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.

Articles of faith

Posted in atheism, narrative by backoffscience on November 10, 2009

The New Atheists or scientists, as I like to call them, don’t just have a problem with organised religion. They have a problem with the very concept of faith.

In science’s language, the definition of faith is this – living your life as though human-created stories are real things in the world.

Making concepts real is what faith does, and all concepts, by definition, are human-created. Faith is simply a belief that a belief is real.

I, for example, have faith in the existence of love. I know it cannot be explained as the causal link between two brains or organisms. I know love only exists because I believe it’s existence is real. But I also know that my faith in love, along with everyone elses, is all that keeps love in existence. I could inspect as many brains as I like, and I will not find love, only the brain parts which make the concept possible.

So how can I have faith in something’s being real, at the same time as knowing that it only exists as a concept? Doesn’t this make it an illusion?

https://i2.wp.com/3.bp.blogspot.com/_QwksVGcxMqk/Sfy6Mu5Wm1I/AAAAAAAAAuA/bW6xSmnKOwI/S660/tinkerbell-free-coloring-pages-printable-1.gifThis all depends how you want to define reality. There is no absolute rule stating that you have to restrict the concept of reality to exclude concepts. You may choose to believe that there is such a rule, and you can make your arguments around assuming that rule is true, just as many atheists do. That just isn’t a good way to argue (to assume your answer).

Personally, I wouldn’t want my concept of reality itself not be real – for me that would be confusing. If you think it works, let me know how.

So if you allow conceptual as well as material reality in, what then?

Well you have to accept that things like love, happiness, joy, freedom, responsibility and community are real, but only in so much as we believe in them.

Actually, the relationship is much more complex than that, we’re not talking about twinkerbell here. Faith, defined as a belief that a belief is real, is a necessary condition for the existence of our conceptual reality. But the articles of faith still have to acted upon to make them real. It’s no good believing love is real when no-one is actually in love.

Now here’s the crunch. Communal conceptual realities (or you could call them faith communities I guess, or folks that share the same story) that do not include the discoveries of science don’t personally suit me. I’m an atheist, and always have been.

And there is no doubt that literalist religious conceptual systems can cause harm in some cases – the intelligent design lab biologist for example, or the Al Qu’aida bomber. However, most people who believe in concepts that massively contradict material reality – that the world is young, the people go to a special place after death and so on – lead pretty normal lives, considering.

The point is that there is so much more besides, which fits in just perfectly with the material reality, but which still make use of our ability to live our lives within complex and beautiful narratives. Here are just a few examples:

Awe and wonder. Richard Dawkins prefered conceptual reality, built on our emotional (concept) reaction to beautiful(concept) natural (concept) scenes.

Golden Rule. Love thy neighbour. Perfect consequentialist rule of thumb.

Humanism. Ain’t life great. Couldn’t it be great for everyone.

Humanitarianism. Ain’t life shit. Couldn’t it be great for everyone?

Progress. I believe there will be a situation in the future, which could be better or worse depending what I do now.

History. What I am now is because of great-great-great-great-great grandpa’s awesomeness.

Evolution. How brilliant is it that complex life, or life itself, even exists. How great that the ancestors survived and changed.

Freedom. I can do anything.

Community. We can do anything.

Creativity. I can improve the world by making interesting and beautiful things.

and last of all Depth. There are such things as shallow and deep experiences, and the deeper ones are often better.

There are tons more, let me know your favourite.

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