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, 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.

Start at the Beginning

This post will have two kinds of readers:

1) The few who have read the posts on this blog from the beginning, in chronological order, and who are now reading this one simply because it is the only one you have not read yet.

2) The vast majority who did not do the above.

For the first category, I don’t have any particular suggestion at the moment. Well done. That is the right way of reading this blog.

For the second category, you would do much better to stop right here in the middle of this post (without even finishing it), go back to the beginning, and read every post in chronological order.


So you are now in the first category? No? Since obviously you did not take my advice, let me explain both why you should, and why you will not.

It is possible to understand something through arguments, even if manipulating symbols may be an even more common result. And since conclusions follow from premises, you can only do this by thinking about the premises first, and the conclusions second. Since my own interest is in understanding things, I intentionally organize the blog in this way. Of course, since the concrete historical process of an individual coming to understand some particular thing is messier and more complicated than a single argument or even than multiple arguments, the order isn’t an exact representation of my own history or someone else’s potential history. But it is certainly closer to that than any other order of reading would be.

You will object that you do not have the time to read 300 blog posts. Fine. But then why do you have time to read this one? Even if you are definitely committed to reading a small number of posts, you would do better to read a small number from the beginning. If you are committed to reading not more than one post a week, you would do better to read the 300 posts over the next six years, rather than reading the posts that are current.

You might think of other similar objections, but they will all fail in similar ways. If you are actually interested in understanding something from your reading, chronological order is the right order.

Of course, other blog authors might well argue in similar ways, but the number of people who actually do this, on any blog, is tiny. Instead, people read a few recent posts, and perhaps a few others if there are a chain of links that lead them there. But they do not, in the vast majority of cases, read from the beginning, whether to read all or only a part.

So let me explain why you will not take this advice, despite the fact that it is irrefutably correct. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler remark in a chapter on conversation:

This view of talking—as a way of showing off one’s “backpack”—explains the puzzles we encountered earlier, the ones that the reciprocal-exchange theory had trouble with. For example, it explains why we see people jockeying to speak rather than sitting back and “selfishly” listening—because the spoils of conversation don’t lie primarily in the information being exchanged, but rather in the subtextual value of finding good allies and advertising oneself as an ally. And in order to get credit in this game, you have to speak up; you have to show off your “tools.”

But why do speakers need to be relevant in conversation? If speakers deliver high-quality information, why should listeners care whether the information is related to the current topic? A plausible answer is that it’s simply too easy to rattle off memorized trivia. You can recite random facts from the encyclopedia until you’re blue in the face, but that does little to advertise your generic facility with information.

Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re more eager to sniff each other out for this generic skill, rather than to exchange the most important information each of you has gathered to this point in your lives. In other words, listeners generally prefer speakers who can impress them wherever a conversation happens to lead, rather than speakers who steer conversations to specific topics where they already know what to say.

Hanson and Simler are trying to explain various characteristics of conversation, such as the fact that people are typically more interested in speaking than in listening, as well as the requirement that conversational participants “stick to the topic.”

Later, they associate this with people’s interest in news:

Why have humans long been so obsessed with news? When asked to justify our strong interest, we often point to the virtues of staying apprised of the important issues of the day. During a 1945 newspaper strike in New York, for example, when the sociologist Bernard Berelson asked his fellow citizens, “Is it very important that people read the newspaper?” almost everyone answered with a “strong ‘yes,’ ” and most people cited the “ ‘serious’ world of public affairs.”

Now, it did make some sense for our ancestors to track news as a way to get practical information, such as we do today for movies, stocks, and the weather. After all, they couldn’t just go easily search for such things on Google like we can. But notice that our access to Google hasn’t made much of a dent in our hunger for news; if anything we read more news now that we have social media feeds, even though we can find a practical use for only a tiny fraction of the news we consume.

There are other clues that we aren’t mainly using the news to be good citizens (despite our high-minded rhetoric). For example, voters tend to show little interest in the kinds of information most useful for voting, including details about specific policies, the arguments for and against them, and the positions each politician has taken on each policy. Instead, voters seem to treat elections more like horse races, rooting for or against different candidates rather than spending much effort to figure out who should win. (See Chapter 16 for a more detailed discussion on politics.)

These patterns in behavior may be puzzling when we think of news as a source of useful information. But they make sense if we treat news as a larger “conversation” that extends our small-scale conversation habits. Just as one must talk on the current topic in face-to-face conversation, our larger news conversation also maintains a few “hot” topics—a focus so strong and so narrow that policy wonks say that there’s little point in releasing policy reports on topics not in the news in the last two weeks. (This is the criterion of relevance we saw earlier.)

The argument here suggests that blog readers will tend to prefer reading current posts to old ones because this is to remain more “relevant,” and that such relevance is necessary in order to impress other conversational participants. This, I suggest, is why you will not take my advice, despite its rightness. If you think this is an insulting explanation, just bear in mind that blog authors are even more insulted by Hanson’s and Simler’s explanations, since the reader at least is listening.

2:42 PM

It is 2:42 PM. The sky is overcast and it is raining lightly outside my window. I am sitting here at my computer pondering how to phrase this sentence and how to complete it, as well as the rest of the post. Should I explain the meaning of the story? Or I should I tell it and allow the readers to interpret it for themselves?

I am feeling a bit lazy, and I have other things to do this afternoon besides writing blog posts. This strongly inclines me to the second possibility. Yes, I am skeptical of people’s ability to interpret it. But I can always write a post later making explicit the moral of the story, if I should choose to do so.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that people are likely to adopt wildly false interpretations. This consideration certainly stands against leaving it without interpretation, but it is not decisive.

I have just been sitting here for five more minutes, trying to make up my mind. That’s settled, then. I’ll take the second path. No use wasting any more time.


Sola Me and Claiming Personal Infallibility

At his blog, P. Edmund Waldstein and myself have a discussion about this post about myself and his account of the certainty of faith, an account that I consider to be a variety of the doctrine of sola me.

In that discussion we consider various details of his position, as well as the teaching of the Church and of St. Thomas. Here, let me step out for a moment and consider the matter more generally.

It is evident that everything that he says could be reformulated and believed by the members of any religion whatsoever, in order to justify the claim that they should never change their religion, no matter how much evidence is brought against it. Thus, instead of,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal.

a Muslim might say,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of Allah. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Mohammed, as a witness who is both external and internal.

P. Edmund could argue against particular claims of the Muslim, and the Muslim could argue against P. Edmund’s particular claims. But neither would be listening seriously to the other, because each would assert, “It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the [Catholic / Islamic] Faith.”

Regardless of details, each is claiming to be personally infallible in discerning the truth about religion.

It is possible to lock yourself into a box intellectually that you cannot escape from in any reasonable way. Descartes does this for example with his hypothesis of the Evil Demon. Logically, according to this hypothesis, he should suppose that he might be wrong about the fact that it is necessary to exist in order to think or to doubt things. Without accepting any premises, it is of course impossible to arrive at any conclusions. In a similar way, if someone believes himself infallible on some topic, logically there is no way for him to correct his errors in regard to that topic.

In practice in such cases it is possible to escape from the box, since belief is voluntary. The Cartesian may simply choose to stop doubting, and the believer may simply choose to accept the fact that he is not personally infallible. But there is no logical process of reasoning that could validly lead to these choices.

People construct theological bomb shelters for themselves in various ways. Fr. Brian Harrison does this by asserting a form of young earth creationism, and simply ignoring all the evidence opposed to this. Likewise, asserting that you are personally infallible in discerning the true religion is another way to construct such a shelter. But hear the words of St. Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

As Darwin Catholic points out, someone who argues that “either evolution is false or Christianity is false” does not make Christianity more credible, but less. In a similar way, someone who argues that their religion requires that they believe themselves personally infallible, is essentially saying, “Either my religion is false or I am personally infallible.” This does not make their religion more credible, but less, to whatever degree that one thinks they are right about the requirement.

(After some consideration, I will be posting at least on Sundays during February and March.)