#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.

Most scientists seem to be verificationists when it comes to physics and have an idea of truth as an asymptote, independent of human enquiry, that one gets closer and closer to, never quite touching. I think that’s wrongheaded; see previous letters. And when it comes to neuroscience, they mainly posit entities that somehow aren’t physical but affect the physical universe: skyhooks par excellence.*

So why am I against skyhooks?

In a word, they’re superfluous. With high level theories — germs and the economy were your examples — I agree with the idea of having the ones that fit their problem situations. I want good explanations, hard to vary, falsifiable, appropriate level, etc. I just think that we can save some time (which is a genuine priority) by taking the easiest falsification freebie ever: if a theory contains entities that don’t exist and has them playing a causal role, we can razor that shit off. Even if it’s an innovative new conjecture, that just has a skyhook as a placeholder, if it’s not playing a causal role then it can be removed without losing anything anyway. Unreal things won’t be able to have an impact on the real world.

With economics, we don’t have to do the whole craning-up exercise of going from atoms to firms. But any firms whose constituents aren’t made of atoms will fail to impact the other actors in the economy because they won’t have any spatiotemporal location or any causal interaction with the physical universe. You won’t usefully explain or predict the economy or germs in terms of atoms.** But any explanation positing new ethereal entities that float above the world rather than emerge within it, can be rejected because those entities — much like bad explanations — can’t make physical transformations happen in the world.

Still, no skin off my nose, why care about this?

You remarked that it might stifle creativity to harshly kneecap any skyhooks that might turn into useful conjectures. I don’t quite buy that. Surely creativity doesn’t equal zaniness. All those dudes with perpetual motion machines in their garages have zany new ideas. Totally harmless. But is it really stifling creativity to say we can safely ignore them? In any case I’m not personally worried about where scientific funding goes and I haven’t invested in certain research programs and not others. I guess I just think people unnecessarily believe in skyhooks out of fear…

So, that’s why I’m writing a book —I mainly care that others believe in skyhooks?

Almost everyone on earth does. And it generally does them no harm at all. Indeed most skyhooks are comforts. No harm in that. But what are they comforts for? The dread of a world without skyhooks?

I’ve been thinking lately about Robert Nozick’s famous thought experiment, the Experience Machine, i.e., would you live happily but ignorantly in the Matrix or would you prefer reality however unpleasant? Nozick and subsequent commentators seem to have assumed that the answer is obviously the latter. But I think people’s revealed preferences suggest that a benign illusion is almost always the preference. I personally demur and feel the disillusioned option is preferable… But it’s dashed hard to say why.

Could I be wrong about skyhooks?

Sure. But I’d bet my life against it. And by living as a person who expends no effort on the afterlife or karma or chi, who is planning to die a natural death, who eats and exercises as though I’m a mammal, who has enjoyed peak experiences but didn’t take them as private insights into Being and who is spending his time working on a book about how meaning also has a natural basis — I am betting my life on it, happily so.


*I think a lot people in neuroscience, for instance, don’t quite realise that if the things they say exist are real (various skyhooks like qualia), then it would actually mean a rewrite of everything from quantum mechanics to molecular biology. They could be right. I’m confident they’re not; as confident as I am about anything.

**A silly reductionism that I’m yet to find anyone defending — was Laplace literally the last person to do so? And yet this seems to be what most critics of reductionism seem to be taking aim at.

Also published on Medium.