Science Cannot Count to Red. That’s Probably Fine.

notes on Kuhn and relativism

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coming from Science Under High Modernismvaguely related toEverything is Going According to Plan.

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Kuhn is most interesting for examining the uneasy relationship between politics, science, and philosophy, but that’s going to come next time. First, I should address a question that I keep getting asked. I assume it’s the same for anyone who writes about Kuhn:

“Was Kuhn a relativist?”

There are two questions bound together here. The first is whether or not science progresses. The second is over relativism. Kuhn’s answer to the first is his answer to the second. You can deny that his answer to one is a satisfying response to the other, hence the separation.

Towards the end of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn points out that his interlocutors all claim that science advances towards Truth-capital-T, but there’s very little reason to assume such a thing happens. After all, we don’t exactly know what we mean by that, making it somewhat hard to tell if we’re on the right course:

Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal? If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-do-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of vexing problems may vanish in the process.

It’s certainly correct to say that science advances (though you’d have to emphasize it does so in stages) but it’s not necessarily advancing “towards” anything. After all, you don’t know that there are anomalies beforehand – if you already did know, you’d have entered a crisis period already. To say that science is advancing “towards” truth presupposes that we know there will be a stopping point, that it’s on the right track to get there, that there’s an interpretation of the end point we’ll agree on.

This is a pretty basic argument, and it’s not really his main one. His own is much better, but it’s a little harder to conceptualize. Continue reading “Science Cannot Count to Red. That’s Probably Fine.”

Science Under High Modernism

on Thomas Kuhn and metis

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In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn attempts to describe how science progresses and changes; in the process, he finds that any single definition of “science” will be misleading. Following this, he crafts an argument (at least implicitly) against many of the common definitions being argued at the time (and many in our own).

Kuhn was writing to philosophers busying themselves with the definition of “science.” It turns out this is actually an incredibly difficult task. Kuhn makes it easier by turning to historical events in lieu of abstracts, which immediately makes it harder: there are distinct periods with different behaviors. Accordingly, he distinguishes between pre-scientific activity (pre-paradigmatic), normal science (under a paradigm), and extraordinary science (post-paradigmatic). Normal science is the heart of the book. One of Kuhn’s central claims is that we’ve been so blinded by the flashiness of extraordinary science that most philosophy of science creates theories solely applicable to that period, like a Philosophy of Football that theorizes everything in terms of fumbles. Very exciting – totally useless for 99% of the game.

At a certain point in any paradigm’s history, normal scientific work runs into anomalies – observations discordant with the paradigm’s broader theory. Some will be resolved, others will add to or rearrange parts of the paradigm, but a few are irreconcilable with the broader paradigm. Then you get a crisis. At least some work during this crisis will try to overhaul the entire structure (most work  will be frantically trying to save the old paradigm), and that work is extraordinary science. Finally someone provides a satisfying new theory, there’s a paradigm shift/revolution, and normal science continues.

Most of this essay is about normal science, which might look kind of weird if you only know Kuhn as the crisis-paradigm-shift-revolution guy. Questions I will ignore: what progress means, the definition of truth, whether Kuhn is normative or a descriptive, why Popper got so mad, how paradigm shifts, like, evolve quantum consciousness. He does directly address Popper and the Logical Positivists, but getting into that debate would distract. Kuhn and Popper are way closer than the sheer vitriol suggests, and Popper begrudgingly admitted that Kuhnian normal science was an accurate account of most scientific work. Since that’s my focus, I’m going to pretend that no discord exists. Continue reading “Science Under High Modernism”

Euthyphro Dilemmas as Mathematical Objects

introduction to series ii

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introduction to series ii

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This blog has recently been grasping at the notion of values, either directly or by reference to nihilism. I’ve mostly failed, because I need vocabulary that I don’t really have, because the question isn’t really the question it looks like. This is an oldnew question, in precisely the way that most things are oldnew questions.

This is the old form of it: Socrates asks Meno what virtue is. Meno, reasonably, replies with a list of actions that are good things to do. Socrates, reasonably, answers that there must be some essence of “virtue” that connects all of these things, a value or judgment or faculty of judgment that determines the “good” from the “bad.”

No one can figure it out, which leads to the Meno problem. The Meno problem is this:

A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows–since he knows it, there is no need to search–nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.

So, it seems that knowing virtue is impossible. Socrates then leading-questions a slave boy into doing geometry, which proves something about inborn knowledge, and Socrates suggests that knowing things maybe comes from reincarnation. Kind of. Either way, knowledge of “virtue” is, at least plausibly, as objectively valid as mathematics. To really drive the point home, Socrates relays a series of poetic invocations of the gods and tells a myth about the afterlife. Meno asks him how true any of that is, and Socrates responds by saying “Eh.” and also “We’ll be better men if we think it is, because it will make us brave enough to question things.”

This is really weird. It’s not obvious that math is anything like virtue. Moreover, it’s not clear that math is itself objective, which is underlined by the fact that it’s reliant on a mythical interpretation that presupposes its own existence. Finally, Socrates forces acquiescence by calling it “better” to believe in true knowledge, but the point about not knowing about knowing is that it means you can’t tell what’s “better” and what’s “worse.”

Plato is a motherfucker, he does have a point, I’m ignoring it, moving on. Continue reading “Euthyphro Dilemmas as Mathematical Objects”

The Uruk Machine

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This is just a recap of everything in the series before. Continued by and paired with The Thresher

Index of the full series here.

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Believe it or not, the original plan with this series was to make my writing less dense. These four books are meant to provide early propositions to build on. You need a foundation, after all.

I assumed that would take about a month and be around four posts. Now we’re three months and ten posts on.

To try and recapture some of that original pragmatism, here’s a rough schema of the series as well as the jargon that I use from each book. This isn’t meant to be conclusive, and the linked pieces (obviously) go into more depth. Then again, the series itself isn’t meant to be conclusive. I’m not trying to explain all of politics or modernity or [whatever], much less “solve” it. As always, these are attempts. Continue reading “The Uruk Machine”

That’s Amore

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final Lasch. continued from here and then here

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Donald Trump wins, so The New Yorker ponders Jason Brennan’s argument against democracy:

Brennan calls people who don’t bother to learn about politics hobbits, and he thinks it for the best if they stay home on Election Day. A second group of people enjoy political news as a recreation, following it with the partisan devotion of sports fans, and Brennan calls them hooligans. Third in his bestiary are vulcans, who investigate politics with scientific objectivity, respect opposing points of view, and carefully adjust their opinions to the facts, which they seek out diligently.

While it’s nice that our future epistocrats are so relatable, that’s exactly what gives me pause. Why is a book about how politics should be cold and calculating trying to sit down and have a beer with me?

If epistocracy is the best system and you can convince voters to elect it using “reason” then you’re proving the inherent reasonableness of democracy, i.e. very confusing reductio there. Either Brennan doesn’t think he’s an epistocrat (dismiss that out of hand), or the book and its article are selling something else. You might say that only the elite will read it, and he’s trying to appeal to them, but why do vulcans need cutesy metaphors? Things get weirder when the New Yorker goes into what exactly makes up an epistocracy:

He sketches some options—extra votes for degree holders, a council of epistocrats with veto power, a qualifying exam for voters—but he doesn’t spend much time considering what could go wrong.

Actually, he does. No, I have’t read the book. No, I won’t. But what he just described is America with extra steps.

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Replace “Council of Epistocrats” with “the judiciary” and you’ll see that Brennan’s book is critiquing the exact system that produced the critique in favor of the system that he’s critiquing. This fucking book came from Tlön, it’s so meta that I barely believe it exists in this plane.

I know this so fact checkers at the New Yorker definitely know it. That no one sees fit to mention it is highly suspicious, as is the New Yorker’s ridiculously weak defense of democracy. Not to mention: Jason Brennan is a libertarian. 95% of the readers “compelled” by his “cogent points” actually agree with the non-voters Brennan wants to keep non-voting instead of him.

So this is classic narcissism, from identity protection (New Yorker=elite and liberal; not responsible for 2016) right down to the absurd power fantasies and intense paranoia that “everyone else” is somehow fucking your life up. It’s a defense against change, all the more so because if Brennan gets his system it will look identical to our own. The only difference is that believing this is currently all the plebs’ fault punts culpability somewhere away from you. Fine.

I have problems with epistocracy, they’re about what you’d expect. Still, this isn’t about epistocracy. This is about pizza. Continue reading “That’s Amore”

Reinventing the Wheel of Fortune

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Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism. Continued from here, but you don’t really need to read that first. Part one of specifics.

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I think we can safely describe Scott and Polanyi as critics of top-down knowledge. Local knowledge is either ignored or mangled by the structure, which is bad for some reasons but also for other reasons. Still, they both understand how these structures perpetuate themselves. Legibility, economic prejudice, etc. Blame it on an ethical failing (“The rulers did x out of malice”) and you ignore the way incentives work. Ignore the way incentives work, and you’ll recreate the same structure.

That makes them critical of top-down structures, period. Without any political power, the ruled can’t even sneak their data into the pile. It’s telling that to get their point across, both Scott and Polanyi rely on explicitly authoritarian forms of government. That’s not “wrong”, but it does muddy the waters for us, because then you can say: “Luckily, we live in a democracy!” Fine. What does that mean?

First definition: “democracy” is what allows different people to take a piece of the pie, i.e. the already-existing power structure decides to share its spoils.

Second definition: “democracy” is only possible, is merely the expression of, equally powerful people.

The first is vertical, power concentrates at the top but you can participate in it. The second is lateral. The second can easily become the first, the first is much harder to change into the second; if someone has to grant you power over and over, you never had it in the first place.

This makes Polanyi, Lasch, and Scott partisans of the second definition of democracy. If the former is simply “giving” you power, it’s always going to be on the government’s terms, i.e. with epistemic knowledge behind it. I know which I side with, but choose your own adventure. What concerns me is not activists of either but their coexistence. In any given protest, one slogan will imply one, and the next slogan will imply two, and the fact that the partisans aren’t garroting each other makes me extremely suspicious that something else is going on.

Note also that the first definition is what our entire political apparatus runs on. Something something American as apple pie. Continue reading “Reinventing the Wheel of Fortune”

A Taylorism For All Seasons

lasch on narcissism part 1; gaddis on modernity, part […]

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Christopher Lasch – The Culture of Narcissism, part 1/X, current essay being more of an overview. 

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Imagine a kind of masquerade.

It’s an acting contest at first, and everyone is assigned a mask. The guest is to playact the identity of the mask – so the person who gets a werewolf mask howls, the guest with a zombie mask groans, etc. The best actor wins. This being a party, assume that everyone is still vying for status and attention in the interim, but that may not be acting. People talk about all sorts of things at parties, even those with explicit contests. Most people won’t assume that the mask says anything about the person – it’s randomly assigned, after all. Those who do are missing the point. Both the judges and the guests will appraise character based on acting. The contest may not be equal, of course – there are differences in acting ability, perhaps some roles are easier or more prestigious than others – but these still relate to action.

Now imagine that the rules of the game change. There are no longer preassigned masks. Everyone is expected to provide their own. Perhaps this was due to concerns over fairness (easier/harder masks or prestige of role), perhaps there was arson at the mask-factory. It doesn’t matter – the contest remains but the rules change. There’s no longer one contest, but two: making a mask, and acting like it, and all of a sudden it starts making sense to focus on the mask. Pro-social behavior is both performance and making a good mask, but now the mask is more important. For one reason, if roles are easier/harder and this correlates with prestige (it will), people might begin to bring the most prestigious mask that they can still act as, that isn’t beyond their ability. For another, since you made the mask, it shows certain inner aspects previously hidden (desires, self-awareness, whatever). Still: there are limits, and you have to be able to behave in a certain way. You can’t simply gain status by making the most prestigious mask possible – the judges will make you fall on your ass. The opposite is also dangerous, albeit socially: Don’t say “I was too busy to put in the effort”, as though this is a successful social maneuver. This shows us that you’re lazy, or poor, or [thing]. For most people, social opinion is important for their own identity, and of course you’d start to identify with the mask. It increasingly signifies your role. Still: Nothing changes about the original dynamic. Some people are better actors and others are worse actors; some roles are harder (read: more prestigious) and others are easier. Some people still want to win the contest, but “winning the contest” is now a mix of acting talent, pro-social behavior, and proper self-estimation. This may still be unequal, but it’s less random.

Final transformation: hide the contest. It still takes place (somewhere), but is no longer the explicit public aim. Power-dynamics remain among the party-goers and these are more prominent than before. People still gossip at parties, winners and loser still emerge, the new game increasingly revolves around the mask. It signifies how you think of yourself, how you think of others, etc. There’s technically something important about playing the role behind it, but with a hidden contest all social prestige comes from the mask itself. Accordingly, the mask becomes a token of everything you are, even if everyone knows it’s just a mask. Suddenly, the game isn’t fun anymore. Continue reading “A Taylorism For All Seasons”