Friday, April 24, 2009

Path to Enlightenment

I must freely admit that I haven't studied much philosophy, so I'm treading dark waters here. Even when I do study the field, very little sticks. I mean, I'm pretty sure I've read some Kant and Nietzsche, and I know I've read some Plato, but I can't ever seem to recall much more than buzzwords like "Plato's forms" or phrases like "God is dead."

I think my disinterest stems from a perceived lack of utility on the part of philosophy and a deep-seated skepticism of the endeavor as a whole.

It seems to me that Philosophy is a top-down examination of reality wherein philosophers often make large assumptions about complex things like humanity and morality then work backward toward the individual. Worse, the creative process seems individualistic and static so that, instead of building upon one another, the end result is a collection of disparate accounts of reality sprung forth from only one or two minds. I suppose that's a fine approach so long as you regard your conclusions with profound skepticism.

Science, on the other hand, seems to me to be a communal, bottom-to-top examination of reality that, in it's purest form, is observational and experimental and makes only the smallest of assumptions (striving always to make none). I think this is the path to enlightenment. If you really want to gain a profound understanding of reality and the mind, start with physics, chemistry, biology and neurology. Start from the very bottom, from the very basics, and draw me a line straight up to your high-minded ideas about the nature of things. Spare me your metaphysical babble and help me follow a path from the simple and incontrovertible facts upward toward the divine.


Jay said...

I'm not so sure about mathematics... I'm pretty skeptical about that construction too, but maybe that's because I'm no good at it.

Mack Ramer said...

Seems to me you're making broad-brush stroke observations without examples about people making broad-brush stroke observations without examples.

Jay said...

I know, right?

- xBx said...

Stick figures are funny.

SuiginChou said...

(At this risk of sounding quite haughty! ...)

I can completely relate to what Jay's saying, Mack. And I think it's a distraction to focus on the complaint of sweeping generalizations. What's important is not the defining of what is or isn't meant by the word "philosophy," nor is it the identification of which philosophers were guilty of practicing non-science and which ones were not. The most important point in Jay's post to debate, I think, is that the way to understanding truth (whatever the word "truth" means to you) should begin from the ground up and not from the sky down.

So rather than debate whether Aristotle really was a sky-to-ground man or a ground-to-sky man, and rather than to debate whether a scientific theory (by its very nature) is not itself the spitting image of a sky-to-ground approach, I'd be more interested to hear what you think about Jay's proposal for Mankind's enlightenment.

I can be uncharacteristically brief for my part: I think he's quite right.

Jay said...

I found an article that sounds perfectly appropriate...but I'd have to buy it to read it :(

Mack Ramer said...

I'd be more interested to hear what you think about Jay's proposal for Mankind's enlightenment.Well, simply grounding your theories in trustworthy observation is great, for starters. I'm all for that. E.F. Schumacher is a great example of someone who did just that -- his economic theories are all from practical experience, and he successfully put them into practice in his lifetime. Brilliant. But what Jay is calling for here: "a communal, bottom-to-top examination of reality that, in it's purest form, is observational and experimental" ... sounds like radical empiricism. In other words, Jay, you're saying that any position one is willing to defend ought to be repeatable and demonstrable, right? I'll proceed as if that's the case; correct me if I'm wrong. So, is that going to lead to enlightenment?

Depends on what "enlightenment" means. Does it mean that we discover how to live a good life? Are we going to start from zero and study how physical bodies move about and come to a conclusion about how to live a good life? I can't see how. In this way we can discover all sorts of fun gadgets to create the possibilities of a fun life, a healthy life, but a good life? How are we going to recognize it? What's "good"? Good is not something we can measure with a caliper.

Radical empiricism is also useful only to people rich enough to have access to scientific instruments and education in scientific theories. Anybody who doesn't have that wealth is going to have to trust in the technocrats when it comes to matters of truth and falsehood -- and isn't that contrary to radical empiricism itself? So radical empiricism is not only socially regressive and undemocratic, it is in application going to be self-contradictory. "Don't trust anyone... except me!" says the radical empiricist.

One last observation about radical empiricism I'd like to make is that it is radically present-oriented, to its detriment. The past counts for nothing when everything we believe has to be demonstrable for us, right here and right now. This means that all tradition is going to have to be valued at zero by default, which leaves us in tremendous poverty. Indeed, impossible poverty: I don't think people can be stripped of the assumptions of their culture without losing their minds entirely. (We might fancy ourselves free of cultural biases in this day and age, but so did phrenologists. In both cases, equally laughable.)

I don't know if I've misrepresented Jay in calling him a radical empiricist; if I have, I apologize; but I hope this long diatribe has been of some value in persuading you that empiricism is not a panacea to the ills of philosophy.

Mack Ramer said...

A bit more, since I know I haven't said enough already: I don't think that the criticism of the entire corpus of philosophy by someone who is admittedly uneducated in philosophy is at all a "distraction". Here we have someone who in the past has spent a lot of time chastising ignorant ID chatterboxes for criticizing well-established theories they don't really understand; indeed, one criticism I've heard a lot of is that people like William Dembski have no biology background. It's worth pointing out that the pot's calling the kettle black, especially in defense of something as valuable as the entire corpus of philosophy.

SuiginChou said...

Thanks for your replies. Particularly the first one, both were polite and insightful. I found the first one convincing.

And I find YET AGAIN a nugget towards the truth behind μηδέν άγαν. :) I am never without amazement at just how true this holds! Complete empiricism, bad. Complete abandonment of empiricism, bad. Healthy modicum, healthiest situation of all.

Daniel said...

I'm not sure how sincere that dig at math was, but the field is about as bottom-up as it gets, totally egalitarian - what works once works always. There's no Chaos Theory in mathematics (unless you were to divide by zero, but that would downright silly).

SuiginChou said...

I don't think it's a dig at math: the guy who runs xkcd is a physicist iirc with the highest esteem for mathematics.

Jay said...

I'm sincere about my dig at math. I understand it's endlessly useful and important, but I wonder if it is as fundamental as we assume. Can Infinity and Naught accurately describe reality or are they purely conceptual?

Mack, I've defined enlightenment as "to gain a profound understanding of reality and the mind" but the word is a bit metaphysically loosey goosey.

I don't think I'm championing radical empiricism. The importance of communal piggy backing in science relies on an appreciation of the "history" of discovery. I think there is also a historical component to observation. Nevertheless, science in its purest form is present-minded -- how can there be a more reliable way to know something than to discover and demonstrate it? Fear of something like the technocrati (which seems not an unreasonable description of reality already) or boo-hoos about devaluing tradition are concerning, but they are unrelated to the validity of the argument.

"...we can discover all sorts of fun gadgets to create the possibilities of a fun life, a healthy life, but a good life? How are we going to recognize it? What's "good"? Good is not something we can measure with a caliper."

You see? This is what I'm talking about. You introduce this big, heady word like "Good" and already we have to start working backwards, trying to define a moving target, all the while making assumptions: We should live a good life. Goodness cannot be measured. Defining goodness is incompatible with empiricism.

Can you show me a proof? The point I'm trying to make is that it is better --more reliable, less assumptive, readily understandable-- to work from a collection of incontrovertible facts upwards toward a conclusion than backwards from loose, metaphysical quandaries down to generalizations about reality. And it is the impression of this admitted layman that scientists more often pursue a bottom-up approach and philosophers a top-down approach.

But I'm sure I'm stepping on the toes of many great (and poor!) thinkers, and I don't ever want to be like Dembski, so for rearing my head in an arena where it perhaps does not belong, I apologize!

SuiginChou said...

No, I quite agree with you. Without forcing you to laboriously list out a great many scientists who did bottom-up research and a great many philosophers whose teachings are famously top-down, I think the audience should accept that as a fair assumption, i.e. take that conclusion as fact given the overwhelming (if uncited) evidence.

But on the other hand, Mack is correct, too, that you are fundamentally posing to us the question of which is better between two evils: radical empiricism or radical dogmatism. And I'm inclined to agree with Mack that neither extreme is good and that there needs to be a fair balance between bottom-up and top-down approaches.

More in the next reply, so as to not lose your attention, I confess.

SuiginChou said...

You are doubtless aware of several of the failures of top-down thinking; but what of the bottom-up approach's own failures?

One of the biggest weaknesses can be explored through taxonomy. Say we start with a bacterium, and we ask ourselves, "What did this evolve into? and what next? and what next?" and so asking ourselves these questions we seek to build a genetic taxonomy, a tree of all the life forms which came from this one single-celled organism.

We work up from our selected bacterium to the next species. And the next. And the next after that. Eventually we have one, long, filamentous chain of species that leads us either to an evolutionary dead end or else to a species which still exists today. For sake of argument, let us pick Canis lupus. We have gone from a bacterium to the white wolf.

A correction is immediately required: a thorough bottom-up approach would not produce a single filament but a great arboreal network! A mighty tree with its origin resting in that single bacterium with which we began our examination.

If I am to assume that we picked the bacterial species which allowed us to reach Canis lupus, then modern evolutionary biology informs me that our tree must contain every single mammal in the fossil record -- because it is widely agreed-upon that mammals (as a class) came from an original source (most likely a reptile) and not from several different reptilian, avian, or amphibious sources, yes? In other words, DNA analysis informs us that we are all -- rabbits, humans, platypuses, camels, and porpoises -- more closely related to one another than any of us is to any living animal in any of the other classes.

Furthermore, our tree must contain every single animal in the kingdom of Animalia -- for once again, DNA analysis informs us that every single animal on the planet -- piscine, avian, reptilian, makes no difference -- is more closely related to one another than any of them is to a protist, fungus, or plant (the other three eukaryotic kingdoms being Protista, Fungi, and Plantae). In other words, the empirical evidence supports the conclusion that animalian phyla did not arise separate from one another, but rather have a common animal ancestor that first evolved from (most likely) a protist. Traditionally taxonomy holds that the earliest "animal" was very likely similar to modern-day sea sponges or cnidarians like the hydra and sea jellies. But that's besides the point.

Our thorough bottom-up approach has (let us assume) correctly mapped out every single species, alive or extinct, that has/had for its ancestor our selected bacterium. And yet! ... WE KNOW NOTHING OF OTHER TREES!This can be best understood by three simple words if you've taken basic biology courses: Eubacteria vs. Archaebacteria.What I am saying is, we have NO WAY OF KNOWING whether our selected bacterial specimen is genuinely the oldest or whether it is not; and, if it is not, then we have NO WAY OF KNOWING what distant relatives -- "cousins," if you will -- it has elsewhere on this planet. For example, if we selected a eubacterium, and said eubacterium gave rise to protists, which in turn gave rise to animals, which in turn gave rise to Canis lupus, that's all well and good but it tells us NOTHING of either (a) the possible existence of Archaea or (b) (given knowledge that Archaea does in fact exist) the origin of Archaea.

The only way for the evolutionary taxonomist to completely map out the tree of life is to employ a combined approach of both bottom-up and top-down thinking. The only way pure bottom-up thinking could ever meet with 100% success would be if (a) there was only one origin for [whatever it is that you're trying to understand] and (b) if you began your analysis with said origin. Letter A may not even be true, and even if it is you have no way of knowing whether Letter B is true or not. You may think that today you're starting with the oldest bacteria ever -- 3.7 billion year old DNA magically preserved in ice, let's pretend, as if there were even ice to be preserved in 3.7 billion years ago!! ;) -- but two millenia down the road someone might discover a specimen which is 0.2 billion years older, and which sheds light on the fact that the two artificial subphyla we had created within a particular bacterial phylum are the result of our lack of knowledge in centuries past, and that in reality the two "subphyla" are not even in the same phylum at all, but are completely different phyla that split off from this 3.9-billion year old ancestor.

You might be tempted to respond, "Well, isn't that what science is all about? Sticking to bottom-up thinking and revising it when older footing becomes available, thus allowing you to examine things from a bottom that is even more 'bottomer' than the original bottom was?" But my response is, "Yes, but with a combined approach, rather than reach this conclusion in 2 millenia, man might have reached it in 2 decades."

Consider top-down thinking in science to be that healthy skepticism which is applied against our gold standard of bottom-up empiricism. ;) It is genuinely such top-down thinking which informs intelligent scientists to second-guess experimental results that don't line up: without top-down criticisms of empirical data, every first experiment would also be the last experiment. ;p :) The only reason we repeat experiments which return unexpected results is because we have expectations in the first place -- and expectations, by their nature, are always top-down! :) This is what I meant when I said earlier that by definition every single scientific theory is actually an application of Man's top-down thinking. Man has an assumption and he wishes to prove it. Even if he goes about proving it with bottom-up empiricism, the experiment as a collective whole is still top-down. :) "I'm starting with a big assumption like 'the sky is blue' and now I want to know why." Nobody ever says, "Light reflects like this. I wonder what this will lead me to? Why, look at that: this explains why the sky is blue! :D" It's almost always the other way around in science: we want to understand mysteries at the top and so we craft top-down theories and bottom-up labs. :)

SuiginChou said...

Point #2 -- and much brief, as you can see :) -- is an anthropological one. Let us assume, for sake of argument, that there were two different origins of man. Let us assume that one was from a common ancestor that gave rise to Humanity-a and chimpanzees, and let us assume that the other is from an older common ancestor which gave rise to Humanity-b and orangutans.

Let us assume that (for whatever reasons) Humanity-b and Humanity-a were able to reproduce with one another and produce viable offspring. In other words, as per the traditional taxonomic definition of a species, Humanity-a and Humanity-b are sub-species of the same species. Such a being would probably need to be older than the 1.2-to-2.0-million year old Australopithecus (if, as I shall, we take Austra. to be Homo erectus, habilis, and sapiens' singular ancestor), but the point still stands that there was a non-ape hominid which was chimp-like and there was a different non-ape hominid which was orangutan-like. The one inhabited Africa, the other inhabited Indonesia.

If you do a strict and solitary bottom-up approach, you're never going to see the ancestor to one or the other of these two species. To see both, you must either do a minimum of two bottom-up studies (and have the Devil's own luck) or else you must employ some level of top-down thinking to follow the DNA footsteps backwards towards the missing ancestor. For example:

rat --> monkey --> Ancestor A.
Ancestor A splits. A1 is B, A2 is orangutan.
Ancestor B splits. B1 is C, B2 is gorilla.
Ancestor C splits. C1 is D, C2 is chimp.
Ancestor D is humanity's common ancestor.

In my explanation, Ancestor D is the fusion between the previously-labeled "Humanity-a" and "Humanity-b," yes? But we've only explored the tree upwards from Humanity-a's perspective. The moment the orangutan split off, we had no indication that would lead us to consider further study down that route. After all, the planet believes that Mankind came from one species, and the chimp taxonomy tree branch we've just explored seems to do a fairly accurate job of explaining our origins, so yeah! Case closed, right? So says most of society, sadly. It takes either a very-rigorous bottom-upper or else a curious top-downer to get society to reconsider that maybe the reason for certain ginormous genetic differences between Asiatic and Mediterranean Homo sapiens is because maybe -- MAYBE -- one population has more of Humanity-a's genes while the other has more of Humanity-b's.

Do you see my point? Some top-down thinking is healthy for science if only because it invites skepticism of long-held beliefs and it also GREATLY accelerates the process of scientific investigation and discovery.

Jay said...

I don't exactly follow the skepticism argument (yet) but your point about the hypothesis stage as a top-down approach is well taken. In case you're interested, the genesis of my original post came from the Darwin biography I'm trudging through. When he was doing his botanical work, he was most happy when he had absolutely no idea where his research would lead him. Unlike formulating the theory of evolution, where he ultimately had a suspicion of the truth and cast his nets out wide to collect evidence to see if his hypothesis could be validated or invalidated, he set to work crossbreeding and probing and observing his orchids without much forethought, and he teased out many heretofore unknown discoveries about plant growth and reproduction and morphology. When he worked experimentally in this manner, he seemed proudest and quite literally thought he was doing his best, purest science.

SuiginChou said...

That is interesting.

Daniel said...

By the way, this discussion about studying the universe reminds me of a conversation I was having with my nephew while he was playing in his sandbox. (Disclaimer: I don't have a nephew.)

Me: "Hey, can I build something over in this corner here?"

Nephew: "No! You're stupid and you don't know what your doing!"

Me: "Really? I just wanted to try something out and you aren't even using this patch of sand."

Nephew: "Well it's my sandbox and maybe I'll get to it later! Plus you can't even think about piecing something together until I've broken down the individual grains into their base element, and then I'll have to study the breakdown of those base elements, and so on down the line."

Me: "But that'll keep everyone else out of the universe, er...I mean sandbox, forever!"

Nephew: "Exactly."

My fictitious newphew, while admittedly a prick, is shockingly articulate for a five-year-old.

davboz said...

I hope this long diatribe has been of some value in persuading you that empiricism is not a panacea to the ills of philosophy.
April 24, 2009 3:16 PM
I'm not studied in either science or philosophy but what you argue there is of value to me as those words describe much of what I observe around me today. It seems to be the same "general" voices who want to kill tradition and "gut feeling" common sense as unscientific. I ponder much about the state of everything around me and the growing sense of contradiction and hypocrisy, and while much of it is detectable I am at a loss to describe it. I would add that, not just contradictory and undemocratic, it becomes a matter of thuggish enforcement, the demonizing of those who will not immediately fall in line, and hypocrisy on nearly every level as the political structure steps up this very movement into hyper-drive.

davboz said...

Maybe once we realize that there ARE realities that we may NEVER grasp through science we will once again approach the good life by re-inspiring sense of wonder and mystery. OR - Ponder the conundrum of the final attainment of all scientific knowledge regarding existence as being the final death knell of the human spirit. This is not to criticize science but that the cultural and political hi-jacking of the science-only mindset smacks of being ultra-egotistical, a vehicle for anti-religious movements, while being hype FOR the religion of "man-made-global-warming." You know, that which parades as science yet is a religion based on non-science!? A new breed of turned up noses and divisiveness. Maybe I pay too much attention to politicians, brain-washed sheeple, and internet blog comments (of which, actually, these are refreshingly civil, intelligent, and I think, well intended - by those far more knowledgeable than I).

davboz said...

Referring to the "boohoos" about the loss of tradition is evidence to me of man losing his "soul"

davboz said...

So then the analogy of "top-down vs. bottom down" isn't really to describe science vs. philosophy.
That's "science A vs. science B".
But I sure opened my mind to deeper thinking about species. And maybe rather than "skepticism" it is a valid way of CROSS-CHECKING. Nothing wrong with simple validation. Verification. Seems pretty scientific to minimize possibility of error.
Maybe it is the ego that resists. Hmmm?

davboz said...

I think Daniel's on to something there. It is the co-opters ~ nay, thuggish hijackers ~ of today's science "movement" that will be the dogmatic even fascistic in the society.

Jay said...

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."
-Charles Darwin

I would claim that it is more egotistical, not to mention detrimental to general progress, to assert that science and mankind can never understand the mysteries of the universe. How do you know?