Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Mattering Instinct

We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter." Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct—that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.

But I want to distinguish more precisely the relevant sense of “mattering." The commitment to your own mattering is, first of all, not to presume that you cosmically matter—that you matter to the universe. My very firm opinion is that we don’t matter to the universe. The universe is lacking in all attitudes, including any attitude toward us. Of course, the religious point of view is that we do cosmically matter. The universe, as represented by God, takes an attitude toward us. That is not what I’m saying is presumed in the mattering instinct. To presume that one matters isn’t to presume that you matter to the universe, nor is it to presume that you matter more than others. There have been philosophers who asserted that some—for example, people of genius—absolutely matter more than others. Nietzsche asserted this. He said, for example, that all the chaos and misery of the French Revolution was justified because it brought forth the genius of Napoleon. The only justification for a culture, according to Nietzsche, is that it fosters a person who bears all the startling originality of a great work of art. All the non-originals—which are, of course, the great bulk of us—don’t matter. Nietzsche often refers to them as “the botched and the bungled.” According to Nietzsche there is an inequitable distribution of mattering. But I neither mean to be asserting anything religious nor anything Nietzsche-like in talking about our mattering instinct. I reject the one as firmly as the other. In fact, I would argue that the core of the moral point of view is that there is an equitable distribution of mattering among humans. To the extent that any of us matters—and just try living your life without presuming that you do—we all equally matter. (...)

When you figure out what matters to you and what makes you feel like you’re living a meaningful life, you universalize this. Say I’m a scientist and all my feelings about my own mattering are crystalized around my life as a scientist. It’s quite natural to slide from that into thinking that the life of science is the life that matters. Why doesn’t everybody get their sense of meaning from science? That false universalizing takes place quite naturally, imperceptibly, being unconsciously affected by the forces of the mattering map. In different people the need to justify their own sense of mattering slides into the religious point of view and they end up concluding that, without a God to justify human mattering, life is meaningless: Why doesn’t everybody see that the life that matters is the life of religion? That’s false reasoning about mattering as well. These are the things I’m thinking about: What’s justified by the mattering instinct, which itself cannot and need not be justified, and what isn’t justified by it.

Yes, I want to explain the mattering instinct in terms of evolutionary psychology because I think everything about us, everything about human nature, demands an evolutionary explanation. And I do think that the outlines of such an explanation are quite apparent. That I matter, that my life demands the ceaseless attention I give it, is exactly what those genes would have any organism believing, if that organism was evolved enough for belief. The will to survive evolves, in a higher creature like us, into the will to matter. (...)

Science is science and philosophy is philosophy, and it takes a philosopher to do the demarcation. How does science differ from philosophy? That’s not a scientific question. In fact, what science is is not itself a scientific question; what science is is the basic question in the philosophy of science, or at least the most general one.

Here’s what I think science is: Science is this ingenuous motley collection of techniques and cognitive abilities that we use in order to try to figure out what is, the questions of what is: What exists? What kind of universe are we living in? How is our universe ontologically furnished? People talk about the scientific method. There’s no method. That makes it sound like it’s a recipe: one, two, three, do this and you’re doing science. Instead, science is a grab bag of different techniques and cognitive abilities: observation, collecting of data, experimental testing, a priori mathematics, theorizing, model simulations; different scientific activities call for different talents, different cognitive abilities.

The abilities and techniques that a geologist who’s collecting samples of soil and rocks to figure out thermal resistance is using, compared to a cognitive scientist who’s figuring out a computer simulation of long-term memory, compared to Albert Einstein performing a thought experiment—what it’s like to ride a lightwave—compared to a string theorist working out the mathematical implications of 11 dimensions of M-theory, compared to a computational biologist sifting through big data in order to spot genomic phenotypes, are all so very different. These are very different cognitive abilities and talents, and they’re all brought together in order to figure out what kind of universe we’re living in, what its constituents are and what the laws of nature governing the constituents are.

Here’s the wonderful trick about science: Given all of these motley attributes, talents, techniques, activities, in order for it to be science, you have to bring reality itself into the picture as a collaborator. Science is a way to prod reality to answer us back when we’re getting it wrong. It’s an amazing thing that we’ve figured out how to do it and it’s a good thing too because our intuitions are askew. Why shouldn’t they be? We’re just evolved apes, as we know through science. Our views about space and time, causality, individuation are all off. If we hadn’t developed an enterprise whose whole point is to prod reality to answer us back when we’re getting it wrong, we’d never know how out of joint our basic intuitions are.

Science has been able to correct this because no matter how theoretical it is, you have to be able to get your predictions. You have to be able to get reality to say, “So you think simultaneity is absolute, do you? no matter which frame of reference you’re measuring it in? Well, we’re just going to see about that.” And you perform the tests and, sure enough, our intuitions are wrong. That’s what science is. If philosophers think that they can compete with that, they're off their rockers.

That’s the mistake that a lot of scientists make. I call them philosophy jeerers—the ones who just dismiss philosophy, that have nothing to add because they think that philosophers are trying to compete with this amazing grab bag that we’ve worked out and that gets reality itself to be a collaborator. But there’s more to be done, to be figured out, than just what kind of world we live in, the job description of science. In fact, everything I’ve just been saying, in defending science as our best means of figuring out the nature of our universe, hasn’t been science at all but rather philosophy, a kind of rewording of what Karl Popper had said.

Karl Popper, a philosopher, coined the term “falsifiability,” to try to highlight the importance of this all-important ability of science to prod reality into being our collaborator. Popper is the one philosopher that scientists will cite. They like him. He has a very heroic view of scientists. They’re just out to falsify their theories. "A theory that we accept," he says, “just hasn’t been falsified yet.” It’s a very heroic view of scientists. They’re never egotistically attached to their theories. A very idealized view of science and scientists. No wonder scientists eat Popper up.

One of the things that Popper had said, and this relates very much to this whole idea of beauty in our scientific theories, is that we have to be able to test our theories in order for them to be scientific. Our whole way of framing our theories and the questions that we want to solve and the data that we’re interested in looking at—particularly in theory formation, there are certain metaphysical presumptions that we bring with us in order to do science at all—they can’t be validated by science, but they’re implicit in the very carrying on of science. That there are metaphysical presumptions that go into theory formation is an aspect of Popper’s description of science that most scientists forget that Popper ever said.

One of these is that nature is law-like. If we find some anomaly, some contradiction to an existing law, we don’t say, “Oh, well, maybe nature just isn’t law-like. Maybe this was a miracle.” No. We say that we got the laws wrong and go back to the drawing board. Newtonian physics gets corrected, shown to be only a limiting case under the more general relativistic physics. We’re always presuming that nature is law-like in order to do science at all. We also bring with us our intuitions about beauty and, all things being equal, if we have two theories that are adequate to all the empirical evidence we have, we go with the one that’s more elegant, more beautiful. Usually that means more mathematically beautiful. That can be a very strong metaphysical ingredient in the formation of our theories.

It was particularly dramatic in Einstein that he had these very strong views of the beauty and harmony of the laws of nature, and that was utilized in general relativity. General relativity was published in 1915. It had to wait until 1919, when Eddington went to Africa and took pictures of the solar eclipse, for some empirical validation to be established. Sure enough, light waves were bent because of the mass of the sun; gravity distorted the geometry of space-time.

This was the first empirical verification that came for general relativity; there was nothing before then. Einstein jokingly had said to somebody that if the empirical evidence had not validated his theory, he would’ve felt sorry for the dear Lord. He said to Hans Reichenbach, a philosopher of science and a physicist, that he knew before the empirical validation arrived in 1919 that the theory had to be true because it was too beautiful and elegant not to be true. That’s a very strong intuition, a metaphysical intuition that informed his formulation of the theory, which is exactly the kind of thing that Popper was talking about.

The laws of nature are elegant, which usually means mathematically elegant. We’re moved by this. You can’t learn the relativity theory and not be moved by the beauty of it.

Look, there are people who say the string theory is not science until you can somehow get reality to answer us back. It’s not science; it’s metaphysics—this is an argument.

The notion of the multiverse: It certainly seems that it’s hard to get any empirical evidence for parallel universes, but yet it’s a very elegant way of answering a lot of questions, like the so-called fine tuning of the physical constants. These are places in which science might be slipping over into philosophy. What we have to just keep doing is working away at it and perhaps we’ll be able to figure out an ingenious way for reality to answer us back.

by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein , Edge | Read more:
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