Clearing the plain field
"We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." – Werner Heisenberg
What exactly is the value of science? It is the unique perspective it allows us to attain. It allows us to take a detached look upon the world, its inhabitants and ourselves and thus give us, the observers -- if our analytical methods are astute and meticulous enough -- an elegant and comprehensible representation of the intricate processes that govern it. It is this privileged "view from above" in which the sciences elevate us that provides us with any sort of understanding of the causal structure of the world in the first place and perhaps a glimpse into its ultimate nature. But what is it that we should look for from this elevated position? What changes in the understanding we have of the world, and ourselves in it, could be brought about as new cosmic vistas are constantly being discovered? What is the correct path to take upwards and how are we to cut through these dark forests of our ignorance?
This essay will more or less adhere to the premises described below as the main foundations of positivistic enquiry:
P1. Reason is to be understood in Kantianistic terms where the intellect actively imposes its cognitive apperception on the world-in-itself which manifests in the observable world of our experience. Thus, our faculty of reasoning (and thus Reason itself) is an a priori facet of the mind and not an intrinsic property of the world as it is in-itself. Consequently, any system if it is to stand to reason and our proper understanding must be expounded within this rational architectonic.
If the above are accepted then the following can be deduced:
D1. Any model which is scientifically robust must be founded on quantifiable units of information.
A fortiori, from the premises and deductions, quantification of natural phenomena through methodological reductionism as undertaken by science today will ultimately lead us unto the eventual subsuming of anything quantifiable within a rigorous scientific system. It should be noted however that the form of positivism espoused herein is quite far from the hubris of technocratic claims which apparently see technological progress as the plenary answer which will ineluctably solve all our problems (including the "problem" of death) in its ever-hastening stride. Clearly, such claims are to be taken with a grain of salt; technology is merely a subset of scientific exploration but not its ultimate end.
So with the aforementioned premises, deductions and conclusions taken on board a few pertinent cases (mostly related to the field of biology) will be succinctly presented herein and their implications related to the subject at hand explored.
First here's a story concerning a certain mammalian member of the cricetidae family, the prairie vole. It is a quiet, furry little creature mostly notable for its predominantly monogamous tendencies, which incidentally are quite a rarity in the animal kingdom. The male of the species remains remarkably faithful to his partner throughout his short life, continuously aiding in the raising of their pups. In sharp contrast the meadow vole is wholeheartedly promiscuous engaging in sexual intercourse with a multiple of female partners. Both species belong to the same genus, carry similar external characteristics and have roughly similar life spans; what's the defining cause then of these entirely antithetical behaviours?
The answer lays in two of the most ancient hormones in existence: vasopressin and oxytocin. By genetically inserting the necessary protein information for the appropriate neurohormonal receptor, as codified by the genetic material, scientists have managed to induce monogamous behaviour in the meadow vole. Recent studies have also revealed analogies in humans, particularly in the case of the oxytocin hormone which is thought to considerably influence trust bonding in social transactions. And this is not a mere singular case of biologically-reduced behaviour: serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, all these are neurotransmitters which are actively influencing both animal and human behaviour on a variety of different levels.
It's quite clear that a model in which behaviours could be quantifiably disassembled and their physical definentia explicated in purely scientific terms, is becoming increasingly plausible–if not already plausible. Mental disorders, including schizophrenia, depression and dissociative disorders are comprehended in terms of chemical imbalances and neurophysiological abnormalities. Although the mystery of consciousness remains unsolved for the time being, it is increasingly being described in terms of possible neural correlates (a view most notably defended by Francis Crick and Christof Koch). However whether these are a satisfactory account of what it actually means to be conscious is hotly debated. Furthermore, there may be intrinsic limitations in the hermeneutic modules of our neural setup; in the words of a famous neuroscientist: "If the human brain were simple enough for us to understand, we [the observers in possession of such a brain] would be too simple to understand it."
And these are only cases derived from the biological sciences; in the field of the cognitive sciences, extensive studies have led to detailed formulations of models of brain function. This in turn led to the implementations of a form of an adaptive statistical model known as a neural network. A neural network is essentially a series a switches; each switch receives information, processes it and then passes the result to the next switch in the series. Switches are connected to each other via a weighing factor which evaluates how much the result of one particular switch will influence the processing of the next one. Newly formed information can be then represented through the specific pattern of values as indicated by each switch in the network. When applied in computational representations in silica, machines that employ neural networks have proven time and time again that their predictions are more accurate and reliable than their intuitive human counterparts.
A prime example is a study conducted at the University of Arizona where a neural network was constructed in order to forecast winners in a greyhound dog racing competition and then pitted against three long-time connoisseurs of the field. The machine was found to be more successful both in predicting the winners and yielding higher profits. Evidently, the neural machinery of humans is insufficient in making accurate predictions mainly due to personal biases, overconfident estimations and emotional clouding of judgement.
What is collectively understood from these two examples and their implications, is that as our knowledge pool increases and the different lacunae of our knowledge are filled, through empirical observation, so do our models of the world on a multitude of different fields become more clarified and subsequently so do different facets of the human factor (e.g. intuition, social bonding) become less and less qualitatively appreciated and henceforth more and more quantitatively assessable. The importance of these progressions in our understanding of our neurobiology in particular and Nature in general lies in the important steps they make towards ridding ourselves from troublesome notions which impede our proper judgement of the world-at-large.
This is particularly crucial when dealing with the question of Life, which in itself presents one of the greatest, if not the greatest mystery of our known universe. For centuries man battled with this seemingly impenetrable conundrum of how this phenomenon arose in the first place. A very elegant and profound answer came from a theology student at Cambridge University, Charles Darwin. In his book, The Origin of Species, he propounded a view of Nature in which no guiding hands of providence played any role in life processes. Instead, new species evolved and became extinct under laws of selection and adaptation. These blind forces shape each organism's fate and fitness which consequently means that the organism is a function of the interaction between physical features-environment. Later studies revealed the central unit of hereditary information, known as the gene.
So in this light the organism, a biological machine, is rather the function of the interaction between genes-environment but this concept had not been yet discovered back in Darwin's day. The Darwinian model is a stochastic one, in that its predictions are not deterministic certainties, they are probabilities. It will predict trends in physical variation at the population level given a certain environment and the mutation rate but it cannot predict a given state with a 100% certainty. This is not to say that the main tenet of Darwinism, natural selection, is essentially random (at least from the gene level upwards); the underlying causes (mainly mutation) however at the lowest molecular level, DNA, are indeed random and neutral with regards to the fitness of the organism (the latter view is especially espoused by Kimura in his neutral theory of molecular evolution which could account for the large amount of "junk" DNA we seem to possess in our genomes).
Natural selection essentially is a process by which advantageous variations are preserved and harmful variations to the organism's fitness are eliminated. If we take this a step further, the organism is not quite the paramount issue here but rather the genes that compose it. So basically what we have is a gene-pool of possibilities with Nature playing the lottery with them and outside pressures from the environment, i.e. natural and/or sexual selection, assigning different probability weights to each gene combination. This is all very interesting but is it a rationally robust model? The answer is that it's the most rationally robust model science has yet to come up with at the present moment and most importantly it provides an all-encompassing systematisation of the processes that are responsible for the diversity of living organisms that we see on our planet.
The progression from simplicity found in unicellular micro-organisms to the complexity of organisms as large as the African elephant was then done by small, gradual, steps of trial and error in a quasi-algorithmic process. This theory is particularly attractive because it is in concordance with the premises and deductions made at the beginning of this essay: its main hypotheses are drawn from meticulous observation of verifiable data and its predictions, although statistical, can be observed and quantified and are even quite interestingly indicative of Nature's capriciousness. Furthermore, it does not need any metaphysical baggage that is fideistically presupposed in religious doctrines. The far-reaching tentacles of Darwinism have successfully pervaded all fields of biology—and rightfully so. Philosophically understood, it presents a universe of no apparent intelligent design or at least intelligent in the sense we understand it. There are no teleological purposes in the design of organisms apart from their adaptations in response to the dynamic interactions they have with their immediate environment.
What happens if we take this Darwinian model of the world and apply it to our culture? Is not culture a subset of human interaction which itself is a subset of life processes? The answers are debatable but let us assume for a moment that indeed it might be possible for such an enterprise to be realised. And there is an actual conceptual framework which could be employed to that effect first suggested by Dawkins in 1976 and further zealously advocated by Dennett, one of the foremost thinkers in the philosophy of mind: the meme. A meme is essentially a unit of cultural information much like a gene is a unit of hereditary information (as manifested in protein conformations). Culture from this perspective becomes a subset of the Darwinian infosphere where memes follow the same rules as Darwinian evolution. The history of Man thus understood, ultimately illustrates the course of a species throughout the tumultuous struggle of its formulated ideas to perpetuate and hence settle themselves firmly in the collective noosphere of Mankind.
Consequently, with each system ever concocted -- be it political, religious or otherwise – there was and is an introduction of new information, in the form of a meme, in the memesphere during that particular time period which cares only for its own preservation (I find this model an interesting sociobiological analogue of Nietzsche's moral theory of cultural evolution but that's a different matter for a different essay I suppose). Systems of thought thereby accordingly mutate and conflate with other memes, to form what is known as a memeplex, to serve their means of survival and proliferation. Wars are waged; men are killed in the battlefield, suicide bombers, and martyrs: all in the name of some memeplex which gains momentum within the cognitive apparatuses of individuals who will defend its preservation and survival with utmost conviction and deadly dedication. The meme analogy raises some important issues here: are we but mere sentient vehicles for our ideas? The concept that ideas might serve no other purpose but their propagation strips them of any inherent moral value: it's all in the eye of the beholder or rather the meme-holder. If this memetic model is indeed plausible then memes which are detrimental to our survival as a species and infectious to our knowledge tank could be identified as such and deleted. Although neat in its presentation, much of the model's premises are based on conjecture: no one can really observe a particular meme just like one could observe a particular sequence of helical DNA strands which constitute a particular gene.
Furthermore, the concept of the meme seems to be nothing more but a nominalistic denotation and not a satisfying epistemological quantification: it simply masks something qualitative with something that in itself is no less intangible. It might be useful in philosophically addressing certain issues but it does nothing in providing a quantifiable system to make predictions; as such for the time being it is scientifically stagnant. I have brought this up however to make an example of how a scientific model (namely here Darwinism) potentially could very well invade our cultural intuitions. And perhaps the limitations of the memetic theory are simply reflective of the limitations of our current understanding with regards to such issues. When they have been overcome, maybe then the memetic model could be fortified with the appropriate data and promulgated accordingly.
In light of the above there are two questions that remain now: 1) How far can this protocol go? 2) Could it be applied with respect to the main substratum of scientific and cultural evolution, namely our ideas? Could they indeed be quantified and subsumed in such a scientific system and thus incorporated into an analogous model to properly guide Man's advancement?
In answering the first posed question, apparently the road ahead is dark and murky. Our tools in clearing the path ever-onwards, ever-upwards are perhaps weak but our perseverance is stronger. Information concerning the world (as something distinct from self-knowledge which is essentially based on insight) is acquired from whatever sense-data our limited sensorium provides us with. Much like the proverbial blind men poking on the elephant then, the ultimate picture, the grand scheme of things might never be fully comprehended. Nevertheless, knowledge derived thusly is subservient to our faculty of reason: if an idea is not explicable through a viable logical schematic then it does not concern our understanding, it is simply not rationally knowledgeable. In very much a Wittgensteinian manner then I content that the only way to move our knowledge forwards is by propositions derived through empirical observations from the natural sciences.
Abstract, qualitative concepts that can be reduced to quantitative measurements should be reduced thus and propositions of metaphysical connotations should be discarded as "nonsensical". Indeed perhaps we should employ a sort of negative ontology when dealing with such propositions, in that a rationalising attempt should be made in clarifying what the particular subject of such a proposition is NOT rather than attempting to give a definition of what it actually is (this is especially the case with regards to the concept of God). In light of this, this epistemic quest may be dubbed as nihilistic in a pejorative manner but paradoxically it is actually constructive in its nihilism since although it demolishes any preconceived erroneous notions concerning our world, which alas some will forever tenaciously cling to, it reconstructs the very essence of them on much more strong foundations. Ipso facto, this particular brand of methodological nihilism (for lack of a better term) as it is manifested through the gradual dismantlement of the traditional, spoon-fed weltanschauung that seems to possess the majority of mankind nowadays is definitely not an end in itself but rather a means to an end. An end which is indefinite as the endeavour itself and there is a certain heroic pride in undertaking such a quest which essentially becomes a spiritual one in a tragic, mystical sense.
With regards to the second posed question memes or no memes, our values and beliefs, namely thoughts and ideas are the thrusting drive of mankind. Whether they could be quantified and subsumed in a scientific model is possibly beside the point. Perhaps the question should be: how is one to cultivate ideas which are of a purely noegenic nature in the noosphere of our species if no adept enough scientific models exist for such a task? It becomes imperative then to clear the plainfield so to speak from ideas or concepts that inhibit our further understanding of the world. Although some systems of thought may have been useful in another time and age where ignorance was reigning supreme and man was still not entirely civilised, they have long-since served their purposes. Accordingly, the naïve assumptions of weak-willed institutions, the extremist superstitions of religious fundamentalism must be weeded out, the vile excrescences of obsolete premonitions destitute of even a scintilla of rationality extinguished like one wipes the gathering moss from a marble figure of sculptured artistry.
In retrospect of the above, it is important to stress that although science may provide answers with regards to the causal structure of the world it is in itself incapable of providing the absolute answer; it cannot in itself enable us to transcend what lies beyond our reason, beyond the myopic scope of our limited comprehensibility. As we traverse the area of what can be known, what can be inculcated there still remains the Infinity of what cannot be known, what cannot even be named. Accordingly the hubris of scientific absolutism should be replaced with a humble curiosity as we engage into this epistemic search for our absolute limits. However, as our knowledge increases, so do the foundations of our understanding become stronger, our vision clearer, until at some point it may then eventually be within reach to successfully attain an above all pure view of Nature -- to the extent of purity that our modes of understanding allow us -- which will still rightfully retain her in the infinite grandeur of her sacred pulchritude.
October 17, 2007
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