Smart people problems: a philosophy of ignorance

Richard Feynman concludes his second volume of memoirs, What do you care what other people think?, with a short essay titled “The Value of Science”.  Among the blessings of science, according to this great practitioner of it, is that it teaches us to be comfortable with doubt, with uncertainty, with admitted ignorance, so that we resist the urge to prematurely close investigation.  Carlo Rovelli, one of the inventors of loop quantum gravity, has recently made a similar claim.  Whenever I read these things, I’m amused at how bad the very intelligent are at imagining the perspective of ordinary people.  I know what I’m talking about, both because of my own cognitive limitations and my time spent teaching lots of students who probably shouldn’t have sunk their money into college at all.

If there’s one thing most people lack, it’s discomfort with ignorance.  Most likely, everyone is born with curiosity, and confusion is always at least slightly disconcerting.  However, one’s experience with thinking will be very different depending on one’s intrinsic aptitude for it.  The very smart find that they can figure out the answers to their questions, and they get to experience the enormous thrill of making the key connections, seeing everything fall into place, knowing that they’ve figured it out.  To someone who has gotten used to getting one’s way with nature like this, admitting that one is stumped, setting aside an intriguing problem because after all dinner is waiting and the children need attention, may indeed be a discipline that needs cultivating.  It’s said that when Isaac Newton got his mind on a problem, he couldn’t set it aside until it was solved.  (Perhaps it was because Newton was what we would now call a fundamentalist Christian living before the Enlightenment taught us to be comfortable with ignorance.)  Newton was the greatest genius mankind has yet produced, and he was single and childless, so he could get away with this.  Others must be content with just being part of a multigenerational project of discovery.  The average to below average don’t even have that.  Their experience with the mysteries of life and the universe is that whenever they try to figure something out, they quickly tie themselves up in confusion and contradiction, and they must give up with nothing but frustration to show for their effort.  Such people quickly get very comfortable with doubt and ignorance, very skillful with the shrug of the shoulder.  Perhaps they will pronounce everything a mystery; perhaps they will entrust themselves to the experts; perhaps they will fall back on pseudo-explanations that are really affirmations of a general worldview (e.g. the sky is blue because “God wills it so”, “that’s it’s nature”, or “optical processes”, which may be true enough but could just as easily explain why the sky is pink with green polka dots).

Teaching a gen. ed.-satisfying descriptive astronomy class has given me occasion to think about the value of science.  Why is it important for students to be exposed to scientific thinking?  What do I really want them to get out of it?  My students feel no psychological compulsion to impose dogmas on the nature of stars; my task is to get them to be able to ask the sort of questions that the models are supposed to answer.  The point of science is first to notice patterns in the natural world and second to explain them.  The goal of science isn’t to explain every random fact–the fact, for example, that the Earth spins once every 24 hours rather than once every 23 or 25.  Nobody imagines that there’s an explanation for that.  (If every planet was observed to have exactly this spin period, it would be a different story.)  Nor is it to observe necessary truths; we have mathematics and philosophy for that.  Science deals with contingent patterns, things in the natural world that are the same that didn’t have to be.  As a very simple example, I may show students pictures of the planets and then say, “Isn’t it funny that they all look like circles?  Not just kind of round, but very nearly spherical?  I mean, if it were just one planet like that, we might call it a fluke, but every one of them?  There’s got to be a reason for this…”  The default state of mankind is not certainty; it’s not noticing or taking for granted.  How many centuries passed before mankind realized the incredible implications of the fact that it is dark at night?  The big lesson of science is that these patterns are out there, some staring us in the face, and we shouldn’t just take them for granted, because that’s how the universe tells us things.

15 Responses

  1. It was no small part of Newton’s genius that he wanted descriptions, rather than explanations.
    Newton did not ask himself what caused the apple to fall; he asked how fast it fell. This is something that is not only observable, but measurable. That measurement he was able to correlate with others: force, mass, distance, time. By using them as variables in differential equations, the constant relationship between them can be expressed and verifiable predictions can be made.
    It is said (probably falsely) that, when asked why there was no mention of God in his Mécanique Céleste, the Marquis de Laplace replied that he had no need of that hypothesis. Had he really said it though, he would have been right, for his work is not concerned with causes at all, but with functional relationships between variables – Hence his great interest in probability theory; he is the father of Baynesian procedure.

  2. Smart people are not only better at knowing things, they’re also better at not knowing things. When it comes to knowing, they’re the ones that knows how to do it. At least that’s the way it is so far as I know.

    Somewhat more seriously, this pose of knowing nescience is part of the modernist valorization of skepticism. Skepticism is sometimes the appropriate epistemological judgment, but we live in an age when obstinate and incorrigible skepticism (in response to certain propositions and arguments) is taken as a proof of intellectual seriousness. Our overvaluation of skepticism can be seen in our distortion of its meaning. The word no longer means “I doubt we know, or possibly can know, the answer to that,” to “I doubt that.”

  3. Michael Paterson-Seymour,
    In Newtonian mechanics, the fall of apples and motions of planets around sun are explained by the hypothesis of a universal attraction between massive bodies. It is not merely that the acceleration is correlated with a function of mass(A), mass(B) and distance(AB). The universal form of the equation, that it applies to all the masses in the universe, is not merely a description but an imputation of a universal cause.

    Mere description of plantery motion was provided by Keplar and Newton did not advance beyond Keplar in description and nor beyond Galileo in the description of earthly bodies.

  4. Newton claimed not to be framing hypotheses, perhaps to disarm critics who regarded action at a distance as crazy, but the next generation of physicists certainly took him to have given real explanations–that there really is such a thing as a gravitational force that causes acceleration in the way Newton described.

    So I can see both cases here.

  5. “Newton claimed not to be framing hypotheses, perhaps to disarm critics who regarded action at a distance as crazy.”

    Perhaps. On the other hand, there were some empiricists who believed that “laws” (formulae) could replace “causes” as a way of describing nature. This would appeal to a philosophical sceptic, like Pascal, who said, ““We must say summarily: ‘This is made by figure and motion,’ for it is true. But to say what these are, and to compose the machine, is ridiculous.”

    Logicians, like Russell, in the early 20th century, held to the same position: “In the motions of mutually gravitating bodies, there is nothing that can be called a cause, and nothing that can be called an effect; there is merely a formula. Certain differential equations can be found, which hold at every instant for every particle of the system, and which, given the configuration and velocities at one instant, or the configurations at two instants, render the configuration at any other earlier or later instant theoretically calculable” ; in other words, patterns of functional dependence.

  6. I have a strong intuition that in F=ma, F is a cause, and a is an effect, although mathematics can go indifferently with or against the putative direction of causality.

  7. “The physicist seeks through mathematics an understanding that is not wholly mathematical”
    CS Lewis “the discarded image”
    Bonald is correct Physics is not exhausted by the equations of physics.
    The physicist adds to the equations his understanding of the causality.
    Just read the books and journals of science. They are filled with causal statements,
    Global warming controversy is entirely about the causal role of anthropogenic CO2 emssions. One can see the correlation between anthropogenic CO2 emission and global temperature but the crux of the debate is Are anthropogenic CO2 “causing” global mean temperature to increase?


  8. The hypothesis that newton declined to frame was perhaps related to the Cause of the universal gravitational attraction.
    He had already explained the planetary motion and falling of bodies on earth by the hypothesis of universal attraction.

  9. Bl John Henry Newman has some interesting remarks on the subject; his position is very similar to the radical empiricism of Hume.

    “The earth, for instance, never moves exactly in the same orbit year by year, but is in perpetual vacillation. It will, indeed, be replied that this arises from the interaction of one law with another, of which the actual orbit is only the accidental issue, that the earth is under the influence of a variety of attractions from cosmical bodies, and that, if it is subject to continual aberrations in its course, these are accounted for accurately or sufficiently by the presence of those extraordinary and variable attractions:—science, then, by its analytical processes sets right the primâ facie confusion. Of course; still let us not by our words imply that we are appealing to experience, when really we are only accounting, and that by hypothesis, for the absence of experience. The confusion is a fact, the reasoning processes are not facts. The extraordinary attractions assigned to account for our experience of that confusion are not themselves experienced phenomenal facts, but more or less probable hypotheses, argued out by means of an assumed analogy between the cosmical bodies to which those attractions are referred and falling bodies on the earth. I say “assumed,” because that analogy (in other words, the unfailing uniformity of nature) is the very point which has to be proved.”

    Not a few modern philosophers would hold that the distinction between that which brings a thing to be (cause and effect), and that on which a thing under given circumstances follows (antecedent and consequent) is an empty one: it cannot be used to distinguish any conceivable sequence of events from any other.

  10. Michael Paterson-Seymour,
    I wonder why you are not quoting Elizabeth Anscombe. Didn’t she refute Hume on causation?

  11. “he distinction between that which brings a thing to be (cause and effect), and that on which a thing under given circumstances follows (antecedent and consequent) ”

    The term “consequent” assumes casuality: if B is consequent to A if A causes B.
    If we do not wish to impute casuality, we should say “subsequent”.

  12. vishmehr

    Substitute “invariable succession” for antecedent and consequent, if you prefer. The conclusion still holds.

    Miss Anscombe’s refutation of Hume consisted in denying his assumption that “If an effect occurs in one case and a similar effect does not occur in an apparently similar case, there must be a relevant further difference.” She pointed out that this is neither true a priori, nor can it be established empirically. What she objected to was Hume’s definition of “cause” as an exceptionless generalisation. Her examples include, “trhe dog made a funny noise” We all know what that means (we know what it would be like for it to be true). Similarly we all use verbs like scrape, push, wet, carry, eat, burn, knock over, keep off, squash, make (noises, paper boats), hurt, but we do not need a general concept of causality to do so, or need we group them in a single category of cause. They all refer to what Newman calls “experienced phenomenal facts,” unlike, say, “to infect,” which is, rather, an inference from facts.

  13. Are you saying that causality does not exist or your claim is that the causality may exist but it is not within the remit of empirical sciences to pronounce upon it?

  14. “we all use verbs like scrape, push, wet, carry, eat, burn, knock over, keep off, squash, make (noises, paper boats), hurt”
    But don’t we use other verbs such as “cause, lead to, produce, bring about”?

    My feeling is that causality is not empirical but imputed. And can the world be intelligible without causality?

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