Back Off Science

The missing link

Posted in mind by backoffscience on October 19, 2009

The split of subjective and objective seems a bad one for everyone. It goes like this. There are things that can be verified by everyone. Science finds them out. There are things that are only known to me. This is consciousness – a mystery and probably best left alone.

The reality is that we share our lives with lots of people in a variety of ways. Our reality is communal. There is truth in both the subjective and the objective perspective, but only as extreme positions on an otherwise ambiguous spectrum.

Is the full explanation of a painting in an art gallery to be found in the chemical structures of the materials? Nope. Is it found in the interpreted colour patterns we sense? Nope – and I don’t know how you managed to experience just the colours anyway.

No, it is found in the experience of an object about which you have already learned a massive amount from other people – the story of the artist, the ways we look at art, the history of art, the objects from other places we see in it, what we know about the specific work from what other people have told us. missing link in all of this is aspect perception. This is an everyday phenomena which somehow no-one talks about. Here’s the duck rabbit – the first of many. You see a duck. Then you see a rabbit. The two experiences are different and yet nothing has changed.

The important bit is not the aspect shift, which is quite an interesting feeling. The interesting bit is thinking about a drawing with a non-ambigous aspect. Then you realize that every other experience you have is jam packed full of concepts. So our idea of there being no concepts in the world is wrong. Concepts are everywhere. And how do they get there? Well our world is organised conceptually, and we get our concepts from… everyone. The connections between you, me and everyone and everything we know run so deep into our lives that it is impossible to escape them.

So it is not rational to be objective, because that completely misses a massive section of our reality. And it is certainly not rational to be subjective, because we don’t live in a world by ourselves. The truth is much harder. Whether we want to or not, we directly experience a shared world, and we’re going to have to make the most of it.


Destroying our (virtual) reality

Posted in mind by backoffscience on October 13, 2009

Our image of ourselves, the image of man, of humankind, is changing faster and more dramatically then through any other scientific revolution in the past. In a way we are destroying a lot of what mankind has believed in during the last 4,000 years, but it’s also clear that in this emerging vacuum neuroscience will not be able to put something new into this vacuum.

All in the Mind with Thomas Metzinger via Mindhacks

Metzinger’s theory of consciousness, now that science has discovered it at last, is one of the friendlier from the scientific perspective. He sees it as a kind of virtual reality model of the world, which sort of excludes the self, but accepts that the non-existant self will never be able to perceive its non-existence:

The conscious self is a fantastic tool that emerged in natural evolution that allows a body to own itself.

But, as he says himself, his philosophy is “unintelligible” to a conscious human.

My theory—big, unintelligible philosophical theory—says that we identify with this image of our body because we cannot recognise it as an image. says unintelligible as a kind of a joke, but it really is not. From our perspective, unless you define “consciousness” in a silly technical way that allows you to pretend it is not THIS, it is impossible to truly conceive of your own life as a simulation of a life. It is just life full stop. My life.

Metzinger is incredibly self-aware of both the paradox and the danger caused by the invading culture of neuroscience. He suggests a new field of morality be born to make decisions about states of human and animal consciousness, which would be a step in the right direction.

But he fails to see the possibility that there is a debate to be had about what scientists say, about the way the facts come out. The subjective is out of reach for scientists by definition, so of course every theory they come up with will exclude it somehow. It’s the rules of the game.

It seems to me that telling someone that, from the perspective of a form of inquiry that excludes the subjective, there is no such thing as subjectivity, is kind of pointless. But at the same time it does damage the subjective narratives that bind people and their world together.

It is harmful and pointless to undermine people’s sense of reality, when there is no reality behind to get at. That is a simple misuse of the concept of reality.

Metzinger is right to say that neuroscience is destructive. But it is not simply beliefs that are destroyed. It is beliefs that humans created over hundreds of years, and which will not be easy to replace once gone.


More transcript:

Thomas Metzinger:”We don’t find a will in the brain, that’s for sure. What we have is the conscious experience of having free will, of actually deliberating, wanting something, of weighing different goals against each other and so on, and that conscious experience of free will, that will be explained by science.

And the question is…many people in the general public feel an uneasiness with this debate about freedom of the will. Imagine there was no freedom of the will, that if we had a theory that said that, we couldn’t really believe that theory, it would make us sick. I mean, how could you imagine that every thought, every intention you are consciously experiencing right now has been predetermined by something unconscious outside of your reality. The people that have that experience are usually in psychiatric institutions. Our brains were never made for this.


My unitelligible philosophical theory says that we identify with this identity of our body because we cannot recognise it as an image…

… the conscious self is a fantastic tool that emerged in natural evolution that allows a body to own itself. That’s what is actually happening, for instance, when you wake up in the morning and a conscious self emerges, that is when the body that was sleeping boots up this virtual reality tool to own itself, to control itself in a new way. That is where selfhood came from.


Thomas Metzinger: Our image of ourselves, the image of man, of humankind, is changing faster and more dramatically then through any other scientific revolution in the past. In a way we are destroying a lot of what mankind has believed in during the last 4,000 years, but it’s also clear that in this emerging vacuum neuroscience will not be able to put something new into this vacuum.

Natasha Mitchell: You see it as that we’re witnessing a disenchantment of the self, which is interesting because you’ve just banished the self in this conversation.

Thomas Metzinger: Well, who is ready to do that, who could even understand, honestly, what that would mean. I think we’re seeing a lot of good things, interesting things. For instance, we’ll be able to heal psychiatric diseases much better in a few decades, but we’ll also pay a price. We’ll pay an emotional price, there are these unsettling things about freedom of the will, then there is the social cultural price we’re going to pay for it which is much harder to assess.

I mean, how will our culture actually react to a naturalistic turn in our image of man, if there’s no supernatural root even in our minds anymore, and we actually have to come to terms with the fact that not only our bodies but also our minds are results of a process that had no goal, that was driven by chance events…I mean, how are we going to come to terms with this? Will we develop a culture of denial, or will we all become vulgar materialists? And I think something that could help us to take this step in integrating all this brand new knowledge and the new potentials for changing our brains and our minds technologically…

Natasha Mitchell: And pharmaceutically.

Thomas Metzinger: And pharmaceutically, that’s what we’re researching in my cognitive enhancers group…how are we going to make this historical transition in an optimal way? And I think, to put it very simply, we could do it by just thinking not only about what is a good action but what is a good state of consciousness. What states of consciousness do we want to show our children? How can neuroscience help us with optimising education? What states of consciousness are we allowed to impose, to force upon animals? Are all these experiments in, say, primate research, in consciousness research, in neuroscience ethically tenable? What states of consciousness should be illegal in our society? New drugs. What states of consciousness do we want to foster and cultivate?

It’s also a question of preserving our dignity in the face of these sometimes very sobering discussions, and in developing a cultural response to it. Can modern science help me? It’s not only about defending ourselves, it’s also about what I call riding the tiger; can all this new knowledge help us to improve our autonomy, maybe also our rationality? How can I take responsibility and charge for the way I deal with my own brain? Can it help us to die better deaths? Who knows? But I think we should all, not only philosophers and scientists but all of us, start to think about what we want to do with all these new brain/mind technologies. Just looking the other way won’t make it go away.

Stories of the scientist

Posted in narrative by backoffscience on October 11, 2009

But maybe you’ll say, “Storytelling is just for fiction.” Sorry, but that’s not true. This is a shortcoming of today’s science education—the failure to make scientists realize they are storytellers, every bit as much as novelists. They just don’t like to admit it, or really even think about it. They tend to think stories mean Star Wars and Harry Potter. The truth is, stories are as equally important in nonfiction as fiction. They are the way we understand our world.

[link to Randy Olson writing in The Scientist]

There is a conundrum of the scientist. For, as Olson makes clear, scientists want to think they are just doing science, that they are simply investigating things in a rational and scientific way, and that there is nothing intermingled with it whatsoever, because anything creative, or un-scientific, would pollute what they do. the whole scientific investigation (which should of course be conducted in a scientific, rational way) is embedded in stories. What scientists are interested in, what fires up their investigation, the value of what they find out, the scope of their investigation, its purpose and success, are all related to the place of the scientists’ discoveries and clarifications in the story of our lives. As Olson says, the scientists’ questions and their results are framed in language, and language is fundamentally not comprehensible to scientific investigation (although I admit I’ve got a way to go before I convince anyone of that).

The point is, that the only time a scientist is a scientist in the sense of someone completely cut off from narrative, is when they are actually engaged in scientific investigation. Once their eye is off the microscope, they are no longer a scientist. Everything they say about what they have found out creates and modifies stories. It is utterly inescapable. [ Comment saying this].

What Olson also brings out is that stories are not only a matter of fiction, but of non-fiction as well. Once you start looking for stories you find them everywhere – from our immediate experience of values and meanings to the grand narratives that describe human history.

The mistake of believing you can operate outside of stories has huge consequences. It is one of the scientists primary sins.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.