Sunday, May 19, 2019

Humble Cognition: Dread and Awe from Objectivity

Does scientific practice presuppose a philosophy or any nonscientific belief? As one philosopher, Nicholas Maxwell, points out, the rise of empiricism marked the breaking point between science and philosophy, when scientists began to assume that philosophy is irrelevant to science. Maxwell writes, “It was Newton who inadvertently killed off natural philosophy with his claim, in the third edition of his Principia, to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction.”

In Newton’s words, “whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical…have no place in experimental philosophy [that is, in what today we would call “science”]. In this philosophy [i.e. science], particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. Thus it was that…the laws of motion and of gravitation were discovered.” Whereas the standard picture of the scientific method posits the hypothesis, that is, the informed guess, which the scientist tests with experiments, Newton evidently thought that the scientist should bring no presumption to her observations. The scientist is supposed to derive the best explanation from the phenomena themselves, leaving no opportunity for philosophical, religious, or otherwise unempirical interpretations.

Strictly speaking, this empiricism anthropomorphizes nature, which is to say there’s a category error in asserting, as Newton does, that “particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena.” Like the word “imply,” “infer” has to do with unstated communication. The communicator suggests or implies a hidden meaning, while the receiver infers that meaning from what’s been communicated. Thus, a natural phenomenon, such as a planet’s orbit or a property of light waves doesn’t imply anything, nor can you infer any meaning from what isn’t alive and capable of literal communication. Of course, if you were to believe that a deity is behind all of nature, so that God speaks through natural patterns, you could speak well of receiving the meaning of natural messages. Rather than philosophizing about that meaning, you could read nature’s messages, as Galileo said, using the universe’s language of mathematics. Newton’s pseudoscientific occult studies notwithstanding, however, the theistic or deistic basis for this strict empiricism, according to which the scientist only reads off her explanations and theories from the observations, with minimal philosophical, aesthetic, or any other human interpretative contribution isn’t remotely scientific. On the contrary, the self-serving faith that nature originates from an all-powerful intelligent mind (who will happily reward the best of us, being that this god is one of us—only perfected) is the most hackneyed dogma and a classic prejudice which scientific objectivity and skepticism rendered quaint.

If nature doesn’t literally communicate any message to the observer and if “sense data” aren’t given—ready-made—by the phenomena, but are processed, as Kant argued, by the mind and brain, empiricism is erroneous. The mind isn’t a blank slate and nature doesn’t hand explanations to the scientist. Instead, the entire scientific or rational enterprise, together with the articulation of theories and explanations, and even the fundamental concept of truth are human anomalies. Rather than belonging to nature in Daoist fashion, a statement about, say, the orbit of planets is epiphenomenal, a bizarre byproduct to which the natural fact in question must be so indifferent that the most enlightened response to the statement is to appreciate the statement’s absurd futility.

Insight from Unthinking and Unsaying

In short, the most enlightened philosopher, scientist, or other presumed knower should conclude not just that empiricism is false and that science does presuppose philosophical and other nonscientific cognitive contributions, but that all such contributions are tantamount to the paradoxical declaration, “This statement is false.” To understand our theories and worldviews the way nature would view them (if nature had a viewpoint to express its indifference and inhumanity) is to unsay what we express. We should assert X, on the one hand, while on the other retracting X, but we should do so in a way that leaves us with a sobering emotional trace that survives the negation. In place of naïve overconfidence in our human contributions, we can awaken to posthuman horror, humility, and awe, to the realization that nothing we say or do matters on the surface, but that something profound is happening throughout nature and through (or in spite of) us and our fantasies and artificial retreats.

When we try to explain or to interpret that profound development that hides in plain sight, we humanize it, capturing it in our webs of language and logic and instrumental control. The result is so much off-putting self-directedness; we think we’re talking just about the planet’s orbit or about how life evolved or what atoms are made of, but we’re presupposing a harmony between us and nature which is a gratuitous conceit. We assume our representations agree with the facts or that nature is the tribunal that judges which of our explanations of its regularities is best. There’s no such agreement, since all life is evidently expendable, the prehistoric mass extinctions being the harshest possible signs of disagreement, and nature has no mind with which to evaluate.

When I say an enlightened person should be expected to retract her thoughts and statements, knowing their futility, this isn’t to say a vow of silence would be ideal. An emotional residue should be left after the double act of confidently, naively embarking upon a mental or linguistic representation or of striving to get at some truth with the cognitive resources at hand, and of negating those efforts in the imagination, by adopting a wider, inhuman or posthuman perspective, according to which we can never know what we’re doing.

When we think we know what’s happening, we’re only presuming our thoughts or statements agree with the facts or are useful for some purpose. Again, the presumption of such agreement rests on humanistic faith and overconfidence which eventually are overcome by the horror of our insignificance in the wider situation. Some thoughts are obviously more useful than others, but all of our purposes are all-too human to matter to the universe, as it were. Of course, nothing matters in that sense, so when something matters to us or when we judge a thought to be relevant to achieving a goal, we’re acting out the script of being a type of mammal or character with its genetic programming and other preoccupations. Even if we’re self-effacing and enlightened in conceiving of that script, the cognitive approach is self-serving or anthropocentric. We have no tools with which to understand our situation other than those we devise or that nature supplies us with for some evolutionary end, and while those tools can work within the script, they’re absurd when viewed from the enlightened vantage point offstage. 

Again, the saving grace might be that residue, that sense of irony and absurdity and despair when we adopt a humiliating meta-perspective (akin to King Lear’s after his encounter with the storm, in that play) and realize that our self-confidence and collective faith are objectively foolish. As Shakespeare writes in Macbeth,
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
The truth is captured not by thoughts or words, theories or worldviews, but by the shock of mental negation, of knowing that we know nothing and of dreading the fallout from our tragic isolation and presumptions in nature. All that should matter to the enlightened few is faith in the old sense, faith as fear of God, where “God” is a placeholder for the monstrous totality of what scientists think of arrogantly as the natural universe, as a congeries of hitherto mysterious raw materials than can now progressively be harvested and converted for power and profit. That existential fear encompasses the terror, disappointment and disgust that are the posthuman hallmarks, the signs we’ve lost naïve confidence in the childish things of human and animal behaviours.

For example, all of the above should be unsaid. I’ve written those paragraphs, you’ve read them, and if we, writer and reader, think we now better understand our situation, we’ve both missed the point. We understand best not with philosophy or science, art or language, but with the redemptive sidelong glance we can cast after we’ve engaged in and mentally negated all such conventional efforts. The first stage is to read even such meta-reflections as the above that fall under the heading, Existential or Cosmicist Philosophy. The second stage is to suffer the sorrow of conceding that even such subversive reflections are formulated using words, which are so many tools that can’t correspond to the facts in the presumed sense. The third stage is to stew in that disappointment, which can prompt the imagination to fathom what we must be like, after all, given that conventional representations are more or less self-serving and preposterous. When we grasp that even cosmicist philosophy is a cynical representation, which is to say a set of statements that announce their absurdity, we can feel the angst, despair, humiliation, disgust, and comedic detachment that likely make for a posthuman mentality.

Unpersons and Outsiders

In addition to unstatements and unthoughts, there are unpersons. We can negate our representations and also ourselves, because we can naively trust in what we think or say, but also in what we are and what we do more broadly. The naïve, prereflective way of life is to trust in your upbringing and your abilities, appearance and goals, and to be confident in yourself. That confidence is always foolish. To be sure, self-confidence is needed for us to succeed in most conventional endeavours, but those successes and endeavours are themselves foolish in the greater scheme. They will all be forgotten in a blink of the cosmic eye. How can we stay true to our embarrassing position in the pointless, inhuman flow of matter and energy? Not by pretending that what we do matters or even that we’re somehow centrally important to the universe. Instead, the noblest lifestyle is ironically that of the conscious outsider, the detached rebel against life’s absurdity.

This isn’t to say the enlightened few should all be cave dwellers. Some popular pastimes might be avoided for their lack of redeeming qualities; that is, some entertainments might be only degrading distractions, temptations that plunge us further into forgetfulness of our existential predicament. Others could be consumed and unconsumed, as it were, producing that precious emotional insight that saves human life from being wholly ridiculous. The very least we can do is to suffer somewhat after intuiting that life is absurd, and revolt in some fashion instead of blindly playing nature’s games or those that serve no higher purpose. Our highest purpose is only a pseudopurpose pursued by an unperson, by an outsider who doesn’t feel at home among those that trust too much in themselves, their society and their stations in life. When we negate ourselves and our goals, acknowledging their futility and foolishness, we can choose to waste our time doing nothing at all, languishing as ascetics in a cave, or we can challenge our universal fate, at a minimum, by refusing to play along, by demonstrating—even if only to ourselves—that we’re aware that life shouldn’t have evolved by accident, that sentient beings are too precious and ultimately too innocent to belong to a zombie universe that only simulates a grand design.


  1. "If nature doesn’t literally communicate any message to the observer and if “sense data” aren’t given—ready-made—by the phenomena, but are processed, as Kant argued, by the mind and brain, empiricism is erroneous. The mind isn’t a blank slate and nature doesn’t hand explanations to the scientist. Instead, the entire scientific or rational enterprise, together with the articulation of theories and explanations, and even the fundamental concept of truth are human anomalies."

    Scientists are positivists: they believe only in what they can perceive through their senses and extensions thereof. You and I may see that as awfully naive but, if they had the grounding in philosophy that we do, those scientists could make equally devastating criticisms of our own pet epistemologies.

    Empiricism depends on the senses even though the veracity of sense impressions cannot itself be proven empirically. There is no empirical reason to accept that something is real because I can see or hear it. Logical truths depend on their coherence with other logical truths, but there is no way to prove logically that a given statement must cohere with another statement for it to be true; this is simply assumed.

    In other words, it seems that all that we call 'truth' must ultimately rest upon assumptions that themselves are incapable of any rigorous proof. Both reason and sensation have pragmatic value in that they allow us to navigate through the world and tame nature (to a degree); this hardly makes them 'true'. So, do you think it would be more honest to dispense with the idea of 'truth' altogether? Certainly, it is enough to say that I see a glass full of ice in front of me without worrying about whether or not the glass truly exists. It is enough to say that the factorial of a negative number is equal to infinity without quibbling over the ontological status of the infinite.

    The only problem I see with this compromise is that it robs knowledge of all but pragmatic value; it reduces scientists to engineers and philosophers to dreamers. Would Einstein have bothered to labor at his theories if he were not driven by a desire for truth? 'Truth' may be a human anomalie, but I fear that without it we would be lost. To seek knowledge for merely practical ends feels a lot like having sex only for the sake of procreation; where's the romance? Choosing a criterion of truth - whether it be based on sensation, reason or even intuition - is a leap of faith; but faith, in this sense, seems to be an indispensable precondition for intellectual achievement.

    1. Well, a positivist who follows David Hume's reasoning should indeed be led to pragmatism. I also think the Age of Reason ends in pragmatism to avoid "postmodern" cynicism and nihilism (see the first link below). But I'd combine pragmatism with aesthetic and quasi-religious values, not just to put the romance back into life but to honour the most fitting emotional responses to nature (horror, awe, disgust, compassion, etc).

      One problem with pragmatism for the positivist is that pragmatism negates scientism. So if the empiricist wants to be both pragmatic and an imperialist about science's epistemic supremacy, she's quite out of luck. Once you concede that utility matters more than truth, you've got to give credit to all manner of unscientific foolishness (astrology, Christianity, not to mention philosophy), as long as those disciplines have their uses too.

      You couldn't even say that science is epistemically better than astrology, since knowledge would no longer be about truth. You could say knowledge is about power, and science empowers us more than astrology or religion, but that would be dubious since the nonsciences empower us mentally rather than technologically.

      I'm also quite interested in the paradoxes involved in trying to explain the concept of truth. See the other links if you're interested in my thoughts on truth.