Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hyperrationality and the Two Cultures

The physicist and novelist C. P. Snow is famous in academic circles for distinguishing between the cultures of the arts and sciences. When he wrote on the two cultures in Britain, in 1959, academic scientists lacked the prestige of those in the arts or humanities, whereas now the situation is reversed, with English, philosophy, and other arts programs closing down in North American business-oriented colleges, and economists and other social scientists emulating physicists by attempting to quantify their subject matters. During the Scientific Revolution, Newton, Galileo, and other great scientists had to glorify reason in their war with the faith-governed Church, which was dominant at the time in Europe. Thus, as mathematician Mike Alder points out in his recent article, Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword, Newton laid out an austere scientific method according to which no statement should be accepted unless it’s directly testable or it follows logically from a testable statement. The skeptical philosopher David Hume zealously defended this empiricism, for the sake of his assault on intellectual elitism, going as far as to say that if a book contains statements that aren’t based either on observation or on logic, the book should be tossed into the flames. The philosopher Karl Popper took the main point of empiricism to be a falsification criterion of meaning: if there’s no way of showing how a statement could be proven false, the statement is at best pseudoscientific and cognitively worthless. Thus, all knowledge is derived from this broad scientific method.

To clarify some terms, empiricism is hyperrational compared to rationalism, or to the claim that reason arrives at fundamental truths without the use of observation or of logic, because the so-called rationalist contends that reason processes other inputs besides sensations, such as those from “intuition” or faith. According to the empiricist, intuitions and leaps of faith are unreliable, to say the least, and deductions on their basis, such as those in systematic theology, are pseudoscientific and ultimately irrational.

The Empiricist’s Disdain for Philosophy

Midway through twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy, this extreme empiricism was rejected as self-refuting. After all, the definition of empiricism itself is philosophical, not scientific or meaningful in the empiricist’s own terms. In their zest to champion science against the forces of irrationality, empiricists put forward an anti-philosophical philosophy so worshipful of science that it destroys itself, like Douglas Adams’ god that proves its own nonexistence and "promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.” But as Mike Alder points out, mathematicians and scientists still adhere to the spirit of empiricism and for that reason they loathe philosophy in particular. The problem with recent, so-called analytic philosophers, from this viewpoint, is that they pretend their discipline is serious and rational, whereas their philosophizing consists of time-wasting, fruitless word games that go nowhere. So-called postmodern philosophers merely waste time with word games as well, although instead of pretending to analyze concepts, they obfuscate with pompous rhetoric. At least the theologian openly declares her irrationality when she speaks of the need for faith and revelation, but the philosopher pretends to possess a form of rationality that stands apart from scientific methods. According to friends of empiricism, modern scientists showed what the rational search for knowledge is, so there is no rationality apart from gathering data from the senses, testing hypotheses to explain the data, and following the implications with mathematical logic. 

Thus, as Alder says, “When you ask of a scientist if we have free will, or only think we have, he would ask in turn: ‘What measurements or observations would, in your view, settle the matter?’ If your reply is ‘Thinking deeply about it’, he will smile pityingly and pass you by. He would be unwilling to join you in playing what he sees as a rather silly game.” Again, as to whether a computer program “could ‘really’ be intelligent or thinking, or only able to simulate it, the scientist asks ‘What procedures would you use for distinguishing these cases?’ Again, the answer ‘Thinking hard’ would earn a tired smile and a quick exit.”

According to Alder, “most scientists are essentially Popperian positivists [that is, empiricists]... The idea that one can arrive at reliable truths by pure reason [without input from the five senses] is simply obsolete...Such is the conventional wisdom among scientists, and it would be wrong of me to attempt to conceal that this is, broadly, my position too.” Thus, Alder takes care “not to be caught doing philosophy,” preferring to wrap his philosophy magazine “in a brown paper bag in the hope that it will be mistaken for a girly-mag.”

At the end of his article, though, Alder points out that Newton’s empiricism is impractical. Only a Vulcan or an artificial person like Data from Star Trek could so rigorously restrict his beliefs to what logic and the evidence support, without speculating, expressing feelings, going with a hunch, or taking a leap of faith. As he puts it, such a genuine empiricist “would be a notably poor conversationalist.” But Alder maintains that the use of the testability criterion as a weapon against philosophy is still justified when the philosopher “meddles in science which he does not understand. When he asks questions and is willing to learn, I have no quarrel with him. When he is merely trying to lure you into a word game which has no prospect of leading anywhere, you really have to decide if you like playing that sort of game.”

The Absurdity of Antiphilosophical Philosophy

There’s a great deal of confusion here on the part of the wannabe hyperrationalist. You can spy a clue to the confusion in that hostility to philosophy, by reminding yourself that the supreme scientist and arch empiricist, Isaac Newton, was also a thoroughgoing occultist, Rosicrucian, and Christian theologian, a proponent of alchemy and an interpreter of Biblical prophecies and codes. This pseudoscientific side of his work has been expunged from the record, as far as current students of physics are concerned. Notice, though, how much more impressive empiricism seems when the method is attributed to a nonexistent hyperrational version of Newton. The weakness of empiricism isn’t just that’s its absurd as a piece of antiphilosophical philosophy, but that the nonrational side of this philosophy is cognitively necessary. Even Star Trek’s Vulcans idolize and spiritualize logic! Intuition, insight, vision, and imagination are needed to bridge the gaps between the instinctive, emotional, and logical parts of the brain. Knowledge isn’t just a matter of having a set of beliefs that maps onto the facts. In addition, the beliefs must relate well to each other, and for human animals these interrelations aren’t merely logical. Instead, as epistemologists say, our beliefs should form a coherent worldview. What counts as coherence is a matter of philosophical, theological, or otherwise normative debate.

To see an example of a presupposed principle of coherence, on the part of an antiphilosophical philosopher, notice how Alder speaks of the need to arrive at “reliable truths.” Have scientists proven that reliability ought to be the mark of knowledge? Does that pragmatic principle follow logically from testable statements? Of course not, since this is a philosophical, normative principle that derives from intuition, faith, or some other nonrational factor. Indeed, the notion of reliability here presupposes the secular humanist’s instrumentalism, the Baconian use of science in a struggle with inhumane natural forces. In my view, this presupposition is part of the modern religion of what I’ve called Scientism in a broad sense. (See Scientism.)

Now, if philosophical statements aren’t as reliable as scientific ones, in that philosophy is less cumulative or technologically fruitful, this is because both western and eastern philosophies are traditionally concerned with self-knowledge and ultimately with mystical, cosmicist self-realization that destabilizes the ego and so obviates power games. Philosophy thus makes for a poor weapon in a struggle for “progress,” to use the euphemism for our war with nature. Ultimately, the intellectual culture war between the sciences and the humanities is a conflict between pragmatism and mysticism. Instead of confronting that meta-issue, Adler presupposes that knowledge ought to be reliable, or sufficiently stable to produce technologies that empower us. But the point I want to stress here is that this normative presupposition is quite unjustified, from an empiricist perspective, and yet some such principle of cognitive coherence is needed for human animals, with our self-conflicted biological nature. Data from Star Trek has no emotions, so he needn’t worry about nonrational ideals to guide his beliefs. Empiricism is a hyperrational philosophy fit for machines, not for animals like human beings.

Another lacuna in Alder’s defense of empiricist antiphilosophy: he speaks to the scientist’s condescension towards the childish, game-playing philosopher, when the scientist offers the philosopher a tired, pitying smile and quickly exits instead of publicly philosophizing. The conceit in this case is the presupposition that scientists earn their prestige strictly because of the cognitive progress in science. As obvious as that progress is, it’s not why empiricist scientists can now get away with condescension to philosophers and indeed to all academics in the humanities. The crucial factor is the scientist’s enjoyment of power that the philosopher lacks; more precisely, the scientist is credited for empowering technoscientifically advanced societies and the philosopher is blamed for doing nothing of the kind.

But power is yet another nonrational interest that directs the search for knowledge. The postmodernist says that knowledge is nothing but the expression of some such nonrational interest, as though there were no scientific methods that can be followed more or less without bias or other interference. However, my point is just that empiricism is flawed in its disregard for the extent to which we are animals, after all, who often survive by struggling for power, expressing our feelings, or acting on instinct. If the philosopher’s pretensions are unbearable, so too must be the empiricist’s disdain for philosophy’s inferior use of reason, given that modern science is hardly just an algorithm fit for computers. Scientists are animals driven by a tribal instinct to espouse what’s effectively a religious faith (secular humanism or scientism), and scientists provide pivotal aid in humanity’s war with those forces of nature that could potentially extinguish us. Hence the philosophical, relatively nonrational nature of empiricism, presupposed by presumed anti-philosophical scientists and mathematicians; hence also their coherence ideal of knowledge’s reliability; and hence their power-based condescension towards relatively powerless philosophers and other nonscientific academics.


  1. Language like Hume's is frightening, burning books to me is one of those taboo subjects I can't even joke about. I more readily joke about many a dark subject, but this one, I never laugh at, because unlike other things I don't think it's well-enough recognized as wrong.

    Reading these views makes me feel pretty torn between observation-based empiricism and wordy-based rationalism. I don't really want to side with one over the other, and reality would probably suck if we tried to go either way to excess.

    This goes beyond the absurdity of an anti-sophist ideology, which would be rejected by the empiricist even if they couldn't communicate verbally why they do so (this is the one problem of the absurdity observation, bigotry can exist without capability to defend it in debate).

    It seems like both measures give each other context. Empiricism-only lacking meaning, rationalism-only lacking reality and identifiable examples or applicable directions to modern problems.

    1. I think the main point to remember about empiricism is that by rejecting metaphysics as meaningless, the empiricist undermines both religion and philosophy, but science alone doesn't make for the empiricist's own worldview. In practice, the empiricist subscribes to what I call scientism in a broad sense, or to what's often called secular humanism, and this view amounts to a philosophy and perhaps even to a religion, not just to a scientific theory. So empiricism is a self-destructive worldview, a little like the Islamist terrorist's fundamentalism which causes the terrorist to blow himself up.

  2. Hold on. Alder's factual reliability, is, as I take it, a probabalistic one (which according to empiricists is all you're gonna get up until the next black swan). It doesn't have to produce technologies, merely predictions. SO you don't need to go meta, just use memory of the past to inform the future. If scientists can't express faith in extrapolation from data without being arraigned for sophistry they might as well curl up somewhere and die.

    1. Thanks for all your comments, Anon. I think you're right, to some extent. Technically, while doing her scientific work, a scientist doesn't have to go meta by being an empiricist. Empiricism is a philosophical view of things, not a scientific one, so to the extent that scientists presuppose empiricism, they have philosophical assumptions and so they shouldn't be opposed to philosophy in general.

      If there's faith involved in getting around Hume's problem of induction, or in trusting memory of past experiences to make for the probability of a predicted event's reoccurring, this is to say that philosophy is inevitable in any explanation of our experience, even if the philosophy or the faith is only presupposed, in which case contempt for philosophy in general becomes counterproductive and obnoxious. That's why scientism is worth ridiculing as well as refuting.