Friday, March 9, 2012

Science and Mythos - Toward a New Mythos


 I would like to thank my colleague Paul for the conversation that enacted this moment of social thinking.

I shared with Paul, the new papers by Stuart Kauffman
Answering Descartes: Beyond Turing and No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere

Paul replied very quickly on receiving the papers but before he had read them. He like I is deeply interested in the topics of evolution and complexity. He is a real intellectual and curious about the world. He spoke about his question of whether the laws of physics are the only laws of motion because if that were the case - then of course the future should be fairly determined & thus predictable.

But even if such were the case Paul argued that we subjectively experience it differently - an experience that many scientist reject as 'noise' despite the fact that 'being subjectively objective is also a subjective experience. :)

Paul recalled reading about a Cambridge University debate between a theologian and an atheistic natural scientis about the existence of God. He believed the atheist/scientist won since in the end the theologian could only resort to 'I believe'. However, he felt that this may have been a pyrrhic victory that describe a universe without a concept of a god that humans could use to reflect back in wonder at themselves.

Later at a social science event he heard another scientist report on 'religion' - what struck him was the fact that a much greater number of social scientist self identified as atheists compared to natural scientists. Paul speculated that this maybe because most social scientists have onl a superficial understanding of physics. And that further all physicist recognize an element of the mystical deeply embedded in the laws of the universe. 

In thinking about Paul's comments, I think it is interesting to look at the different domains of science – living systems (complex) versus the traditional natural (hard) sciences in terms of the propensity to atheism.

What Kauffman & Longo (I’ve read a couple of his papers) did for me is finally articulate the nature of the frame for a physics worldview versus the frame for living systems & evolution.

I’ve also thought for a long time, that the difference between the premodern and modern worldviews was a nuance of the ‘cause’ of a ‘given world’. So that in the premodern ‘god(s)/God create the world - as it is and we must live in it – and therefore the world was ‘given’ by God.

In the modern worldview – the world is now given by ‘laws of nature’ – the Newtonian clockwork – so for example, once we  know the position/speed/etc. of each part, the world is thus essentially given - the future like the past is determined

In the postmodern worldview the ‘predictability’ of the world’s unfolding becomes impossible despite the its theoretical deterministic quality. This is the result of our understanding of 'chaos and complexity theory'.

In this way, the ‘mythos’ underlying the ‘logos’ of the hard scientist remains similar to the mythos of religion – a given world and the corresponding  metaphorical entailments of the ‘authority’ of God apply to the authority of Laws and can yield to a type of theism or theistic intuition.

Having said this I agree with Paul's "speculative hypothesis that most social scientists have only a superficial understanding of physics." 

However, I felt that the converse is perhaps more important – that most physicists have a poor understanding of the causal logic of biology (and evolution).

Social sciences, including those of living systems (unlike the natural sciences) must accept the inherent and many fundamental unknowables in the nature of their ‘scientific objects’ of study. Although I would bet that many social scientist struggle to do science from within the same ‘mythos’ of the physics world view.

A deep part of this mythos is that physics and its mathematical tool set requires a ‘prestatable (event/phase) space and proceeds to use a language or calculus of trajectory (momentum, force, mass, etc.) to determine what will happen (this is the fundamental conceptual metaphor that frames most science and the sense of objectivity). In this way time (past – future) is revealed.

Here I will refer to a past blog post: The problem with evolution is that it is impossible to prestate the (event/phase) space. Some examples that Kauffman et al use are built on the concept of ‘Darwinian pre-adaptations’. E.g it is impossible to prestate the potential use of the set of three jaw-bones as the mechanisms of the inner ear. Or to prestate all the uses of a screwdriver because it is impossible to know in advance all the possible ‘contexts of selection’ that could use an artifact like the screwdriver. All these unimaginable potential uses are what Kauffman has termed ‘adjacent possible’ none are directly causally determined but they become ‘enabled’ by the existence of the screwdriver. The screwdriver is a ‘pre-adaptation’ of an function that can be unpredictably ‘exapted’ to another function. These real but virtual ‘adjacent possibles are unprestateable thus one can’t create equations of ‘trajectory’ – so a new type of ‘law’ may be more appropriate for the sciences of complex & living systems – a law of ‘enablement’.

My example would be how evolution could select for a sensorium capable of symbolic processing – but language is not selected for – by that I mean that while there are genetic causal linkages to language processing, there is no genetic link between such processing and the unpredictable (and infinite number) of languages that are enabled by the processing capability. Language arises at the level of social interaction with no direct causal relation to genes – there are no English, Mandarin, Hindu, Sanskrit, etc. genes.

Physics/Mathematics provides a language structured by a logic of implication.

It is extremely valuable and successful as a way to describe certain domains of reality. But the map is not the territory and the descriptive logic of implication leaves the actual logic of causality unrevealed, inaccessible. For Kauffman et al, evolution, the biosphere, complex systems require a different logical structure that accounts for radical emergence.

Coming back to Paul's comments regarding the greater propensity for atheism in social scientist – Could it be that they are more likely to be shaped by the underlying mythos of their objects of study? A mythos of an ‘ungiven’ world. A world that (as Kauffman says so well) creates the conditions of its own becoming?

Would this entail a non-theistic mystical intuition regarding the world? A deeper appreciation that we cannot navigate through life but must constantly way-find because each step changes the conditions for the next step and there is no ‘knowable’ territory until we have trod on it? (and who knows how it will change after we move on?).

I think Kauffman et al, have augmented my scientific underpinning for a Buddhist worldview that is sees the world in a highly pragmatic way but also as a ‘sacred’ experience – that guides one to outgrow not only the paradox of object-subject, but the also the mutual arrogance of both science and religion in offering us a belief in certainty about the world we live - a belief that we can be certain, a belief that shapes our efforts to control our lives and paths through life - whether by magic or science.

An unknowable future of an unfolding world, is perhaps a better mythos from which to frame our sciences, and our intuitions of the sacred.

J