From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Nature: The Final Arbiter


Quotes I like

See full before him, gliding without tread,
An image with a glory round its head;
The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues,
Nor knows he makes the shadow he pursues!

'Samuel Taylor Coleridge's naïve woodsman from "Constancy to an Ideal Object"'
Plac’d on this isthumus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Skeptic’s side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s side.
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast: …
Sole judge of Truth, in endless error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Alexander Pope, Selected Works (1948), 107; quoted in Mark Wilson’s Wandering Significance (2016), 661.
The most notable norm of naturalized epistemology actually coincides with that of traditional epistemology. It is simply the watchword of empiricism: nihil in mente quod non prius in sensu. This is a prime specimen of naturalized epistemology, for it is a finding of natural science itself, however fallible, that our information about the world comes only through the impact of our sensory receptors. And still the point is normative, warning us against telepaths and soothsayers.
The Pursuit of Truth (1992,p.19), W.V. Quine
The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop, when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.
Karl R. Popper, "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" (1934)

Jan. 3. …….. The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk ……”—E.A. Poe, The Light-House

Thinking over his time up to that point today, Ulrich might shake his head in wonder, as if someone were to tell him about his previous incarnations; but his third effort was different. An engineer may understandably become absorbed in his speciality instead of giving himself up to the freedom and vastness of the world of thought, even though his machines are delivered to the ends of the earth, for he is no more called upon to adapt the daring and innovative soul of his technology to his private soul than a machine can be expected to apply to itself the differential calculus upon which it is based. But the same cannot be said of mathematics, which is the new method of thought itself, the mind itself, the very wellspring of the times and the primal source of an incredible transformation. …

Even back when Ulrich first turned to mathematics there were already those who predicted the collapse of European civilisation because no human faith, no love, no simplicity, no goodness, dwelt any longer in man. These people had all, typically, been poor mathematicians as young people and at school. This later put them in a position to prove that mathematics, the mother of natural science and grandmother of technology, was also the primordial mother of the spirit that eventually gave rise to poison gas and warplanes.

But one thing, on the other hand, could be said about Ulrich: he loved mathematics because of the kind of people who could not endure it. He was in love with science not so much on scientific as on human grounds. He saw that in all the problems that come within its orbit, science thinks differently from the laity. If we translate “scientific outlook” into “view of life,” “hypothesis,” into “attempt,” and “truth,” into “action,” then there would be no notable scientist or mathematician whose life’s work, in courage and revolutionary impact, did not far outmatch the greatest deeds in history. The man has not yet been born who could say to his followers: “You may steal, kill, fornicate—our teaching is so strong that it will transform the cesspool of your sins into clear, sparkling mountain streams.” But in science it happens every few years that something till then held to be in error suddenly revolutionises the field, or that some dim and disdained idea becomes the ruler of a new realm of thought. Such events are not merely upheavals but lead us upward like a Jacob’s ladder. The life of science is as strong and carefree and glorious as a fairy tale. And Ulrich felt: People simply don’t realise it, they have no idea how much thinking can be done already; if they could be taught to think a new way, they would change their lives. …

It was his opinion that in this century, together with everything human, one was on an expedition, which required as a matter of pride that one cut off all useless questions with a “not yet,” and that life be conducted on a provisional basis, but with awareness of the goal to be reached by those who will come after. The fact is that science has developed a concept of hard, sober intelligence that makes the old metaphysical and moral ideas of the human race simply intolerable, even though all it has to put in their place is the hope that a distant day will come when a race of intellectual conquerers will descend into the valleys of spiritual fruitfulness. (But this works only so long as the eye is not forced to abandon visionary distance for present nearness, or made to read a statement that in the meantime a racehorse has become a genius). …

There is, in short, no great idea that stupidity could not put to its own uses; stupidity can move in all directions, and put on all the guises of truth [Leucippus’ note: “deep-fake data” is a particularly pernicious example of this phenomenon]. The truth, by comparison, has only one appearance and only one path, and is always at a disadvantage.
Robert Musil, excerpts from
The Man Without Qualities

Noire Perfection


Seeing through a glass darkly

Algernon Blackwood, as old as the hills.

What is it to be Lynchian? To quote David Foster Wallace:

[‘Lynchian’] refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter. The unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal.

A particularly caliginous, yet lucid, example is Jeffrey Dahmer’s fridge; victims’ heads beside groceries.

Things I'd like to contribute to

  • Methodological naturalism
  • Rationality
  • Intelligence

Some of my views

Nature, of which we are a part, is what compels and fascinates me; opulence and starkness, beauty and disfigurement, complexity and simplicity — her myriad ways. We always start from within nature, us, her sapient parts.

When I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It’s not that I hate it—I love it! I love it very much …—but, I love it against my better judgement.
—Herzog on nature

Usually, I don’t go for this kind of documentary, I would cast it aside as pretentious obscurantism, as having its place … perhaps in art? …but not in serious philosophy. However, this is a Herculean documentary. Herzog’s reflections on nature in The Burden of Dreams are startlingly profound and, also, consonant with my own views. Nature does contain beauty and things worthy of positive evaluation, but I strongly believe that bleakness and things worthy of negative evaluation overcrowd any of nature’s merits. I think Camus (at least as I interpret him) encapsulated one of nature’s defining characteristics—the absurd. No other adjective so-fully characterises the response of a conscious mind to nature, and to human existence; quite simply everything a conscious mind wants: reasons, knowledge, hope, relief from physical suffering and mental anguish, meaning, etc., etc., … none of these perplexing questions are answered in a satisfying way—the cosmos remains silent.

William James once described the prelinguistic-child’s experience of the world as a “a blooming, buzzing confusion”—this is a fine description of nature herself. Senseless. Senseless.

The very idea of a God (or Gods) has always puzzled me: debates regarding deities always seem to surround the idea of God as it is espoused by religions. But I am more puzzled by the very idea of a God (i.e. the idea considered from outside the framework of any particular religion) — why is this concept treated as if it makes any sense in the first place? The arrogance to assume that this human conceptualisation, couched in our language, is somehow isomorphic with how the world actually is.... Needless to say, the idea of God ( or Gods) is fundamentally — incoherent, unintelligible, riddled with inconsistency, and utterly devoid of evidential support.
I believe that the idea of God was proposed at a primordial stage in human history, as a desperate hypothesis, to try and manage the welter of neural input, to manage the complexity of experience — but, alas, it did this job (extraordinarily) poorly. I believe, like Quine, that what separates God(s) from the theoretical constructs of advanced science is just a matter of the degree of evidential support, not between radically different kinds. The very notion of an object, after all, is part and parcel of the mythmaking we engage in, in our attempts, however pathetic, to try and understand nature.

Some of my intellectual influences: David Hume, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Wilfrid Sellars, John Dewey, the late Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, Mark Wilson, W.V. Quine, early Hilary Putnam. As a naturalist, I see philosophy—the study of our most general questions—as continuous with science. Pragmatism and common sense are also integral to naturalism.
Naturalism is concerned not with philosophy of science but with scientific philosophy, with approaching all philosophical questions from within science, and hence bringing the intellectual rigour of science to philosophy. The inception of scientific philosophy, of naturalism, began with – undoubtedly! – Archimedes—he of whom, was an entire civilisation in itself—, and attained its conscious avowal in the nineteenth century, where it was championed by Hermann von Helmholtz, Heinrich Hertz, Ernst Mach, Oliver Heaviside and Pierre Duhem.

Often when I think about naturalism or nature, certain sensations and images are immediately present in my mind: images of a pristine forest accompanied by sensations of coursing, surging, flumes of lush verdant-green.

On naturalism

Ob nicht Natur zuletzt sich doch ergründe?

Might not nature finally fathom itself?
Goethe (1816)

Spinoza on nature: Natura naturans and Natura naturata—nature is ultimate.

Spinoza on God: “And so they will not stop asking for the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of God, i.e., the sanctuary of ignorance”. (I, Appendix)
Baruch Spinoza,
Short Treatise; Deus, sive Natura: Spinoza on nature and there being no God, no supernatural, and no need for religion

It is understandable that the philosopher should seek a transcendental vantage point, outside the world that imprisons the natural scientist and mathematician. He would make himself independent of the conceptual scheme which it is his task to study and revise. “Give me που στω [a place to stand],” Archimedes said, “and I will move the world.” However, there is no such cosmic exile. The philosopher is in the position rather, as Neurath says, “of a mariner who must rebuild his ship on the open sea.”
W.V. Quine, notes for Sign and Object, (November 5, 1944)
I'm moved to laughter at the thought of how presumptous it would be to reject [science] for philosophical reasons. How would you like the job of telling [scientists] that they must change their ways, and abjure countless errors, now that philosophy has discovered that there are no classes, that time is unreal. Can you tell them, with a straight face, to follow philosophical argument wherever it may lead? If they challenge your credentials, will you boast of philosophy's other great discoveries: that motion is impossible, that a Being than which no greater can be conceived cannot be conceived not to exist, that it is unthinkable that anything exists outside the mind, that it is a wide-open scientific question whether anyone has ever believed anything, and so on, and on, ad nauseum? Not me!
Parts of Classes (1991a, 59), David Lewis
It is silly to agree that a reason for believing p warrants accepting p in all scientific circumstances, and then to add but even so it is "not good enough". Such a judgment could only be made if one accepted a trans-scientific method as superior to the scientific method; but this philosopher, at least, has no interest in doing that.
Hilary Putnam, "Philosophy of Logic" (1971)

Intellectual perfection—C.F. Gauss

If we except the great name of Newton it is probable that no mathematicians of any age or country have ever surpassed Gauss in the combination of an abundant fertility of invention with an absolute rigorousness in demonstration, which the ancient Greeks themselves might have envied. It may seem paradoxical, but it is probably nevertheless true that it is precisely the efforts after logical perfection of form which has rendered the writings of Gauss open to the charge of obscurity and unnecessary difficulty. Gauss says more than once that, for brevity, he gives only the synthesis, and suppresses the analysis of his propositions. If, on the other hand, we turn to a memoir of Euler's, there is a sort of free and luxuriant gracefulness about the whole performance, which tells of the quiet pleasure which Euler must have taken in each step of his work. It is not the least of Gauss's claims to the admiration of mathematicians, that, while fully penetrated with a sense of the vastness of the science, he exacted the utmost rigorousness in every part of it, never passed over a difficulty, as if it did not exist, and never accepted a theorem as true beyond the limits within which it could actually be demonstrated.
— H.J.S. Smith, Presidential Address, Proceedings of the London Math. Soc. VIII, 18

Cook’s carmen cygni

“Allons Travailler!”—Get on with it!

Discovered this maxim from Hitchens, who in-turn attributed its imperative form to the great naturalist Emile Zola. A maxim by which I would like to live.
Here is, what I take to be, one of its canonical expressions: