Brain the size of the cosmos – is it too big?

Arthur Koestler’s (1959) “The Sleepwalkers proved to be an excellent read to the end.

A slightly odd epilogue on the evolution of intelligence and knowledge; odd because it majors on the paradoxical thought that human mental brain power is too great for our current state of biological evolution. We have brains much bigger than we know what to do with. But the topic and its evolutionary analysis is right – knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is a matter of memetic evolution – fully swayed by all human values, motives, politics and games, both individually and tribally.

The objectively-rational, empirical elements are a part of the whole process, and whilst science might claim primacy in what is ultimately seen as scientific “fact”, the wider bases of belief remain hugely important. Not just important to the processes of deriving the knowledge, obviously, but also in how “final” any accepted knowledge appears to be. Contingency must be more that lip-service. Suspending intelligible connections between knowledge accepted at the mathematically, theoretically, even experimentally consistent levels, and the everyday realities of human life, are a recipe for future disintegration. I think it was David Deutsch pointed out that few scientists really behave as if the world were more than Newtonian. And, for the same reason, simply giving exclusivity in real life to “evidence-based” decisions and logical processes, merely stores up the the discrepancies and delays release of their stored tension. As Dick Taverne wrote at length, we should never ignore available evidence but neither should we aim for a life based only on empirical evidence.

Storing up (convenient) differences between accepted theory and everyday behaviour can be maintained over hundreds and thousands of years – as the stories of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and Newton illustrate. And it’s not because contemporaries “didn’t know better” at every stage. The knowing was always filtered through necessary political games, neurotic fantasies, mis-steps, pure whim and …. luck. Science may be able to “imagine” – even wishfully think as their objective – a “rational” world without values, motives, ambitions and neuroses, but it’s not one that exists, ever. A dystopian fiction. Not one we’d even want to exist. Not one we’d value.

Anyway, apart from the narrative histories of our legendary scientists – man, Galileo was a complete tart beyond his terrestrial mechanics, a massive waste of humanity – it’s a story that continues today. Far from being history it remains a problem of our time, one we are doomed to repeat.

Julian Baggini writing only yesterday in The Grauniad, reviewing Tim Lewens’s  “The Meaning of Science” on why science must not lose sight of, as indeed some scientists entirely dismiss, the philosophy of science, or philosophy in general. Values exist, develop and must be managed distinct from science itself – there is no holy grail where all values tend towards becoming derived from science or otherwise evidence-based empiricism. Stalling agreement on this, suspending the discrepancy,  is another time-bomb we could do without. The naive democratic ideal that all such human governance needs is transparent access to information and evidence-based, arithmetic logic (eg popular voting) is simply part of the explosive charge.

“When Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy dead in 2011,
it was only the fame of the coroner that made it news.”

Just this last week, Hawking pronouncing on what the world needs to know about black holes (the opposite to what he preached previously) …. is only news because of his fame, as many of the other scientists involved or excluded in the field wished to point out. Black holes are the stuff of science fiction – and sexy graphics that sell media – and a very small tribe of specialists with specific agendas. They are a million miles from human experience. They are NOT science which forms any part of the body of human knowledge (yet). Pure memetics.

What does scientific literacy really mean?

Even sleepwalkers occasionally bump into something interesting and true.

Arthur Koestler was never a stranger to deliberate controversy in any field, but “The Sleepwalkers – A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe.” is another recommended read. Not in the least contentious to my agenda.

[Afterthoughts to follow-up. The gulf between mathematics and reality puts me in mind of Unger & Smolin’s thesis, that we ought to back off on the apparent supremacy of maths in scientific reality. From Koestler we learn that 12th century cardinals and popes (and the Jesuits) understood this well. Also one reference / quote from Lancelot L Whyte remined me of Don Boscovich’s mathematics – comprehensive but far from elegant or simple in accepted senses. And “Saving the Appearances” at every turn – I learned the significance of Owen Barfield’s title.]

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