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.

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.”