Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.

This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.

Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:

‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue  from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)

This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:

‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)

 

Reading Notes 8/31/2014

John Grisham’s ‘The Summons’ has been a great read – fun, mysterious, page-turning, etc. It’s the first of his I’ve ever read, and I can see now why he’s pretty much at the top of the modern canon of fiction. I actually don’t know the last time I read a book that kept me up late to read it.

I stopped reading Phillip Roth’s ‘Letting Go’ – maybe I just don’t get it but honestly, that was one boring book. Now that I think about it, there is no maybe – I just didn’t get it. I try and read one fiction book at a time, so putting this book down was the reason I picked up ‘The Summons’

.Brian Greene’s explanation of string theory and its unification of both general relativity and quantum mechanics in ‘The Elegant Universe’ is so far some of the best writing on the subject I’ve been able to find. A short segment on the nature of physical laws caused me to break out Feynman’s ‘Six Not-So-Easy Pieces’ where he talks about the symmetry of physical laws. The nature of physical law is a fascinating thing to reflect on – especially the ontological status of said laws.

Torrance’s essay on Polanyi in ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’ is a brilliant essay – his exposition of some fairly complex ideas is outstanding. The whole book is great, but the Polanyi essay is probably one of the stronger essays in the book.  Torrance’s concept of stratified levels of intelligibility in reality is definitely something I’ll be thinking further on.

T.F.Torrance, Michael Polanyi and Ultimate Beliefs

In his book ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge’, T.F. Torrance devotes an essay to examining what he calls ‘ultimate beliefs’ and their effect on the natural sciences. Here’s a few relevant sections with some of my comments:

‘…the controlling statements with which we operate in science are both unfalsifiable and unverifiable. They are statements which express what we have called ultimate beliefs, beliefs without which there would be no science at all, beliefs which play a normative role in the gaining and developing of knowledge. Yet these ultimate beliefs are by their very nature irrefutable and unprovable. They are irrefutable and unprovable on two grounds: (1) because they have to be assumed in any attempt at rational proof or disproof; and (2) because they involve a relation of thought to being which cannot be put into logical or demonstrable form. Ultimate beliefs, then, are to be understood as expressing the fundamental commitment of the mind to reality, which rational knowledge presupposes and on which the reason relies in any authentic thrust towards truth.’ (p. 194) 

The fundamental commitment is important here – Torrance took from Polanyi the idea that trust, commitment and obligation are key aspects of our knowledge in the natural sciences, and I’ll come back to it here. The basic point to be taken here is that ultimate beliefs operate at a level which formal logic and proofs don’t apply because of their tacit nature. Continuing on:

‘Far from being irrational or non-rational, these beliefs have to do with the ontological reference of the reason to the nature and structure of things, which all explicit forms of reasoning are intended to serve, and without which they are blind and impotent. It is indeed not finally through formal reasoning that knowledge is advanced, but through the responsible commitment to reality in which are minds fall under the normative insights or ultimate beliefs which prompt and guide our inquiries, which enable us to interpret our experiences and observations, and which direct the reasoning operations of our inquiries to their true ends.’ (p. 194)

This goes back to the fundamental commitment – the commitment is essential for knowledge to be  and for reasoning itself to function. This commitment, where the mind falls under the ultimate beliefs, is what Polanyi called the ‘fiduciary framework’, which also includes a rational obligation for us to think in accordance with the revealed structures of reality – thinkng after the nature of things, to use Torrance’s maxim. This, for Torrance as well as the classical Christian tradition, is more or less the definition of faith. Continuing:

‘Since this is the case, it is irrational to contrast faith and reason, for faith is the very mode of rationality adopted by the reason in its fidelity to what it seeks to understand, and as such faith constitutes the most basic form of knowledge upon which all subsequent rational inquiry proceeds. There could be no rational inquiry, no reflective thought without prior, informal knowledge grounded in experience and formed through the adaption of our minds faithfully to the nature of things, in the course of which our basic beliefs arise.’ (194)

We could map out Torrance’s idea out roughly like this thus far:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs

The act of fundamental commitment arises when our mind falls under the normative ultimate beliefs – there is an obligation to think after the nature of things which one has to personally commit to so as to not fall into irrationality:

‘The ultimate beliefs…are objectively grounded in, and ontologically derived from, the intelligibility of the real world so independent of our understanding that it reaches out in an objective depth far beyond what we can bring within the range of any masterful comprehending on our part. Beliefs of this kind, calling us to personal commitment, differ from the natural beliefs of David Hume, which he spoke of as causally induced determinations of the mind, and not as free acts resting on grounds or reason. According to Polanyi,’Every belief is both a free gift and a payment of a tribute exacted from us. It is held on the personal responsibility of the believer, yet in the clear assumption that he cannot do otherwise.’ In other words, belif is at once a free and obligatory act, an act which we cannot rationally resist: it is thrust upon us from the given.’ (p. 197)

Here our map can be extended:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs —–> rational obligation —–> personal commitment 

What both Torrance and Polanyi both stress, as can be seen here, is the element of trust, commitment and obligation in the gaining of scientific knowledge. Ultimate beliefs forms the fiduciary framework within which we can commit to reality and so inquire more deeply into reality.

 

You Can Join Richard Dawkin’s Cult… If You’re Willing to Pay 500,000

Originally posted on Zwinglius Redivivus:

And of course are deeply stupid.

… My man in the pub was at the very low end of what believers will do and pay for: the Richard Dawkins website offers followers the chance to join the ‘Reason Circle’, which, like Dante’s Hell, is arranged in concentric circles. For $85 a month, you get discounts on his merchandise, and the chance to meet ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science personalities’. Obviously that’s not enough to meet the man himself. For that you pay $210 a month — or $5,000 a year — for the chance to attend an event where he will speak.

When you compare this to the going rate for other charismatic preachers, it does seem on the high side. The Pentecostal evangelist Morris Cerullo, for example, charges only $30 a month to become a member of ‘God’s Victorious Army’, which is bringing ‘healing and deliverance to…

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Musings on Cormac McCarthy

It should be no secret that McCarthy is one of my favorite authors – in my opinion, he ranks up there with the great writers of the last hundred years. He’s gained a lot of popularity in recent years because of No Country For Old Men and The Road – but I wouldn’t rate those as his best works by a long shot. But what exactly is it that is so powerful about his writing?

There’s a few things I typically identify: his writing style is pretty much one of a kind. It’s sparse – but it’s not minimalist. He says a lot – sometimes with five words, sometimes with paragraphs. His writing, especially in All the Pretty Horses, is simply quiet. It’s relaxed – it flows at the speed of life, not rushing to the next dialogue or action scene. The story just happens – there’s no stylization, nothing like that. It’s laid-back, relaxed and quiet – however, this doesn’t mean that the content is relaxed, quite the opposite. When reading his works (and I’m thinking here specifically of The Border Trilogy), I get a feeling of sublimity. The books read like how the landscapes they take place in feel – cold, sparse, brutal, but beautiful and even poetic.

The content of McCarthy’s writing, however, is what really impacts me the most. His novels deal with pure human depravity taken to its utmost extremes – for example, in Blood Meridian, Outer Dark and Child of God. There’s no flinching, no holding back – some of the characters and sequences in his earlier works are horrifying, savage and brutal. McCarthy, by using such stark violence, really deconstructs a lot of the mythology surrounding the American Wild West. Apart from the depraved themes often treated by McCarthy, there are some deep metaphysical ideas woven into his works – the nature of good and evil, God, love, war, ethics, anthropology, and a host of other subjects often crop up in his writing.  These themes appear in long dialogues or monologues that are reminiscent of Hemingway’s dialogues – short, sparse and to the point, with no extra fluff. In short, McCarthy’s writings sustain a level of moral and philosophical reflection that very few modern books are capable of sustaining.

I really couldn’t point to any one single thing that I think makes McCarthy’s works so powerful – it’s the interweaving of all these things, the violence, the philosophical ideas, the poetic prose, the dreamy narratives that make his writing so brilliant and unique.

Musings on Summoning

Summoning are in my top three or four favourite bands – for a few reasons.

First, their lyrics are pretty much all Tolkien-based, but not in the geeky way – their interpretation of Tolkien is pretty solid and avoids the geeky/fanboy feel that lots of metal bands have when their lyrics are based on Tolkien or fantasy in general.

Their sound, especially on Oath Bound (which I would consider to be their best album , and one of the best metal albums ever put out [if you can really call it metal, which is debatable]) is absolutely brilliant – their music perfectly captures the mood of Tolkien’s early works like The Silmarillion. The music has a truly sublime feeling – it has the same enormous, tragic feeling that is so characteristic of Tolkien’s writing. I would say epic, but epic is a word that’s really been used and abused a lot in recent years – but tracks like Beleriand really do, in my opinion, capture what it means to be epic.

If I had to describe the sound of Summoning, I’d say dreamy ambient with some black metal influences, mostly in the vocals – the use of slow drum patterns, slow guitar and heavy, slow synths really sets them apart in the metal world, and honestly, I wouldn’t call their more recent albums metal. Oath Bound in particular is more ambient than anything, in my opinion. It’s mood capturing music – and as I said above, it captures the bleak, tragic and cold world of the The Silmarillion brilliantly.