Sunday, 13 June 2010

How to philosophise with a hammer

I am a hopeless handyman. I have poor attention to detail and lack patience. I am disorganised. When hanging a picture, rather than finding a hammer, I bash the tack in with whatever first comes to hand. Recent examples: A tin of Rawleigh's Medicated Ointment (reasonably effective), an ornamental porcelain donkey (bad - it didn't survive) and a book (a hard-backed edition of E. O. Wilson's Consilience: better than nothing, but now pocked with pinholes).

That we tend to do that sort of thing lies at the root of a big problem with the ideas inside Professor Wilson's book (just as well, therefore, it has some use for hammering in picture hooks). Using a familiar object to do an unfamiliar job is rather like coining a metaphor: It's a creative act. As well as being pragmatic, it has its advantages. (It must have some advantages - convenience; it overcomes the lack of botheredness to find the hammer - or you wouldn't do it). But while my tin of ointment (or ornamental donkey, for that matter)  might not be conventional (and, in the donkey's case, might not work awfully well) it's not wrong. It is as good as the job it does. A "proper" tack hammer has been designed, to the exclusion of all other purposes, for hammering in tacks. You can imagine other objects being better or worse at functioning like hammers. Blu-tack, for example, would be hopeless. But not wrong. Just not much use.

And so it is with metaphors:  they deliberately take a conventional concept and put it to work in a concept it wasn't designed for. As a result metaphorical meanings are different from literal meanings (in a manner of speaking) but no worse or better - while they might be more or less effective, effectiveness is in the eye of the beholder.

Often, a metaphor can more elegantly or succinctly some aspects of its "target" (which Julian Jaynes would call a "metaphrand") than a literal construction. "Love is a rose": I suppose you might take this to mean love is a delicate, beautiful, fragile, thing that can prick you if you aren't careful with it. Or that is is a soft, rich and complexly enfolded collection of different facets. These aren't mutually exclusive metaphors, but they're not entirely consistent either. Both of them make some sense, where a literal interpretation of "love is a rose" doesn't.

Now while I was bashing in my picture hook with Professor Wilson's book I got to thinking about what was inside his book, and how Professor Wilson's whole enterprise, his desired end state, is one which overlooks the metaphor. This is some irony as metaphors, and rich ones at that, are scattered prodigally around his text.

Professor Wilson, in Consilience, sees the possibility (not yet arrived) of a unified, unique, continuous, contiguous spectrum of knowledge, encompassing not merely the physics and the physical sciences, but all of the humanities too. In fact, I think he sees the necessity of it. Wilson is an unabashed reductionist. Wilson embraces a hierarchy of physical sciences (physics at the bottom, grounding everything else; Chemistry sitting atop it, Biology atop that, and so on. Higher sciences can be reduced to lower ones; all sciences are consistent with each other, and it is only a lack of data which prevents completion of the total blueprint of the physical universe. Thereafter the social sciences and even the arts will fall into a pre-ordained and logical place and will similarly be logical, consistent and unambiguously explicable. Wilson is excited by this idea (it horrifies me, personally), and sets out in his book to give it some intellectual underpinning.

Wilson is running before he can walk. Metaphor gets in the way - literally, and metaphorically. The same thing happened to Bertrand Russell following a similarly hubristic exercise restricted to the logical underpinnings of mathematics. In the infancy of the twentieth century Russell tried to chart the entirely cosmos of the mathematical universe by reference to a single, finite set of well-defined logical axioms. By limiting himself to numbers, Russell took up an easier challenge, you would think, than Wilson has. Mathematics was, Russell supposed, a closed logical system: finite, reducible and therefore well susceptible to his kind of enterprise.

But Russell failed to complete his mathematical globe. Russell didn't just not manage to get to all points in a large whole; he failed totally: his entire project, so pointed out a precocious young German chap by the name of Goedel, was logically flawed. Doomed.

The reason? Metaphor. Even though Russell had decreed some ad-hoc rules to guard against logical cul-de-sacs - for example, no item was allowed to be a member of its own set - it was possible to run mathematical operations by analogy - metaphorically, in other words, that could tell you things that a literal mathematical operation could not. And any ostensibly complete description of a language which forbade expressions such as "the set of all possible sets" was going to be practically useless anyway. There are some excellent accounts of Goedel's dramatic insight, Douglas Hofstadter's a particularly good one (though his ultimate conclusion seems wildly wrong).

When he does refer to metaphor, Wilson's is a rather unimaginative account: what he describes isn't metaphor so much as definitional drift occasioned by metaphor. To use one of his examples, by the time "plot" - a physical site and a building plan - came to mean "plot" - the narrative structure of a story - any figurative content in the expression had long since evaporated; seawater gone, a residue of salt.

Wilson's idea of a metaphor therefore is a dead one: these are the ones "normal scientists" like, of course, because dead metaphors can't get up and bite you by suggesting what you meant to say might be taken in a number of ways. If there were a substantive distinction between art and scientific literature - and like Wilson, but for radically different reasons, I'm inclined to think there isn't one - it might be found in the systematic exclusion of metaphor from scientific discourse. Science is about exactitude; consensus on a literal way of speaking enhances that end.

But at some cost, and not just in the notorious dullness of scientific literature. Literalness encourages and perhaps compels compliance with orthodoxy. Paul Feyerabend - another conspicuous absentee from Wilson's reading list - makes the inspired observation that scientific revolutions rely on inspired observations: a willingness to disregard the formal language of the discipline. If you stick rigidly to the rules of the prevailing scientific paradigm it is not possible to see, much less formulate, contradictions to it: Anything which looks like a contradiction, by the terms of the theory, must be explicable some other way (wind interference; malfunctioning equipment).

To find a new solution to a conundrum you are forced to use existing concepts in a new way. You can only do it by being creative with your language.


  1. In your review of No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller, by Harry Markopolos, you say "we have a paradigm in crisis; something about our set of assumptions and parameters; something really fundamental about the way we we currently, collectively look at the financial world, is utterly misconceived."

    When you say "we" you can mean only the people populating the financial world, or not even merely populating but the "fashionable", the "willing executioners", the people who can influence.

    Is the international financial community (rather than the consciously grand but metaphorical world), like the international scientific community and the international community of religious fundamentalists, another community of zealots? You have to believe to belong, or you have to turn a blind eye: you have to not listen - whether you have any influence or not. You have to do that even to get a job interview.. And so the blind lead the blind?

    Walter Benjamin called fascism the aestheticisation of politics (art, as in artfulness - a metaphor for art? - of politics, for extreme power) - could we call the current, conventional paradigm (of the last ten, twenty, thirty years, post-war, post-modern period?) in the finacial world the aestheticisation of capitalism (the same, for extreme wealth)?

    You wonder: "what is it structurally, systemically, even sociologically about our financial system..?" You know: "the herd mentality, the group-think, the social and anthropological hierarchies.." Do you think "the book that identifies this error, sure to be a ground shaker, is yet to be written."? Have you read The True and Only Heaven, by Christopher Lasch? Have you read Ill fares the land, by Tony Judt?

    Wall Street, and the City - metaphors for "spiritually barren" materialistic, godless life of sterile consumerism - are the inheritors of the Enlightenment, itself a metaphor for a "spiritually barren" materialistic, godless life in its time.

  2. What riles James (in Affluenza), you suspect, is that, given a choice between "spiritually happy" impecunious violent disenfranchisement (the Chet model) and "spiritually barren" materialistic, godless life of sterile consumerism (Sam and Consuela), most people would squarely opt for the latter. I would argue that most people, if any, do not make a choice, and that most people, if not all, have "spiritual work" to do, either to be "happy" or "barren (in order to be happy with barenness)".. What riles James is that people do not bother with or have a notion of this "spritual work", and either actually are barren, or are unhappy. There is no social contract in the UK, only social compliance and non-compliance.

    Post-modernism is merely modernism + rueful irony. I think it got lost in the confusion of "spiritual work", and swept away by the tide of fashion, consumersim in the form of drugs and sex, and the new aestheticisation. I think Julian Jaynes, and Christopher Lasch are better exmples of this "spiritual work" in the late-seventies at the cusp of the wave. Post-modernist thinking continues and continues to be awkward and underachieving, and defeated by stronger narratives.

    The book that identifies the inheritance of post-modernist thinking is sure to be a ground breaker. It is not the Orange book. The need for this thinking is exemplified by the rise of "social entrepreneurship" and "corporate responsibility" - the return of trying to compensate for "the social ills" with token gestures, which highlight rather than solve entrenched social and cultural problems.

    Perhaps there should be a year of "social service", required of those post-graduation pre-entry to non-social graduate-schemes. Perhaps there should be a year of pre-school "behaviour school" required of those from social housing. Perhaps the modest unifying theory here is that social (socio-economic) advantage entails social responsibility and that social (socio-economic) disadvantage entails socialisation. Checks and balances on the extremes of society, that do not prevent achievement at either end.

  3. Hi Olly,

    I hope you don't mind that I have thrown some reactions at you, no doubt superficially informed. As you know, I am, at arm's length, a fan of your line of thinking, here and elsewhere, and perhaps the best way to appreciate it is to try to engage with it, as I have found previously.

    Best wishes,

  4. Ellie
    Not at all. I'm thrilled someone took the time to read it! Will have a look when I get a mo - just dashing in and dashing out right now.

    Hope all well with you

  5. Ellie
    Re comment # 1

    'When you say "we" you can mean only the people populating the financial world, or not even merely populating but the "fashionable", the "willing executioners", the people who can influence.'

    Yes; agreed.

    'Is the international financial community ... like the international scientific community and the international community of religious fundamentalists, another community of zealots?'

    I would say - by the same definition of "zealots" (which I think is at the best pejorative) - it is. I don't think there is anything unusual or necessarily disagreeable about "having to believe to belong" - it is a way of ensuring and preserving the integrity of the paradigm. There is something to be said for reinforcing the integrity of the paradigm as long as you're not papering over cracks. A big difference between that and avoiding being perpetually distracted by stupid questions. The problem is, the mechanisms failed to differentiate between "stupid" questions and "good" ones (accepting always that "stupid" and "good" are themselves defined within the paradigm).

    'Wall Street, and the City - metaphors for "spiritually barren" materialistic, godless life of sterile consumerism - are the inheritors of the Enlightenment, itself a metaphor for a "spiritually barren" materialistic, godless life in its time.'

    This last statement I don't agree with. For one thing I don't think there's anything spiritually barren about being Godless (in many cases it's quite the converse - I don't know whether you've sat through an Anglican church service recently, but I can't think of anything more spiritually barren), and I don't think city folk are any more "consumerist" than anyone else - indeed, they tend to be considerably less so.

  6. Thanks Olly.

    I'm left thinking that there were cracks in the "integrity of the paradigm" that were so heavily papered over that 'good' questions (even as defined within the paradigm) had, and will continue to have, no chance of being heard. Like any "inconvenient truth". Too Big to Fail is like reading Too Arrogant to Be True. I'm sorry, but I am struggling to see the difference between the showmanship, the errors, and the ridiculous attempt to make the whole thing entertaining. Too Much Effort to Sort the Wheat from the Chaff.

    I also disagree with your opinion of city folk, if you mean those who inhabit the offices in the glass towers, as a generalisation of tendencies. As an aside, I was describing the City itself as a metaphor for the generation of extreme wealth (political correction: GDP) beyond any other consideration, along with the Enlightenment.

    Have you seen what property is available at £300,000 anywhere in London? Have you compared London's high streets (rather than back streets) with the average provincial/village high street?

    I suspect that we do not define Godlessness in the same way here, either - I am just refering to absolutist evidence-based faith in scientific or economic truth(s) at the expense of considering associated implications for the ability of each of us to get on with one another at a more basic, realistic, human, level of intuitive goodwill and understanding. (I know you don't fall into this trap yourself.) We cannot all know or benefit from the latest scientific discoveries or the latest risk management techniques, or the latest market trends, and I wonder if, in fact, far fewer (and most usually the same) people benefit and far many more suffer from the lack of knowledge or benefit or both.

    I can understand your interpretation of an Anglican service, indeed I might agree, and I would add that, of course, Anglicanism has never really been anything other a rendering of what is God's unto Caeasar.

    Of the two books I recommended, Lasch's The True and Only Heaven is by far superior. You might see how you were indeed born the right side of the sixties, but the wrong side of the eighties, from the point of view of inter-generational "judgement". At least you are not a loser from any point of view. The same cannot be said for me.

  7. Ellie
    I'm not really sure what you're expecting me to say - other than "noted", and to remind you in whose eye one finds beauty.

  8. I suppose this isn't really a conversation, just a bounce of thoughts.

  9. Your metaphorical example of hammering with the ornamental porcelain donkey suffers from the difficulty that if you persist in doing so you will not have any porcelain left except shards. Our lifespans are limited, and our resources are limited so at some stage efficiency matters.

    A global hierarchy of the sciences is inevitably going to happen, and the fact that such a hierarchy does not guarantee a solution to every conceivable problem is no reason whatsoever to avoid it. What I regularly see is every discipline insisting on reinventing its own set of wheels for no reason other than "Not Made Here" prejudice. For example, the concept of a feedback loop is known as "feedback" in electrical engineering, and maybe "recursion" or maybe "iteration" in computing, but the mathematicians prefer to say "proof by induction" and the sociologists like the sound of "reflexivity" and I note elsewhere your reading of "I Am a Strange Loop". For economists it is merely that stuff you skip past on the way to equilibrium.

    There really are not such a lot of concepts here, but there are a lot of people sure that their little perspective on the picture is the important one. Efficiency. Think efficiency!

    Re-casting all of these concepts back to a basic mathematical framework, and then providing a set of overlays for each discipline to use with common language, and common recognition would save so much head banging. Sure it would be boring, but the purpose of boring stuff is to make life easier allowing you to concentrate on new and interesting things. Besides, eventually it just gets merged into one giant software package, and most people can have the fun of tinkering with their own little bit of the world and not stress about finding the hammer -- just point and click, the nail sorts itself.

  10. Tel
    Thanks for commenting. The point re the donkey wasn't that it is a good, or effective, hammer, but just that it could be used, in concept, as a hammer. I thoroughly agree, though, that the pragmatic (small and big P) response (life is short, efficiency matters) is the means by which we *do* settle upon not using a porcelain donkey as a hammer: but this is a very different, less "rigorous" one that a reductionist approach of looking for some essential properties of hammerness.

    I fully agree about the analogies that can be drawn between the same concepts in different fields (in the same was as a "Derivative" is conceptually identical to an "Insurance Policy" and a "Wager"). But I doubt there ever will be a day of reckoning to adjudicate which is the "True" definition: the social structures defending each discipline are far stronger than the intellectual argument to break them down. That intellectual argument is also very hard to mount: it requires fluency in the language of each of the disciplines, and not many people have that.

    As well as their own social infrastructure, different conceptual paradigms have their own unique languages (I would say that these two features are what defines a paradigm), and there is no "meta-language" which affords a certain way of translating between them with perfect fidelity. If you can speak both languages fluently, you can analogise; if you don't, you can't.

    I could go on for hours - in the mean time the pragmatic response it is really gratifying to know someone is reading this blog, and being sufficiently stimulated by it to write in!

    Tell your friends!!!