January 2, 2006

Dangerous Ideas round-up I: The limits of science & wonder

Steve Sailer and GNXP alert me that Edge has just unleashed its plague of dangerous ideas upon mankind. One thing that struck me was that many of them, viewed by a impartial observer, would be no more than nuisances. We don't have souls? Oh well, big whoop, time to get back to doing whatever I was doing before I heard the news. The Earth goes around the sun? Meh. The fact that such ideas can spark such fire-breathing retaliation speaks to how powerful the moralistic fallacy can be -- that is, if the world ought to be such-and-such a way, then it is in fact that way. For example, if human nature ought to be on the whole benevolent, then it is in fact on the whole benevolent -- malevolent acts arise primarily from contamination by the corrupting environment (bad parents, bad schools, civilization, Hollywood, etc.). Once informed that the world is not that way, they apply modus tollens and get: therefore, it's not the case that the world ought to be that way... but -- but -- but imagine just what would happen if we withdrew a moral claim about ideal existence based merely on an empirical finding?! And that's when the alarm bells are sounded, as Steven Pinker shows in The Blank Slate. The real solution is of course not to silence the modus-tollens-setter-uppers but rather to not hitch one's moral claims about ideal existence to the wild, wayward wagon of science.

That said, I'd like to highlight two of these nuisances, the first of which I'll call the limits of science and wonder. Trehub's brief entry sums it up. Hauser and Dehaene (scroll down) mention the computational property that accounts for this, namely that human cognition seems to like "discrete infinity" -- endless variation within constrained pathways, a prime example being the linguistic diversity observed within universal tendencies. In plain English: many solutions are possible, but only within certain boundaries. Sabbagh, Strogatz, and Fischl lament the Explanation of Everything leaving one unsatisfied now that there are no more deeply fulfilling areas left to explore scientifically. Dutton, however, suggests that Darwinian thinking can be fruitfully applied to unblazed trails like aesthetics.

Everyone with an interest in both science and the arts has at one time or another hoped to themselves, "What if I tried to scientifically describe and explain the arts, with the same rigor as physicists?" However, pretty soon the realization sets in that, "Ah shit, people have been trying to rigorously theorize about art and literature forever and haven't gotten any juicy results." Indeed, though rocky, the progress of the more physical & mathematical sciences over the past 2000 or so years has been pretty impressive; whereas essentially no astounding progress has been made in explaining works of art. That is, not why people paint or sing (perhaps it's to get mates), nor why this character backstabs that character (perhaps to avenge a close family member). I mean, minutely analyze the work of art formally and explain in fine, mathematical detail why the work of art ended up having those properties of the description instead of possible other properties -- and get results anywhere near the level of physics.

The nuisance is that we humans can't theorize about just anything and get the same level of sophistication for each object of inquiry (OI), precisely because our Theory-Forming Faculty (TFF) is a product of our evolved brain. The TFF may just be parasitic off of our more primitive "intuitive physics," but the point remains that it itself or the thing it uses for scaffolding evolved for some particular purpose, not every possible purpose. Think of the TFF as a super-duper version of our visual faculty; after all, we commonly refer to scientific "insights," say that Newton "unveiled" the laws of gravity, or mention that so-and-so can "see" things that others can't. Now, our visual faculty has evolved to be terrific at perceiving the wavelengths of light from roughly 400 nm to 700 nm (ROYGBIV); it can vaguely intuit what infrared or ultraviolet light might look like, just outside of the perceivable range on either side; but when it goes past them in either direction (gamma rays on the UV side, radio waves on the IR side), perception utterly collapses. For visual comparison, here is a graph of the light spectrum, in which only a tiny sliver (1/3 of the way from the top) is occupied by light visible to humans -- almost everything is an impenetrable enigma, and we're damn fortunate to see anything at all.

Notice that within that tiny canal of biologically constrained perception, we still see an infinite continuum of colors. What physicists use to describe color is the light's wavelength (~400 nm for blue vs ~700 nm for red), and since the wavelengths' values are real numbers, the set of colors is uncountably infinite, even if human language or thought bundles them into fuzzy chunks. The same appears to be true of scientific "perception" -- it peaks when the TFF is looking at the many OI studied in physics and chemistry, so-so when it comes to those of biology / biological psychology, pathetic when looking at the arts, before tailing off into utter ignorance of the regions beyond. But then, doesn't this give the pessimists some unknown to wonder at? I think so. We don't even know what those OI are, though perhaps an intelligent extraterrestrial race whose intelligence evolved for other purposes might have laid down a physics of the arts while remaining wholly confused as to how their planet orbits its star, just as honeybees see UV light but we don't. But what if, by developing an aid like a spectrometer -- a "science spectrometer" that listed all the regions in the spectrum of "objects of scientific inquiry" -- we became aware of what aspects of the world lie beyond? Wouldn't that spoil the wonder? I don't think so. We're well aware of gamma rays and radio waves, but we can't actually see them, even vaguely. So even if some science spectrometer returned the results of scientifically perceiving OI we're not even aware of, that would hardly be a gut-satisfying substitution for scientifically perceiving them by ourselves. The spectrometer would have no sense of wonder, but we still would.

Lastly, maybe we just haven't waited long enough for a physics of the arts to be worked out by someone's TFF. Maybe. But given that the complete lack of deep understanding is not a quirk of some particular area of artistic study (like most probability and statistics were not formulated until recently within mathematics) but rather a general feature, I wouldn't get your hopes up. Of course, just as selection pressures could budge human nature into being capable of perceiving radio waves, so it might budge our TFF into scientifically explaining the arts and beyond. But there are two problems here. First, don't hold your breath, since not even your great-grandchildren would see it. Second, if selection pushes us in one direction, it usually pulls us away from wherever we were before -- or at least, the set of conditions that would drive selection to engineer a visual faculty capable of perceiving all wavelengths of light is vashingly smaller than the set of conditions that would drive it to fit it to a localized region like UV or gamma rays. More likely is that we'd perceive radio waves but then lose our ability to perceive ROYGBIV. Likewise, being able to scientifically explain the arts would probably cost us our physical sciences. They'd still be written down, but they'd be just as incomprehensible to future generations as if we were to currently stumble upon a "physics of the arts" textbook written by the previously mentioned alien race. What would you give up for what else?

1 comment:

  1. It would take time to consider the implications of the above speculations. At this point the question is more one of whether we can have an arithmetic of the arts, or part of one. Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment is a remarkable step in that direction. It even encroaches somewhat on the territory you mention, where figures of renown from sciences and arts get lumped into a single category. Who is important in the history of ideas and significant cultural contributions, and can numbers be put on these relations? Murray proceeds as if we might do so.

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