Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It is complex and meaningless but...

One day, on a certain occasion, a friend stated confidently but ruefully that scientists don't like Plato. Will, by and large, they don't like dogma, and Plato just happens to be a byword for dogmatism, partly due to history's characteristic caprice. Still her remark was quite accurate, and I even found it to be impressive on the account of its "insiderness", and the challenge it throws to us: seeing philosophy through the eyes of a scientist. However, as soon as we take this challenge up, it proves to be a complex mental exercise.

The enterprise of science is delicate. Dogma will naturally render it mystical and vain - think alchemy - but nevertheless, some "self-evident" propositions are always needed to hold any theory's structure together, like mortar holds the stones of a masonry. Actually, when science was subjected to a scepticism of a radical degree, manifest in Hume's dissolving criticism, it was stymied for a brief while, and it took only somebody with Kant's caliber to pull it out of this quagmire, and put it back on its tracks. But that is only one of its aspects, and one gets the hunch that all of its others are as delicately balanced.

Yet much of the layers of this complexity can be peeled away by utilizing a few realizations. One is that talking of a perspective of scientists on philosophy is conceivable only in our contemporary time, for before the advent of modern science, probing the depths of nature was a natural philosopher's job, and after science came onto the spectacle - a thing we have Bacon to thank for - the walls drawn up between it and philosophy were porous for centuries further, allowing for considerable scholarly exchange across the division, and it even was the norm for a bright mind to straddle both. The caulking of the boundaries demarcating the different domains of knowledge that we live today is largely the legacy of the twentieth century - perhaps out of necessity at first, but then it became an expedient variant on the strategy of divide and conquer, upon which our false culture of the expert rests, to the advantage of politicians.

A second realization that springs forth readily from the first is that the purview of the one of them does not fully coincide with the other. It is hence where they happen to do that the loudest incongruencies between them arise. One such major, and informing, point of difference is that scientists, especially 
biologists, take the corporeality of the universe for granted, or else, for their money, this quasi-infinite range of the phenomena it harbours becomes a gaudy extravaganza that can only be explained via revelation, a thing that they necessarily reject a priori. Philosophers on the other hand have the chutzpah to question the materialness of nature, or anything else for that matter, and have no troubles with entertaining, and even endorsing systems of thought where the entire universe is nothing but the product of the mental processes of some mind - one mild and understandable exception to this is the founding fathers of quantum physics, since they were taken by surprise to find that the act of observation in tiny realms plays an active role in the unfolding of events. That is exactly why some philosophy was in fact integral to their arguments, which also occasionally included references to a creator, as is reflected in few of the quotes of that dolt of a genius, Einstein.

But at a deeper level, we will find that many of these incongruencies are less profound than they may appear, and can be imputed to secondary reasons such as mere tastes. For instance, scientists are fond of using simple and clear language, while philosophers are given to ornate and florid styles of exposition. So, whereas a scientist would proclaim prosaically that the laws of the universe are inescapable, this same fact expressed by a philosopher would assume something of a numinous quality, and since the current curriculum of either does not include adequate readings into the corpus of the other, such differences come to pass as fundamental rather than incidental.

Perhaps the third realization that trails the first two is that this exercise is futile altogether, mainly because it was a folly to speak of scientists as unified in perspective from the onset, since it becomes apparent from the forgone discussion that how scientists perceive philosophy is not normally guided by something common among them, and as such falls to become a matter of peculiarities and personal convictions. Nevertheless, one can still speak of contemporary philosophic contributions to and inspirations by science, and visa verse. But these are better suited for discussion as particular cases, with, as an extra, few morsels on the lives of the philosophers involved. Here is a few.

Karl Popper:

The idea that what delimits scientific activities from their non-scientific counterparts, is the deduction of explanatory models and the subsequent act of working hard to falsify them is the brainchild of this guy. One consequence of it though, which he never failed to stress whenever he had the occasion, is that the social sciences, or alternatively the soft sciences, e.g. political science, sociology, psychology... etc., should be evicted from the circle of what we call science, and, presumably, be considered systematic studies only. However, it seems that at first his idea of falsification was 
embarrassingly enough inside the box, as when he denied natural selection the status of a scientific theory. A year later he recanted this position, when it was brought to his attention that finding certain animal fossils in certain geological strata is all we need to discard the theory for good.

Personal life: few can boast a career path as erratic as his, taking him from carpentry, to teaching at school level, then to philosophy and professorship at London School of Economy. From his contemporaries we get the impression that he retained throughout his life the childish quality of hating to lose a discussion. His impugning the social sciences can be understood as an act of atonement for his joining the Marxist movement in Vienna for a while as a youth, though he forever stayed a staunch supporter of the establishment of welfare states and an advocate of social engineering.

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell:

Founders of the school of analytical philosophy. They might not be the first philosophers to have got intoxicated with the clarity and well defined structures of mathematics and logic - PlatoDescartes and Spinoza 
are the firsts to come to mind in this regard - but they were among the firsts who tried to import these features into language, and even demanded it be refashioned in a manner conducive to such ends. To accomplish this, each devised his own distinct program, but generally speaking, they agreed on that words should be broken down to a level were they become referents to solid facts, or, failing that, be discarded. Once fully achieved, they told us like some did before them, this will solve every philosophical problem there is or will ever be. The geniuses that they were, however, they could not see from the beginning that any meaningful proposition we may utter is founded upon implicit suppositions, which is to say that imagery and relativity are endemic to the way humans understand the world around them, and therefore are inextricably reflected in languageWittgenstein acknowledged this oversight in his posthumously published book, though he never wavered in his demanded for clarity of language.

In the case of Russell, it was his predilection for logic and mathematics that inspired him to such an adventure, but it can be easily seen in Wittgenstein's case - an engineer turned philosopher - that his source of inspiration was the central role that he saw math and logic playing in the formulation of various scientific theories.

Wittgenstein's: a despondent soul, whom I personally also believe to have been a masochist (I mean, why would somebody suffering depression ever spend a part of his life in Norway?). He was a Viennese as well and tried his hand at teaching for a while, but it seems like he was a terrible teacher, who had no qualms about boxing the ears of his students. One source I have on him claims that his favorite relaxation activity consisted in watching cowboy movies, which might sound as an odd way for relaxing, until we learn that his sexuality is a subject of varying speculations. He also happens to be the eponymous subject of a British movie produced in 1993. The director was gay himself, the auteur Derek Jarman, and one wonders if this is the reason why Ludwig's homosexuality is taken for granted in this movie.

Russell's: at first apathetic toward everyday matters, it seems that World War I pricked his intellectual bubble once and for all, and from that moment on, no attempt at suppressing his voice succeeded. He, in no particular order, stood against the "great war", opposed Britain's 
colonial policies, campaigned for women's suffrage, was among the firsts to speak against nuclear armaments, and called for the implementation of eugenic laws and programs! A literature Nobel laureate, he bequeathed to humanity a treasure trove of essays and books that tackle themes from the philosophic to the social, and it was his Principia Mathaematica that proselytized Wittgenstein to philosophy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

A modern rather than a contemporary philosopher. And while his opinion on science - among arts and culture - seems to have shifted during the course of his life, from science as an inducer of the corruption of societies, to science as a symptom of the moral degeneration of human beings, to science as a mere conglomeration of artifacts, made in the eternal race among individuals to prove their moral superiority to one another, we can notice that the constant thing in all of this is that progress in science and depravity come in pairs. We now know that this is not necessarily the case, and we might even hastily discard these warnings as the false prophecies of a deranged man. But this is to take the matter personally, and overlook whatever nuggets of wisdom these arguments contain, and to be sure they contain some. Rousseau takes us all the way to the threshold of a very important realization, leaving to us the last step to make on our own, in a critical time when people seem to have finally started blowing the saintly halos that have adorned the heads of religious figures for too long - a very commendable act - only to confer them upon the heads of scientists.

Personal life: a misanthrope and a well documented case of paranoia, but also a gentle character and a believer in the innocence and purity of humans in their pristine state. Alternatively, if we are welling to expend some effort in understanding a person as she is, rather than as she appears like to our eyes, we might have second thoughts regarding Rousseau and entertain the possibility that he was generous and constant in his love for humanity, but where he felt this had gone unrequited, his reaction was excessively dramatic. His most notable contributions span a range of subjects, from politics to education, and from music to history and philosophy. We might even regard him as the modern father of the humanization of knowledge, on the score that he had written a very accessible account, The 
Dictionary of Music, on the theory and history of the musical arts. Toward the end of his life he dallied with botany and it seems that he had assembled a number of herbaria, of which many were destroyed during Wold War II.

Despite their names being effectively antonyms, he and Voltaire are generally considered to be the two major epicentres of the earthquake that brought about the destruction of the ancien rĂ©gime.