Work in Progress: The Tension between Adequacy and Parsimony in the Sciences

In last week’s newsletter I discussed philosophical and scientific theories of emotions, mentioning the work of Paul Ekman, as the foil to the more recent work of Lisa Feldman Barrett. Ekman’s list of six basic emotions represents the tension within any scientific theory between adequacy to the complexity of the world on the one hand, and, on the other hand, sufficient simplicity to constitute a powerful theory from which predictions can be derived. Ekman’s list of basic emotions can also be compared to the canonical division of the senses into five — sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell — that traces back to Aristotle’s On the Soul.

People fall back on this canonical division of the senses, but anyone who has studied the senses knows that we have moved far beyond Aristotle, though Aristotle was still a valuable point of departure. However, whenever one attempts to discuss sensory perception one always runs into the stubborn Aristotelian, usually entirely unaware that he is defending an Aristotelian doctrine, who cannot see beyond the conceptual schematization in order to pay attention to what he is experiencing through the medium of his own body.

Mostly this sort of thing is harmless, or it can be left aside when it becomes more of a hindrance than a help, but there have been many times in human history when familiar schematizations of knowledge have retarded the growth of knowledge because of unwillingness to abandon a view that is, or once was, good enough, but nevertheless fails us when we want to conduct a more detailed and rigorous inquiry. And this can happen with dividing emotions into Ekman’s canonical list of six basic emotions. There is a nice passage from Walter Kaufmann in which he discusses the complexity of emotion that lies behind the simple label:

“Some people think that depth of feeling or emotion rules out thought, and that anyone who thinks a great deal is likely or even bound to lack profound feelings. Yet many of the greatest poems and the most magnificent speeches in Shakespeare’s plays move us by communicating emotions that are not simply labeled; they voice the thoughts that constitute most of the emotions. Nor does it require Shakespeare’s genius, or gifts beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, to convey an emotion by observing and articulating its components.” (Walter Kaufmann, Discovering the Mind, Vol. III, section 81; all of this section is relevant to the present discussion)

In the paragraph immediately prior to this, Kaufmann says that it is often more powerful to describe an emotion in this way than to simply state, “I feel x.” More often than not, he is right, but we use the simple schematization because it is easy, because it is familiar, because it will be recognized, and so on. These are good reasons when one is in a hurry or doesn’t want to bother, but when one actually turns to the work of conceptual clarification, it is not good enough, and in so far has it continues to shape our inquiry, in becomes a hindrance to asking more interesting and more fruitful questions.

Our experience of the world is not exhausted by the canonical division of the five senses.

In the PS to newsletter no. 170 I mentioned my work on the value of the human senses from a scientific point of view, and any kind of discussion like this can get hung up on the canonical division of the senses into five, and then one has to go into describing interoception and kinethesia, the different sensory endowments of different species, and so on. This can be an interesting discussion, but sometimes the person you’re talking to doesn’t want to hang around for the punch line. Thus I noted above that our good enough way of speaking about things tends to get used as a kind of conceptual shorthand for what’s really going on. But at some point we have to get serious, or we’ll never make any progress.

I find these same hurdles, although not so clearly defined as Aristotle’s five senses or Ekman’s six emotions, in attempting to formulate concepts of civilization adequate to a theoretical discussion. In any of my longer Centauri Dreams posts when I have started to introduce my own terminology, inevitably I get comments that people just trying to poke holes in what I’m saying just for the sake of poking holes in it. Others, however, immediately get the game, and they go along hypothetically, even if they don’t fully agree with my analysis. This is the proper scientific spirit. We don’t need to agree on ultimate principles, but if we can accept ideas hypothetically and discuss them, then there is the possibility of making progress. And much more progress will come out of discussion than in privately cogitating ideas for decades without any interaction. I know; I’ve been there.

As I continue to work away on my ideas on history and civilization, I continue to introduce new concepts as I feel the need. In the opening pages of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, he describes how he had created a secret garden of ideas, and I know the feeling well. I have my own secret garden of ideas about civilization. Many of these ideas are oversimplified abstractions like Aristotle’s five senses or Ekman’s six emotions, but a theory needs to start with these oversimplified abstractions in order to later move to a position of greater adequacy.

One must find a place to start, an Archimedean point, and then the heavy lifting can begin. Here the familiar Einstein quote holds: “No fairer destiny could be allotted to any physical theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.” One might add that there is also no fairer destiny for a social theory. One might also add that, as often as this line is quoted, no one ever notes that this quote embodies an essentially cumulative conception of scientific knowledge, so that, if the more radical interpretation of Kuhn are right, if and when relativity theory is displaced by some rival theory, it will not live on as a special case, because the concepts in the theory will have been altered so that relativity theory can no longer be expressed in the terms of the new theory.

One could find a way to reconcile the cumulative conception of scientific knowledge with the Kuhnian conception of scientific revolutions (which is something like the modern equivalent of ancient philosophers attempting to reconcile Plato and Aristotle), but whether the result would be more than a saving of the appearances would be question. Perhaps a Kuhnian revolution would do to make sense of the problems with scientific psychology mentioned in the last newsletter. I noted there that there are three options for psychology:

“…if we take a radical interpretation of the later Wittgenstein, the question then becomes whether, (1) scientific psychology can be revised and reformed so that it will become scientifically rigorous, or whether (2) scientific psychology must start over from new beginnings, from a theoretical blank slate, as it were, or lastly whether (3) scientific psychology is an impossible discipline that cannot be made scientifically rigorous no matter how it is formulated.”

Revision would be what Kuhn called “normal science,” and it has its limits. Starting over would be what Kuhn called “revolutionary science,” but when I wrote that I wasn’t thinking in Kuhnian terms, but rather in Cartesian terms, i.e., foundationalist terms, so that the image of starting over with new foundations did not suggest to me when I wrote that that this is also a revolutionary conception. Scientific revolutions have their own problems, just as normal science has its own problems.

When I was writing last week about the problems in scientific psychology I had something in mind to say, but I forgot to say it. Psychology, in a sense, lies at the foundation of all the social sciences, methodologically if not also substantively, so that if psychology is as messed up as Wittgenstein said it was, all of the social sciences built since then, on related foundations, are equally rotten. Thus a radical reform to (or a revolution in) scientific psychology would mean similarly radical reform in the other social sciences. I did say something like this in the last newsletter, but there is more too this; there is an alternative.

Conventional scientific psychology that emerged in the nineteenth century modeled its epistemic ambitions on those of the natural sciences, but failed to be continuous with the natural sciences, in the way that cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology are all, in a sense, continuous with each other. One of these senses is the sense of emergent complexity. Physics describes matter, which is where our story begins. Everything we know is constructed of matter, so physics applies, after a fashion, to matter. The cosmos of stars, planets, and galaxies emerged from matter, so cosmology is an emergent complexity, but is continuity with physics has been hammered home by the emergence of astrophysics as the primary tool for the study of cosmology.

From the stars and planets of cosmology, geologically complex planets emerge, and here we have geology as an emergent. On Earth, this geological complexity has in turn given rise of biological complexity, and while life is a striking novel form of emergent complexity, it is still built up out of matter, albeit matter after multiple iterations of stars and planets have transformed the simple elements with which the universe began into increasingly more complex elements, compounds, chemicals, and minerals.

Psychology as the study of mind announces a kind of Cartesian break in this sequence of emergent complexity, for mind does not seem to be built of matter. This is, of course, the ancient philosophical bugbear of the mind-body problem, which remains as puzzling today as when it first made its appearance. Scientific psychology has attempted to lay the ghost of Descartes, but I would say that, for all the effort put in, it hasn’t been successful. But there is another way.

When psychology was emerging as a discipline, evolutionary biology had just appeared, but had not yet been digested. Evolutionary psychology did not yet exist in the nineteenth century, and only just barely was it present in the twentieth century. Suppose we start over with psychology, building it from the ground up exclusively on the basis of evolutionary psychology. In this way, the continuity of science could be maintained, and the ultimate foundations of evolutionary psychology would be in evolutionary biology, and the foundations of biology in what we now call the Earth sciences, and so on, back to physics.

On this quasi-Comtean basis we could re-build the social sciences on biological and evolutionary foundations, so that there would be evolutionary anthropology, an evolutionary sociology, an evolutionary political science, and so on. In this alternative conception of the social sciences, we would understand that the social sciences took a wrong turn in the nineteenth century, and that this wrong turn was the foundation of the social sciences, and everything done since this time needs to be re-thought and reconstructed from the ground up. It is likely that there a great deal of contemporary social science that could survive, once it was reconstructed on an evolutionary basis, but not all of it would survive, and our understanding of the social sciences would change.

I do not expect this to happen any time soon. Now is not the time. We are not, as a species, ready for a dispassionate study of ourselves as an object of scientific knowledge. This is a shame, and I wish I lived in an era in which this would be possible; but if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. One of the questions, then, in constructing a theory of civilization, is whether it can be constructed in such a way that when the coming reconstruction of the social sciences arrives, the better part of the effort can be salvaged and live on in a more comprehensive and more adequate social science.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

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