#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.

With consciousness, it’s embarrassing to see even eminent neuroscientists — generally from an older generation — defend a skyhook version. Consciousness is standardly put forward as some light that switches on when information processing or information integration passes some threshold. Or it’s “epiphenomenal” to physical brain activity. Or it’s simply qualitatively different to the rest of the universe and inexplicable in principle. Or it’s just an emergent property of complex brains. Or it was imbued in us by our creator. These are literally the orthodox positions.

Surely, according to your approach, these all retard progress by shutting down questions, papering over new problems and containing no new creative conjectures.

Meanwhile, non-skyhook theories of consciousness have generated a host of new problems and solutions in AI, neurology, cognitive science and primatology. And yet while this has been happening, philosophers of mind in the Popper-mould have continued to say things like, “No one even knows what a theory of consciousness would be” (philosophers Colin McGinn, Thomas Nagel and John Searle and even the cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor have all said as much). But saying this amid a plethora of non-skyhook conjectures on what consciousness could be, seems to be a weird disclosure that they’re simply afraid of their favourite skyhook being exploded.

You also say, “I’m willing to say most, if not all progress involves some kind of skyhook.” I would love some examples because I don’t agree with the one you gave, Darwinism. But I hesitate because you also said:

As you read please ignore the content of the theories and whether I’m accurately representing them, that doesn’t matter. What I’m talking about is how we make progress moving from theory to theory, concept to concept.

Forgive me, but I think this is a problem and it relates to the other skyhook, creativity.

I feel Deutsch defends creative leaps of pure imagination out of fairly typical political ideas: valorising the individual and consolidating a Great Man view of history. Well he’s a good classical liberal, a good Oxonian. Needless to say, I think historians of science have falsified such simplistic narratives of lone geniuses fighting against ignorance and bringing the flame of knowledge back to the tribe of Man: the scientific hero myth.

Although you don’t want me to focus on the specific historical examples, this is the problem that I have with so much philosophy of science — including Popper’s. It just plucks two examples (normally Newton and Einstein) out of the luminiferous ether, strips them of context and complications and just reasons out about how science must work rather than looking at how it has worked — or not worked. The creative genius idea is a good explanation for the following phenomenon: how a series of historically separated, autonomous, men of science somehow made great discoveries with bold conjectures. But this orthodox view of history exists only as a narrative fallacy: a way of succinctly telling the story of the past in a way that makes it look much more orderly and simple than it was.

Case in point. Although Lamarckism was the inferior theory, it was not a skyhook. Also, Darwin adopted at later points in his career, positions we would now call — somewhat ludicrously — “non-Darwinian” even some “Lamarckian” ones. This is another shortcoming of Great Man narratives: men are rarely as great as they seem and rarely had consistent views. Nor was Darwin’s theory a case of the hero somehow creating a wild conjecture ex nihilo that was totally out of step with stale orthodoxy. In truly Darwinian fashion, Charles inherited a lot of the ideas from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Where did Erasmus get the idea from? He inherited bits and pieces from other thinkers and recombined them. The parallel between evolution in knowledge and life is strong but not total. (As you note, Popper understood this.) And despite the received myth, Darwinism was widely and uncontroversially accepted pretty instantly as scientific orthodoxy, partly because people were primed for it by earlier ideas along the same lines.

Nor did Charles Darwin populate his theory with skyhooks. He was uncertain about how the “particles” of heredity material were transmitted or how they mutated but he never postulated skyhook mechanisms. He certainly never went in for skyhook-style selection: it was the environment itself that mindlessly, passively filtered out certain mutants. He was even wary of the word selection, noting that it unfortunately connoted a sense of purpose or motive which he strictly guarded against, knowing that readers might infer some kind of teleological interpretation — which they continue to do. He defined fitness simply as being conducive to reproduction in the given environment. He even proposed a non-skyhook origin of life, as emanating from non-living molecules in a primordial ooze.

Lamarck and Darwin both had good theories worth betting on. And in a stunning twist (although unnecessary for my point) some loosely Lamarckian mechanisms of heredity have recently gained support (various epigenetic mechanisms; also some genetic therapies are arguably Lamarckian forms of evolution).

Again, I think we agree on how science should work:

What processes and rules help us overcome our cognitive biases, loosen our unquestioned assumptions and avoid dead-end dogmas?

Amen. But surely skyhook explanations of consciousness and creativity are both instances of unquestioned assumptions bolstered by cognitive biases. In that sense, neither is anything like Darwinism or even Lamarckism. Rather the analogy is with the incumbent, traditional theory which both of those sought to replace: creationism.* And although creationism might be right, believing it because it’s a skyhook gets us nowhere.


*Dennett coined the term skyhook precisely to describe intelligent design.

Also published on Medium.