Structure of Explanation

When we explain a thing, we give a cause; we assign the thing an origin that explains it.

We can go into a little more detail here. When we ask “why” something is the case, there is always an implication of possible alternatives. At the very least, the question implies, “Why is this the case rather than not being the case?” Thus “being the case” and “not being the case” are two possible alternatives.

The alternatives can be seen as possibilities in the sense explained in an earlier post. There may or may not be any actual matter involved, but again, the idea is that reality (or more specifically some part of reality) seems like something that would be open to being formed in one way or another, and we are asking why it is formed in one particular way rather than the other way. “Why is it raining?” In principle, the sky is open to being clear, or being filled with clouds and a thunderstorm, and to many other possibilities.

A successful explanation will be a complete explanation when it says “once you take the origin into account, the apparent alternatives were only apparent, and not really possible.” It will be a partial explanation when it says, “once you take the origin into account, the other alternatives were less sensible (i.e. made less sense as possibilities) than the actual thing.”

Let’s consider some examples in the form of “why” questions and answers.

Q1. Why do rocks fall? (e.g. instead of the alternatives of hovering in the air, going upwards, or anything else.)

A1. Gravity pulls things downwards, and rocks are heavier than air.

The answer gives an efficient cause, and once this cause is taken into account, it can be seen that hovering in the air or going upwards were not possibilities relative to that cause.

Obviously there is not meant to be a deep explanation here; the point here is to discuss the structure of explanation. The given answer is in fact basically Newton’s answer (although he provided more mathematical detail), while with general relativity Einstein provided a better explanation.

The explanation is incomplete in several ways. It is not a first cause; someone can now ask, “Why does gravity pull things downwards, instead of upwards or to the side?” Similarly, while it is in fact the cause of falling rocks, someone can still ask, “Why didn’t anything else prevent gravity from making the rocks fall?” This is a different question, and would require a different answer, but it seems to reopen the possibility of the rocks hovering or moving upwards, from a more general point of view. David Hume was in part appealing to the possibility of such additional questions when he said that we can see no necessary connection between cause and effect.

Q2. Why is 7 prime? (i.e. instead of the alternative of not being prime.)

A2. 7/2 = 3.5, so 7 is not divisible by 2. 7/3 = 2.333…, so 7 is not divisible by 3. In a similar way, it is not divisible by 4, 5, or 6. Thus in general it is not divisible by any number except 1 and itself, which is what it means to be prime.

If we assumed that the questioner did not know what being prime means, we could have given a purely formal response simply by noting that it is not divisible by numbers between 1 and itself, and explaining that this is what it is to be prime. As it is, the response gives a sufficient material disposition. Relative to this explanation, “not being prime,” was never a real possibility for 7 in the first place. The explanation is complete in that it completely excludes the apparent alternative.

Q3. Why did Peter go to the store? (e.g. instead of going to the park or the museum, or instead of staying home.)

A3. He went to the store in order to buy groceries.

The answer gives a final cause. In view of this cause the alternatives were merely apparent. Going to the park or the museum, or even staying home, were not possible since there were no groceries there.

As in the case of the rock, the explanation is partial in several ways. Someone can still ask, “Why did he want groceries?” And again someone can ask why he didn’t go to some other store, or why something didn’t hinder him, and so on. Such questions seem to reopen various possibilities, and thus the explanation is not an ultimately complete one.

Suppose, however, that someone brings up the possibility that instead of going to the store, he could have gone to his neighbor and offered money for groceries in his neighbor’s refrigerator. This possibility is not excluded simply by the purpose of buying groceries. Nonetheless, the possibility seems less sensible than getting them from the store, for multiple reasons. Again, the implication is that our explanation is only partial: it does not completely exclude alternatives, but it makes them less sensible.

Let’s consider a weirder question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Now the alternatives are explicit, namely there being something, and there being nothing.

It can be seen that in one sense, as I said in the linked post, the question cannot have an answer, since there cannot be a cause or origin for “there is something” which would itself not be something. Nonetheless, if we consider the idea of possible alternatives, it is possible to see that the question does not need an answer; one of the alternatives was only an apparent alternative all along.

In other words, the sky can be open to being clear or cloudy. But there cannot be something which is open both to “there is something” and “there is nothing”, since any possibility of that kind would be “something which is open…”, which would already be something rather than nothing. The “nothing” alternative was merely apparent. Nothing was ever open to there being nothing.

Let’s consider another weird question. Suppose we throw a ball, and in the middle of the path we ask, Why is the ball in the middle of the path instead of at the end of the path?

We could respond in terms of a sufficient material disposition: it is in the middle of the path because you are asking your question at the middle, instead of waiting until the end.

Suppose the questioner responds: Look, I asked my question at the middle of the path. But that was just chance. I could have asked at any moment, including at the end. So I want to know why it was in the middle without considering when I am asking the question.

If we look at the question in this way, it can be seen in one way that no cause or origin can be given. Asked in this way, being at the end cannot be excluded, since they could have asked their question at the end. But like the question about something rather than nothing, the question does not need an answer. In this case, this is not because the alternatives were merely apparent in the sense that one was possible and the other not. But they were merely apparent in the sense that they were not alternatives. The ball goes both goes through the middle, and reaches the end. With the stipulation that we not consider the time of the question, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Additional Considerations

The above considerations about the nature of “explanation” lead to various conclusions, but also to various new questions. For example, one commenter suggested that “explanation” is merely subjective. Now as I said there, all experience is subjective experience (what would “objective experience” even mean, except that someone truly had a subjective experience?), including the experience of having an explanation. Nonetheless, the thing experienced is not subjective: the origins that we call explanations objectively exclude the apparent possibilities, or objectively make them less intelligible. The explanation of explanation here, however, provides an answer to what was perhaps the implicit question. Namely, why are we so interested in explanations in the first place, so that the experience of understanding something becomes a particularly special type of experience? Why, as Aristotle puts it, do “all men desire to know,” and why is that desire particularly satisfied by explanations?

In one sense it is sufficient simply to say that understanding is good in itself. Nonetheless, there is something particular about the structure of a human being that makes knowledge good for us, and which makes explanation a particularly desirable form of knowledge. In my employer and employee model of human psychology, I said that “the whole company is functioning well overall when the CEO’s goal of accurate prediction is regularly being achieved.” This very obviously requires knowledge, and explanation is especially beneficial because it excludes alternatives, which reduces uncertainty and therefore tends to make prediction more accurate.

However, my account also raises new questions. If explanation eliminates alternatives, what would happen if everything was explained? We could respond that “explaining everything” is not possible in the first place, but this is probably an inadequate response, because (from the linked argument) we only know that we cannot explain everything all at once, the way the person in the room cannot draw everything at once; we do not know that there is any particular thing that cannot be explained, just as there is no particular aspect of the room that cannot be drawn. So there can still be a question about what would happen if every particular thing in fact has an explanation, even if we cannot know all the explanations at once. In particular, since explanation eliminates alternatives, does the existence of explanations imply that there are not really any alternatives? This would suggest something like Leibniz’s argument that the actual world is the best possible world. It is easy to see that such an idea implies that there was only one “possibility” in the first place: Leibniz’s “best possible world” would be rather “the only possible world,” since the apparent alternatives, given that they would have been worse, were not real alternatives in the first place.

On the other hand, if we suppose that this is not the case, and there are ultimately many possibilities, does this imply the existence of “brute facts,” things that could have been otherwise, but which simply have no explanation? Or at least things that have no complete explanation?

Let the reader understand. I have already implicitly answered these questions. However, I will not link here to the implicit answers because if one finds it unclear when and where this was done, one would probably also find those answers unclear and inconclusive. Of course it is also possible that the reader does see when this was done, but still believes those responses inadequate. In any case, it is possible to provide the answers in a form which is much clearer and more conclusive, but this will likely not be a short or simple project.

Rao’s Divergentism

The main point of this post is to encourage the reader who has not yet done so, to read Venkatesh Rao’s essay Can You Hear Me Now. I will not say too much about it. The purpose is potentially for future reference, and simply to point out a connection with some current topics here.

Rao begins:

The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?

This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest-little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.

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Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.

If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silenceIf you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.

To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.

The entire essay is worth reading.

I would question whether this is really the “fundamental question of life, the universe, and everything,” but Rao has a point. People do tend to think of their life as meaningful on account of social connections, and if those social connections grow increasingly weaker, they will tend to worry that their life is becoming less meaningful.

The point about the intellectual life of an individual is largely true. This is connected to what I said about the philosophical progress of an individual some days ago. There is also a connection with Kuhn’s idea of how the progress of the sciences causes a gulf to arise between them in such a way that it becomes more and more difficult for scientists in different fields to communicate with one another. If we look at the overall intellectual life of an individual as a sort of individual advancing science, the “sciences” of each individual will generally speaking tend to diverge from one another, allowing less and less communication. This is not about people making mistakes, although obviously making mistakes will contribute to this process. As Rao says, it may be that “the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing,” but this will not prevent their intellectual lives overall from diverging, just as the divergence of the sciences does not result from falsity, but from increasingly detailed focus on different truths.

Pseudoscience

James Chastek reflects on science, pseudoscience, and religion:

The demarcation problem is a name for our failure to identify criteria that can distinguish science from pseudo-science, in spite of there being two such things. In the absence of rational criteria, we get clarity on the difference from various institutional-cultural institutions, like the consensus produced by university gatekeepers though peer review (which generates, by definition, peer pressure), grants, prestige, and other stick-and-carrot means.  Like most institutions we expect it to do reasonably well (or at least better than an every-man-for-himself chaos) though it will come at a cost of group-think, elitism, the occasional witch hunt etc..

The demarcation problem generalizes to our failure to identify any meta-criterion for what counts as legitimate discourse or belief. Kant’s famous attempt to articulate meta-criteria for thought, which concluded to limiting it to an intuition of Euclidean space distinct from linear time turned out to be no limitation at all, and Davidson pointed out that the very idea of a conceptual scheme – a finite scope or limit to human thought that could be determined in advance – requires us to posit a language that is in-principle untranslatable, which is to speak of something that has to meaning. Heraclitus was right – you can’t come to the borders of thought, even if you travel down every road. We simply can’t articulate a domain of acceptable belief in general from which we can identify the auslanders.

This is true of religion as well. By our own resources we can know there are pseudo ones and truer ones, but the degree of clarity we want in this area is going to have to be borrowed from an intellect other than our own. The various religious institutions are attempts to make up for this deficiency in reason and provide us with clearer and more precise articulations of true religion in exactly the same way that we get it in the sciences. That a westerner tends to accept Christianity arises from the same sort of process that makes him tend to accept scientific consensus. He walks within the ambit of various institutions that are designed to help him toward truth, and they almost certainly succeed at this more than he would succeed if left solely to his own lights. Anyone who thinks he can easily identify true science while no one can identify true religion is right in a sense, but he doesn’t recognize how heavily his belief is resting on institutional power.

Like Sean Collins as quoted in this earlier post, Chastek seems to be unreasonably emphasizing the similarity between science and religion where in fact there is a greater dissimilarity. As discussed in the last post, a field is only considered scientific once it has completely dominated the area of thought among persistent students of that field. It is not exactly that “no one disagrees,” so much as that it becomes too complicated for anyone except those students. But those students, to an extremely high degree, have a unified view of the field. An actual equivalent in the area of religion would be if virtually all theologians accepted the same religion. Even here, it might be a bit strange to find whole countries that accepted another religion, the way it would be strange to find a whole country believing in a flat earth. But perhaps not so strange; occasionally you do get a poll indicating a fairly large percentage of some nation believing some claim entirely opposed to the paradigm of some field of science. Nonetheless, if virtually all theologians accepted the same religion, the comparison between science and religion would be pretty apt. Since that is not the case in the slightest, religion looks more like a field where knowledge remains “undeveloped,” in the way I suggested in reference to some areas of philosophy.

Chastek is right to note that one cannot set down some absolute list of rules setting apart reasonable thought from unreasonable thought, or science from pseudoscience. Nonetheless, reflecting on the comments to the previous post, it occurs to me that we have a pretty good idea of what pseudoscience is. The term itself, of course, means something like “fake science,” so the idea would be something purporting to be scientific which is not scientific.

A recurring element in Kuhn’s book, as in the title itself, is the idea of change in scientific paradigms. Kuhn remarks:

Probably the single most prevalent claim advanced by the proponents of a new paradigm is that they can solve the problems that have led the old one to a crisis. When it can legitimately be made, this claim is often the most effective one possible. In the area for which it is advanced the paradigm is known to be in trouble. That trouble has repeatedly been explored, and attempts to remove it have again and again proved vain. “Crucial experiments”—those able to discriminate particularly sharply between the two paradigms—have been recognized and attested before the new paradigm was even invented. Copernicus thus claimed that he had solved the long-vexing problem of the length of the calendar year, Newton that he had reconciled terrestrial and celestial mechanics, Lavoisier that he had solved the problems of gas-identity and of weight relations, and Einstein that he had made electrodynamics compatible with a revised science of motion.

Some pages later, considering why paradigm change is considered progress, he continues:

Because the unit of scientific achievement is the solved problem and because the group knows well which problems have already been solved, few scientists will easily be persuaded to adopt a viewpoint that again opens to question many problems that had previously been solved. Nature itself must first undermine professional security by making prior achievements seem problematic. Furthermore, even when that has occurred and a new candidate for paradigm has been evoked, scientists will be reluctant to embrace it unless convinced that two all-important conditions are being met. First, the new candidate must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability that has accrued to science through its predecessors. Novelty for its own sake is not a desideratum in the sciences as it is in so many other creative fields. As a result, though new paradigms seldom or never possess all the capabilities of their predecessors, they usually preserve a great deal of the most concrete parts of past achievement and they always permit additional concrete problem-solutions besides.

It is not automatically unscientific to suggest that the current paradigm is somehow mistaken and needs to be replaced: in fact the whole idea of paradigm change depends on scientists doing this on a fairly frequent basis. But Kuhn suggests that this mainly happens when there are well known problems with the current paradigm. Additionally, when a new one is proposed, it should be in order to solve new problems. This suggests one particular form of pseudoscientific behavior: to propose new paradigms when there are no special problems with the current ones. Or at any rate, to propose that they be taken just as seriously as the current ones; there is not necessarily anything unreasonable about saying, “Although we currently view things according to paradigm A, someday we might need to adopt something somewhat like paradigm B,” even if one is not yet aware of any great problems with paradigm A.

A particularly anti-scientific form of this would be to propose that the current paradigm be abandoned in favor of an earlier one. It is easy to see why scientists would be especially opposed to such a proposal: since the earlier one was abandoned in order to solve new problems and to resolve more and more serious discrepancies between the paradigm and experience, going back to an earlier paradigm would suddenly create all sorts of new problems.

On the other hand, why do we have the “science” part of “pseudoscience”? This is related to Chastek’s point about institutions as a force creating conformity of opinion. The pseudoscientist is a sort of predator in relation to these institutions. While the goal of science is truth, at least to a first approximation, the pseudoscientist has something different in mind: this is clear from the fact that he does not care whether his theory solves any new problems, and it is even more clear in the case of a retrogressive proposal. But the pseudoscientist will attempt to use the institutions of science to advance his cause. This will tend in reality to be highly unsuccessful in relation to ordinary scientists, for the same reason that Kuhn remarks that scientists who refuse to adopt a new paradigm after its general acceptance “are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work.” In a similar way, if someone proposes an unnecessary paradigm change, scientists will simply ignore the proposal. But if the pseudoscientist manages to get beyond certain barriers, e.g. peer review, it may be more difficult for ordinary people to distinguish between ordinary science and pseudoscience, since they are not in fact using their own understanding of the matter, but simply possess a general trust that the scientists know the general truth about the field.

One of the most common usages of the term “pseudoscience” is in relation to young earth creationism, and rightly so. This is in fact a case of attempting to return to an earlier paradigm which was abandoned precisely because of the kind of tensions that are typical of paradigm change. Thus one of their favorite methods is to attempt to get things published in peer reviewed journals. Very occasionally this is successful, but obviously it has very little effect on the field itself: just as with late adopters or people who never change their mind, the rest of the field, as Kuhn says, “ignores their work.” But to the degree that they manage to lead ordinary people to adopt their views, this is to act in a sort of predator relationship with the institutions of science: to take advantage of these institutions for the sake of falsehood rather than truth.

That’s kind of blunt, someone will say. If paradigm change is frequently necessary, surely it could happen at least once that a former paradigm was better than a later one, such that it would be necessary to return to it, and for the sake of truth. People are not infallible, so surely this is possible.

Indeed, it is possible. But very unlikely, for all the reasons that Kuhn mentions. And in order for such a proposal to be truth oriented, it would have to be motivated by the perception of problems with the current paradigm, even if they were problems that had not been foreseen when the original paradigm was abandoned. In practice such proposals are normally not motivated by problems at all,  and thus there is very little orientation towards truth in them.

Naturally, all of this has some bearing on the comments to the last post, but I will leave most of that to the reader’s consideration. I will remark, however, that things like “he is simply ignorant of basic physics because he is a computer scientist, not a physicist,” or “Your last question tells me that you do not know much physics,” or that it is important not to “ignore the verdict of the reviewers and editors of a respected physics journal,” might be important clues for the ordinary fellow.

Technical Discussion and Philosophical Progress

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (p. 19-21), Thomas Kuhn remarks on the tendency of sciences to acquire a technical vocabulary and manner of discussion:

We shall be examining the nature of this highly directed or paradigm-based research in the next section, but must first note briefly how the emergence of a paradigm affects the structure of the group that practices the field. When, in the development of a natural science, an individual or group first produces a synthesis able to attract most of the next generation’s practitioners, the older schools gradually disappear. In part their disappearance is caused by their members’ conversion to the new paradigm. But there are always some men who cling to one or another of the older views, and they are simply read out of the profession, which thereafter ignores their work. The new paradigm implies a new and more rigid definition of the field. Those unwilling or unable to accommodate their work to it must proceed in isolation or attach themselves to some other group. Historically, they have often simply stayed in the departments of philosophy from which so many of the special sciences have been spawned. As these indications hint, it is sometimes just its reception of a paradigm that transforms a group previously interested merely in the study of nature into a profession or, at least, a discipline. In the sciences (though not in fields like medicine, technology, and law, of which the principal raison d’être is an external social need), the formation of specialized journals, the foundation of specialists’ societies, and the claim for a special place in the curriculum have usually been associated with a group’s first reception of a single paradigm. At least this was the case between the time, a century and a half ago, when the institutional pattern of scientific specialization first developed and the very recent time when the paraphernalia of specialization acquired a prestige of their own.

The more rigid definition of the scientific group has other consequences. When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced. That can be left to the writer of textbooks. Given a textbook, however, the creative scientist can begin his research where it leaves off and thus concentrate exclusively upon the subtlest and most esoteric aspects of the natural phenomena that concern his group. And as he does this, his research communiqués will begin to change in ways whose evolution has been too little studied but whose modern end products are obvious to all and oppressive to many. No longer will his researches usually be embodied in books addressed, like Franklin’s Experiments . . . on Electricity or Darwin’s Origin of Species, to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of the field. Instead they will usually appear as brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers addressed to them.

Today in the sciences, books are usually either texts or retrospective reflections upon one aspect or another of the scientific life. The scientist who writes one is more likely to find his professional reputation impaired than enhanced. Only in the earlier, pre-paradigm, stages of the development of the various sciences did the book ordinarily possess the same relation to professional achievement that it still retains in other creative fields. And only in those fields that still retain the book, with or without the article, as a vehicle for research communication are the lines of professionalization still so loosely drawn that the layman may hope to follow progress by reading the practitioners’ original reports. Both in mathematics and astronomy, research reports had ceased already in antiquity to be intelligible to a generally educated audience. In dynamics, research became similarly esoteric in the later Middle Ages, and it recaptured general intelligibility only briefly during the early seventeenth century when a new paradigm replaced the one that had guided medieval research. Electrical research began to require translation for the layman before the end of the eighteenth century, and most other fields of physical science ceased to be generally accessible in the nineteenth. During the same two centuries similar transitions can be isolated in the various parts of the biological sciences. In parts of the social sciences they may well be occurring today. Although it has become customary, and is surely proper, to deplore the widening gulf that separates the professional scientist from his colleagues in other fields, too little attention is paid to the essential relationship between that gulf and the mechanisms intrinsic to scientific advance.

As Kuhn says, this tendency has very well known results. Consider the papers constantly being published at arxiv.org, for example. If you are not familiar with the science in question, you will likely not be able to understand even the title, let alone the summary or the content. Many or most of the words will be meaningless to you, and even if they are not, their combinations will be.

It is also not difficult to see why this happens, and why it must happen. Everything we understand, we understand through form, which is a network of relationships. Thus if particular investigators wish to go into something in greater detail, these relationships will become more and more remote from the ordinary knowledge accessible to everyone. “Just say it in simple words” will become literally impossible, in the sense that explaining the “simple” statement will involve explaining a huge number of relationships that by default a person would have no knowledge of. That is the purpose, as Kuhn notes, of textbooks, namely to form connections between everyday knowledge and the more complex relationships studied in particular fields.

In Chapter XIII, Kuhn relates this sort of development with the word “science” and progress:

The preceding pages have carried my schematic description of scientific development as far as it can go in this essay. Nevertheless, they cannot quite provide a conclusion. If this description has at all caught the essential structure of a science’s continuing evolution, it will simultaneously have posed a special problem: Why should the enterprise sketched above move steadily ahead in ways that, say, art, political theory, or philosophy does not? Why is progress a perquisite reserved almost exclusively for the activities we call science? The most usual answers to that question have been denied in the body of this essay. We must conclude it by asking whether substitutes can be found.

Notice immediately that part of the question is entirely semantic. To a very great extent the term ‘science’ is reserved for fields that do progress in obvious ways. Nowhere does this show more clearly than in the recurrent debates about whether one or another of the contemporary social sciences is really a science. These debates have parallels in the pre-paradigm periods of fields that are today unhesitatingly labeled science. Their ostensible issue throughout is a definition of that vexing term. Men argue that psychology, for example, is a science because it possesses such and such characteristics. Others counter that those characteristics are either unnecessary or not sufficient to make a field a science. Often great energy is invested, great passion aroused, and the outsider is at a loss to know why. Can very much depend upon a definition of ‘science’? Can a definition tell a man whether he is a scientist or not? If so, why do not natural scientists or artists worry about the definition of the term? Inevitably one suspects that the issue is more fundamental. Probably questions like the following are really being asked: Why does my field fail to move ahead in the way that, say, physics does? What changes in technique or method or ideology would enable it to do so? These are not, however, questions that could respond to an agreement on definition. Furthermore, if precedent from the natural sciences serves, they will cease to be a source of concern not when a definition is found, but when the groups that now doubt their own status achieve consensus about their past and present accomplishments. It may, for example, be significant that economists argue less about whether their field is a science than do practitioners of some other fields of social science. Is that because economists know what science is? Or is it rather economics about which they agree?

The last point is telling. There is significantly more consensus among economists than among other sorts of social science, and consequently less worry about whether their field is scientific or not. The difference, then, is a difference of how much agreement is found. There is not necessarily any difference with respect to the kind of increasingly detailed thought that results in increasingly technical discussion. Kuhn remarks:

The theologian who articulates dogma or the philosopher who refines the Kantian imperatives contributes to progress, if only to that of the group that shares his premises. No creative school recognizes a category of work that is, on the one hand, a creative success, but is not, on the other, an addition to the collective achievement of the group. If we doubt, as many do, that nonscientific fields make progress, that cannot be because individual schools make none. Rather, it must be because there are always competing schools, each of which constantly questions the very foundations of the others. The man who argues that philosophy, for example, has made no progress emphasizes that there are still Aristotelians, not that Aristotelianism has failed to progress.

In this sense, if a particular school believes they possess the general truth about some matter (here theology or philosophy), they will quite naturally begin to discuss it in greater detail and in ways which are mainly intelligible to students of that school, just as happens in other technical fields. The field is only failing to progress in the sense that there are other large communities making contrasting claims, while we begin to use the term “science” and to speak of progress when one school completely dominates the field, and to a first approximation even people who know nothing about it assume that the particular school has things basically right.

What does this imply about progress in philosophy?

1. There is progress in the knowledge of topics that were once considered “philosophy,” but when we get to this point, we usually begin to use the name of a particular science, and with good reason, since technical specialization arises in the manner discussed above. Tyler Cowen discusses this sort of thing here.

2. Areas in which there doesn’t seem to be such progress, are probably most often areas where human knowledge remains at an early stage of development; it is precisely at such early stages that discussion does not have a technical character and when it can generally be understood by ordinary people without a specialized education. I pointed out that Aristotle was mistaken to assume that the sciences in general were fully developed. We would be equally mistaken to make such an assumption at the present times. As Kuhn notes, astronomy and mathematics achieved a “scientific” stage centuries before geology and biology did the same, and these long before economics and the like. The conclusion that one should draw is that metaphysics is hard, not that it is impossible or meaningless.

3. Even now, particular philosophical schools or individuals can make progress even without such consensus. This is evidently true if their overall position is correct or more correct than that of others, but it remains true even if their overall position is more wrong than that of other schools. Naturally, in the latter situation, they will not advance beyond the better position of other schools, but they will advance.

4. One who wishes to progress philosophically cannot avoid the tendency to technical specialization, even as an individual. This can be rather problematic for bloggers and people engaging in similar projects. John Nerst describes this problem:

The more I think about this issue the more unsolvable it seems to become. Loyal readers of a publication won’t be satisfied by having the same points reiterated again and again. News media get around this by focusing on, well, news. News are events, you can describe them and react to them for a while until they’re no longer news. Publications that aim to be more analytical and focus on discussing ideas, frameworks, slow processes and large-scale narratives instead of events have a more difficult task because their subject matter doesn’t change quickly enough for it to be possible to churn out new material every day without repeating yourself[2].

Unless you start building upwards. Instead of laying out stone after stone on the ground you put one on top of another, and then one on top of two others laying next to each other, and then one on top of all that, making a single three-level structure. In practice this means writing new material that builds on what came before, taking ideas further and further towards greater complexity, nuance and sophistication. This is what academia does when working correctly.

Mass media (including the more analytical outlets) do it very little and it’s obvious why: it’s too demanding[3]. If an article references six other things you need to have read to fully understand it you’re going to have a lot of difficulty attracting new readers.

Some of his conclusions:

I think that’s the real reason I don’t try to pitch more writing to various online publications. In my summary of 2018 I said it was because I thought my writing was to “too idiosyncratic, abstract and personal to fit in anywhere but my own blog”. Now I think the main reason is that I don’t so much want to take part in public debate or make myself a career. I want to explore ideas that lie at the edge of my own thinking. To do that I must assume that a reader knows broadly the same things I know and I’m just not that interested in writing about things where I can’t do that[9]. I want to follow my thoughts to for me new and unknown places — and import whatever packages I need to do it. This style isn’t compatible with the expectation that a piece will be able to stand on its own and deliver a single recognizable (and defensible) point[10].

The downside is of course obscurity. To achieve both relevance in the wider world and to build on other ideas enough to reach for the sky you need extraordinary success — so extraordinary that you’re essentially pulling the rest of the world along with you.

Obscurity is certainly one result. Another (relevant at least from the VP’s point of view) is disrespect. Scientists are generally respected despite the general incomprehensibility of their writing, on account of the absence of opposing schools. This lack leads people to assume that their arguments must be mostly right, even though they cannot understand them themselves. This can actually lead to an “Emperor has No Clothes” situation, where a scientist publishes something basically crazy, but others, even in his field, are reluctant to say so because they might appear to be the ones who are ignorant. As an example, consider Joy Christian’s “Disproof of Bell’s Theorem.” After reading this text, Scott Aaronson comments:

In response to my post criticizing his “disproof” of Bell’s Theorem, Joy Christian taunted me that “all I knew was words.”  By this, he meant that my criticisms were entirely based on circumstantial evidence, for example that (1) Joy clearly didn’t understand what the word “theorem” even meant, (2) every other sentence he uttered contained howling misconceptions, (3) his papers were written in an obscure, “crackpot” way, and (4) several people had written very clear papers pointing out mathematical errors in his work, to which Joy had responded only with bluster.  But I hadn’t actually studied Joy’s “work” at a technical level.  Well, yesterday I finally did, and I confess that I was astonished by what I found.  Before, I’d actually given Joy some tiny benefit of the doubt—possibly misled by the length and semi-respectful tone of the papers refuting his claims.  I had assumed that Joy’s errors, though ultimately trivial (how could they not be, when he’s claiming to contradict such a well-understood fact provable with a few lines of arithmetic?), would nevertheless be artfully concealed, and would require some expertise in geometric algebra to spot.  I’d also assumed that of course Joy would have some well-defined hidden-variable model that reproduced the quantum-mechanical predictions for the Bell/CHSH experiment (how could he not?), and that the “only” problem would be that, due to cleverly-hidden mistakes, his model would be subtly nonlocal.

What I actually found was a thousand times worse: closer to the stuff freshmen scrawl on an exam when they have no clue what they’re talking about but are hoping for a few pity points.  It’s so bad that I don’t understand how even Joy’s fellow crackpots haven’t laughed this off the stage.  Look, Joy has a hidden variable λ, which is either 1 or -1 uniformly at random.  He also has a measurement choice a of Alice, and a measurement choice b of Bob.  He then defines Alice and Bob’s measurement outcomes A and B via the following functions:

A(a,λ) = something complicated = (as Joy correctly observes) λ

B(b,λ) = something complicated = (as Joy correctly observes) -λ

I shit you not.  A(a,λ) = λ, and B(b,λ) = -λ.  Neither A nor B has any dependence on the choices of measurement a and b, and the complicated definitions that he gives for them turn out to be completely superfluous.  No matter what measurements are made, A and B are always perfectly anticorrelated with each other.

You might wonder: what could lead anyone—no matter how deluded—even to think such a thing could violate the Bell/CHSH inequalities?

“Give opposite answers in all cases” is in fact entirely irrelevant to Bell’s inequality. Thus the rest of Joy’s paper has no bearing whatsoever on the issue: it is essentially meaningless nonsense. Aaronson says he was possibly “misled by the length and semi-respectful tone of the papers refuting his claims.” But it is not difficult to see why people would be cautious in this way: the fear that they would turn out to be the ones missing something important.

The individual blogger in philosophy, however, is in a different position. If they wish to develop their thought it must become more technical, and there is no similar community backing that would cause others to assume that the writing basically makes sense. Thus, one’s writing is not only likely to become more and more obscure, but others will become more and more likely to assume that it is more or less meaningless word salad. This will happen even more to the degree that there is cultural opposition to one’s vocabulary, concepts, and topics.

Words, Meaning, and Formal Copies

There is quick way to respond to the implicit questions at the end of the last post. I noted in an earlier discussion of form that form is not only copied into the mind; it is also copied into language itself. Any time you describe something in words, you are to some degree copying its form into your description.

This implies that Aristotle’s objection that a mind using an organ would not be able to know all things could equally be made against the possibility of describing all things in words. There simply are not enough combinations of words to relate them to all possible combinations of things; thus, just as a black and white image cannot imitate every aspect of a colored scene, so words cannot possibly describe every aspect of reality.

Two things are evident from this comparison:

First, the objection fails overall. There is nothing that cannot be described in words because words are flexible. If we don’t have a word for something, then we can make up a name. Similarly, the meaning of a single word depends on context.  The word “this” can refer to pretty much anything, depending on the context in which it is used. Likewise meaning can be affected by the particular situation of the person using the word, or by broader cultural contexts, and so on.

Second, there is some truth in the objection. It is indeed impossible to describe every aspect of reality at the same time and in complete detail, and the objection gives a very good reason for this: there are simply not enough linguistic combinations to represent all possible combinations of things. The fact that language is not prime matter does mean that language cannot express every detail of reality at once: the determination that is already there does exclude this possibility. But the flexibility of language prevents there from being any particular aspect of things that cannot be described.

My claim about the mind is the same. There is nothing that cannot be understood by the mind, despite the fact that the mind uses the brain, because the relationship between the brain, mind, and world is a flexible one. Just as the word “this” can refer to pretty much anything, so also the corresponding thought. But on the other hand, the limitations of the brain do mean that a perfectly detailed knowledge of everything is excluded.

Our Interlocutor Insists

In a sense, the above account is sufficient to respond to the objection. There does not seem to be a reason to hold Aristotle’s account of the immateriality of the mind, unless there is also a reason to hold that language cannot be used to describe some things, and this does not seem like a reasonable position. Nonetheless, this response will give rise to a new and more detailed objection.

A black and white scene, it will be said, really and truly copies some aspects of a colored scene, and fails to copy others. Thus right angles in the black and white scene may be identical to right angles in the colored scene. The angles are really copied, and the angles are not. But language seems different: since it is conventional, it does not really copy anything. We just pretend, as it were, that we are copying the thing. “Let the word ‘cat’ stand for a cat,” we say, but there is nothing catlike about the word in reality. The form of the cat is not really copied into the word, or so it will be argued. And since we are not really copying anything, this is why language has the flexibility to be able to describe all things. The meaning of thoughts, however, is presumably not conventional. So it seems that we need to copy things in a real way into the mind, the way we copy aspects of a colored scene into a black and white image. And thus, meaning in the mind should not be flexible in this way, and a particular material medium (such as the brain) would still impede knowing all things, the way the black and white image excludes color.

Formal Copies

The above objection is similar to Hilary Lawson’s argument that words cannot really refer to things. In the post linked above on form and reality, we quoted his argument that cause and effect do not have anything in common. I will reproduce that argument here; for the purpose of the following discussion it might be useful to the reader to refer to the remainder of that post.

For a system of closure to provide a means of intervention in openness and thus to function as a closure machine, it requires a means of converting the flux of openness into an array of particularities. This initial layer of closure will be identified as ‘preliminary closure’. As with closure generally, preliminary closure consists in the realisation of particularity as a consequence of holding that which is different as the same. This is achieved through the realisation of material in response to openness. The most minimal example of a system of closure consists of a single preliminary closure. Such a system requires two discrete states, or at least states that can be held as if they were discrete. It is not difficult to provide mechanical examples of such systems which allow for a single preliminary closure. A mousetrap for example, can be regarded as having two discrete states: it is either set, it is ready, or it has sprung, it has gone off. Many different causes may have led to it being in one state or another: it may have been sprung by a mouse, but it could also have been knocked by someone or something, or someone could have deliberately set it off. In the context of the mechanism all of these variations are of no consequence, it is either set or it has sprung. The diversity of the immediate environment is thereby reduced to single state and its absence: it is either set or it is not set. Any mechanical arrangement that enables a system to alternate between two or more discrete states is thereby capable of providing the basis for preliminary closure. For example, a bell or a gate could function as the basis for preliminary closure. The bell can either ring or not ring, the gate can be closed or not closed. The bell may ring as the result of the wind, or a person or animal shaking it, but the cause of the response is in the context of system of no consequence. The bell either rings or it doesn’t. Similarly, the gate may be in one state or another because it has been deliberately moved, or because something or someone has dislodged it accidentally, but these variations are not relevant in the context of the state of system, which in this case is the position of the gate. In either case the cause of the bell ringing or the gate closing is infinitely varied, but in the context of the system the variety of inputs is not accessible to the system and thus of no consequence.

Lawson’s basic argument is that any particular effect could result from any of an infinite number of different causes, and the cause and effect might be entirely different: the effect might be ringing of a bell, but the cause was not bell-like at all, and did not have a ringing sound. So the effect, he says, tells you nothing at all about the cause. In a similar way, he claims, our thoughts cause our words, but our words and our thoughts have nothing in common, and thus our words tell us nothing about our thoughts; and in that sense they do not refer to anything, not even to our thoughts. Likewise, he says, the world causes our thoughts, but since the cause and effect have nothing in common, our thoughts tell us nothing about the world, and do not even refer to it.

As I responded at the time, this account is mistaken from the very first step. Cause and effect always have something in common, namely the cause-effect relationship, although they each have different ends of that relationship. They will also have other things in common depending on the particular nature of the cause and effect in question. Similarly, the causes that are supposedly utterly diverse, in Lawson’s account, have something in common themselves: every situation that rings the bell has “aptness to ring the bell” in common. And when the bell is rung, it “refers” to these situations by the implication that we are in a situation that has aptness to ring the bell, rather than in one of the other situations.

It is not accidental here that “refer” and “relate” are taken from forms of the same verb. Lawson’s claim that words do not “refer” to things is basically the same as the claim that they are not really related to things. And the real problem is that he is looking at matter (in this case the bell) without considering form (in this case the bell’s relationship with the world.)

In a similar way, to say that the word “cat” is not catlike is to look at the sound or at the text as matter, without considering its form, namely the relationship it has with the surrounding context which causes that word to be used. But that relationship is real; the fact that the word is conventional does not prevent it from being true that human experience of cats is the cause of thoughts of cats, and that thoughts of cats are concretely the cause of the usage of the word “cat,” even if they could in some other situation have caused some other word to be used.

I argued in the post on the nature of form (following the one with the discussion of Lawson) that form is a network of relationships apt to make something one. Insofar as an effect really receives form from a cause in the above way, words really receive meaning from the context that gives rise to their use. And in this way, it is not true that form in language is unlike form in a black and white scene, such that one could say that form in the scene is “real” and form in language is not. Both are real.

Thus the objection fails. Nonetheless, it is true that it is easier to see why it is possible to describe anything in words, than it is to see why anything can be known. And this happens simply because “anything is describable in words” precisely because “anything can be known.” So the fact that anything can be known is the more remote cause, and thus harder to know.

 

Tautologies Not Trivial

In mathematics and logic, one sometimes speaks of a “trivial truth” or “trivial theorem”, referring to a tautology. Thus for example in this Quora question, Daniil Kozhemiachenko gives this example:

The fact that all groups of order 2 are isomorphic to one another and commutative entails that there are no non-Abelian groups of order 2.

This statement is a tautology because “Abelian group” here just means one that is commutative: the statement is like the customary example of asserting that “all bachelors are unmarried.”

Some extend this usage of “trivial” to refer to all statements that are true in virtue of the meaning of the terms, sometimes called “analytic.” The effect of this is to say that all statements that are logically necessary are trivial truths. An example of this usage can be seen in this paper by Carin Robinson. Robinson says at the end of the summary:

Firstly, I do not ask us to abandon any of the linguistic practises discussed; merely to adopt the correct attitude towards them. For instance, where we use the laws of logic, let us remember that there are no known/knowable facts about logic. These laws are therefore, to the best of our knowledge, conventions not dissimilar to the rules of a game. And, secondly, once we pass sentence on knowing, a priori, anything but trivial truths we shall have at our disposal the sharpest of philosophical tools. A tool which can only proffer a better brand of empiricism.

While the word “trivial” does have a corresponding Latin form that means ordinary or commonplace, the English word seems to be taken mainly from the “trivium” of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. This would seem to make some sense of calling logical necessities “trivial,” in the sense that they pertain to logic. Still, even here something is missing, since Robinson wants to include the truths of mathematics as trivial, and classically these did not pertain to the aforesaid trivium.

Nonetheless, overall Robinson’s intention, and presumably that of others who speak this way, is to suggest that such things are trivial in the English sense of “unimportant.” That is, they may be important tools, but they are not important for understanding. This is clear at least in our example: Robinson calls them trivial because “there are no known/knowable facts about logic.” Logical necessities tell us nothing about reality, and therefore they provide us with no knowledge. They are true by the meaning of the words, and therefore they cannot be true by reason of facts about reality.

Things that are logically necessary are not trivial in this sense. They are important, both in a practical way and directly for understanding the world.

Consider the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter:

On November 10, 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board released a Phase I report, detailing the suspected issues encountered with the loss of the spacecraft. Previously, on September 8, 1999, Trajectory Correction Maneuver-4 was computed and then executed on September 15, 1999. It was intended to place the spacecraft at an optimal position for an orbital insertion maneuver that would bring the spacecraft around Mars at an altitude of 226 km (140 mi) on September 23, 1999. However, during the week between TCM-4 and the orbital insertion maneuver, the navigation team indicated the altitude may be much lower than intended at 150 to 170 km (93 to 106 mi). Twenty-four hours prior to orbital insertion, calculations placed the orbiter at an altitude of 110 kilometers; 80 kilometers is the minimum altitude that Mars Climate Orbiter was thought to be capable of surviving during this maneuver. Post-failure calculations showed that the spacecraft was on a trajectory that would have taken the orbiter within 57 kilometers of the surface, where the spacecraft likely skipped violently on the uppermost atmosphere and was either destroyed in the atmosphere or re-entered heliocentric space.[1]

The primary cause of this discrepancy was that one piece of ground software supplied by Lockheed Martin produced results in a United States customary unit, contrary to its Software Interface Specification (SIS), while a second system, supplied by NASA, expected those results to be in SI units, in accordance with the SIS. Specifically, software that calculated the total impulse produced by thruster firings produced results in pound-force seconds. The trajectory calculation software then used these results – expected to be in newton seconds – to update the predicted position of the spacecraft.

It is presumably an analytic truth that the units defined in one way are unequal to the units defined in the other. But it was ignoring this analytic truth that was the primary cause of the space probe’s failure. So it is evident that analytic truths can be extremely important for practical purposes.

Such truths can also be important for understanding reality. In fact, they are typically more important for understanding than other truths. The argument against this is that if something is necessary in virtue of the meaning of the words, it cannot be telling us something about reality. But this argument is wrong for one simple reason: words and meaning themselves are both elements of reality, and so they do tell us something about reality, even when the truth is fully determinate given the meaning.

If one accepts the mistaken argument, in fact, sometimes one is led even further. Logically necessary truths cannot tell us anything important for understanding reality, since they are simply facts about the meaning of words. On the other hand, anything which is not logically necessary is in some sense accidental: it might have been otherwise. But accidental things that might have been otherwise cannot help us to understand reality in any deep way: it tells us nothing deep about reality to note that there is a tree outside my window at this moment, when this merely happens to be the case, and could easily have been otherwise. Therefore, since neither logically necessary things, nor logically contingent things, can help us to understand reality in any deep or important way, such understanding must be impossible.

It is fairly rare to make such an argument explicitly, but it is a common implication of many arguments that are actually made or suggested, or it at least influences the way people feel about arguments and understanding.  For example, consider this comment on an earlier post. Timocrates suggests that (1) if you have a first cause, it would have to be a brute fact, since it doesn’t have any other cause, and (2) describing reality can’t tell us any reasons but is “simply another description of how things are.” The suggestion behind these objections is that the very idea of understanding is incoherent. As I said there in response, it is true that every true statement is in some sense “just a description of how things are,” but that was what a true statement was meant to be in any case. It surely was not meant to be a description of how things are not.

That “analytic” or “tautologous” statements can indeed provide a non-trivial understanding of reality can also easily be seen by example. Some examples from this blog:

Good and being. The convertibility of being and goodness is “analytic,” in the sense that carefully thinking about the meaning of desire and the good reveals that a universe where existence as such was bad, or even failed to be good, is logically impossible. In particular, it would require a universe where there is no tendency to exist, and this is impossible given that it is posited that something exists.

Natural selection. One of the most important elements of Darwin’s theory of evolution is the following logically necessary statement: the things that have survived are more likely to be the things that were more likely to survive, and less likely to be the things that were less likely to survive.

Limits of discursive knowledge. Knowledge that uses distinct thoughts and concepts is necessarily limited by issues relating to self-reference. It is clear that this is both logically necessary, and tells us important things about our understanding and its limits.

Knowledge and being. Kant rightly recognized a sense in which it is logically impossible to “know things as they are in themselves,” as explained in this post. But as I said elsewhere, the logically impossible assertion that knowledge demands an identity between the mode of knowing and the mode of being is the basis for virtually every sort of philosophical error. So a grasp on the opposite “tautology” is extremely useful for understanding.

 

Perfectly Random

Suppose you have a string of random binary digits such as the following:

00111100010101001100011011001100110110010010100111

This string is 50 digits long, and was the result of a single attempt using the linked generator.

However, something seems distinctly non-random about it: there are exactly 25 zeros and exactly 25 ones. Naturally, this will not always happen, but most of the time the proportion of zeros will be fairly close to half. And evidently this is necessary, since if the proportion was usually much different from half, then the selection could not have been random in the first place.

There are other things about this string that are definitely not random. It contains only zeros and ones, and no other digits, much less items like letters from the alphabet, or items like ‘%’ and ‘$’.

Why do we have these apparently non-random characteristics? Both sorts of characteristics, the approximate and typical proportion, and the more rigid characteristics, are necessary consequences of the way we obtained or defined this number.

It is easy to see that such characteristics are inevitable. Suppose someone wants to choose something random without any non-random characteristics. Let’s suppose they want to avoid the first sort of characteristic, which is perhaps the “easier” task. They can certainly make the proportion of zeros approximately 75% or anything else that they please. But this will still be a non-random characteristic.

They try again. Suppose they succeed in preventing the series of digits from converging to any specific probability. If they do, there is one and only one way to do this. Much as in our discussion of the mathematical laws of nature, the only way to accomplish this will be to go back and forth between longer and longer strings of zeros and ones. But this is an extremely non-random characteristic. So they may have succeeded in avoiding one particular type of non-randomness, but only at the cost of adding something else very non-random.

Again, consider the second kind of characteristic. Here things are even clearer: the only way to avoid the second kind of characteristic is not to attempt any task in the first place. The only way to win is not to play. Once we have said “your task is to do such and such,” we have already specified some non-random characteristics of the second kind; to avoid such characteristics is to avoid the task completely.

“Completely random,” in fact, is an incoherent idea. No such thing can exist anywhere, in the same way that “formless matter” cannot actually exist, but all matter is formed in one way or another.

The same thing applies to David Hume’s supposed problem of induction. I ended that post with the remark that for his argument to work, he must be “absolutely certain that the future will resemble the past in no way.” But this of course is impossible in the first place; the past and the future are both defined as periods of time, and so there is some resemblance in their very definition, in the same way that any material thing must have some form in its definition, and any “random” thing must have something non-random in its definition.