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.

Rationalist judo

Posted in atheism by backoffscience on November 2, 2009

Viking myth cartoonThere are some things people cannot say. It’s not that they’re stupid, or that they’re particularly closed-minded, it’s just that saying certain things makes their world fall apart.[1]

“Myth” isn’t a word that can be used by the person who believes in the myth. There are enough magazine articles about the myth of sexuality or love or democracy or progress, to see it is a word that is used to undermine. You can’t have a debate about a myth without first accepting that someone accepted it as true – but always in the past tense. It is impossible to have a discussion about your own myths.

What is more, these stories-taken-as-real aren’t limited to Zeus turning into a bull or Jesus coming back from the dead. Think of the myths of genius or heroism. In the scientific sense there are no geniuses or heroes, but even the hardened rationalist might see the utility in keeping the stories.

jesusThe problem is that for these stories to find a place in the world, they have to sit in the place of scientific facts. Myths aren’t just stories, like films and novels, they are stories that people believe are true and which serve a purpose in people’s lives. They are stories that are lived by, are lived into existence, are accepted as (by necessity unseen) parts of the world.

So people who believe human-created stories are real and want to keep them – and lets face it, in some form that includes all of us –  are faced with a dilemma when asked to defend their beliefs.

They can’t, after all, discuss them as myths. That punctures the balloon which gives their life its certain kind of meaning.

And they can’t say they’re not factual claims, because that would mean they should treat them as stories, which they don’t.

So their only options are to defend them as factual claims, set up defences so as to persuade themselves that the facts are not where the scientist says they are, and pay as little attention as possible to the whole debate.

DarwinWhich is where the modern kind of atheist comes in, constantly asking them to defend their myths as facts.

But, as we know, the statements of religion are not factual statements, except obviously the myth believer has to say they are in order to keep the myth alive.

And the atheists know they are not facts, and they also know that the upholder of the myth cannot say that. They know the myth believer can’t even entertain the thought that they are myths, because that kills them as myths and makes them into stories.

The new atheist strategy seems to be to try and bully the myth believer into facing the scientific reality of the thing the scientific reality destroys. This is by no means an obviously good thing. It is rather an act with moral consequences, the justification for which has to come down to an argument about the worth of the myths in people’s lives. This is an argument that in some cases is obviously well made, in others clearly not, and in most utterly ambiguous. Even where the moral case is made, the fact that the myth only exists because it is somehow insulated from science means telling someone their belief is a myth is a very stupid way of trying to get them to change their mind.

There is a bludgeoning unsubtelty about some atheists’ approaches to religion.[2] Myths have to be approached crabwise, from the side – from the facts about their effect, their impact on people’s lives and their value. Straight on, all you end up doing is making enemies and forcing the mythics in more and more defensive directions. Science either needs to make its own myths, or just back off.


1. This post is in some ways a reaction to Lisa Miller’s editorial in Newsweek, much criticised by Bloc Raisonneur, Why Evolution is TrueMind Droppings, Reason.Science.Metal , Think Atheist and Poohsthink – although it gets a friendlier and altogether more subtle reading from In Living Colour.

2. I mainly mean sciencey atheists like Richard Dawkins, the Reason Project and  Pharyngula, who I’m sure are quaking in their boots.

Once upon a time…

Posted in narrative by backoffscience on October 25, 2009

This talk from physicist Lawrence Krauss is fascinating. It’s a masterclass in how scientists and narrative are bound together – it tells stories about the universe, as science believes at the moment it really is – 13.72 billion years old, flat in a 3D sense and expanding at an accelerating rate. Scientists and atheists like Depth Deception, Brother Richard, Prometheus Unbound and The Good Atheist love it, although all for different reasons.

The problem is that the questions of interest to science drive the narrative, in a way that is far from scientific or rational. For example, he argues that less than 1% of the universe is planets and stars and all that we see and are. The rest is dark matter (30%) and dark energy (70%). So on the scale of the universe, we’re completely insignificant. this whole set of facts is clearly generated by the scientific interest in solving the conundrum of dark matter. What on earth do the facts thus gained have to do with the significance of our life, planet or solar system? In what respect is living matter equal in value to dark matter? In equations about the universe it is equal, for sure, but not in our actual lives. There’s a mother and baby on one railroad track, a pile of dark matter on the other…

As tongue in cheek as this talk is, there is something serious going on. Atheists, like everyone else that ever lived, need their stories. The success of this talk clearly derives from this need. What is more there’s clearly a quasi-theological argument going on. The fact the universe is “flat”, for example, means the total energy is zero so you don’t need to posit the existence of a deity to have kicked it off (as if that is what physicists would posit if the universe were not “flat”).

One of the reasons the talk is so engaging  is that Krauss’s universe seems to have a character, but that character is of a massive, cold and uncaring thing – like a god who doesn’t care. But the universe has no character whatsoever. It’s size is not, for instance, large – there’s no comparison for that word to make any sense.

In one way, I’m being pointlessly sour. This is just funny stuff about the universe, meant to make you think, to communicate the facts in a fun way. But sadly, this stuff is the closest atheists come to having something to believe in. And in this talk, the overriding narrative is fundamentally confused.

At one point, Krauss says cosmology has uncovered the most poetic fact about the universe – that the explosion of stars generates the atoms that end up in our body:

“Forget Jesus,” he says. “The stars died so you could be here today.”

But the talk ends on a total downer on the big picture of the universe:

“It’s big, rare events happen all the time, including life, and that doesn’t mean its special.”

The trouble is, Krauss’s cosmic narrative is generated as a way of interesting us in the facts and does not seem thought through as a narrative. There is a feeling that the narrative naturally follows when you know the facts. It is obvious that our lives are insignificant when you know the scale of the universe. It is obvious that our lifespans mean nothing when you know the timescale of the universe.

But these things simply are not true. The cosmological calculus has no necessary bearing whatsoever on whether or not we think life is special, purposeful or good. The value of life is not found naturally occurring in the universe – thats a religious thought. We make up the values, not the stars. we want to think life is special we can construct a narrative to do that – using whatever tools we chose. The facts by themselves are only physically or causally connected. The conceptual connection is made up by us and simply does not exist in the universe before we find it there.

So whether we chose to fit a story about the universe  and the people curious enough to find out about it into a good story or bad is up to us. We decide.

Humans have to believe in something and it is irrational not to make the most of this ability. It is a cowardly lie to pretend the narrative forces itself upon us. (Although I don’t think Makouli will agree).

Why not believe in something good, that our lives are meaningful, that there is a point to existence? This talk gives much to inspire, but does much to purposfully destroy all faith in life at the same time.

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.

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.


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.