Hard, Liquid and Volatile Science: why the distinction isn’t trivial.

In the previous post I laid down a rather lengthy definition of how scientific efforts are organised and what they always (should) have in common. I may now use my descriptions to see how they relate to different intellectual efforts: my main point being that the concept of “striving toward solidity” is useful because it allows to distinguish with surprising clarity what is truly scientific from what is just flatulent fraudulent.

Consciousness studies

Let’s see, for a juicy start, I’ll try with philosophy of mind (as the subject is one of my favourites): when one tries to define consciousness or free will, it is generally safe to assume that we know very little, and that therefore it is perfectly OK to spend a lot of time in volatile efforts, trying to build a theory that can be used to start shedding some light. This is the work of philosophers, and indeed, you’ll find plenty of them that are very busy in the field. However, on close inspection,  you’ll actually find philosophers that follow two distinct paths… Some will be trying to do what I’ve already outlined (Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, John Searle, Ned Block and William Hirstein, to name a few): formulate a theory that embraces what is already known and that can be used tentatively to learn something new. Some others however are busy using scientific or quasi-scientific language to do something entirely different: they are actively trying to deny the possibility that any (valid) theory of consciousness will be able to progress towards solidity. I will cowardly avoid to name them, but if you know the field I’m sure that you will have a good idea of who I have in mind. My whole point here is that my definitions immediately debunk this second breed, and expose their position as dangerously ambiguous (at best, but you could describe it as self-serving if you wanted to be nasty). On one side, they justify their role on the basis that they are trying to produce theories that actually do explain reality, but on the other hand, they essentially conclude that science can’t explain their subject (consciousness, in this example), and that some other method should be used. This other method is usually philosophical and ultimately justifies their own work in a circular manner. Oh well, but how on earth should we evaluate their different theories if they deny the possibility to use science (as in: empirical observation) to do so? I guess we should feel free to choose the theory we like best, and in such case, I’ll go for one that is actively trying to solidify, thank you very much.

Evolution versus Intelligent Design

Another example: the (pretentious) debate between Evolutionary Theory and Intelligent Design (ID) can also be described in similar terms. ID tries to pose as proper science, but it can’t, because by injecting a supernatural intelligence it gives up “a priori” all hopes to ever becoming solid. If things happen because God intervenes, we have, by definition, no hope to be able to understand the when, how and why, let alone try to predict the next intervention… Evolutionary Theory acknowledges some limits as well (namely, the impossibility of testing and witnessing all of the details in practice, and the inherent unpredictability of the future), but does so a posteriori: the theory itself introduces some well-defined degrees of uncertainty, meaning that it explains why we will be never able to figure out all minute details, but it doesn’t prevent us from trying to uncover more and more of them, in fact it provides a method to do so. By defining and isolating the sources of uncertainty, it is actually proceeding towards solidity. The fact that perfect hardness is inherently out of reach, doesn’t make the effort less scientific, on the contrary, as long as the direction is the right one, it validates the scientific credentials of the Theory. Science is, in other words, a process, not a subject.

Science and Humanities

The same distinction can be used to shed some light on the accusations of scientism on one side, and obscurantism on the other, that have been floating around in recent times. This  latest chapter of the never-ending “debate” between science and humanities started off with Pinker on the New Republic, continued with Wieseltier on the same journal and then inevitably scattered away in a gazillion different directions, as everyone wants to have his/her say. Of all reactions, my favourite one is published on Edge, graced with the never disappointing wit of Daniel Dennett. My little contribution is this: I’ve said before that there is nothing that prevents to apply the Scientific Attitude to the study of arts and humanities. Currently, such study has to be seen as Volatile, because it deals with human creativity, something that seems to be, by definition, out of control. This is fine, but the moment one declares that his/her own field of study is Volatile and that “by definition” it cannot, and never will, proceed one inch toward solidity, it is essentially raising the hand and saying “all we can do is fart (metaphorically)”. This is precisely what Wieseltier is saying:

It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science.

In other words, according to Wieseltier, ethics, politics and arts have the intrinsic right to declare themselves impossible to solidify, not even a little bit: they firmly belong to philosophy, and are by definition outside the domain of empirical enquiry. Fair enough, if that’s true, please abandon your subject and move on to something else: it’s the only honest thing to do, if you think that there is nothing that we can possibly define, understand and describe in any better way. In fact, Wieseltier is saying that we have no way to decide whether any definition, understanding, or theory is any better than the next one. I can conclude this on the basis of the observation that empirically derived knowledge can be and often is very volatile, but efforts to improve such knowledge always aim towards more solidity (less uncertainty, or more predictability). If they do, they can be seen as scientific, even if the person doing them considers herself a humanist or philosopher. This is, in my perspective, the reason why there shouldn’t be any debate between science and humanities: epistemologically, they can and should be one and the same. However, when one negates that the aim is to increase solidity (either because more solidity is impossible, or because it is pointless) then it undermines both empirical and intellectual efforts in the field: it is essentially negating the usefulness of all efforts. If that’s the case, one shouldn’t bother, and whoever makes a living studying a subject that they maintain is impossible to solidify, is openly fraudulent (or flatulent).

On the other hand, Pinker isn’t helping: he is sort-of flirting with what I’m saying here, but doesn’t go far enough. Namely, he retains the distinction between science (I guess he refers to relatively solid science) and humanities (so far, necessarily volatile science) and calls for more integration. What he misses is that there should not be any distinction, or that the distinction should be equivalent to the one we see between different scientific fields: no one disputes that there are differences between physics and biology, but this didn’t preclude the possibility of combining their efforts in what then became biophysics.

The debate between science and humanities is now being revived because neuroscience and related branches are starting to show how it is theoretically possible to solidify fields that have been traditionally seen as firmly volatile, and hence mistakenly assumed to be immune to scientific inquiry. What’s worse is that these fields have sometimes allowed themselves to cultivate volatility as if it was a virtue. Now the distance between neuroscience and humanities is slowly and almost imperceptibly starting to narrow, and this makes dishonest intellectuals very uneasy. It is not that neuroscience is promising to make the humanities redundant, that’s not even a possibility, the current problem is that it is threatening to expose the blatant contradiction that animates some, I believe pretty rare, humanists. Those that are genuinely interested in understanding human nature, creativity, morality and so forth, will have no problem (besides long, mostly boring, and sometimes prohibitively steep learning curves), but those that see vagueness and ambiguity as a virtue will need to fight for their wages. That is the problem, and the reason why this current debate immediately escalated into a turf war, and (turf) wars are never useful or fruitful. Hence, I am suggesting that Pinker’s incipit wasn’t the best possible one, but only because he didn’t succeed in his effort to show how both branches are (or can be) ultimately united by the same underlying attitude.

Within my metaphoric vision of solidity, the argument becomes between the people who want to see the progressive solidification of humanities (as we understand more and more what makes us human) and those who refuse to accept that this process is even conceivable. This is one reason why I consider my metaphor useful: it allows to clearly see the distinction. Now, if you want, you should feel free to accuse me of scientism: I’m as guilty as they come. I confess, I believe that we can and should use what we see and feel to better understand the world, all of the world, including human beings, the products of their imagination, and social constructs.

The solidity metaphor from a personal point of view

Finally, some personal notes. There is one striking quality of Hard Science that is usually not advertised at all. It is this: the more solid a science is, the duller it feels. My own recurring example about the need of opening my front door explains the concept. Even the example is dull! This is unfortunate, but it is necessarily so: the more we approach an all-round and reliable understanding of a subject, the less it will be interesting. Critics of scientism exploit this sad reality in many ways, but essentially they complain about the ugliness of the result, they accuse bona-fide scientist of trying to make everything boring. And up to a certain extent, they are right: that’s the aim, but there is no need to be alarmed. As far as we can tell, the effort is open-ended, there seem to be an infinite supply of new things to understand, and there are good reasons to believe that in fact we can keep playing the “solidify” game forever. The more we understand, the more we find new things that may be understood, but in the process, we also invariably create new phenomena (for example, the Internet, and virtual social networks therein). The game is open-ended because there is no theoretical upper level of human imagination, and there can’t be any. There will never be a shortage of mysteries to inspire our awe and to tickle our curiosity, ever: even if we could solidify all natural (non-human) sciences (and we can’t), the humanities will forever remain somewhat fluid.

This finally leads me to my own direct experience with science: firmly on the Liquid side, but striving to become dull solid. I’ve directly experienced the dullness effect: when doing molecular biology I found to my expense that the aim was to make all our efforts as dull (predictable) as possible. I was into science because I wanted to use my intelligence to solve hard problems, and got into molecular biology applied to neurobiology largely because it seemed to be the rocket science of my time: very complex and full of promise. Instead, it was tedious, laborious, very slow and as unimaginative as possible. Not for me. Many years later, I find myself attracted by the Volatile end of the spectrum: that’s where overwhelming complexity can be found, and where one can use as much creativity as possible to devise new ways to tame such complexity. I see this kind of effort as genuinely scientific, and find the process exciting because it manages to steer (egoistically) well away from the dull side of the whole business.

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Posted in Evolution, Philosophy, Premises, Science
7 comments on “Hard, Liquid and Volatile Science: why the distinction isn’t trivial.
  1. […] more trustworthy predictions and/or increase the precision of such predictions. All the rest is unsubstantiated fluff (or intellectual flatulence, as I like to define […]

  2. […] this possibility. In this post I’ll be using what I’ve built so far (the definition of volatility of scientific endeavours and the distinction between the two sciences of ethics) to explain why this hope is largely […]

  3. […] their claim. Hence, the question remains open, and it does because (as I’ve argued over and over) pure thought alone can’t provide definitive answers, and instead is often able to move us […]

  4. […] the next post, I will try to use the classification above in a number of different ways: first and foremost, […]

  5. […] fun, and dangerously difficult to substantiate it.  This makes EP a tricky discipline, it is highly volatile and always at risk of becoming a sort of self-referential pseudoscientific field. However, I […]

  6. […] fit in Lakatos view. In the previous posts, I’ve defined the scientific attitude (see also this post), and added two concepts: the first one is that a correct scientific attitude requires to be ready […]

  7. […] are, after all, dealing with an emerging, still to be established, research programme. The field is solidifying quickly, but we are far away from having a fairly complete and coherent jigsaw. On the other hand, […]

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