Back Off Science

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.

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.”



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.