Philosophy for beginners

A bunch of nerds talking like they know everything about nothing. Smart left brainers, madd scientists or wacky skeptics? You decide.

From Aristotle to Hegel, from Hilbert to Einstein, lots of smart people have chased Theories of Everything while hungering for certainty. On his deathbed, the great philosopher Wittgenstein was still trying to find out what certainty is, but he couldn't nail it down. Where does the obsession with certainty come from? Who needs it anyway?

Left brain ~ right brain
From a psychological point of view, nerds or analytic left brainers are thought to value certainty, predictability, rigor and precision, more so than their holistic right brain hippy counterparts do. On the other hand we humans also appreciate creativity, interpretation, ambiguity and wiggle room. So in theory, it would at least seem possible to have a nice balance between the left and right side of thought, so to speak. But in practice, especially when it comes to the production of knowledge, left brainers are often tipping that balance in their favor. Over the centuries, this has lead to a scientific culture where measuring something seems intrinsically better, or at least less dangerous than experiencing something.

Scientific methodology
Since real left brainers value rigor and precision so much, it also seems logical to assume that their scientific methodology is better than that of, say, a psychologist. Indeed this is often the case. We now know that many psychologists have done a miserable job when it comes to experimental design and statistics. But we also know what can happen if any scientist, left or right brained, is confronted with new data that don't seem to fit their pet theory. Sometimes things get swept under the carpet. Especially if the data is dangerous.

Below is a non-rigorous rant about loosely related stuff, like the notion of a language of nature, the ancient archetype of the madd scientist, the naive Popperianism enigma and mob justice.

The Language of Nature
If you ask Google “what is the language of nature” the first suggestion is mathematics. Think of this as a sign of the times we live in. Is nature also fluent in other languages? Like the periodic table, DNA, the topics that are studied in biosemiotics, the wood wide web, or even music, the I Ching, astrology or dreams?

"It is the Cartesian form of the archetypal philosophical fantasy - first spun by Plato - of cutting through all description, all representation, to a state of consciousness which, per impossibile, combines the best features of inarticulate confrontation with the best features of linguistic formulation. This fantasy of discovering, and somehow knowing that one has discovered, Nature's Own Vocabulary seemed to become more concrete when Galileo and Newton formulated a comprehensive set of predictively useful universal generalizations, written in suitably 'cold', 'inhuman', mathematical terms."

From Richard Rorty's Method, Social Science, and Social Hope

Why mathematics?
Why mathematics? Blame it on the fuzzy nature of human languages. Words, signs, meanings and so on are all potentially very dangerous things. When words are mixed up by creative minds, they can easily produce illusions, not unlike the way a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. For example, you might unexpectedly combine the words 'purple' and 'rain' and create 'purple rain'. That's poetry. And it's relatively harmless. But let's juggle some more. We take 'absolute' and 'certainty' and create 'absolute certainty'. Boom! In the same way, you might accidentally create a concept like 'pure reason'. Now what? Again: these are very dangerous concepts because they are illusory (snake-oil, nonsense, bunk, lies). The funny sensation you might get in your frontal lobes when you read the words 'pure reason' is actually purely poetic, because pure reason does not refer to anything real in nature or even in human brains or minds. In other words: it's as real as an imagined unicorn. Exactly the same thing is true for 'absolute certainty' and many more attractive, misleading metaphors that are created by sticking random words together with semantic superglue. Plato, who dreamed up quite a few controversial ideas himself, knew exactly what he was doing when he kicked the poets out if his ideal Republic. Many scientists are aware of these problems. The stupid ones will conclude that therefore, philosophy is nonsense.

Beautiful rigor
There are many more ways to create semantic blur. Using the same manipulative vocabulary over and over again is a common strategy. The British professor of particle physics Brain Cox was hired by the BBC, seemingly in an effort to persuade innocent teenagers into becoming scientists. At any rate, the TV programs about science presented by Mr. Cox tend to emphasize the beauty of nature. So much so that Mr. Cox publicly admits to overusing the word beauty. But is esthetics really a valid scientific concept for a professor of particle physics? Nah.. when the average mathematician or physicist invokes the finer things in life, like beauty and elegance, what they usually have in mind is the simplicity and accuracy of an equation.   

Rigorous is another one of the most overused words in academic circles. What's rigorous today is questionable tomorrow. The etymological source of rigorous is the Latin word rigor, meaning stiffness, as in rigor mortis. There are two main interpretations: meticulous, exact and precise, or strict, uncompromising, severe and brutal. At any rate, being rigorous implies left brain-activity.

During the Age of Lobotomy Reason, it was generally believed that linear, analytic left brain-thought is far superior to creative, intuitive right brain-thought. As a result, in the 18th and 19th century, left brainers attempted to dominate Western society, business, and even culture (Neoclassicism anyone?). Those who took part in dangerous right brain activities were called Romantics. Science was becoming a very analytical business, at least compared to pre-Copernican times. But rigorous or not, scientific theories came and went. This is no surprise, it's simply the way science works.

In theoretical physics for example, recent innovations like the multiverse, string theory, dark energy and dark matter don't seem built to last (proposing a Theory of Anything is even more wacky than searching for a Theory of Everything). Again, this is no problem. Like Max Planck said, science progresses by funerals and mistakes. Recent prestigious projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Genome Project have failed to deliver their biggest promises, but at least they offer some insight into the anatomy of scientific hubris secrets of nature.

Ancient archetypes and fundamentalist beliefs

The ancient archetype of the madd scientist is alive and well nowadays. Take for example the maverick mathematician Steven Wolfram, creator of Mathematica software. He said over 15 years ago in an interview with Wired magazine that he might be able to find a kind of master program, a few simple lines of 'cosmic code' that will reveal everything. It seems like he is still searching.

Mr. Frank Tipler (photo) is one of the authors of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, a notorious book that put the 'fine-tuned universe' on the agenda. To quote Stephen Hawking: "The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life."

In 2007, Tipler published The Physics of Christianity. “This book is my contribution to spreading the Word,” Tipler says. He predicts: “The end-time of humanity as predicted by physics is so close to the end-time foretold by Christianity that I have proposed that the two are one and the same. Jesus will descend from the Second Hypostasis of the Cosmological Singularity, moving through the universes of the multiverse to take on human flesh once more. He will personally act to prevent the new super-energy source and the artificial intelligences from totally destroying humanity. He will instead guide both humanity and the new intelligences.”

Mr Tipler seems to be a skeptic's best friend and worst nightmare at the same time. Martin Gardner enjoyed writing his review of The Physics of Christianity: “All conservative Christians believe Jesus was free of the original sin that resulted from the Fall, which has been passed on to all descendants of Adam and Eve. Catholics think that Mary, too, escaped original sin. (It is a Catholic heresy to reject the Immaculate Conception.) How does Tipler explain the way Jesus and Mary differ in this manner from all other humans? Tipler's answer is wonderful. There must be genes that carry original sin!”

Tim Callahan's review The Physics of Nonsense looks at Mr. Tipler's theories from a different perspective: “Tipler's attempt to shoehorn science into the Bible ignores the disciplines of biblical scholarship. There is an arrogance implicit in this. The author is saying, in essence, that his discipline should be respected, but that the disciplines of linguistics, biblical scholarship, comparative mythology, history, and archaeology are of no consequence.”

The skeptic Lawrence M. Krauss on the other hand worries about the dangers of scientific hubris: “As a collection of half-truths and exaggerations, I was first tempted to describe Tipler's new book as nonsense, but I soon realized that that would be unfair to the concept of nonsense. These descriptions are far more dangerous than nonsense, because Tipler's reasonable descriptions of various aspects of modern physics, combined with his respectable research pedigree, give the distinct illusion that he is honestly describing what the laws of physics imply. He is not.”

Here's our take: Tipler's strange theories seem perfectly logical to him because he really believes something. In Mr. Tipler's case, it's the fairly common, but nevertheless irrational belief that all biblical texts are literally and even absolutely TRUE. Joseph Campbell explains in Thou Art That (2001): “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Certainty of faith outweighs the data
In science, irrational cultural beliefs are shortcuts to the archetype of the madd scientist. In a true believer's brain the certainty of faith always outweighs the data. Critical thinking is suspended or rendered ineffective. Like Robert Anton Wilson says in Prometheus Rising: whatever the believer believes, the prover proves. It makes no difference if the believer is a literalist Christian or a fundamentalist materialist: lack of wiggle room in the cranium = intellectual rigor mortis. It's often a collective and ritualistic phenomenon with its own language. In The New Inquisition (1987), a polemic against fundamentalist materialism, Robert Anton Wilson writes: “If one hears the metaphors and/or cuss-words of the Ku Klux Klan, one can guess how a black human will be treated in that group. If one hears the language system of radical feminism, one knows how a male human will be regarded. If one hears the noises of fundamentalist materialism, one knows how an allegation of 'ESP' will be received.”

One free miracle

In the US, theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss is known as a skeptic. In the video above he's the one who introduces himself by calling one of the panelists an 'ignorant slut'. Mr. Krauss belongs to the materialist camp: everything is stuff, only stuff is real, anything that isn't stuff is unreal, nonsense, delusional. Funny enough, in his book A Universe from Nothing (2012) Mr. Krauss proposes that our universe comes from nothing. A pure nothing: absence of particles, energy, spacetime, the works. The book sold very well. The zoologist Richard Dawkins compared it to Darwin's The Origin of Species. Others were reminded of Terence McKenna's quote on science: “Give us one free miracle and we'll explain the rest.”

Being an antitheist, even a hint of Divine intervention can upset Mr. Krauss. A fine-tuned universe, for example, isn't really his cup of tea: “It's an argument that sometimes I find distasteful, from a personal perspective,” says Krauss, putting his faith in the future: “Certain quantities have seemed inexplicable and fine-tuned, and once we understand them, they don't seem so fine-tuned. We have to have some historical perspective.” Currently, the multiverse seems to be the best way to make sure God stays dead, but for militant atheists, dangerous information looms everywhere.

On a more personal note, the first thing we notice about the physiognomy of Mr. Krauss is his fairly big mouth. A trait he shares with his alleged previous incarnation Chaim Weizmann (photo, left).

From madd science to naive Popperianism
In the name of good science and reason, the US-based Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has faked data, spread lies and harmed reputations. The creed is skepticism, the agenda is fundamentalist materialism. A classic CSICOP-story is about one of the most famous scientific projects in the history of astrology: the data collected by the French scientists Michel and Francoise Gauquelin, which led to the discovery of the Mars effect. New rival data, gathered by CSICOP-researchers to prove that the Gauquelins were frauds, and that astrology is nonsense, suggested the opposite: even when practiced by CSICOP astrology works.

Which brings us to the topic of naive Popperianism. As we all know, you have to draw the line somewhere. For example, it would be nice if we could draw a straight line between good science and pseudo-science (nonsense, illusion, cooked data). This is known as the 'demarcation problem'. The philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper thought he had something useful to say about this, possibly because his alleged previous incarnation Rene Descartes, who started off the Age of Lobotomy Reason by artificially separating the left and right hemispheres of his own brain, had a flair for such things.

Mob justice

Popper's falsifiability criterion didn't work as well as some had hoped. Subscribing to naive Popperianism simply means that academics would have to treat taboo areas like astrology, ESP and so on with a modicum of respect. Unthinkable, although we have more rigorous evidence for ESP than for string theory and the multiverse combined. If you think this is a lie (Wikipedia says so) you're unaware of a bizarre phenomenon: mobs of skeptics are sanitizing the internet, hunting for dangerous information. Of course, these friendly people have all been raised on Sextus Empiricus, Douglas Hofstadter, David Hume, David Chalmers, Ludwig Wittgenstein etc.

Playing by the rules?

Here's the take home message for emotionally challenged hardcore leftbrainers who want to start playing by the rules: try to face your worst fears and do not look away. That's right brain jargon for being rigorous. Dangerous information as you put it is not really a scientific concept; it's much more a political and emotional concept. 

Believe it or not, even artistic right brainers know a thing or two about being brutally honest. A classic Romantic concept of art is that it's about inspiring awe by creating authentic beauty out of existential pain, suffering and so on. Spiritual rebirth is often the result of facing your worst inner demon, and accepting that truth hurts. Take for example the painter Goya, a Romantic who stared down a whole pantheon of personal demons, the atrocities of war and whatever else came his way. Or Frida Kahlo, who created an authentic style and showed mental strength, humour, optimism and spirituality despite a Stephen Hawking level of physical problems.

You know what... this is not going anywhere, Mr. Tipler just got sick. He had to go to the toilet to refresh himself. Let's just argue about smart, nonsensical left brain-farts instead. That should be safe.