Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Difference Between The Pretense of Complete Knowledge And The Pseudo-Scientific Pretensions That Arise From Them

One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the natural world. One achievement of physics in the twentieth century has been to prove that that aim is unattainable.

Knowledge or Certainty: * The Ascent of Man; Jacob Bronowski 1973

From "Thinking Again" the fourth Terry Lecture of Marilynne Robinson, in a slightly different form, starting about here.

But "the material" itself is an artifact of the scale at which we perceive.  We know that we abide with quarks and constellations, in a reality unknowable b us in a degree will never be able to calculate,  but reality is all the same, the stuff and the matrix of our supposedly quotidian existence.   We know that within, throughout. the solid substantiality of our experience indeterminacy reigns.  Making use of the conceptual vocabulary of science to exclude a possibility that in a present state of knowledge - or a former one - that vocabulary would seem to excluded, has been the mission of positivist thinking since Auguste Comte declared scientific knowledge effectively complete.  If doing so is a reflex of the polemical impulse to assert the authority of science, understandable when the project was relatively new, it is by now an atavism that persists as a consequence of this same polemical impulse.

The ancient antagonist that has shaped positivism and the parascientific thought and continues to inspire its missionary zeal is religion.  For cultural and historical reasons, the religions against which it has opposed itself are Christianity and Judaism, both of which must be called anthropologies, whatever else,  "What is man that thou art mindful of him?"  The very question is an assertion that mindfulness is an attribute of God, as well as man, a statement of the sense of deep meaning inhering in mindfulness.  If I were not myself a religious person, but wished to make an account of religion, I believe I would tend toward the Feuerbachian view that religion is a human projection of humanity's concepions of beauty, goodness, power, and other valued things, a humanizing of experience by it as structured around and mirroring back these values.  Then it would resemble art, with which it is strongly associated.  But this would dignify religion and characterize the mind as outwardly and imaginatively engaged with the world, as, in parascientific thought after Comte, it never is.   Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, says of religion,  "The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life."  Then, two pages on, he says,  "The question of the purpose of human life has been asked countless times:  it has never received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one ... One again, only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life.  One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system."  And then he says,  "As we see, what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle.  This principle dominate the operation of the mental apparatus from the start.  There can be no doubt about its efficacy, and yet its programme is at loggerheads with the whole world, with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm.  There is no possibility at all of its being carried through;  all the regulations of the universe runs counter to it." 

It seems a little strange that religion is infantile but the desire for pleasure, which "dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the start, " is not, or not, at least, in any pejorative sense.  It seems strange as well that though "there is no possibility at all of it being carried out, " the program of the pleasure principle is not also, like religion, "foreign to reality."  Steven Pinker says,  "Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success."  Then a little farther on he lists the "imponderables" that lie behind the human tendency toward religion and also philosophy.  These imponderables are consciousness in the sense of sentience or subjective experience, the self, free will, conceptual meaning, knowledge, and morality.  He says,  "Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them.  We are organisms, not angels, and our brains are organs not pipelines to the truth."  

How odd that these "imponderables" should be just the kind of thing mankind has pondered endlessly. Neo-Darwinism allows for hypertrophy, the phenomenon by which evolution overshoots its mark and produces some consequence not strictly useful to the ends of genetic replication, the human brain as case in point.  How strange it would be, then, that this accident, this excess, should feel a tropism towards what Pinker himself calls "the truth".

The great difference between parascientific thought on one hand and religion and traditional philosophy on the other is perhaps encapsulated in the world "solve," assuming the use of the word is not simply a casual imprecision.  It does seem as though, for the purposes of these writers, science is the conquest of mystery, as it was for Auguste Comte, and as it certainly was not for Isaac Newton.  A difference between a Newton and a Compte, between science and parascience, is the desire in the latter case to treat scientific knowledge as complete, at least in its methods and assumptions, in order to further the primary object of closing questions about human nature and human circumstance. 

*  If you have the hour to watch that 40 year old episode of Bronowski's The Ascent of Man at the link, I think you'll be reminded of why it was one of those rare hours of TV which were expressions of genius and genius to the highest of all purposes.

Right at the end, as he is standing in the mud of Auschwitz, made of the ashes of millions of people he said,  "When people believe they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave."   Which, as a political blogger, is what I'm talking about.

He, being a scientist of the pre-war period and three decades after, might be excused from being emotionally able to admit the role that science really played in the events even as he documents the role of science in them, or he found it impossible to admit that science, which is whatever scientists agree to include in science at any given time, is entirely able to believe they have absolute knowledge with no test of reality required, though I think the extent to which physicists and cosmologists, social scientists and the para-parasciences based on those can believe and that political policies, laws and actions of governments can be based on those things.  We are surrounded by that kind of "science" today, it is the religious dogma of a large part the college educated population of Britain and the rest of the English speaking peoples, as well as many others in other languages.  There is nothing more dangerous than to maintain an unrealistic, idealized conception of science today.  

As an observation, the acceptance of science in society and, most importantly, in the centers of power are directly tied to their prospects of utility in generating political power and profits.   The most important science that has ever been done, the science around saving the biosphere from the majority of science that is done, the science that might just keep us from destroying ourselves, is probably the least influential, the least reputable and the least powerful of all science around today.  Compared to chasing multi-verses, strings at the Planck level, phantoms of behaviors in the lost past, absurd notions of killing off God with neuroscience, nothing could be more important than what is least respected.  That's science as science really is.


  1. It's not entirely germane to your point, but why does anyone consider Stephen Pinker a serious thinker on anything? Because he teaches at Harvard?

    That definition of religion that Marilynne Robinson quotes should be an embarrassment to him. There isn't a serious thinker in anthropology, philosophy of religion, or theology, or even just religious studies, who wouldn't consider that "definition" absolutely childish and ignorant. And, as I say, embarrassing, especially for a "public intellectual."

    It's a dismissive reductio ad absurdum, a straw man easily pushed over, an indication that he doesn't really know what he's talking about and doesn't think he needs to.

    Which is why Chomsky is still far more interesting as a linguist and as a public thinker.

  2. If Pinker hadn't had the hair I don't think he'd be widely known today. He's certainly a lot more conventional thinker than Chomsky, not to mention he's nowhere near as smart. I get a sense that Chomsky is still changing as he learns more and thinks more, I doubt Pinker ever will do that. I think there's something to that, it's pretty hard to imagine some people ever changing in any significant way. I wonder if that's how they come to adopt the ideological positions they do.

    1. Pinker does seems to be stuck in one groove, while Chomsky continues to understand how much he knows and, more importantly, how much he doesn't know.

      His comments on religion reflect the insight of a man who knows it's not a subject upon which he is informed, but also that what he sees of it is not limited to the bluster of the GOP and certain loud fundamentalists. I can't imagine Chomsky ever making such a stupid statement on any subject as Pinker did on religion.