Thursday, September 30, 2010

On the Limits of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Limits

Via Hot Air (where a quite lively discussion did ensue!), comes this perfectly lovely article from The New Scientist. It is an eloquent essay on the approach of an honest, open-minded scientist to the needlessly limiting categories of "theism" and "atheism" with respect to the mind's on-going dialog with nature.
 So while there are plenty of good books by scientist-atheists, they sometimes under-emphasise the main lesson from science: that our knowledge is vastly outstripped by our ignorance. For me, a life in science prompts awe and exploration over dogmatism.
 Given these considerations, I do not call myself an atheist. I don't feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion. Traditional religious stories can be beautiful and often crystallise hard-won wisdom - but it is hardly a challenge to poke holes in them. Religious structures are built by humans and brim with all manner of strange human claims - they often reflect cults of personality, xenophobia or mental illness. The holy books of these religions were written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, other galaxies, information theory, electricity, the big bang, the big crunch, or even other cultures, literatures or landscapes. 
So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position. I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism - but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.
Indeed! Over the years, I have developed a feeling for militant atheism which is akin to that which I feel about dogmatic theism. They both make me a bit sad.

I consider myself a functional atheist, but a technical agnostic. I simply cannot rule out that there is an Intelligence orchestrating the unfolding of the Great Cosmic Simulation (scale = 1:1). But nor can I reconcile my observations and studies with the premise that there must be such an Intelligence. I have absorbed enough from Chaos/Complexity theory to find highly satisfying comprehensiveness in the explanatory power of the concepts of self-organization in complex systems under far-from-equilibrium conditions. I simply do not see the need for a Cosmic Controller, any more than I need to posit a "Brain Bird," guiding and controlling the dynamics of a flock in flight.

But, when you come right down to it, what the hell do I know?

To make the leap from "What" questions to "Why" questions is to commit the fundamental(ist) error of both believers and non-believers. "What" questions are the proper domain of science: they deal with that which can be tested and observed (what are the proportions of ordinary matter to dark matter in the observable universe?). "Why" questions deal with ultimate issues (Why is there something instead of nothing?). Any effort to transplant one from the other is bound to bump against a hard metaphysical stop, and require what, for all intents and purposes must be considered a leap of faith. One of the most lovely treatments of this matter was the brilliant 1996 film, "Contact," in which a woman of science and a man of faith must find a way to reconcile their ostensibly antithetical world-views to questions of cosmic import. It is one of my very favorite films for the sheer poetry with which it addresses this matter which has so dominated the landscape of my thinking since childhood. The limits of knowledge need not represent the foreclosure of possibilities, but that we conjure they do.

This is why I call myself a "possibilian". Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.
Is possibilianism compatible with a scientific career? Indeed, it represents the heart of science. Real science operates by holding limitless possibilities in mind and working to see which one is most supported by the data. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to gather data that weighs in - and in those cases we simply retain the possibilities. We don't commit to a particular version of the story when there is no reason to.
Again, big bang-on. Now, he term “Possibilian” seems too precious by…well, a frack of a lot more than half. But the term “agnostic” has always rankled me something fierce. To live by the dictum that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence seems a mite…reduced by simply calling it “No-Knowledge.”

Sure, sure, saying you don’t know is supposed to be the beginning of wisdom and all that. But it feels a little like calling an American boy “Leslie.” It’s a fine name, but don’t expect him to thank you for it in middle school.

Nomenclature aside, though, it's a big 'Verse, with room for Grand Unifying Narratives aplenty. It seems to me that digging in our heels and shouting names at each other is a less than optimal use of the finite quanta of energy available to us before we flame out. This is one of the (many) reasons I find Bill Maher no less a nauseating homunculus of a man than Pat Robertson. Both pull for a zero-sum, annihilationist exclusivity which offers absolutely no quarter for the "other side."

To quote from another one of my favorite movies, "You have to see with better eyes than that."

3 comments:

Mike said...

Two points:

1. Atheists aren't people who have ruled out the possibility of a God. There's a different name for those people: "morons". Rather, atheists (one of the few ideological groups in which I count myself without reservation) argue that we can assign some kind of rough probability to the possibility of the existence of God given the available evidence and that said probability is very low. Dawkins goes into great detail about this in "The God Delusion." Very highly recommended.

2. I'm starting to lean in the direction that the what/why distinction is linguistic/semantic rather than truly semiotic. One of the things pulling me in that direction is that Spanish lacks a word for why. As you know, "por que" literally translates as "for what" but substitutes 1 for 1 for the word "why" in English. Unfortunately, Spanish also suffers from syntactically correct double negatives which in my limited experience create more of an impediment to clear thinking than the absence of "why." IAC, my main point is that millenia of technological progress suggest that we can get a hell of a lot done without even answering any "why" questions.

BTW, I'm in Queens the weekend of the 15th (the wife won't be arriving until the 17th). Any chance you can make out 1 night so the 3 of us can hang?

Noocyte said...

1) Which is why I was careful to put the term "militant" in front of "atheist" in this post. I would, far more often than not, treat the terms "militant" and "moron" as all-but interchangeable.

I have grown to have a real problem (maybe "only" aesthetic, but a problem nonetheless) with folks choosing to ridicule and dismiss that which they themselves cannot, in all intellectual honesty, entirely rule out. Yet there are militants who do this, routinely, and with a sneer that says that those who don't are deficient in some way. It's bad faith, in the existential sense...and in others, besides.

I haven't read Dawkins' book yet, but it's high on the mid-list.

2) Interesting point. In practice, though, the terms "por que" and "para que," while technically equivalent, speak to different levels of abstraction, with the "por" having a more "why-ish" resonance, while the "para" lends itself to a more functionalist question.

In the end, though, these are issues which transcend linguistics, as you know. I think pretty much anyone will know that the quesion: "por que hay algo en ves de nada" is not one which can be tested in the lab.

The scientific approach to a dialectic with nature has borne spectacular fruit, to be sure (he said, typing into a portable computer which would have been reserved for universities and government agencies, scarcely more than a decade ago). But there are broader/subtler questions to which the mind gravitates, which lie beyond the pale of empiricism. It is the very humility before present, pending, and possible data sets which constitutes the finest tradition of scientific thought. That is my point, and the point of the essay I've linked: Don't foreclose on possibilities; the 'verse is a far stranger place then any of us suppose.

Noocyte said...

Meeting up on the 15th/16th, alas, would pose a pretty much insoluble problem in logistics, since it would mean heading to NYC for two consecutive week-ends. Drat, but I can't see a way.

If, however, you and Mr H should find a way to match orbits for a spell, I would not feel slighted in the slightest.