lunes, febrero 18, 2008

What Evolution can tell about scientific knowledge

I argued about how Science is an incomplete evolution departing from mythology. This short essay was inspired by Feyerabend. From what I read from it, he is not a defender of the "anything goes" for science by ideological reasons. It is just his conclusion and his inevitable recommendation if one look at how science has progressed for good and bad trough history and how stablished scientific methods would impede scientific creation. Feyerabend is not a defender of absolute incommensurability (the impossibility of comparison of any two theories about the same thing); Simply he sanction that sometimes there are incommensurability among two theories. Feyerabend is not a cultural relativist, he does not consider all cultures equal based on a moral relativism and a tabula rasa image of human nature. On the contrary he is an absolute moralist. Simply, he ates the way modern science and rationalism has harassed other ways of knowledge and thinking here, at the Western Word, and abroad, challenging in the meantime our own survival. He also defend other cultures that have kept alternative kinds of knowledge. The cultural relativism and postmodern implications are not part of the Feyerabend philosophy, but the result of the appropriation of Feyerabend thesis by cultural determinist and postmodernists.

In the previously mentioned post, I conclude that the scientific knowledge is a byproduct of mutual scrutiny by men striving for proximate non material assets such are glory, respect and fame (joy of discovering also) that can be substantiated in ultimate assets (survival and reproductive outcome). Human perceptions of reality are determined by a cognitive machinery that is constructed by a program encoded in genes that everyone share and configures a unique human nature. Such genes are in us because they conferred advantages. This is the reason of our perception that certain parts of the space appears to be occupied by men, women, faces, children, mountains, trees, animals, pains, but also cars, atoms, quarks, branes, goods etc. All objects of what we agree as parts of reality, either universal or learned have a utilitarian purpose. These concepts are our representation of the world. But the world outside has no such things. I mean that even the atoms and the quarks are representations, useful balls attracted and repelled by forces which with the scientists approximate the real world in their minds in search of recognition (1). If the real world has no color balls or strings vibrating, less probable is to find outside men, women, children and trees. They are constructions of our cognitive machinery.

But they are universal constructions that represent a true existing reality with regularities and laws. What is perceived by us as a woman in danger, with all the physical and psychological attributes, is perceived as running food by a hungry Lion. But both representations accounts for a unique, existent, external reality. Our representations are universal among humans because we share them trough the common gene pool that construct our human nature in body and mind. As I said before, we have such genes because trough a long time the representations that the cognitive machinery constructed by these genes expressed regularities of the external reality that guided us successfully for survival and reproduction out there. So these representations are not arbitrary. Some representations are directly universal; Every person in the world recognizes a child, a woman etc. Other perceptions, although are representations generated by learning, the are generated by an universal mechanisms for learning.
Genes and instincts not only generate fixed behaviours and fixed representations, but, most of the time, they generate flexible programs that cope with a variable environment. In an mobile organism, only the critical behaviours that need fast processing and the ones that have no time for being learned, are fixed by genes. Otherwise, the genes codify the most flexible, most general mechanism possible that permits (and forces) to learn the desired behaviour. Genes are a precious resource. They are in limited quantities because gene handling is a substantial part of the cellular activity. They need to be repaired, transcribed, copied etc. For this reason natural selection favor the most general instincts possible. newborn antelopes instinctively know how to kept upright, walk and run without learning because this is vital for his survival in the savanna plenty of predators. Eliminate the predators and in a few million years the evolutionary successors of antelopes will need to learn to stay upright. However, an organism has many critical cognitive abilities. These critical parts conform behavioral regularities that are easily identifiable and this is the reason of the deeply wrong assumption of instinct equal-to fixed behaviour.

This long explanation is intended to convince the reader that reality, if no known, can be "handled" or interpreted. that is: we can have and accumulate knowledge of the regularities of the external world in terms of our internal universal or universally learn-able representations.

This practical nature of any knowledge and its universality, for one side goes according with the Feyerabend view of science as something not elevated and abstract, but as a human manifestation that must be judged as any other not by the partial judgement done by the science itself or even by the partial results measured in terms of technological achievements, but by his global human results. This includes the bad use of technology and the bad use of rationality when he erases or undermines any other form of necessary, even vital knowledge for living.

In the other side, this goes against the statement, attributed to Feyerabend and exaggerated by their postmodern followers, about that it is not possible to accumulate knowledge. According with this extreme position, there are disjoint realities shaped by different individual perceptions as result of different cultural world views. therefore only it is possible the accumulation of incommensurable (not comparable) theories. But the universality of human nature assure that we share universal problems and we strive for universal desires, for which we can give better universal solutions as result of the accumulation of universally valid practical knowledge.

These two strong points can be reformulated is sort of weak relativism/weak absolutism and this synthesis can be given, one more time, by evolution: Because the very final sanction for a world view is its outcome, then, no matter the achievements, the final result is given in terms of relative differences in survival and reproduction of each society that shares each worldview. We can compare the a priory usefulness of two theories or even two world views in practical terms, but we can not anticipate their real social outcomes. To explain this is the purpose of the following paragraphs:

A given knowledge has know as well as unknown implications. For example, the discovery of the quantum mechanics (and ad-hoc, practical theory with great accuracy that nobody knows what really means) has undermined common sense, with a devastating effect in every kind of practical non scientific knowledge. If reality is not what I see, if electrons not follows the intuitive laws movement of solids, then what else is not actually as I assume?.

When the general theory of relativity popularized the term "everything is relative" the devastation produced was even more drastic. Perhaps there is no paralyzing theory like general relativity. He invalidates the euclidean three dimensional world that is deep inside our intuition, so deep that Euclid, one man that lived 2500 years ago said that two parallels never intersect and no other man objected this until the twenty century. General relativity violates other intuitive laws, as for example the invariance of masses, sizes of rigid objects, time intuitions and laws of velocities of objects. But we believe that we live in a euclidean space, object masses and sizes are invariant, people age at the same rate and so on. General Relativity says that this is ontologically false. just an approximation. The transduction of quantum mechanics and general relativity to the masses trough newspapers, magazines, pseudo-philosophical essays etc was that out intuition and common sense were not something worth to believe in. ¿So moral can be also relative?.

The first atomic detonations acted as heavenly trundlers manifestating the power of the science-god as never seen in the history of mankind. That was more than enough credentials for the priests of science to demand us to believe in science and nothing else. Starting from this terrific coup de force of these exotic hard science facts and their powerful manifestations, every other science up to now has been trying to discover violations of common sense. Cultural determinism is just a product of common sense disbelief and the search of simple, elegant and comprehensive theories, at the image of General Relativity, that supposedly rule in the the external reality not accessible to us, humans, obscured by intuition, common sense and plastic perceptions shaped by culture.

"Hard science envy" is a term usually associated with the envy of soft sciences, like Psychology and Sociology, for the apparent clear and clean scientific methods used by hard sciences and the coherence, elegance and power of explanation of the hard science theories. But this term has to be applied to include also the envy about how hard sciences destroy our deep beliefs, feelings passions and desires upon which we justify our lives. Such phenomena are result of our universal nature, our biological history. Moreover, our non-scientific institutions and knowledges are selected for satisfying an equilibrium of human desires in society by a process of cultural selection. Rather that avoid or underestimate or ignore them and declare us a void territory upon which to engineer a new man and a new society, our human nature and our social institutions are facts of reality, they need their own scientific disciplines, but, mainly and overall, the evolutionary outcomes of our nature and our society deserve respect if we want worthful lives. As Einstein said: simplify as much as is possible, but no more!!

In fact this erase of non scientific knowledge started at least with Galileo and the heliocentrism. This case is studied extensively by Feyerabend to produce a devastating critic of common scientific methods. But the most shocking conclusion from Feyerabend, for a modern man, is that the sentence of the Inquisition about Galileo was, at his time, not only rational but morally and ethically correct. With respect to rationality I only will say that heliocentrism was in contradiction with many facts of reality know at the time of Galileo. That is used by Feyerabend to start to debunk every respectable scientific method. The second part, the ethical rightness of the Inquisitorial sentence of Galileo is perhaps more disturbing, because, if Galileo was right, how can't it be moraly and ethically correct?.

The response is related with the previously seen about hard and soft sciences. The tholomean system not only was part of the faith of his time, it was also according with common sense. Heliocentrism challenged common sense and put man out of the center of the Universe, in a way that neither God nor man are important. For his time it was revolutionary, not in the sense of "funny" for a modern man like most of us, grownt between wars, that has not lived a true revolution. It was truely dangerous. That is the moral and ethical meaning of the Galileo sentence at his time.

In fact the Galilean revolution changed the world. Was the Galilean revolution moral and ethical as seen now?. The only response is to measure the practical outcomes: If science and rationalism have created a lot of good things they also have created the guillotine, the Nazism, Comunism, disoriented personalities, compulsory natality control, cult for the nature and ate for humankind among other things. Perhaps the imperialism of reason would undermine the other neccesary part of our knowledge, the historical knowledges inherited from biology and tradition to a limit such that we may end up supplanted by other peoples and other worldview, no matter our achievements. And then the veredict will be clear. This exemplifiques that not all consequences of a given theory or worldview can be advanced. even If it can be advanced, maybe it can not be prevented. Time is the only judge.

For the above reasons a separation of science and state power is necessary. Or else, a control of science by citizens, as Feyerabend recommends. To avoid the excesses of rationalism, the science must not be judged by his own accepted terms, but by lay people according with their entire knowledge and his own understanding. But maybe lay people is not enough. maybe only one worldview is strong enoug in the Western World to stop Reason, and is Reason itself. For that matter is also urgent to demonstrate, by reason, the limits of Reason.

(1) lately, the cosmologists and particle physicists use mathematical abstractions that provides no testable facts. However these mathematical abstractions try to overcome the failure of previous theories. The criteria for a such mathematical speculation to be accepted is coherence, elegance and symmetry. This is not according with any scientific method. However after decades of speculation, these theories, called string theories, are just now giving testable results, by generalizing the older theories and solving their failures. This is an example of how Feyerabend ideas about abandoning any stablished method can be fruitful.

By the way, the String theories explain roughly the particles and forces of nature. The are somewhat isomorphic with the real world, in the sense that they are compatible with worlds like this and others. This is the most far that knowledge can go in gasping the true nature of things. Mathematics may be the only thing that is really out there (and this is a wild speculation).

12 comentarios:

Carlos Suchowolski dijo...

Pero... ¿es que vamos a ir últimamente en paralelo? Je, eso, claro no es lo importante. Lo bueno es que estas reflexiones están a la orden del día. Las narraciones difieren levemente en ciertos casos, como entre la tuya y la mía (supongo que esto tiene que ver con nuestras historias personales que nos han hecho llegar a conclusiones similares a travñes de varios caminos, como los que llevan a Roma). Pues nada, el tema hay que seguir afinándolo en base a una postura "libre" (sabemos lo que queremos decir aunque no sea una definición) y apoyada en esa certeza que nos da la constante comprobación de que estamos captando las "leyes", una y otra vez, reduciendo contradicciones constantemente, eludiendo las justificaciones a las reglas que observamos... Bueno, algo así, que es justamente lo complejo de resumir y lo que tendemos y pretendemos resumir.
Un saludo.

Germánico dijo...

Definitivamente voy a tener que leer el librito que tengo en casa de Feyerabend.

Mary White dijo...

Carlos, te anticipo que este "pedazo" de señor es el ponente de la charla del Instituto Juan de Mariana este viernes y que el tema será precisamente éste... Un lujo a su alcance, everyone invited.

Germánico dijo...

Sé que muchos la disfrutaríais igual, Mary, pero, por mi bien, espero que no la imparta en inglés....

Mary White dijo...

No, Germánico, será en germánico :P
(que nooo, en castizo)

Germánico dijo...

Menos maaaaal!

Así lo entenderé (casi) todo.

Carlos Suchowolski dijo...

Bueno, Germánico, lo de Feyerabend es un tanto anecdótico e ilustrativo. Hay mucha paja y el grano intuitivo que vale desde mi punto de vista está muy contaminado. Pero tiene sus perlitas y sus buenos descubrimientos. Estaba en serias dificultades, sin duda, con un badaje confuso. Tantas y tan serias como queda reflejado en el extracto que reproduje en mi blog a la vez que MW estaba subiendo su artículo, de ahí la sorpresa a la que aludía.

Y qué bueno, Mary: nos veremos el viernes, claro. Así tendré el gusto de conocer a estos "pedazo de señores".

Till any moment!

Memetic Warrior dijo...

Bueno, la predicación del viernes tiene que ver pero no es exactamente lo de este post.

Carlos: a mi feyerabend me parece correcto, aparte las exageraciones de otros que se han apropiado de su critica de la ciencia.

Germánico dijo...

El individualismo metodológico sometido a revisión evolucionista....

Carlos Suchowolski dijo...

Hombre, no puedo comulgar con la defensa y buena valoración que hace del "oportunismo" de Lenin, Mao, etc., ni de la distinción entre marxistas "no dogmáticos" y "dogmáticos", ni la contraposición entre Bakunin y el marxismo, etc. etc. Y esto lo traslada confusamente al plano metodológico (esto merece más detalle). Tampoco se puede aceptar una idea peregrina como la de que "el pueblo" vote por una u otra "tradición" científica. En fin, la denuncia de Paul F. es sin duda interesante, y se puede avanzar a partir de ella, pero hay que ir más allá y eso incluye la crítica y no correr sobre los "errores" (relativos, subjetivos, lo que quieras, pero así somos) un simple tupido velo de generalidad. Y mis disculpas si no soy riguroso del todo en los términos )es decir, me reservo el derecho de precisar mejor).

Memetic Warrior dijo...

Confieso que no he llegado a lo de Lenin, pero en principio lo que dices no me parece demasiado inquietante, aunque tengo que leer mas. De feyerabend me interesan sus ideas generales. Yo también he escrito que seria mejor bombardear España con Napalm y no por eso me descalifico.

Respeto a la forma confusa de sus objeciones a a la metodologia, la vida es confusa, poco comprensible, y la ciencia es parte de la vida. El solo la devuelve a su verdadera naturaleza. la falta de claridad meridiana de conceptos es necesaria si uno no quiere acabar estudiando una forma deslabazada e idealizada de realidad.

Respecto a lo del control democrático de la ciencia, eso se está haciendo ya con materias como todo lo relacionado con la genética, la reproducción humana etc. El que eso enlentezca la ciencia no es la consecuencia mas importante, sino la menor. Por lo tanto no es descabellado. A mi me parece necesario, aunque las esperanzas que pone en ello para domesticar el totalitarismo racionalista me parecen vanas.

Carlos Suchowolski dijo...

Te remito a mis citas de Feyerabend en mis posts sobre el tema de los que escribí dos sin acabar la saga (tengo dos pendientes en borradores). Y, porque hay puntos en común, a mi ignorado artículo sobre Gould. Pero no es cuestión de desatar un ping pong. Coincido en buena medida con la intencionalidad de tu adhesión. Fue inicialmente la mía hasta que debido a un post de Germánico, que él recordará, y unos comentarios míos incompletos en Tabula Rasa, me releí al "amigo" en parte pero con sumo detalle. Tanto que llegué a agobiarme y ha dejar el tema en suspenso. ¡Hay tanto que estudiar! ¡Y escribir! ¡¡E incluso trabajar!!
(Ah, si os pasais por mi blog un momento, encontrareis un párrafo dedicado a Feyerabend, al que aludía con lo "ir en paralelo" que ha dado lugar a varias puntualizaciones en respuesta a algunos comentarios. Y si teneis un poco más de tiempo, leed el post inmediatamente anterior que me llevó a mencionar el párrafo de Feyerabend y a transcribirlo luego. En fin, no lo hago con fines propagandísticos sino dado que aquí no he abundado lo suficiente.)