Work in Progress: Putting Out Fires

At present I am immersed in four projects:

  1. My upcoming presentation for NoRCEL, “Toward Universal Biology: An Observational Scientific Research Program in Origins of Life”
  2. A re-working of my previous NoRCEL presentation, “How many branches are there on the tree of life?” which I will eventually present to U3A.
  3. A paper on the far future of life in the universe
  4. My essay “Origins of the Stagnant Era”

The first three have a lot of overlap, so each can shed light on the other, and each suggests ideas to expand the scope of the others, but the “Origins of the Stagnant Era” essay is a bit of an outlier from the biological focus of the other work. However, in the larger context of the place of emergent complexity in the universe, it all fits together, and this larger perspective is offered by my 2019 presentation in Milan, “Peer Emergent Complexity during the Stelliferous Era.”

I have often found that, as I work on ideas, I work to get to the foundational ideas first, and then later backfill the development to connect the foundational ideas to more familiar topics. I understand that others fund this disorienting, as the exposition of fundamental ideas often seems distant and irrelevant: when the house is on fire, you want to douse it with water and not go into an explanation of the nature of fire and why water (usually) is an effective mitigation for a house fire. But sometimes you really need to know. If it is an electrical fire or a chemical fire, water might not be the best solution, and you might want to have recourse to some other firefighting method.

Many years ago I had an experience that underlines this. Back in the 80s (around 1986, give or take a year) I was about to leave one morning (at the time I was driving between the Portland airport and Wilsonville, delivering express mail), when I checked the oil on my vehicle and found it was low. So I walked into our shop to get some oil and I walked right into a face full of smoke. When I opened the door, smoke billowed out, so I opened the big shop door and found that the stove inside the shop had lit some oil on fire when the mechanic had left on an errand. I grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher and tried to put the fire out.

But there was a problem. The kind of fire extinguisher I was using was the kind that deprives a fire of oxygen, but since it was oil burning next to a hot stove, each time I put the fire out, the fire would just start up again (from the heat of the stove) as soon as I stopped using the extinguisher. However, I did manage to slow down the fire, and the mechanic eventually returned and helped me to put it out for good. Of course, professional fire fighters know all about this sort of thing, but I wasn’t and never have been trained in fire suppression, so I was just grabbing the nearest solution to hand and trying to make it work. And, in a sense, it worked insofar as I slowed the fire, and probably my intervention saved the building. If I hadn’t have walked in at that moment, it is highly likely that the fire would have spread and the building (which still stands today) would have been a total loss.

So having background knowledge can make a difference even when putting out fires. I believe this to be true even at the largest scales, so that we have to have some background knowledge of the cosmos and how it works in order to “put out the fires” posed to us by civilization, even those biological problems implicitly posed to us as part of the human condition. Here I have juxtaposed the “immediate” needs of civilization to the more distant needs of biology, but, of course, to the man-in-the-street, the needs and crises of civilization are a very distant concern compared to keeping food on the table and a roof over one’s head. Even here, however, we need to understand how things work on a fundamental level. Failed attempts to mitigate a problem (like my only partially successful attempt to put out an oil fire) can sometimes make the problem worse. This is why we say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions are not enough. Knowledge is necessary to intervene effectively.

Part of the problem of human society, which is the same as the problem of effective collective action, is that social pressures often force us to act precipitously, without fully understanding what it is we are responding to, or why we are responding in the way that we are. It is often necessary for the sake of social stability to demonstrate that “heads will roll” when something has gone wrong — in other words, the identification of a scapegoat is prioritized, as this can give the illusion that something is being done, even if there are no effective courses of action at the moment of crisis. Plato wanted to address this problem by what we could call “government by think tank.” The Guardians in Plato’s Republic were to be a specially educated group that would devote itself to thinking through the problems of the republic and responding to them rationally. One could identify particular trends in the contemporary world that seem to point to a similar impulse, but no such system of government has been formally constituted, nor is it clear whether any such system of government could be created, or, if created, if it would actually work. Perhaps it wouldn’t work, but Plato at least identified the problem (well, at least one major problem) early in the history of Western civilization.

One of the reasons my “Origins of the Stagnant Era” essay has grown to its present dimensions (about forty pages) is because, as I say in the introduction, “…it is my purpose to take the Stagnant Era on its own terms, in order to understand it for what it is, and not merely to see it as a temporary antechamber to decline or revival,” and this means going into the fundamentals of civilization. As it turns out, the stagnant periods of human history are the norm, and periods of decline and revival are the brief transitional periods that connect long periods of stagnation, which latter really should be considered the substance of human history. It is difficult for us to see this because, living in the wake of an ongoing industrial revolution, we have lived through a period of growth that is historically unprecedented. But some of you reading this now may live long enough to see major population crashes and disruptions to the international system which will point to a new stagnant era to come in human history, which will be very different from past stagnant eras.

The study of stagnation has much to teach us, but it is more interesting to study periods of great tumult and change. The Japanese historian Arai Hakuseki (新井 白石, 24 March 1657–29 June 1725) in his Tokushi Yoron (読史余論, A Reading of History), laid out the history of Japan in terms of nine changes, i.e., instead of focusing of periods, he focuses on the transitions between periods. This slightly different way of looking at history is one way to do justice to the intrinsic interest of transitional periods while recognizing that the bulk of history does not consist of transitional periods. It is worth thinking about this perspective as a way to narrate history, and indeed it could be argued that big history does this by focusing on the transitional periods of the appearance of distinctive new forms of emergent complexity.

Arai Hakuseki (新井 白石, 24 March 1657–29 June 1725)

In several contexts I have pointed out the difference between Stephen Jay Gould’s conception of (natural) history on the one hand, and big history on the other hand — both focus on the big picture, but Gould is interested in the continuity of the simple, while big history is interested in the emergence of novelty. These are two distinct perspectives on the same historical reality, which Gould called “punctuated equilibrium”: long periods of stagnation punctuated by transitional periods. In Gould, sameness and simplicity take place against a background of occasional moments of the appearance of novelty; in big history, novelty arises against the background of sameness and simplicity. Needless to say, these two perspectives can complement each other.

My work revising “How many branches are there on the tree of life?” — the U3A organizer who asked me to present this noted that background knowledge of the participants varies widely, so I should not assume familiarity with the ideas discussed — has made me aware that giving an exposition of this material from the ground up could stretch this out into an entire course, and not just a single talk. Therefore to reduce this to a single talk that makes sense as well as makes a point (hopefully introducing a novel point of view to the participants) means being highly selective about my exposition. I haven’t fully figured out how to do this, and what I will have to let go in order to produce something that can stand on its own.

This kind of exposition is also a study in delving in to fundamentals, i.e., a kind of foundationalism, but a foundationalism not tied to any agenda as, for example, with logical empiricism, which, a hundred years ago, was the dominant form of foundationalism. If I wanted to be tendentious I could call my approach metaphysical foundationalism, driving home the difference from logical empiricism. The logical empiricists thought that science stood in need of logically rigorous foundations, but science also stands in need of metaphysical clarification through metaphysical foundationalism, i.e., a kind of foundationalism that delves down into fundamental concepts, including the explication of metaphysical concepts (like space, time, and matter, inter alia) that lie at the foundation of science. One might even construct an indispensability argument for metaphysical concepts, as has been argued for the concepts of higher mathematics, such that even if these are not the concepts that science works with at the level of ground truth, they are nevertheless necessary concepts without which the entire structure of science cannot exist. In Husserlian terms, fundamental metaphysical concepts are the presuppositions of contemporary science.

Fundamental concepts are related to fundamental experiences, though not always in a straight-forward way. Simplicity — as, e.g., a simple idea — has a way of appearing again and again in widely different contexts, so that in clarifying a simple concept we can sometimes bring clarification to widely diverse fields of knowledge, which, at the same time, can point to the deeper unity of widely diverse bodies of knowledge — and this, too, was another goal of the logical empiricists, who clearly saw the need for science to have a unified conceptual basis.

The sometimes elusive connection between fundamental concepts and fundamental experiences may be a way to build a bridge between theoretical concepts (internal concepts of a theory) and folk concepts, or pre-theoretical concepts. When we use the methods of logic to reduce simple concepts to their simplest form, they tend to depart from ordinary experience in the way that theoretical concepts are often distant from ordinary experience. But the process of explication — which I recently saw glossed as another way of talking about rational reconstruction, which is not how explication is usually explicated — traces a route from the familiar form of a simple concept to the less familiar, more theoretical form of a simple concept. If we can retain that route — another bridge, as it were — in mind, we can retain a concrete grasp on how our most fundamental concepts are related to ordinary experience.

Early in my philosophical self-education I read most of Descartes, and I read Descartes in chronological order, meaning that I started with the incomplete Rules for the Direction of Mind (Regulae ad directionem ingenii). This made a deep impression on me that I continue to reflect upon all these years later. In this unfinished work, Descartes explicitly tells us how he thinks, or how he tries to think, and this is worth paying attention to as Descartes made more fundamental discoveries than most of us. Especially influential to me was rule V: The whole method consists entirely in the ordering and arranging of the objects on which we must concentrate our mind’s eye if we are to discover some truth. We shall be following this method exactly if we first reduce complicated and obscure propositions step by step to simpler ones, and then, starting with the intuition of the simplest ones of all, try to ascend through the same steps to a knowledge of all the rest.

René Descartes (31 March 1596–11 February 1650)

Several things need to said about this text. The rules cannot really be isolated from one another, so that my citing rule V is somewhat arbitrary. Further, these rules in the full text come with long explanations, so the rules don’t really make much sense without the exposition given in each rule’s explanation. Also, the rules were written in Latin, and English translations can vary significantly. From Descartes I derived the importance of clarifying fundamental ideas (intuitions that he would later call clear and distinct ideas) and rehearsing the deductive relationships between these fundamental ideas and the ideas derived from them, so that one always has in mind the relationship between, “the most insignificant and easiest of matters” (as Descartes would have it in one English translation of rule IX) and what follows from these insignificant and easiest of matters.

I wrote above that Plato clearly saw, early in the history of Western civilization, one of the fundamental problems of effective collective action; similarly, Descartes clearly saw, early in the history of the scientific revolution, some of the fundamental problems of the logical construction of scientific knowledge. These problems have not gone away, and they never will go away. The most we can hope to do is to manage these problems, social and epistemic, as best as we can. While Plato’s proposed solution to one of the problems of human society hasn’t gotten any traction, I would argue that Descartes at least offers a viable approach to the problems of scientific knowledge, and his outlined approach has influenced me personally. A rational reconstruction of Descartes’ rules in the context of contemporary scientific methodology, and in the light of contemporary philosophy of science, could go a long way toward addressing some of the most intractable problems we face in science.

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