Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Horgan’s The End of Science, a reconsideration, Part 6: A million points of light along the via negativa

Twenty-five years ago, in The End of Science, John Horgan argued that science is spinning its wheels, that there are no more “cataclysmic” insights to be had, though incremental advances will continue. He also suggested that we are up against biological limits to thought. As far as I know, his views on these issues have not changed.

I believe the foundation of physics is Horgan’s best case for his argument. I am in fundamental agreement with him on this, as I’ve said in the second post in this series, Has the study of the foundations of physics bottomed out? In the fourth post, Mind-culture coevolution, I explained why I don’t believe that we are up against biological limits, not in physics or anywhere else. Whatever is going on in physics, it’s limits set by human biology. In my third post, “Meat that thinks,” my personal quest, I reviewed much of my own intellectual history and indicated that, though I have failed in some of my early aspirations, I see no reason that the quest for deeper understanding of the mind is at an end.

I’d like to say a little more about that. Take one of my early dreams, that of a computer system that could read a Shakespeare play. That one fell through and I see no prospects that we will be able to create such a machine in the future. Hundreds of years from now? Who knows? I don’t know. Why? Because things that did happen changed my imagination.

In the second decade of this century I began reading work in machine learning and neural networks. That led me to the idea of a virtual reading. Just what that might be is too complex to go into here; but it should be possible with current technology.[1] The point is that I couldn’t have imagined that back in 1976. As long as I keep seeing new possibilities I remain optimistic.

Given that Horgan believes that we will continue to learn more about the world, I wonder how far apart we really are. Yes, he’s holding out for “cataclysmic” insights. But what ARE they? He’s given examples of past such insights, “heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, [and] the big bang.”

Consider the problem I’ve been investigating in one way or another, how “a chunk of meat make(s) a mind.” It is clear that that one problem involves many little, non-cataclysmic, problems. Let me offer a crude analogy.

Do you remember those Christmas tree lights that are wired in serial? When one bulb goes out the whole string goes out. To fix it you have to remove the bulbs one by one and test each one. If a bulb is OK you place it back in the string. If it isn’t you replace it with a new one. The string will light – provided, of course, that that was the only defective bulb.

Here’s the analogy: Think of our problem – meat that thinks – as a string of a million lights wired in serial. A thousand of them are defective. The defective ones are scattered randomly on the string and you don’t know where any of them are nor do you know how many are defective. You problem is to find the defective ones and replace them with a new ones. It will take a long time to test and replace bulbs until all the defective ones. And since you don’t know how many are defective, you don’t have any effective way of estimating your progress. When you’ve replaced 500 bulbs you’re halfway to the finish, but you don’t know that. When you’ve replaced 999 bulbs you’re almost done. but you don’t know that. When you’ve found 1000th bulb, you won’t know you’re done until you place a good bulb in the string.

Then, shazammm! A million lights all at once. Now there’s a cataclysmic insight. Yes, it’s crude. But I do think it captures something of our current situation.

I’ve given a little thought to elaborating that analogy in various ways, but I don’t see any need. The basic point is obvious, we need to get a lot of things – observations, models, theories – together in one framework. That is not easy, especially in an academic environment that favors specialization.

This brings me to philosophy. What is it? Back in 2013 I came across an essay by Peter Godfrey-Smith, On the Relation Between Philosophy.[2] He argued that it is about intellectual integration:

The best one-sentence account of what philosophy is up to was given by Wilfrid Sellars in 1963: philosophy is concerned with “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Philosophy aims at an overall picture of what the world is like and how we fit into it.

It’s not at all clear how much academic philosophy contributes to such an “overall picture of what the world.” It certainly doesn’t seem much devoted to “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together.” If we’re looking for intellectual integration, perhaps we need to look outside the academy.

More recently I came across an essay by Eric Schlisser [3] in which he argued:

By ‘synthetic philosophy’ I mean a style of philosophy that brings together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both). Synthetic philosophy may, in turn, generate new research in the special sciences, a new science connected to the framework adopted in the synthetic philosophy, or new projects in philosophy. So, one useful way to conceive of synthetic philosophy is to discern in it the construction of a scientific image that may influence the development of the special sciences, philosophy, public policy, or the manifest image. [...]

Synthetic philosophy, which shares kinship with what was once known as ‘natural philosophy’ or (later) ‘philosophy of nature’ is made possible by, and a response to, the intellectual division of labor within and among the scientific disciplines.

Schlisser had two examples in mind, Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, and Godfrey Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and The Evolution of Intelligent Life. While both are academics, those are not academic books. They have been published as trade books for a general audience. I can think of other such books, Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, Stephen Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, and Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel. These books have been written by academics, but for a general audience.

There are at least two reasons why an intellectual specialist writes for a general audience, including intellectual specialists from other disciplines. One is to contribute to civic life by explaining difficult but important subjects in a way that makes them accessible to the citizen who is curious about the world. There are, however, important problems that cannot be handled within confines of a single intellectual discipline. No matter which facet of such a problem interests you, you inevitably find yourself looking at everything – or so it seems. You wander through the technical literature of half a dozen disciplines or more, gathering observations and ideas, putting them together, trying to see how it all fits into a coherent picture of the world. Such work entails a level of speculation that is incompatible with the publication demands of the specialist literature. When done well, however, such a book contributes to specialist investigations by establishing a framework within which more detailed work can be done.

That is to say, academics undertake such projects, not just out of a sense of civic duty, but to satisfy their own curiosity about the world. Their intellectual impulse is thus fundamentally philosophical. Perhaps they are searching for cataclysmic insights in an intellectual culture that denies such satisfactions.

I believe that Horgan’s The End of Science is fundamentally philosophical in that sense. Had he written the book he’d originally intended, a collection of interviews with a wide range sciences where he simply presents the interviews, it would have been a work of journalism. Once he decided to give us his own point of view, though, the book became a work of philosophy. Not academic philosophy, certainly not. But philosophy in the deepest sense.

But, you object, where’s the integration? Ah, you forget, Horgan has strong mystical proclivities. I submit that, in limning the boundaries of science, Horgan has taken the via negativa. He is indicating WHAT IS by pointing out what IS NOT. The effect of Horgan’s ironic framing – which I discussed in my third post, A close reading of Horgan’s text – is to hold his argument in suspension.

Question and Answer.
It is neither true nor false.
It is simply there.


[1] I’ve written a working paper in which I argue, among other things, that some digital humanists have already done virtual readings, though they don’t realize it: Virtual Reading: The Prospero Project Redux, Working Paper, Version 2, October 2018, 37 pp., https://www.academia.edu/34551243/Virtual_Reading_The_Prospero_Project_Redux.

[2] Peter Godfrey-Smith, On the Relation Between Philosophy and Science, For the first Gesellschaft für Wissenschaftsphilosophie (GWP) 2013, http://anyflip.com/olgu/vuss/.

[3] Schliesser, E. Synthetic philosophy. Biology & Philosophy 34, 19 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-019-9673-3

NOTE: Other posts in this series, End of Science.

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