Sunday, May 10, 2009

Foxes, Hedgehogs, Science and Knowing

So the second installment of my debate with Eliezer Yudkowsky at bloggingheads is now posted for anyone who is interested. It was great fun and I thank Eliezer for participating in the dialogue with me.

There is a point I just wanted to touch on again related to the many ways we come to understand ourselves in the world. After 20 years of practicing science I remain deeply enamored of its methods and the grand beauty of its worldview. I also continue to marvel at the ways other forms of human inquiry reveal other aspects of our nature and its dilemma. From poetry to painting there are many paths to illuminating the human condition. That is why, even as an atheist, I became interested early on in the long history of human spiritual endeavor.

Isaiah Berlin once used a line from the Greek poet Archilochus to characterize different approaches to philosophy.

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"

Berlin was trying to differentiate philosophies that saw the world in terms of a single defining idea (hedgehogs) and those who who drew from a wide array of experience and were suspicious of overarching approaches (foxes). I would like to line up in the fox category. William James remains my hero with his distrust of "block Universes" or block ideas.

The debate between science and the domains of spiritual endeavor is usually cast as a choice between reason and faith. As a atheist and one who is committed to empirical investigation I am not big on faith but I do reject the idea that those who are committed the integrity of scientific practice must also see reason as the only means to understanding ourselves in the broadest sense of the word. Within scientific practice it is reason and a commitment to letting the data, the world, speak for itself. But when placing science into this broader context of human being I think the other ways we create meaning must have a place at the table.

Its easy to fall for the false certainty that comes by fully embracing a single metaphysics, confusing it with all-embracing methodology, and then letting your membership in an orthodoxy lull you in a false sense of comfort that comes with easy applause lines. Far harder is the path of embracing our strange complexity while retaining a determination to think clearly and feel deeply. But in our attempts to pass through the bottleneck of the next century I am convinced we will need all the sources of wisdom we can find.

Such, it seems, is the way of the fox.


  1. I look forward to viewing your debate with Yudkowski but first some quick comments. Reason led me to faith and I could never understand the arguments that reason and faith were antithetical. Though I must admit that some traditional statements of faith do look suspect when put under the spotlight of reason. I use the analogy deliberately because the spotlight is narrowly focussed on one point, blinding us to a larger reality. And this is exactly what you are saying with your foxes and hedgehog metaphor.

    This brings up what is for me a larger point. From the way our mind works, with its extraordinary cognitive powers, it seems we are privileged observers of the universe. As an example of this, science will always look for the simpler, more elegant answer and usually that is the better answer. That seems to be both a property of our minds and of the universe which is why it works in science. So in some way the workings of our minds mirror the reality of the universe and that makes us rather privileged observers. Now my reason for saying this is that another innate property of our minds is to look for the big overarching answer, a theory of everything. There are two ways of answering this. First our minds are too limited to deal with the complexity of reality so we simplify by imposing on it an artifially simplifying structure. Second we are privileged observers and we strive for the theory of everything because there really is one.
    I tend to believe we are privileged observers.

  2. This was a really good discussion. You did a great job defending your position, which I strongly sympathize with. I like to call it "fictionalist religion" myself, and wonder: what do you think about that term?

    And another thing: I think you're wrong in equivocating metaphysics and dogmatism. Metaphysical assumptions are unavoidable, but one can assume them in a non-dogmatic, weak sense. Calling this "fictionalist metaphysics" makes a lot of sense, at least to me.

    As you see, I think of fictionalism as the key to a lot. In fact, I see it as the key to pretty much everything. I guess it's impolite to paste a link to something I've written on the subject, but I have no shame (online):

  3. Gorm, when you have something good to say you can be as shameless as you wish :)) Thanks for the link.

  4. @occastional

    I would like to hear more about what how you define faith. My statements in the blog post pertained to the notion that there are some set of ideas that have be taken as given and can not be questioned. I like the idea that direct investigation (hence my emphasis on experience) gives us the possibility of knowing. Of course there is always some kind of faith that such investigation can lead us somewhere. Zen and other contemplative traditions have this aspect as do philosophical perspectives such as phenomenology.

    About our desire to find simple overarching ideas. I agree they have their uses as long as their assumptions are explicit. We just can not be seduced by them. Its the old Whitehead saw "Seek simplicity and then distrust it".

  5. @gorm

    I like the idea of "fictional religions" and "fictional metaphysics". I have been thinking about the importance of narratives in our truth-seeking for a while. We can use stories to illuminate our place and context in the Universe while acknowledging they can not escape the limitation of a perspective.

    Also I am not anti-metaphysics as long as we adopt them in the open as it were. Philosophy will have to play a key role in helping us understand the nature of the questions we try to address in both science and other endeavors. We just can not expect them to corral our experience as systems.

  6. I'm glad you like the terms. I think a lot of people find talk of "spirituality" suspicious, as just a camouflaged version of religion, dressed up to be more palatable to modern sensibilities, although essentially the same thing. Calling it fictionalist religion might seem to these people to be more frontright, while at the same time explicitly addressing their concerns that the religious perspective is taken too seriously. The next question then is how to discern religiously charged fiction from mere entertainment on the one hand, and on the other hand the scientific kind of statement, which of course involves theoretical commitment. I'm not sure how to do this yet myself, but I think it's a really interesting question.

    On the question of corralling our experience as systems: Of course we can try to get there, and even expect to gain significant insights on the way, as long as we resist deceiving ourselves into thinking we've arrived. Strictly speaking we can't say that "there will always be more to discover", but in practice, this is the best theoretical heuristic I can think of.

    If I remember correctly, you've dismissed the computationalist approach to the mind. Why is that? Computationalism doesn't imply some sort of conceited reductionism. Computers are the most mindlike phenomenon we have intimate access to; they are the perfect metaphor. In particular when describing experience, I think. Virtual reality is IMO the perfect model of our subjective world, in particular as it unifies all our different perspectives as simply different possible configurations of our capacity for virtuality. I could go on and on about this -- as I've already done. I should stop.

    No, one more thing, just in case you're not 100% happy with Blogger: I strongly recommend Wordpress. It's easy to import all posts etc.

  7. Adam, the last paragraph of your post is truly elegant. In religious terms, you aptly describe the nature of "idolatry" as I've come to conceptualize it. I would argue that the effect of any idolatry is some diminishment of full human experiencing. A "corraling" as you say.

  8. To all of you,

    Let me try to reframe our shared situation and see if it changes our questions a bit.

    What if instead of seeing ourselves as analogous to computers as gorm is fond to, we try seeing ourselves as analogous to television sets: an image is enfolded into a signal that a t.v. can unfold into a meaningful image. A squirrel can't unfold the order that a human being can because it lacks the receiving apperatus necessary to unfold enfolded order.

    So when it comes to a reality like love, we can ask, is love an epiphenomenon of human being, wrought by natural selection, or does it exist as something enfolded into the order at large where human being evolves the apperatus to unfold it?

    In other words, the order that we are accustomed to making explicit still revolves around Newton: the relationship of bodies in space. But what if there was more to this order to be made explicit? What if things like poetry and art were actually something like a "receiving apperatus" that make explicit, orders which are implicit in reality, and exist regardless of human being, and are not just artifacts of human being.?

    What do you guys think?

  9. I'm afraid I don't like that metaphor, on the ground that it claims too much about reality. As a skeptic, I prefer to think of reality as transcendent, i.e. an unknown, an empty concept of what is beyond the appearances of my direct perception. I much prefer a metaphor that suggests that whatever we think about reality is projection, like the metaphor of virtual reality does. Ontologically, all talk of mind-independent reality is strictly speaking unwarranted, and the only way (that I can see) to go beyond the gag of radical agnosticism is the fictionalist approach, or as I call the approach specifically relying on virtual reality as a metaphor: virtualism. Saying that the phenomena of experience -- like love or conviction or insight -- saying that these are merely virtual is not to say they are inconsequential or "epiphenomena" as you perhaps would call it. Because, when applying the metaphor of virtuality in the comprehensive way that I suggest, there is no contrast point available for human experience against which to compare and devalue virtuality. There is no reality to anything experienced, except virtual reality (-- which I hold to explain, among other things, the undeniable truths of math and logic).

    I know this is a strange or at least unusual position to hold, and I don't actually expect you to accept my arguments. But there they are.

  10. I read that William James once said the relationship between the brain and consciousness was either that of circutry or a receiver or a governor so there is a precedent for the apparatus idea as a metaphor which gottschalk suggests.

    @gorm I also like the idea of projection but what kind of access do we get to reality? I often teach my students about the EIOR, the external independent objective reality as the ideal of science and then try and get them to ask if such a thing exists. No doubt the world kicks back and is out there but what can we know of it in-itself.

  11. Great job, Adam. There were moments when I wanted to jump through the screen and shake Eliezer though. Sometimes it's shocking how narrow and Puritanical even the most intelligent among us can be. Fun to watch though.

    One wonders what Eliezer and his friends would do if I gave them one of Rilke's Duino Elegies to look at. Analyze the color gradient of the ink? Reject the poems outright for their use of mythology and religion?

  12. Gottschalk you say "...orders which are implict in reality and exist regardless of human being...". Yes, I subscribe to that point of view. As I said above, I think we have the good fortune to be privileged observers and this gives us access to the implicit reality.

    Gorm you say "...metaphor...that claims too much about reality" and Adam replies by asking "...what kind of access do we get to reality?". My brief reply is that the answer lies not in how we get access, but how do we know it is reality? That answer is provided by the vast empathetic social mesh in which we are embedded. This mesh continually gives us confirmation, validation of our experiences, constructing a consistent and repeatable view of reality. This is reality. We are also privilged observers, partially seeing something more. We can know this is just not our dreamlike imagination if it is validated in our social mesh by other like experiences.

  13. Gorm you refer to "the computationalist approach to the mind". My professional life is in the computer realm so I find this analogy enormously appealing. When one understands how a program has an independent existence from the computer it runs on it becomes easy to believe that the mind is not the brain. That still leaves rather large questions to be answered but it is a small step in that direction.

  14. @Frank, exactly. This agnostic or skeptical position should, to speak way too metaphorically, be the "center of the universe" for every conscientious thinker; the point of departure and return from which one can set out on speculative explorations.

    EIOR has proven fantastically useful, so we should learn about it and get comfortable with it. But it is a speculative place, so we shouldn't get too comfortable. Our home is the empty virtual space in the center of the universe ;)

    @Occasional Reporter, the social mesh does validate our individual beliefs, but the ontological question is still open: Is the socially validated real, or just intersubjective virtuality? You can, of course, define it as reality, but then we're talking about something else than I thought.

  15. @gorm, actually, I like a lot of what you're saying; I see it giving shape to the real power of subjective being. I think we fail to distinguish the kind of reality represented by a mountain and the kind represented by an economy. I wouldn't refer to a mountain as virtual, but a reality formed by our subjective and collective action I could call virtual: and by making this distinction we could better theorize about economics for instance.

    I disagree with the sole emphasis on projection. I'll argue that the genius that we as human being embody is our ability to interact intelligibly with reality. This involves projecting, but includes receiving; and more, contemplating.

  16. @PWS Rilke yes! He is definetely an example of a poet that I learned something from. An excellent example of a way of knowing that comes from a different direction than (my cherished) scientific inquiry.

    @gottschalk and gorm: this balance between subjective experience of the world and its nature in-and-of-itself is really the crux of the biscuit. One of thing that intrigues me so much about quantum mechanics is that is some of the interpretations we seem to be presented with limits to what can be known about the EIOR which is why I present that idea to my students. Reality is out there but how fully do we get access to its innate form?

  17. @all

    For me, my bias toward something like God, isn't about something theistic, but more about a trust in the reality from which we emerge. To be sure, we can't just take reality for granted- we do have a relationship to it that is mitigated by our story of it; hence we can talk of the fictional or virtual aspects of reality. Here is where I think our move as a species into science was one of our more brilliant ones: we poke and prod at reality and "it pushes back" as Adam notes, and what isn't real gives way. Brilliant.

    Still you guys, don't we at some basic level have room to trust the Reality in which we live? If evolution pushes life to a level of complexity where we are now able to engage with it to co-evolve, can we trust that our species is meant to succeed if we are willing to?

    In our American culture, it seems that our prevalent ground of reality is that of money making and consuming. How else could our economy become so un-virtual? It's as if people are scrambling to get as much as they can to make up for not having a deeply felt sense of being co-evolutionaries. This "scrambling" has brought us to our "bottle neck".

    Anyway, this something that I'm seeing from my perch of privileged observing.

  18. @Adam, I would add to your, "reality pushes back", that in Human Being, Reality pushes through.

  19. @Gottschalk, I share your liking for the idea of God, and resting in a trust of reality is my default position. I can even give these thoughts ontological charge, as virtual "game world" to immerse myself in, for therapeutic or meditative or speculative purposes. But theoretical clarification comes first, and since the subject is very hard to wrap one's head around, I'm never really done with that preparatory effort. From the outside, this might in effect be a screen that hides the more obviously religious aspects of my thought -- or, at any rate, what I would call religious.

    Not sure if this was a relevant response. Hope it was.

  20. @gorm, not just relevant- apt as well!

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