January 30, 2005

So much for the End of History

Posted by Curt at 07:05 PM in Politics | permalink | 4 comments

Just some cheerful words to chew on while our politicians wear their enamels off congratulating themselves about the Iraqi election:

“The collapse of the rival giant [the Soviet Union] has exaggerated America’s apparent strength because it has so much more economic muscle than any single rival. But for many decades America’s share of the world’s economic output has been in decline. Think of a see-saw. America at one end is now easily outweighed by any substantial grouping at the other, and most of those powers are on friendly terms with each other. America’s modesty in 1945 understated its muscle, just as Bushite vanity overstates it today. He has over-reached. His country is overstretched, losing economic momentum, losing world leadership, and losing the philosophical plot. America is running into the sand.”

Maybe I’ve been hanging out in France, where declinism (both French and American) never goes out of fashion, for too long, but that assessment seems more convincing than this disappointing “We are so great—right now” rebuttal by Victor Hanson. And the CIA seems to concur (though admittedly in more neutral language):

“The likely emergence of China and India … as new major global players—similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful United States in the early 20th century—will transform the geopolitical landscape with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries.”

January 28, 2005

The anthropomorphism of religion

Posted by Curt at 04:07 PM in Geek Talk | permalink | 5 comments

I might deduce one final consequence of a skepticism in regards to temporality and causality. If our only experience of the world is of an existent reality, such that something uncreated or destroyed is literally unimaginable, the superfluity of religion becomes very evident. Since it is on the basis of a parallel between finite objects, which are presumed to be necessarily created, and the universe in its totality, which in turn therefore needs its Creator, that modern religions ultimately justify themselves, if creation, rather than lack of creation, is taken to be the phenomenon unjustified by experience then the concept of God is unwarranted.

January 26, 2005

And Prospero broke his soap box

Posted by Curt at 04:26 PM in Science | permalink | 5 comments

I may have bored everyone to death about this topic, but I have my last exam tomorrow, so here is my final thought about what distinguishes science. Most of the descriptions of science that I know of don’t really explain how science progresses without falling into a quaint mythology about approaching some metaphysical truth. Kuhn doesn’t, Popper doesn’t, Pierre Duhem doesn’t, and I myself have neglected to account for it to some extent.

I think the key is that science, at least experimental science, is essentially concerned with predicting the future. Every hypothesis, in essence, is a prediction about the future. What distinguishes science from other forms of prediction is the emphasis on verification, the insistence on framing predictions in such a way that when they are tested they can be decisively answered positively or negatively. In other, the goal is not to not be wrong but to achieve a definitive positive answer. Even a definite negative answer is preferable to none at all.

Some philosophers, like Duhem, claim that individual hypotheses can neither be verified nor falsified, because a whole body of theories and assumptions lies behind, and is implicated in, every hypothesis, and thus one can never be sure just what has been validated or failed. While that’s true, it is also nonetheless true that when the result of an experiment does not match a hypothetical prediction the hypothesis has been proven invalid as it stands. In other words, no matter what went wrong, the body of theories and assumptions that led to the hypothesis do not work as they now stand. Thus, things will have to be changed until they produce accurate predictions. Conversely, if a hypotheis is corroborated with a positive answer, the theories behind it stand validated until a hypothesis receives a negative answer.

In other words, experimentation does not serve to lead by induction to new theories, but rather theories serve to make possible specific predictions about the future which can be verified decisively. This at least is the goal. The goal is not a description which is true or corresponds to the truth, or at least that is not the immediate goal. When the facts or events are given, anyone can interpret them, and the fact that these events are known can mask the relative merits of the theory which interprets them. The idea that theories are validated by their correspondence to experimental results is tautological: the first condition of any theory is that it accounts for the experimental results that gave rise to it. But the only way to determine whether it is simply a theory to fit the facts or whether it is truly generalizable is to test it against unknown facts via prediction. Of course, predictions are almost always only approximately true, so the specific point of acceptability is not provided for by the general concept, but, at least in theory, decisive verification of predictions provides a simple, clear, and immensely useful criterion by which to evaluate theories. In my opinion, this explains much of the evolutionary capacity of science (I mean evolution in the more contemporary sense of diversification and selection rather than the old idea of teleological perfectibility).

If experimental prediction is the mark of science, this leaves the question of whether purely descriptive disciplines like zoology and areas like quantum theory where predictions are inherently statistical and ambiguous are scientific. Zoology and the like I think are, because hypothetical prediction inherently implies classification. In other words, by saying “under these conditions, such an event will happen,” one classifies, in other words sets parameters. The goal of zoology seems to be not simply to describe members of a group but to describe all the characteristics which define the group, set the parameters of the group, which is the first step towards making predictions about the group. So it is an element of science, but incomplete. As for quantum, I avow my profound ignorance of it, so let my opinion be taken in that light. As far as I understand, the stastical laws in that realm allow predictions in aggregate, so I am inclined to view it as still within the domain of science, at least in spirit, but of course the lack of decisiveness of statistical predictions gravely weakens the predictive power of science in this area, and I have already suggested that the rise of relativity and quantum in my view are intimately tied to the waning of the scientific age. Finally, it should be noted that while making correct predictions is the goal of science, that should be qualified by saying that the predictions are intended to answer general questions concerning the nature of things and establish specific knowledge. Optics or engineering, for example, are not science, although they once were, because all the major questions have been answered, and they no longer concern gaining further knowledge of the future and the universe, but rather in applying that knowledge to constructing specific objects.

So the goal and value of science is in predicting, and thus establishing knowledge of, the future, and the scientific method is the means of arriving at correct predictions. This is not to discard my earlier contention about the ideological basis of science, because the efficacy of prediction is based on the relative value of induction, and successful induction relies on the essential regularity and stability of the universe. In other words, in order to draw a general theory from a specific experimental result and vice versa, the universe must be considered as basically the same everywhere and at every time, which in turn implies that it be material, matter being defined as that which cannot change itself and is therefore static. It seems to me that if in quantum theory, for example, phenomena become genuinely dependent on the observeer in ways that are neither generalizable nor predicatable, it cannot continue to remain truly a science. It would seem to me that the branches of physics which are entirely theoretical are for practical purposes basically metaphysics.

This model depends on a linear notion of time. It might seem the opposite, that if the physical laws are eternal and universal time is actually opposed to this insofar as it represents dynamism, change. But in reality the sameness of the universe upon which science is predicated is not a a sameness at any particular moment, but rather a sameness of behavior. In other words, a view of the universe from a materialist perspective at any given moment shows that everything in the univese is different in the sense of being distinct. However, the idea is that under the same conditions all matter (or whatever you call the fundamental substances) will act in the same way. Without the steady march of time, this unity of behavior disappears, and there are simply a million disparate entities. Thus, space (and time) as properties of the universe are essential to science.

As for what the value of science is, I’m afraid I can’t generalize about that. From reading my recent posts one can most likely guess at my views, but I will simply say that one’s view of the efficacy of science in making the universe understandable will probably depend on entirely on whether one a) believes that linear time is a real property of the universe and b) if so, whether true induction is possible.

p.s. I should note that Henri Poincaré anticipates me in seeing the epistemological value of science as consisting mainly of its ability to make predictions rather than its descriptive correspondence to reality. However, he also thinks that theories are conventions and definitions of concepts, not true descriptions of physical phenomena based necessarily on experimental results. He thinks the conjunction of these two make theories relatively independent of their experimental bases, which he regards as a good thing because it creates a body of stable principles in which we can trust. I think that that is neither true nor a good value. The emphasis is on predicting correctly, not creating stable beliefs (if you want unchanging beliefs, what not join the Church?), and if generating true predictions is the goal, theories should be more rather than less sensitive to their experimental roots.

p.p.s. Since my exam was about scientific laws and causality, I should add that while scientific activity depends on a belief in time, not all scientific theories do: the law of conservation of energy, for example, I believe is essentially atemporal.

January 22, 2005

Einstein and Gödel, at the Königsberg café

Posted by Curt at 04:38 PM in Science | permalink | 5 comments

About a month ago I wrote this entry which was, I think, somewhat misunderstood, at least by the one confirmed reader of it. In it I tried to argue that there are some fundamental problems involved in conceptualizing time which, in my mind, appear intractable, and hence its existence as a concept contradictory, impossible. To which it was replied that of course time has an existence, as a social convention, a mental framework. Of that I have no doubt-it would be impossible for me to refute even if I wanted to. My point was about metaphysics, not sociology, and in that regard I don’t think it was that much different from that expressed by St. Augustine regarding time: “if no one asks me what it is I know what it is, but if someone asks me I don’t know.” Or, even more notably, Kant, who regarded time, in addition to space, not as an entity, process, or property of the physical world, but as a filter of percpetion, the mental framework which orders our experience of the world.

Which brings me back to science. I just finished reading The Evolution of Physics, by Einstein and Leopold Infeld. Of course Einstein is justly famed for, among many other things, pioneering the idea of space-time. However, I was quite intrigued to discover, while perusing the science section at the National Library in Paris, that Gödel claimed that his late work on relativity and physics, upon which I touched in my earlier post, was inspired by an intense study of Kant. Now, assuming such a dour man as Gödel was not simply being facetious, the implications of this are immediate. In the (apparent) somewhat paradoxical act of tearing down the structure of Einstein’s work while bringing some of its deepest tendencies to fruition, he was working under the influence of a theory which denies the type of external, property-based existence which Einstein implicitly ascribes to time (and space)! As I understand special relativity (always a dubious premise, I grant you), it holds that space and time, as properties of the universe, are perceived differently at every point of view, or coordinate system, as he calls them. But for me it seems a question of the simplest explanation: if everyone is in a relative frame of reference with respect to space and time, is it simpler and more likely that time and space are real properties which are different at every point in the universe, or simply that they are perceived differently by each observer? It seems to me that if one takes Kant’s idea of space and time as elements perception and not of external reality, none of these problems come up, although there may of course be others. Again, it’s hard for me to say what Gödel’s interpretation of all of this is, since no one seems to have engaged and propogated his work on this subject much, but if he was following in the line of Kant’s thinking as well as the tradition of relativity, it would be interesting to see the resuscitation, by “a commodius vicus of recirculation,” of a very powerful and cogent point of view which has nonetheless been largely dismissed by scientists as non-pertinently metaphysical. Perhaps interesting also to note that, in dealing with Kant last year, I protested against his classification of space as a perceptual framework, and even managed to convince my philosophy professor that it is rather the fundamental visual property, before reversing myself and concluding that light is actually the fundamental visible property. Light is also in some ways the fundamental property in Einstein’s system, or at least the one constant in all of the warping of space-time, which somehow doesn’t seem so surprising now…

p.s. For all of those intersted in Spanish literature (which at this point probably composes nearly 100% of our readership), I also came across this article with the following sub-headline: “It is the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, a more important work than all of Einstein’s theories.” To the extent that the article follows up on this point, I think the claim about the inevitability of scientific discovery is at the very least highly disputable (and even if Cervantes’ work is more inimitable, that does not in itself mean that it is more “important”), but nonetheless a provocative idea, and gratifying to my humanities-leaning heart.

January 06, 2005

Philosophical Investigations

Posted by shonk at 07:47 PM in Ramblings , Words of Wisdom | permalink | 3 comments

As promised, quotations from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations are now available. Again, both German and English versions of each are reproduced, though the task was made considerably easier than in other cases by the fact that the edition I used was a dual-language edition.

I (like, I suspect, many others) find Wittgenstein simultaneously fascinating and annoying. On the one hand, he makes interesting and insightful observations on all sorts of phenomena; on the other, he never really synthesizes those observations into a single, coherent argument. For example, when he says that “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination” (I§6) or that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language” (I§109) or that “The fluctuation of scientific definitions: what to-day counts as an observed concomitant of a phenomenon will to-morrow be used to define it” (I§79) I find myself saying “Right on!”; but I also find myself frustrated by the fact that he can’t even decide on what, exactly, his purpose in writing this all down is. For example, at one point Wittgenstein claims that his “aim in philosophy” is “To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (I§309), while elsewhere he says: “My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense” (I§464) and still elsewhere he suggests that he’s merely making obvious remarks that presumably everybody already knows:

What we are supplying are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities, however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes. (I§415)

As I say, this can be frustrating, but, in a way, is also understandable. In one sense, Wittgenstein isn’t trying to provide answers, but rather to show that there aren’t really any problems (as he says in Philosophical Grammar: “While thinking philosophically we see problems in places where there are none. It is for philosophy to show that there are no problems.”). And why aren’t there any problems? Because “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” (I§38); our problems derive from an inability to properly express ourselves.

(INTERPOLATION: This isn’t stated very well, so I want to expand just a bit. The idea, as I understand it, is that we ask too much of language; that is, we ignore the fact that “Explanations come to an end somewhere” (I§1), that, as quoted below, “language itself cannot be explained”, but, rather, that it can only be understood by its use. In failing to recognize this, we find ourselves unable to express the explanations we seek.)

Within this context, I think Wittgenstein’s thesis (to the extent that he even has one) boils down to the following:

What we have rather to do is to accept the everyday language-game, and to note false accounts of the matter as false. The primitive language-game which children are taught needs no justification; attempts at justification need to be rejected. (II.xi)

Or, from a different direction:

“So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?”—It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life. (I§241)

Viewed from this perspective, then, it is, perhaps, not so surprising that Wittgenstein has a tendency to be frustratingly vague at times; after all, as he himself says, “What is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words” (II.xi). Personally, I find his perspective compelling, but I can understand why some might find it rather superficial, especially since it can lead to seemingly-trivial statements like: “One wants to say: a significant sentence is one which one can not merely say, but also think” (I§511).

All this aside, though, there are two other things I really like about Wittgenstein. First, the fact that he has a real sense of humor and isn’t afraid to deploy it. For example, I couldn’t help laughing aloud at reading this:

Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it.—Someone asks “Whose house is that?”—The answer, by the way, might be “It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it”. But then he cannot for example enter his house. (I§398)

Of course, it probably helps that his sense of humor has that bone-dry, literalistic bent that is characteristic of mathematicians (if you don’t see the humor in the above, re-read the last two sentences like a died-in-the-wool literalist). Which brings me to the second appeal Wittgenstein has for me: he has at least some understanding and awareness of mathematics. And, of course, I can’t help but be excited when someone seems to agree with my own quasi-Intuitionist perspective:

Of course, in one sense mathematics is a branch of knowledge,—but still it is also an activity. And ‘false moves’ can only exist as the exception. For if what we now call by that name became the rule, the game in which they were false moves would have been abrogated. (II.xi)

And, though it doesn’t explicitly refer to mathematics, Wittgenstein’s initial (or final, depending on how you look at it) conclusion has a distinctly mathematical feel to it (especially within the context of Russell’s paradox):

What is spoken can only be explained in language, and so in this sense language itself cannot be explained.

Language must speak for itself.

(Actually from Philosophical Grammar, but echoed throughout Philosophical Investigations)

Okay, enough book-reviewing; check out the quotations.

January 05, 2005

Beach reading

Posted by shonk at 02:25 AM in Literature , Words of Wisdom | permalink | 2 comments

I’ve just returned from the beach (okay, I actually got back yesterday), which, at least partially, explains why there have been no updates in the last week.

Anyway, as anyone who knows me at all well would expect, I spent far more time at the beach reading than doing anything else (though I did do a few other things). And let’s just say my choice of reading material didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of what one is supposed to read at the beach. Instead, I finally decided that it was time for me to read Proust’s Swann’s Way and Goethe’s Faust. For those that haven’t read them, I highly recommend both (though I have to admit that Proust is a little hard to get into).

To encourage those that, like myself up to last week, have been putting these books off, I’ve compiled a couple of lists of my favorite quotations. In deference to those who actually speak French and/or German, I’ve also managed to track down the original, untranslated version of each (and yes, this took a really long-ass time, but it was sort of fun). Thus:

Selections from Swann’s Way

Selections from Faust


(Coming soon, selections from my third beach-read, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations)