11.24.2009

Parsimonious Vastness

Micheal referred to me as an logical positivist which got me thinking. I don't think that really describes how I think. For one, I am a huge believer in falsification, one of the pillars of modern science. But more, I'm just not a philosopher. For me, philosophy is where many scientific ideas germinate. It's a good place for that because it is less constrained by the confines of defined reality. That's not a slam. In the formative stages of ideas fewer limits can be great. But I have to admit that I don't find it a particularly useful place to hang about for extended periods of time. Too easy to loose one's way. Plus, I'm mostly interested in problem solving (a character trait that no doubt influenced my career choices) than philosophizing about it. More the engineer I suppose.

My own research began as a series of thought experiments imagining solutions to machine cognition. Almost all the imaginings were worthless. One survived these early trials well enough to be elevated to the status of research. From there it arguably became science. Definable testable, falsifiable and repeatable. All things that I adore when it comes to dealing with concrete problems.

So if I had a philosophy, what would it be? It's not skepticism since that's more of a methodology. Perhaps I should define my childlike definition of philosophy: Imagining reality. No not like a novelist but in a manner intended to make sense of the universe and find workable approaches to problems that are difficult to approach through my mastery of science. Notice I didn't say difficult for science. Just difficult for me. I'll get back to that. In other words, to me philosophy is an internally consistent world view that I haven't the tools to really test. It's stuff that makes logical sense and seems to work without meticulous proof. Few philosophy professors would probably like that definition but they are free to use their own and leave mine be.

My philosophy is equally simple: Parsimonious vastness. I have art to explain it.

In the Beginning there was ignorance... It was and is not good...

Imagine for a moment that this big blue oval represents human knowledge at some point in the past. Now add a new experience. The smaller bluish ovoids represent data which fits into the existing knowledge of the world. But what to do with that pesky green datum that lies outside of the known? The approach one takes is critical and says a lot about how you think.


If you're more of a materialist you approach the problem in this manner; you start from the assumption that the explanation for this inconvenient datum is that within our physical plain of existence (that which is testable, falsifiable, repeatable and logically consistent) there is a lot we don't yet know. This type of individual (call him Pliny for simplicity...) considers the errant datum an opportunity to expand the boundaries of physical knowledge. This isn't without logic since human history overflows with instances where this was exactly the case. The Plinyist is content to look for answers within this physical plain of reality until such time as there is data for which there can be no rational accounting.


Others see it far differently.


Their perception is that errant data is evidence of another plain of existence rather than just data beyond the current knowledge boundaries on the physical plain. This doesn't mean religion or religious plains of existence. There are many kinds of metaphysical universes. We see evidence of others in the writings of some of our associates. Metaphysical plains have some advantages over physical plains: metaphysical plains can have all sorts of special features and characteristics that allow one to fit pretty much whatever you want onto the framework. They create the special pattern recognition categories that reinforce belief in the plain over time. In time the metaphysical plain can look quite convincing except for the inability to either verify (beyond the anecdotal) or falsify its existence. Useful in philosophy - not so much in science. Physical plains cannot resort to magic so tend to be considered more boring and far less accommodating to our existential needs. Which is why we often prefer the metaphysical ones. In truth the physical one is far from boring - unaccommodating yes, but not boring.



In minds more inclined toward the metaphysical, the above event represents an intersection between the physical and the metaphysical like the diagram above. To me this is a very premature assumption.
Is it more likely that another undefinable plain of existence is at work or is it more likely that given the enormity of this universe and our relatively recent and puny efforts to better define the knowable, that we are just scratching the surface of what is possible on this plain of existence - the one we can actually define and test?
I'm forced to resort to another metaphor. Imagine that you are looking at the far horizon. You can't see beyond it of course. Is your first inclination that reality beyond your field of view is completely different from what you can see? Or is it likely that even though you can't see it, things over the horizon pretty much conform to the rules governing that which is under your nose? My first (pragmatist that I am) inclination is to figure they are until such time as it can be proven not to be the case by something more substantial than someone's word. I admit that this notion is a philosophy albeit a pretty simple one. Like the diagram below, the limits of our knowledge in no way encompass but a fraction of the information contained within this one universe like those little undiscovered pink bits. Maybe someday we'll encounter them and expand our naturalistic understanding; perhaps not. But our limitations do not warrant seeking alternate realities as a crutch. I suspect those undiscovered bits will still lie on the plain of this universe - and make it less likely that alternates will be required to explain anything. If there is anything that is unknowable I suspect it's more a volume, access and bandwidth problem rather than stuff off hiding on some other plain.



The universe is vast, our knowledge of it is small, so before we go off chasing other plains let's exhaust the one we can examine. We have a lot of exploring to do in this reality before we need consider others.

So what becomes of metaphysical plains in Plinydom? Some would fall back to the old God of the Gaps defense which allows metaphysical abstractions to live in smaller and smaller cubbyholes scattered between aspects of definable reality. That's where the parsimony kicks in. Simple solutions are not always the right ones, but in my opinion, (philosophy) mathematics provides some useful insights into these problems. If you solve complex problems you often end up with large sections of the equation which can be reduced. At some point the equation can't be reduced any further. When that happens, well you shouldn't go looking for any missing bits unless the equations don't provide relevant solutions. Math tends to be parsimonious - you end up with the minimum equation that solves the problem. Math also tends to do a great job of explaining the reality of this physical plain of existence we call the universe. One could be forgiven for thinking of this universe as a mathematical one since much of what we end up knowing is from that which can be reduced to mathematics. Sometimes you end up with constants or fudge factors to get the right answer. But that is usually just an indication that something is missing. And you should go look. Take Einsteins famous cosmological constant. He introduced it so that his equations would end up with solutions that were in keeping with his vision of a static universe when using the observed data which looked like a less content universe. Decades later this constant is seen less as a fudge factor and more as an indicator of the nature of a the particular expansion taking place in a universe that allows people like us to exist and debate our cosmic origins. At some point other fudge factors become so small that their influence can be safely ignored. Evoking the philosophy of cosmic parsimony it seems likely to moi that anything that can be ignored is probably an error of some kind in the first place. Ergo, at some point the gaps are too small to house anything of importance to this plain of existence. And if only negligible items remain then it doesn't bode well for the existence, or at least the intersection of alternate plains of existence to ours. Said another way, don't sweat the small stuff...

Others push back and have claimed that Satan is responsible for all this logically consistent data that skeptics such as I take as evidence of naturalism. As I discussed in my rebuke to Pascal's wager many moons ago, if Satan really is that powerful and clever then we are screwed in any case.



There may be another possibility that I've never seen described elsewhere: an alternate metaphysical explanation as to why so much seemingly can be explained through examinations of our physical reality that doesn't require Satan:

Talk about the weak force ;).



It's a simple philosophy but I'm basically a simple guy.

__________________________________________
Addendum

Based upon the comments made to this post thus far I thought the best way to respond would be more art. I want to address two related questions from my own perspective: 1) Is there a mechanistic explanation for every event, and 2) how do we account for disciplines that would seem to not be mechanistic such as anthropology, sociology, etc.? The diagram below will hopefully illustrate my answer.


Imagine that the green shapes represent disciplines such as the ones mentioned. In my opinion all these disciplines must intersect the physical plain of the universe which is largely defined by mathematical or physical laws limiting the range of experiences possible within the universe. In other words, at their core they must be governed by these laws. If ESP is not permitted by the structure and energy restrictions of this universe, it cannot, by definition affect psychology or any other behavioral science, for example. The limits of what is possible via anthropology are set by the physical plain. The exact events and occurrences within the discipline are not. Nor can they necessarily be predicted with certainty even knowing the physical limits. This is similar to weather forecasting. The range of possible weather conditions is limited by atmospheric physics, but chaotic responses within those limits make it hard to predict exactly what will occur. Much like the alphabet which limits written expression to a few characters, the range of meaningful combinations of those letters used to express ideas is huge. We can know what a writer will use to create his or her words but cannot predict the prose that will result. All we can say is that even if the words seem transcendent they probably aren't literally. All events within the set of possibilities contained within the set of these disciplines (green shapes) may not conform to a definable and repeatable mechanistic explanation - but none will violate the laws of nature and all must be able to be inferred from those laws. All sets of events are anchored to the limits of physical reality. Will this always be the case? Who knows. But it does show that the study of non-mechanistic disciplines is still very important even in a mechanistic universe. It also illustrates that chaotic disciplines in no way require alternate plains of existence to make sense in this one.

13 comments:

Michael Lockridge said...

Francis Schaeffer held that a philosophy is simply a world view. By virtue of such a definition everyone is a philosopher. An active, intentional philosopher works to shape their world view.

By virtue of that definition your philosophy is indeed a philosophy. I see shades of Kant and Bergson in your words and illustrations.

I like your illustrations. They address and, uh, illustrate what you are sharing in words.

Schaeffer used an orange as an illustration. Cut in half horizontally, the lower half represents the realm of what is knowable by the senses. The upper half represents the metaphysical realms of knowledge. He sought to point out that philosophies (such as that of the logical positivists) addressed only half of what might be known.

I think your illustration of intersection might be a better image to use in contemplating such an idea. As simple as you claim it to be, I think it is a good image to use as an anchor for thought on knowledge and what might be known.

I shall certainly use this tool you have presented.

oneblood said...

Pliny, you're not simple and you know it.

I think you're a positivist with pragmatic tendencies, which I think is cool!...Well, you're a doctor who works with AI, healthcare 'stuff' and you're slightly pragmatic in the Jamesian sense...that's why I think it's cool.

I thought you were setting up the old false dichotomy between science and religion at first but you avoided it well.

That being said, our current focus on certain kinds of science culture has really lead us away from: anthropology, sociology, and psychology (terms used a little loosely). Somehow we still live out the false mind/body paradigm in other ways.

Since religion, and its ilk are man made, the assertion that it's simply proto-science has got to stop. Mankind has kept the most accessible parts of religion, but currently the wave of false positivism (tee hee) has swept away from discourse the aforementioned fields and their ability to do credible, scientific analyses of religion/spirituality.

But you're absolutely right on another point which made me think of James as well. Perhaps you're more of an engineer type, yet a credible critique of philosophy in being a should instead of a must, is its utility. Asking when and if an abstract becomes true is perfectly legit in my book.

Good post Pliny :-)

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Thanks for the thoughts. They deserve a better discussion than I can do in the comment section, so bear with me while I add an appendix to the main post dealing with your responses.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Alas, I suppose it's just another datum in the ongoing saga of how warped my sense of humor is that no one commented on my last 2 cartoons. I especially liked the last one.

oneblood said...

Sorry Pliny, You're last two cartoons were funny. But the image of "origins" in the right hand column, really made me smile. I don't know why, I hadn't noticed it before.

I'll reply on the addendum later.

Have a happy Thanksgiving Pliny!

Richelle said...

Happy Thanksgiving Pliny!

I enjoyed your post and just thought you should know that I got a good chuckle out of your cartoons. I love that you used Satan from South Park.

I was going to leave an intelligent comment regarding philosophy and talk about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and semantics (maybe suggest imagining a venn diagram for illustrative purposes), but I am not feeling very brainy today, so another day, perhaps.

I hope everyone enjoys their carcass of choice, whether it be pig or some species of bird.

pboyfloyd said...

I, um, don't know "what" to think about this. In the first illustration, my mind is the green circle and everything else is the blue elipse.

Am I right so far?

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

my mind is the green circle and everything else is the blue elipse.

-----------------------
pboy, that may be the case but the good news is that you are stuck on the same basic plain of existence as the rest of us ;)

Michael Lockridge said...

You sure?

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Micheal - LOL perhaps a bubble with a thin neck connecting to the plain... Though that's more likely to be me than anybody else I suppose.

Thanks to others for the holiday well wishing. I had a splendid holiday and hope you did as well.

Though I must aim a major raspberry toward PZM for his Thanksgiving rant. Holidays, regardless of their origins, are what you as an individual make of them. I guess that makes me an accomodationist yet again.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
oneblood said...

Dear Pline-abby, I confess. I didn't think I was implying anything non-material about said 'ologies.'

Did I do so accidentally?

Signed,

Confused in Minneapolis with a cheating husband who thinks he's a ferret.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

OneBlood - Nor did I think that. I was merely adding content showing how I think such subjects are grounded in mechanistic processes without being deterministic.