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Archive for October 31st, 2009

A Philosophy of Mutability (or) what was supposed to be a love poem

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 31, 2009

Illustration is probably science and religion with the wall being philosophies.

I'm not completely sure why I think this fits here. Not a collage, I swear.

The world is full to the brim with religions and philosophies. Religions are based on faith. Philosophies are, going on what I have observed, based on perspective. Religions are based on belief in a (technically) immutable God. Philosophies are based on belief in a mutable enough perspective. Philosophies, it can be argued, are better for that very reason: mutability is certainly better than non-mutability (please accept this for now; I’ll come to the justification later). Going down that road, it would seem that the more mutable a philosophy is, the more points it would have by default. Actually, the closer mutability is to the heart of a philosophy, the more points it would have by default. Now, imagine a philosophy based entirely, and exclusively, on (its own) mutability. It would be the best possible thing, except for the fact that we need something concrete to work from. So, we’d need a philosophy that, in spite of being based on mutability, provided us with a concrete basis. Now, suppose the principle behind mutability, for we would need something to guide the mutation, itself provided the means for choosing that concrete basis.

In real life, we have natural selection, a mechanism based on a similar process of guided mutation. Is it a co-incidence that long before we had discovered natural selection, we had discovered its intellectual equivalent? (Not really answerable; just a cool parallel.) In fact, is it a co-incidence that natural selection itself was discovered using, and has maintained respectability due to, this very philosophy?

Yes, dear reader, I am talking about the scientific method. It is a method which starts at the basis that everything is a hypothesis, and we have to search for the truth. It is the first system of thought in history that has started from a method for looking for the truth rather than a statement, or at least tentative idea, of the truth; it has replaced knowledge by the search for knowledge, much like the progress of narrative art from the Greek morality plays to the “art for art’s sake” post-modernists. Most people will tell you that science does make the assumption that our senses are right. Let me tell you: science makes many, many more assumptions. It’s just that they are not central to it.

The idea here is what is known as ‘Ockham’s razor’ or ‘Occam’s razor’. Suppose you arranged every hypothesis in the world such that the more assumptions it made, the farther right it would be. Let’s call this the ‘idea line’. Now you start from the left, and say put a razor in as far left as possible. If whatever came out on the left turned out to be useful or not wrong, we would use it. If it didn’t, we would move one space right. This razor that we are shoving is what is known as Ockham’s razor. If you think about it, it’s a logical step away from the premise I have not quite stated, given the need for something concrete to perform our search with.

So, here’s the beauty of the idea line: none of the hypotheses on it are making any pretensions at truth. They are merely making attempts to get at the truth: science’s basic claim is not truth, but the best way to get there.

How come? What if something to the far right of Ockham’s razor is true? Science’s best answer is a question: how can we ever know if it is true? To which, it gets the question how do we have a better idea of the left hypothesis’ trueness than the right one’s?

Science, of course, must answer this question. Its answer speaks in terms of probability, or – as many would have it – a different version of probability called truthlikeness. I won’t go into the difference, as I am not outlining the various standpoints in science. What it says is, in essence, this: for a hypothesis further left, a statement stating it is true has a greater likelihood, according to our knowledge, of being true (for any estimation of probability is an approximation based on knowledge). That’s it. From what we know, we can’t justify either God or relativity. It’s just that we can come closer to justifying relativity. This is also why mutability is good: if it can be seen that the doctrine is wrong, it should be open to change. The basis for mutability is the ability to disprove anything that is said, and that – that any concrete claim that is made must be refutable – is the best statement, that I know of, of the premise of the scientific method.

Now – and here’s the crunch –, how do we translate this to action? If we don’t know what’s true, how do we manipulate the world based on what little knowledge we have? There is one response to this: the experimental sciences, a branch of science that only experiments. There is also another, not mutually exclusive with the first, response: approximations. Where these work, they work, like in technology, due to which I am now writing this and you reading it.

And, where they don’t, they don’t. Like in medicine. Much of modern medicine can be considered to be quackery, full of doctors making approximations based on statistics. Many of these statistics are in question, as are many of the approximations: many of Somalia’s children may be getting a vaccine proven to work on eighty percent of Americans, and dying because of the mild version of the disease they are getting.

There is also one case where the scientific method is well nigh useless: outliers, a specific kind of them. Remember that story you heard about the blind woman who could narrate a scene which is supposedly recorded by a trustworthy doctor? How do we know whether that is a figment of someone’s or many people’s imagination, or true but unbelievably infrequent? Most of this stuff is what is known as ‘anecdotal’. This means that it has reached from source to other places without meticulous and rigorous examination at the source, so we really have no idea. Now, suppose many, many independent witnesses, at least a few among whom are experts who have thoroughly cross-examined the situation, corroborate an observation, and it is stunningly improbable, like the Statue of Liberty waving at us and going back to its original position, how do we study it? The answer is that we simply can’t. All studying has to be of the evidence for the event actually having happened, in which case no theory can be verified/disproved, for the simple reason that none of its predictions can. And I can make this point without even referring to the human tendency of hyperbole.

There is another thing, not quite a problem with it but an issue surrounding it, about science: fair discussion. It’s very hard to achieve this. It’s a natural human tendency to employ a more effective means of convincing: show me a man who has never used bad logic to his advantage and I’ll show you an alien (see what I mean? If no, look at what that sentence means). Very often, even when your reasons are good enough, they sound weak, which leads you to hyperbole. There are many lines of argument one can, in a large discussion group, demolish in one sentence, but speak it, and the line of argument is going to go on; that measly sentence just doesn’t take up enough space in your audience’s minds, minds where point after point, argument after argument, thread after thread, are fighting to take up space. In such an environment, what chance does one(1) measly, even if incredibly deep – especially if incredibly deep –, sentence have?

This is just what happens in the case of helplessness. There is another, more natural, tendency to bad logic: that of conviction. I’ve already talked about the difficulty of translating this method to action. For this very reason, many have learnt that it’s better to stick to your guns than listen to someone who’s telling you you’re going to die if you do, possibly. It’s as simple as that. The second guy doesn’t make the good leader, the first guy does.

Also, if you notice, the doctrine that would better fit the first guy is religion, which is why all through history it hasn’t been a conquest of people without science by people out to teach them science but a conquest of people without the invader’s religion by people out to teach it to them. It is the great failure of these conquests that a majority of those invaded in the modern times have learnt science rather than Christianity.

This is also the ultimate demonstration of the power of science. Yes, it has its problems, but it is also the best thing we have, and this is the only way I can possibly end this, something that was supposed to be a love poem to the greatest doctrine of truth – nay, the search for truth – in all of human history.

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