Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                                          ESSAYS
Essay 45. The Place of Philosophy in Science
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Essay 45. The Place of Philosophy in Science



In my youth I was strongly attracted to philosophy because I believed it could give me the understanding of the world.  With timeand rather quicklyI realized that philosophy could not offer anything of the kind because one philosopher’s creation  was immediately snatched out and torn into pieces by another one, who wrote his own treatise, usually of great length, with new terminology, and on a different array of topics.

Close to the very beginning of philosophy, Plato addressed the audience in plain language because his method was a dialog from a hilltop with a common mind below. Aristotle turned dialog into monolog, which is still readable because he did not address an audience of other philosophers, but took care to list their views.  Some philosophers, like Descartes, maintained a dialogue with themselves, which is, by the way, a part of scientific method of doubt and check.

—And further, as I sometimes think that others are in error respecting matters of which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge, how do I know that I am not also deceived each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form some judgment still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined?  (Descartes, First Meditation).


Others argued with imaginary opponents.

Therefore a being absolutely infinite, such as God, has from himself an absolutely infinite power of existence, and hence he does absolutely exist. Perhaps there will be many who will be unable to see the force of this proof, inasmuch as they are accustomed only to consider those things which flow from external causes. (Spinoza, Ethics, Part I, Note to Proposition XI)


Kant and Hegel tried to elaborate a blueprint for Everything, as if they created this world up to the smallest detail, including their own presence in it. But with Heidegger and Sartre I felt the end of the road lost in the thicket of words. I got an impression that modern philosophy became what it was in the very beginning: art. As art, it was for human enjoyment, but with a modern shift of the emphasis from esthetic, logical, or otherwise "nonprofit" enjoyment to a pragmatic enjoyment that could be measured in some way, often monetary one.

The distinction of our postmodern world is that what has no quantitative measure has no value. In the Antiquity, value was what could not be expressed in numbers.  An ancient king could boast a stela with the numbers or killed enemies, or a list of his glorious epithets, but there was only one king and he needed no other values.

Thus, modern visual art, is usually, but not always, a handmade object that sells like art, is treated, entitled, presented, exhibited, explained, and praised like art, but may not look like art at all (see Essay 60, Art and Nexistence).  Modern art needs a body of mediators or middlemen between the author and the consumer and so does philosophy, especially since the German classical philosophy.  The need of interpretation is something  that brings philosophy close to religion for its lack of consensus. Plato today may need  comments but not necessarily an interpreter.  

Regarding philosophy, there has always been a pragmatic expectation: a young person looks for a guidance or explanation, as I did. Today the young person often finds it in music and videos. Those whom pop sources failed, which becomes apparent  by mid-life, may turn to spiritual preachers, self-help pushers, and snake oil peddlers. By my mid-life I lost all my expectations from philosophy, but not the interest and reverence. Philosophy became another mystery. As a whole, it wants to say something, but what?

Under the influence of Ulf Grenander's Pattern Theory, I arrived to a new pragmatic appreciation of philosophy.

In order to share it, I have to start with Pattern Theory.

In short, Pattern Theory is a mathematical way to represent complex systems of any nature, including life forms, societies, and doctrines, as structures (configurations) built of atom-like elements (generators), similar to molecules built of atoms in chemistry. The revolutionary step made by Ulf Grenander, himself a Renaissance man, was to attribute a measure of probability to various structures, depending on the properties of their building blocks and bonds between them. As a chemist I was naturally captivated by this typically chemical view of the world.  I had  some vague ideas of this kind long ago when I lived in Siberia and thought about the remarkable properties of the Soviet totalitarian structure and its prospects.

Ulf Grenander's work was the richest treasure of ideas I had ever found.  My entire web site, including simplicity, complexity, and poetry  sections is nothing but a chemist's view of the world, strongly influenced after 1980 by Pattern Theory and further by personal encounters with Ulf Grenander.

Poetry finds its place in the picture because it is based on metaphor:  representation of one structure by another within the same pattern. Such representations allow for linking very complex intuitively comprehensible objects and images with much simpler ones, directly perceptible or more familiar.

Analogies and metaphors (I do not see much difference between the two) have always been frown upon by exact sciences, although physicists used them in discussions and popularizations. Yet nobody seemed to notice that the phenomenon of analogy, which often suggested a mathematical similarity, and metaphor, which looked like a swirl of poetic imagination, was a property of the world and not just of our perception of it.

Complex systems, however, such as life, society, culture, mind, and individual internal world of a human being, are not completely indeterministicthere is a lot to be tackled with probability theorybut they contain unique singular subsystems that exclude statistics. Indeed, there is one and only Napoleon. Pattern Theory is the only way to pull such complex singular systems into the orbit of science, thereby liberating sciences from the tyranny of exactness and humanities from the infamy of subjectivity (so much valued in art). 

NOTE (2016). Indeed, Napoleonic complex is a pattern well beyond French history. The pattern of a dictator with continental or, in our days, global power is alive and well and some people like me, who have lived long enough, are contemporaries of Hitler and Stalin. The Western analysts are trying to take apart and look through a magnifying glass at the inside screws and gears of Putinism, while it is the view from a long historical distance that matters most: it is one of the kind nuclear dictatorship of a global caliber that remembers its victory over Napoleon and Hitler, as well as its defeat by a nuclear democracy of a global caliber.    

I see my mission as popularization of Ulf Grenander's ideas outside exact sciences that are well known in computer science and are popularized by Grenander himself.  Outside that area, however, they still wait for professionals open to new ideas.  The difficulty is that the scientist who wants to explore this area has to abandon  some fundamental preconceptions  about his or her profession, namely, what constitutes science. According to my observations, the current shift to science as a business, in which the intellectual adventure is driven or restrained by considerations of investment and return, whether personal (in terms of career, attention, and money) or social (a promissory note of return will do), may hamper our integral understanding of the world and, probably, fundamental knowledge itself.  Unlike the knowledge of science, which is open for all, but accessible to few, understanding is one's personal and inalienable possession, which can be shared with many. 

As an example of the postmodern atmosphere in theoretical physics, the sanctum of knowledge, see current arguments around string theory.

Jim Holt, Unstrung: Two Critiques of String Theory, The New Yorker, October 2, 2006, p. 86. The critiques are: Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next?  Houghton Mifflin, 2006 and:  Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law, Basic Books, 2006.  More on the Web.


Nevertheless, I can present at least one reason why a better, however "underscientific," understanding of the world could give a great historical return. This world is too complex for members of a democratic society, as well as for its top elected leaders, to make rational decisions. A professional specialist is never elected because presidency, for example, is not a profession. Simplification of  complexity at the expense of exactness is exactly the task of  the pattern science as I see it. This approach is not quite new, however, and the example of biology illustrates how generalization serves for understanding very complex systems. 

Chemistry deals with individual configurations. It is an exact science—well, to be exact, not completely and with a lot of approximations. What helps chemistry is that all the myriads of molecules of the same structure are, for practical purposes, identical. In biology, however, complex organisms within a species could be all different even if they are clones because of the individuality of experience.  In the twentieth century we could watch the process of the invasion of exactness into biology, coming from chemistry. Molecular biology is as exact as chemistry, exactly. This makes biology an incomparably more complex science than it was in the times of Charles Darwin. But this makes it much more understandable for the people who have to make important decisions about themselves, their progeny, or the fate of other people.


To draw an analogy from today to well beyond the horizon of tomorrow, this is what I expect from the pattern science of complex systems: understanding of choices and consequences of important decisions in complex historical situations by citizens of a democracy. Because if they are incapable of that, an equally incapable government will make the decisions for them, with some ancient book in hand.


Regarding  philosophy, I begin to see a place of philosophy in a wider science. 


Philosophy looks at the world under a powerful microscope and makes distinctions so subtle that they look irrelevant for our crude earthly life. Struggling with Aristotle, Hegel, Spinoza, Wittgenstein, or even, hopelessly, Heidegger and Sartre, we can see a forceful drive to analyze the depressingly complex world in terms of its tiniest “atoms” and their “isotopes” even if we cannot make sense of the significance of the fine differences of meaning. Thus, becoming is certainly  being and being is obviously a becoming, but it takes a philosopher to show the difference and, moreover, to offer a menu with  being-in-itself, being-for-itself,  being-in-and-for-itself and being-for-another.


Hegel was the greatest both chef and gourmet of the cuisine based on the German verb sein, to be—a big leap from Shakespeare who knew only to be and not to be.


The opposite process of synthesis has not been as successful. While none of the philosophical systems has any advantage over another, except in terms of comprehensibility and compactness, philosophy has left us an inventory of atoms of reason and a registry of their properties for which we are still expected to formulate a chemistry. Unlike the atoms of the Periodic System and molecules made of them, the atoms of philosophy are immaterial. But so are joy, suffering, progress, decline, success, and failure. So is the reverberating in history past and the future that stirs up our hopes and fears.


From this perspective should be viewed  my non-professional attempts to take Hannah Arendt under the chemical wing and my experiments with ideograms as atoms of complex systems—not objects, machines, institutions,  goods, or anything tangible and for sale. I see them as atoms of understanding complex systems.  I dream of young beginners in philosophy playing with this Lego.


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