Archive for December, 2009

As you’ve guessed from the lack of posting, I’ve been vacationing and preparing for my standard New years Eve celebrations.  The discussion of Science, Religion, and Philosophy will resume soon, probably including additional thoughts spurred by reading On Physics and Philosophy.  Also, I’ll have more thoughts on healing in 3.3, since I’ve further adjusted my style (dropping nourish back in favor of regrowth).

Totally unrelated, Halls of Reflection Heroics should be renamed the “PUG Grinder”.


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I’m going to go ahead and paste into a main page post yet another response from Jormundgard, this time to my prior reposting of his last response.  It expands on some of what I’m trying to say in better ways than I have been able to, so I think it adds very positively to the discussion and is worth putting in front of other eyes.  I’m also going to respond to the comment afterward:

First, from Jormundgard:

So much content! Again, I hope I’m processing enough of it to respond accurately :) .

I’ll try not to dwell on the specific nature of the CRU emails or matters of climate change. But if we are referring to Academics as an institution of society, holding up the University as the example, then I think I agree with much of what you (and Pirsig?) are saying – it’s trying to be the source of physical knowledge and intellectual guidance for a civilization, and in that sense it does parallel the goals of a religion. I do think it is far less arbitrary than a religion, particularly because it invites discourse at all levels (within peer review!), and that it is less about the actual “cause, nature, and purpose of the universe”, and more about the methodology to establish proposed causes et.al., as epistemologically impossible as some of these ideas may be. I do catch the similarity between the priesthood and the academically-ordained PhDs of the world,

As for whether the University is able to achieve this goal, I think it is not far from the minds of every academic, perhaps moreso on the academics who could never conform to the increasingly strict publication model. But even regarding the actual process itself, I don’t have the unwavering faith in the academic procedure that many of my colleagues do, such as the immutability of peer review and the confidence that progress is achieved by publication in esoteric journals or presentations at esoteric conferences. It does all feel like a lot of pantomime sometimes. But it is a reminder that Academics is a Human Endeavor. I agree with Russell’s statement: the “scientific method”, as ill-posed a procedure as it might be, does manage to get people somewhere.

The academics that I admire the most acknowledge that discovery is a very dirty and somewhat intimate process (basically agreeing with your “science is engineering” assertion), and has the potential to bring out Human Nature in those places where it is potentially corrosive to the process. But I think that the good academics a skeptical of themslves along the entire process, and it’s why we tolerate abuse from dispassionate editors, anonymous reviewers, and abusive questions from seminars. It’s supposed to keep us “pure”, and prevent us from following our human nature.

And maybe I am now starting to appreciate the analogy a bit more…

But in any case, I can understand how the CRU emails fit this model very strongly. The University has presented this strong rigorous immutable process to analyse nature, and now it has been shown that it is far from immutable. Personally, as someone who has known about the potential hazards of scientific research and communication, since we essentially fight those hazards every day, I think it’s a shame that this is how some of the climate scientists chose to communicate their work, and held up peer review as an immutable process. It has hurt the public and academic credibility of their own work (which is still an essential component of climate research, despite the emergence of some possible flaws), and I never thought academics should be held to the same standards as a Church (as I think you define it).

As for the climate change issue itself, I think that too many independent issues have been lumped together, and the enormous uncertainties of one piece (e.g. the cryosphere response) are too often linked to the more concrete results (the almost guaranteed non-feedback 1.2ºC warming, and the somewhat reasonable 2-3x feedback amplification). But it’s just a shame to me because I never saw Science and Academics as akin to a Religion (again, your definition), but I have often seen it abused by presenting it as one to the public. But maybe that role of societal overseer is also how one might define a religion.

I have no easy way to proofread this, so I hope it’s legible! Thanks for responding to my comment :) .

Now for my response.

First, thank you.  I’m genuinely enjoying this conversation and I’m frankly somewhat humbled by your patience with me.  I am well aware that I’m operating in controversial territory here, and I’m doing it while speaking like a philosopher.  You’ve got a grip on my notion of the members of the University acting as members of a social group and upholders of a tradition; effectively, acting to some degree like members of a religion.  Of course, I don’t mean this necessarily to reflect badly on scientists.  You really DO need to act on your gut sometimes, and really, what else have you got?

Long-time philosophers generally speak a slightly different language when they’re attempting to address points in philosophically important areas.  They tend to strive for exactness in word usage, to the very best of their ability, because it’s easy to be caught up in semantic arguments.  They also like to shave meanings off of words that are extraneous to their argument; they do this by redefining the word along the lines they intend to use it at the start of their argument, and then proceeding.  Unfortunately, this is a poor rhetorical device: it’s fucking confusing.  You can’t just go redefining a word, even if it’s just to refine and lock down a word’s definition, and expect everyone to go along with you.  This is a trap I’ve fallen in to plenty.

However, the philosophers are faced with the dilemma of a language which is very fluid and contextually sensitive.  A given word produces different connotations in different places, and means different things to different people.  If the word is intended to denote something that is core to their argument, then they need to lock it down so other people don’t get led astray, assuming they keep hold of the new, limited definition, and so they themselves don’t get led astray in their own argument.

They also can’t go creating brand new words.   Well, they can, but this introduces a couple issues.  As a practical concern, having to teach readers a brand new lexicon in every paper would be tedious and ultimately confusing.  More importantly, it’s very likely the philosopher feels that it is very important that they use the word because it contains the essence of what they wish to discuss.  To create a new word would be to lose that essential linguistic quality, and breaks the frame.

Religion is acting that way in my case.  On the one hand, I feel like it is the most appropriate word for what I’m talking about.  I don’t just mean a core set of answers to basic philosophical questions, I also mean a reverence for the essence of that answer – a reverence much akin to that held by adherents to a religion.  However, the word comes as a packaged deal: you get the whole “core set of assertions about the nature of reality” plus “faith-based institutions which can’t ever be proved”.  It holds a sort of negative connotation, and certainly religion is considered to be the result of subjective human assertions, rather than objective analysis.

The University fundamentally does not think of itself as being a religion.  This whole argument by me is an attempt to call this into question: I’m not saying it’s like a religion, I’m saying it is a religion.  And this is, understandably, offensive to members of the Church of Reason (as I’m calling it).  That’s because it’s really hard to extricate the negative connotations from what I mean.  Religions are, according to Academics (my name for members of the Church of Reason, though it’s probably not a very good word choice here…if people have some suggestions, help me out), sets of irrational beliefs, and irrational beliefs are completely contrary to the fundamental tenets of Reason.  Saying Reason is a religion is saying it is not rational, which would be retarded, as it is, by definition, rational.  If there’s one thing Academics are not, it’s fundamentally irrational.

This isn’t what I’m trying to say, though.  I’m saying, instead, that religion is not fundamentally irrational.  While this also is a controversial claim, particularly among the adherents of the Church of Reason, it’s not as controversial, I think, as saying the practitioners of Reason are irrational (though I admit, I’ve heard this claim advanced pretty strongly without being really effectively rebutted.  That’s irrelevant to my point here).

Discussing religion moves into those areas of philosophy which are both the most interesting and the most infuriating.  They’re interesting because the conceptual vistas which develop when one finds some new vantage are simply breathtaking.  For me, no act compares to the wonder and joy of discovering a new way of looking at things and seeing the implications unfold; it’s like scaling a mountain shrouded in clouds, then, upon summiting it, having the clouds dissipate to reveal a panorama of beauty.  It’s infuriating because, in order to get anyone else to see it, they also need to scale the mountain, which involves leaving their own vantage.  As that vantage point is plenty good enough, with plenty of its own beauty, why should they leave?  Even if you’re talking about something you both can see, you each view it from such different angles you might as well be talking about something different.  SO a certain amount of care needs to be taken here, along with resignation to the fact that sometimes communication just fails.

The Church of Reason espouses a certain type of reason, or more precisely, a specific language which is claimed to grant epistemic value.  A really general definition of reason would be “assembling models which exhibit internal consistency, according to their own rules”.  Any statement in the language of a given model can be related to the rules and assumption of the model to determine if it follows from them.  If you’re doing that, I’d suggest you’re being rational.  Importantly, the starting assertions of a model are unprovable by the model itself.  It’s simply impossible to say if, for instance, the axioms of arithmetic are provable by arithmetic…because you’d need to assume them to prove anything with arithmetic.

Because of that, because the assertions of a system are unprovable within that system, we have to have some other means of determining which assertions, and thus which models, we plan on using.  Philosophers in the West have been hard at work on inductive and deductive logic, and upon the relevance of measurement to the ”thing-in-itself”.   The results, insofar as they’re exhibited internal consistency are rational.  They do not justify their starting assertions; those rest upon other factors.

If this is the case, then it seems to me that any religion at all could develop a set of core assertions rules of relating them, and then operate on them in a perfectly rational manner.  In the sphere of their own models, they’re being perfectly rational, then.  The real question is about their assertions.

You mention, for instance, “I do think [science] is far less arbitrary than a religion, particularly because it invites discourse at all levels (within peer review!), and that it is less about the actual ‘cause, nature, and purpose of the universe’, and more about the methodology to establish proposed causes et.al., as epistemologically impossible as some of these ideas may be.”  Other religions actually do have a fair amount of this, within their own systems of discourse.  It sounds different, particularly when looking at the discourse of a religion that involves divine beings of some kind, but it’s very similar.  For example, during the Middle Ages, the various scholars of Catholicism embarked upon very serious and heated discussion about central ideas and their ability to be derived properly from their core assertions.  God wasn’t an arbitrary assumption for them, God was actually, for the most part, an accepted fact of reality.  Now God was less the “Old Man in the Sky” we think of today, and more the force which is essential to the working of reality.  This force was personal because it was imaginative, but not necessarily anthropomorphic.  Indeed, the Idealism of Bishop Berkeley, which was not a new idea, though it was a more modern rendition of the idea, was very much a sort of Matrix-like world, where the Matrix was God and there was nothing outside it.

That’s actually an extremely subtle bit of philosophical recognition: effectively, that there exists no definitive proof of anything outside our senses, but we can be sure we have senses.  That which, therefore, gives rise to the senses which are consistent beyond ourselves they called God.  As we ourselves exist in this manner, and are ourselves imaginative, then it seems reasonable to assert God at least embodies this.  It’s a sort of mental equivalent of the theory of emanations that prevailed in Antiquity.

However, the relevance of God and the way such a being factors in varies dramatically, and was the source of some very important disputes within Catholicism.  The assertion, understand, was no longer so much God as the Idealist conception of reality…that phenomena were the sole important bits of reality.  That meant that how one got to God from this was open to question.  St. Anselm put forward the Ontological Argument to attempt to defend the logical necessity of God, given these assertions.  Anselm’s argument wasn’t accepted, even within the church.  For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas favored a strict deductive argument on the basis of certain other metaphysical assertions (generally, basic logical principles like Identity and Truth).  Here’s a quote from Aquinas’ “Reasons in Proof of the Existence of God”, written in 1270: “It is objected (1) that the existence of God is not demonstratable: that God’s existence is an article of faith, and that articles of faith are not demonstratable, because the office of demonstration is to prove, but faith pertains (only) to things that are not to be proven, as is evident from the Epistle to the Hebrews, 11. Hence that God’s existence is not demonstratable.”

That anticipates modern argument about God by several centuries, and was part of an ongoing debate within the Church about how to properly demonstrate God’s existence.  Though Aquinas did argue for the final existence of God on the basis of various deductive proofs, he argued against the validity of other proofs.  This is hardly the mark of irrational members of an institute which favors arbitrary assertions.

I don’t mean to say that scientists and academics may not be more rigorous; they may be, I’m not honestly sure.  I just want to point out that other such groups, working from fundamentally very different assertions, have often applied similar rigor…at least more than we tend to give them credit for.

I want, finally, to quote at length from Pirsig speaking about his young days working in molecular biology in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

There was a passage he had read and repeated to himself so many times it survives intact. It begins:

In the temple of science are many mansions—and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them there.

Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for purely utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, it would be noticeably emptier but there would still be some men of both present and past times left inside — . If the types we have just expelled were the only types there were, the temple would never have existed any more than one can have a wood consisting of nothing but creepers—those who have found favor with the angel—are somewhat odd, uncommunicative, solitary fellows, really less like each other than the hosts of the rejected.

What has brought them to the temple—no single answer will cover—escape from everyday life, with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from his noisy cramped surroundings into the silence of the high mountains where the eye ranges freely through the still pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.

The passage is from a 1918 speech by a young German scientist named Albert Einstein.

Phædrus had finished his first year of University science at the age of fifteen. His field was already biochemistry, and he intended to specialize at the interface between the organic and inorganic worlds now known as molecular biology. He didn’t think of this as a career for his own personal advancement. He was very young and it was a kind of noble idealistic goal.

The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or lover. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.

If Phædrus had entered science for ambitious or utilitarian purposes it might never have occurred to him to ask questions about the nature of a scientific hypothesis as an entity in itself. But he did ask them, and was unsatisfied with the answers.

The formation of hypotheses is the most mysterious of all the categories of scientific method. Where they come from, no one knows. A person is sitting somewhere, minding his own business, and suddenly…flash!…he understands something he didn’t understand before. Until it’s tested the hypothesis isn’t truth. For the tests aren’t its source. Its source is somewhere else.

Einstein had said:

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world. He then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it — .He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life in order to find in this way the peace and serenity which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience — .The supreme task—is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them — .

Intuition? Sympathy? Strange words for the origin of scientific knowledge.

A lesser scientist than Einstein might have said, “But scientific knowledge comes from nature. Nature provides the hypotheses.” But Einstein understood that nature does not. Nature provides only experimental data.

A lesser mind might then have said, “Well then, man provides the hypotheses.” But Einstein denied this too. “Nobody,” he said, “who has really gone into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no theoretical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles.”

Phædrus’ break occurred when, as a result of laboratory experience, he became interested in hypotheses as entities in themselves. He had noticed again and again in his lab work that what might seem to be the hardest part of scientific work, thinking up the hypotheses, was invariably the easiest. The act of formally writing everything down precisely and clearly seemed to suggest them. As he was testing hypothesis number one by experimental method a flood of other hypotheses would come to mind, and as he was testing these, some more came to mind, and as he was testing these, still more came to mind until it became painfully evident that as he continued testing hypotheses and eliminating them or confirming them their number did not decrease. It actually increased as he went along.

At first he found it amusing. He coined a law intended to have the humor of a Parkinson’s law that “The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.” It pleased him never to run out of hypotheses. Even when his experimental work seemed dead-end in every conceivable way, he knew that if he just sat down and muddled about it long enough, sure enough, another hypothesis would come along. And it always did. It was only months after he had coined the law that he began to have some doubts about the humor or benefits of it.

If true, that law is not a minor flaw in scientific reasoning. The law is completely nihilistic. It is a catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity of all scientific method!

If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.

About this Einstein had said, “Evolution has shown that at any given moment out of all conceivable constructions a single one has always proved itself absolutely superior to the rest,” and let it go at that. But to Phædrus that was an incredibly weak answer. The phrase “at any given moment” really shook him. Did Einstein really mean to state that truth was a function of time? To state that would annihilate the most basic presumption of all science!

A very standard rebuttal of this last would be that science continues to close in on the better answer…that, while the current body of scientific knowledge may contain errors, the number of errors and their extremity is declining.  A really good story can actually be built around this, and has been.  From Newton, we developed a solid notion of basic forces and their relation.  That worked to describe a fairly broad range of phenomena and people were pretty sure they’d be able to fill in the gaps.

Underlying Newton’s core assertions was Euclidean geometry.  This is important: the three-dimensional system Euclidean system with an assumed timeline which moved along which everything moved at the same speed, was fundamental to the metaphysical assertions underpinning Newton’s physics.  The 19th century saw the overthrowing of the primacy of Euclidean geometry via the demonstration that a different geometry could be built via reversing Euclid’s fifth postulate (that regarding parallel lines never meeting).  This introduced a notion of “curved space” (which serves as a convenient analogy rather than perfect description).  The result was two internally consistent geomtries, with no way to choose between them.  Understand that, at the time, this was an enormous deal.  At present we generally subscribe to the positivist view that the model that best matches observed reality.  However, at the time it was assumed that deductively derived propositions were true because they were the only possible truths.  Specifically, the universe had to match Euclid’s geometry because it was the only possible geometry.  That proposition was overthrown and the foundation of scientific truth teetered.

Science got around this problem by turning math into an axiom of science, rather than an analytic necessity.  They invented and began adhering to positivism.  That means they threw themselves at attempting to work out the relevance of two seperate geometries to their current body of knowledge, an immense undertaking.  It also means that, rather than science slowly refining its model from Newton’s original physics, it had managed to create an entirely new model, which itself had to be refined.  It is this sort of thing which Pirsig is discussing in the quoted passage above.

I want to take make another jump to help relate science and academic work more to religion, or perhaps more to art.  I’m going to, once again, quote at length from Pirsig, discussing the mathematician Poincare:

Poincaré illustrated how a fact is discovered. He had described generally how scientists arrive at facts and theories but now he penetrated narrowly into his own personal experience with the mathematical functions that established his early fame.

For fifteen days, he said, he strove to prove that there couldn’t be any such functions. Every day he seated himself at his work-table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results.

Then one evening, contrary to his custom, he drank black coffee and couldn’t sleep. Ideas arose in crowds. He felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.

The next morning he had only to write out the results. A wave of crystallization had taken place.

He described how a second wave of crystallization, guided by analogies to established mathematics, produced what he later named the “Theta-Fuchsian Series.” He left Caen, where he was living, to go on a geologic excursion. The changes of travel made him forget mathematics. He was about to enter a bus, and at the moment when he put his foot on the step, the idea came to him, without anything in his former thoughts having paved the way for it, that the transformations he had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. He didn’t verify the idea, he said, he just went on with a conversation on the bus; but he felt a perfect certainty. Later he verified the result at his leisure.

A later discovery occurred while he was walking by a seaside bluff. It came to him with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty. Another major discovery occurred while he was walking down a street. Others eulogized this process as the mysterious workings of genius, but Poincaré was not content with such a shallow explanation. He tried to fathom more deeply what had happened.

Mathematics, he said, isn’t merely a question of applying rules, any more than science. It doesn’t merely make the most combinations possible according to certain fixed laws. The combinations so obtained would he exceedingly numerous, useless and cumbersome. The true work of the inventor consists in choosing among these combinations so as to eliminate the useless ones, or rather, to avoid the trouble of making them, and the rules that must guide the choice are extremely fine and delicate. It’s almost impossible to state them precisely; they must be felt rather than formulated.

Poincaré then hypothesized that this selection is made by what he called the “subliminal self,” an entity that corresponds exactly with what Phædrus called preintellectual awareness. The subliminal self, Poincaré said, looks at a large number of solutions to a problem, but only the interesting ones break into the domain of consciousness. Mathematical solutions are selected by the subliminal self on the basis of “mathematical beauty,” of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. “This is a true esthetic feeling which all mathematicians know,” Poincaré said, “but of which the profane are so ignorant as often to be tempted to smile.” But it is this harmony, this beauty, that is at the center of it all.

Poincaré made it clear that he was not speaking of romantic beauty, the beauty of appearances which strikes the senses. He meant classic beauty, which comes from the harmonious order of the parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp, which gives structure to romantic beauty and without which life would be only vague and fleeting, a dream from which one could not distinguish one’s dreams because there would be no basis for making the distinction. It is the quest of this special classic beauty, the sense of harmony of the cosmos, which makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony.It is not the facts but the relation of things that results in the universal harmony that is the sole objective reality.

What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven’t been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know. – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ch. 22

I myself still recall the sheer intellectual wonder of Cantor’s diagonalization proof I felt when introduced to it.  This creation, this beautiful bit of art, was not simply the consistent working out of theorems on the basis of axioms.  This was something else.  How could he possibly have come to it simply by repeated application of the rules of set theory at the time?  The question which then presents itself, and that is discussed in the quote above, is what is the source of this inspiration?  How does it differ from other descriptions of revelation, aside from the nature of the source?

It seems to me a shame that the efforts of science and academia are considered purely the mundane cataloging of observed facts, without recognition of the art of deciding which facts should be observed nor the wonder of figuring out something new…nor the mystery of that choice.

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Jormundgard replied to my (rather long) post about Conformity and Social Decision Making with a good point: I was a bit vague in my usage of certain terms, and that led to a lack of clarity as to what I was getting at with this whole “Church of Reason” bit.  I’d like to repost his comment and my response here, in full, because I think interesting points are made.  And I can do this sort of thing.

First, though, a bit more on this whole “Church of Reason” thing.  As I said in my post, I didn’t invent this phrase, nor did I come up with the idea.  I’ve developed it along my own lines, incorporating some of my own thoughts and ideas, but it is still essentially Robert Pirsig‘s creation.  Here’s Pirsig’s original description:

The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It’s a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.

In addition to this state of mind, “reason,” there’s a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a nonprofit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address. It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money and of responding to legislative pressures in the process.

But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real University at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist.

Confusion continually occurs in people who fail to see this difference, he said, and think that control of the church buildings implies control of the church. They see professors as employees of the second university who should abandon reason when told to and take orders with no backtalk, the same way employees do in other corporations.

They see the second university, but fail to see the first. – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Part II, ch. 13 (found here).

Pirsig develops this metaphor from a preceding anecdote, which involves a priest explaining that the Church is not the building.  At least initially, then, Pirsig’s use of the phrase “Church of Reason” is intended to signify that: the immaterial institution of the University.  Yet, as he goes on, you do realize that he means feels the adherents have a particular way of examining the world and dealing with it, one which need not be the best way.  Indeed, much of the end f the book is dedicated to fleshing out something of a competing metaphysical idea.

Anyway, on to the exchange.  From Jormundgard:

There is a ton of content in here, and I’m sure I’m not absorbing it correctly, but I can’t figure out your characterization of Science. I don’t know if you’re saying that Society-At-Large has replaced the attitude of “Because God Said So” with “Because Science Said So”, or if it is the Scientists that have done so, i.e. are the followers the Scientists (“priests”, maybe)? Or just the world in general, as a means by which we communicate? The analogy to religious leadership also seems very forced.

Most of the leaked CRU emails have generated a bit of gossip for anyone not directly involved, but it hasn’t strongly altered anyone’s practices in my own field. “Science”, if it can be defined, is not much more than intense, iterative investigations that minimize the uncontrolled degrees of freedom, combined with massive cross-referencing to previous literature and a touch of ambition. A few fuckups using suspicious tree ring proxy data doesn’t really change that methodology, even if they happened to be celebrated a bit too exuberantly by governments and the media. Most of the furor behind the CRU emails seems to be about public perception by non-practicing scientists, so I can only assume that’s what you meant.

(PS: I work in oceanography, and interface with climate scientists occasionally).

And my response:

Heh, you’ve actually run into one of the rhetorical issues I wrestled with while writing this. I used Reason and Science interchangeably in many cases, because I honestly got bored and felt the writing sounded too repetitive simply re-using the term “Reason”. They don’t mean precisely the same thing, even in the context I mean, though I would argue that the social definitions have converged somewhat.

Keep in mind that I’m speaking of the Church of Reason as a metaphor. Effectively, the Church of Reason is the sort of global University – the institution embodied in all the various universities and places which espouse the worship of reason. It should also be kept in mind that I think we’ve built some really strong negative connotations into religious diction. Take the word worship, for instance. When I re-read my usage above, I noted that the word, which trivially means admiring greatly, includes a sense of “blindness” or “unwarranted-ness”. That implies that a worshiper is granting admiration to something that really isn’t as deserving as the worship indicates.

But would you deny that you admire Reason, or the products of its application? I suspect that, as a scientist yourself, you feel that the application of Reason is probably the single most important act a person can engage in, and the originator of much of the greatest works in recent history. The accomplishments of Reason are manifold and astonishing…surely that’s worthy of the utmost admiration? And, admiring something so greatly that you attempt to practice the methods it produces, wouldn’t that essentially be worship? Is that really any different from what priests or shamans have done throughout history?

The essence of my philosophical argument on that front consists in two parts: that the University is a religious institution, and that academics are its priests.

I defined a religion as being a collection of answers to basic philosophical questions. While most religions prior to the University relied on what we call supernatural explanations to answer these questions, that doesn’t seem necessary to religion. As near as I can tell, a religion merely need profer some sort of set of answers. The success of the religion probably has a lot to do with its internal consistency and how well it works for the people who adhere to it. Regardless, while this is my own definition, it conforms well to dictionary.com (a solid source for the social definition of a word): “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

While it does note “esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies”, it does not require it. So I feel my definition stands. If that’s the case, then I think the University, or the institution of academia, or the Church of Reason, profer such a set of beliefs. As I indicated above, these are a substance based universe which is measurable, that inductive and deductive reasoning may be applied successfully to move from measurements to statements about this universe, and a utilitarian moral system. I think the first two bits aren’t terribly controversial, though the utilitarianism claim is, and I attempt to defend it above.

Regardless, this fits the bill for a religion. It even satisfies a requirement of faith, because I have seen no proper argument given that these principles are absolutely correct in all possible worlds (thus satisfying analytical requirements for absolute truth), and I have looked. They seem to be accepted purely as a matter of course. In fact, philosophically much effort has gone into attempting to refute the skeptical claim that inductive reasoning fails to offer any real insight into the world. Bertrand Russell essentially blew off the contention that you can’t really know anything derived from empirical evidence with “well, it works out alright and I’ve got nothing better”. This is roughly akin to “can you imagine the world being around without God?” At one point in time, no one in the West could, so they all accepted His existence as a matter of course.

From the assertion that the University is the institution of a religion, like the Church is to Christianity (a claim I did not make originally. I adopted this particular perspective from Robert Pirsig, which he wrote about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), I pointed out that academics serve effectively as its priests. The comparison is only forced when you don’t see the Reason as religion. At the point you see Reason as religion, it becomes obvious that academics are the priests. They lecture on it to their flocks, they examine it and attempt to divine more of its mystery.

Science is an interesting part of this. Science is mostly engineering: here is a problem in our modeling of the world. Come up with a mental construct that extends or replaces the existing model so that this problem no longer exists. That’s engineering, really. However, that method receives a certain special boost because of its relation to the epistemic method of the Church of Reason. Since Science very specifically deals with induction on the basis of measurements, then it is very much the working out of the epistemic structures of the Church of Reason. That, in turn, makes doings of Science central to the institution of Reason, the University.

It bears pointing out that our particular forms of logical deduction and induction are not the sole methods of modeling the world. Every religion has had its own system of methods for refining and extending the basic principles of their core assertions, and they’ve differed pretty radically from what we’re used to nowadays, so there have been the equivalent of Sciences for every religion.

I go into all this in order to show that the CRU emails really aren’t the issue here. They were a convenient example and provided a certain spark of motivation, though really they motivated other people to write which prompted me to write on the topics they got in to. The CRU emails allowed me to talk about two related things, first, that the University is a group of people and that social dynamics plays an enormously pivotal role in their beliefs and perspectives – more so that is often assumed – and second, that the University operates as a religion, which is a particular social grouping who’ve agreed upon a specific set of core assumptions about the world. It is the backbone of a culture, which means it’s an institution which has arisen (organically, I might add) in order to affirm and develop the core tenets of the culture.

You’re right about the CRU emails developing a furor among non-scientists. Being divorced from the process, they have a certain idealized notion of how things work: it’s supposed to be a very inhuman process, where scientists are merely the cogs in the machine by which Reason delivers the Truth…and tells them what the hell they’re supposed to do. To discover that there may be a rather large human factor involved in that process, a human factor that seems to potentially act counter-productively to the working of that grand edifice, is a bit unnerving.

I wouldn’t expect that to have much impact on scientists: they know how things work, and generally can buffer themselves from this. They know this is a few bad apples who have gone overboard, there are basic hurdles to be overcome, etc. They do not think they are generally amenable to any form of social conformity. In fact, it should be noted that Solomon Asch was entirely surprised by the results of his conformity experiment. Most people were. We don’t think we do that.

But we do. One of the things scientists attempt to do, via the methodology of science, is to weed out any variables which might be influenced by such things…to get away from observer bias. I’m quite certain scientists are content that their methodological practices are relatively secure by this point, having endured for some centuries. They’re probably right, for the most part.

I’m not sure, though, that the bit of climate science which predicts significant global warming in the medium term fits that. Specifically, I’m relatively certain that the climate, both globally and locally, exhibits to factors which make prediction extraordinarily difficult: sensitive dependence on initial conditions and the spontaneous development of previously unseen internal feedback loops.

The state of the system on the basis of its initial ruleset at any given time is extremely dependent upon prior states and resilient to externalities. This implies that any model which manages to accurately capture the way the system works still needs to be fed precisely the right starting data before it can be determined an accurate predictor. Depending on the magnifying effect of the dependencies, even a small error can lead to a dramatically incorrect result. The problem with systems like this is it’s indeterminate how wrong at any given time it will be, particularly if the amount of error at any given point in the model may change dramatically.

The second problem, that of the sudden development of new feedback loops, is inherent to inductive reasoning about a complex system. For any model the more inputs and the greater their range, the more observations which need to be made. This holds not just for the determination of the model’s success for some equilibrium, but also for its success outside the base equilibrium range. Specifically, since we haven’t seen what the world does at a given temperature range, we can’t be sure it’ll do what it does now. While we have some limited evidence that hints in various directions, it’s frankly sparse. 100 years of solid data is a drop in the ocean of data you’d need to accurately test a model which meant to capture a system as complex as our climate.

I admit, this effort reminds me greatly of the work of freshwater macroeconomists in trying to develop DSGE models. They work…for a very limited set of data, and with a very large set of assumptions and parameters which made the model fit existing data. Problematically, the more assumptions and parameters, the more room for significant failure…and the more difficult it becomes to test the validity of the model itself. This comes because, for a sufficiently complex model, we could spend eternity tweaking parameters and assumptions in such a way as to make them fit any finite dataset. We’d still never know its accuracy, because we hadn’t tested every possible dataset.

Does this mean I deny the possibility of anthropogenic global warming? No. In fact, I’m willing to give the mass of scientists looking into this credit, and say they’ve likely hit on something. I am, however, not convinced they know how it’ll play out. I’m not sold that the universe won’t throw them a curve ball. It’s ironic (sadistic) like that.

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Partway into 3.1, I began shifting away from Balance on my druid.  I was simply tired of running what I felt was a relatively simple rotation and, frankly, needed something new to learn.  I wouldn’t say my Balance DPS was perfect; it wasn’t.  I had marginal improvements I could make to my rotation, things that could improve DOT uptime and eclipse uptime…but nothing that would make a huge difference.   And I performed more than adequately for my raid.  I was just bored.  So I respecced as a cat, and started working my way through the kitty rotation.

I kept my tree as a secondary talent spec though…why not?  The guild wanted it and I had no reason to ditch it, so it stayed.  I moved further and further away from actually healing as time progressed, though.  Finally, I let WoW drop entirely, jumping over to check out new games like Champions Online and Aion, while clearing up my queue of single-player games that had slowly built while I was solely playing WoW.

Then 3.3 happened.  As you likely know from reading my blog, I went back to WoW and began running 5-mans.  I have run more heroics in since 3.3 came out than I did in the entirety of Wrath’s time on servers before then.  Initially, I continued on as a cat; feral kitty dps is awfully fun; it’s a lot like healing, in fact, where you spend most of your time watching a collection of numbers and trying to judge which number to deal with first, all while juggling cooldowns for important parts of the fight.  It has it’s issues, I won’t lie: a friend of mine has always held, and I agree, that a core game design rule should be that if the player will always do that one thing in that one situation, do it for them.  This would be things like having characters in platformers automatically grab onto edges, rather than making players press a button to do so.  Things like the automatic jumping done in the 3d Legend of Zelda’s (which is actually just a 3d extension and refinement of the method of jumping of ledges in Link to the Past).  In WoW, they’ve generally failed to abide by that for player activated abilities.  This is probably an arguable statement, and they’ve cleaned it up some, but GCD juggling is simply not as fun as other options…particularly when it’s only being juggled because you’re supposed to press both of the potentially abilities every time you can, and their timers happen to misalign.

Seriously, this is button mashing worse than God of War.  In God of War, a lot could be gained between switching between quick and slow hits.  While one could reasonably progress via non-stop pressing of quick attack, a lot of finesse was lost doing so.  Particularly on the higher difficulties, where actually going through the full 4-button was liable to get you killed, finessing the timing was important and fun because it was a choice.  By contrast, a ret paladin presses Crusader strike at every opportunity.  That’s not fun.  It’s effectively a second auto-attack that you need to press yourself.

Anyway, to return to my original point, while I started 3.3 focusing on being a cat, I still had my healing gear and spec.  Eventually, I gave it a try.  Now, it’d been a while since I’d healed, and at the time I healed I was still desperately trying to make what was an outdated healing style work.  See, I was hoping I could ditch Nourish…mostly as a rejection of Blizzard’s introduction of the spell.  It felt like a band-aid for a problem that should have been repaired by changing existing spells, and I wanted to avoid it on principle.  Unfortunately for my stubbornness, Blizzard is more stubborn and has more power than I do: Nourish was improved to the point where it had more going for it (particularly with certain set bonuses).  Heck, I could spec for Nourish and pump it up even further if I wanted.

The second thing that Blizzard did which has altered my healing spell priority is allow me to glyph so rejuvenation benefits from haste.  This does a couple things: first, it makes haste a substantially better stat for trees, and second, it takes rejuvenation, already a pretty core spell, and make it awesome.  Rejuvenation is cheap and fast, lasts long enough that it can be ignored for a while, even hasted, and heals for a fair amount.

That in mind, I’ve moved away from using regrowth as my major direct heal and begun using nourish instead.  There are a couple reasons for this: first, in order for regrowth to reach comparable efficacy with nourish, regrowth needs to already be on the target and regrowth is slower: it’s a worse spell for reacting to sudden spikes in damage.  Both of them, glyphed, shine when tank healing and nourish serves as a more effective spell for raid healing.  You’ll almost always have some sort of HoT on a party member – probably rejuvenation – and Nourish will benefit from this a great deal more than regrowth.  Also, when the going gets tough, Nourish spam delivers, even if the target has no HoTs present.

I added to this the glyph of rapid rejuvenation for hasted rejuvs and the rejuvenation glyph.  As you can probably guess, rejuvenation is going to be my bread and butter her.  Tanks receive a full compliment of hots in order to buffer them against damage and allow me to focus elsewhere, while rejuvs can be tossed around essentially whenever I want.  I’m not terribly concerned with revitalize procs, though they’re nice.  Perhaps when I feel more confident I’ll focus more on revitalize for rogues, DKs, and cats; in the meantime, I use it to buffer any group members who seem to be threatened with damage.  That gives me a good chance at having a HoT on my target when I need to cast Nourish.  Wildgrowth serves as a filler spell; if group damage looks hairy, wild growth gives me a chances to top up the most dangerously low health pools without having to worry as much about other people.

Hopefully I’ll have a chance soon here to run math on the hasted rejuvenation and see what I think.  I’ve been checking back over my post comparing Regrowth to Nourish and it all seems to continue to hold up.  I just find that I’m much more frequently in the places where Nourish shines than I was assuming I would be.

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I know I’ve mentioned Gevlon a couple times now, and I won’t apologize.  He’s got an interesting blog and asks questions that have to be answered.  One of his more recent posts (a response to a comment on a re-post of one of his posts) was about the Solomon Asch experiments of the 50’s.  While I’d heard of the Milgram experiments, I hadn’t heard of Asch’s work; this was new.

By the way, the name Solomon Asch is just friggin’ awesome, IMHO.

The basic analysis is that conformity is the reason for the respondents giving incorrect answers.  32% of respondents answered incorrectly when everyone else did so, and 75% followed the crowd at least once.  Note that this doesn’t mean that every time the confederates answered incorrectly in unison the test subject did; rather, the subject would be drastically swayed towards the incorrect answer if enough people voiced it.

Gevlon states what seems to be the common explanation of this behavior:

What happened? Have they gone insane? If you ask me yes, but the official answer is that they were the victims of the group-conformity. This mental system is the remnant of pre-historian ages. Back then people were barely more than animals, unable to think logically. Their “ideas”, just like the “ideas” of animals, were evolutionary developed schemes hardwired into their brain.

Ask in Game seemed to agree, though Kristine defended the choice of the subjects to answer deliberately incorrectly:

The person giving wrong answers in this test might very well have used logic. He/she simply thinks it’s more logical to fit in with the group (as “the masses” offer increasing chances for friendship, cooperation, spouse, reproduction, business opportunities, learning etc.) rather then to give some scientist a correct answer to a test that has no relevance to him/her.

The idea here is that people knew the correct answer, but voiced something they were sure was incorrect in order to insure their social acceptability.  This is a plausible idea, and one that ought to appeal to me, particularly after yesterday’s lengthy diatribe on social power and conformity.  However, psychology is a subtle and complex thing and explanations must necessarily follow from that.  Social power comes in a lot of ways, and being correct about the world can be a good way to gain power.

However, despite the apparent obviousness of the answer to the questions Asch posed, people are generally aware of their own failings.  We know that we have been wrong before, even about things we thought were perfectly obvious.  We therefore tend to seek out verification of our assertions.  In the normal course of life, this is absolutely natural: the more validating evidence we have of something, the more we’ll accept it.  The assertions of other people are a very strong source of validation of our own perceptions.

This isn’t so much a conformity issue directly, as an issue of plain survival.  Being wrong can have serious consequences, whether it’s being wrong about how the world is or what you should do in response.  Usually, the consequences aren’t very dire, thankfully.  Still, we’ve all felt them often enough to know: we can be wrong, very wrong, about almost anything.  The more invalidating evidence, the more cause we have to question our other evidence.

So a couple of key things about the experiment: the subject doesn’t know they’re the only subject, assuming everyone is in the same boat as them, has the same incentive structure as them, and the subject knows they’re in a psychology experiment, where their answer says something about them.  Now this is the 50’s, prior to Milgram, so perhaps that final point doesn’t carry as much weight.  By now, we’ve learned never to trust the experimenter in a psychology experiment; whatever it is they seem to be looking at, it’s never what they’re actually looking at.  This can, obviously, have an effect on the observed’s behavior.

Since the subject assumes everyone is a subject and has the same incentives, they trust them.  They trust that these other people have no reason to not tell the truth about what they think and every reason to tell the truth, just as they do.  The question was drafted to be easy to answer, but look enough like a normal psych evaluation question as to not seem suspicious, so the subject was uncertain.  The question asked was, very specifically, “Which line on the second card matches the line on the first?”  Importantly, the subject was not asked what they thought, they were asked what is correct.  In general, we’re well aware we might be wrong, so additional pressure now exists to use the best evidence available in order to determine correctness.

Since the participant assumed from the beginning that their fellows were also subjects, the first questions, which were answered correctly by the others, reassured them.  They felt confident in their belief that everyone was acting as first assumed; everyone was answering correctly.  That implied these other participants were, in some sense, experts: they were a source of additional evidence as to correctness. So when the entire rest of the group began answering incorrectly, an enormous stress was put on the subject’s standard truth-analysis schema.  The evidence of their eyes gave one answer, but the evidence of a panel of experts gave another.  What do they believe?

It’s important to emphasize that the real subject believed everyone else was a real subject as well.  Prior evidence seemed to establish them as acting in good faith and answering correctly.  To believe that this entire group of people was acting in a conspiracy is a huge stretch (psychology experiments are produced to be deliberately deceitful, after all).  Knowing that, which was a farther stretch: that the participant was being shown some strange optical illusion, or was somehow wrong…or that all these other people were wrong?  How can that be reconciled?  Also, keep in mind that the participant knows they are in a psychology experiment, and may be thinking some sort of trick is being played on them: it’s much easier to think the test giver is giving them a trick question that everyone else figured out, as they’re the apparent test designer, rather than assume everyone else is in on it.

Note that not everyone answered incorrectly in every critical test and essentially everyone answered correctly in the control test.  This implies that some sort of extraneous dynamic was at work.  I’m not convinced that it was in every case conformity.  Certainly we see an obvious case of the mind seeking out all available evidence for an assertion and failing to find it.  The decider on their answer will be, then, what weight people place upon experts versus the evidence of their own eyes.

Of course, since the participant was always asked last, they could have simply been lazy and just parroted what everyone else says.  Seriously, laziness is not conformity: it’s an easy way to get the money or extra credit from a psych experiment.

Leaving laziness aside and returning to the question of evidence, consider this thought experiment. You’ve probably seen this picture before and been asked if it’s a picture of a young lady or an old woman:

Let’s assume a collection of test subjects who had never seen it before.  Each one is put together with a group of confederates, just like the Asch experiment, and everyone is asked “Is this a picture of a young woman or an old lady?”.  The confederates go first, and unanimously answer one or the other.  I have a sneaky suspicion that, even if the real subject first saw the opposite answer, they’d parrot the confederates, because they’d learn to “see” it.

Or how about this thought experiment: a group of children is gathered before a teacher.  The teacher asks them if the world is flat or round.  Let’s assume every child but one knows it’s round, having been told that by their parents.  The children who know are all asked first, and they answer correctly.  When the question is posed to the final child, the one who was never told the Earth is round and has never really thought about it, what do you think they’ll tend to say?  I suspect they’d answer “round”.

This isn’t a conformity thing, though the child in this case is painfully aware of the potential repercussions of not going along with the group.  It’s a case of the available evidence pointing in one direction: the world is round.  All these other kids know it and seem to have heard it somewhere, so that’s about as good as the evidence gets.  Go with that.

Perhaps the more interesting people to look at are the ones who distrusted the group, or trusted themselves, sufficiently enough to go it on their own.  Who are these people who never once questioned themselves or never believed everyone else in the Asch Experiment?  What is the source of their skepticism?  Is it strictly an utmost adherence to reason?  From a philosophical standpoint, that’s not valid: we know there exist limits to our reason; we are not infallible, and the assertions of other people can bear wait as evidence.  In the face of all this evidence, what motivates a contrarian?

I think you’d find the motivations vary markedly.  Some probably enjoy sticking it to the crowd.  Some may simply have better eyes.  Some could have more faith in themselves, while others really could think everyone is out to get them.  Others may not have even noticed the crowd, or may have heard the subtly different “which line do you think matches?”  Still others may realize that nobody is trustworthy, and that if you have the potential to be wrong, so do they, and the people controverting your gut  repsonse may say nothing about the likelihood they’re right, as they may all be guessing.

But I’m not sure conformity is as big a factor as initially indicated, regardless.

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One of the interesting things about conspiracy theories is that they posit malevolent intent.  On the whole, malevolence doesn’t exist.  Most people really do think they’re doing the thing they need to be doing, getting along as best they can.  Sticking one’s neck out is heroic, sure…it’s also a fantastic way to be headless.  Headless people rarely make babies.  Headless people generally don’t have any power to do anything whatsoever.

It’s actually for this very practical reason that Ayn Rand, and all Objectivists, oppose violence: it would generally be directed squarely at them, promptly ruining what power they have.  Actually, Randians don’t object to the use of force on others, as they claim they do; they object to the use of violence.  They’re not very good at it, and it’s so damned final.  However, force is force; depriving through one’s own power the ability of another to act, whether it be through ruthless business competition or a gun to their head, is force.

Most human power comes from other humans.  A powerful human is a human who has moved others to submit their power to them.  Powerful individuals whose power is not mediated through others are…well, rare.  I honestly can’t think of one.  This produces a distinct incentive for conformity: the relationships between humans are competitive, sure, but within the confines of a group.  One’s power, and therefore one’s ability to assert oneself, derives from the power conferred by being part of a group.  That means that you’re not about to just toss all the group’s perspectives into the street and piss on them, because that’s likely to produce a wee bit of social backlash.

And this backlash may not even be vindictive.  Look, if you don’t agree with a group on core principles, you’re not really part of it.  You’ve got nothing to say to them and they have no real reason to care about you.  You’re not speaking the same language.  So you’ll be excised from the group one way or another, simply by dint of your irrelevance.  However, it’s likely there will be vindictive recriminations.  There’s ample room for a quick boost in social relevance by denouncing the traitor, and some ambitious type will leap on the chance.

So we find ourselves constrained by the others who are part of the group we find ourselves in.  In general, this isn’t a very big issue.  We slide into groups and find that they’re reassuring.  Any twinges of non-conformance in our subconscious produce cognitive dissonance; we want them to be smoothed away.  Strong groups usually allow unimportant disagreements within their membership, because that allows for power disputes to be settled.  Heck, anyone with an eye for improving their lot in the group is looking for something to distinguish themselves on, be it truly emphasizing their conformity to the core principles of their group or finding some inconsequential thing to be different about.   Often, you’ll find the distinctly ironic person championing some basic bit of difference and proclaiming that this principle is in fact truly a core principle, and those who disagree and say they’re part of the group have long been deluded from the truth.

People really aren’t this cynical: most people really are true believers in whatever groups they’re a part of.  Their social identity derives from their attachment to this group, and their morals derive from their relationship to the group.  The group is plain right, obviously so.

I just want to talk about this because a group is a group, whatever principles they stand up for, and these basic dynamics come into play no matter who makes up the group.

Take Gevlon.  Gevlon, the greedy Goblin, asserts that he is an anti-social.  I’m sure he took a certain ironic pleasure in breaking a million page views, then blowing right past that number.  Interestingly, Gevlon’s persona is currently effectively driven by his ongoing assault on the “socials” and the “M&S”.  His readership, however, drives his narrative; in a thousand different ways, his power derives purely from the other people around him.  The nature of the topics he speaks on will derive, at least in part, from the conversations he has with his readership.  That readership tends to self-select, as it pursues its own power among whatever groups it is broken into.  Seriously, the efforts of his detractors are driven in no small part by their desire to defend their identity as a member of the “socials”.  It’s also an attempt to rack up some karma points in their group, attacking a competing view.  And finally, it’s a self-affirmation.  The more it is argued with, the more of an affirmation it is.  Gevlon’s supporters fall into the same boat, pursuing similar results.  And Gevlon himself…well, I’m going to guess Gevlon feels like absolutely no social drive motivates him.  Heck, he is specifically an anti-social.

But the group affirms his identity as well.  The detractors simply prove his point to himself and his supporters help provide guidance; they’re a springboard to expanding on his ideas.  The community herds him away from non-group ideas and guides him into conforming ideas.  We may deny it, swearing up and down that we are driven to honesty above all else, but we’re also all quite capable of carefully dancing among subtle meanings of words so as not to give away any incompatible thoughts.

Yes, I’m accusing Gevlon of being social, though he fails to conform to a broader group of people.

The problem with being a lone rebel, a total anti-social, is that you don’t matter.  If the majority of a human’s power derives from other humans, then there exists a rather low-hanging upper-bound on how much power one can accrue without dealing with other humans. Even sociopaths deal with other humans; the more successful of that breed are likely very skilled actors and actresses, able to make use of the singular advantage they have in realizing that they don’t actually care while everyone assumes they do. In order to accomplish anything, whether it’s of worth or not, you need power. Thus, it’s likely you need other people.

Elitism is simply another form of grouping. Every group practices it, and all its members believe it. If a member didn’t believe it’s group were right and better, they wouldn’t be a member. By the same token, groups must disdain the differing perspectives of other groups, and the attributes of their members. What exactly makes up a moron or a slacker? Someone who doesn’t agree with Gevlon. Seriously. Now, to be a bit more fair, an “M&S” is anyone who is not driven by the same ethical considerations Gevlon espouses. Those ethical considerations generally align with rational egoism.

Strip away the morons and slackers bit and look at what is actually being talked about. They’re other humans who don’t care about what Gevlon does, or seek other means of attainment. What is it about Gevlon’s goals and means that make them better than others, aside from the fact that he prefers them? I freely dare you to attempt to demonstrate the logical necessity of rational egoism, as I can show you that the same line of reasoning necessarily decomposes all attempts at an analytically-based ethical system into pure ethical nihilism. Rand utterly failed to get around the “is/ought” problem, despite her amazingly self-aggrandizing claim otherwise. You have to admire her chutzpah, though.

I bring up Gevlon because he makes such an interestingly non-intuitive example of what I am talking about: human group dynamics and social interaction, and their primacy in driving individual world views. I actually brought all this up to talk about conformity in institutions of much greater import than Libertarians; namely, things such as universities. Social institutions. A new group cannot form with a new core principle. In order for a new core principle to be successful, it must be sufficiently different from the existing groups as to not allow them to co-opt it without creating enormous internal tension.

This creates an interesting issue in the generation of new perspectives. As per our discussion above, existing perspectives are self-reinforcing. They are inward looking, as the basic premise is pre-established. Adherents don’t argue with basic premises, they argue about details and their applications. They take what is already there and refine it.

For a new perspective to take hold, as I said, it must be sufficiently different from existing perspectives to not be subsumed under their rubric. It must also arise when there is sufficient discontent in the ranks that it can actually attract adherents. Such a dissent will arise for two reasons: first, because whatever perspective holds sway simply fails to hold sufficiently for their circumstance, but no place exists anywhere else for the dissenter, and two (and more importantly), the dissenter understands that there exists little room for upward mobility in the established order. Look, new perspectives are  power grabs. The promulgater of a perspective has captured the minds of a whole swath of humanity, because the creator of a new perspective effectively IS that perspective. So new members look to their seniors for guidance.

Interestingly, we get a thesis-antithesis-synthesis-repeat structure here. A new perspective arises, drawing to itself the dissatisfaction with existing standard and providing a competing answer. Because it was specifically constructed to deal with the reality as it stands, it necessarily is better suited to the state of the world, serving as a anti-thesis of competing modes of thought. However, due to its inherent rejection of much of existing standards, which are relevant by their own dint of arising from the same process, the result will tend towards a bipolar grouping: the old views, which attempt to modify themselves to meet this new challenger, and the new view which continues to evolve as it seeks to demonstrate its greater applicability, even to old issues. Eventually, it too becomes old, and a third perspective arises as some new voice breaks free and gathers like-minds around it, creating a synthesis…which becomes the new thesis to the anti-thesis of the old perspectives.

You can see this duality everywhere, from the social/anti-social split Gevlon espouses, to the hardcore/casual split which once dominated WoW forums, to the pve/pvp split which continues to wrack the MMO community. You can see it in the Freshwater/saltwater split in American Economics, which is driven along the Kensian/Neoclassical lines (and is currently birthing the Post-Keynsian movement as a potential synthesis). You can see it in the Democracy/Communism split, the Capitalism/Socialism split, the Catholic/Protestant split, and a host of others.

The point here is to note that a large part of the reason for the rise of these systems is social power. Not truth, not correctness, not ethical value, but pure social power, brought about by the simple fact that they’re human constructions espoused by groups of humans. They’re not around because they’re right, they’re around because they usefully managed to garner power to their adherents. They have very little internal incentive to develop conflicting perspectives, so they don’t. This is true even for scientists in a university.

Academia and the priests of the church of reason can no more justify to you the truth of reason than the priests of a church of God. It is purely a matter of faith. Their exist within the church the apologists of the faith, but they exist, much like Anselm, as adherents, not objective, unbiased observers. They’re declaring proof of a fact they already know to be true. Reason as a means of truth is so deeply embedded in our psyche as a culture that we simply cannot conceive of seeing without it. We cannot conceive of a world, for instance, whose very existence and every change exists as the ongoing act of a god imbuing everything. It’s just not how we see it. This perspective is, to use Kant’s language, a synthetic a priori proposition. We simply can’t speak of the world without some metaphysical underpinning first, and reason is what we happen to use. But the applicability of reason depends upon the way the world works. We’re forced to simply have faith in it, and limit our perspective to things reason shows us. In the same way that the people of the middle ages simply could not fathom or see a world where the sun didn’t revolve around the earth, so too we cannot fathom a world where reason is not its driving principle

The Church of Reason (a wonderful name devised by Robert Pirsig) is attended by its priests, the professors and scientists of the day. To it go the worshipers: us.

What makes Climategate so interesting, then, is the exposure of something which has long been unthinkable: corruption in the church. A recognition of the perversion of the ideals of the church to sate human power, and the slow realization that this corruption may just infect much of the entire edifice. I’m not really concerned here with the existence or otherwise of anthropogenic global warming. Instead, I’m interested in the sudden exposure that the Church of Reason may not be believed in by its followers. That humans are causing the globe to warm has been a big assertion of the Church: most every scientist believes it, and claims to do so on the basis of the revelation of the Church, in accordance with accepted dogma. Climategate doesn’t disprove the Church’s assertion; instead, it casts a shadow of doubt across the dogma.

That what is called dogma – that what is supposed to be the revealed wisdom of a metaphysical reality – turns out to potentially simply be the creation of human social power dynamics, is simply devastating. Precisely this sort of thing led Martin Luther to his rebellion, an act which paved the way for the rise of Western Atheism (I know this assertion is likely to raise some eyebrows). What’s perhaps more interesting is that it has produced a general grumble of admission from the science community that this is how things work. No big deal, it’s all in the name of the greater good. Well, that’s a bitter pill for worshipers to swallow. Worshipers tend to think the thing they worship is worth worshiping precisely because it’s so powerful you don’t NEED to do anything like this to do its work. What other frauds have been oversold to them on the basis of this revelation?

Science is not just a method, nor is it just a body of knowledge. It is a collection of perspectives, of answers to basic philosophical questions; it is a religion. It’s metaphysics is physical substance measurable in dimensions, and its epistemology is logical deduction and induction, with an emphasis on measure-ability (the measure-ability grounds the results metaphysically). Ethically, science has been working itself out. The basic value-system espoused by science is utilitarianism, limited by the recognition that utility is somewhat subjectively arrived at. That means that utility needs to be decided by individuals, so they must be somewhat free to act on their own. However, if it is decided that some need to suffer in order to improve the utility of the majority, then this is an obviously correct decision. Further, the pursuit of utility generally cannot come at the expense of the utility of others, so there exist limits on the actions individuals may take. Because the search is for the greatest good for the greatest number, some individual actions which produce limited disutility for others are tolerated in the hopes they improve the utility of the majority.

The religion of science is damned near universal in the West. As Nietzsche said, we have killed God. What is meant here is that the old perspective, that of an omnipotent, omnipresent deity, has given rise to its competitor, which removed God from its metaphysical considerations entirely.  God, for Science, is an interesting empirical question, not a metaphysical one.  Due to the success of the scientific perspective in dealing with the world, much of its basic platform has been taken up by the thesis it attacked.  Apologists for God follow Calvin’s route, placing God logically in a structured universe.  The old epistemic system of Christianity, last elucidated by Bishop Berkeley, has faded entirely.  God is now something other than the foundation of metaphysical reality.

A religion’s potency derives purely from how well it works for a group of people.  If it doesn’t work, no one will believe it.  This is important: that means that religion serves people’s desire for power.  Or, in less loaded terms, people hold a particular viewpoint because it helps them get things done.  Truth is entirely secondary to accomplishment.  Primarily, we think of this as ability over the world, but the social power a perspective grants is just as powerful, if not more so.  That means Christianity didn’t “win” over the old polytheism because it was right; it won because it empowered its adherents more.  Science didn’t win because of its correctness, it one because of the power it conferred.  It was, effectively, in the right place at the right time.  That doesn’t mean the knowledge of science is incorrect; rather, it means that its correctness is coincident to its power, if it is correct.  Frankly, I’m not sure we have a means for deciding truth.

In fact, Truth is a metaphysical concern of Reason.  Any attempt to identify the Truth of some matter is to set the Church of Reason above it.  If you try to prove God’s existence via Reason, you place the notion of God in subservience to it.  While you haven’t fully killed the epistemic process of God, you’re certainly weakening it by giving Reason an equivalent place.

A truly interesting move by the advocates of science was to quell any notion that it’s a religion at all.  The members of the Church of Reason worship Socrates as their first prophet and martyr.  They have learned from his means and method, and persist in cloaking themselves by insisting they’re engaged in the purely mundane task of searching for truth, something which honestly doesn’t intersect religion at all.  As reason, basically Socratic dialectic, is effectively just having a good debate, philosophers (and later scientists) were awfully good at making themselves look good and their detractors…not so good.  They created a debate, made themselves look innocent, captured enough popular opinion to dissuade the reigning authority from getting to uppity, and went about their business of creating a simple but insidious dichotomy: there is truth and there is religion.  Truth is what is, religion is a bunch of guesswork.  They did this using rhetorical tricks and then engaged their adversaries in debate, where they held the upper hand.

In a strange way, I see Ayn Rand as being one of the highest prophets of the Church of Reason.  She was a strict utilitarian, though she veered to personal utility before the utility of anyone else (and was followed up by others hoping rational egoism would, through market mechanisms, lift all boats).  She was an amazing debater, a materialist, and an empiricist.  Her entire ethical system she attempted to found entirely upon logical deduction.  She was, in effect, a saint of science.  If you look, you can see that the furor over Objectivism is a purely dogmatic dispute, very much akin to the disputes between various Catholic orders.  She very carefully did not challenge the fundamental assertions of Reason (Aristotle was her goddamn hero); she did, however, leverage a confluence of events into substantial social power for her.  That social power enforced conformity, as it always does.

Consider that Rand effectively stated American Capitalism as the greatest individual good, then leveraged that into a system that she argued was the system which produced the greatest good for the greatest number (basically, individual freedom was individual utility).  This doctrine was presented against socialism, which was presently gaining traction among the Church of Reason (and was effectively Plato’s system of philosopher-kings).  Keep in mind that Rand wasn’t going to get rid of the philosopher-kings, she just wanted them to be business institutional philosophers, not academic philosophers.  Both systems advocated peace and some sort of individual freedom.  One said the good for all would make for individual good, the other said individual good made good for all.  One asserted that the kings could come together and cooperate to decide who got what (socialism is effectively a government cartel, after all) the other said the pirate captains (of industry, har har) should fight it out like honest folks to see who got what.  Neither of them gave two flying fucks about anyone who wasn’t already their sort of philosopher.

Because this is about group dynamics and social power.  Academics are the priests of the Church, and by their own faith, they know what the fuck is going on.  Of course they should decide who gets what, they’re the only ones qualified to decide that, duh.  And before you separate business leaders from college professors, tell me the last business leader you heard of who didn’t have a college degree?  Those titans of finance all popped out of business schools, prepped and groomed by the Ministry of Reason.  They may put a fancy purple cloth on their altar, rather than a blue one, but a church is a church.  Any acrimony amounts, as I said, to a doctrinal dispute.

We have managed to see two major dents in splotches on the efforts of the Academia: the complete failure of the illusion that mainstream economics knew what it was talking about, which calls into question any policy proscription from them, and the Climategate bit.  I suspect Climategate will blow over soon, with scientists closing ranks and saying “Look, it was some bad apples, but the process is just fine”.  And no one trusted economists anyway.  So I’m not holding my breath for some sort of revolution, but it did give me a chance to examine these social dynamics and point out that there is no process nor is there anyone behind the curtain but other humans, just like you and me.

Major Hat Tip to Unqualified Reservations for sparking the motivation for this damned essay.

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An entertaining analysis of Ayn Rand’s feelings for a fellow named William Hickman (this sentence is intended to be extremely wry). (H/T Yves Smith)

A lengthy (even by my standards) dissertation on the philosophical underpinnings of the anti-carbon movement and anthropogenic global warming (fair warning, this is pretty critical of the whole shebang).

There’s not much to read on games…I guess you can hop over to Gevlon and listen to him carry on about the horror of morons and slackers, or visit Tobold to get a look at the prophet of the zeitgeist of the MMO gamer community.  Scott Jennings also has a cute post about the new LFG toolAsk In Game has some light-reading while That’s a Terrible Idea goes on at length on abstract game design analysis.


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