All posts for the month February, 2010

I’m reading Stephen Toulmin’s 2001 “Return To Reason” (I also have, but have not yet read his “Cosmopolis“). It is as good an expose so far on the enlightenment wrong turn as I have yet read. That reasonableness is more than rationality, that wisdom is more than knowledge.

I hadn’t before quite appreciated how the 17th century enlightenment (Newton, Leibniz,  Descartes et al) was such a direct reaction to the sectarian religious violence laying waste to the populations of Europe in the 30 Years War. The response was the attempt to create and capture the  perfection of (God’s) nature in the certainty of mathematics and logic.

Some significant quotes here from Toulmin, illustrating the too-greedy-reductionism in assuming a scientistic view is a solution to every problem.

In practical terms, the people with the best claim to be the heirs of Leibniz are computer information engineers … .

We can dream up all the theories we please (of communication and control, neurophysical holography and artificial intelligence, automated reasoning, deep grammar and brain function, etc) But the further we move away from the Sciences of Matter and Energy, and toward the Sciences of Information, the more we must integrate theoria and praxis, and the fainter the distinction between “pure” and “applied” sciences.

By now, the question “How should the new ideas of science be utilized?” needs to be faced even at the initial state of conceiving possible new theories. So it is helpful to recall why the dream of rationalist philosophy proved to be a Dream indeed.

No formalism can interpret itself;
No system can validate itself;
No theory can exemplify itself;
No representation can map itself;
No language can predefine its own meanings;
No science can decide which of its technologies are of real human value.

… we must ignore the seventeenth-century ideal of intellectual exactitude, with its idolization of proof and certainty and recall the practical wisdom of sixteenth-century humanists, who hoped to recapture the modesty that had made it possible to live happily with uncertainty, ambiguity and pluralism.

It is admirable to share Bacon’s dreams in The New Atlantis, but let us be realistic about the obstacles to realizing those dreams – the most serious being the epistemological obstacles. The greater our interventions in the natural world, the less we can forecast their effects, the more significant will be their unintended outcomes. (… risks run today in the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.)

The dreams of seventeenth-century philosophy – infallible scientific method, perfectly exact language, and the rest – may still fascinate and inspire powerful new theories. But the future depends just as much on our ability to recapture the values of the sixteenth-century humanists and maintain the fragile balance between refinement of our practical skills and the human interests they serve.

…. there ends Chapter 5 – “Dreams of Rationality“.
Chapter 6 - “Rethinking Method” opens with ….

One aspect of the standard view of “rationality” is the assumption that a single method can turn any field of enquiry into a “hard science” (like physics …)

After an active blogging (and reading) January, I have stalled in February. Partly due to a very exciting business trip to Moscow, where I had little time or access for either reading or blogging and work piling up as a result.

During the past week, I did complete Brian Boyd’s On The Origin Of Stories, on the bus to and from the office. As well as discovering that Dr Seuss was a phenomenon that had passed me by, ultimately a very satisfying read. A very good summary of enlightened Darwinian evolution of mind, where attention is probably the main driving force, attention being drawn to perceived value. Makes perfect sense. Art and the art of story-telling are part of the evolution of that attention to value, and economy of explanation, necessary for mind to evolve.

Having earlier read David Lindley’s Uncertainty, someone recommended Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man – The Hidden Life Of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius. Finding it hard to put down – researched from correspondence, interviews and documentary records, the science, the competition, the philosophy, society and international politics and war of the first half of the 20th century. Fascinating. Obvious, but not seen mentioned before, the crossing in Cambridge of Dirac’s path with Wittgenstein’s – genius chalk with genius cheese. Clear also, as others have pointed out before, that Arthur Eddington was the contemporary writer to read for lay accounts of the new science as it developed.