Work in Progress: Science over the Longue Durée
Friday 08 July 2022
A hundred years ago positivism was the big movement in western philosophy, with logical empiricism (also called logical positivism) sweeping through science and mathematics with an iconoclastic fervor, intent on dismantling tradition and erecting shiny new steel and glass structures in the newly cleared ground. Modernity in the sciences had arrived in earnest. However, it didn’t take long for the logical empiricist movement to run into problems.
One of the distinctive doctrines of the school was the verifiability criterion of meaning (also known as verificationism), which held that the only meaningful statements were those that were either empirically verifiable, or those which were logically true a priori. The problem here (one problem among many problems) is that the verifiability criterion itself is not verifiable. Therefore, by the positivist’s own standards, their verifiability criterion constituted metaphysics, which in Humean fashion ought to be committed to the flames. This really took the steam out of logical empiricism, which faded away after a period of angry assertiveness. But the tradition left behind a significant legacy, and contemporary Anglo-American philosophy is still logically empiricist in spirit, even if not in letter.
I still read the works of logical empiricism, which left a large and remarkably rigorous literature on the philosophy of science. Quine, who put another nail in the coffin of logical empiricism with his famous essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” which pointed out problems with the synthetic/analytic dichotomy, said that “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” This is one of the ways in which philosophy continues to be dominated by the spirit of logical empiricism: despite the rejection of its doctrines in detail, the overall framework remains in place, and part of this framework is the centrality of philosophy of science, and a dismissiveness toward any other forms of philosophy.
Near the end of the high water mark of logical empiricism, several prominent members of the movement put together what they called the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, which consisted of a number of monographs on specific topics treated in a rigorously logical empiricist style. Ironically, it was in these series of monographs that Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared, which put another nail into the coffin of logical empiricism. Another monograph in the series is Carl G. Hempel’s Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science, to which I have referred on many occasions, as it has exercised an ongoing influence over my thought for many years.
Hempel’s monograph develops the Carnapian idea that scientific concepts develop from rough taxonomic (or classificatory) concepts through comparative concepts and ultimately into quantitative concepts, which latter are the most useful to science. A comparative concept is like the scratch test for rock hardness: if one rock can scratch other, and not be scratched by it in turn, then the first rock is harder. We can then arrange all minerals in a sequence by this scratch test, which thus yields a metric for mineral hardness without referring to any metrical scale. If we then use this for what Hempel calls a non-metrical sequence as the basis for a scale numbered in discrete quantities, we can construct a quantitative concept from a comparative concept.
Yesterday I realized that another obvious example of a comparative concept is habitability. No doubt many others have thought of this previously, but it only just now occurred to me. Say we surveyed a number of worlds, and these worlds represented life from a nearly barren planet on which life was barely able to survive, though clement worlds like Earth, and onto what René Heller called “superhabitable worlds,” which are planets with an even higher degree of habitability than Earth.
We could create a non-metrical sequence of such worlds. Some time ago I started a paper on what I called “subhabitable worlds” (still unfinished), which are the opposite of Heller’s superhabitable worlds. Using this terminology, we can create the non-metrical sequence of subhabitable — habitable — superhabitable (which can be extended to uninhabitable—subhabitable — habitable — superhabitable ). If we had enough instances, we could probably distinguish degrees of subhabitability, habitability, and superhabitability.
Now, a lot of work has already been done on habitability indices (for example the Planetary Habitability Laboratory has it Earth Similarity Index, or ESI). I would obviously want to look into these proposed indices of habitability and see what they look like from a logical point of view. There are many ways in which this might be approached. An Earth Similarity Index implies a scale centered of Earth’s habitability standards; alternatively, one could start with zero for an uninhabitable world, and work one’s way up to higher degrees of habitability. This latter seems best from a logical standpoint. One could also posit the highest degree of superhabitability, and represent all other forms of habitability as some diminution of this standard.
An ideally uninhabitable world suggests in turn an interesting thought experiment. How would we want to define zero on a scale of habitability? Would this be a planet on which no living thing could survive, even the hardiest of extremophiles? What would we consider to be “survival” in this context? How quickly would a tardigrade left on the moon have to die in order for the moon to be considered a zero on the habitability scale? One idea that comes to mind is to frame uninhabitability in terms of reproduction: on a world of zero habitability, even if some hardy extremophile could survive for a given period of time, it would not be able to reproduce, so that once the organism dies, that’s it for life on the planet, until some other event brings in a hardly organism that can survive until it dies, but cannot reproduce.
This idea suggests another idea, perhaps highly unlikely, but the universe is a big place, and there are probably a lot of very strange things for us to discover in the fullness of time. Suppose you have a planet or a moon that is highly habitable, perhaps superhabitable, and it is gravitationally bound with another planet which is not habitable (this could be a planet-moon relationship, or simply two closely-space planets), and is perhaps a zero on the habitability scale, and these two planets are constituted such that the habitable planet is always sloughing off some of its abundant life, which impacts the uninhabitable world, forming a thick layer of life on the uninhabitable planet. Suppose that for some reason, none of the life that impacts the uninhabitable planet can reproduce, but it survives in such a mass that it gives the appearance of a living world.
Now, this thought experiment probably won’t work, as a planet that was near another habitable world would itself be in a habitable zone, and if it had a thick layer of life sloughed off from a superhabitable planet, some of this life would reproduce within the thick layer. However, even if the idea is ultimately unworkable, it still can be use to probe our intuitions about the concept of habitability and the possibility of a planet having the value of zero on a habitability score. For example, if life reproduces within a context of other life in an otherwise inhospitable environment, and the inhospitable environment makes no contribution whatsoever to the reproduction process, would it still be considered uninhabitable? And what is a biosphere other than a thick layer of life on a rocky planet that would otherwise be barren?
In any case, it occurred to me that the logical resources of Hempel’s monograph might be brought to bear upon formulating first a non-metrical order of habitability, which could then be used as the basis for a quantitative concept of habitability. To this end, I was reading my copy of Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science last night, and this gave me a number of ideas. I have mentioned before that I never read a text more carefully than when I read with an agenda. I had an idea I wanted to clarify — a quantitative scale of habitability — and so I read more deeply into Hempel’s monograph than I had previously, seeing it as a tool I might use to formulate my own ideas.
I have also been reading Hempel lately with an eye toward using these same resources for formulating metrics for use in a theory of civilization. While it is a lot more controversial to view civilizations in terms of a rank-ordering (many will not touch the idea with a ten foot pole, implicitly invoking Boasian cultural relativism, which it seems must deny even the possibility of rank ordering civilizations by any quantitative scale), ultimately what we would want from a science of civilization are objective scales of measurements that we can use to assess a civilization or civilization. In my last reading of Hempel I had underlined this passage from page 21:
“In order to attain theories of great precision, wide scope, and high empirical confirmation, science has therefore evolved, in its different branches, comprehensive systems of special concepts, referred to by technical terms. Many of those concepts are highly abstract and bear little resemblance to the concrete concepts we use to describe the phenomena of our everyday experience.”
In several recent newsletters (e.g., in newsletter 182) I have discussed the use of theoretical terms in formulating a theory of civilization, and much of this discussion took place under the influence of Hempel, who also discusses the idea of observable terms and of “bridge principles” that connect the observable terms, which do bear a close resemblance to concepts of everyday experience, to theoretical terms, which do not bear a close resemblance to concepts of everyday experience.
Last night I read Hempel’s account of observational concepts more carefully than I had previously, and I was struck by the clear distinction he drew between different conceptions of observable terms. Hempel notes that the experiential basis for a scientific theory could be in the form of a phenomenological or phenomenalistic approach on the one hand, or, on the other hand, in a vocabulary of observable terms “marked by a high degree of determinacy and uniformity.” Hempel is concerned that the experiential side of science concern itself with publicly available evidence that multiple observers can independently verify to their own satisfaction. (Needless to say, it’s necessary to read the monograph to get the full treatment of what’s going on in this passage.)
On several occasions I have written about Husserl’s counterintuitive and non-naturalistic conception of science (which often goes completely unnoticed, or at least unremarked, by a lot of commentators on phenomenology, which constitutes a conflation with the more familiar conception of science), and Hempel’s treatment of the foundations of science implicitly recognizes the possibility of a different approach — an approach which perhaps does not possess a high degree of determinacy and uniformity, but which might nevertheless have other virtues. One suspects that there is a cost/benefit analysis that could be done on the foundations of science, such that if we adopt the phenomenological approach to the experiential basis of science, there are certain benefits, but also certain costs, and, similarly, if we prefer observation terms with a high degree of determinacy and uniformity this also comes with certain benefits and certain costs. In fact, contemporary science is burdened with a number of problems that constitute the de facto costs of setting up science in a particular way.
It is interesting to see this possibility of science branching out in two fundamentally different ways based on one’s conception of observational terms, and indeed to see it explicitly recognized by Hempel, who then goes on to opt for the conventional naturalistic approach to securing the experiential side of science. Hempel notes a couple of logical problems in regard to a phenomenological approach to observational terms, and states, “…no one has ever developed in a precise manner a linguistic framework for the use of phenomenalistic terms.” This is Hempel the logical empiricist speaking.
Husserl would have contended that he had formulated an entirely independent approach to securing the experiential basis of science with his phenomenology, and this would entail a different relationship to theoretical principles, and thus distinct bridge principles that would relate phenomenological observational concepts to theoretical concepts. The result would be a different kind of science, or a different form of science, and, in Husserl’s hands, this becomes a paradoxically non-naturalistic science. It would be an interesting philosophical exercise to pursue this approach to science as systematically as Hempel pursues his formulation of scientific concepts. We could do this with a science of civilization, or a science of habitability, and the result would be something perhaps both unfamiliar but also familiar in weirdly unexpected ways֫ — exactly complementary to those ways in which familiar naturalistic science confirms some of our intuitions but is, at the same time, weirdly disconnected from actual experience in unexpected ways.
One of the reasons I felt it helpful to read excruciatingly detailed accounts of philosophy of science in the work of the logical positivists is that I do my work in isolation, essentially in a social vacuum. If a large number of people are interested in the same problem and work together on a scientific research program, the likelihood is that these many different minds each bringing their own perspective to the matter are going to avoid at a lot of the pitfalls that the individual may fall prey to. Not having this kind of social context for my work, my alternative is philosophical rigor.
We all know that science is now dominated by large scientific research programs in which teams of hundreds or thousands of persons are involved. Ciro Villa recently drew my attention to Destiny of science modeled and explained in new study, which article in turn cited Together we stand by Ioannis Pavlidis, Alexander M. Petersen & Ioanna Semendeferi, Cross-disciplinary evolution of the genomics revolution by Alexander M. Petersen, Dinesh Majeti, Kyeongan Kwon, Mohammed E. Ahmed, and Ioannis Pavlidis, and Grand challenges and emergent modes of convergence science by Alexander M. Petersen, Mohammed E. Ahmed, and Ioannis Pavlidis, all of which hail a “convergence paradigm” of cross-disciplinary research and the fait accompli of “team science,” culminating in today’s “polymathic team convergence.”
While I don’t necessarily disagree with the points made by these authors, I believe that the convergence that they identify is part of a larger pattern, which I call reticulate science. I wrote a number of posts about this last year (including Reticulate Science, Addendum on Reticulate Science, and Infinitistic Epistemic Expansion), in which I noted that specialization that creates new discipline alternates with the integration of some of these specialist disciplines in the context of inter-disciplinarity, which alternation could continue indefinitely and thus avoid the fate of epistemic stagnation and diminishing returns predicted by Nicholas Rescher’s book Scientific Progress.
What I have described is one possible large-scale pattern that may characterize the history of science going forward, but in the current context I have realized the possibility of another large-scale pattern that might be revealed in looking at science at a civilizational scale. I will try to explain what I mean by this, but I need to go off on what may appear to be another tangent. In several newsletters (including some of my earliest, nos. 10, 11, and 15) I have discussed scenarios of civilizational collapse, along with possible ways in which knowledge, science, and technology might be preserved, or might continue to advance despite the failure of contemporary international institutions, which are key to contemporary science, and especially “big science” like the LHC, ITER, NIF, and ISS. While civilizational collapse would be catastrophic, both in terms of lives and knowledge, it might also have a silver lining. As international scientific research programs ground to a halt, individuals who would otherwise invest their time in such enterprises would have to either abandon science, or return to an earlier paradigm of science pursued by an individual, or by small groups of a master and a few apprentices.
The rapid circulation of knowledge which plays such a prominent role in contemporary science would vanish in a civilizational collapse scenario, and scientists would work mostly in isolation. While the rapidity of the growth of scientific knowledge would be slowed substantially, there would be some gains. For example, the group think that dominates all large-scale endeavors would disappear, and individuals pursuing an idiosyncratic research program would be at no disadvantage in comparison to someone pursuing a more mainstream research program. The real test of a theory would be not its social acceptance within a given milieu (which today means an academic milieu), but its fruitfulness and utility, which is how science ought to be judged.
The current corruption of our educational institutions would also quickly come to be irrelevant. In the western world especially, “higher” education has been pushed to be a nearly universal rite of passage, with the inevitable crowding of universities with individuals with no real interest in education or knowledge, and the inevitable lowering of standards that must accompany a dramatic increase in the number of individuals participating in any given institution. In a civilizational collapse scenario, the only individuals who will be involved in science and technology will be those who are strongly intrinsically motivated to be so involved, and their work will be judged unforgivingly on merit, and not by contrived political standards.
I noted above that, absent a community of my own to pursue a scientific research program on civilization, my work in isolation substitutes methodological rigor for the dialectic that derives from conversation and interaction. Most people would not want to read about the details of scientific methodology, and would rather come to it through a natural process of learning embedded in a community, which community already incorporates its own presuppositions on the difficult philosophical questions posed by scientific method. However, in the absence of extended scientific research communities such as we have today, the books would mostly survive that would allow individuals working in splendid isolation to test their ideas against sophisticated models of scientific knowledge that were not available in the past.
Thus the other conception of a large-scale process of the development of science, apart from what I call reticulate science, would be a process of civilization advancing and declining, so that during each stage of civilizational advance, science becomes more team-based and cooperative, and communications play a large role in the development of scientific knowledge, while during each stage of civilizational decline, isolated individuals will work through their ideas in a radically different social context that will allow different kinds of ideas to develop. In this way, science could be redirected along new lines with each civilizational collapse, much as life is redirected along new pathways in the wake of each mass extinction event. The epochs of scientific knowledge yet to be revealed by the slow processes of civilizational rise and decline may yet enrich science to a greater degree than a linear progression of accumulated knowledge without punctuations of disruption.