Category Archives: Blog

Human exceptionalism with a human face

This is me on human exceptionalism for Areo, a rather good up and coming digital magazine.

I point out the irony of using super-advanced scientific tools to do studies on crows to prove that they can use tools and that therefore humans are no different to animals. This mirrors the irony of the Anthropocene: it’s supposed to get us to recognise our humility yet it ratifies the fact that our effect on the planet — if nothing else — is exceptional.

I reckon we should accept that as a matter of historical fact we are currently an exceptional species (we used to be less exceptional when closer relatives like Neanderthals were around) and use this to spur environmental action.

Typo: they changed hominin to hominid — what can you do?

# 66 On scientific customs

Dear Jamie, 
As agreed on the phone this letter will be the last for a while because we’ve agreed to start a new letter series on a friend’s new platform. You can’t respond to this letter any time soon so I don’t want to spend it arguing counterpoints, that would be unsportsmanly. Instead I’ll propose my ideal rules for entertaining new scientific theories. 
Truly novel knowledge is, by definition, utterly unpredictable. Let’s imagine bucket A contains things we know. Then imagine bucket B contains things we don’t know explicitly, but we know how to eventually know it. Then bucket C has everything we don’t know and don’t know how to know it. This is the unpredictable bucket. 

Continue reading # 66 On scientific customs

#65 On the orthodoxy

Dear Mat,

I think skyhook is a good name for a particular kind of bad explanation. Namely, one that doesn’t attempt to ground the phenomena it describes in things that we already think exist, having them free-floating instead. Hence the opposite of a skyhook is a crane.

Allegedly I “condemn all skyhooks” (#64) and have a “fear” or “hatred” of them (#62). But all I said about them was that they “are a bad bet” (#63). I think you have a fear of my non-fear of skyhooks. It’s true that I think they’re a waste of time, but I don’t think they’re certainly wrong. Normally they’re just dearly held beliefs. The ones we’re talking about (creativity out of nothing and spooky consciousness) are the traditional, incumbent theories that have been around for as long as writing. They’re not bold new conjectures that free us from the trammels of the orthodoxy; they are the orthodoxy. Continue reading #65 On the orthodoxy

#64 On the degrees of skyhookery

Dear Jamie,

Your letter reminded me of one of the most mind-boggling experiences I had. I watched Derren Brown’s show Miracle. In Miracle, before the segment started, he told the audience that he will use the tricks of religious healers to heal them and that there was nothing magic going on. He then conjured something that certainly looked to everyone like faith-healing. As the show ended, a family member of mine said “I don’t know… I’m still skeptical”. I was bewildered, “What?” I thought, “Skeptical that he healed them after admitting it was a trick? Or skeptical of his admission of a trick, it was a double trick and actually magic?”

The magic comparison is useful, Deutsch uses it a lot. He says that reality itself should be seen as one big conjuring trick, all the time. We have only seen behind the curtains once we’ve explained how something is done, not when we can predict what will be pulled out of the hat. But that’s enough foreshadowing. 
Thank you for taking the time to specify the skyhooks we’re talking about. We agree. Skyhooks like consciousness and creativity are the ones we butt heads on. I’ll add to this. We even agree on what we call a skyhook and what we don’t. However we disagree how bad it is to be a skyhook. You condemn all skyhooks, while I think they’re necessary and there are degrees of good and bad skyhookery. 

Continue reading #64 On the degrees of skyhookery

#63 On magic tricks

Dear Mat,

First off, we’re accusing one another of “essentialism” and “foundationalism”. I think we’re both against those things and think that science should be done accordingly. Truce? More importantly, I feel we’ve lost sight of what these skyhooks are, the ones for which I have a “hatred”. I don’t think we’re talking about discredited skyhooks from the past like creationism or vitalism. Personally, I’m thinking of spooky theories of consciousness — which Popper was into and Deutsch refuses to dismiss — and a kind of magical version of knowledge creation “ex nihilo” as in Deutsch’s idea of creativity. These remaining skyhooks are, tellingly, all about the knower, not the known.

With that in mind, here’s something interesting about magic tricks: every bit of stage magic has three audiences. Continue reading #63 On magic tricks

#62 On Foundations

Dear Jamie,

Congratulations for drafting the final chapter of your thesis! You’ve already managed the whole thing with much more grace than I did.

I’m writing this bit before I read your letter in order to explain what my original assumption was about your policy. I did say you’re dismissing skyhooks because of “human, political concerns (sic :S)”. To explain it in a way that only you and I are likely to understand, that mainly meant “protecting the dynamic aspect of our society”. This is because, as you’ve always pointed out, belief in phony bad skyhooks causes real bad problems. Indeed they do.

I assume this “no skyhooks” policy, whoever it is held by, is the result of an escape as far as possible from supernatural and religious explanations, while desperately holding on to justified true belief as one runs. I know you’re fuming right now, but honestly I see a strain of it. Let me explain how. Continue reading #62 On Foundations

#61 On cranes and skyhooks

Dear Mat,

I’m pondering my reasons for adopting a no skyhooks policy. I’d be genuinely interested in what you think the political agenda is behind my stance. This rambling letter is me trying to figure it out and maybe you’ll spot some clues.

First, I genuinely don’t think it’s political in the way you hint at in letter #60. I’ve just written the final chapter of a PhD about popular science. Ensconced in my ivory tower, I’ve spent the last three years reading the thoughts of philosophers of science, historians of science and — most of all — scientists themselves. I can genuinely attest that the Dennettian anti-skyhook view is highly unorthodox. Indeed Dennett’s long list of skyhook merhcants are professional philosophers and scientists — people nominally committed to naturalism. Continue reading #61 On cranes and skyhooks

#60 On scientific confidence

Dear Jamie

However many times I’ve been truly guilty of dastardliness in past letters, my last one was a genuine effort to understand. My brain was having serious trouble remapping this noun “knowledge” to a verb. I was having trouble quite generally, and so this is an unacceptably late letter.

Since our call the other day I think I know what you mean by knowledge is “what happens”. You’re saying knowledge is nothing magic, it’s the algorithmic unfolding of the physical world. Well, sure, maybe, I mean it’s hard to disagree that the unfolding of the physical world is all there is. It’s clear that in some special cases things unfold algorithmically, i.e. in useful, entropy-reducing or otherwise productive ways. It seems valid for me for you to define it like this, but it doesn’t seem very useful.

However we define knowledge, I’m at least happy to join you in casting off the word truth as an obtainable or even approachable thing. But I’m not willing to say that as we make objective scientific progress we aren’t touching some objective reality. There really does seem to be a convergence and compatibility of our best theories and this suggests a real regulatory force at work on our theories. But I’m not precious about truth. Perhaps the best way to put it is as a conjecture, “truth” itself is a concept invented as a place holder to explain the convergence of theories; analogous to inventing dark matter to explain the distant convergences of matter. But you’re right bad conjectures can lead people down the wrong paths and hold back progress. I’m happy to move on without it in case truth is a bad one.

So perhaps we have different notions of what knowledge is at a very fundamental, physical level, but we think it is doing the same job in practice? That’s philosophy I guess.

We do have different notions but it’s because I don’t pretend to have any theory of knowledge at a fundamental physical level. We don’t need to rectify the independent existence of atoms and knowledge in the same sense that we don’t need to rectify germ theory and atomic theory, or economics and atomic theory. You might argue that even though we don’t need to explain it, it’s a valid intellectual exercise to explain it. It might be a bit of fun but theories are only as valuable as their problem situation is well defined.

In my opinion we don’t know enough about physics and knowledge in the domain they might interact to define a problem. So I wonder invent the theory? My accusation is that you’re proposing one because you’re trying to build a Dennettian crane. And you’re building one because of human, political concerns.

The idea of naturalistic reductionism is a strong claim, but I believe it actually comes from a place of weakness in the scientific community. If one sees the story of science as a plight where science is under threat from superstition and bias, then it makes sense to invent Dennettian cranes to mop up any mysteries that might let people’s imaginations run wild. But this war-like frame of mind forms an underlying belief structure that cuts off creativity and slows the progress of knowledge.*

Whatever threats might generally exist we must indeed defend ourselves practically, but insisting on hole-plugging theories purely because holes make us look bad only spoils the hard-won web of knowledge. We don’t need confidence in our theories, we need confidence in our methods and traditions of science.

Cheers,
Mat

 

* It may well be true that science is continually under siege, but that does not mean theories proposed in its defence have any reason to be true. In fact they’re not solving real, physical problem situation so there’s almost no reason to believe them.