Monday, September 7, 2009

Mario Bunge on Science and Pseudoscience

It must be sad when a philosopher of science has to resort to Skeptical Inquirer to get a popular audience. Popper and the apparently immortal logical positivists rule the day. That same issue the Quincey recension of Feynman's QED had a fascinating article by Bunge on pseudoscience. Not quite fascinating enough for prompt reply in a letters column. That couple of years, on checking, is literally three years. It was the July/August issue of 2006!

Scientists like Feynman are fond of believing that if they refuse to explicitly or consistently think about philosophy they are rising above it. This is folly. As Bunge points out, concepts like reality, time, causation, truth are also philosophical concepts. Indeed, well known philosophical topics as the nature of mathematical objects are directly relevant to science. An even better example is the notion that cognitive neuroscience can study mind by studying the brain. The implicit assumption that mind is ultimately a material phenomenon requires using scientific method instead of speculation.

Scientific investigation he holds assumes that the facts of some domain of investigation are material, lawful and scrutable. Personally I would phrase this as saying the universe is consistent and intelligible. According to him, the scientific method is a fairly typical (and correct) sequence of choice of subject; discovery of problem; hypothesis; experiential test (observation/measurement or experiment); evaluation of results of experience; necessary corrections (to principles of subject, to the hypothesis, to the experimental technique); emergence of new problems. As always, it should be added that this is a collective process, not an individual one. An individual may do merely part of a single step, and knows nothing about order. Bunge correctly adds that speculation is a necessary part of the hypothesis process. The key point is that at some point, the results must match reality, which is to say, be true, another philosophical concept. It also assumes, a good point for Bunge to emphasize, that scientific hypotheses and explanations (theories) are logically valid, although it is rare for scientists to explicitly analyze logic. He notes unbridled speculation is for art.

As a collective process, practice of the scientific method means that the science changes with the discoveries and the formulation of new concepts that lead to new discoveries; a continuity with knowledge from other sciences, accepting their contributions and positing no contradictions; overlapping areas of interest with other sciences; scientific community. To rephrase, the first means science is knowledge because it is based on facts. When additional facts or refutation of incorrectly accepted false statements as facts requires change in the science, it changes. The notion that if it can change it wasn't knowledge implicitly assumes some sort of supernatural aspect to Truth, that it must be unchanging, eternal, ideal, etc. Theological concepts never change, they merely go in or out of fashion, which shows how unlike science (knowledge) theology is.

The continuity with other science, as in signals cannot travel from one mind to another at a speed greater than light (a stumbling block for "parapsychology" and a sign said field is a pseudoscience,) and the overlap with other sciences, like physics and chemistry in physical chemistry, are consequences of the unity of nature. For the first, what is true in one science must be true in all. For the second, since there is really one one subject, nature, the individual subjects called branches of science must inevitably collide. And last, the existence of scientific community is the collective way that testing of hypotheses and deduction of consequences of principles and formulation of explanations is conducted. But all that is the operation of the scientific method.

Pseudosciences lack one or more of these characteristics of science. It may be formulated in vague or even contradictory terms. It may aassume facts without empirical justification. It may accept the existence of immaterial entities or postulate that reality may not be described by laws. It may ignore other knowledge from other scientific fields. Its experimental methods may be deeply flawed or it may even dispense with empirical tests completely. It may examine only partial evidence (which is a more general way of saying it doesn't use control groups.) For these reasons, pseudoscience doesn't make new discoveries.

Bunge identifies the specific philosophical ideas in science as logical consequence/consistency; meaning and truth; fact and law; knowledge and test; intellectual honesty; community. The way he rephrases all this is: "Because scientific researchis, in a nutshell, the honest search for true knowledge about the real world, particularly its laws, with the hlep of both theoretical and empirical means--in particular the scientific method--and because every body of scientific knowledge is expected to be logically consistent and the subject of rational discussion in the bosom of a community of investigators."

Expanding, he notes that
logically, science accepts analogy and induction as speculation but denies a priori validity;
semantically, science sees meaning as denotation together with connotation but not extension and truth as correspondence to fact, not coherence;
ontologically, science is materialistic (metaphysically, not spiritually, meaning made of matter following laws, whether mechanical or stochastic) with all material things in flux and part of systems making their ideal descriptions (created by phyical processes in brains) fictions, whether they accurately describe portions of the truth or not, with phenomena emerging from systems, which their components lack;
epistemologically, science is realist because reality is intelligible (at least so far and presuming it isn't is unfounded by any evidence,) skeptical in that it can change (but it is meaningless to insist that there is all concepts are equally doubtful,) empirical in that its propositions must be testable (but experience can provide both positive and negative evidence,) rational in that it advance by making deductions from laws (which are then tested by experience, whether observation or experiment,) and scientistic, in that scientific knowledge is to be regarded as the best form of knowledge;
ethically, science is secular and humanist;
sociologically, science is what he calls epistemic socialism, which seems to be what I would call a kind of technocracy where the experts prosper with their followers.

The last is directly specifically against Marxists and post-modern social constructivists. Existentialists get short shrift, but Marxists, logical positivists and the Popperians have contributions acknowledged. Bunge's desire for a unitary philosophy of science including ethics is interesting. It grounds philosophical critique of some practices, I would think, but intellectual property law is not a topic he addressed.

Bunge notes the tendency of pseudosciences to accept the idealist philosophical presuppositions of religions: idealist ontology (supernatural entities really do exist and do not obey natural laws);
idealist epistemology (some people have superior knowledge, by divine revelation or other unexplained gift, or just because they're better, more sensitive people); heteronomous ethics (they are not required to justify their beliefs with evidence nor does God have to justify Himself.)

"In short, tell me what philosophy you use (not just profess,) and I'll tell you what your science is worth. And tell me what science you use (not just pay lip service to,) and I'll tell you what your philosophy is worth."

Fascinating, even if buried in a fringe magazine.

A Double Dose of Feynman

Speaking of Duncan, his unintentional slanders of Feynman prompted a search in the library catalog for Character of Physical Law. No luck, but Six Easy Pieces was available. It was instructive about Feynman's alleged notions how "everything" we know may be wrong.

Science according to Feynman like watching a chess game without knowing the rules. Learning the rules is to understand the game. Learning the rules by merely watching of course is the tricky part. Applying the metaphor to nature, the rules are laws. When we know the laws, we understand. Science is not just deductions from the laws, because we don't know them, and because the mathematical deduction from the laws is beyond our mathematics. The principle of science, "definition almost, the test of all knowledge is experiment." Mathemantics, which has no experiments is therefore not natural science. The scientific method to find the rules, the laws, are "observation, reason and experiment..."

In other words, Feyman believes firmly in the intelligibility of nature, that it has rules, laws. So why does he talk about the impossibility of understanding quantum mechanics, for instance?

One reason is that he sneers at consistency. This makes him hard to understand.

For another, he has the magician's love of befuddling his audience. When at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, he loved to break into safes. In his memoirs, he reveals that cleverly deducing combinations in the same way modern hackers deduce passwords were a major technique. He enjoyed impressing teachers in competitive questioning in seminars by secretly reading up on the material, although the unwritten code was that the students were supposed to use native intellect. This concern for effect made him an entertaining lecturer. But there's a reason he was not a particularly successful teacher of graduate students.

And a third reason, of course, is that he, as a mathematical whiz (not into proofs, but then, not even all mathematicians are into proofs!) he relied upon his mathematical intuition. A man who humiliated himself into a 4F for mental instability during WWII by talking about how his mental pictures of the integers is not someone who is fastidiously empirical, despite all his talk about experiment.

And last is that much of his metaphysical certitudes are left to the non-science, mathematics. Which according to P.C.W. Davies' introduction, Feyman held to be Platonic metaphysical entities, except that he wouldn't quite, though almost, openly confess to. Davies observes that Feynman was "suspicious of philosophies..." Well, being suspicious is not the same as not having one. Davies' conclusion that "it was formalism he disliked, not content," is surely true.

In other words, Feynman's metaphysical certainties lay in mathematics. When he talked about not being able to understand, he meant physical, commonsense intuitions. When he talked about everything we know being wrong, he did not mean that the notion of natural law was a nonconcept, he meant something like Einstein revising Newton's view of the world might happen again. This has nothing to do with denying the intelligibility of the universe.

It is not really a secret that Feynman did not mean the universe was lawless. QED certainly attempted to lay bare quantum mechanics in the simplest possible terms. Thus is was possible for Paul Quincey, in a Skeptical Inquirer article a couple of years ago (one of the things that gave me the idea of blogging, which time delay shows how important I consider this blog!) to write an article popularizing QED even further, except as a cure for the notion of quantum weirdness!

Quincey does so by the metaphor of Nature using a surveyor's wheel to measure the action of all possible paths. "The" path is the path of minimum action. When the particles are large compared to the surveyor's wheel (which measures increments in Planck's constant,) the path is a classical trajectory. In other cases, the inability of the surveyor's wheel to distinguish multiple of Planck's constant, plus the circularity of the wheel itself, gives the (identical) mathematics of waves. If you add the concept of "spin," properly isospin, then quantum mechanics gives us chemistry via the Pauli principle.

Thus, according to Quincey, the alleged difficulties of QM come to three. First, QM gives probabilities, while the world is discrete fact. A set of coexisting probabilities is dubbed the future. How the future comes to be one particular thing instead of a mixture is not properly the realm of QM. (This seems to covertly borrow the unspeakability of the notion of the reduction of the wave function from Bohr et al. without confessing to it, to be frank.) Second, the interconnectedness of all phenomena seems to violate special relativity except that it doesn't: There is no information that can be sent superluminally. Third, there is no such thing as a determinable trajectory. This is not a problem since QM sets limits on what can be known. If the trajectory cannot be known, it can't be known, therefore failure to know it is not a failure at all. It is merely an unreasonable expectation. (This too seems to hark back to Bohr and his postivist notions of physics as correlates of experimental measurements, which are unquestionable facts, aka epistemic certainties.)

As to point one, since the equations of QM are time reversible, the inability to predict the future means the inability to retrodict the past as well. The second point, the interconnectedness of events, calls therefore into question the ability of QM to describe a unique spacetime. Which seems to me to be the fundamental problem in reconciling QM and general relativity, which can only be time reversible by adding a cosmological constant. Which I suspect is still Einstein's greatest blunder, even if it has become fashionable as a way to say QM as a description of the real universe. The third point about the inability to determine trajectories of course flows from the previous. The real question is what it says about the reality of the particles. If they have no trajectory, what does it mean to say they are real?

Quantum weirdness exists. Feynman used mathematical intuition to navigate in the topsy turvy world of QM. Our view of nature is likely to be as drastically revised as Newton's was by Einstein. How any of this suggests that Nature is inconsistent is a mystery.

Why Science Fiction Isn't "Literature"

Hal Duncan over at BookSpotCentral has begun a series of columns answering this question. As anyone whose read widely in his blog would expect, Mr. Duncan is aiming to portray the disdain for the fantastic as upper class contempt for the puling masses. Or, even worse, the mingled fear and contempt of the putrid, stodgy middle classes faced with the lure of the proletarian nihilist carnival. As ever, he begins with some doubtful equations, not just Romanticism with the Gothic, or Enlightenment rationalism with the realist, but sensationalist with popular and "intellectualist" with high brow. What indeed is "intellectualist" literature and drama when it's at home, you may ask? Well, as I say, it's all a little dubious. The sole examples that Duncan gives, The Foundation series as rationalist and Dune as romantic, on brief inspection don't show what he thinks. I expect there will be few details to give meaning to all these terms.

Duncan's whole project is dubious, starting with the astonishingly simple proposition that science fiction as a pulp genre is dead. Since the pulps are moribund, so are the pulp genres. Why this simple conclusion requires the recasting of language and literary history is uncertain. I think in the end that Mr. Duncan is not just a professional fantasist, but a committed irrationalist. The suspect chains of equations and false dichotomies have to be erected to turn fantasy into the liberation of the ego from the chains of reason, that ruling class scam.

In reality, science fiction, like historical fiction, is not "literature" because it does not accept the way things are now as eternal. Instead of the individual soul being the determinant of a permanent way of life, unquestionable, even if tragic, both science fiction and historical fiction go past the bourgeois individualism (or can, since both have just as much junk written as other modes of fiction and drama,) which is the dressed up version of economic man found in Economics 101. An historical novelist like E.L. Doctorow will be acceptable as literary in a way that a Gore Vidal or a Cecelia Holland will not. The easy assumption that "literary" means good is nothing but snobbery, but putting a John Jakes on the same level as the previous three is to abandon all judgment. The point of course is that Vidal should be regarded as a major novelist, which he isn't: He just sells too well to be completely ignored. Doctorow, whose work suffers from being "literary" in preferring to recapitulate ideology about character, receives critical attention far beyond his ordinary merits.

The notion that "genre" as an opposition to "literature" is marked by sensationalism while the other is marked by intellectualism is a pretty hard vacuum. The assumption that insight and relevance lie solely in character studies is an ideological prescription. Most "popular" fiction and drama is just as fixated on the characters as the most highfalutin' "literary" fiction and drama. And there are plenty of thrills in lots of "literary" works. The difference isn't sensationalism. The difference is that the "literary" rediscovers the eternal essence of bourgeois society, the final society, forever and ever, amen. The "popular" regrettably tends to be vicarious fantasy. The reader identifies with a hero, and the hero wins. The rest is detail. Which heroes earn reader or viewer commitment is a matter of personal taste, not amenable to discussion. Which fantasy victories are satisfying also is a matter of personal taste, no more of interest to others than the details of the satisfying sexual fantasy.

Insofar as this is true, the popular should be rejected. But of course in practice this is not the dividing line between the popular and the literary. The supposedly literary might have reader/viewer fantasy, while the popular might answer more questions than "Who's the hero, and does he/she win?" I repeat, the real dividing line is ideological. The literary is about "character," where character means the eternal psychological necessities that have created our contemporary capitalist society. This, not being intellectual or boring, is what makes literature's pretensions offensive.

The notion that the sensational is rejected solely because it is popular is really nothing more than faux populist posturing, a visceral hate prompted by the certainty that one's own superior moral sensitivity raises one above the snobbery of the literary elites. In fact, many define sensationalism as the false, as when talking about tabloid journalism. Such sensationalism should be rejected. Approaching the question from another angle, although the literary presumes the eternal verities of capitalist society, that no more means it is all false, root and branch, than any other aspect of bourgeois culture. Popular fantasies that ignore society do no one any good. They are pabulum. Bourgois culture is no more to be ignore than the bourgois state. It is in fact part of the wealth to be appropriated.

Literature and drama that attempts to do this will not be literary or popular, it will be human.

Going Out a Winner: Donald E. Westlake

Comedy is the redheaded stepchild of literature and drama. From Shakespeare down to SG1 or Westlake, the humorless and pompous have downgraded the funny, the farcical, the merely genial. Vicarious self identification with characters turns into an unrewarding business in the bright light of comedy. It is no wonder that the "dark" is preferred for the furtive business of stroking the ego.

In Get Real, the last of the Dortmunder novels, Dortmunder and the usual suspects, Stan, Andy, Tiny and the kid, are approached to make a reality series about a heist. The reality series of course is as phony as possible, existing primarily as a way to avoid paying actors and writers prevailing wages. Dortmunder agrees to the scheme because it allows them to case the building where the bulk of the work would be done. The real heist would be covered by the reality heist. The situation allows, no, demands the typically acute Westlake commentary.

Befittingly, here, at the end, Dortmunder finally gets to keep the money. It is appropriate, not just because Dortmunder should go out a winner, but because reality TV is a victim that not even a comic novelist can let off the hook.

If you have not, by some bizarre mischance, read Westlake, do so. He also wrote straight thrillers, such as The Ax and The Hook. As Richard Stark he specialized in the dark and gritty before it became a fatuous cliche. He also wrote some science fiction, notably Smoke, about an invisible thief. (And at least one fantasy, Sacred Monster.) As a screenwriter, Westlake gave us The Stepfather and The Grifters.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Slings & Arrows

This Canadian fantasy ran three season. In the first season, a US action star comes to a Canadian theater to play Hamlet. The artistic director is inadvertently run over by a bacon truck. His ghost haunts his ex-protege, who had a nervous breakdown years previously while playing Hamlet, partly because Oliver slept with Geoffrey's girlfriend Ellen (Ophelia naturally,) despite Oliver being gay. The eccentric board president persuades the board to reinstate the flake, who, seeing the ghost, is flakier than ever. Well, except for attacking the swans.

This is inspired by the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario (renamed the New Burbage here,) and Keanu Reeves' turn as Hamlet in Minnesota or some such. Rachel McAdams plays the Ophelia. Despite much intrigue, including sabotage by a US board member who seduces the executive director, Keanu turns in a sound performance, vindicating the crazed director.

In the second season, Geoffrey stages Macbeth, using notes from Oliver. Geraint Wyn Davies, of Forever Knight fame if I remember correctly, plays Mackers as they like to call him. The executive director, played by Mark McKinney one of the main writers (another Susan Coyne, is also in the cast, as admistrative assistant Anna,) rebrands the theater festival to get a loan from the foulmouthed minister of culture. Naturally he hires Colm Feore. Despite Colm ending up in jail, the PR campaign is a huge success. The Macbeth is even huger, ending up on Broadway at the beginning of the third season.

The third season has Lear. The gag here is that the actor chosen by Geoffrey (played by William Hutt, apparently a highly respected actor in Canada who has in fact played Lear,) has cancer. And he's taking heroin for the pain. Geoffrey at this point begins therapy with an Episcopal priest. The whole scheme comes unraveled. Geoffrey is fired, but the cast puts on Lear in the priest's church to satisfy a dying man's dream of playing Lear. Anna loses her job for this. The executive director, who almost became likable, hires a dreadful director precisely to increase his own power, to put on musicals. He plans to do the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre. The dying actor has also been able to see Oliver, having one foot in the grave. Geoffrey and Ellen get married and move to Montreal. The end.

As is usual, the first instalment is by far the best. Serialization is almost never successful in artistic terms. As should be obvious, there is a great deal of farce about seeing ghosts. Backstage humor and fraught love affairs supply much entertainment of a lighter sort. There are even delightful songs by the elderly gay couple in the cast. There too, the first season one is the best. I gather the people behind this series managed to produce a successful Canadian musical. The only one?

There is one thing quite serious about the show, which is its interest in interpreting Shakespeare. When Geoffrey (played by Paul Gross,) is coaching "Keanu" he orders Keanu to decide whether Claudius and Polonius are listening to the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. He says that the scene can be played either way but it should be played for one of them. In addition to incorporating actual discussion of interpretation into the script via Geoffrey, the various characters recite selections, sometimes as examples of bad readings, other times as show stoppers that compel the characters to listen and watch with reverence. Or at least appreciation.
If the selections were not well done or Geoffrey's interventions compelling, the show, despite its humor would fail. I think in the end the only thing I would change would be to stop announcing the Shakespeare selections that are suppose to awe us with a specific harp theme.

The first season is an outright jewel. But the whole thing is well worth watching. And they are only about six hours each, an astonishing example of suiting length to material, instead of the other way round. Highly recommended. I would sing O Canada if I could sing, or knew the lyrics.

Nobody's that stupid

Since Caprica the series and The Plan are soon to be inflicted upon the world, discussion of BattleStar Galactica is appropriate. That, in honest discussion, means discussing the politics. To be accused of saying Israeli Zionism is inherently apocalyptic or that Zionisim is inherently Christian by Rachel Nussbaum should be expected. I'm not quite sure why it came as such a shock. She went out of her way to post love letters to Deep Space 9, where an Israeli Jew managed not to discuss any of the Zionist implications of the show. She badmouthed Kings without even being able to discuss the show at all. Whether she's kind to dogs or has never, ever given head or has a high credit rating are aspects of her character relevant only to her personal acquaintances. In the blogosphere, what is relevant is the integrity of her thoughts. In that respect, she is a lying bigot.

Although Ron D. Moore was not in fact the creator nor the main writer of Deep Space 9, the cult begins there. Deep Space 9 had Cardassians/Nazis, Bajorans/brave Zionist Jews (secular without earring, Hasidic with earring,) Ferengi/lovable comic Jews, the Dominion/Soviets, God/the Prophets, alliance of Cardassia and the Dominion/nonaggression pact between the Nazis and the Soviets. It was all as silly as space Nazis must be, but done with a clueless pomposity that makes adults writhe in embarrassment for the boobs who think this is good writing. The treatment of religion displays religious bigotry of the smug sort that dismisses religion as it is as the harmless follies of the lower classes, while endorsing its animus of hate when directed against the proper enemies. Certainly no one questions the benevolence of God the Prophets despite the overwhelming evidence. A taste for this malignant shit betrays something about one's character.

The fans of BattleStar Galactica are in even worse position, since BSG's stock in trade from the days when the swine at Peabody rewarded the show for its political engagement. The regular Cylons are Muslims, the Final Five are perilously close to being Jews, with the messianic ones surviving the apocalypse, while the evil Muslims are genocidally annihilated. Baltar makes a brave speech about secular humanist values which is totally irrelevant. The humans triumph by treachery, except by shamelessly ridiculous writing It's Not Really Their Fault. The shitheads who like BSG will never honestly discuss this because it shows too much about what kind of people they are. Just remember: Nobody's that stupid. They know what they are, they know what they want, and they know how to cover up with conventional groupthink about character.

Quitting The Magicians

The hero has never said "sir" to an adult before in his life. He is so attuned to the finer things in life that he can tell the mozzarella on the sandwiches served on the school of magic is not just fresh, but "very" fresh. If I wanted to read about Dudley Dursly's adventures at Hogwarts, instead of Harry's, I wouldn't have read J.K. Rowling. So I'm not reading it now.