Friday, October 21, 2011

Inventory and Alienation

Haven't posted for a while. There has been a lot in the non-virtual world to tend to lately.

My Dad used to tell of the saying that he and his fellow Englishmen belonged to "a nation of shopkeepers." Looking at this from a distance, combined with the general ubiquity of English "empiricism", I see the general worldview encapsulated in this saying as one of "inventory". Of course we associate empiricism with evidence and objectivity, the successful scientific method, and contrast it with the general failure of scholastic philosophy (as parodied by Monty Python in the witch skit in the film, the Holy Grail, for example) which is viewed as contributing nothing more than impractical and fanciful speculations. I'm led to think, though, that our insistence on clear definitions and numbers owes itself far more to our economic arrangements than our scientific one, and science suffers as much as the rest of us for a misplaced trust in clear definitions and numbers.

Is the world in fact "composed of things of various kinds in various numbers"? Yes, obviously, most people would say. But that describes an inventory, not an ecosphere, which is rather more dynamic and complex. So what do scientists do if not inventory? They do think in numbers and definitions. The cornerstone of experimentation is the "operational definition" which is about defining something in measurable, numerical terms. In order to accomplish this, scientists need to speculate about potential influences on the object of study and set up experiments to "control for" these influences in ways that can be measured. And in order to manage this, they need to circumscribe the list of potential influences, which for certain things (i.e., things that we'd say are "law governed", i.e., mechanical things) is doable.  Well, gosh, that would be obvious wouldn't it, because if things weren't law governed, no scientist could manage to create an experiment with reliable predictions and repeatable results.

It's my view that this approach is only amenable to objects of study where context can be mathematically parsed out of the equations, and those things are everywhere, but not necessarily everything (i.e., certain areas of physics and chemistry.) In other words, scientific laws describe ideal relations, without context. The particular context is supplied by the "initial conditions". Is there ever a situation where the initial conditions can't be exhaustively identified? Of course! Pretty well every situation that is not covered by the "hard sciences."

Stuart Kauffman suggests that we "sneak in" the lawfulness in hard science by roping things off, setting them up in advance "by hand". Yes, this is awesome that we can do this, and it's what allows us to have incredibly complicated technologies and wonderful experimental discoveries in physics and chemistry, but I don't believe that, even in principle we'd be able to identify the field of things meant to count as initial conditions for all the different occasions and events in the world. At best, we could do so retroactively, but never proactively.

What this means is that for much of what we try to plan and determine, we identify rather an incomplete list of things that count as conditions for the outcomes we are projecting. People are becoming more attuned to this fact as, for example, they now talk about "wicked problems" in business planning; in other words, problems whose dimensions are not definable and enumerable in advance. People have always known that ecology and sociology do not make the kinds of hard and fast predictions of physics and chemistry, but the question is why and the answer is that they do not have the kinds of problems where the "parsing out" that goes on in physics and chemistry can be done. Why don't they? Because not everything that occurs happens at one scale. Everything is intertwined, everything is interconnected, everything influences on several scales. Mechanical (or "reductionist") thinking focuses only on one. This focus keeps us alienated from discovery and from life. If an experience of a situation doesn't fit into that box, it's supposed to be "merely subjective" and otherwise non-existent? (Talk of epiphenomena, or even silly concepts such as supervenience are used as ad hoc supplements to reductionist models.)

Types, lists and numbers. How much of our planning counts these as the cornerstone? More to the point, how much of our ideas of worth are tied to these "real, practical, objective, factual, measurable" things? Are these not our very idea of what's worth pursuing? (Think of S.M.A.R.T. goals for example.)

I'm not sure that's smart or even scientific, to be honest. It's just an inventory.