Studies in Context

Posted: June 21, 2008 in Culture, Philosophy

I really like this comic, from xkcd:


It’s not your run-of-the-mill comic strip, as it’s filled with technology, geekery, romance, and math. Many of the comics aren’t so much funny as they are wry commentary. The comic above isn’t funny ha-ha really, and I don’t know whether regular folks see its humor. I laughed, though, at the modest suggestion that practitioners of different disciplines might try to outdo each other with claims to purity. So it was especially funny when I read this quote from Edward O. Wilson’s book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:

If the thread of causal explanations has been well laid, it is nonetheless possible to follow any pathway quickly in reverse, back through the behavioral sciences to biology, chemistry, and finally physics.

This quote suffers from a lack of context, but it captures the essential idea of the comic. Elsewhere, Wilson describes mathematics as the underlying basis of everything, a sort of Rosetta stone, though I don’t recall his using the word purity.

The book is a fascinating push-pull exercise between establishing very broad context and focusing on minutiae to demonstrate how the context does indeed fit around lots of diverse things. This fuller quote might better demonstrate what I mean:

Although seemingly chimerical at times, no intellectual vision is more important and daunting that that of objective truth based on scientific understanding … Argued at length in Greek philosophy, it took modern form in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment hope that science would find the laws governing all physical existence. Thus empowered … we could clear away the debris of millennia, including all the myths and false cosmologies that encumber humanity’s self-image. The Enlightenment dream faded before the allure of Romanticism; but, even more important, science could not deliver in the domain most crucial to its promise, the physical basis of mind. The two failings worked together in a devastating combination: People are innate romantics, they desperately need myth and dogma, and scientists could not explain why people have this need.

As the nineteenth century closed, the dream of objective truth was rekindled by two philosophies. The first, European in origin, was positivism, the conviction that the only certain knowledge is the exact description of what we perceive with our senses. The second, American in origin, was pragmatism, the belief that truth is what consistently works in human action. From the outset both positions were symbiotic with science. They drew major strength from the spectacular advances in the physical sciences then underway, which vindicated them by the varied actions — electromagnetic motors, X-rays, reagent chemistry — that exact, practical knowledge made possible.

This passage is both a history lesson and a sales pitch for science, like the book as a whole. However, the exciting part is the way the details are fit within a larger context in an attempt to explain and describe where our modern philosophies and attitudes come from and what enabled them along the way. I also admire the wherewithal it takes to form such contexts.

In another example, Joe Bageant describes the close connection between moral goodness and wealth and in the process dispels the myth that those who colonized North America were primarily seeking pure, unadulterated freedom, which has become the story told by most folk histories and quite a few textbooks:

The marriage of morality with wealth production is older than our constitutional republic. When the first colonists arrived in the American colonies, they arrived as part of a joint stock venture by English or Dutch investors. They were obligated to produce a profit for those investors, and the sense of one’s individual worth was immediately tied to productive capability by the leadership, designated by the investors or royalty. The church joined forces with the investment capitalists to attach a moral value to productiveness. It was a holistic capital venture, morally and physically.

Of course we have history books that never mention this, and instead tell us about freedom loving religious dissenters, etc. But the fact was that, dissenters or not, they didn’t come here and simply pick out a piece of dirt, settle it and prosper through rugged independence. They got land indirectly through or from royalty or others who had been granted huge tracts, with the idea of developing commerce by management of human beings.

Anyway, morality and goods and prosperity, sure signs of God’s approval, have been linked in this nation since the beginning. Anyone who fails to prosper is deficient in either effort, or in God’s eyes, both of which are the same. I don’t think most Americans understand the underpinnings of their cruel attitude toward the less fortunate, people with, as you say, bad luck. As a result of our beginnings, many Americans, though not at all religious, still hold this attitude as a cultural result of the nature of our founding.

The character of early colonial American is actually somewhat more diverse and complicated than the characterization Bageant offers. The whole point, though, is providing context for details that inform how and why we think and act the way we do. At that task, Bageant succeeds despite his obvious political agenda (if you read his blog, you’ll find it unmistakable). If you disagree, perhaps it might be worthwhile asking why we tend to blame the poor for their plight and infer they somehow deserve what they get.

Yet another example is a blog at Vulgar Morality about Richard Dawkins. There isn’t a really good, succinct quote, but I’ll offer this anyway:

The world according to Dawkins is a cold, purposeless, joyless place. “In a universe of blind physical forces and blind genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, some people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice,” he writes in River Out of Eden. Elsewhere in the same work he asserts that “nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”

The scientist in Dawkins has labored diligently — one is tempted to say, purposefully — to teach humanity this harsh lesson. Another side of the man has taken on the moral consequences.

One might expect him to engage in a Nietzschean revaluation of all values. What, after all, can the good life mean, in an environment with “neither good nor evil,” “indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose”? A possible model might be the life of Genghis Khan: he killed and destroyed at will, but reproduced so successfully that today at least 16 million individuals have been found to carry his genes.

The schizoid nature of Dawkin’s sober scientific inquiries compared to his attacks on religion are revealed in this post. What’s missing are the things that are always missed when scientists (or others) delve too deeply into time and physical scales beyond human perception: the discontinuity between macrocosm and microcosm. That’s where the formation of context always seems to stumble.

Still, I’m quite fond of the types of argument and explanation offered by these three writers. That one is an emeritus professor at Harvard, another a former journalist turned socialist (and self-professed redneck), and the other a grad student, maybe in philosophy (I’m totally guessing) is also interesting. They share a way of absorbing, synthesizing, and distilling information (knowledge, theory, rhetoric) that is compelling.

  1. I’m still not sure of what you think, Brutus. By studying the different perspectives, are you in the process of constructing a whole? No doubt I need to read the books and blog myself.

    My guess, however, is that I might still need tutoring. Tell me high science is required and I panic. Further, I am sorry to admit that I believe in mathematics much more than I hope to understand it, let alone use it. Or is it more correct to say, “apply” mathematics?

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