Monday, October 26, 2009


... the bewitchment of our intelligence... (Wittgenstein)

One of the big mysteries of human culture is why we humans should be so optimistic concerning our ability to express in our language the fundamental realities of the universe. Why are we so fanatically intent upon achieving a perfect parallax between language, world and experience, between midworld, foreworld and hindworld? It is not at all clear why we should even imagine that such a perfect ‘map’ of reality is either possible or desirable. Why we should imagine that our language is capable of such a feat is almost incomprehensible. Sentences are sentences, and the world is the world; and the ones will never be the equivalent of the other. Moreover, our human thoughts concerning the universe are precisely that – human thoughts, no more privileged than chimp or gorilla thoughts; and there is absolutely no guarantee that those thoughts are in any way representative of the way the world is in itself, rather than the way it appears to us. Yet we continue to believe that one day our science will achieve a fully exhaustive account of reality in language. The fatuousness of this belief is perfectly captured by Borges in his little tale On Exactitude in Science.

By language we discover the world; but in itself, we must admit, the world is the unknown. In order for the known, i.e. the ‘truth’ of our theories to be complete and incontestable, this equivalence would have to be the case: the map and the territory would have to be identical. Moreover, for this truth to be final, the territory would not be allowed to change in ways not provided for by the map after the final version of the latter had been made, because such change would indicate that the map was in fact less than the territory after all and thus to that extent untrue. Thus to demand that our truth be a definitive map of reality is silly enough; to demand, in addition, that reality, once definitively mapped, should cease to change (except in ways foreseen by the map) is crazy, given the creative unpredictability of the world. Yet something approximating to these demands still drives the scientific enterprise in the minds of its most enthusiastic reductionists. In the minds of the eliminative strain of scientists (those who used to be called the ‘Positivists’), these demands are almost equivalent to the reason for which they do science: they hope to be able to restrict reality to their particular conceptions of it. In this they are apparently unaware of the remark of George Bernard Shaw in his Maxims for Revolutionists concerning such efforts: “The reasonable man” he said, “adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.” There is of course a profound Shavian irony in this; but it makes nonsense of the supposed rationality of the Positivists’ pretensions.

As creatures we have always – or at least for as long as we have been using language – talked about the world in at least two quite distinct ways. We have always talked about the world in practical terms concerning what, according to our everyday experience, is possible for us and what is not; and language has always functioned as a justification between individuals of those views concerning practical possibility or impossibility. This kind of practically useful talk has always been characterised by a need for precision and has always resulted in precise descriptions for the purposes of permitting or forbidding action. Within the domain of our experience, these precise descriptions have led to ever greater control over our environment as the descriptions have revealed more and more potential in our environment for applications useful to us. The truth of these descriptions has always been established by their ability to predict how the world of our experience could be expected to behave; and that truth depends entirely upon our action – i.e. what we do with it. So our theories became self-confirming, as we applied them practically. They were made real by becoming, for example, the artefacts of our technology. We may have talked in terms of absolute truth while doing all of this, but we never really believed that that was what we were discovering. We were interested primarily in what could be achieved by our own efforts and how.

But then we have also always talked about the world in total and absolute terms, albeit in a quite distinct idiom; and for millennia we have not confused the practically useful talk of technology with the metaphysical talk of our total vision. We have always wanted a total picture of the world for reasons other than those of the resolution of practical problems presented to common sense. We have always wanted a total sense and meaning to the entire cosmos. But this total picture, we have always known in some corner of our consciousness, was never anything more than a symbol, a myth, because it had to include aspects of the universe not accessible to our experience and about which we had only hunches expressed more or less poetically. It may well have been that in the mind of pre-scientific man the practical and the mythical were not hermetically separated the one from the other; but that in no sense prevented his practicality: he was not confused. The striving to achieve a vision of totality had above all moral import. The practical and the moral, though very closely linked were nevertheless distinct.

With nineteenth and twentieth-century science, however (it is too early to comment on twenty-first century science), the first type of account, the practical scientific one, arrogated to itself the features of the second, the metaphysical, mythical one. The mythical and moral dimension disappeared and its striving became associated, in the minds of those who pursued it scientifically, with some kind of definitive, exhaustive, impersonal picture of all that is, a picture that by its very accuracy would enable all problems, whether moral, social, political, intellectual or whatever, to be solved by the observance of a specific methodology. Nothing was deemed to be outside the range of the experience, and therefore of the empirical method, of the natural scientist. This developing picture, however, was in the final analysis about control. All ethical problems would disappear with the achievement by man of complete control over nature. That this striving was driven both by the practical concern, on the one hand, and by the power of the myth of totality, on the other, is beyond doubt; the mystery is that it continues in existence in the enduring urge to work out a complete, definitive, deterministic ‘Theory of Everything’- the ultimate achievement of language.

In such a Theory of Everything the algorithm governing the sum total of all the facts in the universe is imagined as being 1) represented in maximally compressed form, that is to say in a mathematical model from which all redundancy has been removed, 2) a model that accounts for all possible change and 3) a model that an individual mind can grasp and contemplate in its entirety. A moment’s reflection should give anybody who thinks seriously about this striving cause for serious doubts. Why should a structure that exists only in the formalism of a particular language, and has been dreamed up in the contingent head of a contingent creature with all its contingent limitations, correspond perfectly with the complete state of affairs of the universe? What (except ignorance of their limitations) entitles human beings to imagine that this could ever be possible? How, moreover, could such a complete state of affairs and such a correspondence be apprehended in the mind of some single human individual? It seems obvious to anyone with a little imagination that there is inevitably going to be a large number of vital factors missing from each of the three elements of the ‘complete’ theory enumerated above. We can never be in possession of all the facts and therefore can never achieve perfect accuracy in our acquaintance with the world; since, therefore, we can never achieve perfect accuracy, the axiomata of our model-framing formalism are going to be insufficiently information-rich to correspond to the world and the model thus will fail; the apprehension by an individual mind will, in consequence, be in a real sense denied what it seeks and be deluded by what can only be a false picture of reality. It should be obvious to anyone that any total picture of the world of our experience is going to be false in the same sense, and exactly to the same extent, that we wish it to be true, because it will be necessarily incomplete. It is our wish for total knowledge and total control that misleads us. There is, moreover no use in saying that we are primarily interested in principles and not in a simple collection of facts, for the principles are mere abstractions from the facts and will change as new facts come to light.

The simple facts concerning our knowledge are these: firstly, the individual mind, hindworld, can never be exhaustively acquainted with foreworld, the world it experiences, because our experience is limited by the very nature of our bodies and their sensory-cognitive apparatus (this limitation is not solved by prosthetics) and by our personal limitations in space and time; secondly, formalisms, i.e. language or midworld, can never exhaustively represent foreworld since the information-content of any midworld structure will be inadequate and the axiomata upon which the logic of the system is based will be insufficiently powerful; and thirdly, the fundamental processes of nature, the quantum processes and the emergent properties are in principle unpredictable and therefore beyond our power to know in the sense that science understands the verb ‘to know’..

Thus hindworld will never be able to combine in perfect parallax both an exhaustive experience of foreworld and a complete representation of that experience in a formal language, for the foregoing reasons. It is the power of the ancient mythical striving of the human race that makes certain members of the scientific community – specifically, certain physicists – claim with such insistence that a ‘Theory of Everything’ is not only the Holy Grail of science, but also a graspable reality within sight of those now active in the domain. Individuals such as Stephen Hawking are massively deluded in this way; but their eminence gives them undue influence. One can only suspect that it is the power of the ego linked to the seductive attractions of the old mythical vision of totality that sustains them. The Promethean desire to compete with and defeat the gods – i.e. to show that they do not exist and to elevate the human ego to sole authority in the universe – is undiminished. Hawking specifically articulated this latter thought when he referred in his book A Brief History of Time to the day when we would ‘know the mind of God’ - that is to say, make any deity redundant and put ourselves in His or Her place.

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