Back Off Science

Stuck between two things

Posted in philosophy by backoffscience on December 13, 2009

Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language. PI 109

Reading a lot of Wittgenstein at the moment. A moral from the Philosophical Investigations:

Wittgenstein on a stampMany problems come from our wanting to treat something as something it is not. For Wittgenstein, this was treating the meaning of words as something in some special realm, or treating thoughts as mental objects to which only I have access.

The solution is to look at how we use words and what actually goes on and figure out from that how to treat things. Starting with an idea of what something is and then forcing the thing into that idea only leads to problems.

The same basic problem is faced with the incursion of the scientific attitude into non-scientific areas of language.

We want to treat depression as a medical problem, with an entirely biological explanation, but this makes the fact that we often “catch” depression from events in our life seem quite odd – (“queer” in Wittgenstein’s terms).

We want to treat religion as making factual claims about the universe, but this makes the fact that people are converted to a religion and not just educated about it seem odd.

We want to believe that our experience takes place in the brain, but that makes the shared world we live in an odd place.

We want there to be a firm separation between subjective and objective so that we can put everything on the objective side in a bag marked truth and discard everything else as lightweight. But when we look at the world we find it much harder to fit things into the bag. What, for example, is money? Without our “subjective” acceptance of its value, the objective marks on paper or gold atoms are literally worthless.

I haven’t really understood it yet, but I think I’m on the right track.

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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.

The conceptual pop

Posted in reality by backoffscience on November 19, 2009

We are so close. We have an almost complete picture of reality. There is just one more step to go.485px-Descartes_mind_and_body.jpg image by orestesmantra

We know that the world we experience, that we share with everyone else, is a world made inside our head. We know that the world exists, we know that our senses perceive it, and we know our brain’s recreate that same world – adding in loads of really complicated stuff as it goes.

Our problem is that this argument still looks like one for some form of solipsism. Our entire argument is deformed by the fact that we do not have the values right in the picture.

For our enquiry started out trying to explain this world in which we all live. It ended up saying this world was not the real one.

The discovery that consciousness took place in the brain and the subsequent feeling that this changed the inquiry, is not the same as doing an operation for a broken bone and finding cancer. It is like the doctor becoming disinterested in surgery because of something he found while operating and turning his hand to carpentry.

The leap we must make is to flip our value system, our judgement system, our entire conceptual structure, to reflect the fact that the stuff that happens in all of our heads is the only thing of value to us, and that it is also a shared phenomena.

The conceptual pop happens when you see that consciousness might be a sometimes inaccurate virtual reality of our shared world. But it is all we have. We have to call it reality, we just have to, its all we’ve got. But it helps to think of it like virtual reality, so I’ll call it (v)R.

The difficulty is that the rules of the investigation change massively when you pop. No longer is it a clear-cut matter as to what is real. Ambiguity and shifting cultural sands lie all around. No longer is there a reductive system of investigation by which reality is pinned down. The conceptual system that explains our (in brain) reality is utterly expansive and interconnected.

Reality now conforms, not to the rules of causation, but to the rules of narrative, the rules of grammar.

https://i0.wp.com/www.geekologie.com/2008/05/22/VR-mask.jpgThe fall out from the pop is to accept that the human sciences – human evolution, psychology and sociology, are in a different bracket of investigations to those whose subject matter is outside the reality. Of course they do talk about material facts – the glands of emotion, the genes of gangs.

But they also have to try and generalize the narratives of living humans. How to you generalize stories? Clearly in a different way to averaging data.

I find it hard not to get waylaid in these thoughts. So many confusions come from our inability to clear our ears at this altitude. If you make the pop and start calling THIS reality, you’ll start to see the oddness of putting all the truth into natural science.

When you pop out into the organized, conceptual, interconnected and narrative brain-created human-reality that we all call home, you’ll see that everything that has meaning and value is completely different in kind to the facts of matter. The truths are based on certainty and action, the concepts are based on stories, and everywhere we tread disconnects and reconnects the connections in new and different ways.

We must stop wishing that science could understand this massively complex shared (v)R world from the outside, and get on with figuring it out from where we are.

It is such a simple picture. The world – my head – our world. Such a simple picture – shared virtual reality. Why isn’t it obvious?

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.

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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.

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

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.