Back Off Science

Not everything that counts

Posted in Starting up by backoffscience on September 28, 2009

What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life. Einstein

450px-Albert_Einstein_1947Einstein’s definition of religion is very abstract, and could put people off.  It pre-supposes that there is something that is outside of the scientific description, something that takes an attitude towards it (just like Wittgenstein – see below). But this basic fact is the stumbling block in the debate.

It sounds funny to say it, but many rationalists actually belief that humans don’t exist.  And in one way, that makes perfect sense. You look at the world as a graph of atoms doing what they do and there is simply no need to outline a more abstract description. Everything that exists is accounted for, and what more do you need?

But on the other hand, what point is there in investigating anything if there is nothing with any meaning in your belief system, in fact nothing so grand as a belief?

It’s quite a big unintended consequence for science – the destruction of all meaning in life. And it’s not one that science has the tools to deal with. Science has no secrets, nothing is hidden. But the meaning in our lives is based on nothing more than things we take as certain. Meaning is created by humans, it doesn’t have a non-human foundation. As soon as you investigate the foundation you find we’re just making it up as we go along.

I think that’s what Einstein is talking about. Calling it religion is an offputting way of describing something that even the most irreligious person does all the time. Humans live in stories, human narratives are the basis of everything that matters to us. And science can’t say anything at all about them without smashing them up.

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” (Sign hanging in Einstein’s office at Princeton) Link


Grand narrative tortoises

Posted in Starting up by backoffscience on September 18, 2009

Stories are like tortoises, they’re weak underneath. The problem is that the mechanism humans use to make their lives meaningful is by living in stories.

Stories about why they are doing what they do, about who they are and who they want to be. Narrative upon narrative, from the smallest connection of events to the grandest myths, furnish our lives with everything that matters.

Giant Tortoise 001They intertwine one another, hanging from one another’s meanings and metaphors.

But at the same time, they are not merely stories. They are lived. So their importance is in flesh, blood and brains. They are ordinary, worldly things.

There is no difficulty if they are left alone. But stories are fragile, if  you flip them over you find nothing underneath. They are a cloud of fluff, an invention, a fantasy, a human creation. Stories have no real underneath, no below.

Because they are stories, you can’t judge them like facts about the material world. You can’t judge them on what they are – after all, you know what they are, they’re stories.

They have to be judged on what they do. And before you’ve decided what they do, you shouldn’t turn them over.

What’s science ever done to you?

Posted in Starting up by backoffscience on September 8, 2009

A space in the middleWell I guess I’d better start trying to explain myself.

It’s not that science is bad, far from it. Scientific investigation has conquered many forms of death, explained the world and the universe and almost everything in it, and has given us powers unimaginable to our ancestors.

But scientists’ success has gone to their head. They have forgotten that there are some things that cannot be explained. And I’m not talking about anything mystical or supernatural here.

You see, science can’t explain the content of language as it is used by humans. It can’t explain narratives and stories and beliefs. Why? Because the content is not the sort of thing that yields to scientific investigation.

There’s a long long way to go before I get my argument clear, and this blog is how I’m going to try and do it, but perhaps we could start with a basic picture. This isn’t theory, by the way, its just abstract talk, so don’t be offended that I mangle things completely.

So science works by looking at something and, roughly speaking, explaining how simple parts of it work in conjunction. You explain how a cell works by knowing how mitochondria and membrane and protein and, in the end, different types of atoms, work together. Same for stars and planets and slugs and radio waves and tides.

But not the same for everything. Because language, as it is used by humans to make the stories within which they live, cannot be understood at all by looking at it in that way. Novels can’t be understood by separating out the letters and doing an analysis on the ink. Science can’t predict the end of a story.

This is a huge leap, and I’m not even going to try and bridge it now.

The reason why I’m going to plug on, is that when you apply scientific investigation to the use of language you go looking for something that doesn’t exist.

A cellLanguage doesn’t work because it is somehow supported by laws or physics or neurobiology. Language works because people accept things as certain. In order to investigate a certainty you have to question it, which means that it is not certain anymore.

This means that scientific investigation undermines the narratives by which our lives get all their meaning. When scientists think they can explain religious belief, or why life is meaningful, or choice, or relationships, or human history, or art, they don’t do something neutral. They do something  which either forces the people who want to hold on to meaningful things onto the defensive, or they kill the meaningful thing dead.

We live in language, so we had better persuade science to back off.

Starting out

Posted in Starting up by backoffscience on August 25, 2009

There is an unnecessary cultural war taking place between science and life. Both sides can happily co-exist if science just accepts that it cannot explain language and narrative-based culture realizes it exists without scientific support. All that is needed, is for everyone to accept that not everything can be explained. Narrative can only be described. And narrative is everywhere.

Obviously we’re a long way from those sentences making any sense at the moment. What, for example, do i mean by narrative? What do i mean by science. Fear not, all will become clear.

I’m not hopeful that this blog will go well, as the subject is by necessity a bit abstract, but if you don’t put your back against the ocean liner of culture, you might as well give in.

I’m not writing this under a pseudonym, i’m just not giving you my name at the moment. I hope that’s ok.