastic, something ambiguous, something we are constantly extending, using in new ways. The mastery we have of it is not something that can be described in a determinate set of rules.”

Ray Monk: “In the 1950s, english speaking philosophy was to a very large extent Wittgensteinian. Since then there has been a twist in the main stream of analytic philosophy in that it has become more Russelian and less Wittgensteinian in that it is a central view of the later Wittgenstinian that there can be no thing as a philosophical theory, and i think that most analytical philosophers nowadays think of themselves as engaged in precisely the kind of theory, the possibility of which Wittgenstein denied.”

“Philosophy since Descartes has got it wrong about the relative priority of the private and the public. Descartes image is this – “I know that I’m thinking , there’s a philosophical problem about your mind. How do I know that you’re conscious, how do I know what you’re thinking” – so the private is certain, the public is uncertain.

“Wittgenstein turns that around to say that the public has to be prior to the private. The later work is all about language embodied in practice, in a community. Wittgenstein says look. You know the contents of your thoughts, not prior to your acquisition of language its rather because you take part in a community, and you know the words of the language that you can describe your own thinking. So it is being in a community first. Be in a community, acquire the language of that community, then you are in a position to say what it is you are thinking.”

Barry Smith: “He doesn’t see language as a clothing of thought, but as the fabric of thinking. That turns philosophy on its head. To get from the inner world out. There isn’t going to be an inner world until you’re already bound up with others.”

Marie McGinn: “When we teach the child language we’re beginning to open up a world for that child.”

Ray Monk: “He was driven by cultural concerns. He really didn’t like the way our culture was going, in its worship of science, and I think that rings a strong chord that resonates with thoughts that a lot of people have had.”

“People look to Wittgenstein to give voice to a dissatisfaction with the intellectual  culture of the 20th century and its overestimation of the value and power of science.”

You can’t escape your life

Posted in 1 by backoffscience on September 22, 2009

The difficulty for this blog is that the area it is interested in preserving is in a very tricky region to talk about. This post on the Dawkins forum sums it up:

My problem is with the picture of life which says that what we do on a day-to-day basis is not happening. How can you have a belief system that does not include your own life?

The totally objective view of the world, the explanation of the behaviour of all matter, is such an odd thing to try and live by. You end up saying that everything that means anything, everything that matters, is an illusion. While matrix type thought experiments might be fun, and good for films, as something to live by they are action killing, enthusiasm zapping, life threatening rubbish.

The belief that life is meaningless, freedom an illusion, progress a myth and all belief (except the scientifically verifiable) wrong, is utterly pointless. No-one can do anything with it, because they find themselves constantly making decisions, valuing things, believing in human-created concepts and so on.

Does that mean giving up on reality for pragmatic reasons? The question is not a chicken and egg one. The human reality comes first. The story we told about it, the theory we constructed, came second. If one has to give way, it has to be the metaphysics. Not because its wrong, but because you can’t escape your life.

The philosopher

Posted in 1 by backoffscience on September 21, 2009

502255276_c29cf5aa70You might see by now that this blog is probably more interested in philosophy than science. Back Off Science refers as much to philosopher’s captivation as science’s error – although both are clearly important.

At the end of the day, philosophy should not have that much to do with science. It has been polluted horribly by wanting to be in the same family.

Philosophy is basically just abstract creative writing, talking, arguing and thinking.

And if you’ll pirouette with the analysis, that makes what philosophers are doing now just very boring abstract ideas – written for no-one but the author and a tiny group of peers, using impenetrable language with no interest whatsoever in actually changing how people think or act.

There is still a place for philosophy in our rationalist age, and still a pulse in its coma riven body. It is needed now more than ever.

Battles with rationalists

Posted in 1 by backoffscience on September 17, 2009

Reading around on the Dawkins forums, its clear that the attitude I’m trying to pry of the rock is both widespread and very hard to dispute. What evidence do you use to persuade someone that there are real things for which there is no evidence?

As I hope you can see, I’m still trying to find out exactly how this idea works. But I think I got closer in the last line of a forum post –

There are things that are not grounded in any way that science can investigate, but at the same time are not magical or illusory.

As odd as it seems to me, that does appear to be the mindset of the rationalist, that there is just one kind of answer – one about the stuff you know from science  – and everything else people talk about is some kind of illusion or fallacy or magic or delusion.

So numerically, it is only a very small step the rationalist needs to make – from one kind of answer to two.

Because there really are just two abstract groups of concepts – matter and language.

These are neatly represented in the incredibly dry and dull discussion over philosophical epistemology. Some knowledge, knowledge of matter, is foundational. It hits bottom on provable facts. Other knowledge is contextual – facts are supported by other facts on huge web of self-supporting connections. The rock bottom is action. That is how language works.

(It gets especially confusing when there are aspects of both kinds of knowledge – ie. the neuroscience of belief.)

But to say there is only one kind of answer means you completely remove the possibility of there being value, meaning, quality, emotion, responsibility and so on. As these things obviously do exist, there has to be a different kind of answer.

And after that appalling pastiche I think I’d better go.


Posted in 1 by backoffscience on September 15, 2009

Possibilans are those that celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.

There’s a space opening up in the wake of people smelling something fishy with total atheism, and folks like David Eagleman are being put forward to fill the gap.

Eagleman’s idea is that there are things we don’t know about yet, and telling interesting stories in the remaining gaps is a good thing to do.

This idea is both positive and confusing. It involves creativity in abstract thought, experimentation in human narrative, all good things.

But the stories about the afterlife are not possibilities. They are things you could take to be certain, they are ideas you could live by. That is why stories that are not particularly well written can have such power – because you feel how your life might be different if you believed them.

There is no scientific discovery that could validate a Sum hypothesis. We have already made the discovery when we discovered the human brain.

But at the same time, you can’t look faith in the eye. So approaching it from this slanty way is perhaps not too bad.

Just don’t pretend that faith narratives are uncertain. They wouldn’t do anything if they were. And don’t pretend that if you really want to tell your life in a huge meaningful narrative you can keep up the attitude that keeps everything in the air.

What Sum brings out is exactly what the total atheist version of life after death amounts to. To say nothing is not the heights of rationalism, but is really just a boring, depressing, meaningless story.

The enemies

Posted in 1 by backoffscience on September 9, 2009

Maybe it’ll give you a better idea if I set out my enemies. They’re obviously not personal enemies, they’re just doing things wrong.

Now the basic idea is that reductive investigation mangles narrative, so where science touches language-in-use-by-humans (thats what I’m using the word narrative for) it creates confusion.

This happens in the following areas:

Human evolution. From the beginning of complex cultural human life, the best explanation for what we now do (and why our ancestors did what they did) is found in a description of the interconnected lives and thoughts and words and deeds of the human race. Looking at the genetic starting point and adding to it the rules of thumb for growth and behaviour, and the history of our biology and genes doesn’t even get close. It is a human story, and can only be understood as such. If you like you can look at it like this – what are the rules governing the transmission of memes? We obviously make them up as we go along. They change all the time. We decide every day the ideas that carry on. So scientific investigation into religion, culture and society are baddies. This obviously doesn’t exclude finding out what people think and do, because thats not reductive investigation, it’s an art.

Human behaviour. What people do, they do because of what matters to them, what they think is right, what their culture thinks is right, how they’ve learned to behave, what they believe and so on. It cannot be understood by only explaining what the neuroscience of the brain is doing. The whole, “it is discovered that x experience actually changes your brain” headline drives me up the wall. Of course every millisecond of human life has a different brain state. You can’t step in the same brain twice, perhaps. So in the medicalisation of emotion, the deconstruction of responsibility and free will, in the attack on personal faith and an insistence on rationality in emotional matters, science is the baddy.

Human experience. Whether we like it or not, everyone has something it’s like to be them. The fact of consciousness, or subjectivity, or experience – whatever you want to call it – is so interwoven with language as to be inseparable. Wherever science touches it, it goes wrong. There is nothing else interesting about consciousness except this here now. It makes you sound like a hippy, but its the only definition. So when scientists say consciousness is still a mystery, they are talking dangerous rubbish. How can you not be aware of the fact of awareness?  But talking about consciousness makes me dizzy, so I’ll stay away from it to start with.

So there they are. I know, its a fairly big baddy. But you’ve got to try.